Approaching the finish line tape of the USA Cross Country Championships on Saturday in Boulder, Colo., Chris Derrick waved three fingers in front of his right eye and cracked a huge smile.
It was a playful gesture, a small way of celebrating his third straight U.S. 12K cross country championship and solidifying himself as one of America’s top young distance runners. With his smooth, rhythmic form making 4:52 mile pace look easy, Derrick dominated a strong field amid unseasonably warm temperatures, winning the race in 36 minutes, 18 seconds and earning the chance to race for the U.S. at the World Cross Country Championships in Guiyang, China on March 28.
In doing so, Derrick (Nike/Bowerman Track Club) joined the elite group of runners—Pat Porter, Meb Keflezighi, Alan Culpepper, Adam Goucher, Dathan Ritzenhein and Frank Shorter—who have won at least three U.S. cross country titles since 1960. Porter, who won eight straight U.S. titles in the 1980s, is the only other runner in that group to have won three straight.
Runners had to contend with Boulder’s high elevation (5,430 feet above sea level) and temperatures in the low 70s. Even though it snowed about 8 inches on Wednesday, the course was dry, firm and fast.
“It feels great to win three in a row,” said Derrick, who won the same race last year in Boulder. “I definitely felt the altitude. You have to breathe a lot harder and work a lot harder, but I feel like I’m pretty good at it, and I think it worked in my favor.”
In the women’s race, Laura Thweatt (Saucony/Boulder Track Club) executed her race strategy perfectly, outrunning Sara Hall (ASICS) and Neely Gracey (Brooks/Hansons) to win the four-lap, 8K race in 27:42.
Thweatt, a 26-year-old former University of Colorado runner who trains under three-time Australian Olympian Lee Troop, added another key result to her three-year progression and solidified her place among the U.S. elite women with her first true national title. (She was the top individual at the slightly less competitive U.S. club cross country championships in 2013 and 2014, but those races are contested primarily as team events.)
Thweatt pulled away from Hall in the middle of the fourth lap and ran strong to the finish.
“The goal was to feel smooth the first two laps and then to open it up and hang on for dear life,” Thweatt said. “With a lap to go, I knew I had to try to surge one more time. I know Sara is a tough competitor, so I knew I had to really hold on. I have to admit, I was running scared the whole last lap. I thought at any minute someone was going to fly by me. I wasn’t really sure I had done it until I got about 50 yards from the finish line.”
Mattie Suver (ASICS/American Distance Project) surged on the last lap to take second in 28:13, while Jen Rhines (adidas/Boston Athletic Association), a 40-year-old three-time Olympian, placed third in 28:21 and Brie Felnagle (adidas) wound up fourth in 28:23. Hall faded to fifth, while Gracey dropped out of the race with a lap to go. (The final lap bell was inadvertently rung a lap early and Gracey appeared to struggle after surging on the third lap.)
Hall is getting ready for her marathon debut in Los Angeles on the March 15, so she’s not going to race in the world championships in China. That means the U.S. team will likely be comprised of Thweatt, Suver, Rhines, Felnagle, Elaina Balouris (6th) and Angela Bizzarri (7th).
Both Derrick and Thweatt each pocketed $7,000 for their victories, including $3,500 from the $50,000 championship prize purse and a $3,500 World Cross Country Championships stipend.
Derrick, 24, was an Illinois high school state champion, a NXN national high school champion and a 14-time All-American at Stanford. But he never won an NCAA title in track or cross country, so winning three straight national titles as a pro has been more than a feather in his cap. He also placed 10th at the 2013 World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, and helped the U.S. take the team silver medal.
He made a bold move during the third lap to open up the men’s race, but it was earlier than he had expected to surge. He said he could hear Ritzenhein and Ben True breathing pretty hard in the lead group and thought the altitude might be having more of an effect on them than it was on him. He made a controlled move and within a lap he had gapped Ritzenhein, Bobby Curtis and the rest of the front pack by 15 seconds.
“At that point, I felt pretty good, so instead of letting it rest, I decided to go to the front right there,” Derrick said. “My coach I talked about the idea that it doesn’t matter when you go, but when it happens I have to be relaxed about it, do it for real, and don’t force it. Once I got about 10 meters up, because I did it in a relaxed way, I knew I could run with that rhythm all the way to the finish line.”
Curtis ran a strong race and finished as the runner-up in 36:48 after Ritzenhein faded a bit on the final lap and took third in 36:51. Ryan Vail (Brooks) was fourth in 36:55, Patrick Smyth (Nike) was fifth (37:01) and Maksim Korolev (Stanford) was sixth (37:03). Because Ritzenhein is training for the April 20 Boston Marathon and won’t be racing at the world championships in China, seventh-place finisher Andrew Colley (ZAP Fitness) earned the final Team USA berth for that event. True, one of the pre-race favorites, had a tough race and finished 11th.
“The heat and the altitude were both tough,” Ritzenhein said. “It was negative 6 degrees two days ago in Michigan and then not having been at altitude, it was a shocker. I felt it right from the start.”
Ritzenhein, a former University of Colorado runner and three-time Olympian, hadn’t raced in Boulder since the 2007 U.S. championships. In that race, he surged to the front early on but faded to third as Alan Culpepper stormed to victory.
Still, Ritzenhein was in second with two laps to go and started to surge, but Derrick was running too strong to close the gap.
“Once he went out in the lead, I thought I’d let Chris get a little buffer and then maybe he’d do what I did in 2007 and then I could try to reel him back in,” he said. “But he was very strong and I didn’t feel like I had much in me.”
After a good but not great college career at the University of Colorado, Thweatt connected with Lee Troop and has been on an upward slope for the past three years. Last year, she set new PRs at every distance from 800m to the half marathon, including her 15:04.98 mark in the 5,000. Her progression has put her in position to contend for an Olympic berth at next year’s U.S. Olympic Trials.
For now, she’s psyched to represent the U.S. at the World Cross Country Championships in China. She won the national championship race in front of hundreds of supporters, including fans from the Boulder community, current and former University of Colorado runners and some of the runners she has coached at Monarch High School in nearby Louisville, Colo.
“Obviously people now know that Laura is an athlete on the rise,” Troop said. “If the cross country nationals had been anywhere else but Boulder, we would have been very confident of her winning it. But when it’s in your hometown, there is an immense amount of pressure that goes with it, and she felt it last week. We talked about it a bit and basically said, “True champions rise to the occasion.’ My job was to keep her focused and her job was to stay relaxed and see it as another race, and she executed it perfectly.”
For complete results from the open, masters, junior and high school races, go to USATF.org