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NCAA XC at Panorama Farms 🚜
Photo: Johnny Pace | @pacephoto
For the first time since 1987, the NCAA Cross Country Championships returned to the University of Virginia. This iteration took place at Panorama Farms, a venue that has never before hosted an event of this scale. An undertaking like this wasn’t without its logistical challenges, most notably that fans who tried to purchase tickets in the few days before were unable to do so. The meet was sold out – a brand new issue that running fans are unaccustomed to. Everyone has an opinion, and fans clamoring for the sport to reach a level of mainstream popularity are having second thoughts. After all you never have to worry about saving a seat at the loser table.
But for those who managed to get in to spectate the meet, the weather was ideal for standing in the middle of a large field, leading many in attendance to compare the scene to Woodstock, but with less mud and a much less permissive attitude toward… well, everything that went on at Woodstock. There wasn’t a lot to do in the lead-up to the race once at the Farms, except walk around asking people who their picks were, so that’s mostly what people did. The Brits think “real” cross country means trudging through mud, but is there a better way to pay homage to the origins of the sport than not having cell service for a couple of hours?
With a final attendance of 6,723, this was the biggest outpouring of fans in recent history for NCAAs. Despite shuttles having to usher the meet-goers on-site from mall parking lots miles away, they still showed up undeterred by that extra step. While qualifying teams were given plenty of reserved tickets for athletes’ families, their teammates who road-tripped to Charlottesville were not turned away on the day of the meet. Tickets were not strictly checked and there was plenty of space in fields big enough for cows to graze in.
Walking away from what was a great spectator experience, my first take is that we need more meets on the East Coast. Charlottesville isn’t a huge city – it’s only got 45,000 year round residents – but it’s a drivable distance from a number of densely populated cities. Unlike in track and field, where meets require stadiums of a certain caliber and athletes want specific weather to compete in, cross country can be run anywhere, in any conditions. Why not go on a mobile tour by jumping around to different host cities? As we know, going back to the same place twice a year on an annual basis gets boring quickly. To draw interest, it’s helpful to have a change of venue.
One of the most appreciated aspects of this year’s course was that it was very European, not in that there was a lack of spice, but it looped around itself, making it very spectator friendly. There are basically infinite grass fields waiting to be stomped on that can be turned into a two-kilometer loop within 100 miles of a major city! Next year the meet returns to Madison, Wisconsin. It’s a great course, and while not in the northeast, there are about 8.5 million people who live within a two-hour drive, so close enough.
There are certain events during the year that should be viewed as being at the top of the funnel in terms of capturing the attention of future distance running fans. The NCAA Championships are one of them. If you are showing up to watch this meet, whether it’s in-person or on television, then you have demonstrated a more-than-mild interest in the sport. Many of those viewers are not regular consumers of the Diamond League or professional running, but they are the target demographic we should be trying to convert.
That makes every aspect of this meet’s presentation crucial. It’s an incredible opportunity to convince someone that this sport is cool and it’s worth seeing more of. How do you turn NCAAs into a meet worth traveling to even if you don’t have a dog in the fight?
There’s currently downtime before the races start. Perhaps that’s a good slot to fit in a tailgate or pre-game show? Or after the awards ceremony Taylor Swift comes out to perform? How expensive could that possibly be? It could make sense to combine the enthusiasm runners have for racing, themselves, with spectating – how about a mass participant or alumni race? Nothing would give fans greater appreciation for how fast Parker Valby is than if they had to find out by just how much she would beat them.
Parker gets hers! 🐊
Photo: Johnny Pace | @pacephoto
It’s Valbymania! This was one of the most anticipated head-to-head match-ups in recent NCAA history as Florida’s Parker Valby looked to avenge her second-place finish at last year’s championships and Katelyn Tuohy aimed to win another one. Valby’s mid-season performance at the Nuttycombe Invitational signaled that she had unlocked a new level of fitness as she took down the course record in wet and windy conditions. But it’s a long season, and it’s cross country, so we really shouldn’t get too caught up in times, right?
After getting off the line poorly, Valby initially found herself caught behind the pack. But once she made it to the front she let her presence be known. It ended up not even being close as the junior would go on to win by 10 seconds in 18:55, but like I said, what’s time worth anyway?
Well… To get a sense of how dominant this performance was over the field, the time difference between Valby to the last All-American finisher in 40th was 71.5 seconds. In the past 15 years, the only greater margin was by Kate Avery in 2014 (72.7 seconds). That gap may have been even wider had Valby not cramped up in the final kilometer – moments before starting her post-race interview for the broadcast she looked up to the booth and asked how to get rid of a side stitch.
