NOTE: Your editor wrote this story nearly 10 years ago after the 2006 USA Cross Country Championships which were held in sub-freezing conditions after a heavy snowfall in New York City's Van Cortlandt Park. This is the first competition where I realized that Ryan Hall was a truly special athlete. He took third in the 4K on the first day, then ran away with the 12-K title by more than half a minute on the second day. He was 23 years-old --Ed.
NEW YORK (19-Feb-2006)-- In the face of record oil and natural gas prices, New Yorkers had some of their economic pain eased this winter by the mostly balmy weather. In January, there had been little or no snow and on some days temperatures had risen to above 60°F (18°C). Mother Nature appeared to be on their side.
As the New York Road Runners prepared to host the U.S. Cross Country Championships and World Cross Country Team Trials presented by Gleukos at Van Cortlandt Park, it seemed as though the weather would be an ally. Both the flat grassy areas and the crushed stone pathways were in excellent condition, and the mostly flat 2 km loop combined with the unusually warm conditions would surely produce fast times.
These championships are normally held on the second weekend of February, but because the IAAF World Cross Country Championships are to be held on a late date this year, April 1 and 2 in Fukuoka, Japan, USA Track & Field decided to move the championships back by one week. So it was that on the "usual" weekend, Feb. 11 and 12, the biggest snowstorm ever hit New York City early on the morning of Sunday, the 12th, dumping a record 26.9 inches (68.3 cm) of snow in the middle of the City. The snow fell so hard and fast that it would have been impossible to hold the second day of competition on the 12th, and most of the 613 athletes who ran the eight championship events would have been stranded in New York, the roads impassable and the airports shut down.
Perhaps looking for a place on the podium, Mother Nature was just getting started.
Spared the disruption of the actual competition, the Road Runners instead faced what President and CEO Mary Wittenberg called a "Herculean effort" to remove snow from the venue just days ahead of the meet. "We're now deploying teams of Bobcats (small loaders) to delicately remove snow from the grounds," she said on a conference call with reporters on Monday last week. Road Runners, working with the New York City Parks Department, pressed dozens of workers into service to hand shovel the delicate trails in the wooded part of the park, and for a few days it looked like Mother Nature was cooperating. In the middle of last week, the mercury shot up again to around 50°F (11°C) and the small amount of snow remaining after the plowing operation quickly melted.
"I feel a lot better than I did about three hours ago," said the Road Runners' Sam Grotewold last Thursday from Van Cortlandt Park. The venue was getting back into shape, and although the course was quite wet, it was beginning to dry out. The rains forecast for the following day, last Friday, barely materialized so only a small amount of additional moisture got into the ground.
Although things were looking up, Mother Nature decided to send temperatures way down. On Friday night, temperatures fell well below freezing and the wind kicked up. By the time the meet got going last Saturday morning it was downright cold under overcast skies, and the ground was completely frozen by the time the first race, the master's women's 8-K, stepped off at 9:30 a.m. Sarah Krakoff, a 41 year-old law professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder romped to victory over 54 year-old Kathryn Martin of Northport, N.Y. A Yale graduate in 1986, Krakoff did not have to face defending champion, Carmen Troncoso of Austin, Tex., because the 46 year-old Texan had decided to test herself in the 8 km open race later that day.
"Great," said Krakoff of her victory in 31:27 over the 7922m course. "It's fun (to win a national title)," her first.
The masters men were next up, and the course was beginning to soften just a bit as the temperature hovered near the freezing mark. Rick Fuller, a 40 year-old house painting contractor born in New Orleans who now lives in Eugene, Ore., battled former marathon standout, Sean Wade, 40, of Houston. After the third lap, Fuller had a ten-second lead, which widened to 26 seconds by the finish, 24:52 to 25:18, over Wade. Like Krakoff, it was Fuller's first national title, and he was excited to double back in the open 12-K the next day.
"I've got to whip some young ass tomorrow," said Fuller with his pronounced Louisiana twang. He would finish 45th the next day out of 92 finishers, and said that his legs had not rebounded from the first day's pounding as he had hoped. He said he runs 100 to 120 miles per week.
After taking a little break, Mother Nature reasserted herself in the middle of the next race, the junior women's 4-K. Ten minutes and 59 seconds into the event in the middle of the second of three laps, it began to snow. The wind was blowing hard from the northwest and the snow intensified, blowing stinging sheets of the white stuff across the park. Nicole Blood, the 17 year-old from Gansevoort, N.Y. who no longer competes for her high school team, was pushing the pace with 18 year-old Erin Bedell of Plano, Tex., who runs for Baylor University and 19 year-old Madeline McKeever of Durham, N.C., who runs for Duke University. A bit behind was Mckayla Plank, 18, of Los Gatos, Calif., who runs for nearby Iona College. One of her shoes had come off in the back hills on the second lap and she had stopped to put it back on.
