By Jonathan Gault, with additions by Robert Johnson
February 4, 2015
2015 is an odd-numbered year, which means there will be a World Cross Country Championships this March. In the last edition, held in Bydgoszcz, Poland, the the American men stunned the running world, and pulled the ‘Miracle on Dirt’, by defeating Kenya and earning the silver medal in the team competition, led by top-10 finishes from Ben True and Chris Derrick.
Team USA will be hoping for a similar performance in this year’s championships, to be held in Guiyang, China, on March 28. The first step toward that race will take place at Saturday’s U.S. Cross Country Championships in Boulder, where the top six finishers will book their tickets to China.
Both True and Derrick return, as does the U.S.’s #3 man from 2013 World XC, Ryan Vail. None of the remaining three runners from that squad (Bobby Mack, Elliott Heath and James Strang) will compete in Boulder this weekend, so the Americans will have a slightly different look in Guiyang this year. But replace #4 man Mack, who was 19th at World XC in ’13 (only four runners score) with a guy like Garrett Heath or Dathan Ritzenhein and the U.S. team figures to be very strong in Guiyang.
Of course, it’s foolish to start making projections about World XC before the U.S. trials have been run, and this preview is focused on determining which guys have the best shot at making the U.S. team. Below, we give the key details on the event, followed by the men you should be watching for on Saturday.
What: 2015 USATF Cross Country Championships
Where: Flatirons Golf Course, Boulder, Colorado
When: Saturday, February 7 (all times MT; for ET, add two hours)
Junior women (6K): 10:55 a.m.
Junior men (8K): 11:30 a.m.
Open women (8K): 12:15 p.m.
Open men (12K): 1:00 p.m.
All four races will be shown live online at USATF.TV. The broadcast begins at 10:50 a.m. MT.
Anyone who will be in Boulder on Saturday should also plan on attending the afterparty at Absinthe House, hosted by Sara and Steve Slattery. The event starts at 7 p.m.; for more details, click here.
The Former Champions
Two of the men entered in Saturday’s race have won this championship before; in fact, both have won it multiple times. The first is Chris Derrick, who will be going for the three-peat after titles in 2013 and 2014. Derrick, an NXN champion in high school and NCAA XC runner-up in college (to Lawi Lalang), has always been a strong cross country runner and showed that during his first full year as a pro, placing 10th at the World Cross Country Championships in 2013. He showed four weeks ago that he’s in good shape right now, leading Team USA to a dominant victory at the Great Edinburgh XCountry event by winning the men’s individual title in the 8K race. The competition will be stiffer in Boulder, but given Derrick’s history of success in cross country, his track credentials (2013 Team USA member at 10,000; USA runner-up at 10,000 last year), his racing chops, and perhaps most importantly his age (24) he enters as the favorite.
The other former champ is 32-year-old Dathan Ritzenhein, who claimed US titles in 2005, 2008 and 2010. Ritz, like Derrick, has proven to be an outstanding cross country runner throughout his career: he’s one of just three men to win a Foot Locker, NCAA and USA XC title (Bob Kennedy and Adam Goucher are the others). Ritz, like Derrick, appears to be in good form in 2015. He won the 10K Campaccio XC race in Italy on January 6 and came back four days later to finish third in the Great Edinburgh XCountry 4K, defeating the likes of Asbel Kiprop, Jairus Birech and 5,000 studs Edwin Soi and Thomas Longosiwa. Ritz has the most talent of anyone in the field, and when he’s healthy, he’s among the very best in the U.S. in any race longer than 10,000 meters. Ritz appears to be healthy right now, which means he has a very good chance to make the team. But can he win?
It’s worth noting that Ritz, a University of Colorado grad, has the advantage of having spent many years in Boulder training and racing at altitude. He’s also got one other thing going for him – extra motivation. At age 32, this might be his last shot to win a USA xc title. Moreover, the defeat he suffered in Boulder the last time it hosted a Worlds qualifier – 2007 – probably still stings.
