February 2, 2017
We’re less than two months away from the World Cross Country Championships in Uganda, a meet we’re very excited about considering the last World XC held in Africa was one of the most amazing sporting events we’ve ever witnessed. Before the running world descends on Kampala in March, however, the teams have to be picked, and for the United States, that will be happening at this weekend’s USATF Cross Country Championships in Bend, Ore. The field on the men’s side is pretty strong at the top, as three 2016 Olympians (Leonard Korir, Shadrack Kipchirchir and Hillary Bor) plus three-time champ Chris Derrick are all entered (though Derrick says he likely won’t run World XC if selected for the team).
As a reminder, the top six finishers who make themselves eligible for selection will be the team for World XC. We preview the men’s race below.
Where: River’s Edge Golf Course, Bend, Oregon
When: Saturday, February 4 (all times PT; for ET, add three hours)
Junior women (6K): 12:10 p.m.
Junior men (8K): 12:45 p.m.
Senior women (10K): 1:30 p.m.
Senior men (10K): 2:20 p.m.
All four races will be shown live online at USATF.TV+ (requires subscription). The broadcast begins at 12:10 p.m. PT.
Olympic Trials Redux
This race bears a striking resemblance to last July’s Olympic Trials 10,000. Of the top nine finishers in that race, eight will race in Bend on Saturday, with Galen Rupp the lone exception. It stands to reason that one of those guys will win this thing, and with apologies to Marty Hehir, Brendan Gregg and Jon Grey (who all still have a shot to make the team), the winner is going to be one of the guys who finished in the top six. Let’s run through them quickly.
Shadrack Kipchirchir (2nd Olympic Trials 10k), 27 years old, U.S. Army WCAP
Kipchirchir is a bit of an unknown quantity at this point, as he hasn’t raced since the Silicon Valley Turkey Trot 5K on November 24, where he ran 13:36 for second place. But Kipchirchir’s coach Scott Simmons says that his entire training group is fit right now and just because someone hasn’t raced recently doesn’t necessarily mean they lack confidence in their fitness.
“We know what we’re doing,” Simmons said. “We don’t do a lot of work on the track right now, but when we do go to something measured, they can kind of see where they’re at.”
If Kipchirchir is close to his fitness level from the Trials last year — where he was the only guy to hang with Rupp — he’s a lock for the team.
Leonard Korir (3rd Olympic Trials 10k), 30 years old, U.S. Army WCAP
Korir enters this race as the presumptive favorite thanks to a pair of epic wins at the Great Edinburgh XCountry and the Houston Half Marathon (61:14) last month. Both performances showed that Korir is seriously fit right now, with a kick to match. And his win in Scotland also showed that Korir is prepared for a demanding cross country course with uneven footing, conditions he will likely face in icy Bend on Saturday. As long as Korir stays on his feet, he will make the team for Uganda, and if he’s still near the lead at USAs with 400 to go, we expect him to win it.
Scott Fauble (4th Olympic Trials 10k), 25 years old, Hoka One One Northern Arizona Elite
Fauble’s not going to be winning this race — he was only 7th at Club Nats in December and 16th at the Houston Half Marathon (over two minutes behind Korir). But those two results aren’t bad, and Fauble’s always been a strong cross country runner dating back to his college days at Portland and his third-place finish at Great Edinburgh XCountry last year. He has a chance to finish in the top six, but he’s not on par with the rest of the guys in this section right now.
Chris Derrick (5th Olympic Trials 10k), 26 years old, Nike Bowerman Track Club
We wrote a long piece on Derrick’s comeback from the injuries that plagued him during the last Olympic cycle, so if you want the full story on him, click here. As far as his chances on Saturday are concerned, Derrick said that he doesn’t think he’s in the best cross country shape of his life but believes he’s in similar shape to when he ran 27:38 for 10,000 meters on the track in November. Considering only four other guys in the field have ever run that fast — and we doubt ALL of them are in 27:30 shape right now — we consider Derrick a serious contender for the win. Remember, he’s won this thing three times in the past, and the last time he ran US Cross, he crushed the field by 30 seconds. Plus, since Derrick isn’t going to be running Worlds, he’ll be going all-out for the win here rather than worrying about preserving his spot late in the race.
Sam Chelanga (6th Olympic Trials 10k), 31 years old, American Distance Project
Chelanga has been getting back to his cross country roots since joining coach Scott Simmons in Colorado Springs last year. The two-time NCAA XC champion — and Terre Haute course record holder — won the US Club Champs in December and placed a strong fourth in Edinburgh, behind Korir, Callum Hawkins and European XC champ Aras Kaya of Turkey. Chelanga may not be quite the dominant force he was in college at Liberty, where he ran 27:08 as a junior, but if he races in Bend like he did at Club Nats and Edinburgh, he’ll make the team and will contend for the win.
