By Jonathan Gault
November 14, 2018
When assessing the contenders for the women’s individual title at the 2018 NCAA Cross Country Championships, one name stands out above the rest.
It’s not the defending champion, Ednah Kurgat of New Mexico, who, according to her coach Joe Franklin is “objectively fitter” than this time last year.
It’s not the woman who hasn’t lost a race (that she was trying to win) all season and will be running on her home course, Wisconsin’s Alicia Monson.
It’s not the woman who has won two NCAA titles on the track and finished 2nd and 4th in her two previous NCAA XC appearances, Boise State’s Allie Ostrander.
It’s Kurgat’s New Mexico teammate, Weini Kelati, the tiny Eritrean dynamo who loves to push herself to her limits every time she steps on a cross country course.
Kelati, who moved to Virginia at age 17 in 2014 and won the 2015 Foot Locker title as a high schooler, finished second to Monson in her season opener at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational on September 28. Since then, she’s laid waste to every field she’s come across, leaving would-be several NCAA title contenders in her trail of destruction. The gory details:
Pre Nats White race, October 13: Beat Kurgat to win by 12.2 seconds
Mountain West champs, October 26: Beat Kurgat by 18.1 seconds and Ostrander by 25.0 to win
Mountain Regional, November 9: Beat Kurgat to win by 16.7 seconds
She’s also growing more and more confident. She made her winning move at Pre-Nats with under a kilometer to go, but at Mountain West she moved with a mile go to, and at the Mountain Regional, she went with around 3k to go. It will be hard to drop the rest of the country with 3k to go at NCAAs, but considering the margins of victory she’s racked up over Kurgat — the defending champion and a title threat in her own right — that scenario is on the table.
If all this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s exactly what Kurgat was doing last year. In 2017, Kurgat won Nuttycombe (held on the same weekend as this year’s Pre-Nats) by 16.2 seconds and Mountain West by 12.9 seconds before chilling out at regionals and winning by “only” 2.6. And then she went out at NCAA meet in Louisville and ran a championship record of 19:19.5 to win by 7.5 seconds. Usually when an athlete is destroying quality fields, it means they’re going to win the NCAA title. Kelati is destroying quality fields in 2018.
Keep Your Friends Close…But Not Too Close
Here’s the craziest thing about roommates and best friends Weini Kelati and Ednah Kurgat: they haven’t run a workout together since mid-September. This is by design. It’s something coach Joe Franklin has been doing with the Lobos since 2015, and it seems to be working: the Lobos have won two of the last three national titles.
“So many times in sport, you’re compared to people,” Franklin says. “So if Jane Doe is having a great workout and you’re not feeling so good, then you tend to think you had a bad day running. And you may have not had a bad day [but] somebody was feeling good and you weren’t. It takes away the comparisons.
“…It was just years and years of having people coming in after a Tuesday session and be really upset when they had a great workout, it’s just their friend who may be their roommate or a good friend, had a better workout — objectively a better workout, but subjectively it wasn’t necessarily a better workout.”
The result when Franklin tried it in 2015 was four women in the top 15, five in the top 24, 49 points and the unofficial title of Greatest NCAA Women’s XC Team of All Time. Last year, the Lobos won again and Kurgat claimed the individual title.
So when Franklin assigned his runners three sets of 400-mile-400 four days after UNM’s conference meet, he had Kelati run with a male runner, Kurgat with someone on a bike, Charlotte Prouse by herself, Adva Cohen with Hannah Nuttall and Sophie Eckel with Emily Martin.
And Franklin is pleased with what he saw. In that workout, Kelati and Kurgat were “heads and shoulders above what they were last year” and Franklin says that both are better than in 2017.
“[Weini] and Ednah, objectively, are in the best shape they’ve been in,” Franklin says. “…From an objective standpoint, looking at training and workouts and things like that, absolutely.”
