November 18, 2016
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — We’re less than 24 hours from the 2016 NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Cross Country Championships and at today’s pre-meet press conference some of the NCAA’s brightest stars and top coaching minds shared their thoughts on the eve of the race. Michigan native Erin Finn of the University of Michigan and Vermont native Elinor Purrier of the University of New Hampshire were both excited by the prospect of a cold, windy, muddy day of racing tomorrow, as was Providence College head coach Ray Treacy. Stanford head coach Chris Miltenberg said that the culture on his team, which has finished second and third at the past two NCAA championships, is better than ever, a claim echoed by his star Sean McGorty, while top individual contenders Patrick Tiernan and Futsum Zienasellassie talked about how it would be possible to beat three-time defending champion Edward Cheserek of Oregon. All that and much more below.
Women’s athletes: Erin Clark (Colorado), Erin Finn (Michigan), Amy-Eloise Neale (Washington), Elinor Purrier (New Hampshire), Anna Rohrer (Notre Dame), Alice Wright (New Mexico)
Men’s athletes: Edward Cheserek (Oregon), Justyn Knight (Syracuse), Morgan McDonald (Wisconsin), Sean McGorty (Stanford), Patrick Tiernan (Villanova), Futsum Zienasellassie (Northern Arizona)
Coaches: Ed Eyestone (Brigham Young), Eric Heins (Northern Arizona), Laurie Henes (North Carolina State), Chris Miltenberg (Stanford), Ray Treacy (Providence), Mark Wetmore (Colorado)
Bring on the bad weather
The weather in Terre Haute was insanely good today as temperatures were in the low 70s when the press conference began. The grass was totally firm and the course was in the best condition it has ever been in this late in the year.
Several runners and coaches were hoping that all changes over the next 20 hours.
“I’m really excited about the weather [forecast],” said Purrier, the Northeast Region champ who has never competed at the NCAA cross country championships before. “I’m from northern Vermont. I’m used to running in a tough climate. I think it will throw a little extra fun into the run. I think it might be a benefit to me possibly.”
The forecast calls for the temperature to drop 32 degrees in the span of 20 hours so that when the women’s race goes off at 11 a.m. ET tomorrow it’s expected it will be 40 degrees with a 23-mile-per-hour wind.
That will mean that with the windchill it will feel like is 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
Women’s individual favorite Erin Finn of Michigan was thrilled to hear that.
“I’m just so excited to be here with my teammates. We’re so excited to take advantage of this bad weather tomorrow and show our true Midwest grit,” said Finn. “I’m from Michigan. The weather can be really, really great or really, really bad within the span of [a few hours]. The bad weather hurts everyone but I think it hurts us a little bit less than it hurts everyone else. We’re not scared of it. We’re excited.”
Providence coach Ray Treacy also was a fan of the forecast. He said the forecast reminded him a bit of 2013 when his women won the NCAA title in cold, wet and windy conditions and said the forecast was “good for us.”
A few minutes after we typed the above section, just before 5 p.m. ET, this happened in Terre Haute.
— LetsRun.com (@letsrundotcom) November 18, 2016
The storm, which featured lightning and thunder, was so bad the power went out briefly in the media center.
How do you beat Edward Cheserek? We asked.
Coaches, athletes and observers have wracked their brains over the past four years figuring out how to beat Edward Cheserek in a cross country race. It’s a rare event, and it’s never happened at NCAAs, but the men with the best chance to pull it off were present at the press conference today. Any tips?
“When you talk about how to beat Edward Cheserek there is no real plan,” said Syracuse’s Justyn Knight. “He’s a talented guy, his record speaks for itself. He can win under sit and kick or he can win just stringing out the race. So I think the best way to handle the situation is be prepared on both sides and just run your best race and have some fun.”
Villanova’s Patrick Tiernan took his best swing at Cheserek last year in Louisville and though he succeeded in dropping the rest of the field, Cheserek was too good in the end, putting 25 seconds on Tiernan over the final two kilometers.
