We survived the off season⏱

Lap 92: Sponsored by Diadora

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Cross Champs - ATX 🐴

Just about every distance runner in the country participated in the sport growing up – even the milers. But as soon as athletes leave the NCAA, the harrier scene more or less dries up except for when it comes to selecting a team for the World Cross Country Championships via a poorly attended national championship race.

This historic lack of focus on cross at the post-collegiate level is a shame for a few reasons:

  1. We have the infrastructure for it, we just aren’t using it. There are already pro teams! But most fans probably don’t align super strongly with any single uniform like they might in other sports. That’s likely due to a lack of connections between clubs and their farther-reaching, geographic areas – they all do a nice job of engaging with their immediate communities – but also the non-existence of team scoring at most events. One of the most common suggestions for making track and field more popular is to create a league, which is a concept I see as having many potential issues. However, the league concept is significantly more viable through the mud. Let’s test it here and see if there is potential!

  2. Without a widely-participated-in cross country season, we tend to go months without seeing top athletes compete, let alone head-to-head against one another. There’s this narrative that the only meet that matters is the last one of the season, and that makes for a lot of quiet months of athletes hibernating. If we want to encourage fans to follow athletes, teams, and hell, THE ENTIRE SPORT, then we need to make everything more visible. Taking half the year off from competing kills the momentum.

  3. There’s this pervasive concept of athletes only ever racing if they’re ready for a big one. The track only encourages that further because times run on the oval actually matter and follow an athlete around all season. Enter XC: there shouldn’t be any expectations during the first week of December on grass. It’s competition for competition’s sake, which isn’t just good for fans, it’s good for athletes’ racing tactics, and takes the heat off of goal races a little by allowing them to get more lower stakes reps in.

So you already know I was thrilled by the announcement of a gold label cross country race in the United States, and not in Spain, where almost all of them are. I figured that now since cross country is eligible for world ranking points (must have three performances), and the standards have been lowered to 27:10 and 30:40, that this would be a major attraction for top US-based athletes, and we’d get some solid fields assembled.

Honestly, the point values assigned for placing well at these meets are so absurdly high that it shocks me that no athlete is hopping around the globe to do three gold label XC races then so they don’t have to worry about chasing times the rest of the year. For perspective, Alicia Monson’s six-second win over Emily Infeld was worth 1280 points, which is far and away the biggest point haul of her career – her previous high was the 1227 points she got for winning last year’s Milrose 3000m in 8:31.

On the men’s side, we saw a sea of OAC uniforms up front early on – 3:30 men are going to do what 3:30 men are going to do when there’s a narrow gate 120 meters into the race. Hot start aside, the team still dominated with a 2-3-4-5 finish, but the 2019 NCAA XC Champion Edwin Kurgat got the field’s attention with an emphatic win. The unsponsored Kurgat, who is still training out of Iowa State, also won the Sugar Run 5k a couple of weeks ago – he’s healthy and fit, two things you love to see from a former NCAA champ!

Now this wouldn’t be a Lap Count section about cross country with some course commentary. And buddy, this was a polarizing course for athletes and fans alike. Apparently, there were some issues with permits at a few other potential sites, and while the roughly-mile-long loop definitely conjured up a sense of controlled chaos with lots of turns, bumps, and terrain shifts, it was certainly “real” cross country (despite the occasional straightaway on a track).

From my perspective, it made for a pleasant viewing experience standing in the middle of a field and watching an entire race develop. Hosting the event in Austin during The Running Event also meant the entire sports marketing side of the industry could come check it out. If only we could have layered in the USATF national meeting, then the entire running world (in America) could have been in one place at once – the Brooks after-party on Sixth Street.

The USATF Marathon Championships 🇺🇸

The California International Marathon has been appropriately described as “the runner’s marathon,” which makes it the perfect mid-major to host the USATF Championships. This is likely because of its exorbitant number of porta-potties – there’s a 30:1 ratio of bladders to toilet seats – but also because serious runners go there to run seriously fast. (Just don’t mention the 340-foot elevation drop from start to finish you’ll be met with a throng of athletes reminding you that ‘it is not flat!’ and there is ‘actually 700 feet worth of climbing.’)

Entering the race, there were a few favorites on the men’s side, like the returning champion, Brendan Gregg, or 2:09 man, Noah Droddy, but the marathon is unpredictable. And it’s even harder to predict a win for someone who has never run an event before, as was the case with Futsum Zienasellassie in his marathon debut.

