January 16, 2023. The USATF Cross Country Championships, often referred to as Cross Nationals is awarded two years at a time. Typically, the first year attracts fewer entrants because it is a non-selection year. That is, no one from the Open nor U20 races is selected for a National Team to compete at the World Cross Country Championships. The second year is a selection year and that added incentive and the accompanying excitement draw bigger crowds of entries. Richmond, VA lucked out with this 2023-24 two-year contract. Both years are selection years because Covid threw off the schedule. The 2023 World XC Championships are in Bathurst Australia in Mid-February and the 2024 World XC Championships are, apparently, due to take place in Medulin and Pula, Croatia. So both years are Selection events!
This year's Masters races have special significance. In November, quite late by the standards of international competition, USATF was notified that WA (World Athletics) and WMA (World Masters Athletics) had worked out an agreement that there would be WMA Championships on that same weekend, February 18-19 in Bathurst, Australia. There would be no national teams this time around for the World Masters XC Championships. But Masters Athletes from around the world who are affiliated as members of their national organization (USATF in the U.S.A.) are welcome to enter. As long as their national organization certifies that they are members, their entry is accepted.
Because the 2023 budgets had already been set before any planning for USATF's participation in the WMA XC Championships, it seemed that no funding would be available to help defray the participation of any Masters athletes. However, in a late development just announced this past Friday, January 13, the USATF Masters Cross Country Representative (interim) and the Chair of Masters LDR, Perry Jenkins, announced that the USATF National Office had identified limited funding for travel reimbursement. That is in the form of an Australia travel reimbursement up to $1500 for the Male and Female Overall winners of the Masters Races at Richmond. As usual with national selection processes, the winner must commit to compete in Australia in mid-February in order to receive the reimbursement. If the winner cannot do so, then the funding goes to the 2nd place finisher and so on until an athlete accepts the reimbursement and commits to compete. The successful athlete must, of course, register for the WMA XC Championships by January 31st and must travel to Bathurst Australia and compete. Passports must be valid for up to 6 months after the return date. [If returning on February 19, the passport must be good through August 19, 2023.] Athletes must arrange travel on their own, keep receipts, and submit forms for reimbursement after their return.
For additional details on these inaugural WMA Cross Country Championships, please see: https://world-masters-athletics.com/event/2023-wma-cross-country-championships-short-course-bathurst-australia/
Naturally the hope is that with greater advance warning, an earlier announcement about funding for the 2024 WMA XC Championships can be made and that it will be more comprehensive in terms of age divisions, as has been the case with funding for WMA Indoor and Outdoor Championships. We should be very grateful, however, for this initial vote of confidence in Masters Athletes and their ability to compete on the world stage in Cross Country.
In the meantime, there are just a few days left to register for Cross Nationals in Richmond. Registration closes on Wednesday, January 18, 2023 at 12 Midnight PT. Details on those Championships can be found at: https://www.usatf.org/events/2023/2023-usatf-cross-country-championships
OVERALL MASTERS CONTESTS
That funding possibility adds a little sparkle to the overall competition. We do not know, in advance, who will be competing for the prize. But for those who had already freed up their calendar for a Bathurst trip or those who can do so, it is a fine incentive. Naturally the competition to stake the claim as being the best Masters Cross Country racer in the land is plenty of incentive to begin with. Being an Overall Masters National Champion is something special.
A month ago, I did a quick search through Richmond weather records for the past 7 years on January 21st. I learned that in 4 of those years, the race time (11 am-ish) temperatures were freezing or colder. I discovered not much precipitation. Obviously, there were some great years. I believe 2018 was lower 60's, 6 mph wind under partly cloudy skies. I would lock that one in if I could. But if the 10-day-ahead forecasts are right, we are not drawing the 'short straw'. As of now the forecast is for 44 degrees F at 11 am on the 21st, with 5 mph winds, less than 2% chance of precipitation and 47% humidity. That can change, of course. There is some measurable rain forecast for Wednesday overnight through Thursday overnight, followed by a partly sunny day on Friday with a high of 57. How much rain actually falls and how much the course dries out will certainly factor into race day course conditions.
This preview is based on entries through Sunday, January 15 at 9 pm ET.
