It has been almost two weeks since we returned from Foot Locker and the memories from yet another wonderful experience are still very vivid. It was a most pleasurable time for our family, which has been blessed to be a small part the events, which are very much a celebration of the running, for well over a decade now. The beauty of the event is that it is somehow new every year, while at the same time, it is part of a three decade old tradition. For the young athletes it was a glorious victory party, which was shared by all the participants no matter how they actually fared on race day. It was rather touching to hear about one runner, who had one of those days and failed to finish. ‘Most everyone can share in the feeling of disappointment after the race was over and can empathize with the fear that, she might not even get to share in the awards banquet. The delight in the realization, once asked: “You are going to the banquet?”, that everyone shares in the race celebration is another grand moment for this series.
Thomson leads early
In the boys’ race both Jacob Thomson of Kentucky and Sean McGorty of Virginia took the pace out and challenged the defending champion Edward Cheserek of New Jersey. Cheserek ’s winning time of 14:59 is one of the fastest in the last decade and is partially a credit to the pace of McGorty & Thomson. Edward, of course, did not really have a full cross country season and probably came into the meet a bit behind where he was last year and ran conservatively during the first half of the race. For a time Jake Leingang of North Dakota & Sam Wharton of Ohio, who had both run in the Mud Bowl the previous weekend, were close to Cheserek as well. Once Edward made his move, however, it was authoritative and he opened a gap the rest of the way, which reached six seconds by the time he crossed the finish line.
The guys’ field was of very high quality and is partially evidenced by the eleventh place finish of Andrew Gardner of Spokane. Coming into the race I firmly believed that he and McGorty had the best chances of defeating the Northeast champion but for whatever reason it was just not Gardner’s day. I tend to think it was a bit of a fluke but with the field being so strong, all the runners had to be in top form that day or they were in trouble. Had the race been held on Friday or Sunday it might have been a different story but then again Gardner did finish eleventh, which makes him All-American once again. In three years he has finished fourth & sixth also, which is the fifth best three-year collection in the 34 year history of the meet.
That brings us to the superlative efforts of the two sophomores, who qualified for the race this year. It takes a great deal for a member of that class for a male runner to make it to Foot Locker and usually just being present on race day is a major achievement but Conner Mantz of Utah and John Dressel of Spokane finished twelfth and fourteenth respectively. Somewhat appropriate is the fact that the two members of the West team appeared as Gardner, whose fourth place finish in 2012 is the top mark ever for a sophomore, ran his final Foot Locker race. Mantz now is in a tie for seventh for the class, while Dressel holds eleventh place all-time. To be ranked that high in a series, which has been conducted for over three decades, is most impressive.
Aaron Templeton of Knoxville was the lone underclassmen to finish in the top ten and his time of 15:29 was good for seventh. Quintin McKinnish, also from Tennessee, finished thirteenth (15:36) and Kramer Morton of Utah placed sixteenth (15:41). All three should also be anticipated to make an impact in 2013. Patrick Perrier of Illinois also made it into the top twenty with his nineteenth place effort of 15:43. That said, as was made obvious by the events of this year at the regional meets, there are no free passes and success this year does not necessarily translate to a return trip. We spoke with Grant Nykaza at the Midwest Regional earlier, who underscored this very thing, when he commented that non-runners have no real appreciation about how much it takes to qualify each time. It is yet another side of the attitude that a coach sort of winds his runners up and sends them out with predictable results. No my friends, it is much harder than it looks, which is why people, who are so fond of predictions do a real disservice to the runners. Sadly they really do not care about the young people they cover: they simply use them. It certainly is painful to watch or hear of runners failing to qualify but it is part of the sport and naturally it is nice to see others share in the Foot Locker experience. Happily everyone in San Diego, as a competitor, earned the trip and nothing was handed to anyone, which is why it is high school’s only true championship. A state title is nice but it means nothing on the Foot Locker starting line.
