Runners at the Hotel Del Coronado
A beautiful sandy beach with a US aircraft carrier or frigate spied off in the distance at sea, ice skating just outside a lavish hotel and the surf crashing on a magnificent beach were but a few of the enchanting scenes that were a part of the thirty-third edition of the Foot Locker National Championships. Of course on hand as well were the finest prep harriers in the nation to take in the grand atmosphere, as well as entertain in their own inimitable fashion. Long before any group considered supporting prep athletes Foot Locker (Kinney in the formative years) was there to sponsor young runners and since 1979 there has been a great tradition of races in which Olympians, US national senior champions & NCAA champions have been produced. The 2011 edition of this great tradition is in the books, yet the memories of the race and the weekend experience will more than linger in many memories.
Erin Finn retakes the lead from Molly Seidel (pic by Colleen Collins)
This year saw two exceptional races in terms of competition. The girls’ race, which began the Saturday competition, had been considered as a fairly wide-open affair but Molly Seidel of Wisconsin was the runner with the most supporters on the sidelines. Of course with forty of the top runners in the nation at Balboa Park on hand there were many runners, who had their supporters. More importantly a fair number of the runners had their own opinions concerning their chances and one of them was Erin Finn of Michigan. Erin had the distinction of being the only female returnee, who had earned a top (7th) ten finish last year. She had rolled through the fall season with nine straight wins, not counting dual meets, and her only loss was a third place in the Midwest Regional. Like a champion Erin obviously believed in her own ability and she set out early to control the pace.
Finn’s move relegated 2010 finalists Grace Tinkey and Sophie Chase to members of the early chase pack along with Karlie Garcia, who had qualified for nationals in 2009. Karlie had rolled to victory in the West Regional the previous week, yet she too was cast in an early supporting role. Further back in the early going was Molly Seidel but it was Molly, who would slowly move through the line of followers and into contention. Seidel had her own interesting story line and had appeared to be a lock to make the finals the previous year until a staph infection compromised her regional efforts. There despite a swollen knee, which witnesses said looked to be twice its normal size, Molly somehow managed to come home eleventh and barely missed a berth on the flight to San Diego. This year she was undefeated and on race day appeared to be on a mission. By the time that Finn had reached the two mile mark Seidel had moved into contention and she took the lead going up Upas Hill.
In the three decade tradition of the series Upas Hill has been the deciding factor in the race and it has especially tolled the death knell to runners, who went out too swiftly but Erin Finn would not be one of them, for she is made of sterner qualities. She fought to remain in contention on the ascent and then drew close to the leader once on the plateau before cascading down the final grade. She was not fading but she was taking the race back, as if she were a poker player seeing the bet and then bettering it. The race would remain a close contest until Molly Seidel finally drew away on the final uphill and secured the victory in 17:22. The valiant Finn followed two seconds later after making the race something truly memorable.
That venerable pair were hardly the whole story, as Laura Leff, who had placed fifth in her New York State meet & third in the Northeast Regional ran a brilliant race to snare third in 17:34. Maine’s Abbey Leonardi, racing in her third Foot Locker National, saved her best for last to earn fourth ahead of Karlie Garcia & Grace Tinkey. Catarina Rocha of Peabody, Massachusetts placed seventh. Of the top seven runners only Molly Seidel & Abbey Leonardi will graduate, so five of the top seven have a chance to return next year. Leonardi, incidentally, narrowly missed being a four-time Foot Locker qualifier, as she placed twelfth as a freshman.