Plank got back into the race, and on the final lap she was right there with Blood, and four others as half a dozen women barreled down the finish straight, the snow still blowing. Blood, a Junior Pan Am Games silver medalist at 5000m with a 4:42.40 mile to her credit, out legged Plank in the sprint by a second to take her first national cross country title in 20:45. The first six women finished in a three second span, with Kauren Tarver, 15, of Wrightwood, Calif., in third in 20:47; Marie Lawrence, 16, of Reno, N.V., fourth in the same time; Bedell fifth in 20:48; and McKeever, getting the last national team berth, in sixth in the same time as Bedell.
Ironically for Blood, she and her family were moving to southern California later in the day.
"I'm flying out today, actually," she said after the race. "It was really tough," she said of the race and added, "I love this course."
Plank felt a special pressure to do well because Iona College holds its cross country meets at Van Cortlandt Park. "It's my home course," said Plank who said she lost "probably 20 to 30 seconds" putting her shoe back on. "It kept slipping," she explained. "It got stuck in the mud."
Things were warming up a little now, and although the snow stopped falling for the open men's 4 km, the course was really softening up. As Ryan Hall, Jorge Torres, Dan Lincoln and Adam Goucher led the field through the first lap in 5:33, their footing was sloppy on the grassy sections. Goucher was able to shake all of his rivals but Lincoln coming into the crushed stone of the final 600m to the line. U.S. 10,000m champion Abdi Abdirahman stood near the finish line in anticipation of the final sprint between Goucher and Lincoln.
"This is the best," said Abdirahman leaning over the barrier to get a better look.
Goucher, who in 2000 won both the 4-K and 12-K titles on consecutive days by a total margin of 35 seconds, looked like his old self in the sprint, easily pulling away from Lincoln to bag his third --and last-- U.S. 4-K cross country title in 10:50. Lincoln, his left leg bleeding from a spike wound, was two seconds behind with Hall (10:57), Torres (10:58), Ian Dobson (11:01), and Luke Watson (11:13) rounding out the national team slots.
"I knew it was going to be a hard, competitive race," said Goucher who is coached by three-time ING New York City Marathon champion, Alberto Salazar. "I had a feeling it would be pretty close."
Goucher's indoor racing this winter showed that he was ready for the sprint. He has twice broken four minutes for the mile indoors this year, and his 7:41.59 for 3000m at the Tyson Invitational showed he could also carry that speed for a longer distance. He'll be competing in the U.S. Indoor Championships this weekend in Boston.
"I think I'm very fit," said Goucher who won the U.S. indoor title at 3000m in 1999 before a spate of injuries slowed his career. He said that if this had been a few year ago, he would definitely line of for the 12-K the next day. But he's a little wiser now at 31 years-old. "He wants me to stay focused on my goals," said Goucher of Salazar. "A lot of people get greedy."
Lincoln, the reigning U.S. steeplechase champion, was satisfied with his second place finish, and congratulated Goucher for his win. "I just didn't have the wheels at the end," said Lincoln who is now a full-time medical student. Unlike Goucher, he won't be contesting the U.S. Indoor Championships because of his academic responsibilities. "I have to hit the books," he said.
Anthony Famiglietti, the steeplechase Olympian who lives in Manhattan, was disappointed with his seventh place finish, four seconds out of a guaranteed team berth. "I went too slow the first lap and couldn't catch up," he said. He will probably end up on the team as Lincoln, busy with school, probably cannot take the week to go to Japan for the World Championships.
The final championship race of the day was the women's 8-K, pitting two-time defending champion Colleen De Reuck against U.S. 20-K champion, Blake Russell, who was looking for her first national cross country title. Through the first lap Russell controlled the pace with De Reuck and U.S. 10,000m champion Katie McGregor right with them. De Reuck and Russell broke away in the second lap and were now the only two in contention for the title.
"My feet were frozen," De Reuck, 41, of Boulder, Colo., would say later.
Like the two races before, it came down to the final sprint and the 30 year-old Russell was just too strong for De Reuck. She broke the tape in 26:47 for the 7922m course, with De Reuck, who never let up, two seconds behind.
"It was a great competition," said Russell shivering in the media tent after the race. She had an extended illness which began on Dec. 23 and said her fitness wasn't great. Nonetheless, she credited De Reuck with a great race. "Colleen was pushing on that third lap. She's so tough." Russell, who is coached by Bob Sevene, said she would return for the 4-K the next day. "The 4-K is fun," she said. "It's over before you know it."
