Sunday, February 06, 2011

Flat Out Fun at the 2011 Cross Country National Championships

Yesterday I had the pleasure of adding a new off-road running experience to my list - Cross Country - at the 2011 USATF Cross Country National Championships in San Diego, CA. It was a humbling introduction to track and field's world of dirt, where NCAA and Olympic champions compete for the coveted spots on the world championship teams. But oh man, was it fun!

(Junior Men sprint down the first stretch)
I was signed up for the Masters Men 8k, which gave me a chance to watch the Women's Masters 8k while warming up and then hang around for the Juniors 8k and Open 12k after the race. The course was a 2k loop in a beautiful grassy park near Mission Bay, which made for great spectating. I couldn't decide if I was more excited to race or watch, given all the superstars I was seeing in the warm up area. The weather was a balmy 68 degrees, much to the delight of pale-skinned runners from New York, Colorado, and even snow-filled Texas who were dealing with 80-90 degree differences from their home towns.

I jogged around and did some strides, meeting many faces behind the great comments that come in on my blog. When it came time to toe the line, the Fleet Feet Sports Boulder Racing Team let me line up with them, although there was no chance I was going to keep up with the likes of Todd Straka, Jim Robbins, Peter Hagelbach, Marc Bromberg, James Johnson, and George Zack. But we wished each other well, and readied for the start.

(Hanging with former WR holders Jim Ryun and Alberto Salazar)
Masters 8k

The gun went off, and it was like a scene from Braveheart as we shot down the half mile straight away as fast as we could. The flat speed of these runners was SHOCKING. I guessed I was on a 5:30 min/mile pace, and the lead pack had 25 seconds on my by the first corner. Wow! I loved how the spikes threw grass divots around every corner, and it was full contact at all moments.  So very different than an ultra!

I passed a few people in the tight corners, only to have them pass me back on the straights, and soon realized this would be the pattern for the race. These were all gazelles trained on the track, and their strides were long and powerful. It was like they had two gears more than I had! At the end of the first lap, 49-year-old XC Masters star Peter Magill led a pack of four and made it look easy nearly a minute ahead.

By lap 2, there was a bit more elbow room. People were cheering around the entire track, and one would think there was 2,000 spectators here (it turns out it's just the same 250 people running to different points on the course). I heard some coach-like hollering, realizing I was right in the middle of the fight for the M55-60 age group between Jim Howard, Dale Campbell, and Rich Burns. "Catch that 'some bitch!" one would yell, while another would scream "don't let him gap you, stay on his tail!". Very exciting! Clearly this was a team sport.

Lap 2 was slightly faster than Lap 1, and for the most part our positions remained the same while the leaders stretched out in front of us. I kicked it up a bit more, and a group of five of us worked our way through slowing runners. Although I was sub-6 minute on the flat parts, the tight corners made it hard to keep the average speed under 6. Push, push, push!

(Colorado's George Zack cranks through Lap 2 in the Masters race, photo courtesy of Harry White)
Lap 3 was the strategy lap for most, and a lot of positions changed. Guys who held back suddenly came flying through the pack, while others who went out too hard couldn't keep the pace. We started lapping other runners, such as William Smythe, Kenneth Wright, and Bill Turley, the three 81-year-olds from Boulder Road Runners, all within a minute of each other. There's tough competition in every age group!

Lap 4 came, and everyone dug deep. My legs were on fire and my stomach was cursing like a sailor, but the faces of my fellow runners said I was in good company. Every corner got competitive, with elbows flailing wide, surges, and self-motivation grunts. A quick pass was almost an insult, and you can bet they would try and take you on the next turn. There were team points at stake, so every position counted. This was awesome! I pushed harder, letting the tunnel vision creep in for the last 200 meters, and picking up three more spots. Boulder's Stephen Fether heard me coming in the last 50 meters and wasn't about to let me pass, and we sprinted to the finish where he stayed a stride ahead. 30:21, 57th place, just barely in the first half of the pack. Wow. Probably the fastest I have ever gone, but nowhere near what is needed to be competitive here.

I lost my balance at the finish as the tunnel vision caught up with me, and a gentleman helped me up saying "great kick!". Another volunteer laughed while handing me a water and said "if that guy says you had a good kick, then you definitely had a good kick!". As the tunnel vision cleared away, I realized the man who helped me up was Billy Mills, the 1964 10k Olympic Gold Medalist with one of the greatest kicks ever caught on film. Wow! I could care less if I finished 57th - Billy Mills just patted me on the back!

I saw a guy curled up on the ground vomiting his breakfast, and realized it was our winner, Peter Magill, who had extended his XC dynasty with another National Championship (26:17) and topped a podium dominated by Compex Racing. I guess that's how hard you have to go to top this field! Being 49 years old, he had the best age-graded performance too. Spectacular, Peter!

Junior and Open Races

I cooled down, showered, and came back to watch the Junior and Open Races. Stanford was well represented in the Juniors, with favorite Aisling Cuffe (headed to Stanford in the Fall) comfortably winning the Junior Women by 26 seconds, and Stanford Freshman Erik Olson playing his tactics perfectly for a win in the Junior Mens. Colleen de Reuck won the Masters Women, after pulling away in the first 1k to built a comfortable lead.

