2022 USA XC Preview: Could Weini Kelati vs Alicia Monson Become US Distance Running’s Next Great Rivalry? Plus Molly Seidel Is Entered!

By Jonathan Gault
January 6, 2022

After last year’s edition was cancelled due to COVID-19, the USATF Cross Country Championships return on Saturday in San Diego. Mission Bay Park, which also hosted these championships in 2008, 2011, and 2020, is the site, and though there’s no World XC team to make (World XC was supposed to be in Australia this year but was postponed again until 2023), the women’s field is particularly strong.

Among the entries for this weekend:

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Molly Seidel, 2021 Olympic marathon bronze medalist
Weini Kelati, who spent the fall smashing road race records in the Northeast
Alicia Monson, 2021 Olympian who ran 14:42 (#4 US all-time) for 5,000 in September
Natosha Rogers, 2020 US XC champ and 2021 US Club XC champ
Emily Infeld, 2015 World Championship medalist and 2016 Olympian

If the US could send that team to Worlds next year, it would be in with a shot at a medal. And on Saturday, it should make for a compelling race to kick off the 2022 running calendar.

Here’s everything you need to know about this weekend’s event.

What: 2022 USATF Cross Country Championships
Where: Mission Bay Park, San Diego, Calif.
When: Saturday, January 8. Women’s race at 4 p.m. ET, men’s race at 4:50 p.m. ET.
How to watch: Live on USATF.TV (requires subscription)

Women’s race: Could we be witnessing the birth of a rivalry?

As strong as this field is, the guess here is that the title comes down to Kelati and Monson. Why? Let’s run down those bold names above.

Seidel would certainly be a factor here at top fitness. But she’s coming off a hectic second half of 2021 that saw her run two marathons in three months, the latter with two broken ribs. While Seidel plans on racing on Saturday, her agent Stephen Haas told LetsRun Seidel hasn’t been back training that long. Expectations should be tempered.

Same with Infeld, who told Kyle Merber in The Lap Count that she’s treating this race as a workout. It will be worth watching Infeld to see how she fares in her first race after nine years with the Bowerman Track Club (and to see what singlet she wears), but a repeat of her victory in this race from 2018 seems unlikely.

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Rogers is the athlete most likely to mix it up with the top two. She’s coming off a great 2021 in which she ran pbs for 5,000 (15:04) and the half marathon (69:36, which got her second at the US Half Champs) and capped it off by winning Club Cross on December 11 in Tallahassee. She also has the experience of winning on this course in 2020, but the last time she raced against Kelati, at the US road 5k champs on November 6, she lost by 30 seconds. And Kelati is a better 10k runner than 5k runner (USA XC is contested over 10k).

Based on 2021 accomplishments, Kelati and Monson are the two names on the start list that stands out, and both women will head into Saturday’s race in good shape.

“[Monson] just did her last harder workout [on Sunday],” said her coach Dathan Ritzenhein. “She ran 4:40 for her last mile up here [in Boulder] at the end of her 10k worth of work.”

Ritzenhein is impressed by what he’s seen this fall from Monson. She hasn’t had the killer workouts yet that set one up to run fast times on the track, but her training has taken a step forward from last fall (her first as a pro).

“She’s getting a lot of 7-8 miles worth of effort that they’re just faster than they were last year,” Ritzenhein said. “She looks better, she’s running a little bit more and she just overall looks stronger.”

Allie Ostrander, Weini Kelati, & Alicia Monson before 2018 NCAA XC

That has Ritzenhein excited as he believes Monson still has plenty of room for improvement — after all, she is still only 23 years old. But even if Monson is as good as she was in 2021 — when she made the Olympic team in the 10,000 and ran 14:48 and 14:42 on the track — she’ll be among the best in the country this year.

Kelati, meanwhile, is only six weeks removed from her remarkable, course-record-shattering run at the Manchester Road Race on Thanksgiving. Kelati averaged 14:59 5k pace in Manchester for 4.748 miles, a supreme display of fitness on a hilly course. Even after a short break, she owns considerable residual fitness.

“I made the decision after Manchester that we’d shut it down for a little while,” said Haas, who coaches Kelati. “So we haven’t been back training hard for that long at this point. But she’s stayed in Flag over Christmas and had a couple good workouts. We were able to get on the grass once as well, which I think will be helpful out there. I think we’re in a pretty good spot.”

Kelati vs. Monson should make for an exciting race not just on Saturday, but for years to come. Both have similar focuses this winter (hit a fast 5k somewhere, then the 3k at USA indoors) and their ages (Monson is 23, Kelati just turned 25) mean they should be among the best in the country for the next decade.

“I think they’ll have a lot of good battles over the years,” Ritzenhein said.

Plus they have a history. Both Kelati and Monson turned pro in 2020 after doing battle for three years at the collegiate level. They’ve already raced each other 17 times including twice at NCAA championships where one finished 1st and the other 2nd (Monson won the 2019 NCAA indoor 5k, Kelati was 2nd; Kelati won the 2019 NCAA XC meet, Monson was 2nd).