There were plenty of positive historic performances to indicate his eventual success at the distance, such as a Nike Cross Nationals title in high school (relevant this week), or his three top-four finishes at NCAA XC. But even his half marathon best of 1:01:21 couldn’t give us too much insight into how he would wind up feeling 22 miles into a race.

Speculation aside, apparently, he felt pretty good! As Jacob Thomson was hammering the field on his way to a four-minute personal best, Futsum dropped the lead pack with a decisive move, splitting 14:59 from 35k to 40k. Fortunately, he had broken away enough that there was ample time to regurgitate any excess fluids on the final straightaway before the finish.

With a final time of 2:11:01 worth $20,000 in his debut (an aside: the California International Marathon fully funds the prize purse of the USATF Championships!), Futsum not only proved that the return to NAZ Elite was the right decision but showed that he is a true contender to make the US Olympic team. While his time only makes him the seventh fastest American this year, Futsum is the only one who won his race or was close. And the Trials is for place!

Entering Sunday’s race, Paige Stoner’s highest finish at a US Championship was seventh in 2019 – in the steeplechase. But the former five-time All-American at Syracuse made her way over to the roads in 2020 with few track races taking place, and fortunately, she found her groove immediately, running 2:28:43 at the Marathon Project.

Now two years later, she’s still validating that shift. Over the opening 20 miles, Stoner ground the field down alongside Lauren Hurley, until it was all Stoner in the final 10k, before crossing the finish line in 2:26:02 for a new course record. After the race, one unnamed CITIUS MAG pundit remarked, “you may forget how good of a coach Chris Fox is, but he’ll always remind you.”

When the 2024 Olympic Trials Standard for men was lowered by a minute to 2:18:00, the general reaction was – that makes sense! Entering CIM, 71 men had already qualified, and 41 American men dipped under that time here (a few were repeats).

Yet the reaction to the women’s recalibration of 2:45:00 to 2:37:00 caused ample pushback. It was clear a lot of the 511 qualifiers from last time would struggle to adjust to an eight-minute-faster mark. I, however, thought that the bar would simply be raised, performance-wise, and we’d see more women run under 2:37 this time around than ahead of 2020… And it would appear I – along with the nearly 100 women who have done so, so far – have been vindicated!

44 women ran under the new standard on Sunday, with 34 new American qualifiers among them, bringing the current total to 95. That’s already more than the 82 women who ran under 2:37 in the previous cycle. To understand the full impact that the new qualifying time has had in terms of elevating the game, let’s compare this year’s CIM to the 2018 race, which was also a US Championship and just as far out from the Trials – only 22 women broke 2:37 (and 17 in 2019).

With 363 days until the window closes, the chase continues!

You may have seen by now that I also ran CIM. I kept this one under wraps until the gun went off because by hyping up my intentions in New York way too much, I found it difficult to adjust my game plan on race day. Instead, for CIM I went out with the intention of learning the distance and doing what I should have done one month ago.

I ended up pacing one of the athletes I coach for 15+ miles, before taking off and closing my last 10 miles at 5:22 pace. My buddy ended up running a 14-minute personal best, but a lot of that was fueled by the time we spent running with the pack of women gunning for their Olympic Trials times. The energy was incredible, the teamwork was amazing to witness, and the crowds understood and supported the assignment. As a lifelong bridge and tunnel guy, NYC will always be the marathon – but there’s a different kind of magic out in Sacramento that I encourage everyone to experience for themselves.

My final time of 2:29:18 was exactly what I needed to reinvigorate my interest in the marathon. I’m not sure how much enthusiasm I have in training for another right away, but I’ll certainly be running more in the future.

Nike Cross Nationals 📥

Had you told me at the start of the race that West Virginia’s Irene Riggs would win, then I’d have said, “yes, I wrote a whole blog on how good she is so that makes sense.” The Stanford-bound senior ran 16:40 to win by 16 seconds and narrowly missed breaking the course record.

Now if you’d told me at the start of the race that someone from Newbury Park would win, and asked me to guess who, I’d have hemmed and hawed about for a minute, debating whether to answer Lex or Leo Young. Instead, in what is a pretty major upset, their teammate, Newbury Park’s third man all season, Aaron Sahlman paced himself perfectly for a major upset.