Who Else Could Make the Team?
Short answer: a lot of guys. Because USA Cross attracts guys from several different distances and takes place early in the year, it’s hard to get a gauge on who the top contenders are for the six national team spots. All of the men we mentioned above are serious threats; in fact, we expect Kipchirchir, Korir and Chelanga to take three of the spots. But that still leaves three more (remember, Derrick likely won’t be going), and there are a bunch of runners who could claim them on the right day.
In addition to Derrick, there are two returners from the 2015 team: Ryan Vail and Patrick Smyth. Vail is a cross country stalwart, as he’s made all four US XC teams he’s tried out for dating back to 2009, while Smyth excels in tough conditions as he’s a strong trail runner. That should help him as the Bend course is very up and down. Both guys ran the NYC Marathon last fall; Vail was a DNF, while Smyth finished 10th in 2:16:34. But Vail told Athletics Illustrated he’s in great shape (“I would say I’m close to 100% in terms of my best fitness at the moment”) so we think he’ll make the team.
December’s Club Nats results are a decent place to look for USA XC contenders, and behind Chelanga, Stanley Kebenei (2nd) and Hillary Bor (4th) both ran well. Like Kipchirchir, Korir and Chelanga, they train under Simmons, and he’s excited about their chances on Saturday. Simmons said that Kebenei, who was 5th in Edinburgh, is in “the best shape of his life” and he recently texted Simmons to let him know that he’s the lightest he’s been in his career — 131 pounds. Bor, 7th in the Olympic steeple last summer, was not as successful in Edinburgh (10th) but may finish higher on Saturday.
“I think Hillary felt that in Edinburgh he just didn’t get a good start and wasn’t able to compete to his fitness level,” Simmons said. “He thinks he’s on a higher level.”
Two other Simmons-coached athletes to watch for: Joe Gray (last year’s World Mountain Running champion) and Abbabiya Simbassa (12th at Club Nats), who is still raw but progressing quickly according to Simmons.
2016 college grads Thomas Curtin (5th Club Nats, 11th Edinburgh) and Marty Hehir (6th Club Nats, 13th Edinburgh) will also be in contention (note: 27:30 man Diego Estrada is on the entry list but will not be running).
Quick: name the defending USA cross country champion. We’ll give you a few seconds…
How many of you said Craig Lutz? Well that is the correct answer, and while the field was extremely watered down last year (there was no World XC to qualify for and it was a week before the Olympic Marathon Trials), Lutz deserves credit for the win, particularly since the race was held on the same challenging Bend course that will be used this year. The fact that Lutz has run — and run well — should help him, even if he’s a relative long shot to make the team (he was only 30th at Club Nats; he also ran 8:01 for 3k indoors on January 14).
How Will the Race Play Out?
The map doesn’t do it justice, but River’s Edge GC features undulating terrain with few flat portions. In addition to the hills, footing could be an issue. Oregon has been pelted with snow this winter, and this week volunteers have been working to shovel two feet of the white stuff off the course in time for Saturday’s races. Below is a picture of the course eight days ago (courtesy Max King):
Still, with more snow in the forecast on Thursday, followed by rain on Friday and Saturday, there’s no telling what kind of shape the course will be in by Saturday afternoon (the current Weather.com forecast calls for a high of 42 degrees with 11 mph winds). That’s very different from Kampala, where the high is forecast to be 78 degrees on Saturday, though the USA XC and World XC courses do have one thing in common: both are at mild altitude (Bend is a 3,600 feet, Kampala 3,900 feet). In summary: soft runners need not apply.
Since many of the top contenders — Korir, Kipchirchir, Chelanga, and Kebenei — are all part of the same training group, they could well dictate the race in the early stages.
“They train as a team, they’re gonna run as a team,” Simmons said. “They work together in workouts and they’re going to go into the race doing the same thing too. I think you saw it in Tallahassee [at Club Nats] and somewhat in Edinburgh too. They run better when they work together and can help each other. And I think that’s the key to being successful at the World Championships too. Running as a team, running with teammates, being up front, having that level of comfort of being at the front but knowing you’re running with guys you train with.”
Given Korir’s devastating kick and status as the favorite, don’t expect him to be the one to make the first move. Instead, keep an eye on Derrick, who is unafraid of dropping the hammer if he feels that he can drop the field and does not have a teammate or training partner to worry about.
We’ll make our official race prediction in the live messageboard thread that we’ll start up on Saturday, but we think that America will have a very good medal contending team when it’s all said in done. There is a lot of talent in the field and much of it is African born so we imagine more of them will be willing to make the trip to Uganda.
What do you think? Tell us your thoughts on our messageboard discussion: MB: Who will win 2017 USA Cross Country Championship in Bend Oregon this Saturday afternoon? and vote in the poll below.