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Fast Women: Epic runs for Parker Valby, NC State at NCAAs
Team race comes down to hundredths of a second
Issue 266, sponsored by Oiselle
Parker Valby runs to a convincing win at the NCAA Cross Country Championships
After NC State’s Katelyn Tuohy ran down Florida’s Parker Valby in the last 400 meters of last year’s NCAA Cross Country Championships, many people were billing this year’s race as the rematch. That particular showdown never materialized, but the event, hosted by the University of Virginia for the first time in 36 years, offered plenty of drama.
Tuohy was suffering from an illness, and it's hard to know how much that factored into the results, but there was no stopping Valby on Saturday. She was momentarily delayed at the start of the 254-runner race, saying she got boxed in, but just after the two-minute mark, she made her way up to the leaders. And less than a minute later, she took the lead and began pushing the pace.
“I just said to myself, ‘No looking back. Once you go for it, you go for it,’” Valby said after the race. And she really went for it, unintimidated by Virginia’s challenging course. In fact, she said she was motivated by online speculation that she wouldn’t run as well on a course with rough footing and hills.
Valby’s lead was eight seconds at 2K, 18 seconds at 3K, and it peaked around 20 seconds at 4K. Then, just as she had done at the South Regional the week before, Alabama’s Doris Lemngole began to reel her in. Lemngole, who is in her first season in the NCAA, made up eight seconds in the final kilometer, as Valby struggled with a side stitch. But Valby was too strong to catch. She crossed the line in 18:55.2 for 6K, 10.6 seconds ahead of Lemngole.
Valby had the largest margin of victory since Sally Kipyego, then running for Texas Tech, won by 16.9 seconds in 2007. But Valby’s run was also impressive because it’s so rare for anyone to front-run their way to the NCAA cross country title. In her post-race TV interview, she admitted that she lacked confidence going into the race. “I’m like, ‘I don’t think I can do it. Everyone’s got me.’ I’m probably the most insecure, unconfident person there is,” she said. But she faked it well, completed an undefeated season, and won her second NCAA title, adding to her 5,000m win in June.
Notre Dame’s Olivia Markezich, the reigning NCAA steeplechase champion, was pleased to take third in 19:10.0 after recovering from illness earlier in the week. Alabama was the first school to get two runners across the line, with Hilda Olemomoi taking fourth in 19:22.1. And Tuohy rounded out the top five, in 19:23. It wasn’t her best NCAA finish, but it might have been her most heroic race.
Against the odds, NC State three-peats
How does the two-time defending champion go into the national championship as an underdog? They had a number of factors working against them this season. Both Sam Bush and Amaris Tyynismaa were coming back from injuries. Bush had a slow start to her season as a result, dropping out of the Nuttycombe Invitational. She was improving, but not quite matching her performances of a year ago.
And Tyynismaa, who transferred from Alabama after the 2022 cross country season, had dropped out of her two races so far—the ACC Championships because of a calf cramp, and the previous week’s regional meet because she was struggling mentally, she said. (Side note: At the beginning of that video, she provides the correct pronunciation of her name. John Anderson butchered it on the ESPNU broadcast.) NC State was relying heavily on two athletes without experience at this meet—true freshman Leah Stephens and redshirt freshman Grace Hartman.
The one seemingly sure thing for the team was their 1–2 punch of Tuohy and Kelsey Chmiel up front. But that began to unravel in the days leading up to the meet. Chmiel was dealing with a lower leg injury, and three days before the race, the team learned from coach Laurie Henes that Chmiel would have to sit out the meet. “(I) can’t say enough how much she is the heart and soul of this program and how big of a hit that was,” Henes said after the race.” And then to top it off, Tuohy got sick.
The other reason NC State went in as an underdog is that the NAU women were in the midst of a fantastic season. (The Athletic published an excellent piece on the NAU program on Tuesday.) They had won all of their races convincingly, including a 43-point victory over NC State at the Nuttycombe Invitational, with only a 22-second spread between their first and fifth runner. They hadn’t made the podium (top four) at NCAAs since 1991, but it looked like this was the year they might end up on top.
It’s important to get off the line well at this meet, to establish a good position in the field. And when running among 254 of the fastest athletes in the NCAA, it’s not always easy to find the right balance of going out hard and not going too far into oxygen debt. The start was downhill, which contributed to the blazing times, but Valby went through 1K in 2:54 (14:30 5K pace!), with the last-place runner only 19 seconds back.
