Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Club Cross 2021-Tallahassee-A First Look at Overall Races

 December 8, 2021 Runners will pour in from across the country into Tallahassee, Florida for the big showdown in Cross Country. The USATF Club Cross Country Championships, known far and wide as Club Cross, draws the biggest crowd of Masters runners each year. Club Cross returns to Tallahassee's Apalachee Regional Park, with its groomed Cross Country course, Warmup Loop, the Jumbotron near the finish line displaying the lead runners at key points, along with splits and team scores.  Apalachee Regional Park also hosted the 2018-2019 Cross Country Nationals. Runners have enjoyed the experience all three years and it should be even better this year. As always, the extreme competition makes this these championships the highlight of the year for many runners.

Runners who thrive on the toughest cross country courses with lots of steep up and downhill stretches, and often miserable weather, will be disappointed. The course itself, despite one segment referred to as 'The Wall', that you have to surmount to get through any early loops and then to the finish, is only hard if you are being pushed to the limits by stiff competition. You can bet it feels pretty hard on the final loop if you are running out of gas! But it is not overly steep or long by cross country standards. The weather is not guaranteed to be good; it is December in north Florida after all. Still, in the three prior outings, there has not been a challenging day of weather. If the forecast holds up, this could be the warmest, most humid weather we have seen. 

There are three Masters Races. The Women go off at 9 am, followed by 60+ Men at 10AM and the 40-59 Men's race at 11. The forecast calls for mostly cloudy skies and 68 degrees at the start of the Women's race, with winds at 8 mph, The humidity is forecast for near 100%; the dew point at 70. As the morning unfolds, the temps rise slightly to 71 at 10 and then 74 at 11. Relative humidity drops accordingly, but the dew point, most important for runners, rises to 73 at 10 am and then to 76 for the 40-59 Men's race. Winds are forecast to pick up slightly. Make sure you have your warm weather racing gear and be ready for humid conditions. Isolated thunderstorms are forecast for afternoon but should not affect Masters runners. If the forecast holds, showers and thunderstorms are forecast for Wednesday, which may keep the course a little soft. There is no rain in the forecast from late afternoon Wednesday through race time on Saturday. As always with the weather though, stay tuned. The last time we were here, there was an unexpected shower the night before the race, which pushed some folks from flats back to spikes.

For all of us, this will be the first Club Cross Country Meet without Bill Roe present, helping to organize things and announcing the race. Bill passed  unexpectedly in early 2020. It won't be the same without him.

Below are my previews for each of the three races. As always I rely heavily on Athlinks and on my archives of past USATF National Championships over the past 7 years. Strava is also sometimes helpful. The trick with Cross Country is that road performances ar enot always good predictors for Cross Country. While there are some runners who excel on both the roads and the turf, there are others who cannot be beat on the roads, but struggle on the turf, and vice versa. I try to find recent Cross Country performances and supplement that with information about past Cross Country performance and recent road outings. 

All of the runners mentioned in this article are terrific Masters athletes. Otherwise they would not get mentioned. Keep that in mind. Sometimes I have to refer to past performances or caveats to make relevant comparisons. That is only to distinguish between or among truly outstanding runners. I cover the races below in the order they are run.

OVERALL RACES--INDIVIDUALS

Women In 2016, 94 women toed the line at Club Cross in Tallahassee; 127 are entered for Tallahassee this year. The top 5 at the end of the 2016 race were, in finishing order, Sonja Friend-Uhl, Janet McDevitt, Heather Webster, Marisa Sutera Strange, and Camille Shiflett. Of those top 5, only Strange returns. Strange, three-time Masters Harrier of the Year is a superb runner, but at 58 it would be truly amazing if she factored into the Women's Overall Race. Top contenders this year include: Karolyn Bowley Boston Athletic Association, Jill Braley Atlanta Track Club, Megan Heuer Club Northwest, Carre Joyce Heineck Team Red Lizard, Laurie Knowles Atlanta Track Club, Michelle Rohl Greater Philadelphia Track Club, and Maggie Shearer Cal Coast Track Club

Start of Women's Masters Race at the 2019 USATF Club Cross Country Championships on the Lehigh University Cross Country course in Bethlehem PA Credit fot this picture and all others is Michael Scott unless otherwise specified.
 

