Youth was served on Saturday in San Diego as prep runners dominated the Junior Women’s races up front and scored four of the top six qualifying berths on the US team, that will compete in Spain next month. Not only did high school runners pave the trail near the front ; but, when the proverbial dust had settled; high school runners had taken nine of the top thirteen places against their elders. As expected Aisling Cuffe of Cornwall-on-the-Hudson, NY led the charge and captured her second national cross country title in two months. Although not quite as commanding a performance; as the one that saw her bolt away early on the nearby Balboa park course, where she won the 32nd Foot Locker National High School title; her race was still impressive; as she drew away midway in the race to win by almost a half minute.
Going into the race it had seemed that snow might be her greatest challenger and certainly the almost constant bombardment of the white stuff in the northeast had to have hindered her normal training routine but she had arrived early so as to acclimate herself to the temperature & the time change and by early Thursday morning, she was on the course running by 9:30 AM, which was a very good sign. How she beat this reporter, who only needed to fly south & not change three time zones is still a bit of a mystery. Then again, if one was searching for an omen of something special, it appeared in the form of a hummingbird, which hovered less than three meters from me above the course for 3-4 seconds as if performing an inspection & then catapulted away towards a nearby tree making an astonishing late course change to avoid impact. Why that little sprite would be doing what he did was surprising, yet he certainly suggested that another sprite would fare well.
Early in the young ladies' race a small pack ran with Aisling who, although she wasn’t always at the head of the pack, was never really truly behind. Molly Grabill of San Diego, who had placed 9th at Foot Locker National Meet, loomed off Cuffe’s shoulder and raced with a small group that included Katie Flood, Sierra Vega, and Julia Foster. They Cruised through the 1st kilometer in 3:21, while South California preps. Catrina McAllister and Hannah Valenzuela followed conservatively in 3:23.
The course consisted of an inner and outer loop with the total being essentially 2k. The inner loop has two small knolls, which forced runners to change gears and it was at this point that Aisling became the titular leader but the lead pack remained pretty much intact. Vega, Flood, and Foster were still in the hunt along with Sarah Fakler of Arizona, Emma Abrahamson, a freshman from nearby Carlsbad and Chelsea Orr of the University of Washington loomed just behind, while McAlister and Valenzuela of the South Coast Elite held the 11-12 positions. The second half of the race saw Aisling inexorably draw away from any would be challenger as Cuffe glided away to ultimate victory. Molly Grabill and Katie Flood waged their own private duel, as they opened a gap between Sierra Vega, who was forced to run alone for a good portion of the final stage of the race.
Late in the race most runners are trying to maintain their hard-earned positions, yet there are few, who gauge their strength accurately and move toward the front of the race. Julie Nacouzi, yet another Foot Looker finalist , made the move of the day, when she surged through the field late in the race. Julie had been well back early and her stride seemed a bit out of synch, yet there she was rolling by a seeming score of runners in the closing kilo. Hannah Valenzuela was also making a move but more methodically, as the picked off runners gradually one by one. She had been 12th early and then she eased her way to 11th, then 10th until very late in the race she had taken over 7th place and was tantalizingly close to the last US team position.
While Nacouzi and Valenzuela were making their impact on the pack, young Aisling, only 17, was emphatically making her own statement by cruising to victory in a time of 21:12. The last time a prep runner was victorious was 2008, when Jordan Hasay triumphed on this very course--not bad company. Molly Grabill strode away to a four second victory over Katie Flood, who in her defense it should be noted was hampered by Achilles problems. Still this should not in any way be construed as a knock on Grabill, whose stride flowed so smoothly to the finish line and was clocked in 21:38 and would have been tough to beat unless the name was Cuffe. Sierra Vega of UCLA easily garnered fourth with her time of 21:59 despite racing much of the way in a bit of a no-man’s land. Julie Nacouzi, representing Buffalo Chips, continued her romp through the field by taking fifth in 22:08 and Hannah Valenzuela completed her journey through the string of runners, who had once preceded her, by securing the last berth on the US team. Only Nacouzi had passed her along the way.
Chelsea Orr from the University of Washington came home 7th in 22:21 & garnered a berth on the US team that will compete for the America’s Championship in Trinidad. Julia Foster, representing Wings of America & a former Foot locker qualifier, took 8th (22:21.85) and Alexis Goldsmith of Northwestern U. finished 9th. Emma Abrahamson of Carlsbad, but a freshman in high school, rounded out the top ten with her time of 22:35 & Sarah Fakler, the Arizona large-school champion, placed 11th (22:44). Rolonda Jumbo, also representing Wings of America, who had narrowly missed qualifying for Foot Locker two years ago, earned 12th in 22:45. Catrina McAlister of Arcadia, had one of those days that true runners can relate to sadly, when she faded a bit in the middle of the race. Shaking her wrists, as if to ward away tightness, she persevered and made her own push through the pack after regrouping and placed 13th. The 2010 Foot Locker qualifier finished in a time of 22:45 and will be an alternate on the US team., which will compete in the Caribbean. One has to admire her spirit & determination. Julia Jablonski of Syracuse University finished 14th (22:46) & Michelle Pittman of Redondo Beach placed 15th (22:56).
It was a balmy day in San Diego in spite of a mild breeze and the United States should be well represented in the upcoming international competition. Good luck to all next month and in the coming years, as America’s next generation moves to the next level.