This month’s Foot Locker Race Championships had so much to offer, that it’s hard to know where to begin with to review. There really is so much that this year offered and it transcends what one might call the norm of racing. Each race in this sport is different and there is always something of note each year. The Foot Locker/Kinney series was a novel idea, when it first began. And the race is still the true national championship for many reasons and on many levels.
This year marked the 41st running, so there is a significant history with which to compare. Much has happened through the years and more than a fair amount has been quite significant. As a venerated event of relatively long duration, the jaded viewer might posture, that he has seen it all. But I submit this year was special. More to the point it is special for more than one reason. This is why it is a bit hard to decide where to look first.
As a longtime runner & coach it is always about the race. Reflecting back on past Olympic coverage there has always been a resentment of the traditional “up close & personal” treatment that gives a focus to a singular person at the expense of the reason the athletes are all there. Bearing that in mind we will focus on the girl’s race first.
Foot Locker Girls Race
Essentially from start to finish this race offered excitement. This compelled the true fan to watch almost at the edge of his seat. This was not like a football, basketball or baseball game where a fan go to the concession stand between the action. If you did it during this race you missed exciting action. Credit for that at first goes to Katelynne Hart of Illinois. Hart is not only is the current State champ but also had placed second here last year.
Katelynne was the predicate for this race and that alone is saying much. This writer had debated coming this year, as my family now lives rather far out of the way & it is expensive to travel & lodge for the better part of the week. When considering this race offered much at least on paper. But one of the major aspects was the group of Midwest girls. I felt this was a special group. Also, Midwest race director Peter Henkes noted this was the deepest field from the region he had seen in 35 years.
The race also offered Taylor Ewert, Ohio’s State Champion who was 4th in 2018, Abby Vanderkooi, a Michigan State Champion who was 3rd last year. Plus Zofia Dudek, yet another Michigan champion who turned in eye-popping results all season. To that group was added defending champion Sydney Masciarelli of Ma. Plus Marlee Starliper, the Pa. champion. Starliper had moved her running to a higher plateau this year after placing 13th here last fall. This was a stellar field even looking at just two regions. Furthermore, Tennessee’s Jenna Hutchins, the South champion, among others was t be added to the mix.
The Key to a Winning Time
Still the key to making a fast winning time possible was a runner, who was unafraid to set a fast pace & force any challengers to accept the pain that is needed to stay with her. Katelynne Hart did this last year. Hart made it possible for Maciarelli to win in seventeen flat. This was the fastest time since Aisling Cuffe ran 16:53 in 2010. Hart seemingly always set a fast pace. It was anticipated she would once again.
Years ago, Reggie Jackson arrogantly proclaimed that he was the Yankee, who was “the straw that stirred the drink.” Whether he was or not is a matter of debate. But, if young Miss Hart is in a race, she stirs liberally. Those, who challenged might say she is more like James Bond & “shakes” rather than stirs but she sure makes things happen & the race interesting from any perspective.
On this morning the die was cast early and Katelynne roared through the half mile mark in 2:26. Few women or girls will ever run that fast and stop. But she forced the field to not only follow her but backed that up with a mile in 5:09. So our hats should all be off to Miss Hart for setting up a most compelling pace.
The Race Challenge
Of course to have a great race it takes one or more runners to accept the challenge. If no one accepts the challenge the race is over baring a collapse. To their credit Zofia Dudek & Taylor Ewert along with Vanderkooi took up the chase-mantle and followed in hot pursuit. Midway through the second loop Hart was forced to cede the lead but she kept battling to stay in contact. Down the stretch Vanderkooi was finally forced to back off as did Ewart Ewert & Dudek briefly held the lead only to have Starliper join her after picking off runners as she got into contention.
From here on in fans would be treated to a stirring and thrilling personal duel. They battled head to head & exchanged the lead a number of times. It was a compelling race of two runners, who were not willing to concede easily & battled back to give fans a thrilling insight into the human spirit, which will not easily concede an outcome.