Bowley has finished 2nd in the last two USATF Masters 10 km Championships in Dedham, MA, running 37:57 in 2018, and 37:17 in 2019. The only Masters entrant in the 2019 Boston Mayor's Cup 5 km XC race, she finished 40th of 63 in 19:24. This fall Bowley ran 57:44 in the Frank Nealon 15K Tune-Up and followed that with a 1:21:09 at the Eversource Hartford Marathon. Her 6th place finish at the Boston 5 km Masters XC was only two seconds behind Braley and Rohl.

Karolyn Bowley wins the Women's 50-54 Championship at the 2021 USATF Masters 5 km National Championships in Boston

Braley has plenty of Cross Country 'cred'. She came to national attention with a 2nd place finish at the 2018 5 km Masters XC Championships in Buffalo NY; she finished 2nd to her teammate, Friend-Uhl, in 19:42. Five months later she ran 23:14 over 6k to claim 2nd at XC Nationals in Tallahassee. Her 24:04 at Lehigh had her a bit further back at 18th overall. Her most recent effort was  at the National Masters 5 km XC Championships in Boston where her 19:21 landed her in 5th place overall. No slouch on the roads, she also owns top ten overall finishes at the 1 Mile and 5 km national road championships.

Michelle Rohl left Jill Braley right sprint for the Finish Line at the 2021 USATF Masters 5 km XC Championships at Franklin Park in Boston MA

  

Heuer has run some 5K's in the low to mid-18 minute range this year. perhaps more importantly, she was the first Masters woman, finishing 12th overall at the 6 km PNTF Cross Country Championships a month ago in Seattle. Her time over the 6 km course was 22:42, very fast for a 6K course.

In early October, Heineck ran 1:20:23 at the RnR San Jose Half Marathon. She ran as an Open 37-year old runner in the  2018 Club Cross Championships at Spokane. Her 22:40 time would have landed her in 5th place Overall Masters had she run  in the Masters race. In 2014 in the Open race at the XC National Championships at Boulder, she finished 31st of 72. Heineck knows Cross Country! Those outings, coupled with a recent HM close to 1:20 suggests she has the fitness and the know-how to contend for a win.

Knowles, on the other hand, is known mostly as a road runner. If she has Cross Country experience, it is from a long time ago. But Marathoners have done well on the turf at some of our recent championships. Kate Landau, a Marathoner, won at Spokane, and at the same race, Marathoners, Jorge Maravilla, and Eric Loeffler, went 1-2 in the Men's race. Knowles hopes to emulate them.  She has a mid-November 1:18:21 Half Marathon to her credit and a 2:44:53 at the Boston Marathon in early October this year. Her 17:33 at the 2019 USATF Masters 5 km Championships in Atlanta gave her the Overall win, making her the reigning 5K National Masters Champion.

Laurie Knowles wins the first of her two consecutive USATF Masters 5 km Championships on the streets of Atlanta GA in 2018 Photo byJason Getz

Rohl, at 55, is almost as long a shot as is Strange, but she has recent Track and Cross Country credentials to back her up. She set W55 American Records on the track at Ames this year, clocking 4:54.16 and 2:23.26 for the 1500 and 800 meter runs respectively. At the USATF Masters 5 km Championships in Boston this October, her first Cross Country event, she finished 4th overall in 19:21; she had to hold off Braley, who received the same time.  

Shearer broke onto the national Masters scene with a 2nd place finish at the 2018 XC Nationals in Tallahassee, finishing just 4 seconds back from the overall winner, Jennifer Bayliss. She followed that with a 3rd place finish over Spokane's 6K course in 22:10. Between January 2019 and January 2020, Shearer ran three sub 2:50 marathons. She emerged from Covid this past fall, running 44:32 to take 2nd overall behind Roberta Groner at the 12 km Masters National 12 km Championship, and finishing 3rd at the 5 km Masters XC Championships in Boston in 18:37.

