2023 NCAA XC Women’s Individual Preview: Who Has The Edge in Valby-Tuohy II?

The much anticipated and delayed Valby-Tuohy rematch promises fireworks

Twelve months ago, Florida’s Parker Valby and North Carolina State’s Katelyn Tuohy delivered a classic race at the 2022 NCAA Cross Country Championships in Stillwater, Okla. The front-running Valby opened an 11.8-second lead with two kilometers to go, only to see it evaporate over the closing stages due to Tuohy’s brilliance (and Valby’s unfamiliarity with tangents). Tuohy wound up winning her first NCAA XC title with Valby finishing second, 3.2 seconds behind.

On Saturday, we finally get the rematch: Valby and Tuohy are set to square off once again at the 2023 NCAA Cross Country Championships at Panorama Farms in Virginia. It should be terrific. Everyone loves a sequel, right?

Terminator 2.

The Godfather, Part II.

Speed 2: Cruise Control.

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Okay, so not every sequel can match the original. The key to a good sequel is to keep the characters that made it great while switching things up enough so it still feels fresh. And there’s reason to suspect Valby-Tuohy II (or Valby-Tuohy V if you want to count all of their career matchups) will be closer to The Dark Knight than Jaws: The Revenge.

First of all, the plot has changed. Tuohy won in Stillwater last year, then spent the winter obliterating collegiate records and dominating the NCAA. By March 2023, after sweeping the 3k and 5k titles at the NCAA indoor championships, Tuohy looked invincible while Valby, forced to miss the meet due to injury, seemed eminently mortal.

Oh, how the script has flipped. After a long year of racing, a worn-out Tuohy signed up for an audacious 1500/5k double at the NCAA outdoor championships in June but fell short, finishing 7th in the 1500 and scratching the 5k, which paved the way for Valby to win her first NCAA title on the track. Since then, Valby has somehow gone up a level. She’s winning races by even bigger margins than last year — notably October’s Nuttycombe Invitational, where Valby beat Tuohy by 12.3 seconds and set a course record of 19:17.2 despite wet and windy conditions.

Katelyn Tuohy and Parker Valby at 2022 NCAA Cross Country Championships (photo by Gregorio Denny @dvgregori)

Then there’s the stakes. A national title is on the line, of course. A win by Tuohy would make her the first repeat women’s champion since Villanova’s Sheila Reid in 2010-11. But this race feels even bigger than that. Tuohy and Valby aren’t just the two best runners in the NCAA, they’re two of the most popular American distance runners, period. They’re also two of the best US women’s distance prospects in recent memory. A few years from now, we might be looking back at the 2022 and 2023 NCAA XC meets as the start of a special rivalry.

Oh, and this could very well be Tuohy’s final collegiate race. Tuohy has already won four individual NCAA titles across track and XC to go with two NCAA XC team titles. She has set collegiate records in the mile and 3,000. And she is set to graduate from NC State in December. While she has track eligibility remaining, there’s a good chance this is her last NCAA race. Tuohy could sign a professional contract after this race and direct all of her attention toward making the 2024 Olympic team (and there’s nothing stopping Valby from going pro early either).

So that’s the pitch for Tuohy-Valby II: Clash in Charlottesville. The studio has given it the green light, and we’ve got a one-night-only showing set for Saturday in Virginia. Let’s dig into it.

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Reminder: You can watch the meet live on ESPNU on Saturday starting at 9:30 a.m. ET

Can Valby hold off Tuohy?

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While it can be dangerous to definitively narrow a 255-person race down to two athletes, there’s no doubt that Tuohy and Valby have been head and shoulders above the rest of the NCAA in 2023. Tuohy won the NCAA indoor 5,000, Valby won the NCAA outdoor 5,000, and both are undefeated in cross country this fall aside from Tuohy’s head-to-head loss to Valby. That race, at the Nuttycombe Invitational, showed just how big the gap is from the top two to everyone else: Valby beat Tuohy by 12.3 seconds, while Tuohy beat the rest of the field — the deepest of any regular-season meet — by 23.4 seconds. With apologies to the rest of the NCAA, this is a two-woman race barring a double-dose of a 2009 Jenny Simpson-like meltdown.

