What’s better than the nation’s top distance runners duking it out over 25 laps on an indoor track? Your answer is probably “not much”, seeing as you clicked on this article and have read past the first sentence.
What’s great about the indoor 5k is that it serves as a follow-up of sorts to the NCAA Cross Country Championships. Can the cross country champions add to their legacy? Or will somebody else be in a better position going around the final few turns?
It’s no secret that those who excel over 8k and 10k cross country courses typically feel most comfortable in the 5k when it comes to indoor racing. As a result, it may seem that the indoor 5k should be easy to predict.
And at face value, it is.
The best athletes are successful regardless of the season, surface, or conditions. However, putting 16 people on a 200 meter track is a lot different than putting 250 runners on a wide-open cross country course. Athletes respond differently, and that’s part of what makes indoor racing so exciting.
This year’s 5k field is as deep as ever, and the lack of a regional system indoors means only the 16 fastest individuals will travel to Albuquerque in March. No one is safe, and qualifying will likely take lightning-fast times.
Edwin Kurgat (Iowa State)
Edwin Kurgat has history on his side. In the last two years, the men’s NCAA cross country champion has gone on to win the indoor 5000 meter national title. Kurgat doesn’t need history though, he has enough prowess as a distance athlete that it almost looks as if he is unbeatable at the moment. Kurgat recently set a personal best of 13:24.04 at the Boston University Sharon Colyear-Danville Season Opener against a very strong field (which he somewhat easily defeated). This puts him at #10 all-time in the NCAA, and it is the fastest NCAA 5k performance since 2012.
Kurgat showed that he is the best in the nation on the cross country course this past fall. He was undefeated the entire season, successfully executing his race plan in a variety of scenarios and conditions, ranging from near-perfect to absolutely abysmal at NCAA's. The 5k at the Indoor National Championships is usually not a fast race, as many athletes are doubling and at that point in the season, most guys aren’t too keen to go race an all-out 5k. Instead, we often see a tactical race play out.
Kurgat knows how to navigate a field, and he also knows how to go for it from the gun. However the race plays out, he will be there.
The Iowa State star has had considerable success in the 5k in previous seasons. During the outdoor seasons, he has been 5th and 7th at the two most recent championship meets, and he was 9th in last year’s indoor national meet. It is safe to say that Kurgat knows the environment that he will be in and how to handle the pressure of a championship setting.
Joe Klecker (Colorado)
Joe Klecker actually came the closest of anyone currently in the NCAA to winning a 5k title last year. He took 2nd behind Morgan McDonald in the 5k last winter before coming back and picking up a 3rd place finish in the 3k (he is the top returner in both events). Add those performances to his runner-up finish at Nationals this past cross country season, and Klecker’s case to pick up a title in March looks pretty convincing.
There is no doubt that Joe Klecker is of the utmost elite caliber in the NCAA.
But the one obstacle in Klecker’s way? Edwin Kurgat.
Joe Klecker has run 13:35 for 5000 meters; 11 seconds slower than Edwin Kurgat's most recent PR. However, his 7:51 3k and 3:58 mile are notably better than what Kurgat has run at either distance.
Another edge that Klecker has on Kurgat (and much of the NCAA) is that he lives and trains at altitude. With this year’s championship in Albuquerque (at almost identical altitude to Boulder - just over 5300 feet) some athletes will undoubtedly struggle to adapt their race paces to the environment. Klecker, however, has the benefit of being able to train and run intervals at race pace in a very similar environment to what he will face in Albuquerque.
Ames, Iowa (where Iowa State is located), is not at altitude. With Klecker’s speed at shorter distances and experience at altitude, the playing field between him and Edwin Kurgat becomes much more even.
Conner Mantz (BYU)
The BYU front-runner comes in with some of the best credentials in the NCAA. He has run 13:29 for 5k, 28:18 for 10k. and boasts five All-American honors. His uber-aggressive racing style will almost always put him in contention to win a national title.
Mantz led his Cougars to their first cross country title in dramatic fashion this past fall and will be looking to build off of that over the next few months. At the 2019 Indoor National Championships, Mantz finished 10th in the 5000 meters and 7th in the 3000 meters. The following spring, he followed those finishes up with a 7th place result in the 5k and a 4th place result in the 10k.
That’s four top 10 finishes in four attempts.
Mantz can be considered a virtual lock to notch at least one more All-American finish indoors this year. Like many of his competitors, Mantz will likely go for the 3k/5k double.
What sets Mantz apart is his previously mentioned aggressive racing style. Championship races may not traditionally be all-out affairs, but if Mantz can create a scenario in which he feels comfortable and others do not, he has the ability to beat anybody.
Amon Kemboi (Campbell)
Coming off of an 8th place finish at the NCAA Cross Country Championships, Amon Kemboi will be an individual to watch this season. He was 6th in the 5000 meters at last year's indoor national meet, and when non-returners are taken out, his case to repeat as an All-American becomes very clear.
