January 28, 2023 The 2023 USATF Cross Country Championships were held at Pole Green Park outside of Richmond, VA this past Saturday, January 21st. Site of many collegiate, junior college and Junior Olympics cross country championships. The Championships were held on the upper course which is a groomed 2 km loop around a large field with some gradual down and upslopes and a few undulations. It is a runner-friendly and spectator-friendly course. With little measurable precipitation in the runup to the Championship the course was dry and firm, with no muddy spots whatsoever. At low to mid-40's for the Masters races, the temperatures were on the cool side. Skies were mostly sunny and there was just a little windl But for January in Virginia, no one was complaining much, especially after the ordeal in San Francisco in December. Some were wearing caps and a few knit hats were spotted. Arm sleeves or long-sleeved t-shirts were also common. But so were plain singlets.
OVERALL RACES The Overall Races had a little more at stake this year compared to years past. As most know, traditionally, every other year of this Championship has served as a selection event for the World Cross Country Championships-Open and U20 (formerly known as Junior). Because of Covid and skipping World Cross in 2020, both 2023 and 2024 will be selection years. This year, for the first time, World Athletics (WA) and World Masters Athletics (WMA) hammered out an agreement that a WMA Cross Country Championship would be held at the same venue on the same weekend as the WA Cross Country Championships. USATF did not receive official notification of the agreement until late November, 2022. At that point there was little time to do the kind of advance planning that is typically done for international events. Aware of some of these difficulties, WMA is inviting athletes to come and compete for their country, but there will be no national teams as such. The usual machinery USATF employs for Master participation in international championships did not swing into action. A funding mechanism has been identified for the last couple of WMA Outdoor and Indoor Championships with the goal of maximizing medals won by the USA. But no such funding mechanism was in place for a new international championship and budgets for 2023 had already been finalized. Nonetheless, Masters Cross Country Representative, Mary Rosado, was able to secure limited funding to defray a portion of the travel costs to compete in Australia for the top overall finisher in the Women's and Men's races. This funding was announced just a week before the Championships. As many of our top Masters Cross Country athletes as possible were notified of the opportunity. But, with the notification coming just one week before the selection event, and with just one additional month beyond that to the World event, very few could alter their plans. I expect that arrangements for the next World Cross Country Championships in Croatia in 2024 will be in place well in advance of the event and will cover a wider age range of masters athletes, as is the case for the other WMA Championships. For those already entered and with a shot at an overall win, this funding opportunity was an added incentive for a win!
The Women's race went off at 10:30 AM and the Men's an hour later. The entries for the Women's race numbered 56, slightly down from last year but fairly representative of earlier years; entries for the men's race were at 188, the largest field by far in the last few years for these championships.
WOMEN The strong favorite in the overall race was April Lund GYS Track Club, in her first Masters Championships since turning 40. A 1:15 Half marathoner on an out and back course, along with a 2:39:18 at the Chevron Houston Marathon; she has also produced fast times, winning her division at the Masters Outdoor Track and Field Championships last summer with a 17:44/35:19 5000 meter/10,000 meter double. No one else entered has that kind of speed nor, for that matter that kind of endurance. Brett Ely Notch Brewing, is very fast with an 18:37 5K last November and a 37:27 to finish 5th overall at the Masters 10 Km Championships last April. Fiona Bayly Unattached, though just turned 55, has wheels. She ran two 5K's last fall within two ticks of 18:30! She also ran 38:55 at Peachtree in Atlanta last 4th of July; known for its heat and hills, Peachtree is not conducive to fast times. Brennan Liming Bull City TC has similar road speed over short distances; her 29:46 8K is equivalent to a sub 18:30 5K. And she had a very nice 1:03:37 10 Miler, equivalent roughly to a 38:30 10K. Kara Rubinich Greater Philly was a little slower over 8K with a 31:22 last summer. Her 10 Miler is a minute faster than Liming's but is on the fast, slightly downhill Blue Cross Broad Street Run. They appear closely matched. Both have run XC national championships, with Liming having more experience and success at masters XC Championships. Liming finished 4th overall at 2017 Club Cross in Lexington and was 5th at Lehigh in 2019. Rubinich was almost a minute and a half behind Liming at Lehigh. Others who could make a difference in the run for the podium include: Samantha Forde Impala Racing, who finished 10th overall at the Masters 12 Km Championships in 50:19; Erika Holroyd who was 9th overall at Tallahassee last December; Jennifer Ledford Unattached, who may have run two sub-19 5K's in 2020; Sarah Rusk Pike Creek Valley, who has a 19:12 5K and a 42:55 10K to her credit; and Catherine Moore Unattached, who ran a 1:04:28 15K a week before this race.