If you follow NCAA cross country, then you know that the NCAA XC meet does not always go according to form. Missouri’s Karissa Schweizer came out of nowhere to win the women’s title in 2016; the next year, with NCAA indoor and outdoor, she was, on paper, far more likely to win and finished 11th. She wasn’t hurt. She wasn’t sick. She just had an off day at the wrong time. If it can happen to Schweizer and Jenny Simpson — one of the greatest American distance runners ever who suffered a total breakdown and finished 163rd in 2009 — then it can happen to anyone.
So who could beat Kelati? Well, obviously, Kurgat. She won it last year, and if, as Franklin says, she is in better shape than last year, then she is clearly a threat.
Alicia Monson is also a serious title contender as the only “unbeaten” woman in the NCAA this year (she ran Pre-Nats with her team and did not try to win) and the only person to defeat Kelati (she beat her by 2.6 seconds at Nuttycombe in September). Monson has been the surprise of the 2018 XC season. Only 139th at NCAAs last year, she broke out during the track season, lowering her 5k PR from 16:04 to 15:38 and finishing 18th at NCAAs. This fall, she’s jumped another level.
But Monson’s coach Jill Miller says that’s the wrong way to look at it.
“If you look at her progression over the last three years, it’s really been baby steps in improvements,” Miller says. “The outlier would be the end of the cross country season last year where her iron levels dropped and we missed it. And she still gave us everything we had but we had to fix that issue for her. When you look at it, like okay, she finishes 139th at NCAA cross but then by February she runs 15:47 for 5k. So her fitness was there. As everybody knows who’s dealt with that, the fitness can be there, but you can’t get to that next gear.”
Now Monson takes iron pills three times a day, and Miller says that she’s also taken her recovery to the next level this fall — “I’ve never had an athlete that recovers as quick as she does.” Unbeaten and running on her home course, Monson will be dangerous.
Boise State’s Allie Ostrander has to be viewed as a contender because of her résumé (15:21 5k pb, 2 NCAA steeple titles, 2nd and 4th at NCAA XC in ’15 and ’17), but it’s hard to make the case for her after she finished just 5th at Nuttycombe and was spanked by Kelati at the Mountain West meet (though she did win last weeks’ West Regional by 13.5 seconds). Perhaps Ostrander is saving her best for last, but her best may not be enough against Kelati.
Other names to watch
- Dani Jones, senior, Colorado: The winner of the Pac-12 title the last two years, Jones was 10th at NCAAs last year and 4th at Nuttycombe this year. Her savage kick (4:07 1500 pb) allowed her to capture NCAA 3k and DMR titles in 2017. Kelati, Kurgat, et al. would be smart to drop her before the final straight as she’s tough to beat in a sprint.
- Jessica Hull, senior, Oregon: Jones barely outsprinted Hull by 0.6 of a second to win the Pac-12 title three weeks ago. Hull also won the Cardinal race at Pre-Nats this year. Like Jones, you don’t want to face her in a kick as Hull is the NCAA 1500 champion.
- Sharon Lokedi, senior, Kansas: The NCAA 10k champ, Lokedi has finished 10th at NCAA XC in 2015 and 5th in 2016 (she was only 44th last year). But Lokedi was only 6th at Pre-Nats and, more concerningly, just 5th at the Big 12 meet. It’s hard to go from 5th at your conference meet to 1st at NCAAs.
- Dorcas Wasike, junior, Louisville: If you’re looking for a dark horse at NCAAs, Wasike is it. Even though she’s lost only once all year (3rd at Pre-Nats White behind Kelati and Kurgat), the Kenyan, who was second in the NCAA 10k final in June, isn’t quite generating the same buzz as some of the other women in this article. But with wins at ACCs and the Southeast Regional, she’s an obvious pick for the top 10.
LRC prediction: If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably figured out our pick. Weini Kelati is winning by colossal margins, and those wins are too much to ignore. She’s our pick FTW. It would be the first time the same school produced back-to-back NCAA champs (that weren’t the same athlete) since Villanova in 1991 (Sonia O’Sullivan) and 1992 (Carole Zajac).
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