(I believe I yelled something along the lines of, 'doesn’t matter now, you won!’)
Remember, last year Valby won the 5000m at NCAAs coming off the bench with injuries. You may not be super familiar with the freshman who finished second this week, but Doris Lemngole ran 14:40 for 5K last season before heading to Alabama. I’m not a firm believer in the transitive property as it applies to running performances, but hey, it never hurts your confidence heading into track season to know you’ve easily bested someone with a PB like that.
If there is an antithesis to the current zeitgeist around double threshold training, then it is the cross-training methods of Parker Valby, who has proven once again that hard work is still hard work no matter where it’s done. There aren’t enough podcasts in the world to make four to five days a week on the arc trainer tolerable, but who can argue with these results?
Photo: Johnny Pace | @pacephoto
No one at NC State thinks of themselves as a one-woman Wolfpack. This is not just a team, it’s a program. Admittedly, as a rule, I root against defending champions in all sports (unless it’s me or my team), especially Max Verstappen. Repeat winners are generally boring and it’s rare to see the same emotion from a champion once they have already been there before.
This time… the favorites became the underdog.
There were rumors swirling before the meet whether or not four-time All-American Kelsey Chmiel was healthy. This is partially because she did not run at Regionals, but also it’s because people are bad at keeping secrets. When she showed up to the course the day before on crutches, that question was answered and it had massive implications on the team race. If Northern Arizona, the number one team coming in, was already being favored, then the loss of last year’s third-place finisher would surely be too massive of a blow for NC State to come back from, right?
WRONG! It became evident halfway through that Katelyn Tuohy was not at her best on the day. Despite Coach Laurie Henes saying she was the fittest she had ever been, she came down with an illness the day before. At 4K she had fallen back to unfamiliar territory in 11th, and had she felt sorry for herself for one moment and slipped further back then this would be a much different newsletter blurb. Someone must have told her how close the team score was because she rallied and her fifth-place finish made all the difference.
Though when a team wins its third straight national title by a single point, every scorer becomes the hero on that day. There was a lot of pressure on freshmen to come through in big moments but Leah Stephens (43rd) and Grace Hartman (63rd) did just that to round out the 4-5 spots. Samantha Bush ran like the veteran she is, moving up the entire race, including passing 14 bodies in the last kilometer to finish 28th. After dropping out of both of her regular season races, Amaris Tyynismaa thrived when it mattered most, coming in at 25th.
The ascent of the Northern Arizona women is a great story, and although their book may be a bit longer now, I look forward to reading a happy ending next year. But if we are going to close out the Katelyn Tuohy “The College Years” documentary with one defining scene, it’s with an exclamation point at the end of an era.
387 years in the making! 🎓
Photo: Johnny Pace | @pacephoto
How Harvard did not win the individual men’s crown in 1636 when there weren’t any other colleges in America is beyond me, but the wait is over! Coming into this year’s championships, the winner of the Nuttycombe Invitational (on both sides) has gone on to win the NCAA individual title 30% of the time – now add Graham Blanks and Parker Valby to that growing statistic.
If there are two words to describe Blanks coming into this season it is: slept on.
It started when he graduated from high school, and like most of his Crimson teammates, took a gap year. During that time, he ran 13:27 for 5000m in what would have been his freshman year. Once classes started and his eligibility clock began to tick, he finished 23rd in 2021 behind Hicks, Young, and Robinson, before struggling with some injury. In 2022, he was 6th at NCAA XC, ran 3:56 for the mile, and lowered his 5000m to 13:18 before finishing 2nd outdoors.
Blanks seems to have all the tools to be a great runner. He trains like an animal, running 100 miles a week at like 95% sub-6 minute pace (classic Coach Gibby!). He ran a 40-minute cool down after winning and then a 15-mile run the next day. Though all that quality volume has not been at any detriment to his closing or opening speed – the first 1000m of NCAAs was in 2:29. And he’s quickly gaining a reputation for possessing the clutch gene, despite sometimes being a self-proclaimed dumbass. (Listen to Graham on the CITIUS MAG podcast.)
Blanks is the type of talent that could become the next great American marathoner. You’re just not going to run 2:03 if you can’t also turnover. But I’m getting ahead of myself! First, there is track. And we’ll get a glimpse into just what a 28:37 over grassy knolls is worth when he races a shorter distance at Boston University’s physics-defying indoor track next week.
