Friday, December 16, 2016

USATF Club Cross Country Championships--Recap 1--Overall 6K, 8K, and 10K Races

December 15 2016. The National Club Cross Country Championships are the 'Big Kahuna' of Masters Racing, at least as far as the Clubs are concerned. Scheduled for Tallahassee Florida on the 10th of December, Clubs came from coast to coast. Get the win and you have bragging rights for the next year, and sometimes longer. But first, let's focus on another matter of interest: "Who came across the finish line first?" We love Age-Grading but, in the end, we are a visual species; we look at who crosses the finish line and say, "Son of a gun, there goes the winner!" In that spirit, there were 3 Masters races and three winners in Tallahassee on that frosty morning--the Women's 6K which went off at 8 am when the temps were still hovering just above the freezing mark,  the 60+ Men's 8K at 8:45, and the 40+ Men's 10K at 9:45.

Women. I expected to see a duel between the Atlanta Track Club's Sonja Friend-Uhl, the defending Champion, and Janet McDevitt, from Club Northwest, who finished 7 seconds back last year. Two runners from New York, Heather Webster and Marisa Sutera Strange, could also play a role and would certainly challenge for the podium. The gun went off and the line bent as the fleetest women surged to the front, heading down the wide stretch of grass past the eventual finish line and then uphill and around a bend. A 3-runner pack was forming with Friend-Uhl, McDevitt, and Nancy Thomas, seven seconds ahead of the next group which included Webster and McDevitt's teammate, Camille Shiflett. Five seconds back from them was Sutera Strange, starting off at a more measured pace. By the time they were at the back of the wooded loop about 2 kilometers out, Thomas was starting to have a little difficulty staying with the dynamic duo of Friend-Uhl and McDevitt, slipping a few strides back.

Sonja Friend-Uhl (L) and Janet McDevitt running stride for stride down the frosty turf at the end of the first loop [Photo by Michael Scott]
Shiflett was tryng to close the gap, now only 4 seconds back from Thomas. Webster was running steadily, now 4 seconds behind Shiflett, joined by Liisa Miller and Kathleen Cushing-Murray.

At the end of the first loop, they were running down past the finish line to start uphill on the 2nd loop. At that point, McDevitt made a game attempt to open up a gap on Friend-Uhl. Heading uphill there were a couple of strides between them. But could she hold it? The 1st chase pack was still Shiflett and Thomas, about ten seconds back,
Camille Shiflett leading Nancy Thomas at the end of the first loop [Photo by Michael Scott]

with a 2nd chase pack of Webster, Miller and Cushing-Murray, joined now by Strange, who was finding her legs or maybe just enjoying that the frost was starting to melt!
Marisa sutera Strange (gloves) and Heather Webster (GVH) lead the 2nd chase pack with Liisa Miller (1080) and Kathleen Cushing-Murray (1089)

Friend-Uhl closed on McDevitt once they reached the flat and the two ran toe for toe through the next thousand meters before Friend-Uhl started to surge away. By the 5000 meter mark, she had 6 seconds on McDevitt and that was the race. Friend-Uhl powered away to win by 22 seconds.
Sonja Friend-Uhl wins the 2016 USATF National Masters Club Cross Country Championship in Tallahassee Florida [Photo by Michael Scott]

McDevitt had spent everything but is such a talented runner that she had no worries in nailing down second.
Janet McDevitt finishes second at the 2016 USATF National Masters Club Cross Country Championship in Tallahassee Florida [Photo by Michael Scott]

Eighteen seconds back there was quite a battle for third place. Strange and Webster closed on Shiflett after the rise at the start of the second loop and by the 4000 meter mark, Strange and Shiflett were running stride for stride with Webster tucked in right behind. By the 5000 meter mark it was single file-Strange, Shiflett, Webster. As they rose up the last hill, emerged out into the sunlight, Webster was able to find another gear and surge past her two rivals to claim 3rd! Strange was 5 seconds back, followed by Shiflett and a fast-closing Thomas.
Marisa Sutera Strange in a driving sprint to the finish line at the
2016 USATF National Masters Club Cross Country Championship in Tallahassee Florida [Photo by Michael Scott]

This was Friend-Uhl's day, a dominating performance at the end of the year in which she was out of competition, coping with hamstring and plantar fascitis issues for much of the summer. McDevitt showed again that she is the 'best of the rest' and has the grit and determination to challenge for the win even if it was against the odds.