The 2007 USA xc men’s race had U.S. distance running buzzing for weeks beforehand. All of Mark Wetmore‘s studly runners from years past showed up at home in Boulder – a 24-year-old Dathan Ritzenhein, a 26-year-old Jorge Torres, a 31-year-old Adam Goucher, and a 34-year-old Alan Culpepper. Ritz put the hammer down early and had eight seconds on the field at 7k, but in the end, in shocking fashion, the winner was the old man of the bunch and the only non-NCAA xc champion – Culpepper.
Might history repeat itself between Derrick and Ritz in 2015? Could Ritz usurp his younger, favored rival? He could, but one thing going against Ritz is the fact he’s in the midst of training for the Boston Marathon.
Derrick and Ritz are far from the only two potential winners, however.
Proven Cross-Country Guys
Both Ben True and Ryan Vail were key components of the U.S.’s silver medal-winning team in Poland, and though neither has won a USA XC title, each has a history of running well at the domestic championships. True has made the past two U.S. teams, in 2011 and 2013, while Vail has made the team the last three times he’s run USA XC (2009, 2010 and 2013).
Both are coming off the best years of their career in 2014 and there’s no reason to think they won’t make the squad for China on Saturday. True lowered his 5,000 pb to 13:02.74 (#9 all-time U.S.) and was competitive on the roads and on the Diamond League circuit. Vail enjoyed nice success on the track (13:28.11 5,000 pb, third at USAs in 10,000) and in the marathon (top-10 finishes in London & New York, with a 2:10:57 pb in London).
With no spring marathon on Vail’s docket, he’s been free to focus his training on USA XC, so expect a good effort from the Oklahoma State grad on Saturday. Both he and True are strong bets to make the team.
Heath gets his own category because of his unique situation. USA XC is usually an event that 1500 runners stay away from given the grueling 12K distance, but Heath has been so good in cross country over the past two years that it makes sense for him to run this race. Last year, he shockingly won the Great Edinburgh XCountry 4K race over guys like Asbel Kiprop and Kenenisa Bekele and he showed that victory was no fluke by prevailing at this year’s edition in sloppy conditions. In that race — which included reigning World XC champ Japhet Korir — Heath confidently dropped the field midway through the race and won handily. Twelve kilometers might be a bit long for someone whose best finish at NCAA XC was 33rd, but Heath has nothing to lose by doing this race. His 13:16 pb is better than most of the field and he’ll be brimming with confidence after his Edinburgh victory. Any finish from first through 20th is on the table.
It will be interesting to see what Heath does if he runs well in Boulder. Throughout his career, he’s focused on the 1500 outdoors, but hasn’t accomplished that much for someone with a 3:34.12 pb. Here’s his track record in the 1500 at USAs outdoors:
|2008||Did not make final|
|2009||Did not make final|
|2011||Did not run|
|2012||Did not make final|
|2013||Did not make final (6th in 5k)|
Heath’s struggles at USAs are more of a testament to the U.S.’s depth at 1500 than his failings as a runner, but when you factor his championship record at 1500, his 13:16 5,000 pb and his success in 4K cross country, it might be logical for Heath to try his luck in the 5,000 at USAs this year. He ran the event in 2013 at USAs, doubling back after getting eliminated from the 1500, and registered his highest finish at USA outdoors (sixth, though there were only nine runners in the race). With True, Andrew Bumbalough, Galep Rupp, Bernard Lagat, Ryan Hill, Hassan Mead and others, the 5,000 team isn’t exactly easy to make. But perhaps if the race goes slow at USAs, Heath can use his 1500 speed to sneak onto the team as Hill did in 2013. It’s worth considering, at the least.
College Guys to Watch
Stanford’s Maksim Korolev (4th at NCAA XC) and Arkansas’ Stanley Kebenei (6th) will both run here in the open race. To our knowledge, Kebenei doesn’t even have his U.S. citizenship yet (he underwent basic training in the U.S. Army last summer to accelerate his path to citizenship), so he we don’t know if he’d even be able to make the trip to China should he finish in the top six. Kebenei ran 13:48 for 5,000 two weeks ago; Korolev doesn’t have indoor eligibility so this will be the highlight of his winter season.