The passing of the dynasty torch? 🤠
What do you do if you lose an NCAA title duel in a tie-breaker on your home course? You reload the pistol and take another shot. That’s exactly what Oklahoma State did, and it’s how they handed Northern Arizona only their second loss in eight years.
The match-up was an easy story to tell ahead of time. On one side you had the squad who had all been there before. And on the other was a team counting on fresh faces. My pre-race assessment was that if both teams ran perfectly then it wouldn’t be close – the Pokes had the potential to score significantly less. And they did exactly that, putting five guys in the top 15 of the field. But there was little room for error. Had either Denis Kipngetich or Victor Shitsama had an off day similar to Big XIIs, then there was too much of a gap back to their sixth man and they would have lost.
The narrative ought to be that Oklahoma State won this one, because Northern Arizona definitely didn’t lose it. The Lumberjacks improved from 83 points to 71 this year and like clockwork, Santiago Prosser and Brodey Hasty had their races of their season when the team needed them. Those two are the type of friends you could rely on to help you move out of an apartment after a breakup.
Now in this modern world of transfer portals, the rosters next year are a bit less predictable than in generations past. But if things remain the same, then how could anyone possibly beat Oklahoma State? Six out of their seven return and this is a team that is so deep that Coach Smith had ten guys warm up before finalizing his starters.
In partnership with Bandit Running
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Thoughts from the booth 🎤
Like every other fan, I have complained endlessly about broadcasts. Having the chance to be on the broadcast sort of feels like halftime at a basketball game when a fan comes down to the court to attempt a half court shot. If it’s so easy, then do it yourself!
This was my second year being part of the ESPN broadcast alongside Carrie Tollefson and John Anderson. I am happy to share that I have accomplished my pre-meet goal of being able to tolerate anonymous comments about my performance, though I should smoke a few cigarettes before the next one to drop an octave.
Like many of us, I stopped paying attention to the NCAA with the same level of intensity once it stopped having a direct impact on my life. When the opportunity first presented itself, I committed myself to follow along again so that I would know the storylines without needing notes – you just don’t have time to check those. Instead, I tried to focus on the screen in front of me and the names and splits on the live results board (thank you Dipen and Cody for the assist).
I still prefer writing to broadcasting because there’s an editor who makes sure I won’t put anything out into the ether that’ll make too many people mad at me. But the professionalism that John, Carrie, Tim, Scott, Sam, Tom, Tyler, brought made it easy for me to do what I always do whether at home or on television: become embarrassingly enthusiastic about running.
Minus One Olympic Trials Qualifier 🇺🇸
The strong field at the Philadelphia Marathon and good conditions made for a prime Olympic Trials Qualifying chasing opportunity. And for the few guys who got under the 2:18:00 mark, they’ll be headed to Orlando. But unfortunately they will do so without Ethan Hermann, who crossed the finish line of his debut in 2:17:03. Although his watch says he did it and we can see the time on Strava, it won’t be in the results. Hermann was disqualified.
Hermann’s coach was running around the course cheering when he met his athlete at an aid station. Once there, his coach picked up the bottle and handed it over to the competing athlete. However because Hermann did not grab said bottle himself, this is technically against USATF rules due to the “inequality of resources offered to athletes.”
But who cares, right? He would have finished sixth and his qualifying for the Olympic Trials does not take someone else’s spot. Who – in a world of increasingly bouncy shoe prototypes and systemic doping programs – would consider what might genuinely be the smallest possible advantage an athlete can gain mid-race a sin?
Well, this infraction was pointed out to the race organizers. Unfortunately due to the formality of the complaint and the specificity of the rules, the organizers had their hands tied on the situation.
Hermann is taking this tragic situation in stride, puts no blame on the Philadelphia Marathon organizers whatsoever, and is fully understanding of the consequences. He shared with me that, “I don’t fully have to agree, but I fully get it. I just have to learn from it, move forward, and take on the next challenge in time.”
Ethan is at peace and seems to be walking away from the weekend knowing that his mission of qualifying for the Olympic Trials was accomplished – even if the start list will say otherwise.
This is an issue across all parts of our sport where every judgment is made in black and white. If someone false starts, they’re out. In the triathlon when someone breaks a rule, they’re made to just stand in a box for a little bit. What’s one bottle being handed to you worth over the course of a marathon? How about a 15-second penalty? Or you have to choke down one more gel after you finish?
Rules were made to be broken. And so are made-up time barriers to qualify for qualifying races. #FreeEthan