Runners were greeted by sunny skies and balmy weather as they took the starting line for the 27th Footlocker Championship at San Diego?s Balboa Park. The importance of the race was immediately evidenced by the fact that all runners were even with each other after 100 meters.
They crested the hill and then began the gradual downhill prior to the first turn. About the time they rounded the turn and began the uphill toward the pool Aislinn Ryan, the defending champion, took the lead.
Ryan led a large chase pack as they neared the top of the hill. Battling for position just behind were Bridget Franek of Ohio, Marie Lawrence of Nevada, Kauren Tarver of California, Nicole Blood of NY, Nichole Jones of Texas, Jordan Hasay of California, and a host of others. Upon cresting the hill, the runners were out of sight as they circled the pool and some jockeying for position took place.
Ryan continued to push the pace as they began the descent where they passed the original starting line. She held a 3 yard lead over Bridget Franek who in turn had a 5 yard lead over Nichole Jones of Texas. She reached the mile mark in a swift 5:18. The course has a large flat area at that point just prior to Upas hill, and the race began to take shape here with Ryan leading a long line of runners. Trailing her were Jordan Hasay of California and Marie Lawrence, who placed 2nd the last two years. Megan O?Reilly of Washington moved into 4th around this point after threading her way through the pack.
The return toward the start after Upas hill still saw Ryan in the lead a bit ahead of Marie Lawrence. There was still a fairly large pack that trailed just a bit behind including Hasay, Nichole Jones, Bridget Franek, Hanna Grinaker of MN, Kauren Tarver, and Danielle Tauro of NJ. Just a bit behind them were Megan O?Reilly, Annie St. Geme, Betsy Bies, Nicole Blood, Danielle Tauro of NJ, and Aurora Scott.
Ryan continued to lead as they rolled down the hill. Once at the bottom they cruised along and began the ascent up the hill to return to the start. It was here that Hasay assumed the lead followed by Lawrence and Ryan with O?Reilly starting to assert herself..
Throughout most of the history of Footlocker in San Diego, Upas hill has been the key to making or breaking a championship effort and this year it proved crucial as well. Jordan Hasay preempted any move that her competitors could make by charging up the hill. Her move was so decisive that she opened up a 50 meter gap over Lawrence & well behind her trailed O?Reilly and Ryan. The lead had been stretched to 12 seconds at the top of the hill. Behind Lawrence, Ryan battled O?Reilly while Annie St. Geme held 6th.
Hasay continued to control the race as she cruised down Upas extending her lead over Lawrence to 15 seconds. O?Reilly now edged Ryan, as they continued their battle for 3rd and 4th. Hasay reached the 3 mile mark in 16:29 and there was little doubt as to her victory. Lawrence ran alone in 2nd?securing her unique Footlocker niche as a 3 time 2nd place finisher. Aislinn Ryan took control of 3rd as they went back up the hill just ahead of the determined O?Reilly. Further back, Kauren Tarver held 5th ahead of the struggling St. Geme in 6th. The difficulty of the race could be seen as St. Geme tried to hold off a horde of fast-finishing runners?it was also evidenced in the medical tent where 8 runners would spend time.
The end results showed Jordan Hasay posting a winning time of 17:05, which was the 8th best time ever on the challenging course. Marie Lawrence placed 2nd 14 seconds behind. Aislinn Ryan acquitted herself well in 3rd place with a time of 17:34 just 2 seconds ahead of Megan O?Reilly. Kauren Tarver placed 5th. The remainder of the 10 included Danielle Tauro, Hanna Grinaker, Bria Wetsch, Aurora Scott, and Betsy Bies.
One of the remarkable aspects of the race beyond the quality of the competitors is the fact that they are so personable. In some sports one is accustomed to excuses, attitude, if not out-right swearing, but in spite of the fierce competition, there was a generally positive attitude no matter the finish and expectations. Aislinn Ryan, the defending champion, smiled and said "I did my best." Marie Lawrence with her 3rd consecutive 2nd place finish said, "I?m so happy?she deserves it." She further noted "I never ever cry but I cried today. I was so excited?really happy." Megan O?Reilly related that she was really tired but had no regrets. She said, "I ran better than I thought I might." Even Nicole Blood who was the Northeast regional winner and running with high expectations in her 4th Footlocker National, meet offered no excuses but simply stated, "I just didn?t do it" and added it was a great experience. With people of this caliber, one can only be happy of the future of our sport. It?s not only in the hands of great athletes but quality people.
With the race for the girls? title, which was both expected yet unexpected, thoughts turned to the boys? race. This race appeared to have a bit of a scripted feeling to it especially with hometown favorite A J Acosta on hand. Acting more like a football or basketball star he raised his arms encouraging his throng of followers. The backers, known as A J Nation came dressed with T shirts or had themselves body-painted in the logo, were even more of a presence than last year and they were there to cheer on their hometown pride. Signs and even a banner proclaimed their allegiance and they hoped to give their favorite a bit of extra energy that might be needed to triumph. (Note that during the race there was notably more noise rooting on A J than anyone else including other California home-breds and even towards then end prior to his run up the last hill AJ Nation was rehearsing songs. With his victory came the celebration, which A J Nation seemed to anticipate.)