Top-10 Guys from Last Year
Here’s where the list gets trickier. The guys listed above are all fairly well-known and have enjoyed success across a variety of surfaces for a number of years. This category and the next two include guys who could make the team with a good race but aren’t anything close to a lock. Six of last year’s top 10 return, with Derrick a clear favorite to finish in the top 10 once again. The others are Joseph Gray (4th), Sean Quigley (5th), Patrick Smyth (7th), Jake Riley (8th) and Joe Moore (10th).
Of those six, Gray, Quigley and Riley have the best shot at making the team.
The 31-year old Gray won 4.1-mile Winter Classic XC race in Boulder last weekend against a decent field and Quigley was second. Gray, an accomplished mountain runner, has some success at XC as well as he won the U.S. Club Championships in 2013. The former Oklahoma State runner has very modest pbs of 14:19, 29:03 and 2:18:45.
The 29-year old Quigley, who ran collegiately at LaSalle, has much better PRs (13:27, 27:50 and 2:13:30). Based in Boulder, he will certainly be familiar with the Flatirons course.
The 26-year old Riley has had a nice winter of cross races already, taking second at club nationals (behind Ryan Hill) and the Great Edinburgh XCountry 8K (behind Derrick) and his pbs are more in line with Quigley (13:32, 28:08, 2:13:16).
Top-10 Guys from Club Nationals
The U.S. Club Cross Country Championships annually attract solid talent but rarely elites such as Derrick, True or Vail. A top-10 finish their represents a good performance, but its predictive power is unclear. In the past four years, 12 men have finished in the top 10 at club nats and gone on to run USA XC two months later. Of those 12, only four have finished in the top 10 at USA XC. All four instances occurred in either 2012 or 2014 (when there was no World XC to qualify for). The good news is that all four of those runners would have made the team for World XC had there been one (they were all top six). But for Craig Forys, Andrew Colley, Jonathan Grey and Joe Stilin (all of whom were top-10 at club cross), they’re fighting the odds to qualify on Saturday. Jake Riley was also top-10 at club cross but given that he was second in that race and has had other XC success (detailed above), he probably has a better chance than those four.
Other Pros Who Could Earn a Spot
- Bobby Curtis made the U.S. team in 2009 and 2010. His 27:46 10,000 was second in the U.S. last year and he was the top American at the 2014 Chicago Marathon in October in 2:11:20. A good race from Curtis, who has a 13:18 5000 pb, should see him onto the team, but his most recent effort was not encouraging. When he ran the 8K race in Edinburgh last month, he was just 10th overall. He lost to five Americans, four of whom will be racing in Boulder.
- Aron Rono (6th, 62:25) and Gabriel Proctor (10th, 63:13) were both in the top 10 at the U.S. Half Marathon Champs on January 18.
- Maverick Darling was third at the U.S. 5k road champs in Providence last fall and ran 7:46 for on the track. Making the team might be a bit of an ask.
The top American true freshman at NCAAs, Andrew Rafla of Boise St., highlights the junior race. Oklahoma State’s Cerake Geberkidane, who was the top American junior in Edinburgh ahead of Foot Locker and NXN 2nd placer Olin Hacker, is also in the field, as are top high schoolers John Dressel (6th Foot Lockers, committed to Colorado) and Conner Mantz (10th Foot Lockers).
The course won’t be as muddy or challenging as Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park, where several of the top American runners competed last month. The course is flat and simple (it’s a 2K loop that is run multiple times) and the weather forecast looks very good, with a projected high of 61 degrees (as of Tuesday). The biggest factor, of course, will be Boulder’s 5,430 foot elevation. It might not be a significant factor for top pros such as Derrick or True, but when it comes down to the battle for the final spots on Team USA, a runner’s comfort/experience with altitude could be the difference between a ticket to Guiyang and a ticket home. It does make sense to have the trials in Boulder, though, as World Cross will also be at elevation (Guiyang is at 4,183 feet).
What do you think? Tell us your thoughts on our messageboard discussion: MB: This Saturday: 2015 USA XC Champs! Who you got in loaded men’s field? Official discussion thread and vote in the poll below.