Maggie Shearer claims 2nd Overall in the Women's Masters race at the 2018 Cross Country National Championships in Tallahassee FL

 

A number of other runners could contend as well; there are lots of uncertainties, as always. I already mentioned Strange, who won the 2019 XC Nationals, coming in ten seconds ahead of Braley. She knows this course and is a competitor! But she finished a minute behind Rohl at Boston in October. Heather Capello B.A.A. ran 37:21 in the B.A.A. 10K in 2019, and had another 10K within 14 seconds of that. Her most recent 10K outing, however, was a 42:42 at the Lone Gull 10K. That raises doubts about her fitness although there could be other explanations. And it has been three months since that outing, time enough to recover from a minor injury. Three teammates on the Janes Elite Racing had times right around Braley at Lehigh, with Gwendolen Twist a few seconds ahead and Cambria Wu and Vivian Hyman a few seconds back. Braley should be able to do better on a course she knows and has run well at many times. The humidity might be another advantage for Braley. One of the Janes' teammates, Ingrid Walters, took 2nd W45 at the 2017 USATF HM Championships in Newport CA with a 1:24:55, and ran 2:48:03 at the LA Marathon in 2019. Since then she has been battling Breast Cancer, but is on the comeback trail; she ran a 1:30:50 HM in July and a 19:11 5k in September. Laura Osman is, perhaps, more of  a Trail Runner than a cross country runner, but Trail and Mountain runners have often done well at Cross Country. She has a 19:14 flat 5K to her credit this year and a 42:13 in 2020 on the Tough Topanga 10K Trail Run. This fall, Holly McIlvaine ran a fine 23:55 over 6K to finish 41st of 93 entered at the Western Washington University Bill Roe Classic. It would be fitting if someone from a race named after Bill Roe could do well at this event, which was so closely associated with him over the years. She also won the Pacific Association Cross Country Championship in 2016.

I look for Heineck, Knowles and Shearer to battle for the top three spots.

Of course that assumes they all show up healthy and injury free and get their negative Covid tests approved through CrowdPass--just one more hurdle on the road to glory, right?! 

Men 60 and Up One cannot write about this age division and start with someone other than 2020 Masters Harrier of the Year Joe Sheeran Club Northwest. Since turning 60 he has won this division at the Lexington, Spokane, and Lehigh Club Cross events and at the 2019 XC Nats in Tallahassee. 

Start of the Men's 60+ race at the 2019 Club Cross Championships at Lehigh- Joe Sheeran #1334 pushed the pace right from the start; Daniel Johnson #1753 elected to go with him but may have paid the price later. Dan King #1166 settles in behind, but would move up later to take 3rd overall behind Sheeran's win

 

There is no reason to think it will end this weekend but there is a cast of outstanding athletes who will try to bring the Sheeran dominance to a close, at least temporarily. Dan King Athletics Boulder has been chasing Sheeran the last few years, coming up just a bit short whenever they have met on the turf. King has had an outstanding 18 months, mostly on the track where he has broken World and American Records at the 1500 and Mile. He shared the Dipsea Podium (adjusted times) with Mark Tatum, the winner, and Brian Pilcher (not entered in M65 here). He won the Masters 5 km XC Championships in Boston in 18:57, running conservatively. 

Dan King right allowed Robert McCormack left to set the pace for the first two miles of the USATF Masters 5 km Championships in Boston. King moved into first and kicked away in the last mile for the win.  
 