In fairness, Aaron, who will be joining the eldest Young brother at Northern Arizona in the fall, already has some serious accolades to his name with junior year bests for the 800, mile, and 3,000m of 1:48, 4:01, and 8:01. But in the early part of the race, when the Young twins were pushing at the front, Aaron was probably an afterthought to anyone watching. He bided his time until the home stretch, then made a powerful move. Although his teammates did not have their best days, finishing 11th and 35th, the team still dominated the standings as expected.

The girl’s team title once again went to the 2004 and 2019 champions, Saratoga Springs. That updates the event’s lifetime scoreboard to 15 team titles for upstate New York, and 2 for the rest of the country. There’s a reason no one complains about the Empire State being its own region.

We all need to go to Valencia

I’m not saying we should start measuring the weather in Valencia on an absolute thermodynamic temperature scale… but on a scale of one to Kelvin Kiptum, those roads were 373 degrees! To understand that zinger, you’ll need to have paid attention in high school chemistry and have heard about the fastest marathon debut of all time.

If you’re looking for someone who is going to open up their marathoning career with a 2:01:53, the third-best time ever, then you’d probably pick the guy who ran 58:42 in the half, also in Valencia, in 2020. That said, I’ve already written once in this newsletter that a great half PR doesn’t always mean a great marathon PR.

But to see the 23-year-old from Kenya cruising comfortably down the blue tarmac toward the finish line, you didn’t need to look at the clock to know that this was a special 26.2 debut. Like all the best marathoners do, Kiptum ran a significant negative split with the second half clocked at 60:15. Even in tactical or championship races, no one has run faster.

Only time will tell if this was lightning captured in a bottle or if the next star has emerged. This performance comes days after Eliud Kipchoge announced his intention to compete at the 2023 Boston Marathon. In a post-race interview, Kiptum admitted that he is not yet ready to face off against the GOAT. But if we want to avoid celebrating a home run hit off of a 59-year-old Satchel Paige, then we need to see this duel sooner rather than later.

The majority of attention ahead of this race was appropriately given to the debut of Letesenbet Gidey, who holds the world record at 5000m, 10000m, and the half marathon. The expectation that she would run away with this thing and challenge the world record were so immense that the race organizers did not inform the other athletes what her pace group was set for.

When Gidey ran 1:02:52 for the half marathon she was still focusing on the track this summer at the World Championships. The mileage increase from 80 to 115 in preparation for this event, likely has not fully settled into her legs, but it is coming.

Ultimately Gidey faded in the final 4 miles to run 2:16:49 – still a fantastic time and it’s crazy I have to even say that – and she was caught by Amane Beriso, someone so unexpected, it isn’t fair to refer to her as a dark horse. Her PR entering Sunday is now old enough to be in kindergarten. The 2:20:48 she ran in 2016 in Dubai was all but a distant memory following years of injury and subpar races, although her coach did not forget, and believed that she was in world record shape.

With her time of 2:14:58, Beriso is now the third-fastest marathoner ever (too)! Looking at the top 10 list, six of those performances came in 2022 and that’s not counting the 2018 world record from Brigid Kosgei, who is still actively marathoning. What do we have to do to get those seven women (plus some Americans) in the same city on the same day? Valencia seems like a halfway decent option, although I can also now vouch for Sacramento.

NCAA Qualifiers ✅

The NCAA Indoor Championships aren’t until March, but a few athletes are going to be able to enjoy their holidays a little bit more this year. It appears the trend of using residual cross country fitness to knock out an early track season personal best is here to stay. And that’s good news for the Boston neighborhood of Allston, whose entire winter economy hinges on the favorable wooden bends of BU’s track.

The historians of the CITIUS MAG group chat date this trend back to 2013. I did some fact-checking, too. After Providence won the NCAA Championship, Laura Nagel proposed the idea to coach Ray Treacy. Emily Sisson won the race in 15:40 and every year since, Boston University has been the place to be at the beginning of December… and the rest of the winter, too, of course.

(There were a few occasions before that when athletes chased times off of cross country fitness. Diego Estrada went to Indiana in 2011 and Lucy Van Dalen tried it at Yale. I am sure some readers will write-in about how so-and-so did it in the 1950s before shoes were invented, but I’m talking modern history here!)