“I learned that going out that hard makes you feel pretty crappy at 8k,” Tiernan said. “This season has a lot for me been about getting stronger over that last mile, last 2k. You learn from it. For me, I just needed to get a lot stronger this year and I believe I’ve done that.”
Northern Arizona’s Futsum Zienasellassie took a different approach to the question.
“We all know Cheserek is one of the greatest cross country runners or NCAA runner[s] that came through college,” Zienasellassie said. “Hearing him, from talking to him and interviews and things like that, I think the best way to beat Ches is my team beating his team. He seems like a team player, so he’d be pissed if our school beat their school.”
Indeed, whatever the season, Cheserek has always said that his number one priority is to score as many (or in XC, as few) points as possible for his team and he reaffirmed that today.
“My main focus is the team,” Cheserek said. “This is my final year and I’m trying to lift my team [as best] as I can.”
But when it comes to Cheserek, Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald said it best.
“I did see a quote one time that was the best race tactic is to be better than everyone else,” McDonald said.
That, in a nutshell, is why Cheserek has dominated the NCAA year-in and year-out. If you have better speed than someone, the best strategy is usually to play sit and kick. If you have better endurance than someone, the best strategy is usually to push the pace. But Cheserek has the best kick and the best speed. Until someone becomes a better runner than he is, Cheserek won’t lose. So far, that hasn’t happened at an NCAA XC championship. But tomorrow is another day.
Patrick Tiernan will be looking to end his NCAA career on top
On that note, Tiernan, who has no remaining track eligibility, will be running his final race for Villanova tomorrow and he feels that he’s never been fitter. Tiernan got a late start on the season, as he ran at the Olympics for Australia on August 17 and didn’t debut this fall until the Big East meet on October 28.
“Initially I thought the Olympics would set me back a little bit, but I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life at the moment,” Tiernan said. “[Cheserek] is in the best shape of his life, I’m in the best shape of my life, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Tiernan is one of many collegiate runners who have been denied an NCAA title due to Cheserek’s brilliance. Of the men at today’s press conference, only Cheserek has won an NCAA individual title. But remove him from the results and Zienasellassie, Knight, McGorty and Tiernan would all be NCAA champions.
Zienasellassie, Knight and McGorty all have eligibility remaining. Tiernan does not; tomorrow is his last chance.
Justyn Knight is a very different runner from the guy who got 143rd two years ago
Knight entered Syracuse with a 14:08 5k pb and an eighth-place finish at the World Junior Championships under his belt. He made an instant impact, finishing 14th at the Wisconsin Invitational, but in his first NCAA championships, on this same Terre Haute course, Knight bombed and wound up 143rd.
“I’m kind of looking for a little bit redemption since freshman year,” Knight said.
Chances are he’ll finish a lot higher than 143rd tomorrow. Since then, he’s bumped his mileage (from 35 mpw as a freshman to 60 now), lowered his 5k pb (to 13:26) and has yet to lose a cross country race in 2016.
Knight has a shot at the individual title, but Syracuse will also be in the thick of the team race. Last year, Knight went out hard and hung on for a fourth-place finish, and he said he has permission to chase Cheserek this year if he feels good enough.
“I think Coach Fox, he trusts me enough, he knows that I’m a smart racer and I know when to make my move,” Knight said. “He knows that I know what i’m capable of.”
Erin Finn had to be patient after a stress fracture in the spring, but her successful recovery has given her more confidence than ever
Finn ran a 5,000 at the Portland Track Festival on June 12 as a tuneup for the Olympic Trials, but after the race she knew something was wrong with her foot and eventually the diagnosis came in: stress fracture. She didn’t train for six to eight weeks, began on the AlterG in mid-August and a couple of weeks later was back on solid ground.
Despite the forced layoff, Finn believes the injury has made her stronger mentally.
“I think that this latest injury, I’ve learned more than I ever have in my life,” Finn said. “I’ve really learned about the amount time it takes me to get into shape, and the amount of time it takes to get in really good shape. And I’ve learned how long it takes me to get injured. I’ve learned that I have a lot more to me than just as a runner.
