Thursday, February 9, 2017

2017 National Cross Country Champions Crowned on a Slippery Course in Bend Oregon-Part 1-Overall and Age Grading Contests

On Saturday, February 64h, the 2017 USATF Cross Country Championships were conducted for the second consecutive year at the Rivers Edge Golf Course in Bend, Oregon. Early in the week the forecast called for snow on Thursday, ice pellets on Friday, and rain on race day. Luckily the weather was not as bad as feared. The efforts to clear the snow away from the Cross Country course were successful, a tribute to the incredible work put forth by Meet Director Kevney Dugan of "Visit Bend" and Community Volunteers. 
Picture of the Course at Bend the day *before* the race--Terrific job to get it ready for a day of racing--Lots of Hours and Effort! [Photo by John Gardiner posted on Facebook]

The Women’s race went off at 10 AM under clear skies and 43 degrees, but with 13 mph winds gusting to 22-24 mph, a wind chill of 34 degrees. When the Men started their race at 10:45, it was slightly colder and windier with a light rain. The main problem was not the cold but that there were a few very muddy, slippery spots on the course, due to snow melt. At one level, one can say that a wind chill and a muddy course just make things more interesting. But if the course is very slippery and runners are coursing across and up and down hills with many elevation changes, it can cause a little havoc. Apparently a number of runners lost their footing and fell from time to time. Certainly everyone who competed earned plenty of ‘street cred’ or maybe that should be 'Turf Cred' as a XC Warrior!

The Women’s race pitted last year’s winner, Grace Padilla, against the 2015 runner-up when this race was in Boulder Colorado, Melody Fairchild. Fairchild has been gradually returning to competition after time off for the birth and nurturing of baby Dakota. She finished 3rd at the 15K in Tulsa last October and was looking to kick things up a notch on the trails. Last year Padilla, who enjoys being a front-runner, took off at the gun, built a big lead and was never headed. On Saturday, Padilla again led from the start but Fairchild kept up close. Tania Fischer, who had had hit a bad patch over the last year or so, had apparently put that behind her, as she was just off the pace. Marisa Sutera Strange, who was expected to contend, found herself 25 seconds off the pace after the first lap. Three-quarters of the way around the first loop the runners face a fairly sharp, short descent. Padilla struggled with her footing there, wobbled a bit but kept her feet under her. As Fairchild put it after the race, " legs went up, and my butt went down! I slid  - as if on a slip 'n' slide - down the hill, trailing Grace. I popped up as if sliding safely into 2nd base and kept running! Fun and the thrill took my breath away and I had to calm myself in order to regain my breathing rhythm and get the focus to close the gap Grace put on me." 
Grace Padilla (left) leading Melody Fairchild (right) after the spill on the1st loop [photo posted by Stephanie Ross on Facebook]

The 2nd lap saw Fairchild, a former Team USA member at the World Mountain Running Championships, surge away from the field, up and across and down and over and up and all of a sudden there was a huge gap. 
Melody Fairchild pulling away from the field on the 2nd Loop [Photo by Michael Scott]

Padilla slowed substantially as the rest of the field regained contact, and Fisher surged into 2nd. 
Tania Fischer trying to extend her gap over Padilla, Strange and Hay on the 2nd loop [Photo by Michael Scott]

At the end of the 2nd loop it was Fairchild by over half a minute in 24:02. Fairchild recalled, "I made it hurt striving to gap the field early on, so I just tried to maintain." The Chase Pack of Fischer, Padilla, Strange and Susan Hay were all within 5 seconds of each other. No one was going to catch Fairchild, but the remainder of the podium would come from this pack. Fairchild extended her lead on the last loop, winning by almost a minute. 

Padilla found her kick when she needed it at the end of the final loop where there was a furious finish to determine 2nd through 5th place. Padilla pulled away for the 2nd place finish in 24:52, 3 seconds ahead of Fischer. 
Grace Padilla striding uphill through the snow banks at the 2017 USATF XC Championships [Photo posted on Facebook by Michael Leong]

Hay was in 4th, another 2 seconds back, followed by Strange, who collapsed at the finish.
But by the time of the Awards Ceremonies Strange appeared to be completely recovered. 
Melody Fairchild wins the Masters Women's Overall Championship at the 2017 USATF Cross Country Championships in Bend OR [photo by Michael Scott]

Fairchild noted that this would probably be her first and last race of the year as her family focus would take priority now. But she looks forward to rejoining the Masters Grand Prix in the future. "I am very excited about the Grand Prix!"
Fairchild        Padilla        Fischer        Hay        Strange

The Men’s race was a rematch between 2015 and 2016 Masters Grand Prix winner, Greg Mitchell and two-time defending USATF XC Champion, Jacques Sallberg. Mitchell has done better on the roads, but Sallberg loves Cross Country competition and this course. Mitchell had some injury problems in the middle of 2016 but had appeared to put them behind him when he finished a strong second to Master’s Ace, Kevin Castille, at the Club Cross Country Championships this past December. Others expected to contend included Mitchell’s teammate, John Howell, Cal Coast’s top runner, John Gardiner, who was off his fitness last year at these championships, and David Angell, a newcomer to the circuit who finished 3rd in the fall at the 5K and 15K road races.