The former University of Colorado star, Renee Metivier, finished third in 26:59 as both she and Sara Slattery (27:01) had gotten by McGregor who faded to fifth (27:04). Sharon Dickie-Thompson got the last team berth in 27:14.
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After the athletes went back to the hotel for the night, Mother Nature went back to work, lowering the temperature to a frigid 18°F (-9°C) the next morning. The sun was out, but the course was frozen solid for Sunday's first race, the junior men's 8-K. Eighteen year-old Kiel Uhl, who runs for Iowa State University, was the surprise winner, triumphing over second place Scott Macpherson, 18, of the University of Arkansas by a whopping seven seconds. Uhl, who may be the first-ever national cross country champion born in Iowa, got away only in the last part of the last lap. He was clear of his rivals going into the finish straight.
"I hate those races where you get out-kicked," said Uhl, a college freshman. He added: "When I finish, I hate to look back."
A.J. Acosta, 17, of El Camino High School in southern California, who won the Foot Locker high school national title last December, finished a disappointing ninth and didn't make the national team. After leaving the awards stage he ungraciously removed his medal and threw it to the ground before discussing the race with his coach.
The weather was not warming up and the course was still rock hard for the women's open 4-K which followed the junior men. A big pack led by Carrie Tollefson, Lauren Fleshman, Sara Hall, Sara Schwald and Blake Russell completed the first lap together. Coming out of the woods with about 700m to go, Tollefson was in front of Fleshman and the 2004 Olympian at 1500m just hammered her way to the finish line and her first national 4-K title in 12:32. Fleshman, who said that she feel "lactic acid right up to her eyeballs," held on for second, five seconds behind. Russell completed a great double with a third place finish (12:39) and her coach told RRW that she planned to double at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, too. Miler Amy Mortimer got fourth in 12:47, with Schwald another two second behind.
"I thought, relax, and cover the move, get through the hills, and hammer," said the always gracious Tollefson after the race. "It was a good race. We have a handful of great runners who are going to Japan."
Well behind Tollefson Sara Hall, the former Sara Bei now married to Ryan Hall, was flagging badly in the final meters. She barely made it over the finish line in sixth place in 12:51, just holding off Kara Goucher, before crashing to the ground in a heap, unconscious. She lay there in the freezing cold for a few seconds before the medical team put her on a stretcher and took her to the medical tent for treatment.
Unfortunately for her husband Ryan, who was warming up for the open men's 12-K which would start in just a few minutes, he had to put Sara's misery out of his mind and focus on his own race. Showing maturity well beyond his 23 years, Hall took control of the race through the 8 km mark (23:18), holding a two second lead over Jorge Torres and an additional six seconds over Max King and defending champion Dathan Ritzenhein. Surging out of the flats into the back hills, Hall dropped Torres and by the time he came through 10-K in 29:03, Torres, who was fighting a very sore hamstring, was 17 seconds back. King was now alone in third while Ritzenhein was struggling to hold fourth position.
"He's pulling away remorselessly," said meet announcer Ian Brooks over the public address system.
Hall sailed home with a huge victory in 34:38, 27 seconds over Torres. King, who ran the race of his life, finished third in 35:20, while Ritzenhein, feeling both cold and depleted, finished fourth in 35:27. Jason Hartmann (35:39) and Matt Gabrielson (same time) got the final two team spots.
"It was probably the most fun race of my life," said Hall who had never raced that long in his career. "It's my first 12-K."
After coming through the finish straight wrapped in an American flag, Hall found his wife who had made it out of medical, and kissed her passionately. "I am really excited to be going to worlds with my wife Sara," he said later.
Ritzenhein was clearly upset with his race, but that was not his biggest problem. Standing on the awards platform he was shivering badly, and began to sway unsteadily. Race officials and Nike staffers helped him down, and sitting on the concrete dais and immediately keeled on his back, overcome by dizziness. After warming himself in an R.V. and getting a hot cup of tea, he spoke with reporters.
"I'm disappointed, since my goal coming here was to win," said Ritzenhein wrapped in a blanket sitting directly in front of a space heater in the media tent. "At least I made the team, so I'll have a chance to redeem myself at Worlds next month."
Ritzenhein fared much better than Abdirahman. The Somalian-born athlete who lives in the dependable warmth of Tucson, Ariz., was never up with the leaders, and on the third lap he dropped out, overcome by the extreme cold (he chose not to wear a hat).
With the championships completed, Mother Nature didn't get a place on the podium. She went home to think about what she might do for next year's championships which will be held in Boulder, Colo. She will surely think of something.
Ryan Hall - Photo: © Thom Hunt