Huddle, Houlihan, Cragg, Frerichs, Rowbury & More: The Best Fields In Years Should Make for an Epic 2019 USA XC Champs
January 31, 2019
Here’s something we don’t get to say that often: we’re really excited for the USATF Cross Country Championships.
Here at LetsRun.com, we love cross country more than anyone, but the fact is many of American distance running’s biggest stars have skipped this meet in recent years. Galen Rupp, the best American distance runner of his generation, ran USA XC last year, but that was his only appearance in 10 years as a professional. He’s never run World XC. Likewise for Evan Jager, whose appearance at USA XC last year was his first XC race since high school. Since the start of 2011, 12 Americans have medalled in a distance event at Worlds or the Olympics (9 if you don’t count the 1500). Of those 12, just one — Emily Infeld — has also run at World XC during that span. Of the 12 men and women who ran the senior races for Team USA at the last World XC in Uganda, only two — Leonard Korir and Shadrack Kipchirchir — had ever made a US team on the track.
This year, things are different. In the women’s race alone, we’ve got the American record holder in the 5,000 (who also happens to be one of the world’s best 1500 runners) in Shelby Houlihan, the former American record holder in the 5,000 in Shannon Rowbury, the American record holder in the 10,000/half marathon in Molly Huddle (who was also the American record holder at 5,000 before Rowbury), two reigning World Championship medalists in Courtney Frerichs and Amy Cragg, the most recent NCAA XC champ to turn pro in Karissa Schweizer, and a 2016 Olympian in Marielle Hall. Now that’s a field to get excited about!
And what’s more, almost all of those women seem interested in running World XC (Huddle likely will not), assuming they make the team by finishing in the top six in Tallahassee on Saturday. Throw in some depth behind them in Rachel Schneider (2nd in 2018 USA 5,000), Laura Thweatt (1st and 2nd in her last two USA XC appearances), Aliphine Tuliamuk (15th at 2017 World XC), Kellyn Taylor (2:24 marathon last year), and Stephanie Bruce (22nd at 2017 World XC), and that’s a team with medal potential at World XC.
The men’s race isn’t quite as stacked, but there’s still some top talent there in Korir and Kipchirchir (20th and 21st at 2017 World XC), Ben True (6th at 2013 World XC, when he led the American team to silver in the “Miracle on Dirt”), Hillary Bor, Drew Hunter, Stanley Kebenei, Scott Fauble, and Garrett Heath. Of course, we’d love to see guys like Paul Chelimo, Hassan Mead, Jager, and Rupp (if he were healthy) give it a go, but for a 10k cross country race, that’s a solid start list. Only seven Americans have broken 28:00 in the last two years; six of them (Korir, Kipchirchir, Kebenei, Heath, Abbabiya Simbassa, Diego Estrada) will be running USA XC.
Race details below, followed by previews of the men’s and women’s races.
What: 2018 USATF Cross Country Championships
When: Saturday, February 2. Women’s race at 12:20 p.m. ET, men’s race at 1:10 p.m. ET.
Where: Apalachee Regional Park, Tallahassee, Florida
How to watch: Live here via USATF.TV+ (We’re pretty sure it’s behind a paywall but the USATF.TV site isn’t entirely clear)
Women’s Race: Who Will Prevail in a Battle Royale?
One of our favorite things about cross country is the randomness: yes, you still have to be fit, but the different conditions and courses can partially offset talent discrepancies and lead to upsets such as the US men’s Miracle on Dirt in 2013. And while the course (gradual hills) and conditions (high of 68, showers, 79% humidity) in Tallahassee on Saturday shouldn’t be that crazy — we’ll have to wait until the mud and hills of Aarhus for that — there is still a degree of randomness in play on Saturday in that no one quite knows who is in the best shape at this point on the calendar. Heck, even some of the athletes themselves don’t know what to expect. When we spoke to Houlihan for this week’s LetsRun podcast, she admitted that she was in uncharted territory — her first-ever 10k race, and her first XC race since NCAA XC in 2014. Given she’s the American record holder in the 5,000, we expect her to make the team. But you never quite know until she gets out there on the course.
Huddle returns for her first XC race in seven years
If everyone in this field showed up in peak fitness, we’d take Huddle, even if, as her coach Ray Treacy admits, “her cross country history really, over the years, I don’t think it equates really to her road racing or track running.”