Last year Sallberg kicked it into high gear after the second of four loops. This year he did not toy with his competitors; he started to pull away right after the leaders reached the highest point on the course. By the end of the first loop, Sallberg already had a 7 second gap on the main contenders; Gardiner led the 4-man chase pack, with Howell, Angell and Mitchell, which had 18 seconds on the rest of the field. 
Jacques Sallberg building a huge lead in the Masters Men's Contest at the 2017 USATF XC CHampionships in Bend OR [Photo by Michael Scott]

Sallberg, sensing that this would be his day, threw in a big surge after the first loop, opening up a half minute gap by the end of that loop. The chase pack held together but Mitchell, on an off day, was in danger of losing contact, 5 seconds back. Sallberg poured it on over the final 2 loops finishing in 26:29 with a terrific kick, a toss of the ear muffs and a dominant 90 second victory-Wow! Third consecutive USATF Cross Country Championship Overall Win for Sallberg-Impressive!
Jacques Sallberg breaks the tape as he wins the Men's Overall Masters Championship in the 2017 USATF XC Championships at Bend OR [Photo by Michael Scott]
Sallberg indicated after the race that "last month we had more rain than usual in southern California so it's been pretty cold and wet when I do workouts in the mornings. I was mentally prepared for the weather and course conditions to be challenging. When they groomed the course and the sun came out in the morning, I was pretty excited. 
During the race I was thinking about the hard work I put in over the past few months and the athletes I've been coaching and training with. I want to thank them for being a part of my life right now and keeping me enthusiastic about the sport. Shout out to Kayla, Katie, Perry, Ronnie, Johnny, Sydney, Natalie, Monica, Trevor, Eryn, Marissa, and Morgan.

The 3-man chase pack of Angell, Gardiner, and Howell hung together until midway through the final loop when Howell surged away, 
John Howell with a few strides on John Gardiner at the 2017 USATF Masters XC Championship in Bend OR [Photo by Michael Scott]

with Gardiner surging away from Angell. 

David Angell trying to maintain contact with John Howell and John Gardiner at the 2017 USATF Masters XC Championships in Bend OR [Photo by Michael Scott]

In the end it was Howell 2nd in 27:59, with Gardiner eight seconds back in 3rd. Angell, another 11 seconds back and then Mitchell followed in that order.
Sallberg        Howell        Gardiner        Angell        Mitchell

The age-grading scores were again comparatively low compared to road racing scores because of the slippery conditions and the general difficulty of this challenging cross country course where the athletes run up and down and across the side of a cinder cone. 

The top of the Age-Grading podium for Women was a surprise and points out the difficulty of going by road times as a predictor for a Cross Country race. Some runners are simply much better (or worse) as Cross Country Runners, especially on a difficult or muddy course. Susan Hay, 53, must be one of those. Make no mistake; Hay is an excellent runner who typically age-grades in the 85-89 range. But she was going up against two runners, Marisa Sutera Strange and Jo Anne Rowland, who consistently age grade above 90 in road races. Hay’s 84.3% shaded Strange's 2nd place score by 0.8% points. 
Susan Hay, striding jauntily toward the Age-Grading Vcitory at the 2017 USATF XC Championships in Bend OR [Photo by Michael Scott]

Tania Fischer, 50, as noted above, appears to be back at the top of her game as she notched a 3rd place finish at 81.4. Like Hay, Strange is 53;  the podium all came from the 50-54 age group. 
Marisa Sutera Strange leading Hay midway through the race; Strange took 2nd in the Age-Grading Competition at the 2017 USATF XC Championships in Bend OR [Photo by Michael Scott]

Age-grading prize money went 5 deep. Jeanette Groesz, 67, with 80.1 and Kirsten Leetch, 51, with 79.1 went home with cash awards also. Rounding out the top ten age-graders were: Melody Fairchild, 43, Jo Anne Rowland, 68, Gail Hall, 57, Katherine MacTavish, 54, and Grace Padilla, 45.
Hay        Strange        Fischer        Groesz        Leetch

Jacques Sallberg, 42, swept the Overall awards. His dominance in the Men's race was so great that he also set the pace across all age groups, age-grading at 86.0%. 

Joe Sheeran, 59, who finished 2nd at age-grading in the 2015 Club Cross Country Championships, matched that by coming in here at 85.6%. Pete Magill, 55, who took 1st in Age Grading at the 2016 Club Cross Country Championships, had to settle for 3rd place in Bend at 83.0. Matthew Farley, 49,
Matthew Farley powering his way to a 4th place finish in the Age-Grading Contest at the 2017 USATF Masters XC Championships in Bend OR [Photo by Michael Scott]
and John Gardiner, 44, took 4th and 5th at 82.8 and 82.3% respectively. 
John Gardiner persevering for a top Age-Grading place at the 2017 Masters XC Championships in Bend OR [Photo by Michael Scott]
Rounding out the top ten age-graders were: John Howell, 43, Mike Blackmore, 55, Ignacio Jimenez, 67, Greg Mitchell, 43, and Rob Arsenault, 51.
Sallberg        Sheeran         Magill        Farley        Gardiner

It was a terrific start to the season. The challenging conditions made for memorable races. Next up on the Masters Grand Prix will be the USATF Masters 8K Championship 

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