Foot Locker National Championships, Balboa Park, San Diego
The 31st running of America’s premier high school event began with pleasant temperatures but ominous skies, as the runners were introduced. By the time that the girls’ race had begun a soft rain had begun to fall: a rain that would grow harder until the racing had ended. Then again this is cross country and the harriers are a hardy bunch so, while the anticipated return of the millionaire horse Lava Man was canceled due to inclement weather just north at Hollywood Park, the girls toed the line in anticipation.
Seemingly in anticipation of the final results Megan Goethals of Michigan had a slight lead, as she crested the minor hill after less than 100 meters. The runners raced out of sight down the first hill towards the museum turn, which is nestled amidst the Eucalyptus trees. Chelsea Ley of New Jersey was returning to the race for the second time with the goal of being in the top five. She had intended a pace of 5:20 for the first mile and, when she realized that the pace was too slow, she decided “someone’s got to do it”, and she assumed the lead. She laughed afterwards noting that some probably thought that she might be a sacrificial rabbit, who was going to fall apart, but she went knowing that she had come prepared to race. And race she did! She led a charge back up the hill back to the tennis courts and had around a 15 meter lead, when she reached the 800M mark in 2:36.
It was an interesting race for, although the three former champions (Jordan Hasay, Ashley Brasovan & Kathy Kroeger) were not in the race, there was a “ton of talent” (according to knowledgeable race announcer Tim O’ Rourke), who followed just off the pace. More interesting & a bit foreboding as well was the fact that the next three runners, Megan Goethals, Aisling Cuffe & Chelsey Sveinsson, were not only returnees but current regional champions. Only missing from the group was West champion Molly Grabill, who was tucked safely back in about tenth place conserving energy.
They rounded the pool area before racing downhill past the starting area & then headed for the road and the lower valley that lies on the other side. I had run the course on Thursday & knew that there were some very soggy areas, which was the result of a significant storm from the previous Monday. That storm had been so severe that there had been high surf that beached a fair-sized sail boat & forced the rescue of two people that Monday. The boat, incidentally, still remained on the beach for all to see - this was not going to be a day to run record times, yet the runners were all still running at the very minimum, very honest times.
Ley reached the 1200 meter mark with a 15 yard lead. Behind her ran the trio for Goethals, Cuffe & Sveinsson. Moving into contention at that time also was Wesley Frazier, a freshman from North Carolina. They soon made the turn to head towards Upas Hill and the chase-pack began to reel in the leader. Goethels led the pack as they cut the gap to about five meters, while at the same time Megan Ferowich of Tenn. joined the fray briefly displacing Cuffe back to sixth place.
There was some jockeying for position during the interlude prior to the hill and by the time that Ley reached the mile mark in 5:26 Goethals was positioned just a bit off Chelsea’s shoulder. Soon they began the first climb up Upas Hill and Goethals moved into the lead. She was followed in turn by Cuffe, Ley, Sveinsson, Ferowich & Kathryn Fleuhr of Florida. Frazier ran a bit behind the pack while Grabill was in tenth place. Through the years Upas has often held a critical point in the race and it was already having some effect just on the first ascent as Frazier fell off the pace and was replaced by Marielle Hall of New Jersey, who moved into 7th. Ahead of her raced Goethals, Cuffe, Ley, Sveinsson, Fleuhr & Ferowich. The South interestingly enough had a pack of runners just a bit behind so they had five of the top ten runners at that point.
Aisling Cuffe opened up on the downhill to forge a slight lead over Goethals. She in turn held a slim margin over Sveinsson & Ley. The runners appeared to be not quite racing at that point but rather feeling each other out, but Cuffe noted that she had hoped to forge a lead and was concerned that everyone remained with her. They reached the road in 7:40 just before heading up the grade towards the starting line. Cuffe led a procession of Goethals & Sveinsson plus Ley, who moved back into contention, and Emily Sisson. Sisson from Missouri had been second to Goethals in the Midwest but was also a four-time qualifier. This was a deep field in talent and experience, as echoed by announcer O’ Rourke, who commented as the group reached the half-way mark.
Half way into the race Goethals regained the lead and was followed by Cuffe, Sveinsson, Sisson, Ley & Ferowich. There was much movement just off the pace at this time as Kelsey Lakowske of Colorado moved to the fore and Marielle Hall reasserted herself. Also moving into contention in a pack not too far behind was Jessica Tonn of Arizona, who is the other of this year’s four-time qualifiers. Tonn was paired with Californian Megan Morgan, as they matched strides going up the slight rise. Grabill was trying to close the gap on the leaders but was still mired in 10th place and seemingly was stuck there. We can all relate to that feeling and it’s a shame, when it happens in a big race. Maddie Myers of Washington raced alone a few yards behind them.