Indeed, Huddle has won a staggering 27 US titles across the track and roads, but none in cross country; she’s finished 5th, 2nd, 2nd, and 2nd in four USA XC appearances, the most recent in 2012.
“She’s always loved cross country,” Treacy says. “She feels it challenged her. I think she felt she always hurt a lot more in cross country races than she did in any other races.”
But the fact remains that Huddle is the American record holder in the 10k and she’s won four straight US 10k titles on the track. The distance suits her more than anyone else in the field, and she’s unafraid to take races by the scruff of the neck and grind for 20-30 minutes, something she may have to do to win on Saturday. Additionally, Huddle has always been someone who races with purpose. Huddle doesn’t show up to a race to get clobbered, so the fact that she’s even running this race shows that she means business.
Curious fans may wonder why Huddle didn’t return to the Houston Half this year after breaking the American record there last year. Treacy says it was because she didn’t want to get back to racing a half quite that soon after running the NYC Marathon in November. He also revealed that, while Huddle and Emily Sisson (who ran 67:30 in Houston earlier this month) are both based in Scottsdale right now for warm-weather training, they’ve been on different schedules; while they’ll get together for easy runs, they haven’t actually worked out with each other since the fall. And Treacy anticipates that will continue this winter/spring, even as both prepare to run the London Marathon in April.
“We’ll have to approach it from different angles,” Treacy says. “Molly has run a couple of marathons already. We know what works for her now. Emily showed nice promise in the half marathon, but the half marathon doesn’t tell you anything about the marathon so we’ve got to make that sure we don’t go over the redline with her in terms of doing [too] much. I just want to keep her training well like she did for Houston and step on the line relatively fresh to run a good, solid first marathon.”
As mentioned above, Huddle likely won’t run World XC if she makes the team. Treacy says this is for two reasons:
1) The course in Aarhus doesn’t play to Huddle’s strengths
2) Skipping World XC allows Huddle to get her 10k qualifier for Worlds (the Stanford Invite is the same weekend). Treacy said it would be much easier to knock out the standard in March rather than worrying about trying to squeeze it in between recovering from London (April 28) and gearing up for USAs (July 25-28). We guess we should remind people that a top-15 showing at World XC would also qualify Huddle for the Worlds 10,000. That being said, while Huddle has twice been top 20 at World XC, she’s never been top 15 (17th in 2011, 19th in 2010).
How about the Bowerman Babes?
We love that Jerry Schumacher is sending a squad to run USA XC. And while we don’t know for sure whether they’ll all do World XC (that’s for Schumacher to decide in the coming weeks), really, for long-distance athletes like Frerichs, Schweizer, and Hall, it doesn’t make sense not to do it (assuming they are selected). USA outdoors aren’t until late July, and Worlds aren’t until late September/October. You need to do something between now and then, but you don’t want to start the track season too early. So why not zero in on World XC (March 30), take a break to recharge in April, and come back refreshed and ready to start hitting the track season hard in June? If there was ever a schedule set up for Americans to do World XC, it’s this one.
The question is, how many of the Bowerman Babes (Frerichs, Schweizer, Hall, Houlihan, Cragg) actually make the team? (Remember, since Huddle won’t be going, they don’t need to worry about beating her).
We’d set the over/under at 3.5. Obviously, all of those women are super talented, but Thweatt and Bruce are proven XC runners; Bruce, the top returner from last year, actually beat Frerichs by 21 seconds at this meet in 2018 (though she did manage only 15:44 on the track last week in Boston, a mark the Bowerman Babes are all more than capable of hitting). And then there are speed-oriented runners like Schneider who could steal a spot if it comes down to a kick.
We’re also fascinated to see what Rowbury does. After giving birth last year, she ran 9:03 in her 2019 opener in Seattle on January 12. That’s far from prime Rowbury, but it’s not bad, especially if she’s really focusing on USA XC (and she appears to be; her agent Ricky Simms tells us that Rowbury will run World XC if selected). She’s also got the second-fastest 5k PR in the field at 14:38, a time she ran just 2.5 years ago. She has to be viewed as a serious threat here, though it’s been a while since she’s stepped foot on a cross country course.
How long has it been? Rowbury’s last XC appearance came in a race that hasn’t existed for over a decade: she was 11th in the short race (4k) at the 2006 USA XC champs.
UPDATE: Agent Dan Lilot points out that Rowbury ran the USATF Pacific Association XC champs in November (she finished 6th). Saturday will be her first USA XC champs since 2006.
