RRW: With Superior Sprint Speed, Shelby Houlihan & Shadrack Kipchirchir Win USA Cross Country Titles

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By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2019 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

TALLAHASSEE (02-Feb) — With powerful and well-timed sprints, Shelby Houlihan and Shadrack Kipchirchir won their first-ever national cross country titles here today at Apalachee Regional Park at the USATF Cross Country Championships.  Houlihan, 25, and Kipchirchir, 29, prevailed over high-quality fields, the best assembled for these championships since Alan Culpepper and Deena Kastor claimed victory in Boulder, Colo., in 2007.

This year’s event drew top athletes from the mile to the marathon primarily due to the fast course and intense athlete interest in running the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus, Denmark, on March 30.  The top-6 athletes in both the senior and junior (under-20) men’s and women’s races earned automatic team berths based on order of finish.  Those teams will be officially announced by USA Track and Field next week.

HOULIHAN GOES THE DISTANCE

While the senior men’s race was excellent, it was the senior women’s contest which drew the most attention here today.  Houlihan, last year’s USA champion at both 1500m and 5000m, would run the longest race of her life and her first cross country race since the 2014 NCAA Cross Country Championships. Although she enjoyed the advantage of running with her Nike Bowerman Track Club teammates today –Marielle Hall, Amy Cragg, Courtney Frerichs, and Karissa Schweizer– she had to turn back a formidable challenge from 27-time USA champion Molly Huddle, a gifted road racer who has won the last four national 10,000m titles.  Huddle, who is preparing for the Virgin Money London Marathon in April 28 and hadn’t run in a cross country race since 2012, knew her best strategy was to take it out hard from the gun.  Houlihan was ready.

“I kind of expected her to do that,” Houlihan told Race Results Weekly, her body and racing kit still flecked with mud.  She continued: “It kind of felt like we were hard off the gun, and it stayed steady.  I wasn’t really trying to look at the clock or anything.”

The pace through 5-K (16:30.1) was fast enough to bring the lead pack down to ten: Houlihan, Huddle, Hall, Aliphine Tuliamuk, Cragg, Schweizer, Elaina Tabb, Kellyn Taylor, Sarah Pagano and Rachel Schneider.  Frerichs, the USA steeplechase record holder, Steph Bruce, the reigning USA 10-K road running champion, and Anne-Marie Blaney, the runner-up at last December’s USATF Club Cross Country Championships, were about nine seconds back.  Huddle pushed through the sixth kilometer in 3:25, and Tabb, Taylor, Pagano and Schneider were dropped.  Frerichs, Bruce and Blaney remained within striking distance, ten seconds back.

The fast pace began to take its toll on the field.  Huddle later explained that she didn’t want such a big lead pack still intact late in the race. She had to do as much damage as possible in the first half

“Oh my God, she made it really hard,” said Tuliamuk when asked about Huddle’s front-running.  She continued: “I know for a fact that she’s a grinder and that she’ll just take it.”

But Houlihan looked surprisingly relaxed.  Her posture was straight, her eyes up, and her leg turnover smooth.

“Surprisingly, I felt really good throughout, really strong throughout,” Houlihan said.  “I was able to just stay calm and kind of, you know, in my mind, me and my teammates were were just going out for a six-mile tempo.”

By the seventh kilometer, Schweizer had drifted back leaving only Huddle, Tuliamuk, Hall, Houlihan and Cragg in the lead pack.  Behind them, Bruce, Blaney and Frerichs had moved up to 9th, 10th and 11th place, respectively.  Those five stayed together through 8-K (26:31.1), and only Cragg –a 2:21 marathoner– had drifted off the pace leaving only four women to battle for the win.  Houlihan waited for about 600 meters to go before making her move.  She sealed the victory with a 3:02.1 final kilometer, capped off by a blazing, downhill sprint to the finish.  She was timed in 32:46.8, a course and championships record (the women’s championships distance was changed to 10 km from 8 km in 2016).

“I didn’t really know what to expect coming into here,” a clearly delighted Houlihan said.  “I kind of gave myself a little leeway ’cause it’s not really my event, at all: first time doing a 10-K and on the grass.  If I bomb, that’s fine; I don’t really have any expectations.  I did want to win, so to be able to come out here and do that is pretty cool.”