Mark Tatum Boulder Road Runners has been tearing up the trails as usual. His win at Dipsea was symbolic of how well his running has been going. But trails are not Cross Country, and this course is probably less suited to trail runners than many. They call a portion of the course 'The Wall' but to guys who revel in the Dipsea and other mountain running, that is barely a rise. Tatum is familiar with the course. He ran on it in 2019 at XC Nats, finishing 3rd in M55 in 29:50 behind Nat Larson and Mike Blackmore, who have yet to age up into M60. He also ran a 38:38 in the Bolder Boulder 10K. That is a tough course and at altitude, so it is an impressive time. Roger Sayre Boulder Road Runners has pretty much recovered from an injury that popped up at the end of 2019. He ran a 38:47 at the FORTitude 10K in Ft Collins and a 1:23:05 HM in October, also at altitude. Sayre has beaten Sheeran on the roads, but not on the turf. On this course in 2019, he was a half minute back from Sheeran. It is worth mentioning that Sayre finished 3 seconds ahead of Tatum, although in different divisions, that day.
 

Roger Sayre #316 lds off Joseph Mora far right to hold onto 2nd place M60 at the 2021 USATF Masters 12 km Championships in Highlands NJ Photo by Jason Timochko

When King was chasing Sheeran to the finish line, Mark Reeder was in between them. But Reeder has had injury problems recently, as have some of his Greater Lowell teammates; neither he nor they made the trip. But Daniel Johnson TC Running Company is making the trip down from the North Woods of Minnesota. At Lehigh he finished in 4th, just 5 seconds back from King. He appears to be fit. In October he ran 1:03:14 at the Medtronic TC 10 Mile course, with that long pull up from the Mississippi. In 2018, he ran 1:02:42 in that same 10 Miler and then ran 30:17 at Spokane to finish 6th in M60. It looks like he is ready to battle for a top 5 spot! Rick Lee Shore AC is a newcomer to Masters running. He runs everything from roads to cross country to trails and ultras, He set the American 50K record for M60 at the USATF Championships on Long Island earlier this year and then took the M60 title at the 12 km Championships in New Jersey with a 44:16. He is one of these guys who rarely takes a break. He ran 2:49:29 at the Boston Marathon and 6 days later took 4th in M60 at the 5 km Championships in Boston in 19:19. It seems like he might have run faster had he not had a Marathon still in his legs.

Rick Lee claims 4th place M60 at the 2021 USATF Masters 5 km XC Championships on the Franklin Park course in Boston MA

 

There is a long list of talented runners who might factor into the top 10 or even top 5 on the right day: Paul Abdalla, Sheeran's Club Northwest teammate, who was only 12 seconds behind Sheeran at their PNTF XC Championships last month; Timothy Conheady Greater Philadelphia TC, who finished 8th at Lehigh in 30:35; William 'Hugh' Enicks So Cal TC, who ran a 37:21 10K this past January and an 18:03 in August & at Lexington in 2017 finished 20th in M55; and  Joseph Mora Genesee Valley Harriers and Robert McCormack HFC Striders, who were within ten seconds of King at Boston.

The battle for first should come down to Sheeran, King and Tatum, probably in that order. But Sayre or Lee could upset that applecart. I cannot wait to see! 

Men 40 and Up This is a tough race to pick, given the adage, sometimes proven wrong in XC, that the fresh legs tend to win, there are always new faces, and new legs, without a Masters National Championships track record, to mix in with the old. Jacques Sallberg Cal Coast TC has been almost as dominant in this division as Sheeran in M60+. Starting with XC Nats at Boulder in 2015, he then won both XC Nats Championships in Bend for 2016 and 2017. He did not make the XC Nats in Tallahassee in 2018, but took the title in 2019. He has been a little less successful at Club Cross but is the defending Champion from Lehigh; he pulled away from Peter Gilmore West Valley TC to win by 5 seconds in 32:55. 