Different Foot Locker Race Strategies
It was even more interesting as the two final combatants had used different strategies along the way. Dudek was never far from the leader Hart, when the Illinois runner forced the pace. Starliper for her part was well back at the halfway point but had made a push after the half-way mark. Starliper forged a lead going down Upas Hill & at first seemed to have made the decisive move but Dudek reeled her back in on the flat.
Once the battle was joined Dudek was well aware of Starliper’s final kick & moved to take the starch out of it. She made a bold move at the three- mile mark & Starliper changed gears to follow. For the last tenth of the mile both were at a sprint. Yet each found something in reserve to accelerate and in response was answered. In a race such as this it is almost a shame to list a winner, yet that is why we hold races.
Normally, when a race is translated into its final statistics the results are misleading. But these results are still stunning even when reduced to cold hard figures. When the day started only six runners had ever broken seventeen minutes on the vaunted Morley Field Course in San Diego’s Balboa Park. (7 if you count Erin Keough who managed to do it in both 1985 and ’86.)
The indomitable Dudek soared through the tape in 16:45.0. This made her the fifth fastest runner here of all time. Dudek was not all the far off of Melody Fairchild’s record of 16:39. Marlee Starliper clocked 16:46.8. This was not only is the sixth fastest time here ever but by far is the fastest time to ever place second.
Incidentally, for those wondering, the fastest time to fail to win prior to this was run in 2018 by Hart. In 2018 Hart clocked in 17:01. Abby Vanderkooi was timed in 16:55.2 making her the ninth fastest runner here ever. There was never a year, that more than one girl broke seventeen minutes. But on this day three did and Vandy now stands in ninth place. In just one morning the sub-sixteen club had gone from six girls to nine. In terms of pure time this was the greatest gals’ race ever.
Gutsy Katelynne Hart
As noted credit for setting up the pace to make a collective assault on time possible should go to the gutsy race of Katelynne Hart. Far more than this are her own accomplishments. Usually, when a runner forges ahead and races, as Wade Meddles of Nevada once deprecatingly kidded of himself charging into the lead on a “fly and die” pace, the valiant runner often suffers & is forced to struggle home.
On this day Katelynne may have been forced to surrender the lead & her time took a hit but she still finished fourth overall. Her time of 17:14 would have won in many years at that. That said by placing fourth this year she moved into a very select group of runners. Remember that she had placed second the past two years, so she has a very enviable three years record.
Foot Locker History
It is the beauty of Foot Locker that runners compete on a fabled & historic course & the race has a venerable history & is not a Johnny come-lately that changes venues after a couple of years and in the 41 years of Foot Locker only five runners have a better record over a three-year period than Miss Hart. Only Melody Fairchild, Marie Lawrence, Amanda White, Lynne Strauss & Erin Keough have performed better.
The best three year records:
1 Melody Fairchild 2 – ’88 1 – 89 1 – ’90 4
2 Marie Lawrence 2 – ’03 2 – ’04 2 – ’05 6
3 Amanda White 3 – ’90 2 – ’91 1 – ’92 6
4 Lynne Strauss 2 – ’79 2 – ’80 3 – ’81 7
5 Erin Keough 5 – ’84 1 – ’85 1 – ’86 7
6 Katelynne Hart 2 – ’17 2 – ’18 4 – ’19 8
By the way Katelynne ’s time from last year of 17:01.0 places her twelfth on the list & is the 11th fastest by an individual. In the end you can look at this race from a variety of perspectives but this was one of the greatest female prep races ever. Consider Jenna Hutchins & Taylor Ewert both clocked 17:16 and Sydney Masciarelli ran 17:19 which would have been good enough to win in a dozen years that the race was held in San Diego. This was a stellar field and a quality race that is one of the great ones.
There is much to learn from Zofia Dudek as well. Much has been made from the fact that she had raced internationally prior to this one and that is a bit misleading, as if so much was expected here & that is not really true. Last fall Zofia did not make it to nationals after placing 18th in the Midwest in a time of 19:09.