(In case you don’t remember the 2009 NCAA XC champs, Simpson, a 3:59 1500 runner at the time, went back to Colorado for a final season of XC to try to win the individual NCAA title. She was picked to win by 97.9% of the people in our prediction contest and finished…163rd).

There are two ways to win a two-person race: break your opponent, or outkick them. Valby will be employing the former strategy, Tuohy the latter. Last year, Valby wasn’t quite strong enough to pull it off. This year, she might be. At Nuttycombe, Valby beat Tuohy by 12.3 seconds after losing to her by 3.2 at NCAAs a year ago. At last year’s SEC meet, Valby beat Alabama’s Hilda Olemomoi (who went on to finish 6th at NCAAs) by 28.3 seconds. This year, she beat Olemomoi at SECs by 46.0. Valby appears to be ~15 seconds fitter than last year, and that might be enough to break Tuohy.

These sort of forecasts are imperfect, however. Our dataset is limited: we only get a few races results by which to assess fitness, and even that is incomplete because often Tuohy and Valby are out on their own and not being pushed by another athlete. We also don’t know what their training looks like. Was Tuohy in a heavy block of training the week she ran Nuttycombe? Was she still easing into workouts after a track season that stretched into July? Will she benefit from a taper much more than Valby, who should almost always have fresh legs as she runs very low mileage?

The Valby and Tuohy of October 13 could look drastically different to the Valby and Tuohy of November 18. That’s what makes this fun.

One final thing to consider: how does Tuohy play this? At NCAAs last year, she allowed a gap to form, trusting she had the fitness to close it over the final 2k. At Nuttycombe, however, Tuohy tried to hang with Valby and got dropped. Both strategies carry risk. It will be up to Tuohy to assess the early pace and determine whether it’s sustainable or not.

JG prediction

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Tuohy and Valby are both incredible athletes, but when I’m picking this race, I can’t get past Valby’s Nuttycombe race. In cross country, we’re not supposed to get hung up on times, but Valby’s 19:17.2 for 6k in Wisconsin was remarkable. Competing in terrible weather on a course that every top NCAA athlete has run over the past decade, Valby broke the course record and beat the reigning NCAA champion by 12 seconds. It’s one of the best NCAA XC performances I’ve ever seen, and as good as Tuohy is, a 12-second gap is hard to close in a month. I’m going Valby FTW.

Outside of the two superstars, Tuohy’s NC State teammate Kelsey Chmiel, who was 3rd at NCAAs last year, has been running well again in 2023 and was 3rd at Nuttycombe.

11/17 update: Kelsey Chmiel of NC State is out of the meet.

Alabama’s Kenyan freshman Doris Lemngole has had an immediate impact, finishing 2nd to Valby at SECs and beating Chmiel at the Joe Piane Invite. NAU’s Elise Stearns was 4th last year and 4th at Nuttycombe. They’re the three most likely to battle it out for 3rd — and perhaps more should the top two wind up punching each other out.

1. Valby 2. Tuohy 3. Lemngole

Who wins women's title?

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PS. If I’m Valby’s coach Will Palmer, I’m spending Thursday with Valby making sure she knows every inch of the NCAA course. Last year, Valby admitted after the race she didn’t know what a tangent was and simply followed the lead vehicle during races. If you’re employing a front-running strategy, you maximize your chances by running the shortest possible distance. That means studying the course and figuring out the best route in and out of the turns.


(Have you entered the LetsRun Prediction Contest Powered by Zappos? The winner gets the shoe of their choice plus a LetsRun t-shirt and one-year Supporters Club membership. It’s totally free to enter, so don’t wait: LRC $200,023 LRC XC Nationals Prediction Contest Powered by Zappos)

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