LRC prediction: Huddle wins, with Houlihan second. Four BTC members make the team.
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Men’s Race: More WCAP/American Distance Project Domination?
Scott Simmons‘ WCAP/American Distance Project group has crushed it at this meet the last two years with its stable of Kenyan-born stars. That makes sense, because if there is one word that comes to mind when we say World XC, it is “Kenya” — they’ve won 24 of the last 29 men’s team titles (and that despite the fact that Ethiopia has won the last three). In 2017, WCAP/ADP went 1-2-3-4 with Leonard Korir, Stanley Kebenei, Shadrack Kipchirchir, and Sam Chelanga, and last year they finished 1-3-6 with Korir edging out Rupp to repeat as champion and Kebenei and Abbabiya Simbassa following behind. All of those WCAP/ADP guys will be back in 2019 save Chelanga, who retired from the sport last year. Plus there’s Hillary Bor, who may just be the fittest of the bunch after beating Korir and others to win the Great Stirling XC earlier this month (he was also second at Club Cross in December). Meanwhile, only one other man who finished in the top 5 in ’17 or ’18 is back in 2019 — Martin Hehir, the former Syracuse runner who now competes for the Reebok Boston Track Club and was 5th last year.
Based on past accomplishments, either Kipchirchir or Korir would seem to be the pick here. Korir is a 27:20 guy and the two-time defending champion. Kipchirchir is a 27:07 guy — Rupp and Chris Solinsky are the only Americans to have run faster over 10,000 meters. Between those two, we lean toward Kipchirchir. He hasn’t raced in three months, but his last race went very well — a clear second behind Chelimo at the US 5k road champs. Korir, meanwhile, finished 16 seconds behind Kipchirchir in that race and was 4th at the Great Stirling XC (though he was only one second behind 1st, so maybe he’ll fare better over 10k on Saturday).
Ben True is another guy who has had success in both XC and on the track. He was famously 6th at World XC in 2013 — no American man has finished higher since 1984 — and still has some wheels at age 33 as he ran 13:04 on the track in August. His coach Ray Treacy also says True’s recent training has been “very, very good.” The biggest concern with True is that he was sick earlier this week. As long as that didn’t set him back too much, he’s a good bet to make the team, where the course in Aarhus is a nice fit for him.
Scott Fauble, coming off a 7th-place finish at the NYC Marathon (he wrote a book about it, did you hear?) was 8th at USA XC the last two years and 36th at World XC in 2017 (second non-African-born finisher). Fauble won’t be running World XC even if he makes it (he’s running the Boston Marathon two weeks later), but his coach Ben Rosario is excited about his prospects this weekend.
“He’s really good and fit, he’s only 11 weeks out from Boston,” Rosario says. “I’d say he’s in almost the same shape now that he was [when he finished 2nd] at the Falmouth Road Race last summer. And he can really take a swing at it because he’s not going to take the spot [to World XC].”
Garrett Heath had a lot of XC success from 2014-16 (three straight wins in Edinburgh) but has tailed off a little of late; he was 5th at Club Cross and Great Stirling.
There is also the pro XC debut of Drew Hunter, who, for what it’s worth, is the only guy in the field with a Foot Locker high school XC title. We’re VERY excited to see him return to XC and a distance race. Hunter, 21, was the second-fastest American in the 1500 last year at 3:35.90, but we’ve never viewed him as a miler, nor has his coach Tom “Tinman” Schwartz, who in HS compared Hunter to two-time World XC champ Craig Virgin. Hunter is coming back from injury and has never run a 10k on any surface, so making the team will be a challenge for him against a bunch of older, distance-oriented foes, but we love that he’s back in a longer race and not afraid to mix it up in XC.
2012 Olympians Donn Cabral (who also made the team in ’16) and Diego Estrada (who competed for Mexico in ’12) are also in the race.
LRC prediction: This is really a toss-up. Kipchirchir and Korir have the pedigree, but Bor is in great form and True is a fierce competitor with serious XC chops. That should make for an exciting race. We’ll go Kipchirchir FTW, but a bunch of guys will be in with a shot.
One more note: If True and Hunter don’t make the team, it’s very possible we could see an all-African-born US squad at World XC in Denmark. Bor, Korir, and Kipchirchir will all be favored to make it, while Kebenei, Simbassa, and Emmanuel Bor all have a decent shot as well.
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