For the previous two years Michigan’s Erin Finn boldly charged to the front early to set the tone for both the 2010 & 2011 races. With her having the misfortune of becoming ill at the worst time she left a big void and there was some concern, as to who might possibly succeed her. That question was quickly answered by Marissa Williams, who went out strongly the previous week at Mt SAC and never came back to the field. At nationals she quickly opened a lead over Makena Morley of Montana, who in turn opened a gap over the rest of the field. Although she did not win, one has to respect her courage for running in the lead which is difficult for most runners. Having seen what Anna Rohrer achieved in Indiana and then having watched her at the Midwest Regional, it was almost anticipated she would be tough to beat. Anyone, who can take down a record of Melody Fairchild (not to mention Claire Durkin) has to be given great respect). We spoke with her coach shortly before the start of the race and were told that the plan was to move after two miles. Sure enough and in spite of a fall early in the race, Anna moved on cue and opened up a sizeable gap. Although Rohrer was hurting a bit at the end and her knees were sore due to the fall, she had room enough at the end to come home safley. Her time of 17:25 gave her a four second margin over Northeast champion Catarina Rocha, who displayed an impressive final rush to the finish. She had been a good ten to fifteen yards behind Maria Hauger of Minnesota & Jordyn Colter of Colorado with about fifty meters to go but she passed both late in the race and prevailed by a second, as the Midwest duo were both awarded 17:30 but Hauger getting the nod.
The Midwest girls dominated the team competition once again. The very sold team not only boasted the services of Rohrer, Hauger & Colter but were backed up by Anna Holdiman, who finished seventh in 17:43, and Bobbie Burgess of Indiana, who earned ninth in 17:46. Putting an emphasis on their dominance was the fact that the team was backed up by Hannah Long, who took tenth in 17:47, and Taylor Werner, who followed in thirteenth (17:53). Both Long & Werner were from Missouri. The South was a distant second with 49 points, while the Northeast had 71 and the West accumulated 98 points. It was a rather stunning performance given that Erin Finn, Julia Bos and Ashley Erba were not on hand. Finn, who had been gearing her entire season towards a run at the national title, certainly would have made things interesting had fate not intervened. So solid in fact was she as a runner that I feel should have placed her name high on the list for three year finalists at Nationals after placing seventh and second the previous two years. Bos, of course, had defeated Finn earlier in the season and had placed tenth last year. Then again there was Ashley Erba, who for a time this fall, held the all-time Indiana record for the 5K and had faith enough in her ability to pass on a trip to the Mud Bowl to shoot for the grand prize of Foot Locker. It did not work out but we respect her spirit of a true champion and it is hardly a guess to infer that all three young ladies would have had an influence on the outcome of the race, although it is not in any way meant to detract from the run of Anna Rohrer, who was most impressive. Tradition was observed after the race, when the Midwest girls returned to the Del and then splashed in the Pacific Ocean in celebration of their team victory. It has been an occurrence, that has gone on since the 1980’s and has been shared by numerous runners, who have gone on to participate in the Olympics. Bobbie Burgess confirmed, that it was an enjoyable aspect of the race and even the team concept of itself inspired her to move into position during the race to aid the team. Burgess capped a very solid & consistent season on Saturday & reminded us of Chris Walden, also from Indiana, raced very well in San Diego despite failing to finish in the top three at State.
(Sandi Raines, Bridget Blake & Grace Tinkey)
While we are on the subject of those Missing-In-Action, Anna Maxwell and Nikki Hiltz of California had their seasons impacted with health issues and, of course, we had already noted Karlie Garcia’s being forced to run in the senior race instead of the seeded one at West. Laura Leff of New York was third last fall and her season was compromised as well. Poignant is the story of Grace Tinkey of Georgia, who had established a nice progression in her first three years of high school by placing twentieth at nationals as a freshman in 2009 and then finishing fifteenth as a sophomore. As a junior in 2011 she really inserted herself into the national with a sixth place finish at Balboa Park. There were great hopes of her becoming just the 22nd four-time female finalist in history but her race last February in the USATF Junior meet in St. Louis, held on the rather frozen Forest Park course changed everything, because her severe injury prevented any real training and, although she was finally able to run by the time of the South Regional, Grace was not “race ready” so gone were her chances of becoming the first four-time finalist since Selby Greany and Jordan Hasay accomplished the feat in 2008. Although the disappointment was great, Grace received the surprise of a ticket to San Diego from her family and was welcomed with open arms by the Foot Locker staff. It came as quite a surprise to see Grace sitting at a table outside of the Babcock & Story Lounge with South team members Sophie Chase, Karis Jochen, Caroline Alcorta & Sandi Raines but she had become a member of the team in a way. Later she could be seen sporting a South shirt and from the outset of Thursday afternoon activities Tinkey shared in the 2012 Foot Locker activities along with more than ample share of the goods, which Foot Locker and sponsoring aid Asics shower the athletes with during the course of the long weekend. I would note that some backward states impose rules as to how much can be received in value with a limit of $100 in this case, so some athletes were forced to pick & choose what they would actually keep. Leave it to former football coaches to protect those easily influenced harriers but Grace did not have that problem and she also shared in all the grand events. It was a classy act of kindness, which had to have softened the blow of a dream, that had been shattered by ill-fortune and it was certainly a great pleasure to see the joy on Grace’s face as she interacted with her peers. I suppose we will happily add an asterisk to the list of four-time Foot Locker qualifiers.