The race was so tight in the first half that the team scores didn’t mean much. But by 3K, the team battle had started to shape up, with NC State leading by five points. That stretched to 12 points at 4K, but Tuohy was starting to go backwards, dropping back to 11th place. By 5K, Tuohy had rallied a bit, moving up to sixth, and NC State led by eight points. And Henes was there to let them know that they still had a shot at the title.
Stephens and Hartman, the two newbies in NC State’s top five, were running great but started to drop back a bit. The veterans on the squad needed to move up and help offset that. Last year, Bush moved up 20 spots in the final kilometer; this year she managed a crucial 14, to take 28th in 20:00.7, finishing as NC State’s third runner for the second year in a row, and repeating as an All-American (top 40).
Tyynismaa had finished third (2021) and ninth (2022) in this meet previously, but she had yet to finish a race this season. She proved what a gamer she is here, picking up three crucial spots in the closing stages, and going from 53rd at 1K to 25th at the finish. She earned her third consecutive All-America honor, taking 25th in 19:55.3, and was NC State’s second runner across the line.
And being up front, where the field is less dense, it was harder for Tuohy to make up ground, but she moved up one place over the final kilometer, and that was all NC State needed. They pulled off the three-peat, winning by one point, 123–124, over NAU. (Had Tuohy finished sixth instead of fifth, NAU would have won the tiebreaker.)
Henes said afterwards that she was concerned Tuohy might not even make it through the race. “I can’t imagine a braver race for her to run today to stay in there and pass those people,” Henes said. “She’s extremely team oriented and knew this wasn’t going to probably be her day individually, but she put herself in there and did everything she could for the team.” Henes and Tuohy shared an emotional moment after learning they had won the race.
The title was decided by hundredths of a second, as Stephens was credited with the same time as the two runners behind her. Some of NAU’s runners didn’t have the races they wanted, but what a big leap for them to even be in a position to be disappointed that they didn’t win the NCAA title. They were led by Gracelyn Larkin (13th, 19:35.6), Annika Reiss (15th, 19:36.8), and Elise Stearns (20th, 19:52.2). “This is just the beginning for them,” their coach, Mike Smith, said about his team after the race.
Last year, the Oklahoma State women made the podium for the first time ever. This year, they moved up one spot, taking third with 156 points. And Notre Dame grabbed the final podium spot, taking fourth with 237 points. It was their first time on the podium since 2004. (Full race replay | Results)
Thanks to Oiselle for supporting Fast Women this month
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Additional NCAA XC Notes
Only two other women’s teams have won the NCAA DI Cross Country title three or more times in a row, Stanford (2005–07) and Villanova (1989–94).
NC State’s one-point winning margin tied the 2016 Oregon team for the smallest winning margin ever at this meet on the women’s side.
Only two runners were in NC State’s top seven for all three of their national titles: Katelyn Tuohy and Sam Bush.
Being in the same conference as UVA, NC State had experience racing on the Panorama Farms course, which is only 200 miles from their campus. They were back home by 6:45 p.m., for the traditional lighting of the Belltower, which the school does to mark special occasions.
Laurie Henes was just promoted to Director of Track & Field and Cross Country this year, her 32nd year of coaching at the school. She doesn’t always get the most media attention, but the three-peat solidifies her status as one of the all-time greats. There’s sometimes a difference between winning titles and great coaching, but Henes seems to manage both. For more on how she runs her program, this was a great episode of the Laughter Permitted podcast, from last month.
Runner-up Doris Lemngole hasn’t gotten the attention she deserves this season. (More on her here, though.) She was the top freshman in the field, albeit a 21-year-old freshman. The other true freshmen who earned All-America honors were Texas Tech’s Juliet Cherubet (18th, 19:40.1), South Carolina’s Judy Kosgei (19th, 19:41.5), Clemson’s Gladys Chepngetich (24th, 19:54.7), and Utah’s Annastasia Peters (33rd, 20:04.2). (I’m not sure of their ages.) Only Peters is from the U.S., and the other four are Kenyan. I can’t imagine the adjustment involved in moving from Kenya to the U.S., and adjusting to college life, let alone excelling in one’s first season of competition.
Most improved runner in the top 10: Last year, Oklahoma State’s Billah Jepkirui finished 151st at NCAAs, on her home course. This year, she finished seventh.
Oklahoma State’s Molly Born, a sixth-year student, came back from a mid-season setback to finish 21st in 19:53.8. Born was in 122nd place 1K into the race and she moved up steadily throughout, passing 101 runners.
In their first year under coaches Will and Samantha Palmer, Florida pulled off an impressive fifth-place finish, after not qualifying for NCAAs as a team one year earlier. And they did that without one of their top runners, Amelia Mazza-Downie, who dropped out after 3K.