“And all those things have combined to really give me more confidence than I’ve had in the past. I felt like more of a runner from the start. I felt stronger even going into this season when I wasn’t even at 100% fitness wise just because I feel like I’ve stepped it up mentally.”
Finn said one of the biggest keys to her season is that she didn’t go too hard too early coming off the injury.
“I definitely go pedal to the medal as soon as I can, so my coach (Mike McGuire), I’m thankful that he held me back and made sure the effort was a little more tempered.”
However, Finn lost to Boise State’s Brenna Peloquin at the Roy Griak Invitational on September 24, and after that defeat, she asked McGuire if she could start hammering in workouts again.
“I don’t like losing,” Finn said bluntly.
He relented, and the Michigan native has been on a tear ever since. She won Pre-Nats by a massive 24 seconds, Big 10s by 25 and the Great Lakes Regional by eight. Finn said that she’s a big fan of “Terredise” (as Terre Haute is informally known), and is excited by the prospect of some nasty Midwestern weather. Should she win, it would make for the best birthday present ever — Finn turns 22 tomorrow.
The Stanford men’s team culture is better than ever
While Stanford senior Sean McGorty hasn’t quite had the individual year he probably envisioned coming into the year (7th at NCAAs last year, he was just 7th at Pac-12s), he said this year has been “by far the most fun” he’s had as a Cardinal.
Stanford coach Chris Miltenberg didn’t seem surprised by the revelation. “Our team culture is
“Our team culture is at a really exciting place,” said Miltenberg, who placed a huge emphasis on changing the culture at Stanford when he was hired four years ago.
McGorty and this year’s seniors are members of Miltenberg’s first Stanford recruiting class and Miltenberg said an emphasis on culture began on day one.
“We told those guys the first day of freshman year that they’d have to drive the change,” said Miltenberg who described improving the team culture an “evolution.”
In Miltenberg’s eyes, not all seven runners will ever be on the same level, but they should all be all-in in terms of effort level and wanting it for the team. That way when the race gets tough at 7k “you aren’t thinking about your perfect day but thinking about, ‘How can I run for these other six guys?’”
“Cross country is the ultimate test of team culture” according to Miltenberg, as he said it’s impossible for all seven guys to run great on the same day – so who will find a way to have a solid day for his teammates even when they aren’t feeling their best during the race?
In terms of the Stanford women’s team, which features three freshmen in its top five, Miltenberg admitted the obvious, “[We’re] banking on the freshman spirit.”
Mark Wetmore reveals his secrets… or lack thereof
The Colorado Buffs have built a legendary reputation of coming through in a big way at NCAAs over the years. When asked what racing advice he’d give to his runners tomorrow, Wetmore replied, “I don’t really give them instructions. They’ve been racing for six or seven years. I leave that to them.”
In term of other interesting things coming from Wetmore today, he revealed that while he enjoys coming to Terre Haute for NCAA cross country championships (not a surprise since his teams have won 5 of their 7 NCAA championships here) he’s a fan of moving the championships around to different locations.
In terms of the keys to his team’s success on Saturday, Wetmore said that on the women’s side he has three women who have “never been here before” (we’re not sure which three he was referring to, but Makena Morley, Sage Hurta, Tabor Scholl and Dani Jones have never run an NCAAs in Terre Haute) and he said key runner for his women’s team will be whichever one of those tree crosses the finish line first. As for the men, he’d like to see Ben Saarel race like he did in Terre Haute in 2013 (8th) or 2014 (7th) and not like he did last year in Louisville (31st).
“If he runs well, it’s key for our team,” said Wetmore.
As for why this year’s women’s team might be his best ever, Wetmore says this year’s team seems to be way stronger at #5-#6-#7 than his other title teams.
Considering that the Colorado men lost four of their top six from last year’s runner-up team, some might have thought this would be a rebuilding year for the CU men, but not Wetmore. He said coming into the year that he knew Zach Perrin was better than he’d shown, that Saarel was capable of better than 31st and that the team would “be near it (a title).”