Led by Laura Thweatt The American Women Have a Great Shot at Another World XC Medal

By LetsRun.com
March 26, 2015

After two years of waiting, the world’s hardest race to win (aka the “world’s greatest footrace”)  is almost upon us. On Saturday afternoon (late Friday/early Saturday morning in the U.S.), 444 athletes from 51 countries will assemble in Guiyang, China, for the 41st World Cross Country Championships. The combination of top-end talent, a challenging course and national pride means there isn’t another race quite like World XC anywhere on the planet. We’ll be previewing the races all week long and LetsRun.com’s Robert Johnson will be providing on-site coverage from China.

In our final preview, we take a look at the American women, who will be shooting for their third medal in the past four editions of the championships. Race details below, followed by our preview.

What: 2015 IAAF World Cross Country Championships

When: Saturday, March 28 (late Friday night U.S. time)

Where: Guiyang, China

Entries * Official site * Local organizing committee site * 2013 LRC World XC coverage *Men’s international preview * Women’s international preview * U.S. men’s preview


Women’s junior 6K race: 12 midnight Friday night ET/9:00 p.m. Pacific
Men’s junior 8K race: 12:30 a.m. Saturday morning ET/9:30 p.m. Fri. night Pacific
Women’s senior 8K race: 1:15 a.m. ET/10:15 p.m. Pacific
Men’s senior 12K race: 2:10 a.m. ET/11:10 p.m. Pacific

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Universal Sports Network will have tape-delayed coverage starting at 12:00 p.m. ET on Sunday (a day later).

Important note: Guiyang sits at 4,183 feet of elevation. Since the top teams — save for the U.S. — all hail from countries whose athletes are no stranger to elevation (and the U.S. trials were held at 5,430 feet in Boulder), it may not make a huge impact but it is something to consider. Another thing to consider, Guiyang is one of China’s “least sunny major cities” and it gets a lot of precipitation. Rain is forecast for Friday and Saturday. Will the race be muddy and help “mudders”? LetsRun.com will be on site to tell you.

Meet Team USA

Name Previous World XC finishes Notable PRs Best NCAA XC finish Comment
Elaina Balouris none 15:46/32:40 (road) 11th 6th at USA XC; 25th at U.S. 15k Champs on 3/15
Brie Felnagle none 4:05/15:14 4th 3rd in 2-mile at USAs in last race on 3/1
Sara Hall 26th 2006 (short race) 15:20/32:14 (road) 3rd Struggled in marathon debut on 3/15 (2:48:02 in LA)
Jen Rhines 23rd 1999; 13th 2000; 27th 2001; 12th 2002 14:54/31:17 1st Won Tampa Half on 2/22 (72:35); 6th at U.S. 15k Champs
Mattie Suver 26th 2013 32:29/71:51 40th 7th at U.S. Half Champs & 15k Champs
Laura Thweatt none 15:04/32:15/71:02 58th U.S. XC champ finished as runner-up at 15k Champs

The path to a medal will be a lot easier for the United States than it was two years ago in Poland, where the Americans finished fourth with 90 points. Third-place Bahrain isn’t sending a team this year. Fifth-place Ireland? Gone. Sixth-place France? Nope. Seventh-place Great Britain? They’re not here either.

That’s right. Of the top seven teams from World XC two years ago, only Kenya (1st), Ethiopia (2nd) and the U.S. (4th) are sending teams to China (France and GB are sending one and two individuals, respectively, not enough to field a scoring team). That gives the Americans — who earned the bronze in 2010 and 2011 — a great chance to secure another team medal on Saturday. First and second are all but locked up (Kenya and Ethiopia have gone 1-2 in 17 of the last 18 championships) but third is theirs for the taking. Unlike on the men’s side, it’s actually common for a non-African team to medal. Since 2003, Kenya and Ethiopia have gone 1-2 every year but the USA (three times), Great Britain, Portugal (twice), Japan and Australia have all medalled in the senior women’s race (Bahrain has too but its team was composed entirely of African-born athletes).

There are a few teams who could challenge the Americans. Spain took silver at the European XC Champs in December (behind Great Britain) and has a couple of solid runners in Iris Fuentes-Pila (7th at Euro XC) and Diana Martin (bronze at Euros in the steeple last summer in 9:30). Japan is led by Maki Izumida (71:26 half marathon on March 15) but with four women age 21 or under, it is probably a bit too green to challenge the U.S. Canada is the fourth returning team from two years ago (it was eighth in Poland) but the American roster is stronger at every spot #1 through #4.

It’s simple, really. A good race from Team USA will get them on the podium. But if a few Americans have bad days, they could fall to fourth or fifth.

Laura Thweatt Wins USATF Cross Country 2015 Thweatt made it look easy in Boulder last month

Thweatt Success

Though the U.S. doesn’t have an individual medal contender, U.S. champ Laura Thweatt has a legitimate shot to finish in the top 10 with a good race. Thweatt is a great story as she graduated from Colorado in 2011 without qualifying for NCAAs on the track and with a best NCAA XC finish of just 58th. Thweatt’s biggest problem at CU was staying healthy, but once she was able to do that, she steadily improved and elected to stay in Boulder and run for the Boulder Track Club under Lee Troop. She broke through with a win at Club Cross Country Nationals in December 2013 and reached a new level last year, running a huge PR of 15:04.98 for 5,000 at Payton Jordan (a time that ranked her fourth in the country in 2014).