When the gun sounded, Lund went right to the front, with Liming with her over the first long downhill slope. Bayly and Ely were a few strides back. Liming fell a couple of strides back as they made the first turn. Lund had a 3 second lead over Liming at the first kilometer, with Bayly another 11 seconds back, with Ely a stride behind Bayly.
|April Lund pushes up the short hill at the end of the 2nd loop-On her way to a big victory overall in the Masters Race at the 2023 USATF Cross Country Championships in Richmond, VA Photo Credit: Rick Lee
Over the remainder of the first 2 Km loop, Lund stretcher her lead to 30 meters over Liming.
|Brennan Liming crests the short hill at the end of the 2nd loop, on her way to the Silver Medal in the Overall Masters Race at the 2023 USATF Cross Country Championships in Richmond, VA Photo Credit: Rick Lee
Behind Liming at 30 to 40-meter intervals came Bayly, Ely, Rubinich, and Ward.
|Fiona Bayly flies to the finish and a Bronze Medal Overall in the Masters Race at the 2023 USATF Cross Country Championships in Richmond, VA Photo Credit: Rick Lee
That order of the first six would not change over the final two loops although the gaps between them grew a bit. Ward was trailed by Holroyd and then Forde.
In the end, Lund won going away in 22:03; she had 150 meters on Liming, who finished 2nd. Liming took the silver medal in 22:42, with Bayly 28 seconds back in third. Bayly kept her high cadence going all the way to the finish, giving up no ground to the 4th place finisher, Ely. Bayly's podium finish at age 55 was amazing! Ely's 23:42 gave her a 20 second cushion over Rubinich, in 5th, followed by Ward and Forde in 6th and 7th. Rusk, Holroyd, and Suzanne La Burt Shore Athletic Club closed out the top ten.
|April Lund claims the Overall Masters Win at the 2023 USATF Cross Country Championships in Richmond, VA Photo Credit: Michael Scott
Lund had a terrific race; she kept the pressure on all the way, more than doubling her lead each loop. The 8 second gap was 15 seconds at the end of the 2nd loop and up to almost 40 seconds by the finish. Lund who had done well at the WMA Championships in Tampere Finland, was eager to represent the USA again. She happily accepted the funding for Bathurst. She has the honor of being the first female Masters Athlete to be funded for a world Cross Country Championship. She will need to be at her best. No doubt that host Australia team will be strong.
April Lund 22:03 Brennan Liming 22:42 Fiona Bayly 23:10
MEN The winner was expected to come, most likely, from a small group: Ben Bruce HOKA Naz Elite, Neil McDonagh Square State Striders, Adam Otsot Colonial Road Runners, Christopher Pruitt Colonial Road Runners, and Kevin Shirk Garden State TC. The group was smaller because Shirk was not able to make the trip. Other possible contenders included David Angell Blacksburg Striders, Brock Butler Greater Philly, Chris Naimoli Greater Philly, and Jacques Sallberg Cal Coast Striders.
Bruce, a recently minted Masters athlete, competed in last year's event at Mission Bay in San Diego as an Open Runner, finishing 17th. He is currently an Assistant Coach and Pacer for the HOKA Naz Elite group in Flagstaff, AZ. His career as an Open runner included representing the USA at the 2010 World Cross Country Championships; the 2010 World Half Marathon Championships in Nanning, China; the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, Korea (8:39.6 3000 Meter Steeplechase); and the World Half Marathon Championships in Cardiff, Wales in 2016. More recently, Bruce finished 2nd to Riley Cook at the 12 Km Masters Championships along the Jersey Shore, and 4th overall in the Masters Race at the 2022 Club Cross Championships in San Francisco, an odd XC race that was forced, by the torrential weather and the City of San Francisco, onto a 1200-meter oval track around the Polo Field in Golden Gate Park. Would he have done better on a true Cross Country course? We shall never know.