The Women's race is scheduled for 10:30 AM on Saturday, January 21, 2023 at Pole Green Park, 8996 Pole Green Park Lane, Mechanicsville, VA, just outside Richmond. The course has served as host site for Junior Olympics Championships and Atlantic Ten Conference Championships. The races will apparently all be on the Upper Loops of the park. These are described: "...primarily flat and provides a fast surface....The entire course is highly visible and extremely spectator-friendly." For more details, see: https://www.collegiaterunning.org/pole-green-park-course
|Start of Women's Race at the 2021 USATF Masters 5 Km Cross Country Championships at Franklin Park in Boston MA. Photo Credit: Michael Scott|
Who will show up on the starting line with a chance at the overall win? Brett Ely Notch Brewing Runners, Salem MA and April Lund GYS Track Club Bismarck, ND appear to be the two strongest contenders among current entries. Ely showed up on the national Masters LDR scene in Dedham last year at the USATF Masters 10 Km Championships where she faced a very strong field of runners. Ely ran a terrific race, clocking 37:27. In most years she would have been on the podium with that kind of time!
|Brett Ely competing at the 2021 USATF Masters 5 Km Cross Country Championships at Franklin Park in Boston MA. Photo Credit: Michael Scott|
At Lone Gull in the fall, she clocked 37:38, showing the Ramble time was not just a good day. At the BIGGSTEPS Boston 5K in November, she ripped off an 18:37. This will be Ely's first masters race at either Club Cross or Cross Nationals, but she did compete in the October 2021 Masters 5 Km XC at Franklin Park in Boston MA, finishing 8th in another loaded field off a 19:36 effort. Lund, on the other hand, has just recently turned 40. At the WMA Outdoor Championships in Tampere, Finland, this past June, she was competing in the 35-39 division (recognized as part of Masters by WMA). She ran 18:16 in the 5000 Meters on the track to take 3rd in her division but had even more success outside the stadium. She won her division in the 8K XC competition and in the Half Marathon. Her 1:19:51 time in the Half Marathon was well off her best. Later in the year back in the Dakotas, she clocked a 1:15:32 in the Bismarck Half Marathon and a nifty 1:13:20 in the Leading Ladies Half Marathon in Lead SD. That course drops over 600 meters, but it shows that Lund can run a fast HM when the opportunity presents itself. The Bismarck course has no drop; it is an out and back with a loop on the far end. That kind of Half Marathon speed plus an ability to run well over the XC course in Tampere suggests Lund will be a formidable competitor in Richmond.
Although Ely and Lund are clear favorites, two other 40-44 entrants have to be considered threats; Erika Holroyd Greater Philadelphia TC and her teammate, Kara Rubinich. Holroyd's road credentials do not match up to those of Ely and Lund; she ran 41:23 over the same course in Dedham and her best times otherwise this past year appear to be a 19:30 5K and a 33:20 8K at the Philadelphia Marathon in November. But she did finish in the top ten overall at Tallahassee in December 2021.
|Erika Holroyd competing for her B.A.A. team in The Masters Women's Race at the 2021 USATF Club Cross Championships on the Appalachee Regional Park course in Tallahassee, FL Photo Credit: Michael Scott|
Her 23:36 netted a 9th Overall; Holroyd can navigate the turf! Rubinich brings a slightly different set of credentials to the Cross-Country course. Her road times are a bit stronger than Holroyd's, notably a 1:02:41 at the Blue Cross Broad Street 10 Mile Run. She also ran a nifty 31:22 8K in June. Rubinich also brings in some strong cross-training fitness, epitomized by being able to clock a 40:52 10K as part of the Age Group Triathlon competition last year in Wisconsin. Rubinich did not compete at Tallahassee but did at Lehigh in 2019. Then she finished just inside the top twenty with a 24:17.
If anyone from the other age divisions is strong enough to contend with those four, it is Abby Dean. It would be a tall order to get all the way to the win, but she was only a half-minute behind Ely at Dedham last year and only a half-minute behind Rubinich at Tallahassee in '21.
Now toward the end of her stay in the 55-59 division, there is not much likelihood that Marisa Sutera Strange would come in and steal away the winner's trophy like she did in 2019 when she was just entering the division. But she will, no doubt, run a strong race!