Fortune allowed a chat with Zofia’s father after Foot Locker. He stated she was happy with her finish the previous year. He noted that this year had been “unexpected” even prior to the qualifier. Certainly her times this fall were impressive from the beginning but all was taken as a pleasant surprise. Obviously to race, as she did she had to believe in herself but there had been no great anticipation. It’s a lesson to all runners to train & do your best. Good things can follow even when this is a dynamite year for female prep runners.
This year was also special because Taryn Parks of Pennsylvania qualified once again. This allowed her to join a very select group of female runners, who qualified all four years as a prep runner. I remind readers that this is a true high school championship. You only have the four years as a prep to qualify for this race. You also make it due you your own merits & not as the weak link of some team.
Taryn’s story is unique in it’s own right & valiant as well for this last trip proved to be a challenge. Taryn had qualified the previous three years and seemed to be in great position to stride to her fourth trip. She held a sizable lead over Mia Cochran, who is also a Quaker State runner.
Down the stretch Parks began to struggle and with the finish in sight she fell. Cochran, who at the time was well back & began a sprint to the finish. Parks got on her feet & then fell again losing more space. It seems she got up & fell a third time, which was when Cochran caught & passed her.
Even hearing of the finish at home it was disappointing to think Taryn would not go for a fourth time. But fate lent a hand, as Cochran had been dealing with a hip issue late in the season. The back hills at Van Cortlandt can be grueling, even when in top fitness. And on this day the railroad ties, as they are known, took their toll.
After two days of thought Cochran bowed out and gave up her spot to Parks. Did Taryn deserve to be in – of course she did. We all know it takes a bit of luck to make it four years. Midwest race director Pete Henkes was not there to actually see the race, as he was in Wisconsin. He still spoke with a sense of awe at how Taryn had persevered under duress.
Best Three-Year Performances
In calculating the best three- year performances it was stunning how many notable & even great runners looking back had failed to qualify even three times. There is one famous guy, who made it three times. This was only because a Canadian runner was DQ ’d after placing ahead of him. It’s a pleasure to welcome you to the ‘Four Year Club’ Taryn. Happily, Mia Cochran is but a sophomore & has two more years to make it – good luck in the future and thank you for your integrity.
In 41 years only two dozen girls had managed to qualify all four years as a prep runner. This is a very select club. Still, if the gals have a select club the boys with only two members is downright exclusive. And Graydon Morris joined Jorge Torres this year. In truth there are very few male runners, who have managed to make it three times.
Jorge made is from 1995 thru 1998 and, although he is an Olympian, he is quite proud of the fact still. If truth be truth hardly anyone has had much of a shot at it as very few freshmen have ever qualified. Californian Bryan Dameworth was the first, as he qualified out of the West in 1986. He made it back in 1988 placing fourth before winning in 1989 but in the Regional during his sophomore year, he fell in a mud puddle & lost concentration & there went the first real shot of a guy making it all four years.
Futsum Zeinasellassie qualified as a frosh in 2008 and later placed second in his junior & senior years but he passed the attempt as a sophomore partially to deal with grades if memory serves. Besides that pair the next closest was Utah’s Josh Rohatinsky. Rohatinsky finished 11th in the West Regional before earning a berth the next three years.
Beyond him the guess is Connor Mantz of Utah, who finished 25th as a frosh. Also Andrew Gardner of Washington, who took 31st his first year of high school before earning a trip the next three years. Just by qualifying four times Graydon has set himself apart.
Jorge of course distinguished his career by capping it with a victory in 1998. Though it seemed that Morris might do the same he came up a bit short his senior year. His is still a very special record, when we consider its duration. Torres placed 13 – 5 – 2 – 1 in his four years for a total of 20 points. Morris earned 3 -2 -3 -4 for a total of 12 points, which is distinctly stronger.
Moreover, if you look at his best three consecutive years with 8 points that is even superior to Dathan Ritzenhein’s previous record of 8 – 1 – 1 for ten points. From these two perspectives he has the best three and four year records in all Foot Locker history. It will be interesting to see if anyone can top that in the next 41 years.