Once again the girls raced down the hill towards the museum turn beneath the eucalyptus trees and then back up the hill along the side of the tennis courts. Goethals held a slight edge over Cuffe, when she reached the two mile mark in 11:14. Right behind them were Chelsea Ley, Chelsey Sveinsson & Emily Sisson. They soon rounded the pool and headed back past the start & across the road into the valley area. Sveinsson edged back into third behind Cuffe at that point
Goethals & Cuffe both made a move in the valley portion to open a gap on Sveinsson, while behind her Sisson & Ferowich were opening a gap on the stragglers. That group had now separated themselves & the race was now down to just five runners at the 2 ¼ mile mark. Soon the time was 13:51 as they headed towards the hill & Sveinsson had first returned to Goethals & then began to press the pace a bit. Cuffe began to drop back just a bit. Ferowich trailed in fourth.
The battle was joined on Upas Hill shortly after the 14 minute mark & Goethals & Sveinsson were beginning to really assert themselves. The pace was finally taking its toll on Cuffe, who was fighting to remain in contact as her stride began to betray her. Still you could see the effort on her face to stay close. Ferowich & Sisson dueled a bit removed from that & former pace setter Chelsea Ley returned to sixth and was battling for every inch of ground. Those watching had to feel pride at the grit displayed by so many as they gave up “territory” only when they were forced to as Ley related afterwards. Katie Flood, a two-time qualifier, held 7th ahead of Frazier & Molly Grabill moved into 9th, while Ashlie Decker was now in tenth.
Near the top of the hill Chelsey put in a move, which was answered quickly by Megan. They crested the top of the hill and then ran along the top of the plateau together. Those trailing fell further back as Sveinsson took charge of the pace and put in a surge. Once on the Upas’ descent Chelsey really opened up to open a five meter gap, which soon widened to ten meters. Goethals responded once back in the valley to cut the lead to five meters, yet on the final grade Sveinsson pressed again. She raced past the start seemingly in full flight and widened the lead back to ten meters.
The crowd yelled as the pair raced up the final hill and past the start. Cuffe now was a tired and distant third, as she tried her best to keep fluid. Closing fast behind her was Emily Sisson but for the most part the focus was on the duo a up front. Sveinsson seemingly had the race won, when she reached the top of the last hill with only another 40 meters to go. She was telling herself “Chelsey you can to do it” but she knew that Goethals was close behind, as she was aware of the encouragement of others to her rival. She noted afterwards that she “knew Megan was back there somewhere” - she just did not know how far.
The race was almost over and Goethals was still almost five yards behind: She could not close that gap in the time left yet she did. I saw it but I still do not believe it. Normally, when a runner closes late, the leader is losing their stride & decreasing the pace, but Chelsey remained fluid & was focused on to the finish. Her pace was still strong. It was almost as if Megan had somehow leapt past her at the end to catch her just at the wire. At first the thought was that possibly Chelsey raised her arms in victory too early but such was not the case after review. She kept sprinting to the finish and only fell after being passed just at the finish.
How Goethals found the reserve to beam ahead in Star Trek fashion is a bit beyond belief and we witnessed it! In my book on Foot Locker history I noted some great races among girls in the past including Julia Stamps’ collapse in the 1996 race at the very end to be eclipsed by Kristen Gordon, but this race was superior. From the time that the pair neared the crest of Upas Hill it was a one-on-one battle the rest of the way. This was truly a race for the ages and seemingly proper as the start of Foot Locker’s next thirty years.
Behind them Emily Sisson was making her own charge and she caught the valiant Cuffe late in the race to earn third matching her effort as a freshman in 2006. Her time of 17:19 on a sloppy course bettered her time for that year of 17:56, which gives some idea of the quality of this race. Aisling came home alone in 17:22 well ahead of fifth place finisher Megan Ferowich. Cuffe’s time puts her in the top fifty all-time performances at Balboa and would have won in a number of years including 2003 & 2004. Kelsey Lakowske took 6th ahead of Chelsea Ley, who commented that “I died to a good place.” In deed it was a good place & a fine race. Midwest runners Katie Flood & Ashlie Decker of Des Moines, Iowa placed 8th & 9th ahead of Wesley Frazier, who finished 10th. Rachel Johnson of Texas finished 11th in front of Molly Grabill. For Grabill, like Sveinsson & Cuffe, it was her first loss of the year but that in some ways is the uniqueness of Foot Locker. Chelsea Ley probably expressed it best, when she noted that “it’s odd to look to your side and have someone next to you.” This race is on such another level for high school runners. Jessica Tonn claimed 13th to finish off her fine four-year career and Liberty Miller was 14th Tiny freshman Karlie Garcia ran far bigger than her size to score a top-fifteen finish and Amanda Russell edged Megan Morgan for 16th. Washington’s Maddie Meyers finished 23rd & we look forward to seeing the sophomore here next year.