Friend-Uhl   22:15   McDevitt    22:37     Webster   22:55

Men 60+. I had made Tamalpa's Brian Pilcher the overwhelming favorite, mostly due to his recent record-busting efforts at distances as short as 5K and as long as the Marathon. With that range and talent, how could anyone stay with him? I made that call despite knowing that John Barbour, Greater Lowell, had astounded many last year by staying with Rick Becker for most of the race. But Pilcher had beaten Barbour by three minutes at the 10K road race in Dedham in April. I expected Pilcher to run solo in the lead with a chase pack of Barbour and Dan Spale of the Boulder Road Runners. Two runners from the Genesee Valley Harriers were expected to factor. Mark Rybinski finished 3rd last year but who has been battling back from injury for the last few months; Gary Radford has been running strong all summer and fall. Pilcher's Tamalpa teammate,Mark Richtman is a terrific trail runner and would no doubt enjoy a strong race as well. Pilcher mentioned to me during warm-ups that Barbour would definitely be tough-"It's Cross Country! You know what Barbour did last year." And he was right; Barbour had no intention of giving Pilcher a free pass.

The gun went off and the runners surged down the hill and then up, around a bend and then it flattened out for a bit. They crossed the 1 kilometer mark before heading on to the back, wooded loop.
John Barbour (l) and Brian Pilcher (r) leading the Masters 8K at the 500 meter mark; their relative positions would not change over the next 7000 meters-What a duel! [Photo by Michael Scott]

At that point it was Pilcher and Barbour matching stride for stride, opening up a ten second gap back to a chase pack including Spale, Rybinski, Radford, Richtman and (Who's that old guy?) 66 year old Hall of Famer, Doug Bell, running with the young guns.
Dan Spale in hot pursuit of Barbour and Pilcher in the first 300 meters [Photo by Michael Scott]

By the time they passed the starting line to head out to the 2nd loop, Pilcher and Barbour were still battling; this time Barbour may have been a half step ahead; he was not just sitting on Pilcher. The chase pack was thirty seconds back and starting to break up. Spale was leading with Radford trying to hang tough with him, followed by the rest. By the end of the 2nd loop, nothing had changed with the leaders, who were now clear of the field by over 40 seconds. Sometimes Barbour had a half stride and sometimes it was Pilcher by a half stride, but neither was giving in.
Pilcher (L) and Barbour (R) giving no quarter as they barrel along toward the final loop [Photo by Michael Scott]

Spale had surged clear, 20 seconds ahead of the chase pack, which had now dwindled to three: Radford, Rybinski and Richtman.
Gary Radford (GVH), Greg Bell (orange singlet), and Mark Richtman (White singlet) setting off at the start, forming a chase group behind Spale

Neither Pilcher nor Barbour could gain an edge on the back loop , nor up the final tough hill. Once they got out into the open and hit the downhill slope to the finish, Pilcher was able to call on his speed to surge away for a 4 second win!
Brian Pilcher pelting to the finish line to claim the win over John Barbour (background) at the 2016 USATF National Masters Club Cross Country Championship in Tallahassee Florida [Photo by Michael Scott]

And was Spale able to thrive in 'no man's land'? Yep! In fact, he pulled away a bit further to claim third place by almost half a minute over the fast closing trio, Rybinski, Radford and Richtman, separated by only a few seconds. Once again Pilcher wins-a terrific champion! But Barbour showed again that he is really a very tough Cross Country runner--Hat's off to these two outstanding runners!

Pilcher   29:37      Barbour    29:41    Spale   30:33

Men 40+. When Kevin Castille enters a Masters Distance race, everyone takes notice. At age 44 he still appears to have an edge. He recently clocked a sub-15 minute 5K at the Championships in Syracuse. He is also the defending champion, having won in San Francisco last year.He would face largely the same set of challengers. The Bowerman Track Club's Greg Mitchell finished 2nd to Castille last year and was the favorite to do so again. Others likely to be in the hunt included Neville Davey, 3rd last year, John Gardiner, 12th last year but with several superlative performances this fall , and Mike Galoob who has been burning up the Cross Country paths in Boston this fall. Mitchell's teammate, John Howell, who finished 6th last year and late entrant, Christopher Mutai of 1st Place Sports, might also threaten for the podium. Mutai finished 4th overall and top Masters in Jacksonville's Thanksgiving Distance Classic (Half Marathon) in 1:11:28 and ran a 15:32 5K on Labor Day. Aaron Totten-Lancaster of the Atlanta Track Club had finished 34th last yea rinhis first go at Masters Club XC. But he had a number of high quality outings this year including a 33:23 10K 5th place finish in the USATF Masters Championship in Dedham and matched that place in Syracuse with a 15:42 5K.