On a cold day, racing through some muddy turns, Jacques Sallberg wins the Men's 40-59 Championship at the 2019 Club Cross Championships in Bethlehem PA


He finished 4th in San Francisco in 31:57, At Spokane he finished 6th in 33:42, but bounced back at Lehigh in 2019 to prove that 3rd time's the charm as he won at Lehigh in Bethlehem PA. His experience on the Tallahassee course from 2019 will help, but there are new challengers, as well as old. Gilmore is back for another try. He had some injuries during 2020 but is recovered now. He ran 1:08:09 at the Clarksburg Country Run HM a couple of weeks ago. He does not appear to have competed in any XC races this year yet. David Angell Roanoke Valley Elite and John Gardiner Cal Coast TC finished 2nd and 3rd behind Sallberg at the 2019 XC Nats,. Both have had an up and down period over the last year. It appears they are currently both reasonably healthy and both are entered. Angell has been more successful on the roads, where he has multiple Overall National Championships at the 5K, 8K, and 10K. Major Cross Country Championships have eluded him, although he does have a Masters 5 km XC Championship at Buffalo NY in his wins list. 

David Angell far left, Jorge Maravilla center, and Eric Loeffler far right created a gap back to a chase pack led by Jacques Sallberg. Those three ran together until the last 2 km when Maravilla pulled away from Loeffler and Leoffler pulled away from Angell. They finished 1-2-3 in the Men's 40 and up race at the 2018 Club Cross Championships in Spokane WA

 

Angell was on the podium at Spokane and at the 2019 XC Nats at Tallahassee. Gardiner, at one point, had 7 consecutive top ten finishes at Club Cross, showing remarkable consistency. He was on the Club Cross podium in 2016 in Tallahassee, and again at 2019 XC Nats on the same course;  like Angell, he knows this course and has run well on it. John Howell Bowerman TC has finished as high as 2nd overall at Club Cross; when he ran 33:03 at Lexington, Neville Davey, not entered this year, was the only runner ahead. In Spokane next year, Howell finished 5th in 33:41. 

John Howell claims 2nd place ahead of Jorge Maravilla in the Men's 40 and up race at the 2017 Club Cross Championships in Lexington KY
 

Lehigh was an off year for him. Will Howell break back into the top 5? Howell was not in top shape in November 2020 when he finished 4th Masters at the Stumptown XC #5. It is hard to gauge current fitness as Howell seems to compete primarily in  Beast, Savage, and Spartan races, which rely on a broader range of fitness than XC does. 

Howell's teammate, Gregory Mitchell has had even greater success. From his first Club Cross Championships in Bend OR in 2013, through the Tallahassee Club Cross Championships in Tallahassee in 2016, he finished first or second at Club Cross and XC Nats every time, and two of the 2nd places were behind a runner who is currently suspended for a USADA sanction. 

Gregory Mitchell #1259 leads John Gardiner #1275 and Neville Davey midway through the 2016 Club Cross Championships at Tallahassee in 2016. They would eventually finish in that order, Mitchell-Gardiner-Davey.

 

Despite some niggling injuries, Mitchell was able to finish 6th at Lexington and 7th at Spokane. Lehigh was an off year, but he bounced back this spring with a fine 33:56 10,000 Meter win on the track at the USATF Masters Outdoor Championships. What about new blood? The 5 km Masters XC Championships in Boston had Chris Garvin HFC Striders, John Poray Indiana Elite, and TJ Unger HFC Striders going 1-2-3. Garvin has some fine efforts on the roads, from a 27:21 5 Miler to a 57:39 10 Miler, but nothing that prepared us, or him, if his comments after the race are taken as gospel, for his first big XC victory. 

Chris Garvin wins the 40 and up Men's race at the 2021 USATF masters 5 km Championships in Boston MA

 

Tallahassee will be his first foray to one of the big national XC meets, as he leads his HFC Strider team into the fray. Poray had the early lead in that Boston race and looked headed for the win until Garvin caught him in the final mile. 

