Foot Locker National Championship 2010Balboa Park , San Diego | Sat. Dec. 11, 2010

By Leo Collins

VIDEO replays from regionals

PHOTOS by Steve Klotz

Sunny skies and a moderate temperature in the low sixties provided runners the opportunity to really strut their stuff and the young athletes in America’s greatest high school race did exactly that, as both girls & boys races produced outstanding times almost across the board. Aisling Cuffe, who has had one of the finest cross country seasons in years, left no doubt from the beginning that she was serious in making her third trip to nationals the charm and she race to the front immediately. She held a slight lead at the crest of the slight hill that came just after the start but was closely pursued by Abbey Leonardi of Maine, Allison Woodward of Wisconsin & Catarina Rocha of Massachusetts. Just off their shoulders ran Molly Grabill & Clare Carroll of California plus Gabrielle Anzalone of Michigan and Ariel Breton of Ma.

Cuffe led the charge down the first hill, which heads in the direction of the museums and her time at the 400 was a brisk 70 seconds. In spite of the pace Allison Woodward remained with Aisling as they rounded the turn and then raced up the hill under the eucalyptus trees. By the time the pair reached the 800 (2:26~) they had opened a solid twenty meter lead over Gabrielle Anzalone & Erin Finn of Michigan. Kelsey Lakowske of Colorado followed close behind and was about five meters over the crowded chase pack.

The leaders rounded the pool & then raced down the hill where the race had started. For the Aisling the move was hardly surprising but given the times, that she had recorded during the season, it was a bold move on the part of Woodward to contest the front position. The duo raced across the road and into the valley area and they headed to what is known as the concrete switchbacks at about the 4:20 mark in the race. Soon they raced past the mile mark in 5:23. Behind them were Finn, Lakowske & Leonardi.

Upas Hill has often proved to be the crucial part of the race and it proved to be that way this year too but the surprise was it did not happen on the uphill portion of the race. Woodward stubbornly continued to challenge Cuffe going up, and even seized the lead during the ascent and continued to lead as well along the plateau area after the crest of the hill but on the steep downhill Cuffe opened up her stride. Looking like a Kenyan, as she threw out her arms to change her center of balance & then almost free-falling down Upas Hill, Aisling zipped down the hill in contradiction to Carrie Tollefson’s statement that runners have to “work” on the downhill. Aisling was not working - she was breezing and with that she had taken command of the race.

Woodward fell back at that point yet held second over a small group that included Leonardi, Lakowske & Eleanor Fulton of Colorado. Up ahead Cuffe raced past the start and, as she raced up the brief hill that followed it, she continued “to look strong” as noted by announcer Tim O’ Rourke. Her time of 10:53 at the two mile mark confirmed that she was still breezing along and it was quite apparent that barring a collapse the race was hers.

Sometimes thing in life go as planned and on this day for Aisling, such was the case. S he had intended to go out strongly, which she did, yet she lost no one. Plan B had been to push the hill but of course Woodward answered back. There was even the momentary fear and memory of Megan Goethels’ red head band from last year, which Woodward matched and she thought ”not again?” but Plan C was to blast down the hill and this worked as plan. She implied it was fortunate after the race, when she confided: “there was no plan C.” Still, once fully implemented, her plan came to fruition.

Aisling raced by the pool shortly after the 11 minute mark and raced alone towards the far side of the course. She glanced over her shoulder to check if anyone was closing on her but with her continued brisk pace work that did not seem possible. Such was her pace and fluid stride that to think of a challenge at that point bordered on being a tale in science fiction. Behind her still was the valiant Woodward but Megan Venables of New Jersey had made a move to claim third. Still in the race for second also loomed Lakowske & Finn plus Julia Nacouzi, the West Regional winner. Eleanor Fulton & Molly Grabill were still hanging on as well and somewhat surprisingly, Rachel Johnson had moved into ninth. It was surprising given that she had raced in the muck in Portland last week &won the Mud Bowl.

