2014 USA Cross Country Championships: the Boulder experience
by Kevin Mangan
What better backdrop for anything to do with long distance running than beautiful Boulder, Colorado. Sitting at the base of the Rocky Mountains above 5,000 feet with easy access to runs over 9,000 feet like the legendary Magnolia Road, Boulder is among the greatest places in the world to train for anything 1500 meters and longer and is reflected by the numerous running stars and legends that call or have called Boulder home. If Eugene is Track Town USA, then Boulder could easily be Distance Town USA. Frank Shorter, 1972 Olympic Marathon champion, truly one of the all-time greats, gave out the awards for the Men's race. 1993 World Marathon champion Mark Plaatjes was hanging out in the finish area. 2011 World 1500 champ and former Colorado Buffalo star Jenny Simpson finished second in the women's race. 2011 USA Cross Country champ and former CU star Brent Vaughn had a top 5 finish. One of the Torres brothers was watching the races.
If Chris Derrick is in shape, there aren't very many people in the world, let alone America (Rupp, Ritzenhein, maybe Ben True) that can actually beat him in anything between the 5k and Marathon (although I think he will be a very good marathoner if and when he chooses to move to 26.2. I think he will run somewhere in the 2:05/2:06 range before it's all said and done). Chris has always been good at and loved Cross Country. In high school he was the NXN individual national champion while leading his Neaqua Valley teammates to the team title and he was probably the best NCAA runner to never win a National Championship. Last year in St Louis he won the USA Cross Country title and then was part of 'The Miracle on Grass' in Bydgoszcz which saw the USA men take second and make it onto the podium for the first time since America got bronze in 2001 with Bob Kennedy, Meb Keflezighi and Abdi Abdirahman. I didn't get a great look at the front of the men's 12k race since I was somewhere back in the pack but I did get see the last 1k of Chris' win since he lapped me. By the time he had about 800 meters left he had a healthy lead over Luke Puskedra and he kept running strong to take a comfortable win in 36:14. Puskedra, an accomplished Cross Country runner in his own right ran a solid race to take second in 36:39.
Amy Van Alstine of Northern Arizona Elite was the strongest over the last 2k loop and made a move that nobody could match and earned a convincing victory over 1500 World Champion Jenny Simpson. Van Alstine, the former Richmond All-American, in perhaps the best performance of her life so far, ran 27:35 ahead of Simpson's 27:57.
Sean McGorty, who could be the next Chris Derrick, built a commanding lead early and cruised home to an easy victory in 24:44. Stanford made it a 1-2-3 sweep as Jack Keelan and Sam Wharton finished side by side in 25:26 . The reason I think McGorty might be the next Chris Derrick is because they both posted outstanding times in high school. McGorty, like Derrick was a few years back, is part of an outstanding group of freshman and both McGorty and Derrick made an immediate impact on the NCAA scene as soon as they arrived in Palo Alto. One difference between the two is coaching, Jason Dunn was able to work with Derrick and turn him from a5k guy in high school into a 13:29.98 5k (which was the US Junior 5k record for a few months until German Fernandez broke it) guy in his freshman year. Chris Miltenberg, another great distance coach (exhibit A: the current Stanford women's DMR team) is working with McGorty. I don't necessarily think McGorty will run that fast for 5k this year, but he seems to be the next great Stanford runner. He is apparently redshirting the Indoor season, since he raced unattached two weeks ago (an impressive 7:59.11 3k performance at the Dempsey in Seattle), but come outdoor, attached or unattached, he will have two of the best distance meets in America at home in Palo Alto with the Stanford Invitational and Payton Jordan. Both of which will more than likely be mid to low 50s with no wind on a clear California night. Sean has to be among the favorites to be one of the next
Joining McGorty at Stanford next year will be the winner of the Junior Women's race and NXN runner-up Elise Cranny. The Niwot, CO native who is coached by one of America's top marathoners Jason Hartmann won easily in. It will be fun to watch Cranny continue to race at a high-level, especially since she is part of an amazing group of high school seniors and juniors right now that includes NXN champ Alexa Efraimson, former NXN champ Sarah Baxter and current high school senior and pro runner Mary Cain. The future of women's middle distance and distance running is bright with these young stars.
Overall the meet was great. I'm really glad I was able to make it out to Boulder and lace up my spikes and race. 12k Cross Country is a lot tougher than 8k, which is the farthest I'd ever raced on grass, dirt and mud, especially with altitude factored in. I think 12k Cross is a bit like fine wine or scotch, at first you don't like it that much and it isn't as enjoyable as a 5k on the track or roads, but the more you try it and the older and more experience you get, the more you appreciate it. The main thing I learned from my own race is that I need to keep working hard and getting in better shape. One of the things the pros emphasized in the press conference was how little room for error there is when racing at altitude, I guess the same can be said for aerobic fitness. If you're not as aerobically fit as you should be or could be, 12 kilometers of muddy cross country will expose it. If you want a true test of your running ability next year, the USA Cross Country Championships are back in Boulder.
Since the meet is returning to Boulder next year, USATF and Boulder will have time to analyze what worked well and what can be improved. For the most part the meet was fantastic and I commend USATF and Boulder for a job well done. However, I do have some suggestions for how to make it even better. One thing next year's edition will have that 2014 didn't is the possibility to qualify for Team USA and race at the World Cross Country Championships in Guiyang, China (which has an elevation of almost 5,000 feet), which will almost certainly attract more of the big names in American distance running. The CU Buffalo alumni in the race, like Jenny Simpson and Brent Vaughn, emphasized how great it was to race in front of their hometown fans, but one thing that was missing was the current crop of Buffaloes. By scheduling the race the same weekend as the Husky Classic, where most of the best current CU runners competed the same day as USA XC, prevented one of the most fabled teams and coaches in the NCAA from even attending and watching the race. How cool would it have been to even have the reigning NCAA Champion Buffalo men walking around the course and cheering for former Buffs, let alone actually have them line up and race against the likes of Chris Derrick and Luke Puskedra. If USATF had the meet the weekend before or after Husky Classic, the Buffaloes would be in town and would probably be at the meet. Another meet to not have a scheduling conflict with would be the Millrose Games. Millrose is the quintessential Indoor meet in America and is a much more attractive meet for middle distance and distance runners. USATF, don't make your meets compete against each other for the commodity of talented runners. One of my favorite things about the meet was watching high school star Elise Cranny dominate and some of the top prep boys be in the mix with some top college freshman. USATF should encourage and incentivize high school kids to come and race in this meet. It's a great opportunity for them to get experience with traveling to meets and college style cross country courses and race and get in a good over-distance race that will help them as they train to run fast 1600s and 3200s in the spring. Overall though, this was a fantastic meet and if you like Cross Country you make it out to Boulder for the 2015 edition.
Amy Van Alstine, photo by PhotoRun.net
Chris Derrick, photo by PhotoRun.net
Elise Cranny, photo by PhotoRun.net
Sean McGorty, photo by PhotoRun.net
The USA Cross Country Championships was a major success. This feature was written by Kevin Mangan, our intern for RunBlogRun. Kevin also raced the 12k race on Saturday and wrote this in between his flights and return back to Seattle. We think you will like this piece!