John Poray far right takes the field out hard in the Men's 50 and Up race at the 2021 USATF Masters 5 km XC Championships in Boston MA. Chris Garvin, who eventually came from behind to win the race is in about 10th place on the far side of the bearded runner in the bright blue singlet

 

Poray comes into Tallahassee as part of a strong Indiana Elite AC team, on which he is probably the #2 runner. He also has a 32:08 10K and a sub 1:10 HM to his credit this year. Unger has done well in Greater Boston XC competitions but did not have much luck at Lehigh in 2019. This could be another story as the course conditions are likely to be more favorable, namely less muddy. Poray's strongest teammate is Jesse Davis who, among other accomplishments nailed an Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying time at the 2019 Indiana Monumntal Marathon when he clocked 2:24:15. Davis has a 1:07:38 HM and a 51:21 15K under his belt this year. He appears to be coming in fit. The strongest of these new Masters runners, at least on the roads, appears to be Alexander Taylor B.A.A. He finished 2nd Masters to Abdi Abdirahman in 2:22:35 at the Boston Marathon in October and had a 49:17 winning Masters effort at the Frank Nealon 15K Tune Up, also this fall. He took the Masters win at the 2020 Mayor's Cup XC race in Boston, finishing 15th overall and 1st Masters, his 16:20 time a minute ahead of Unger.  

Eric Blake is not exactly a newcomer; he took 1st at the 2019 10 km Championships in Dedham in 32:17 and finished 2nd to Sallberg at the 2020 XC Nats in San Diego. 

 

Eric Blake establishing a gap back to David Angell in th eMen's 40 and up race at the 2020 USATF Cross Country Championships at the Mission Bay course in San Diego

Blake burnished his resume with a 2:30:17 effort at the Boston Marathon this fall. Others who migh factor in include Greter Philadelphia TC teammates, Brock Butler, Chris Naimoli, and Matthew Waggoner. They went 1-2-3 overall at the 2021 12 km National Championships in New Jersey with times from 39:52 to 40:29. Butler and Naimoli have been fighting off minor injuries since then, but both appear healthy coming into Tallahassee. Waggoner finished 4th at the XC Championships in Boston. None had the race they hoped for at Lehigh in 2019; this year might be different. Sallberg's teammate, Roosevelt Cook finished 6th Overall at Lehigh and hopes to move up at this race. In that Championship, he was in 'no man's land' for much of the race; look for him to stick with the leaders this time. 

Roosevelt Cook left leads Adam Dailey right midway through the 2019 USATF Masters 5 km Championships in San Diego. Jacques Sallberg lime singlet and Neville Davey are in the background, Photo courtesy of Cal Coast Track Club

 

He has two sub 1:08:30 Half Marathons to his credit this year and a 32:18 10K from 2020. Geoffrey Njonjo Club Northwest, who won the PNTF Masters Cross Country Championships in Seatlle this year, and Julian Marsh West Valley TC, who finished 11th  at Lehigh in 2019 might hang in the lead pack as well.

Jacques Sallberg sprints for the finishing line and the win at the 2019 USATF Masters 5 km Championships on the Mission Bay course at San Diego CA Photo courtesy of Cal Coast Track Club

 

Given Sallberg's record, it is easy to pick him for the group challenging for 1st. The last time he finished off a XC podium was in Spokane where he fell to two Marathoners in Jorge Maravilla and Eric Loeffler, and Angell, although he got his revenge at Lehigh, coming in ahead of all 3. Maravilla and Loeffler are not here, but Angell is. Despite some struggles this year he has some high points as well; his 2nd place to Abdi at the AJC Peachtree Road Race in 33:06 stands out. Will the two newcomers, Taylor and Davis, with their fast Marathons, be Sallberg's undoing again? He won at Lehigh at he age of 45. Can he win at 47? He is a Maser strategist; he knows how and when to make a decisive move. Unless some of the newcomers can inflict a punishing pace and drop Sallberg, he is still a threat to win!

My guess is that Sallberg can handle all his old rivals. I look for one or two newcomers to be in the hunt for the win along with him, most likely Davis and Taylor. 

The competiton will be fierce and several others could wind up on the podium. As always, it will be a treat to watch and see who emerges, if anyone,  to prove me wrong! I love it when soeone comes up after the race and tells me you left me off the podium and I guess I showed you!

That's my preview for Overall competition in the three races. Next up will be Age Divisions, and then Teams.




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