This Saturday marked the return to San Diego of the US Cross Country Championships. Held alongside the water in Mission Bay, this event featured the top masters, elite, and junior XC runners in the United States. I had never been to this event before, so I made the drive down to see what it was all about. Here are my observations:
• Athletes present included nationally-ranked runners from the high school, NCAA, and professional ranks, and they were competing for spots on the world championship elite and junior teams that will travel to Spain next month. Because of this, the event had the feel of the Footlocker High School race, the NCAA championships, and the Olympic Trials all rolled into one day.
• The course was a beautiful 2K loop in a grassy park alongside the bay. I decided to run the Community 4K in the morning. What better way to get a feel for XC than to race on the same course that Shalane Flanagan, Colleen De Reuck, Matt Tegenkamp and others would take to later in the day. When I hear “Community” associated with a race, I think of the local 5K: moms with jog-strollers, a lot of kids, and a generally…well, slow…field. That’s what I was hoping for, anyway. In fact, the race was nothing like that. I stood on the start line watching one high school team after another show up looking like they meant business. Every kid was skinny, wearing spikes, and obviously far, far faster than I. Occasionally, a guy my age would stroll up to the line. I’d think Great–here’s someone I can run with. Then I’d look down and see the shaved legs, spikes, and singlet from a track club. Once the gun went off, I suffered but had a great time. This was my first XC race since seventh grade, and I loved it. In comparison to a 5K or 10K on the road, you feel like you’re actually racing. I highly recommend checking out the USATF XC calendar and entering some events in the fall. They’re a fun addition to anyone’s running schedule.
• The junior events were fascinating to watch. Most runners were 17 or 18, and they came from both high school and college programs. Some schools, like UCLA, Washington, and Oklahoma State sent full teams of runners and coaches. The top 6 kids qualified for the world championships, so there was fierce competition at the front of the field. Aisling Cuffe, from upstate New York, went wire-to-wire to win the girls race. She hasn’t lost a race all season, and she’s headed to Stanford in the fall.
• The field for the masters women featured icon Colleen De Reuck–she’s run in four Olympic Games, won major marathons (Berlin, Honolulu), medaled at the World XC championships, you name it. She ran her race virtually on her own and won by a huge margin.
• Second behind Colleen was American Joanna Zeiger. You may remember her as the fourth-place finisher in the triathlon at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, and more recently as the 70.3 World Champion. I got to spend some time with her, and she’s one of those uber-achievers who seem to excel at everything they do. As if being a successful professional athlete isn’t enough, Joanna also has a PhD from Johns Hopkins in genetic epidemiology. She’s does her research, conveniently, in the training mecca of Boulder, Colorado. Impressive.
• If you’ve never watched elite runners from a couple feet away, you can’t understand just how fast they’re going. Like many sports, running is much more impressive in person than it is on TV. I witnessed Olympic medalist Shalane Flanagan put on a clinic as she demolished the women’s elite field. She has a particularly powerful and fluid stride that had spectators shaking their heads in astonishment. Like she’s from a different species. With her blond hair and medal potential, I can see her becoming the poster child for the US Olympic Team at the London Games next year.
• The men’s elite field stuck together for most of the race in a pack of 20 or so runners. It resembled a motocross race as they whipped around the course at a 4-something pace jockeying for position over hills and around corners. Former Colorado Buffalo Brent Vaughn emerged from the pack with two laps to go and ran to a solo victory. Interestingly, he’d started the USA Half Marathon Championships in Houston the week before and dropped out. He said he felt like quitting the sport! But he got back on his horse, came to San Diego, and ran to one of the most important wins of his career.