Still the boys? race that followed was intriguing as it appeared to be wide open with no clear-cut favorite. AJ Acosta was the highest placing returnee, but there was a cast of contenders than included California starts Ben Sitler, Michael Coe, and the Mercado brothers (Diego and Danny) as well as Mohamud Ige of Colorado, Kenny Klotz of Oregon, Matt Tebo of New Mexico, Jack Bolas of North Carolina, Michael Eaton of Kentucky, Landon Peacock of Michigan, Justin Harbor of Florida, Dan Gerber of Texas, Ayalew Taye of Massachusetts. All of those runners seemed to have reasonable chances of winning on their day.
Their start was like that of the girls with one surging mass wherein no one took an immediate lead. That did not last much longer than the crest of the hill when Diego Mercado surged to the front. He was followed by Dan Roberts of Colorado, AJ Acosta, Danny Mercado of California, and Isaac Stoutenburgh of Oregon.
The lead only lasted until the runners had completed the downhill and made the turn to climb the hill toward the pool. AJ Acosta assumed the lead at that point, although it was but a slight one. He was closely pursued by the Mercados, Michael Eaton, Ben Sitler, Isaac Stoutenburgh, and Michael Coe.
By the time they reached the top of the hill and rounded the pool, the race was on, and Diego Mercado retook the lead. He took a distinct lead over the pack and seemed intent upon a breakaway. He reached the mile in a fast 4:33. He was trailed by AJ Acosta, Danny Mercado, Ben Sitler, and Isaac Stoutenburgh. It remained that way as they climbed Upas hill the first time, but AJ Acosta returned to the lead near the top, and he quickly opened up a gap. The cast following remained the same except for the addition of Michael Coe.
AJ pushed up the hill returning to the start with a 5 yard lead over Diego Mercado who was trailed in turn by Sitler and Michael Eaton. Oregon?s Kenny Klotz also moved into contention as well.
Acosta did a pied piper act going down the hill going away from the pool and on the return back up it. Michael Coe moved into 2nd by the pool and the chase pack saw Mohamud Ige and Landon Peacock join the fray.
With the apparent attempt to break totally away, Acosta raced down the hill where they had started and continued in over-drive reaching the 2 mile in 9:31 (4:38 2nd mile). His efforts earned him a 30 meter lead over Coe who had a lead over Peacock, Sitler, Ige, and Klotz, as well as a couple of others.
It was a crucial point in the race as Coe gave up previous yardage but with 120 meters to go Coe made a concerted effort to close the gap. Peacock remained a distant 3rd while Mohamud Ige assumed 4th place. They raced that way down Upas hill and in spite of the fact that Coe had briefly cut the gap, Acosta put in a surege of his own to move the gap back to 30 meters.
AJ cruised the flat area quickly and began his last ascent toward the finish. Coe followed but gained nothing in the flat, although he was 40 meters in front of Peacock, who was being chased by Ige and Klotz. It was on the hill that Coe made a strong move to cut into the lead. He was well behind, when he began it, and he appeared to be too far back to have a chance. Still he gained quickly as he more than whittled it away but as AJ crested the hill with only about 30 yards remaining, he still had a minimum of 15 yards on Coe. But Coe was still coming and in fact was flying as he narrowed the gap. In the end AJ Acosta held on to claim the National Championship in 15:02, which was the same as Coe?s 2nd place effort.
The race for the title may have been over but the race behind was unfolding fast. Landon Peacock held third most of the way up the final hill but Kenny Klotz was closing fast. Klotz surged passed Peacock but then a bit later did not continue his pace & cut back a bit only to be caught in the turn by the fast closing Ryan Craven of Illinois. Klotz and Peacock held their positions to take 4th and 5th while Jack Bolas of North Carolina seized 6th. Ben Sitler and Danny Mercado followed in 7th and 8th and Evan Jager of Illinois caught they tiring Ige to place 9th.
In the team races, the West won both the boys and girls competitions, and the Midwest grabbed 2nd in both divisions.
In the end, fans were treated to great races and a chance to even meet noted athletes like Adam Goucher, Alan and Shayne Culpepper, Abdi Abdirahman, Suzy Favor Hamilton, Shalene Flanagan, Laura Fleshman, and Dathan Ritzenhein. Even Marc Davis, until today the only San Diegian to win the race, and Melody Fairchild, course record holder, were on hand.
Hats off to Footlocker for continuing this great race and its tradition. The trip to San Diego along with the festivities and amenities of the Hotel del Coronado are first class. The runners no matter their place will come away with lasting memories of being treated as the elite runner that they are. It truly does not get any better than this.