It will be exciting to see this 5-way struggle between Lund, Ely, Rubinich, Holroyd and Dean unfold. Based on recent history, Lund appears to be the strong favorite with Ely 2nd and then, perhaps, Rubinich. [Edit: I forgot to mention my 'wild card' in the first writing. Jennifer Ledford may have a role to play in the race for the podium. There is a Jenny Ledford of the right age who ran an 18:31 5K in and an 18:56 5K in Florida in 2020. If it is the right Jenny Ledford, she would definitely be a factor in the race.]
Cross Country is tough to predict; terrain, weather, and the condition of the course vary so much. Holroyd's top ten finish at Tallahassee may have been better than it looked if she was negatively affected, more than others, by the warm weather that day. By the same token, Rubinich's performance at Lehigh might have been better had the course been less muddy. Any forecasts are murky at best. The race will settle things for us!
The likely podium finishers, in alphabetical order, are:
Brett Ely April Lund Kara Rubinich
As in the Women's race, all of the top contenders for the Overall win are likely to come from the 40-44 division. Darryl Brown Greater Philadelphia TC has strong road credentials. He took 3rd at the 12 Km Masters Championships in 39:43. That followed a speedy 52:46 10 Miler at the Credit Union Cherry Blossom run in April. Three weeks after the 12K, Brown clocked 2:35:36 in the BOA Chicago Marathon. Brown has no recent cross country outings that I can find.
|Darryl Brown closing out his Bronze Medal race at the 2022 USATF Masters 12 Km Championships hosted by the By Hook Or By Crook 12K in Highlands NJ. Photo by Jason Timochko|
Benjamin Bruce, Assistant Coach and Pacer for the HOKA Naz Elite Club, finished 2nd to Riley Cook (not entered for Richmond) in the 12 Km Masters Championships on a hot day by the shore, with a 38:37. Later that fall, Bruce finished 5th overall at the Snohomish River HM in 1:11:46 and was top Masters finisher at the Abbot Dash to the Finish 5K in NYC in 14:14:55. Bruce made his Masters debut in Cross Country at Club Cross at Golden Gate Park with gale force winds and rain blowing in off the Pacific. After an 80-foot tree blew over, the race had to be moved onto an aged 1200-meter racetrack around the Polo Field and shortened from 10 Km to about 9.3 Km. Bruce must be longing for a normal Cross Country race with normal weather. Unless things change, it looks like he may get it. Despite the odd setup in San Francisco, Bruce still managed to finish 4th in a loaded field that included the winners of the three Masters Overall winners of the three previous National Cross Country Championships.
It will be interesting to see if a real Cross Country race fits Bruce's style better than the roads or the odd setup in San Francisco, which was part tactical track race and part working your way through packs of runners being lapped. Neil McDonagh Square State Striders, CO made his national Masters debut at Boulder, finishing 4th at the Masters 5 Km Championships in 16:50. He was 7th at San Francisco, just 21 seconds behind Bruce. Like Bruce, McDonagh trains and competes at mile-high altitude. Will there be a 1-2 high altitude sweep in Richmond?
|Neil McDonagh center, #144 along with Square State teammate, Adam Rich, leads out the field at the start of the Men's Race at the 2022 Masters 5 Km Cross Country Championships in Boulder, CO. Photo Credit: Dave Albo|
Kevin Shirk Garden State TC was 24 seconds back from McDonagh in San Francisco. He will need to stay closer to the lead pack in Richmond. If he can stay close, Shirk has a chance with his closing middle distance speed; he won the Masters Road Mile at Rochester in 4:31, and a week later, ran 4:26.05 at the Loudoun Street Mile in Virginia. Shirk knows how to run Cross Country. His 34:06 over the 10 Km course at Tallahassee netted him 7th place.
As of today, Shirk is the top finisher from Tallahassee who is entered. Based on forecasts, both the course and the weather are likely to be closer to Tallahassee than San Francisco so that may be a better indicator. Adam Otstot and Christopher Pruitt run for the Colonial Road Runners, looking to defend the home turf. Both have good speed on the roads. We shall see if that translates well to the turf! Otstot's fastest 5K last fall was 15:24 in late October, but he had two other efforts under 15:50. He also clocked a 33:18 10K on Labor Day after running just one second slower a week previously. Pruitt also clocked a sub-5-minute mile average 5K, with a 15:28 in November. Earlier he clocked 17:30 for a 3-mile run as the final leg of a sprint triathlon. With some Mountain Bike racing also in his repertoire, Pruitt brings an interesting resume to the XC Championships. He also clocked a nice 54:44 10 Miler in February of last year. What will he do on the turf?