Saturday’s races offered fans competitive contests, which offered numerous races within each race, as the runners vied for their various positions and the Northwest runners contributed their share to the overall Foot Locker tradition this race day. They did this despite the fact that they did not all find themselves in their best form. Aberdeen’s Poli Baltazar seemed to lack energy early and was mired in last place for a time yet he steadied himself as the race progressed and concentrated on picking off runners in the final mile. When he crossed the finish line he had progressed up to the thirty-first position and, although he was not totally satisfied, he was more than well aware of the fact that he had claimed the final qualifying spot on the West team and in his national race he had claimed a higher position than others had expected of him. His final mile was a pleasure to watch as he willed his way past his rivals. Patrick Gibson of Bellingham (Squalicum) also struggled early and also noted that he felt the pace more taxing than he had hoped. Still the always positive runner also moved up during the course of the race and finished a solid 24th in a field that included the best runners in the nation. He may have been tired, when he crossed the finish line, yet he promptly turned once in the chute to shake a rival’s hand. We already mentioned John Dressel and Andrew Gardner but it is worth noting that Dressel was himself back in 19th or 20th place around the mile mark, so his finish displayed a solid degree of tenacity. It is only anticipation, which makes Gardner’s finish seem a bit frustrating, but to finish eleventh in such a field, when not truly at his best, speaks volumes to the future of this future Air Force runner. Katie Bianchini was the only female representative from the Northwest and she also had a solid race. We happily have a picture of her in third place and, although not necessarily in top form, she gave a good account of herself as she fought for position the entire race.
It is worth noting that the Pacific Northwest almost had two additional runners qualify for San Diego and once can only wonder how Erin Clark of South Eugene and Elijah Armstrong of Pocatello might have fared had they managed to place only one position higher up the previous weekend. Armstrong had passed on a position in the Mud Bowl in his attempt to make it to San Diego and like Erba, you have to admire the spirit of a true competitor. Happily Elijah is only a sophomore and we looked forward to seeing him improve on his eleventh place finish in future years. Erin unfortunately is a senior but she did a fine job in representing her state of Oregon. They both are, however, a part of the fine classy tradition of Foot Locker.
That tradition makes them a part of a special club, whose members span a thirty-four year history of prep cross country. More importantly once you are a part of it, the memories last. On the morning of the race Holy Bischoff, who now runs collegiately, recalled her participation in 2011 by stating: “Good luck to everyone heading to Foot Locker tomorrow. Enjoy every minute of being a celebrity.” It did not take long for Kelsey Braithwaite, who also raced in 2011, to add: “What I would give to go back to Coronado.” Although some were not quite aware of the full extent of what a Foot Locker weekend entailed there was no question about it on Saturday night, when the common thoughts were “incredible” and “a dream.” Still even at the post race banquet there was this unbridled enthusiasm for the shared experience of running and the work it entails to reach for the pinnacle of our sport. The Foot Locker people had prepared a video review of the weekend & of course the race and it was a thrill to watch most of the room made up of athletes, coaches and their families rise en masse, when Edward Cheserek and Anna Rohrer were pictured crossing the finish line in their respective races. The community of shared experience and respect for their peers created a feeling of exhilarating pride even in this ancient harrier. It was something to witness and appreciate and is the essence of Foot Locker.