Cuffe continued to reenact the “Runnin’ of the Green” as the Irish mite pumped her arms to assist her legs. She had moved so far into the lead by the 14:10 mark that no one could be seen behind her. After the race Aisling conceded that she was “tired”, which probably explains why she glanced over her should to check on the competition, but there was no one to see. She soon raced down Upas once again & headed for home. The three mile time of 16:29 was merely a point of reference to remind everyone that she was still flying and the only real question now was how great would her time be? Although she had raced alone for most of the race, her final time was an excellent 16:53. The caliber of her achievement can best be viewed, when one realizes, that in the 32 year history of the race that only five runners have ever clocked faster times and those names evoke great respect: Melody Fairchild, Julia Stamps, Janet Smith, Erin Keogh & Cathy Schiro. Aside from that her margin of victory of 34 seconds ties Janet Smith, whose birthday incidentally is today, for third place on the list. Only Melody Fairchild and Amber Trotter have ever won by more.

Rachel Johnson came home in 17:27 to claim second and in spite of the margin of victory, a more true view of the quality of her effort, can be seen in the fact that her time places her 47th on the all-time list behind none other than three-time second place finisher Marie Lawrence. Julia Nacouzi edged Kelsey Lakowske for third & both were credited with a time of 17:29. Megan Venables earned 5th with 17:35, while Allison Woodward showed her mettle by placing 6th just two seconds later. Erin Finn claimed 7th ahead of Shannon Osika of Michigan and Molly Grabill, running past numerous “Go Molly” signs placed 9th in 17:46. Joanna Thompson of Tennessee rounded out the top ten and Gabrielle Anzalone followed in 11th and was the fourth runner to share a time of 17:46. Waverly Neer garnered 14th and in so doing showed how close the competition is and that on another day any runner here can impression, because she had finished 10th in the Midwest Regional. The Midwest girls’ team were victorious over their rivals from other regions and had a low score of 36 points. The Northeast was second with 55 and the West edged the South as both had totals of 70 points.

‘Speed kills’ was a repeat scenario in the guys’ race as well with Lukas Verzbicas applied pretty much the same racing strategy as had Cuffe and it served to kill off the competition. The only real surprise in the race was the fact that Lukas did not lead from the start, as did Cuffe. The mass start saw Verzbicas at the front early with James Martin & Chris Walden of Indiana plus John Murray of Massachusetts at his side. Soon after Jantzen Oshier of California sped away on Saturday in the same fashion as he had the previous week in the West Regional. Oshier raced down the first hill and streaked the first quarter in sixty seconds. Murray & Verzbicas, however, loomed just a bit behind him.

Billy Orman established a brief lead going through the trees heading by the tennis courts but Oshier resumed the lead by the time that they reached the 800 near the pool, which is at the top of the hill in 2:17. Orman & Verzbicas were on his tail but Murray must have been chomping on the bit at that point, because he asserted himself as the began to speed out of sight rounding the pool. Orman glanced off to his side seemingly a bit surprised, as the pack led by Verzbicas, Orman, Walden, Oshier & Morgan Pearson gave chase. Futsum Zeinasellassie of Indiana moved into contention at that point but it was Murray, who had control of the pace at that stage in the race. Verzbicas quickly countered to match the move by the time that they had returned to the starting point the race seemed to be on in earnest.

Once across the road and into the valley section of the course the complexion of the race altered radically, as Verzbicas moved back into the lead but was now pursued by Futsum. The time was 4:10 at that point and the leaders began to up the ante and the pace increased. The mile was reached in 4:45. Lukas would later note that he was mainly trying to stay out of trouble, yet he was soon leading a charge of a dozen runners, when they headed up Upas Hill for the first time. Futsum was the closest to the leader but Walden, Oshier, Murray, Pearson & Eddie Owens of Brooklyn were but a few of the large pack, who could be made out at that time.

They crested Upas in 6:02 and soon headed back down the hill along Upas Avenue and Ohioan Zach Wills became the titular leader, yet still Lukas and Ed Owens remained near his side followed by Futsum, while the chase pack led by Walden, Pearson & Orman followed about five meters behind. As noted it was somewhat surprising as Verzbicas appeared to be covering moves rather than establishing the pace as expected, yet he was always seemingly in control up to this point.