Karlie Garcia,Clare Carroll, Nikki Hiltz, Anna MAxwell & Makena Morley of the West
Although every runner in the race is a champion a number of times over and qualified on their own merits, there are two runners, who are either linked to history or made history on their own. The first is California’s Cami Chapus, who placed 22nd. Cami ‘s mother Vickie Cook qualified for the very first Foot Locker meet in 1979. Vickie, who was a sophomore, when she ran the first time, became the first three-time qualifier along with Lynne Strauss in 1981, when she and Strauss of Pennsylvania qualified once again that year. Who knows but had the Kinney race begun in 1978, when they were freshmen, both runners might have become the first four-time qualifiers. Beyond that the three year record of Vickie ranks as the thirteen best three-year record of all time. Another runner of note was Idaho’s Emily Nist, who became the first female qualifier from her state to qualify on the true Mt. SAC course. Emily is only the third young lady ever to qualify from that state but Mary Lyons, who also ran for Bishop Kelly, qualified on the Crystal Springs course near San Francisco, where the West Regional was first run. Mary for the record is the only northwest girl to ever win the national title. Nicole Nielsen of Borah High School qualified for nationals in 2007 but that was the year, when the rain deluged Walnut, so instead of running on the hills of Mt. SAC, everyone ran on the inclement weather course, which was more of a road race. With all the rain and muck the switch-backs would have been all but impossible to run much less “Poop Out,” so technically Emily is the only girl from Idaho to successfully qualify over the true Mt. SAC course.
Emily Nist after the race
Molly Seidel, Erin Finn, Julia Bos and the rest of the Midwest girls actually carried on another long-standing tradition at Foot Locker, when they won the race and returned to the Hotel Del Coronado and proceeded to jump into the surf. The surf romp goes back to the mid-1980’s, when the Midwest girls began a string of victories over their regional rivals and each year raced into the ocean. Of course after a hot five kilometer run in sixty degree weather a turn in the Pacific is a real treat. With the subject at hand a quick look at the results is in order and the Midwest girls topped their counterparts from the Northeast by a ten point margin. The Northeast’s 52 points topped the West by nine, as the Southern girls followed closely with 63 points. The boys’ team score was historic, as well, because, as far as I know, it marked the first time that any Southern representative had ever won either team race. Their low of 44 saw them easily defeat the Midwest, which had 58. Both the Northeast and the West tied with a mark of 63, which brought the final result down to the sixth-man tie-breaker, that went to the Northeast, when New Yorker Dan Lennon finished twenty-first in the team scoring (22nd actually but an eighth runner from the South did not figure in the scoring). By their unofficial names it was ‘Team Cheserek’ over the Wild West but it was the “Dirty South’, which was the grand winner.
With a number of runners being underclassmen it is tantalizing to look forward a bit to next year. Erin Finn, who now has a second place finish to go with 2010’s seventh can return and possibly have a three year record, which could be in the top five of all-time. Grace Tinkey has a chance to become one of the rare four-time qualifiers. Of course just returning can be a very tall order and is hardly a given but we wish them luck. Just this year alone the late season groin injury of Megan Lacy cost her a return trip to Foot Locker, although she somehow managed to come in 11th in the Northeast. Emily Durgin & Kendra Weitz also had health issues as well and even an inopportune off-day cost Maddie Meyers her third trip. California’s Carrie Verdon was unable to run because of an ankle injury, which bothered her after her State meet. It should be noted that even some of those, who earned a flight to San Diego, had their problems, as Holly Bischof had to deal with shin splints & Caroline Kellner was hindered by plantar fasciitis not to mention Connor Rog ’s mid-race adventures during the regional.
As good as the girls’ race was, the race for the guys’ title was something that will be talked about for some time. C J Albertson led the way early, although it was not his plan, as the two favorites, Edward Cheserek & Futsum Zeinasellassie held back cautiously. They finally made their move on Upas Hill after strolling through the mile in 4:48: a time that effectively ended any realist thought of establishing a new course record. Once they had committed it became a two-man race for only Thomas Graham of North Carolina and later Darren Fahy of California made a real effort to maintain contact and both would pay a price for it late in the race. One has to credit each runner in being willing to take the gamble.
