LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A year ago, the Colorado women came into the NCAA cross country championships a heavy favorite to win the team title. But a slow start to the race combined with a poor performance from its top runner doomed the squad to a disappointing third place.
This year, the story was much the same. Colorado's women were again the favorite, but perhaps not so definitively. Privately, CU coach Mark Wetmore suspected two other teams — New Mexico and San Francisco — were under-ranked in the coaches poll.
When the gun went off for the 6K race under cloudy skies at E.P. "Tom" Sawyer Park, CU went out hard, determined not to let the race get away from them as it had in 2016. But it wasn't enough. New Mexico — led by individual winner Ednah Kurgat — took the team title with 90 points, followed by San Francisco with 105 and CU with 139. In cross country, the low score wins.
"I'm happy that we went for it this year, even if it didn't end the way we wanted it to," said junior Dani Jones, CU's top finisher in 10th place overall. "I'm glad that we put ourselves in it. And I think it was really hard for a lot of the girls, but I'd rather it be that way than how it was last year. At least we started up front and dialed back, rather than started slow and trying to make our way up."
For Jones, the challenge was compounded by a head cold she caught on Monday, an ill-timed setback for a runner who burst onto the national collegiate running scene during the 2016 indoor season with two NCAA titles and had been eying this race all season. But even if Jones had been healthy and finished a few spots higher, it wouldn't have made a difference in the team placing.
"It went out pretty hard, probably because I wasn't feeling my best after getting sick this week," Jones said. "It was hard and it kept going. But you could also tell the last mile that girls were coming back because of how hard it went out."
Jones received encouragement from a former CU runner and Olympic medalist.
"Jenny Simpson told me, 'No team is going to get to the line perfect.' And I tried to not let it be a factor, and I'm not going to let be an excuse."
Late Friday, the NCAA announced the men's and women's would move up a full hour and 45 minutes — 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. starts — in an attempt to beat severe thunderstorms rolling into the area. Beyond some sprinkles, no serious precipitation fell, which made for a more predictable and safer course. But wind — as is often the case in the midwest in late November — was whipping strongly, bending tree branches and sending the last brightly colored fall leaves fluttering to the ground.
"I like to think of myself as a patient runner but I wasn't quite that today," said sophomore Sage Hurta, Colorado's No. 2 finisher. "I wanted to get out there and get after it but maybe I went after it a little too hard too soon."
New Mexico's primary weakness coming into the meet was its fifth runner (the first five of seven runners are scored). The team stacked a staggering four runners in the top 11 team-scored places, and it's fifth runner finished 63rd in team scoring — enough for them to hold on. San Francisco put three runners in the top 12 team-scored places, with its fourth and fifth finishing 33rd and 52nd in team scoring. Thirty-eight seconds separated CU's first and fifth runners, better than both teams, but it didn't have as many runners finish high up front.
"It wasn't a perfect day, but I'm still happy with them," Wetmore said." They beat some really good teams, if you look who's behind them and the rosters, those teams are hard to beat."
The margin for error in this race is slim. There aren't time outs. There isn't another play to call. It's one race.
"It's chaotic, and there's a very, very, very fine balance between going out carefully and feeling well but being totally buried, but then getting out hard and getting into a position you feel good about, but being in metabolic trouble," Wetmore said. "That's a learning process. Some people got it right, but other people didn't get it right. It's hard every year."
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