November 16, 2016
Records are made to be broken – or maybe not.
On Saturday afternoon in Terre Haute, Edward Cheserek will attempt to accomplish something that can never be surpassed (only equaled): winning his fourth consecutive NCAA Division I cross country title. Cheserek is already the only man in history to win three in a row, is undefeated in 2016 and enters Saturday’s race as the red-hot favorite. Is there even a tiny chance that he loses?
Of course. Cheserek is a legendary runner and one of the NCAA’s greatest-ever athletes, regardless of sport. But in 2016 we’ve already seen Leicester City win the English Premier League, the Cleveland Cavaliers win the NBA championship, the Chicago Cubs win the World Series and Donald Trump win the presidential election. Would it really be that surprising if Cheserek loses on Saturday?
We break down the men’s individual race in full below.
What: 2016 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships
Where: LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course, Terre Haute, Indiana
When: 11 a.m. ET (women’s race); 12 p.m. ET (men’s race)
How To Watch: In person ($10 admission). The 2016 NCAA Cross Country Championships will also be streamed online by Flotrack ($). Flotrack subscriptions cost $149.99 per year (recurring) or $19.99 per month (recurring) but there may be a free 7-day trial if you haven’t signed up before.
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All NCAA Regional Results * NCAA XC champs site * LRC 2016 NCAA XC Women’s Team Preview: The Unstoppable Colorado Women * LRC 2016 NCAA XC Men’s Team Preview: Can Northern Arizona Send Futsum Zienasellassie and Coach Eric Heins Out on Top? * All LRC 2016 NCAA XC Coverage
The Case for Cheserek
This section could be 2,000 words if we so desired, such is the magnitude of what Cheserek’s accomplished since enrolling at Oregon in the fall of 2013. He’s won the last three NCAA XC titles to go with 10 NCAA individual titles on the track (plus two DMR titles which, let’s face it, Cheserek basically won by himself). He’s got the fastest PRs in the field at 1500 (3:36.50), 3,000 (7:40.51) and 5,000 (13:18.71) and the only reason why he’s not #1 in the 10,000 (NAU’s Futsum Zienasellassie has run 27:52.70; Cheserek is #2 at 28:30.18) is that he hasn’t tried to run a fast one. His 25-second margin of victory last year was the fifth-largest in NCAA history, and it all came over the final two kilometers. This year, he hasn’t won a race by fewer than 14 seconds. Cheserek vs. the rest of the NCAA is like Mo Farah against the rest of the world at 5,000 or 10,000 meters: both men have a better kick and better endurance than everyone else, making them essentially impossible to beat. Until he loses, it’s stupid to pick against Cheserek.
In 2012, Arizona’s Lawi Lalang was viewed as unbeatable until he lost to Texas Tech’s Kennedy Kithuka at NCAAs. In 2013, Kithuka was viewed as unbeatable until he lost to Cheserek at NCAAs. The circumstances are a little different in 2016 — both Lalang and Kithuka had dominated for a year, while Cheserek has been crushing everyone for three — but the point remains: it only takes one race to go from unbeatable to beaten.
So who are the candidates to beat Cheserek? We lay out a few of the strongest below, in order from most to least likely to beat Cheserek.
Justyn Knight, junior, Syracuse
Previous NCAA finishes: 43rd, 2014; 4th, 2015.
2016 results: 1st Panorama Farms, 1st Wisconsin Invite, 1st ACCs, 1st Northeast Regional
Knight is one of just three undefeated runners in the NCAA this year (there’s also Cheserek plus one more guy we’ll get to in a minute). Already a total stud, Knight is running even better than he was last year when he got fourth. There are two reasons for that: Knight’s insane natural ability and Syracuse coach Chris Fox‘s patient approach. Knight is so good (he ran 14:08 in high school off 35 miles per week) that as long as he stays healthy, he’s going to naturally improve as he grows stronger and adds mileage. At Syracuse, he’s bumped his mileage up from 35 a week his freshman fall to 45 last year to 60 in 2016. It’s pretty amazing to think he’s a 13:26 guy who still runs less than many of the best high schoolers.
Knight has been dominant this year. In his season opener at Panorama Farms on September 23, he was 7.6 seconds down on eventual runner-up Lawrence Kipkoech of Campbell at 5k but wound up winning by 15.8 seconds. At Wisconsin, he was content to sit with the lead pack until the final straight, when he finally made a move to run down leader George Parsons of NC State. And when Knight went, he went, his turnover so quick and his form so smooth that it looked more like a 400 repeat during track season than the final meters of the nation’s most prestigious invitational. Knight employed a similar tactic at ACCs, leaving it late before exploding to the finish line. And at regionals, he cruised, going 1-2 with teammate Colin Bennie. He’s yet to look tired in a race all season.