Edward Cheserek & Futsum Zeniasellassie by Colleen Collins
The duel was epic as both runners began to throw in surges and at times even elbows as they fought their way along the course. Memory goes back to the compelling 1989 battle between Bryan Dameworth and Andy Maris, yet even that duel did not witness lead changes evidenced in this one. By my count there were twelve lead changes without counting the numerous times that they raced shoulder to shoulder. Effectively it was a one on one duel, which lasted for slightly over two miles but it would be misleading to think, that the two title aspirants simply increased their pace a bit, and left their rivals behind. They increased their speed significantly and began a surge on the steepest hill. Whatever reason, that caused the pair to hold back early, was cast aside, when Edward Cheserek literally stormed up Upas Hill. For his part Futsum Zeinasellassie responded quickly to cover the move. The impressive aspect to this was that both runners must have made a conscious commitment to race almost all out for the duration of the race. Both runners were well aware of their rival’s capabilities and must have assumed that neither would relax the pace until they were no longer capable of sustaining it. In this writer’s memory only the 1987 battle between Bob Kennedy and John Sence in the Ohio State XC Championship, exhibited such great intensity in a prep cross country race, yet even in that race one of the runners had to concede the duel well before the finish. It is worthy of note, that later that fall Bob Kennedy would win the Kinney (Foot Locker) National Championship by finishing ahead of runner-up John Sence. This year’s rivalry would go on for far longer and in fact was only decided just before the very end of the race. Such was their struggle, that Edward Cheserek looked over his shoulder twice just to make sure his rival had no last minute surprise. This was a great race & a wonderful matching of talents, and it is more than a worthy edition to the greatest tradition in prep cross country running. We’ll leave it to others to categorize and leave it at a simple: glad we were there to witness it. The family of Aisling Cuffe, the 2010 female champion, watched the races over the live feed and noted that the races “had me on the edge of my seat.”
Andrew Gardner & Dallin Farnsworth by Angela Collins
As brilliant, as the duel at the front was, the Northwest runners put on an impressive display measuring out their energy. All three runners, Nathan Weitz, Andrew Gardner & Dallin Farnsworth, were able to assess their strength & dole out their energy to maximize their performance on race day. Both Nathan and Dallin could be seen at least as far back as eighteenth place, while Gardner left the pool area, which was 200 meters past the two mile mark, in 36th place. Even going down Upas Hill the second time the trio remained barely in the top twenty runners, yet in the final six hundred meters they swept past a multitude of harriers on their way to the finish line. Nathan’s face alone was a study of focus & determination, as he cast his glance on those, who were ahead of him. In the intervening distance Weitz caught everyone save Cheserek & Zeinasellassie. His third place effort tied him for the highest placement in history for any Spokane-area runner with Matt Davis of Mead in 1994. With that area being a traditional hot-bed for running Nathan’s placement says a great deal. Only the afore-mentioned Andy Maris, second, has ever placed higher. Andrew Gardner, yet another of the Spokane contingent, weaved his way through the pack to claim sixth. Gardner had placed fourth in the race last year now has a chance to garner the third best three year record for a male runner behind Jorge Torres & Dathan Ritzenhein. Dallin Farnsworth of Idaho displayed the ebb and flow that runners can have in a distance race. He was out well trying to avoid any problems, fell back a bit in mid-race and then rallied well to take eleventh and earned All-American honors in the process. Of all the Idaho male runners only Billy Herman’s sixth place in 1995 ranks higher. I might add that the Farnsworth family now holds two of the top four state finishes at Foot Locker, as his brother Taylor, who placed 13th in 2006, is right behind Jason Uhlman, who earned twelfth in 1991.
Holly Bischof & Bridget Blake
Although a great deal of discipline and effort are needed to qualify for Foot Locker along with God-given talent there is also an element of luck. Mark Blackmon, who had placed ninth in the South Regional, was unable to attend this year’s race, which opened the door to Chris Godwin of Gainesville, who was flown in the evening prior to the race. Although the late arrival surely did not aid his racing, we can be sure that he appreciated his good fortune and made the most of the many amenities of the Hotel Del Coronado. The Del serves as the headquarters for the event and offers so very much more than anyplace else that comes to mind. Where else can one go for a leisurely jog on the beach, or for that matter a swim in the surf, and then unwind by ice-skating with the waves gently crashing in the distance. Memory serves the afternoon of 2005 when Megan O’ Reilly, another Spokane runner, exclaimed “it’s a palace”, which indeed it is. There are a number of fine restaurants in the hotel and a dining area on the pool deck, which also includes an ocean view, but you can also shop for your Christmas presents.