To really understand how far Thweatt has come, just look at season best 5,000 times since 2008:

2008: 16:52.63
2009: 16:59.39
2010: 16:11.55
2011: 15:57.24
2012: 15:43.32
2013: 15:36.85
2014: 15:04.98

Thweatt enters World XC on a roll. She repeated at Club Cross in December and followed that up with a dominant victory at USA XC, winning by 31 seconds. And two weeks ago, she took second behind Amy Cragg (Hastings) at the U.S. 15K Championships. With her background at altitude (she’s lived and trained in Colorado her entire life) and cross country success, Thweatt should be the U.S.’s top finisher on Saturday and has a chance at a top-10 finish. A good goal for Thweatt would be top 15, which would give her the World Championship standard for the 10,000 (it’s 32:00; Thweatt’s pb is 32:15).

Solid Depth, But a Few Question Marks

Behind Thweatt, the U.S. has three runners who have run fairly consistently this year and should be good for a finish in the 20s or 30s. The runner-up at the trials, Mattie Suver, was seventh at the U.S. Half Marathon Champs in January (71:51) and seventh again two weeks ago at the U.S. 15K Champs in Jacksonville. Suver was the U.S.’s third finisher two years ago in Poland (26th overall) and another finish like that will help the Americans on Saturday.

One of the surprises of last month’s U.S. Championships was Brie Felnagle‘s fourth-place finish. Felnagle, the 2007 NCAA 1500 champ at North Carolina, competed primarily as a miler last year (her longest race as a 2-mile at the Pre Classic) but decided to focus on XC this winter with no World Indoor Champs. The decision paid off as she made her first U.S. XC team in Boulder and while her training has been geared toward World XC, she still ran well at USA Indoors on March 1, taking third in the 2-mile behind Shannon Rowbury and Jordan Hasay. She’s yet to have a bad race this year; Felnagle will hope that continues this weekend.

40-year-old Jen Rhines has more World XC experience than the rest of the U.S. team put together, and she’s always run well here with a lowest finish of 27th in four appearances. The only issue is that the most recent of those appearances — a 12th-place showing in Dublin — came 13 years ago. Matching that performance will be a tough ask, but Rhines has three solid races under her belt in 2015 (USA XC, a 72:35 win at the Gasparilla Half Marathon and a sixth-place finish at the U.S. 15K Champs) and with experience at three Olympic Games, Rhines will be unfazed by the competition. We spoke to her before the race (video below) and she said that she’d love to be in the top 20 but her main goal is to help the team and that to do that she’ll likely employ a less-aggressive race plan than when she was shooting for a top-10 finish 10-15 years ago.

Bernard Lagat receives a lot of press — rightfully so — for his achievements at age 40, but Rhines (who is five months older than Lagat) deserves some love too. She said she’s planning on getting back on the track this year and would like to get down to 15:25. The current U.S. masters record on the track is 16:02.27, which Rhines should break easily considering she ran 16:00 on the roads last year.

Suver, Felnagle and Rhines have been consistently successful in 2015. The wildcards are the final two members of the squad, Sara Hall and Elaina Balouris, who have been up and down in their last few races. Both ran well in Boulder to make the team (Hall was fifth, Balouris sixth) but their next races did not go according to plan as Hall struggled to a 2:48:02 in her debut marathon in Los Angeles and Balouris was only 25th at the U.S. 15K Champs. The U.S. will be hoping both will be able to bounce back on Saturday and be able to pick up the slack if one of the top four from the trials has an off day.

We were able to speak to Hall in China and she was upbeat about her chances despite her poor showing in her marathon debut two weeks ago.

“One thing I had in my favor as far as [World XC] was just in the marathon it was like my legs — the muscles — that went, but it was never a hard cardiovascular effort (she ran 7:35 pace from 30k to the finish),” Hall said. “I couldn’t run fast, my legs weren’t really letting me. I just focused my efforts on getting those muscles going again and knowing that I hadn’t really been taxed that much energy-wise.”

Two years ago, Deena Kastor pulled the LA Marathon/World XC double — with just one week in between — and wound up 34th at World XC after running 2:32:39 in LA, a fact Hall used as inspiration for coming back in a short time period.

“I was like, “If she can do it in one week, hopefully I can do it in two,” Hall said, “although she’s a much more seasoned marathoner than I am.”

To take home a medal, the U.S. will have to score around 70 points (that’s the average score by the third-place team in the last four championships). Something like 10-15-20-25 would get the job done. It’s not going to be a cakewalk — the U.S. will need a good race from Thweatt up front and one or two other runners to step up — but given the departure of several of the top teams, placing in the top 25 is going to be easier than it was two years ago. Kenya and Ethiopia aside, the U.S. probably has the best chance of anyone to medal.

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