In a normal year, Knight would be a deserving NCAA champion, but he’s going up against one of the NCAA’s best ever in his senior season. If NCAAs were to come down to a 200-meter sprint, we’d still pick Cheserek, but we’d feel better about Knight’s chances than in most other scenarios. Knight showed at Wisconsin that he can change gears quickly even at the end of a hard XC race. Cheserek has been doing the same thing for years, but the shorter the kick, the greater the odds of something going wrong for Cheserek (remember Jordy Williamsz at Penn Relays in 2015?).
Unfortunately for Knight, Cheserek is unlikely to let it come down to the final 200. Last year, Cheserek destroyed Patrick Tiernan — an Australian Olympian and 13:20 guy — over the final two kilometers at NCAAs and he’s been employing a similar strategy this year. At Pre-Nats and Pac-12s, rather than waiting until the final mile, Cheserek has broken the field much earlier in the race (he took off at the 5k mark at Pre-Nats and even earlier than that at Pac-12s). If Knight is to beat him at NCAAs, he’ll have to go with that move and hope he still has something in reserve to outkick Cheserek in the end, which is a monumental task. And that’s assuming he has permission to chase Cheserek. With Syracuse in the thick of the team race, Fox may just tell Knight to race for the #2 spot in the team score; if Knight chases Ches and blows up, he could cost himself and the Orange valuable spots.
One thing that could help Knight is the weather forecast. It’s supposed to be cold (high of 43 degrees) and windy (22 mph) in Terre Haute on Saturday, according to Weather.com. If Cheserek makes a break and Knight can draft off of him, he may have more energy for the final kick. More likely, however, is that Cheserek will simply wait longer to make his winning move. And of course, when Cheserek won his first NCAA title back in 2013, it was windy and even colder (high of 34) than it’s supposed to be on Saturday.
Here’s the stat to remember: Cheserek beat Knight by over a minute at NCAAs last year. Yes, fourth place was more than a minute down on first. So Knight was closer to 77th than he was to st. Knight may be a lot better than he was in 2015, but he’s yet to show that he’s at Cheserek’s level.
Weirder things most certainly have happened, however. Remember, this summer Knight outkicked Galen Rupp in a 5000.
Patrick Tiernan, senior, Villanova
Previous NCAA finishes: 9th, 2013; 18th, 2014; 2nd, 2015.
2016 results: 1st Big Easts, 1st Mid-Atlantic Regional
Tiernan, lest we forget, crushed Knight and everyone else not named Cheserek at NCAAs last fall. In fact, if you remove Cheserek from the results, Tiernan would have won by 25.9 seconds — the fifth-largest margin in NCAA history. The lanky Australian has the second-best 5k pb in the field at 13:20 (just two seconds off Cheserek’s best) and last year showed that he has the guts to try to take it to the King over a 10,000-meter cross country race. Tiernan got a late start on the cross country season because he ran at the Olympics, but he returned at Big Easts on October 28 and has won both of his races this fall in comfortable fashion.
The first concern with Tiernan is that he gave Cheserek his best shot in 2015 and it barely seemed to affect Cheserek, who still put 25 seconds on him over the final 2k. The other concern is that, with a late start to the season, he may have to play catchup to Cheserek, and that’s not a great outcome as Oregon coach Andy Powell said back in September that Cheserek has never been in better shape at that point in the season.
The Hometown Favorite
Futsum Zienasellassie, senior, Northern Arizona
Previous NCAA finishes: 7:53/13:37/27:52.
PBs: 31st, 2012; 4th, 2013; 3rd, 2014.
2016 results: 2nd Wisconsin Invite, 1st Big Sky, 1st Mountain Regional
Zienasellassie has been an outstanding cross country runner dating back to high school when he made Foot Locker finals as a true freshman. But Cheserek has always been a couple steps ahead of him, beating him out by 1 second for the Foot Locker title in 2011 (LRC 2011 Foot Locker Cross-Country: Cheserek-Futsum Duel Lives Up To Hype) and winning NCAAs as Zienasellassie posted top-four finishes in 2013 and 2014. Zienasellassie redshirted last fall in order to give himself the best shot possible at taking down the King in 2016, and he made noticeable strides on the track last year, running pbs of 7:53/13:37/27:52 and recording his highest NCAA finishes on the oval (4th in the indoor 5k, which he subsequently bested by finishing 2nd in the 10k outdoors). Zienasellassie may never have been fitter, but the same looks true of Cheserek. Plus Zienasellassie has already lost this year, to Knight at Wisconsin.