The Foot Locker people always include a full weekend of activities for the young athletes, which essentially begins after their arrival at the Del on Thursday afternoon. There is a game room set aside for the runners, which remains open most of the day and evening. Not only does it allow runners to relax but it provides an area to mingle with others from all four regions. That first afternoon provides the opportunity for a group run on the beach for those, who so desire but after the initial check-in there is also the early runner Christmas, when young harriers receive their gear. Aside from the running outfit for their region runners also receive training & racing shoes. sweat suits, even socks. The long-sleeve T-shirt was a favorite for many but a bag in which to carry all the goodies was also included. Not often mentioned but likely a source in later years of fond memories is the addition of a picture frame from Tiffany’s, which will include portraits from the race. This is a first-class event in so many ways. Thursday included dinner in the Empress Regent room, which was followed by a scavenger hunt. Video of the festivities needs to be viewed to get a feeling of the experience, which utilized the ubiquitous phone cameras. In the end it offered yet another chance to work together and meet others from other regions. Parents & coaches were not excluded either and they were able to enjoy a hospitality suite and social.
Friday began with breakfast in the Coronet room, which is part of yet slightly separate from the lavish Crown Room. The room, with lights above in the form of a crown, are iconic in their own right. That was followed by a bus ride to Balboa Park, which afforded a view of the course. Race director Max Mayo provided a guided walking tour, which was then followed by most runners taking a closer inspection at a jogging pace. For many it would be their first view of one of the nation’s most noted harrier venues. The pace for sure varied giving evidence in some cases of nervousness. This is the National Championship and handling nervousness is a part of the experience. For the most part, however, runners were pretty much free to be themselves and in between lunch in the Grand Ballroom at noon & the Pasta Buffet at 5:30 PM one could create their own activity. For many runners the highlight of the day would be a panel discussion, which featured illustrious Foot Locker alumni. Suzy Favor Hamilton, Carrie Tollefson & Jen Rhines were on hand along with Jorge Torres & Bobby Curtis. Adam Goucher, who one fan welcomed back from the ‘dark side’, returned after several year ’s absence. All of the alumni were once in the same position as the young athletes, whose future is just beginning to blossom and the interaction between both groups make the evening very special.
Saturday features the main event and breakfast comes early with a trek via bus to Morley Field quickly following. Any lingering sleep is dispelled quickly by the brisk early air, although it will be quite pleasant at race time. There is a fair amount of pomp prior to the race, which includes the introduction of noted athletes, as well as those for all the contestants. If one ever wondered about the accomplishments of the individuals, there is no questioning after the reading of the mini-biographies of each runner, which are used in introduction. There were many fans inching as closely as possible to get a view of the entire scene. Given the quality of the participants the races seem over almost too fast, yet they were compelling but by noon everyone is back at the Del with plenty of free time. There are phone interviews back home to the local press from the Windsor Complex, as well as a few last minute ones we try to avail ourselves too as well but the young athletes are pretty much free to take advantage of the variety of options at the Del. It is at this time that vouchers for ice skating are given out and everyone is armed with a lunch voucher. The hot tub and beach are popular venues yet a good dozen runners remain together to grab a bite to eat at the Shearwater lounge including Ahmed Bile, Smorgy – a post-race pack in their own right, as everyone relaxes yet soaks in the atmosphere. At 1:30 the gang participates in a “Make Your Own Sundae”, which seemingly no one passes up either. Of course the bulk of the runners have ventured from cold climates and a beautiful beach in balmy mid-sixty degree temperatures is quite beguiling. I think of the Rascal’s song from decades ago: “People Got to Be Free” and smile at the appropriateness of it this afternoon. Of course everyone has earned a chance to relax but what better place to do it (to paraphrase two-time Foot Locker qualifier Maddie Meyers, who we miss this year). Part of the race’s charm is that everyone it seems has made a friend here and Clare Carroll remarked how much she missed Kendra Weitz. Cami Chapus of California roomed with Cali Roper of Texas and Pennsylvanian Tori Gerlach and they all agreed they wanted to room in college together in spite of the fact that they had already chosen their future schools.