Things seemed pretty up in the air for Valby 11 months ago, when her coach, Chris Solinsky, left for the University of Oregon. She admitted in her post-race interview that it was a rough transition for her, as it took her some time before she started trusting her new coaches. But Valby has now won two NCAA titles under the Palmers. “We work very well together now,” she said after the race.
Valby said in the pre-race press conference that her training still tops out around 30 miles per week, and she does a lot of her other training with high resistance, on an Arc Trainer. Her post-race interview could have been confused for an Arc Trainer infomercial at times—that’s definitely an NIL deal waiting to happen. But I think it’s a testament to the fact that there’s more than one possible route to running success. “A lot of people have asked questions about her cross training and it can kind of overshadow her ability,” Will Palmer said after the race. “She’s an incredibly determined, really tough racer, and she’s got some intangibles that I think make her really special. That’s what you see out there.”
Tennessee finished sixth, surpassing all expectations. They were led by Ashley Jones, who finished 42nd, missing out on All-America honors by 0.4 seconds. Jones lost her right arm as a passenger in an ATV accident when she was 14, three months after her father died of a heart attack. She discussed some of her incredible story last month on the Everything Orange podcast. This three-year-old Runner’s World article also provides a lot of background.
Lipscomb also had a dream season, making it to NCAAs for the first time as a team. They were led by Lydia Miller, who became the school’s first All-American in cross country with a 38th-place finish (20:06.3). Also in their top seven was Liza Corso, who won a silver medal in the T13 1500m at the 2020 Paralympic Games just before her first year at Lipscomb. Corso is legally blind and finished 138th in the crowded field.
The University of Virginia announced two days before the race that the event had sold out. How does a cross country race sell out? There was no onsite parking, so everyone who attended had to be shuttled in. They originally said they expected 5,000 fans, but the NCAA later announced an official attendance number of 6,723. Compared to most major sporting events, that doesn’t sound like a lot, but for the NCAA Cross Country Championships, it is.
Other News and Links
Team Boss subtly announced on Friday that Elise Cranny has joined their team. First they posted this. (Cranny is third from right.) And then they posted a video of Cranny training with the team. Team Boss now has four former Bowerman Track Club members: Cranny, Kate Grace, Emily Infeld, and Vanessa Fraser.
USATF announced on Wednesday that the start of February’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, which will take place February 3 in Orlando, Florida, has been moved up by two hours. The men will start at 10:10 a.m. and the women will start at 10:20. The announcement drew mixed reactions. Jared Ward, who helped lead the effort, seemed pleased. Sara Hall, another leader, said 10:00 a.m. isn’t much different than noon. “Planning to make this team or die trying,” she wrote. “The only thing is the latter is actually a possibility.” Even if it isn’t a big change, it’s nice to see USATF listen to athletes’ voices.
This is a nice article about the progress Oregon’s Maddy Elmore has made being coached by Shalane Flanagan. Elmore finished 52nd at NCAAs on Saturday.
Ultrarunner Jo Zakrzewski will serve a one-year ban for riding in a car for a few miles of a 50-mile race earlier this year. The ban was reduced partially because she was “subjected to a trial by social media.”
When the Pomona-Pitzer men won the NCAA DIII Cross Country title on Saturday, Amber Williams officially became the first woman to coach a men’s team to the Division III title in cross country. Williams is the head men’s coach, and Emma DeLira, who does the day-to-day coaching of the men’s team, is also a woman. According to the official record, Jennifer Michel, who coached Western Colorado University to the DII title in 2011, is the only other female head coach to lead a men’s cross country team to an NCAA title. (It gets tricky when the program director or head coach is officially listed as the winning coach, but someone else on staff does most of the coaching.)
Whittni Orton Morgan shared that after exhausting all other options, she’s having patellar tendon debridement surgery this morning.
Steeplechaser Carmen Graves wrote a nice piece about her running background. One of the most impressive details: Before all of her success as a distance runner, she was a DIII All-American in the 4x100m relay.
I enjoyed this Washington Post article, from Kelyn Soong, about Chris Farley’s 24-year sub-3:00 marathon streak. After running 3:04 at the New York City Marathon, Farley posted on Instagram, saying his streak was over, but his supporters have convinced him to give it another try. And to give this a women’s running tie-in, the article includes quotes from his wife, Olympian Julie Culley.
Arielle Knutson was announced as Oiselle’s new CEO last week. She takes over from interim CEO Atsuko Tamura, who stepped into the role in 2022, following founder Sally Bergesen’s departure from the company.