The gun went off and so did Castille! He was leaving nothing to chance, giving no hope to any pursuers.
350 meters into the race, Kevin Castille has already surged to a remarkable lead; he would push the pace and add to it throughout the race. [Photo by Michael Scott]

He was already ten seconds ahead at the 1 kilometer mark and pulling away. By the end of the first loop he already had over half a minute on the field. There was not much doubt about who the winner would be; Castille added to his lead continually, winning in the end by well over a minute. And what about the rest of the field?
The Main Field, led by Greg Mitchell strings out behind Kevin Castille 400 meters into the race at the2016 USATF National Masters Club Cross Country Championship in Tallahassee Florida [Photo by Michael Scott]

Pulled along by Castille's fast pace, a chase group of three, Davey, Gardiner, and Mitchell, formed and had a 5 second gap on the rest of the field by the end of the first kilometer.

They added to the gap during the entire first loop and when they passed the 3 K mark, had 13 seconds on the main pack.

Christopher Mutai (1200) leading the main pack as they try to maintain pace with the front runners at the 2016 USATF National Masters Club Cross Country Championship in Tallahassee Florida [Photo by Michael Scott]

At that point Totten-Lancaster was making a brave move to hold or possibly even cross the gap, 3 seconds ahead of the  field but 10 seconds back from the 3-runner chase group.

Aaron Totten-Lancaster, sitting in 5th place, trying to bridge the gap up to the chase pack [Photo by Michael Scott]

Once they crested the rise at the start of the 2nd loop, Gardiner and Mitchell upped the ante and Davey decided to let them go for now and hope he could stay close enough for his strong finish to reel them in.
Greg Mitchell (1259) and John Gardiner (1275) going stride for stride, tied for 2nd, with Neville Davey trying to stay close in 4th at the 2016 USATF National Masters Club Cross Country Championship in Tallahassee Florida [Photo by Michael Scott]
 But Gardiner and Mitchell were relentless; the gap between them and Davey was 7 seconds at the 4K and 12 at the 5K. Meanwhile Totten-Lancaster, joined by Mutai, had closed to within 5 seconds of Davey. After the 5K, Mitchell threw in another surge up the hill and down the slope past the Start chute, resulting in a 7 second gap on Gardiner. At the same time Mutai and Totten-Lancaster were flying and closed to within 2 seconds of Davey. Mitchell continued to pull away from Gardiner over the short 3rd loop, growing the lead to 13 seconds; Gardiner whittled away at that margin over the final 2000 meters but could get no closer than 11 seconds by the finish. Mitchell had his second consecutive Silver Medal at Club XC, a great way to end a season on a high note.
Greg Mitchell strides toward the finish line, claiming 2nd place at the 2016 USATF National Masters Club Cross Country Championship in Tallahassee Florida [Photo by Michael Scott]

John Gardiner finishes off the race in 3rd place at the 2016 USATF National Masters Club Cross Country Championship in Tallahassee Florida [Photo by Michael Scott]
Gardiner was delighted to cap an excellent season with a move up from 12th in 2015 to 3rd.
 Even though a podium spot was unlikely, Davey, Mutai and Totten-Lancaster were giving it their all, for individual and team bragging rights. They ran stride for stride until the end of the third loop. At that point Totten-Lancaster struggled to maintain contact with the other two.

Then there was only 1000 meters to go--up the hill and down the long slope and Davey, the winner of the Masters 1500 at the Olympic Trials this year, called on his miler's speed to pull away from Mutai and secure 4th place. Mutai did well to hang on to 5th place by 2 seconds as Howell and Galoob were bearing down on him, in 6th and 7th.
The Main Pack heads toward the Finish Line with Todd Rose in the lead, bearing down on Totten-Lancaster. Mike Galoob (yellow singlet) is about to unleash a kick that will carry him past all of these rivals [Photo by Michael Scott]

Totten-Lancaster had to settle for 9th in the end but had the satisfaction of knowing that he had run bravely over the second 4000 meters of the race and made a real race within the race with Davey and Mutai.

Castille  31:29    Mitchell   32:43   Gardiner   32:54

Hats off to the Champions, the runners who made them work for it and all the runners who competed!


  1. Thank you for your generous comments, Paul -- my congratulations to Brian of course, and all who gave their best out there last weekend.

    1. John, the comments were no more generous than you earned--Well done! It was another stirring race this year! Maybe Brian and you and Rick Becker and Tom McCormack could all make it to Club Cross next year? Now that would be a race worth watching!

  2. Paul,
    Thanks for your fine reporting. Boy do I wish I could have been there with John and Brian. I was unable to participate this year due to a foot injury. I have not been able to train for a few months. If my 2nd injection does not work I may have to have surgery. For now I will have to just read your reports. Maybe I can be ready by next year club xc.

  3. It means a lot that you not only consider the price as well as how much time it takes, schedules, if you require cross country moving & storage areas, and a few other issues.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.