Kelati owns a 11-6 advantage (6-2 in cross country including that 2019 NCAA title), but this will be just the second time they’ve met with a US title on the line, and it would mean a lot to both women — particularly Monson, who is seeking her first national crown (Kelati won her first at the US road 5k champs in November).

Weini Kelati vs Alicia Monson, head to head. Kelati leads 11 to 6.

Race Date Distance Kelati Monson
Nuttycombe Invite 10/13/17 6k 15th, 20:07 19th, 20:13
NCAA XC 11/18/17 6k 7th, 19:35 139th, 21:01
NCAA Indoors 3/9/18 5000 5th, 15:56 13th, 16:19
NCAA Outdoors 6/9/18 5000 9th, 15:46 18th, 16:04
Nuttycombe Invite 9/28/18 6k 2nd, 19:35 1st, 19:33
Pre-Nats White 10/13/18 6k 1st, 19:33 33rd, 20:57
NCAA XC 11/17/18 6k 2nd, 19:45 4th, 19:55
Millrose Games 2/9/19 3000 6th, 8:53 1st, 8:45
NCAA Indoors 3/8/19 5000 2nd, 15:32 1st, 15:31
NCAA Indoors 3/9/19 3000 3rd, 9:02 10th, 9:14
Joe Piane Invite 10/4/19 5k 1st, 16:01 2nd, 16:13
Nuttycombe Invite 10/18/19 6k 2nd, 19:48 1st, 19:39
NCAA XC 11/23/19 6k 1st, 19:47 2nd, 19:57
Millrose Games 2/8/20 3000 7th, 8:54 6th, 8:53
Track Meet 12/5/20 10000 2nd, 31:10 3rd, 31:10
Sound Running Invite 3/6/21 5000 3rd, 14:58 4th, 15:07
Olympic Trials 6/26/21 10000 DNF 3rd, 31:18
Wins 11 6

Two other women worth watching on Saturday: Carrie Verdon and Stephanie Bruce. Verdon, a 27-year-old Colorado grad who trains under Lee Troop, had a career year in 2021: she ran a half pb of 70:11, was 10th in the 5,000 at the Olympic Trials, finished 7th at the Chicago Marathon, and was the runner-up at Club Cross in December, just four seconds back of Natosha Rogers (For a great profile on Verdon, check out this piece from Alison Wade at Fast Women). Bruce, who turns 38 next week, announced on Sunday that she will retire at the end of the year, but she’s had success at this meet in the past, finishing 3rd in 2018 and making the World team in 2017 and 2019.

Men’s race: Will the ADP extend its dominance?

On Wednesday, American Distance Project/US Army WCAP coach Scott Simmons posted a tweet that neatly encapsulated his group’s dominance of USA XC over the past four editions. The key stats:

2020 – #1-2-3
2019 – #1-2-3-4-5 (perfect team score)
2018 – #1 & #3
2017 – #1-2-3-4

Korir (foreground, far left) and Kipchirchir (far right) are both former USA XC champs

Though reigning champion Anthony Rotich is not competing this year, 2017/2018 champ Leonard Korir and 2019 champ Shadrack Kipchirchir are back and will be among the favorites. They’ll be joined by 2021 Olympic steeple finalist Benard Keter, 2021 US steeple champ Hillary Bor, two-time NCAA XC champ Sam Chelanga, and Ben Blankenship, who is best known as a miler but did win Club Cross in 2018, defeating Bor in the process. 2021 Club Cross champ Frankline Tonui is not entered, though runner-up Zach Panning of Hansons-Brooks will be running.

The big question surrounds Korir and Kipchirchir. For several years, the two were fixtures on US teams in XC and at 10,000 meters, but Korir was just 10th at last year’s Olympic Trials and Kipchirchir only competed once all year due to a calf injury. Korir is now 35 and Kipchirchir 32. As a new Olympic cycle begins, can they reassert themselves at the top of US distance running? We’ll start to get answers on Saturday.

JG predictions

The Mission Bay Park course, just north of Sea World, consists of five 2k loops, and though it’s not a particularly complicated course, that doesn’t mean times will be blazing.

“[San Diego-based coach] Terrence [Mahon] told me it’s been really wet and the whole course right now is really soft, so he doesn’t think it will be quite as quick as what people think,” Haas said.

Ritzenhein, who won in San Diego at USA XC in 2008 over Ryan Hall, concurred.

“Your legs seemed to kind of dead by the end,” Ritzenhein said. “I felt like the grass was pretty thick…It’s still really about strength, I think, more than anything.”

Still, I don’t see the course in playing much of a factor in determining the champion. Like most XC races, the winner will have to be tough and strong. I’ll go with Kelati over Monson in the women’s race and Korir in the men’s.

What do you think will happen? Talk about the race on our world-famous messageboard/fan forum: MB: Official 2022 USA XC Discussion Thread: Kelati vs Monson XVIII – Who you got? Does ADP continue to DOMINATE?

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