McDonagh, running for the Square State Striders out of Colorado Springs, finished 4th in Boulder at the Masters 5 Km XC, and 7th at Club Cross in San Francisco. Otstot and Pruitt both ran for the Colonial Road Runners with the goal of defending the home turf! Both ran sub-15:30 5K's last fall; Otstot added a couple of sub 33:20 10K's and Pruitt threw down a 54:44 ten miler earlier in the year. Angell was a top overall winner on the Masters National Grand Prix circuit for four years before Covid, winning the 40-44 Grand Prix championship each year. His top result in the Masters 10 Km race at Clubs was a 3rd place overall finish at Spokane in 2018. Since turning 45 he has been battling heel problems. He was 12th in the 45-49 division at Tallahassee and then 16th at San Francisco. With a good training block under his belt, he was looking for a comeback. He also knew he was getting PRP for the heel the week after the Championships and would be away from running for 4 weeks--extra incentive to do well now! Butler, like Angell now in the 45-49 division, has not had an entirely injury-free ride into the division. In 2021, though, he had a fine run along the Jersey Shore, capturing the Overall win at the 12 Km Masters Championship, while leading his Greater Philadelphia Track Club to victory. Naimoli, a dedicated triathlete, finished 2nd that day for GPTC, but encountered an issue this past December that resulted in slightly less than full fitness for Richmond. He noted, however, that his Greater Philly teammate, Scott Burns, whom I had not mentioned in my Overall Race preview, was in fact in great shape, having beaten Naimoli in an 8K in November in 33:04! Sallberg, even more than Angell, was a force on the national cross country race circuit prior to the Covid interruption. From 2015 to early 2020 he was almost unbeatable at Cross Nationals when he made it to the race. He won the last Club Cross overall championship at the highly competitive 2019 edition at Lehigh University in Bethlehem. PA., as well as at Cross Nationals at Mission Bay just before Covid interrupted all racing. Coming out of Covid was a different story. Now 45, Sallberg struggled for the first time at Tallahassee, finishing 11th overall. At Mission Bay the following month at Cross Nationals, Sallberg was closer to form but still could not claim the top spot. He did propel himself onto the overall podium, finishing 3rd, and picking up his 45-49 division win. At the ultra-competitive race in San Francisco, which was, due to weather and protocol, only able to be raced on a 1200-meter track, he was out of the top 20 and 3rd in his division. Would he bounce back at Cross Nationals? History says it is his favorite Cross Country championship each year, and the course seemed suited to his strengths. Others who might have been mentioned include Charlie Ban Unattached, with a 1:12:52 at the Philadelphia Half Marathon; Jason Holroyd Greater Philly, with a 6th place finish in 33:06 at the 2022 Masters 10 Km Championships; and Michael Harlow Unattached, who clocked 2:23:08 at the Columbus Marathon.
When the gun sounded, Bruce, Harlow, McDonagh, Otstot and Pruitt made sure they got to the front of the lead pack. By the kilometer mark the five were intact but there was already a slight break back to John Gagliardi Greater Philly with Angell and Burns on his shoulder. Sallberg and Ryan Carroll Colonial Road Runners came next with a 4 second gap back to Michael Wardian Unattached. Gagliardi and Carroll both with recent 35 minute plus 10K's appeared to be running above their talent level. It could that they were 'gamers' willing to give it a try no matter what, or that they run better on the turf than the road. Time would tell. I identified Wardian as a 'wild card.' Not often a competitor on the turf, he has been an amazing ultramarathoner for years, taking a break from the long races to compete in and find the overall podium at the 12K Masters Championships. He is most famous among serious runners for his record setting jaunt at the Abbott World Marathon challenge six years ago, running 7 marathons in 7 days on 7 different continents, starting with Antarctica, averaging 2:45 per marathon. At 48, he is still a serious road racer when he competes, with a 16:17 5k and a 28:48 5-Miler last year. Who knows what he might deliver on the turf?!