Huddle finished second in 32:55.3, and was pleased with her performance.  She won’t be going to Aarhus, she confirmed, as those championships don’t fit with her London Marathon preparations.

“I’m happy with this,” said the former Notre Dame athlete who was fourth at last November’s TCS New York City Marathon in a personal best 2:26:44.  “Any time I can at least stay with Shelby until 600 to go is a good day.”

Third place went to Hall (32:56.5) followed by Tuliamuk (33:03.3) and Cragg (33:17.5).  Frerichs, the steeplechaser, moved up from 9th place at 8-K to sixth place at the finish, getting the final guaranteed team spot.  However, with both Huddle and Tuliamuk confirming today that they will not run World Cross, Schweizer (7th) and Bruce (8th) will make the team.  Preliminary information from sources at the course indicated that all of the Nike Bowerman Track Club women would take their team spots.

Only two women’s teams scored: Nike Bowerman Track Club, 12 points and Hoka Northern Arizona Elite, 27 points.

KIPCHIRCHIR RIDES ARMY BRIGADE TO VICTORY

In the men’s 10-K, three athlete wearing the U.S. Army colors –brothers Emmanuel and Hilary Bor, and Leonard Korir– set a hard, early pace.  The race broke up quickly, and through halfway (14:19.7) only three other athletes –Shadrack Kipchirchir, Stanley Kebenei and Garrett Heath– were able to stay in the lead pack.  Kipchirchir, who used to be part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, knew his rivals well and was content to run on their heels.

“They are amazing, man,” Kipchirchir said of the Army runners.  “Those Army guys, those are the strongest guys you’ve ever met.  They are so stubborn, really strong mentally. I was in the group before, so I know those guys are strong.”

But Kipchirchir, who has a 3:54.71 mile to his credit, knew that he was faster.  If he could be patient, stay with the leaders to the final kilometer, he could out-leg them when the time came.

“I saw that it was clear, everything was clear,” Kipchirchir said of the final two kilometers of the race.  He waited for the last 400 meters show his speed.  “I waited and waited and took it on,” he said.

Kipchirchir was timed in 28:52.5, a course and championships record.  Emmanuel Bor finished second in 28:53.3, while two-time defending champion Leonard Korir had to settle for third in 28:55.3.  The last three guaranteed team spots went to Hillary Bor, Stanley Kebenei, and Scott Fauble.  However, Fauble told Race Results Weekly before the race that he would not take his team spot if her earned one because World Cross did not fit his Boston Marathon training schedule.  As such, the final team spot went to steeplechaser Mason Ferlic who finished seventh.

Garrett Heath, who was in sixth place through 6-K, struggled in the second half and finished 23rd.  Ben True, who finished sixth at World Cross in 2013, dropped out.  He had been suffering with the flu this week.

U20 TITLES TO COLLEGIANS ALJABALY AND CLERMONT

The under-20 titles went to two collegiate athletes, Shuaib Aljabaly of the University of Wisconsin and Nicole Clermont of Boston College.  Aljabaly, a freshman who finished 120th at the NCAA Cross Country Championships last November, won in the final sprint, clocking 24:38.7 for the 8-kilometer distance.

“The goal was to just qualify, but we talked about winning the race,” Aljabaly told Race Results Weekly.  “Both of my coaches told me, you know, if you’re going to win be the last one to make the move.”

Clermont, also a freshman, worked with teammate Kayla Smith to get the win.  The women, who are roommates, finished one-two in 21:14.0 and 21:18.2, respectively.

“She’s my roommate, best friend,” Clermont said of Smith.  She continued: “I never believe in myself or give myself credit.  I finally felt like I did that today.”

Finishing fourth was Grace Ping, a tenth-grader from Cotter High School in Winona, Minn.  She is only 15 years-old, and is on her high school’s cross country ski team.  That’s how she got fit for these championships, she said.

“I just tried to stick with the top-6 throughout the race, and tried to push it in the last mile,” she said.  “I really worked my fitness and endurance.”

The site of the 2020 USA Cross Country Championships has not yet been determined by USA Track & Field.  However, the event will likely be held in January to conform to the new IAAF calendar, an official told Race Results Weekly.