(UCLA's Dustin Fay led for the first half, but was pulled in by lap 3)

(Erik Olson wins the Junior XC Nationals)
(Stanford's Erik Olson interviewed at the finish)
The Women's Open was a who's who of American track and field. 10k AR holder and Olympic bronze medalist Shalene Flanagan, 5k AR holder Molly Huddle, NCAA 5k/10k champion Lisa Koll, Olympic marathoners Blake Russell and Magdalena Lewy-Boulet, Kara Goucher returning from maternity leave, and at least a dozen more capable of making one of the six coveted World Team slots.

(Shalene Flanagan takes it out fast, photo courtesy of Harry Price)
Shalene Flanagan wasted no time to set a tough pace, pulling away on the first lap and never looking back. Molly Huddle firmly held second, with Lisa Koll catching up to her by the third lap. The others battled it out in a larger pack about 15 seconds back. Shalene crushed the last lap, winning by 44 seconds (25:47), with Molly Huddle (26:31) and Team Oregon teammate Lisa Koll (26:41) taking second and third. The next group was tight, with Magdalena Lewy Boulet, Blake Russell, and Alissa McKaig making the team, and Kara Goucher, Kim Conley, Megan Duwell, and Allison Kieffer finishing up the Top 10. (results)
(Shalene Flanagan leads 1k in, and builds from there)
(Shalene Flanagan, 2011 National Cross Country champion, photo courtesy of Nelvin Sepeda)
(Womens Top 10)

The Men's Open had lots of big names for their 12k as well, including 800-meter Olympian Matt Tagenkamp, XC Champion Jorge Torres, our own Max King, sub-4 minute miler Andrew Bumbalough, 3-time Olympian Abdi Abdirahman, and 2010 USATF 10k Road Champion Ed Moran. It was definitely going to be a fast race!
(Jeremy Johnson and Ben Bruce lead a tight pack)
The pack stuck close in the first lap, with steeplechaser Ben Bruce and Jeremy Johnson setting the pace. The frontrunners stuck close the next two laps, with Ed Moran coming up to set the pace for Lap 2, and Max King doing the work on Lap 3. At Lap 4, Brent Vaughn made a move to build a 12 second lead, and the pack let him go. Vaughn had dropped out of the Half Marathon Road Championships in Houston recently, so perhaps they thought he wasn't a threat.

(Ed Moran sets the pace on Lap 2)
(Max King leads through Lap 3)
(Brent Vaughn makes his move)
 At Lap 5, Vaughn still had the lead and was looking strong, so Matt Tagenkamp, Ed Moran, and Andrew Bumbalough pushed the pace of the chase pack. By Lap 6, Vaughn was getting reeled in, but he surged again and came to the finish exhilarated for his first national title in 35:44, 8 seconds ahead. Andrew Bumalough (35:53), Ed Moran (35:54), Matt Tagenkamp (36:01), Benjamin True (36:03), Brian Olinger (36:05), Max King (36:11), Andrew Carlsen (36:20), David Jankowski (36:29), and Jorge Torres (36:36) finished the Top 10. To win, you needed a 4:46 min/mile pace on this crazy course - just amazing. (results)

(Max King makes up ground on the final lap)
(Brent Vaughn, 2011 Cross Country National champion, photo courtesy of Daniel Petty)
(3rd place finisher, Ed Moran)
(Men's Open Top 10)
I soaked in the sun and a few brewskies, also having a chance to meet former world record holder Jim Ryun and the legendary Alberto Salazar. Such a great adventure! This may not be my best distance, but I would love to do it again. My thanks to RD's Paul Greer and Thom Hunt, the USATF, and the San Diego-Imperial Association for putting on a great championship. Good luck to the national teams in Punta Umbria, Spain!


  1. Awesome report Scott! I would have loved to have been there just to watch. I never have been very fast, but I love to run.

    I too met Jim Ryun once at a small road race in Mississippi many years ago when I was enlisted in the military. What a humble and graceful man. I will never forget the way he talked to me as if we were equal competitors. It was an honor to shake his hand and something I will never forget.

    Now having Billy Mills tel you "Good Kick" now that is in a category all by itself. The movie "Running Brave" is what got me started back to running races, having not raced since my not so impressive career in high school. I would love to add that handshake to my collection someday!

  2. Good luck with your upcoming family addition and great meeting you.

  3. Say Hey, Billy Mills!!

  4. Nice job, Scott! I missed your race but was able to watch the other races live online. It brought me back to my Cross Country HS days in San Diego, although I wasn't in the same hemisphere as those guys. I look forward to hopefully meeting you at Napa.

  5. George -

    Great to meet you too! Hey, I found a pic of you on the USATF site and added it above. Go GZ!!!


  6. Great work, Du. next thing you know, you'll be entering the 4x100 relay! congratulations!

  7. Nice job with the race! Thanks for sharing.

  8. I love your race reports, I wish we could have been down there to watch in person as it sounds like a blast!

    Have you decided on what you'll be using to push/pull your munchkins in at B2B in May?

  9. Hey Scott. Great imagery on being terrifically fast at the start of the Masters...and being left behind by the very terrifically fast. Now you know how us slow folks feel all the time. FYI, the book 1000 Things to Love About America, which ranks cool stuff in the USA, pegged trailrunning as the 634th best thing about America. (beat out Joy of Cooking, 635th. Book has some some weird juxtapositions. Anyway good luck at Step Ravine. Henry

  10. Good report and inspiring pictures!


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