Jacob Choge, freshman, Middle Tennessee State
Previous NCAA finishes: none
2016 results: 2nd Commodore Classic, 2nd Greater Louisville Classic, 1st Conference USA, 1st South Regional
Choge’s chances are slim, but he has a massive upside as we know very little about him. He has no PRs listed as he came to Middle Tennessee from Kenya, but is the brother of Augustine Choge, aka the 2016 World Indoor 3k bronze medallist with 3:29/7:28/12:53 pbs. Not all athletes have the same athletic talent as their siblings, but Choge has a great pedigree and after a couple of losses to Louisville’s Edwin Kibichiy in his first two races, he’s won titles at Conference USAs and the South Regional. Choge is in a similar spot to the one UTEP’s Jonah Koech was last year — a talented Kenyan about which little is known — so perhaps it’s fitting that Choge beat Koech (who wound up 11th at NCAAs last year) at Conference USAs.
The case for Choge is simple. Who is more likely to beat Cheserek: the guys who have been losing to him for years, or a guy with a huge ceiling who has never raced him before?
The Next Tiernan?
Morgan McDonald, junior, Wisconsin
Previous NCAA finishes/PBs: 75th, 2014. 7:52/13:29
2016 results: 3rd Wisconsin Invite, 1st Big 10s, 2nd Great Lakes Regional
McDonald was less than a second behind Zienasellassie at Wisconsin and, like Knight, is a super talent who has gradually developed as he’s added mileage under coach Mick Byrne (McDonald was running 40 mpw when he finished 75th at NCAAs two years ago). The second at regionals isn’t a problem as McDonald crossed the line together with teammate Malachy Schrobilgen, but he lost to both Knight and Zienasellassie at Wisconsin and his pbs are worse than Tiernan. It’s hard to argue he can beat all of them plus Cheserek.
The American Prodigy
Grant Fisher, sophomore, Stanford
Previous NCAA finishes/PBs: 17th, 2015. 7:50/13:30.
2016 results: 4th Wisconsin Invite, 2nd Pac-12s, 11th West Regional
Fisher put together one of the greatest careers ever by an American high schooler at Grand Blanc (Mich.) HS, winning Foot Lockers twice and breaking 4:00 in the mile. He ran 13:39 in his first career track 5k last spring (he lowered that to 13:30 at NCAAs) and seems poised to become one of the U.S.’s top distance runners in the years to come. Fisher was 4th at Wisconsin, but his best race of the season came at Pac-12s, where he kicked hard to take a convincing second behind Cheserek (ignore the regional result as he pack-ran it with his teammates). Still, he lost to McDonald at Wisconsin in October and in the NCAA 5k in June, and if he can’t beat McDonald, there’s no way he’s beating Cheserek. Only a sophomore, Fisher could well win an NCAA XC title down the road, but it seems unlikely to happen on Saturday.
Who Will Be the Top American-Born Finisher?
Of the seven men we listed (including Cheserek), none were born in the United States (Zienasellassie and Fisher are U.S. citizens but Zienasellassie was born in Eritrea and Fisher was born in Canada). So who are the candidates to be the top American-born finisher at NCAAs? Well NC State’s George Parsons was the top U.S.-born athlete at Wisconsin (5th) and didn’t lose to any American-born runners at ACCs (3rd) or the Southeast Regional (4th). One spot behind Parsons at Wisco was Sean McGorty, who has run 13:24 on the track and is the top U.S.-born returner from NCAAs (assuming Georgetown’s Jonathan Green, who hasn’t raced since October 1, doesn’t run). But McGorty was only 7th at Pac-12s. The top American-born runner there was Colorado’s Ben Saarel in 3rd, and Saarel already had two top-10 finishes at NCAAs in his career. The top U.S.-born finisher at Pre-Nats was Oregon’s Matthew Maton, and though Maton was 2nd behind Cheserek at the West Regional, he was only 28th at Pac-12s. But it was very hot that day, and if Maton runs like he did in his other three races, he could be a top-10 finisher. Don’t forget about Wisconsin’s Malachy Schrobilgen, either. He was 10th at NCAAs two years ago and won the Great Lakes Regional.
Want Info on Guys We Didn’t Mention?
There are a slew of talented guys who didn’t make our preview, but if you enter the $200,016 LRC Running Warehouse NCAA XC Prediction Contest, you’ll get info on every runner that was in the top 10 at their regional. It’s free and you could win more than $200,000.
1. Cheserek. Hasn’t shown any indication of weakness and has never lost an NCAA championship in XC. It would be lunacy to pick against him.
2. Knight. He’s looked amazing every time out, but beating Cheserek will require something truly special.
3. Tiernan. We wouldn’t be surprised if he beat Knight, but we just haven’t seen enough of him this fall to know what kind of shape he’s in.
*Men’s Team Preview Here: LRC 2016 NCAA XC Men’s Team Preview: Can Northern Arizona Send Futsum Zienasellassie and Coach Eric Heins Out on Top?
*Women’s Team Preview Here: LRC 2016 NCAA XC Women’s Team Preview: The Unstoppable Colorado Women Will Win The 2016 NCAA Title