March 23, 2017
KAMPALA, Uganda — Team USA is going for the gold.
LetsRun.com arrived in Uganda this afternoon for the 2017 IAAF World Cross Country Championships, which will be held at Kololo Independence Grounds on Sunday. On our flight from Nairobi to Uganda was none other than U.S. cross country champion Leonard Korir, who was traveling to the meet after spending 10 days training at altitude in Iten, Kenya. We got a chance to chat with Korir and when the subject of Sunday’s race came up, he was shy about his personal goal,s but not about the goals of Team USA. Korir told us he believes that the Americans can defy history and claim team gold in the men’s senior race — something they have never achieved in the 41 previous editions of the race.
While Ben True and Chris Derrick helped lead Team USA earn a surprise silver medal in the “Miracle on Dirt” in 2013, the U.S. men’s team doesn’t have a track record of success as a team at this meet. Since 1986, they’ve only finished earned a team medal twice, with the other time being in 2001 when Bob Kennedy, Meb Keflezighi and Abdi Abdirahman led the Americans to bronze. Over the past 10 editions, the U.S. team has posted an average finish of 8.9 in the men’s senior race, and no American squad male or female has won team gold at any level since the senior women did it 30 years ago in Warsaw. Granted, U.S. distance running has improved vastly over the past decade, but that’s still a major leap.
Korir, however, is hoping that the U.S.’s gold drought will end on Sunday. While traditional powerhouses Kenya and Ethiopia both boast formidable squads, the Kenyans could have depth issues and given the fact that the top four finishers at the 2017 USA XC Championships were all born in Kenya, it might be logical to start thinking of America as a traditional power itself. One thing is clear, both Korir and his ADP/USA teammates believe they are ready to roll. Korir, Shadrack Kipchirchir, Sam Chelanga and Stanley Kebenei all run workouts together, and the quartet went 1-2-3-4 at both USA XC and the US 15K Champs two weeks ago. It’s not inconceivable that those four men (Trevor Dunbar and Scott Fauble are the other members of Team USA) could finish in the top 20 (the team score at World XC is the places of the first 4 from each country), which was enough to deliver team silver four years ago. Certainly within Team USA, there’s a strong belief that this can happen.
Even so, that may not be enough to overcome two-time defending champion Ethiopia, which is fronted by reigning bronze medallist Muktar Edris and features former 10,000 world champ Ibrahim Jeilan, rising star and Ethiopian champ Molla Getaneh and 26:57 man Abadi Hadis. To win would require the Americans to run above and beyond anything they have shown so far. On average, it’s taken 25 points to win the men’s team title over the last 10 years. That means something like 3-5-8-9. Could a guy like Kipchirchir — whose best finish at NCAA XC was 18th — really finish fifth in the world? That’s a big ask. Even if it’s a high scoring year, the U.S. would still need everything to go right to secure gold. No country has won gold with more than 39 points since number of scoring runners dropped from six to four in 1998, and even if you give Korir a medal in third (no sure thing considering no American has medalled in the men’s senior race since 1982), the three remaining runners have to average a 12th-place finish.
Korir is aiming high, but given the quality of the East African competition they’ll be facing, any U.S. medal should be viewed as a success. If the Americans can somehow win it all, they deserve a parade when they return stateside.
As for the individual race, no American male has won a medal since Alberto Salazar took silver 1982 (the only US male to ever win World XC was Craig Virgin in 1980 and 1981) but Korir certainly could change that. He has good reason to be confident about his own fitness, considering he has not lost a race since October. Korir began the year by outkicking Brit Callum Hawkins to win the Great Edinburgh XCountry on January 7 and has followed that with wins at the Houston Half Marathon (over Olympic silver medallist Feyisa Lilesa), the U.S. Cross Country Championships and, most recently, the U.S. 15K Champs in Jacksonville on March 11. Korir said his strategy on Sunday is to hang with the lead pack for as long as possible. If he’s still there at the end, he’s a legitimate threat to win — three of his four victories this year have come in sprint finishes.
Korir, who was 14th in the Olympic 10,000 final last year, has clearly reached another level in 2017. When he joined coach Scott Simmons‘ American Distance Project (ADP) at the start of 2016, he did so on the back of five months of basic training that severely limited his ability to train seriously for running. He still managed to make the U.S. Olympic team, and in Rio, he estimated that he was only at about 80% fitness. Korir hasn’t backed off since then and has been winning everything in sight this year. A team gold in Kampala, however, would top the lot.
LRC Quick Take: A team gold for the USA is a bold goal, but Scott Simmons’ group has shown they are not afraid to take on the best in the world. A lot of America’s top runners in years past haven’t even shown up at World XC, so it’s refreshing to see many of America’s best showing up and talking about gold.