What about the 45-49 division. It holds some remarkable runners. The chief threat must be Jacques Sallberg. From 2015 to January 2020, he delivered the Overall victory in almost every national Cross Country race he competed in. But the Covid interruption marked the end of his dominance, at least so far. At Tallahassee he was just outside the top ten. Club Cross tends to be the most competitive cross country race of the year. At Mission Bay, almost his home turf, Sallberg did better a month after Club Cross.
He finished 3rd, a minute behind Sergio Reyes (not entered for Richmond), but just six seconds behind his teammate, Cook. He finished further back at San Francisco, just outside the top 20; that was a challenging race in many respects, but not real cross country. The Master of the Turf may not be done yet. It would be foolish to take him for granted. After all, only two of the runners who finished ahead of him at Golden Gate Park are entered at Richmond. Others who could make noise include David Angell Blacksburg Striders, Brock Butler Greater Philadelphia TC, and Michael Wardian HOKA. Angell won the M40+ Masters National Grand Prix each year from 2017 through 2019. His victories came mainly on the roads, but he was a Top Five regular on the Cross Country circuit. His top XC finishes included a 1st at the Masters 5 Km XC in Buffalo in 2018, 2nd at Cross Nationals in Tallahassee in 2019, and 3rd at Club Cross in Spokane in 2018.
Angell has been rehabbing an injury over the past few months, but if all comes together, he could be up in the lead pack, as he was at Spokane. Butler is part of a strong Philadelphia TC team coming to Richmond to compete for the Team Win. Team competition seems to bring out the best in Butler, as with many others. He brought a strong team into the 2021 Masters 12 Km Championship in Highlands NJ and not only led his team to victory but took home the Overall victory himself. Butler won in 39:52, nearly a half minute ahead of the rest of the field. He has been a Top Twenty finisher at Club Cross, both at Tallahassee and Lehigh. Rehabbing an injury in the fall, he took one for the team, providing depth for their effort at the 12 Km Championships in September. The team did not choose to compete at San Francisco. Butler enjoyed a family skiing adventure in Park City instead, along with some snow-running at altitude. Butler has been busy training up for Richmond with his teammates since the day before New Year's! The injury appears to be a thing of the past; we will find out for sure on Saturday.
Wardian has been celebrated for years for his ability to compete at Ultra distances and at Marathons with little recovery time. In 2017 he set the World Record for the Abbott World Marathon Challenge of running 7 Marathons on 7 Continents in 7 Days! He averaged 2:45 per Marathon and it would have been faster had the Antarctica marathon not taken him 2:54:54. Every other one was under 2:50, with one under 2:40. He was 42 at the time. He has not participated in many national Masters LDR championships, but he did participate in the 2015 12 Km Masters Championships in Alexandria VA, near his home in Arlington, VA. He finished 3rd Overall in 40:40. It is doubtful Wardian expects to make a run for the win, but he is extremely competitive and enjoys trying new experiences.
|Michael Wardian on his way to his inaugural 2023 victory at the New Year's Day Predictions & Resolutions 5K in Washington DC. Photo Credit: Posted by M. Wardian on FB|
Apparently, he picked up the game of pickleball recently and has rapidly turned into a top player and may even have joined a pro pickleball circuit by now. It will be interesting to see what he does on the course at Pole Green Park this Saturday in another new discipline. I find lots of trail and road races for Wardian, at any distance from a mile to over a hundred miles, but no cross country events.
Based on prior performances it appears that Bruce is the runner to beat, with McDonagh and Shirk perhaps the favorites for the other two podium spots. The paragraphs above make it clear there is other talent in the race and, with Cross Country there are sometimes surprises!
The likely podium finishers, in alphabetical order, are:
Benjamin Bruce Neil McDonagh Kevin Shirk
The next few days will see previews of the Age Grading, Age Division, and Team Competitions. If new contenders for the Overall Championships register, I will provide an update for the preview and podium predictions in this article.