Personally, I love this move. Why not sharpen for two weeks and knock out a time while the fitness is still there? The indoor season is incredibly short, and for those unfortunate souls whose conference meet is held on a part-time basketball court, then you’re shit out of luck.

Cross country and track are very different sports, and success in one doesn’t necessarily guarantee success in the other. The results in Boston looked a little different than they did in Stillwater two weeks ago, and the most improved player award definitely belongs to Stanford’s Ky Robinson. While finishing 10th at NCAAs is an incredible accomplishment, roles were reversed this weekend as the Australian won the 5000m race in 13:11 for a nine-second personal best.

On the women’s side of things, this was quietly being billed as a potential sub-15 attempt from Katelyn Tuohy. In her post-race interview, she shared that she was starting to feel a bit run down the week leading in, and yet she still ran within one second of her NCAA winning time from last spring, going 15:15. It’s incredible how quickly expectations change! The “spoiler” came by way of the woman who also won this race last year, despite being the early rabbit. The B.A.A.’s Annie Rodenfels once again ran 15:08 to protect her home turf. In a post-race interview, Rodenfels declared this “a win for professional runners everywhere!” (She did not actually say that.)

The last accepted 5000m times in the 2022 NCAA meet for the men and women were 13:26 and 15:41, respectively. And that’s not getting any slower. The window for the 2023 meet has been open for less than a week, and the 16th-ranked athletes in the country have run 13:33 and 15:43.

Now these select collegians can hit the reset button during their finals week and contemplate if skipping the end-of-season party was actually worth it.

Rapid Fire Highlights🔥

  • Trevor Bassitt, World Championship bronze medalist in the 400mH, is leaving Ohio and moving to Gainesville to be coached by Mike Holloway. The small town kid is ready to chase big dreams under the bright lights of a slightly bigger town!

  • It’s been 13 months since Matt Centrowitz last raced due to ACL issues that required surgery, but he’ll be in the Merrie Mile in Honolulu this weekend. It was shared that he is now living in Utah and being self-coached. I’ve had many conversations with Centro about training and have said on the record that he would make a fantastic coach – his tactical savvy is far from the only thing he brings to the table on that front. Admittedly, coaching yourself requires a lot of self-control and confidence that extends beyond knowing how to write a training plan. But if I was a 23-year-old unsponsored sub-four-minute miler, then I’d be sliding into those DMs asking to join his one-man group.

  • World Athletics has named Mondo Duplantis and Sydney McLaughlin its athletes of the year. Detractors are saying Sydney didn’t race enough, but my jaw has been dislocated from the rest of my head ever since watching her run 50.68, so I see no issue with her winning the award.

  • The Champs Sports Cross Country National Championships (formerly Footlocker for you old heads) is taking place on Saturday in San Diego at 9:15am PT.

  • It wouldn’t even register with me that 44:04 could be the result of a 10-mile race. But Bernard Koech broke Haile Gebrselassie’s long-standing world best in Japan at the Kumamoto Kosa in that time – sheesh!

  • At the Fukuoka Marathon, Israel’s Maru Teferi, who was second at this year’s European Championships, won the event in a new national record of 2:06:43. Brett Robinson, who finished in fourth place, also broke a national record for Australia, lowering the bar to 2:07:31. He ran 2:09:52 at the London Marathon in October, but complained of a recurring cramping issue that’s long plagued him – maybe that’s fixed?

  • Also setting a new Australian record was Sinead Diver in Valencia, who ran 2:21:34 at the remarkable age of 45. This is also the fastest ever time for an Irish-born athlete, though it will not count in the Irish record books.

  • The B.A.A. has announced that after a five-month-long national search, the perfect candidate for CEO was under their nose the whole time. Jack Flemming, the former COO and thirty-year veteran of the organization has been handed the keys.

  • There were lots of great results and stories to come out of the CIM marathon including Maegan Krifchin, who PR’d in her third marathon of the month, or Caroline Williams’s legs buckling as she snuck under the OTQ. We are hoping to tell some in the coming weeks, but please email me to share!

Thank you so much to Diadora for sponsoring this week’s newsletter! I was able to test and see their new product at The Running Event and I love what this brand is doing.

Also, this week was a grind to publish following my Sunday night redeye straight into the work week, but I don’t think it’s the worst edition. So in addition to thanking my editor Paul, can you tell your friends to subscribe?