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The Illinois star reestablished the lead soon after and Futsum went with him. The pair hit the half way point in 7:25 and had achieved a clear lead at that point. Billy Orman led the chase pack, which was beginning to cede ground. In the next half mile Lukas & Futsum both picked up the pace, as they matched each other’s move, while they were at the same time opening up a huge lead. The race would be down to just two at this point. The return up the hill by the tennis courts (around 9:04) saw Verzbicas accelerating the pace and Futsum slowly giving way and by the time Lukas had rounded the pool and returned to the start he had taken control. Futsum did his best to give chase but the junior could not keep contact. Well behind Futsum, however, things were beginning to happen as Tony Smoragiewicz of South Dakota edged ahead of Billy Orman for third place. James Martin & Chris Walden of Indiana followed close behind & it was obvious at that point that the Midwest team was taking control of that aspect of the race.

Like Cuffe earlier Verzbicas cautiously glanced back over his shoulder a number of times (I noted at least at the 11:30 mark & the 12:30 point, as he headed up Upas). Whatever his concern it was unwarranted and with 800 meters to go (12:46) the only question that remained would be “how fast?” Announcer Tim O’ Rourke noted Lukas’ “incredible effort” as he neared the road with a quarter to go (13:38). Lukas finally relaxed, as he raced past the start and joyously waved to the fans on the side for a good 100 meters. It was a bit reminiscent of Marc Davis’ 1986 final 100 meters, when he raised he finger claiming that he was number one, and, although he waved in relief more than anything, the wave had the same effect: it limited his final time. The end result was a victory in a fine time of 14:59, which tied that of Bob Kennedy for 27th place on the all-time list. His margin of victory tied Marc Davis, Bryan Dame worth & Abdirizak Mohamud for 8th place.

Zeinasellassie sped home in 15:10: a time which places him in the all-time top sixty and Tony Smoragiewicz followed in 15:16 for third. Andrew Gardner of Spokane displayed his great promise by speeding home in 4th just two seconds later. Chris Walden gave evidence of a nice kick as he edged Billy Orman at the end to claim fifth in 15:22. Jimmy Clark of Jacksonville earned 7th (15:24) and Eddie Owens followed him across the line a second later. Ryan Pickering of West palm Beach garnered 9th in 15:25 & Chad Noelle of New York secured tenth in 15:25. William Kincaid, who once participated in Irish dancing, took 11th in 15:27: the same time credited to James Martin, who edged Midwest team mate Jack Driggs of Illinois for 12th.

The quality of the field was easily evidenced by the fact that 35 of the 40 runners finished in a time under 16:00 minutes & the ’slowest’ was a fine 16;02 on this classic course. Everyone showed even by their time that they were a champion. The Midwest guys overwhelmed their competition with a dominant race that saw its members claim 1 - 2 -3 - 5 - 11 -12 - 13 places and score an impressively low 22 points. The South earned second with 64 points while the Northeast edged the West 73 to 75.

It was a brilliant day of brilliant individual and team racing and Foot Locker is be thanked for their continued sponsorship of this fine tradition. Families, who were on hand for the first time, came to understand the magnificence of this series and expressed their joy in being a part of it. The weather certainly seconded the motion with what could only be termed balmy conditions. Still in the end Olympian Carrie Tollefson probably expressed it best, when she spoke to the young athletes at the awards banquet at the Hotel Del Coronado: ‘you are apart now of a special family - welcome to the family.’ That closeness & shared experience of runners of all ages was echoed the following morning by the great Julia Stamps, who looked forward to going on a run with runner Jackie Nicholas, when she visits family in Connecticut. There is so much for everyone to take in and one young lady, who did not have her best day, simply stated: “What a place to have an off day!“ Indeed! It was a grand weekend and race and a credit to the three decade tradition that Foot Locker has shared with the nation and we eagerly look forward to seeing these young athletes perform, while the continue to progress. Foot Locker has proved to be the stepping stone for greatness for a multitude of distance runners and after witnessing today’s brilliant displays it would seem U S distance running will soon be in good hands.