TALLAHASSEE (01-Feb) -- While winning a national title is always a great accomplishment for an athlete, everyone gathered here for tomorrow's USATF Cross Country Championships knows that winning either the senior men's or women's title will truly be something special. There has not been such a strong gathering of American runners, with strong career stats from the mile to the marathon, at these championships since they were held in Boulder, Colo., in 2007 when Alan Culpepper beat Adam Goucher, Dathan Ritzenhein, and Jorge Torres in the men's race, and Deena Kastor beat Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher, and Lauren Fleshman in the women's.
PHOTO: Shannon Rowbury with her husband, Pablo Solares, and daughter, Sienna, at Apalachee Regional Park in Tallahassee, Florida, in advance of the 2019 USATF Cross Country Championships (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly)
"I think it's super-cool," said Ben Rosario, the coach of Hoka Northern Arizona Elite. "It's old school, like it used to be." He continued: "To win this thing you really have to earn it."
Both the men's and women's fields are laden with talent.
On the men's side, accomplished track athletes like Shadrack Kipchirchir (PB's of 13:18.52 for 5000m and 27:07.55 for 10,000m), Stanley Kebenei (27:58.56), Eric Jenkins (13:07.33), Hilary Bor (8:11.82 steeplechase), Garrett Heath (13:16.31), and Ben True (13:02.74), face accomplished road racers like Leonard Korir (59:52 half-marathon PB), Diego Estrada (60:51), Martin Hehir (46:49 10-Mile), and Scott Fauble (2:12:28 marathon). Three-time USA cross country champion Chris Derrick, who is training for the Virgin Money London Marathon in April, had entered, but has decided not to run.
"There are a lot of really good guys," Fauble told Race Results Weekly. "I don't necessarily think we can predict who will come out on top. Ton of guys have a shot."
Under USA Track & Field rules, athletes will qualify here for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships --scheduled for Saturday, March 30, in Aarhus, Denmark-- based solely on their order of finish. A top-6 placing ensures team selection. Athletes who refuse team births will be replaced by those finishing below them, also based solely on order of finish. Fauble, who is coached by Rosario and is preparing for the Boston Marathon, said he would not be able to accept his team spot because it's incompatible with his Boston preparations.
"You know I love cross country, but I would turn down the spot if I made it," he said. "I'm running Boston Marathon in the middle of April, and the timing isn't really what we would like to run a world championship. If I'm going to go to a world championship and represent the United States I want to be at my absolute best. I also want to be my absolute best at Boston. Logistically, we're just not sure we could pull that off."
Arguably, the women's race is even stronger. Olympians and national 1500m champions Shelby Houlihan and Shannon Rowbury are entered (Houlihan won both the USA 1500m and 5000m titles last year), and so are USA steeplechase champion and American record-holder Courtney Frerichs (9:00.85 PB), the 2017 national cross country champion Aliphine Tuliamuk, and the fastest American marathoners from 2018, Amy Cragg (2:21:42) and Kellyn Taylor (2:24:29). Molly Huddle, who was sixth in the Olympic 10,000m in Rio in 2016 in an American record 30:13.17, is also entered. She hasn't run a cross country race since 2012.
"You've basically got the best U.S. 1500m runner from last year, 5000m runner (Houlihan), the top marathoner from last year --time-wise at least in Amy Cragg-- and with Kellyn (Taylor)," Coach Rosario observed. "Then, you've got the nine-flat steepler, the American record holder in the steeple. It's just a crazy mix."
Houlihan, who has 1500m best of 3:57.34 and is the American record-holder at 5000m (14:34.45), will be running the longest race of her life here tomorrow. She doesn't appear to be fazed, however, and is really embracing the challenge.
"I usually don't even look at the start list before because I just want to focus on what I can do and how well I'm prepared," she told Race Results Weekly. She continued: "(I'm) mostly just focused on having fun, having a new challenge as far as the 10-K goes; I've never run one before. So, I'm looking forward to it. The 10-K is more like the grind, hurt, so that's my favorite kind."
The nature of the course will surely play a role in the outcome of the race. The grass at Apalachee Regional Park is unusually firm with very short blades, and parts of the course are on crushed shells, gravel and hard-packed dirt. The hills are moderate in grade, and there is plenty of room to pass. Several athletes and coaches compared it to a road race, which is just fine with USA 10-K champion Steph Bruce, who made the last USA team for World Cross in 2017. The 35 year-old marathoner is excited about the chance of making another team.
"It would be huge because I think just now with how well U.S. distance running is doing, especially on the women's side, people just want to be part of it," she said. "In my opinion, the people that make this team, and if they all choose to go, the team will have a phenomenal chance to medal at Worlds."
The reigning champions are Leonard Korir and Emily Infeld. Korir hopes to win his third consecutive title, but Infeld --who is recovering from hip surgery-- will not be competing. The top returners from last year's championships are Steph Bruce, who was third and Courtney Frerichs, who was fourth.