That’s Why They Run the Race: DI Men’s XC Top Returners
Note: this preview is NOT predictive, but simply an overview of the top returners.
NEW ORLEANS – Ben Saarel of Colorado is emblematic of the two biggest trends heading into the 2014 D1 men’s cross-country season: everybody’s back, and everybody’s from the Pac-12.
In most other years, the young Buffalo finishing eighth as a true freshman would position him as one of the favorites for the national title a year later. However, 2013’s seniors let the door hit them pretty hard on the way out, as there were only two seniors in the top seven and just seven in the top twenty. Those six are tied for the second smallest group of seniors in the top twenty in the last thirty years .
Saarel’s misfortune extends to the other trend: like him, most of the country’s very best individuals run in the Pac-12. Three of the top four back from last year’s race will be running for rivals Oregon and Stanford this fall.
Let’s get to the top returners.
Here’s a proposal for formally codifying media coverage of defending cross country champion and three-time track titlist Edward “King” Cheserek: you have to append “that’s why they run the race.” As in, “Oregon’s Ed Cheserek is an enormous, seemingly untouchable favorite, but that’s why they run the race.” Because a combination of that aphorism and shrugged shoulders might be the common response to a declaration of Ches’ supremacy this fall.
If that sounds boring, jump in a time machine to 2013 and replace the words “Ed Cheserek” with “Kennedy Kithuka of Texas Tech”, and they apply perfectly. In one fan poll taken just a week before nationals, Cheserek and the rest of the nation combined received fourteen first-place votes to Kithuka’s 304. We all know how that turned out; good thing they ran that race and didn’t just mail a medal to Lubbock in October. Breaking down the Duck’s place in history:
- Before Ches did it these last two years, Bob Kennedy of Indiana in 1987 and 1988 was the only person to win Footlocker nationals his senior year and then NCAAs the next year as a freshman. It took Kennedy four full years before he won his second title as a redshirt senior in 1992.
- Henry Rono of Washington State remains the only runner ever to win his freshman and sophomore years (1976-77). In fact, were it not for a snowy wrong turn at Yahara Hills in Wisconsin at 1978 nationals , Rono may have won four national championships—no one ever has.
- Lost in the shock of last November’s overthrow of Kithuka is that Ches won that race by a lot: eighteen seconds clear of the field. Here’s the list of the biggest margins of victory in NCAA history. If he stays on the same trajectory, the sophomore may spend the fall competing against the history books.
But that’s why they run the race.
The second returner is an unlikely superstar: 6-5 Kazakh-American Harvard alum Maksim Korolev, who’s using his remaining eligibility as a grad student at Stanford. Before covering things about Korolev that are actually relevant to this season, here’s a fantastic Harvard Magazine anecdote about Korolev running with his father in Kazakhstan:
|"He might have good running genes. Born in Kazakhstan, he is half Russian and half Tatar. On a trip to the old country he took runs with his biological father (his parents divorced when he was two), and found that the older man, with no training at all, could run for an hour alongside him, if not at “Maks” pace."|
After an ignominious (a ~17:58 second half of the 10k at nationals) end to his 2013 outdoor season, Korolev was incredibly consistent last fall, placing second at Wisconsin, winning Heps and regionals, and taking third at NCAAs. He promptly followed that consistent excellence with a last place finish in the 3k at indoor nationals and missed nearly the entire outdoor season, which is to say: no one knows which Maks the Cardinal will get this fall. But it will be fun to watch.
Like Korolev, Futsum Zienasellassie of Northern Arizona followed his stellar fall (fourth at NCAAs and your No. 3 returner) with a very quiet track season. His fitness is such a question mark that
Flotrack’s individual preview mentioned a dozen runners (including one of his NAU teammates) without getting to Zienasellassie.
Those top three returners were born in Kenya, Kazakhstan, and Eritrea, respectively , making Stanford’s Jim Rosa the 2013 top American-born finisher in fifth place. Despite being the top American returner and No. 4 overall, Rosa 1) is not even the top returner on his own team—that’s Korolev—and 2) has never beaten his twin brother Joe in a cross-country race . Joe missed last cross-country season with injury, but both Rosas come into the fall healthy and in good form. Jim was All-American in the outdoor 10k, and Joe was AA in the 5000.
After Zienasellassie, Stanley Kebenei will vie for the title of top non-Pac-12 finisher. The Arkansas Razorback finished sixth in 2013 and is the No. 5 returner. Like Cheserek, Korolev, and Zienasellassie, Kebenei was born abroad (in Kenya) but is seeking American citizenship; he’s already joined the American army.
Kebenei might not even be the first Kenyan steepler to cross the line in Terre Haute in November. UTEP’s Anthony Rotich was just 19th a year ago, but finished fourth in 2012 and has won the last two outdoor steeples. It should be noted that for both genders and across all divisions, it is exceedingly rare for an athlete to win cross-country nationals and have the steeplechase be their primary track event.
The best returner not yet mentioned: Patrick Tiernan of Villanova. The Australian was the third freshman in ninth last year (after telling Running Times just a week before that his goal was to crack the top 25), and was All-American indoors and outdoors in the 5000. As with Saarel, though, 2013-14 was a tough year to be a superstar freshman.
One last note: last year, 8k regular-season times were particularly unhelpful as a predictor for nationals. Since-graduated Kemoy Campbell of Arkansas and Korolev and his Harvard teammate James Leakos ran the fastest 8ks in the land in 2013; only Korolev even cracked the top 45. And among the top finishers, Zienasellassie, Cheserek, Kebenei, and Rosa (in that order) had 8k SBs that were a total of just fifteen seconds apart. As mentioned above, Ed “That’s Why They Run the Race” Cheserek won nationals by eighteen seconds.
1. Graduating years were unavailable for the results from 1987, 1991, 1997, and 2001. (Back to story)
2. Giving Alberto Salazar the win. Thanks to cross-country historian Kirk Reynolds for pointing this out. (Back to story)
3. Though all three have received or are on the path to American citizenship. (Back to story)
4. We’ll cover Stanford’s preponderance of low sticks in our team preview next week. (Back to story)