Josh Methner of Illinois made his second appearance at Foot Locker after placing sixth in 2018. He came into the race as the Midwest Champion. Methner was also highly regarded after eclipsing the seemingly ancient State record of the legendary Craig Virgin. He was highly respected but many expected challenges from Northeast Champion Patrick Anderson of Pennsylvania, South Champion Judson Greer of Texas, and Carter Solomon of Michigan, who earned fourth last fall.
Still most seemed to assume that Graydon Morris might well be the man to beat. Morris openly admitted that the pressure was off once he had qualified for Nationals. Add to that he had never placed ‘worse’ than third her in his first three attempts. Though the race might have a few favorites it still appeared wide open as they toed the starting line.
Once the race was underway all those anticipated to challenge where safely ensconced in the chase pack. The pace was hardly telling at any rate, so there was no reason for anyone to fall back. As the race progressed there was a real fear that this might be kicker’s race.
Racing’s Mental Aspects
One of the key mental aspects of racing is to sense when it is time to make a move. Josh made a move that opened a gap on his competitors. It is assumed it was an attempt to see who might go with him rather than a break to challenge others to stay with him. It must have come as a bit of a surprise, when no one responded to his move. The rest stayed back seemingly eyeing each other.
The leader opened up a gap and then significantly increased his pace, as he began the second half. It was make or break time! It would take a significant effort to reel Methner in once having yielded yardage. Barring a collapse, which given the circumstances seemed highly unlikely, the race was essentially over. It was left for the others to argue about second. Josh won comfortably in a time of 15:08.
It was an excellent example of racing strategy and Carter Solomon earned second by finishing alone in 15:16. Third went to Patrick Anderson, who caught Morris at the end with both sharing the time of 15:18. Judson Greer was the first non-senior with his mark of 15:22 & will be the early favorite for next year’s race. Pennsylvanian Colton Sands was the next junior with his clocking of 15:22.
There were only two sophomores in the race but they gave a good accounting of themselves. Gavin Sherry of Ct. took 14th in 15:36. Also Aidan Puffer, who is also from Ct., came home 21st in 15:45. Incidentally Puffer had finished 17th at the Northeast as a freshman the previous year.
The team races have been quite interesting of late with the Midwest putting together formidable teams. Last year the gals dominated the race & this year was more of the same with the Midwest topping the Northeast by a 24 to 42 margin. The Southern gals were a distant third with 63 points.
The Northeast guys squeaked out a very narrow victory after the first five runners from each team tied with 43 points. Gavin Sherry made the difference by being the first sixth man into the chute. This was due to his 14th place finish. Actually, he was right behind his teammate Matthew Farrell, who finished 13th. He was also well ahead of the Midwest’s sixth runner who placed twentieth. Coaches often remind their runners, that it’s a team race and each man can make a difference. This surely was in evidence on this day.
Foot Locker Freshman
Foot Locker is both a proving ground, as well as an experience to be savored. There were three freshman girls this year, who acquitted themselves very well. Carly McNatt of Florida led the group with her 8th place finish in 17:32. Tatum David of Illinois placed tenth in 17:37 and Karrie Bologa of NY was 11th with 17:40.
In a group of the forty top girls in the US they were all in the top eleven. This is quite impressive. Hopefully they can join in the fun three more years! Even so, everyone, who competes at Foot Locker even one year, becomes part of a running family of sorts.
Sharing Something Special
There is a long line of winged feet that share something special no matter how they fare on a given day. It is underscored by the brilliant program, which features each runner. It also depicts a bit of how they fit into this long history of the race. Once here there is an indelible memory that only a special few can share.
Despite heavy rains throughout Southern California early in the week the course was in very good shape. There were a couple of soft patches on the other side of the road but for the most part the course was firm & dry. There was no issue of dust in the least & there was a fairly heavy cloud cover, that allowed the Sun to peak through momentarily just once. With the temperature at about sixty when the girls took off it was all but ideal for the harriers.
The Foot Locker people always do their best to put on a quality show and the weatherman almost always cooperates. As usual we look forward to the next race in this long-running saga, which through the years has provided a stepping-stone for our future Olympians. This was a special day and well worthy of this great tradition.
Story by Leo Collins
Feature Photo Tarynn Parks