As they came up the short rise along the fence and onto the little arc that slingshots them onto the 2nd loop, four of the top five were still intact, with Harlow now a couple of steps back. There was a real gap back to the chase pack now, 25 meters, with Angell, Ban and Burns leading the group, followed a couple of strides later by Gagliardi, Carroll and Sallberg. Wardian was now 15 meters back from that group. No sooner were they onto the 3rd kilometer than Bruce surged and quickly built a gap of ten meters. McDonagh and Pruitt could not match the acceleration and fell into chase mode.
|Lead Pack at end of Loop 1 of 4-From Left: Ben Bruce, Adam Ostot, Michael Harlow, Christopher Pruitt, and Neil McDonagh-in the Masters Race at the 2023 USATF Cross Country Championships in Richmond, VA Photo Credit: Michael Scott
By the time Bruce crossed the 3 K mark and made a turn, he had real daylight, perhaps twenty meters on those two, who were desperately trying to keep the gap manageable. They, in turn, now had 25 meters on Otstot and another 20 on Harlow. From there it was another twenty meters back to the Angell-Ban-Burns chase pack that was hanging together.
|Chase Pack at end of Loop 1-From left: John Gagliardi, David Angell, Charlie Ban, and Scott Burns-in the Masters Race at the 2023 USATF Cross Country Championships in Richmond, VA Photo Credit: Michael Scott
Halfway through this 8 Km race, McDonagh was now 40 meters behind Bruce, with a gap of 20 meters to Pruitt, another 35 to Otstot, and over 40 more to Harlow. The three chasers were still together but Burns now had a couple of steps on Angell and Ban. Sallberg was still running smoothy, tracking that pair 15 meters back. There were just subtle changes over the 3rd loop, with Bruce continuing to stretch his lead and the gaps between the chasers growing as it was a series of runners in isolation, McDonagh, followed by Pruitt, Ostot and Burns. Angell was still within a few strides of Burns. In the meantime, Sallberg had moved up and was tracking Angell just ten meters back.
Bruce had no trouble on the final loop. As he passed the 7K mark, he doffed his knit cap and gloves, holding them for a bit before tossing them to his son, Riley, after making the turn. Bruce extended his lead slightly on that loop, cruising in for the win in 25:00 flat.
|Ben Bruce smashes the finishing tape as he wins the Overall Title in the Masters race at the 2023 USATF Cross Country Championships in Richmond, VA Photo Credit: Michael Scott
McDonagh never gave up, pushing hard all the way, to take 2nd in 25:26. A half minute later, Pruitt nailed the final podium spot. Otstot took 4th in 26:34. Burns cut the 6Km gap up to Otstot, 12 seconds, in half, but Otstot was a warrior and held strong to the 4th place spot. It was good Burns was trying to catch Ostot. In coming close, he avoided Sallberg passing him. Sallberg was able to pass Angell and cut Burns's 6 second lead to 3 by the finish line. It was Burns 5th 26:40; Sallberg 6th 26:43; and Angell 7th 26:58. Ban, Holroyd and Harlow closed out the top ten.
|Neil McDonagh finishing 2nd Overall in the Masters Race at the 2023 USATF Cross Country Championships in Richmond, VA Photo Credit: Michael Scott
It was a tour de force for Bruce. He was offered the funding for Australia and indicated he would accept it. At the time, they hoped his wife, Stephanie, would finish in the top 6 in the Open race and they might both be selected. That was not to be, but Bruce will still have the honor of being the first Masters Male athlete to be funded by USATF to compete in a World Cross Country Championship. The Aussies will show up in force; they will, no doubt, be the favorites. Bruce is a strong cross country runner; he will be envisioning running for the win!
Ben Bruce 25:00 Neil McDonagh 25:26 Christopher Pruitt 25:58