Such was the girls’ race that the guys had a hard act to follow and to make it more of a challenge the clouds really began to let loose. The course, which was already quite soggy by the end of the girls’ race, had turned quite muddy. The West runners seemed to feel quite at home, however, as Brian Shrader of Arizona, Wade Meddles of Nevada, Shane Moskowitz of Washington & Matt McElroy of California were out on the left with a slight lead after only fifty meters & tucked just behind them, yet out in front of the runners from other regions was Conner Peloquin, who was also from Washington.
As they raced down the hill towards the museum turn Shrader & Meddles each seemed to deliberate leading, when Meddles finally stated: “I’ve got your back today.” & assumed the lead. It was only in 63 seconds that they turned & made the ascent back up through the eucalyptus trees and from there it was the West duo, who led the way back up towards the pool. Behind them trailed Lukas Verzbicas of Illinois, Craig Lutz of Texas & Shane Moskowitz. At well into the hill at the 1:54 mark a fan yelled out: “Go Shane.” And one had to wonder, if it was the young man, who wore a “Can You Stop Shane Moskowitz” shirt that I saw after the race. It was a bit off of the old “Stop Pre” from years ago but, like A J Acosta only a few years ago, Shane had his own fan club on sight.
The 800M mark was reached in 2:22 with Verzbicas assuming the lead. He promptly began to push the pace. Just behind Meddles, Shrader & Lutz answered back. The race was already on and yet it was quite early. They rounded the pool with Verzbicas leading the way but now Matt McElroy had joined the chase-pack & he was just in front of Shane. As they raced past the start & down the hill before crossing the road, the rain began to increase. Lukas maintained the lead followed by Shrader, while Meddles & Lutz dropped off just a bit. Kirubel Erassa from Georgia moved into contention at this point.
Verzbicas stretched his lead a bit, as he raced into the valley and looked behind him. Usually it is a sign that a runner is tired & worried about those behind him, but for Lukas it was just a misleading sign, which he would do many times over the course of the race. Soon they made the turn back towards Upas Hill with Verzbicas leading a string of runners that included Shrader & Lutz. The lead increased a bit as Moskowitz moved into fourth & Steve Magnuson of Arizona slipped into contention. The race appeared to be shaping up a bit like that of the girls for Shrader, Moskowitz & Magnuson had all been at nationals the previous year. Verzbicas, Shrader & Lutz were also regional champions.
The mile was reached in a swift 4:48 and once they were headed up the hill it was as if someone had said ‘Let’s Go’ for Lukas & Craig made a move. The thought at the time was that it was a bold one so early into the race, but the question was could either of them sustain it? The pace was such that the west runners backed off the pace & only Erassa of the South made any move to cover it in the least & he was left in third all alone. Shrader was back in fourth and remained there until he crested the hill, where he cruised back into contention & then took the look and pushed the pace on the down-slope. Upas was quite wet & slick by now yet Shrader opened up to take a ten meter lead over Verzbicas, while Lutz took third and Meddles moved back into fourth.
Shrader played Pied Piper as he crossed the road and threaded his way back to the start followed by the Illinois runner, who continued to look over his shoulder. Lutz was now alone in third, as the second half of the race began in earnest. By the painted starting area Verzbicas retook the lead and Lutz moved into second. Shrader fell back into third just in front of McElroy, while Shane Moskowitz eased back into fifth. Behind him trailed Meddles & then Walter Schafer of Colorado. Lukas made the turn that faces the museum in 8:45 and then rambled back through the trees back up the hill. Lutz, Shrader & Meddles followed, while New Jersey’s Tyler Udland entered the fray.