Winona State’s Lindsay Cunningham won the NCAA DII Cross Country Championships, running 19:30.1 for 6K. She finished 15 seconds ahead of runner-up Eleonora Curtabbi of West Texas A&M. Third-place finisher Natalie Graber led her team, Grand Valley State, to the national title. (Results)
St. Benedict’s Fiona Smith dominated the NCAA DIII Cross Country Championships, winning by 63 seconds, in 19:54.1. Natalie Bitetti of Claremont-Mudd-Scripps took second in 20:57.4. And the team race was wild, with the top four teams separated by only seven points. Carleton won with 151 points, and NYU (154), the University of Chicago (156), and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (158) were right behind. (Results)
Addy Wiley ran her first and last race of the cross country season on Friday, winning the NAIA Cross Country title. She covered the 6K course in 21:04.2. The College of Idaho won the team title. (Results | Post-race interview with Wiley)
Texas sophomore Elizabeth Leachman dominated the NXR South region, winning by 55 seconds, in 16:07.6 for 5K. (Results | Video clip) New Mexico eighth-grader Gianna Rahmer surprised herself by winning the NXR Southwest title in 17:00.6. You can watch the relatively tight finish here. (Results)
Kenya’s Agnes Ngetich won the Urban Trail de Lille 10K in a blazing 29:26. Ethiopia’s Wubrist Aschal narrowly won the 5K over her compatriot, Asmarech Anley, with both runners finishing in 14:41. (Results)
Kenya’s Beatrice Chepkoech won the NN Zevenheuvelenloop 15K in the Netherlands, running 47:12. (Results)
Kenya’s Sarah Naibei won Sunday’s Flanigan’s Rockin’ Rib Run 10K, in Miramar, Florida, in 31:28. The race attracted a relatively strong international field. (Results)
Kenya’s Mercy Kwambai won the Philadelphia Marathon in 2:30:52. Runner-up Christina Welsh finished in 2:33:29, not far off her PR. And the race produced two new Olympic Marathon Trials qualifiers: Elizabeth Chikotas (fourth, 2:35:14) and Kayla Lampe (2:36:58). Lampe’s chip time was originally listed as 2:37:00.04, which would have put her out of the Trials, because all times not ending in .00 get rounded up. But race officials revised the results not long after, adjusting her time to 2:36:57.04. Among the top finishers, only Lampe’s time was adjusted. It makes me wonder about the accuracy of road race timing in general (a bunch of people apparently had timing issues in Philly today), but it’s a relief to see that her time will get her in. (Results)
Six days after making her pro debut at the B.A.A. Half, Kenya’s Everlyn Kemboi won the accompanying Philadelphia Half Marathon in 1:11:02, nine seconds faster than the week before. Amber Zimmerman finished second (1:11:31), and the race included some impressive depth. Ethiopia’s Mahlet Mulugeta won the 8K in 25:44. (Results)
Jenn Randall, who is usually a mile specialist, won the Run to Stay Warm 10K in Eugene, Oregon, in 32:37. (Results)
Dani Moreno won the Bentonville Dirt Circus 10K trail race in 47:02. (Results)
It was good to hear from Annie Rodenfels after her USATF 5K title, on C Tolle Run.
It was interesting to listen to Molly Huddle discuss the research she did when she suffered a bone injury while breastfeeding, and the work she’s doing to help educate other women so they don’t experience the same on Women’s Running Stories.
Megan Connolly Morant talked about her evolving relationship with running on The Rambling Runner Podcast. She was super serious about her running when she was younger, but she struggled with running and disordered eating starting in college. As an adult, she’s learned to have a healthy relationship with the sport and fit running into her busy life. (She is a WWE talk show host.) She ran 2:59, a PR, at this year’s Boston Marathon. And her kidney donation story, near the end of the episode, is inspiring. (You can read a synopsis of it here.)
Additional Episodes: Alicia Monson on Lactic Acid | Olympian and Colgate Women’s Games meet director Cheryl Toussaint on Starting Line 1928 | Molly Bookmyer on I’ll Have Another | Anna Gibson (with Meika Beaudoin-Rosseau) on The Sub Hub | Charlotte Purdue on 5 Miles Easy | Jenny Hoffman, who just ran across the U.S. in record time, on the FKT Podcast
I’m getting the “Post too long for email,” message from Substack (as usual), so just a quick thanks, again, to Oiselle for supporting Fast Women this month. And I also appreciate all of you who support this newsletter via Patreon and Venmo. I hope you have a great week!