Jordan McPhee w/ Suy Favor Hamilton
It was a do your own thing afternoon and early evening until 7 PM, when the Awards Banquet took place in the Grande Hall. That was followed little more than an hour later by the Awards ceremony and there were plenty of awards to go around starting with All-American credentials. There are years, when the most challenging part of the weekend, comes when the champions are called upon to speak (it is after all far more difficult to speak in public rather than run in public) but Molly Seidel & Edward Cheserek handled their assignments with dignity and grace. In a moving scene never before evidenced in the long tradition of the Foot Locker series. Edward invited his new friend, second place finisher Futsum Zeinasellassie up to the podium to speak and the Indiana runner addressed the assembly movingly about his experience. He related how he had not intended to become friends with his rival yet he indeed had become a friend but found great respect as well. When the race began in earnest they might have been rival warriors but before and after the race they had learned much about each other and their common grounds and values not to mention similar backgrounds. Although Futsum spoke very personally and from the heart, his words resonated for many, as if each had spoken for themselves. There is such a shared experience here that transcends the race itself. Like the Foot Locker alumni, who have come before them, these young athletes will face one another many times through the years in college, as professionals and even as Olympians, yet they will forever share a common bond of which the greater part is friendship and respect. Over the weekend friendships have been made that will stand the test of time. There are many examples from years past but Cami Chapus gave witness to yet another, when we spoke with her. On race day not only her mother, Vickie Cook Chapus, was on hand to cheer for her but Tania Fischer was there for Cami as well. In 1981 Vickie competed for her third time in the series finishing in sixth. Right behind her was Tania Fischer in seventh. Tania is not only Cami ’s god-mother but also her “mentor”. The Foot Locker friendship of Vickie & Tania remains strong after thirty years. Appearance in Foot Locker Nationals is certainly earned, but in many ways it is a bit like a gift of an athlete to himself, which truly keeps on giving.
The winners: Molly Seidel & Edward Cheserek
The awards ceremony gives way to two hours of music and dancing, which is always one of the high points of the long weekend. Parents, coaches & friends and even dignitary alumni are coaxed out of the room and the young athletes have one last official fling. That measure of decorum gives way to what is unofficially referred to as “the night that never ends.” With no bed check and many athletes having to depart early to catch flights out of Lindbergh Airport many runners find sleep expendable for a time, as the make the night and the weekend extend as long as possible. Imperial Beach for sure is more than just a little tempting but like the sundae earlier it was a make your own deal that night.
Sunday morning came too early for many and the young harriers picked up their boxed breakfasts and literally headed to the four corners of the contiguous 48 States: Jordan McPhee from the Seattle area, Abbey Leonardi from Maine, Bridget Blake from Florida & Darren Fahy & Billy Gaudreau with a short hop just outside of San Diego. Even North and South Dakota (Jake Leingang & Tony Smoragiewicz) had runners returning with CDs of a number of races in the series. Nathan Weitz & Andrew Gardner headed back to Spokane and we were able to say goodbye & even hello to more than a few runners that early morning: all of whom had the time of their lives. Race day may not have gone, as had been hoped, but the weekend had been something beyond special. Foot Locker is, as a series, over thirty years of tradition and well beyond the experience of racing it is unique for they all earned their prizes in competition. For those, who were fortunate enough to qualify, there is no doubt why Foot Locker is called Harrier Heaven.
Molly Seidel & Dallin Farnswith with Bobby Curtis