Verzbicas hit the two mile mark in 9:40 and once again looked behind him. If he actually saw anyone it could have only been a bit of Craig Lutz, who was slowly disappearing behind him. It was a bit hard to comprehend that a sophomore could be taking charge of this race so early but any would-be challenger was far behind & essentially falling back, because well behind Lutz trailed McElroy, Erassa & Shrader. Shane Moskowitz, who still was not at full strength after some cold or whatever for weeks was back in 8th.
Reaching the top of the hill and rounding the pool Verzbicas had opened up a good fifty meter lead over Lutz. Erassa was then in third & trailed by McElroy, Meddles & Shrader plus Moskowitz. At this point the race was already getting out of hand and any would-be challenger needed to make a move soon but at the 11:21 mark, which saw the leader nearing the valley once again, the lead was growing wider. Verzbicas had pushed the pace on that downhill and even the old skeptics like myself had to concede that the winner had already been determined. To affirm that point the announcer proclaimed he’s “got the hammer down …”
With that the race devolved into watching check-points: 11:55 by the wall, 12:32 on the steep part of Upas, 12:56 in the middle of the plateau. The greatest concern was that Lukas continued to look around as if some stealthy runner was somehow making up ground. The biggest incident was a slight slip at the 13:16 point of the race as Lukas zipped downhill on the slick surface almost taking a misstep, but even, if he had, his lead was such that he could have easily won. It was shades of Bob Kennedy in 1987, when he slipped and rolled on Upas, yet could not be denied victory. Of course Lukas did not fall and kept rolling along his way to victory.
He crossed the road at the 14:02 mark and the second runner was no where in sight. It was now obvious a sophomore was going to win Foot Locker. It took twenty seconds for the next runner to come into view and Lukas cruised home in 15:08 and, when you consider that the course had to be a good 15 to 20 seconds slow, it was a very solid time. Moreover his time ties him for 48th on the all-time Balboa list in spite of the fact that he ran in a downpour on a muddy course. It was more telling that his 15 second margin of victory ties him with Corey Ihmels for 4th place. Only Chris Solinsky, Dathan Ritzenhein & Scott Fry have won by a wider margin.
Matt McElroy put in a surge of his own to catch the tired Lutz and finish second, while Wade Meddles regrouped to pass Lutz & nearly overtake McElroy with a time of 15:24. Craig Lutz held on for 4th in 15:30 & came home a second in front of Brian Shrader. Jake Hurysz finished 6th a second behind Shrader & was followed in turn by Tyler Byrne of Indiana. Kirubel Erassa caught Shane Moskowitz just at the wire to claim 8th & Matt Mizereck of Florida rounded out the top ten.
Chris Walden, a junior from Indiana, placed 11th to become an All-American. He was followed by Steve Magnuson, Martin Grady of Illinois, Brandon Lord of Tennessee & & David Oster of New Jersey. Others of note included Tyler Udland in 16th, Brad Miles (Northeast Champion from Pennsylvania) 21st & Walter Schafer was 22nd. Northwest runners Conner Peloquin & Cody Helbling placed 29th & 30th. Cody, of course, will always be remembered as the first runner from Idaho to qualify twice for nationals.
Former Olympian Keith Brantly, who qualified for the first national Kinney/Foot Locker meet in 1979, was on hand to see how the South fared. To my mind the South has never claimed a regional title in either the girls or the guys races but they were for sure in the hunt today. The South has experienced a bit of a Renaissance of late and the girls 44 points found them placing second behind the Midwest’s low of 27 (1 - 3 - 6 - 8 - 9). They easily out-distanced the Northeast & the West who had 68 & 71 points respectively. The West guys dominated up front with 2 - 3 -5 - 9 - 12 and defeated the South 31 to 42, while the Midwest placed 3rd with 49 points and the Northeast finished with 88. The combined scores saw the South lose to the Midwest by only ten points (76 - 86) while they easily out-distanced the West with 102 & overwhelmed the Northeast, which had 156.
In the end fans witnessed two very different races, yet both races were very special in their own ways. They are a tribute to the fine tradition of Foot Locker, which the company has fostered. Still this is about more than just racing & the young runners will have special memories that last a lifetime and friends as well. It was another Foot Locker year and, if you were not here to compete, you may be a runner but you just can’t claim to be a champion, except on a local level. The quality of competition was on such another level. A lasting memory will be of Steve Magnuson, who went to the upstairs of the Hotel Del Coronado atrium. As he sat in what appeared to be a throne that over-looked the giant Christmas tree, he sat back & exclaimed to his friends: “I want to be here when this race celebrates it’s 50th year.” Amen Steve!