Kemboi has run 13:33 for 5k and 7:44 for 3k, both on the indoor oval. Those times are among the best in the NCAA and coupled with Kemboi’s experience, make him a dangerous athlete to line up against.
Like Mantz, Kemboi has no problem handling a fast pace. Look for him to be right on Mantz’s shoulder (if not in the lead) if the race goes out fast.
But what Kemboi boasts in raw talent, he lacks in finishing speed...but he might not need it. If Kemboi can run the kick out of his competitors early on, he has the ability to hang on until the end. Watch out for this guy because he has proven that he’s not easy to drop at any pace. His times stack up well against anyone in the NCAA and he will not be easy to shake.
Tyler Day (Northern Arizona)
Despite being out of eligibility for this past cross country season, NAU will have their top long distance runner back for the indoor season. Tyler Day ran a blistering 13:25 for 5000 meters last spring, making him the second fastest guy in this field by a very small margin (behind only Kurgat). With a 28:04 10k also to his name, there is no mistaking Tyler Day as one of the best talents in the NCAA.
Day was 13th in last year’s indoor 5k; a result that was frankly disappointing. However, he finished 6th and 3rd in the 2018 and 2017 NCAA Cross Country Championships, as well as 6th and 4th in the 2019 and 2018 NCAA 10k. The 10,000 meters is Day’s true calling, but he does have an 8th place finish in the 5k from the 2017 indoor national meet.
Cooper Teare (Oregon)
It feels a little strange to call a guy with a 13:32 PR (from the spring) only a "contender" in this situation. Cooper Teare has proven himself in everything from the mile (3:59) to the cross country 10k (6th at NCAA's). Although his 5k mark is impressive, his 7:50 3k personal best might make him better suited for that distance. Since the 3000 meters comes a day after the 5000 meters at Nationals, Teare may opt to stay away from the 5k as it is.
Nevertheless, he could definitely show up and post an impressive 25-lap performance. And if he runs fast enough, it will be tough for him not to choose the 5k over the 3k, especially after such a strong cross country season this past fall.
John Dressel (Colorado)
John Dressel and teammate Joe Klecker have essentially been the ideal role models when it comes to top-tier distance duos. While Klecker may boast stronger PR's, Dressel has held his own, running 7:51 and 13:41 in his career. He recently finished 7th at the NCAA Cross Country Championships, further cementing his place among the top postseason performers of this era.
Let's not forget that Dressel finished 4th in this same race back in the winter of 2017. Since then, he's dealt with a medical redshirt and a slightly underwhelming performance in the winter of 2019.
Based on his cross country performances, Dressel should be right back where he was in 2017.
Luis Grijalva (Northern Arizona)
Luis Grijalva finished in a disappointing 14th place in last year’s indoor 5k at Nationals. It was in that same race that he set his personal best of 14:10.
But wait, how can a guy who has not even broken 14 minutes be considered a serious contender? Well, there's a few reasons.
For one, he is extremely consistent. This past cross country season, Grijalva did not finish worse than 5th in any race until NCAA's where he recorded a somewhat underwhelming (and surprising) result in 52nd place.
Secondly, Grijalva also has the benefit of altitude conversions. The NAU men tend to race in high-altitude locations (as well as on their flat-track), which will benefit Grijalva in multiple ways this winter. If Grijalva can throw down a low-14 minute time at altitude like he did last year, that should get him into the meet. He will also be coming down from altitude to race in Albuquerque, which is nearly 2,000 feet lower than Flagstaff.
If anything, racing at NCAA's will feel like a weight taken off of his metaphorical aerobic shoulders.
Geordie Beamish (Northern Arizona)
It somehow feels more natural to talk about Beamish as a top 5k talent instead of an NCAA mile champion (most likely because the mile isn't typically where NAU has built their identity). But after scratching the 5k in favor of the mile at Nationals last winter, Beamish could end up returning to the longer distances later this year depending on how his regular season goes.
Much like Grijalva, Beamish was the beneficiary of some generous altitude conversions, securing an NCAA #10 of 3:57.99 in the mile last year. However, his 5k time wasn't quite up to par with the times that we saw from Grijalva and Day.
Even so, Beamish has proven during the spring season that he can be a major contender in both events. After all, he ran 13:31 for 5000 meters at Payton Jordan last year.
It's difficult to say which event Beamish is better suited for, but assuming that Beamish can translate his fitness from last spring to now, he'll likely have the luxury of being able to choose between two events come March.
Peter Seufer (Virginia Tech)
Peter Seufer established himself as one of the nation’s best when he took the lead midway through this fall’s NCAA Cross Country Championship and went on to earn a hard-fought 4th place finish. He only holds a 5k personal best of 13:51, which does not look like anything special relative to a few of these other men, and that's historically not even enough to get him into the indoor national meet. However, if Seufer can get into a fast race somewhere, maybe at Washington or Iowa State, he should be able to drop that time without a problem.
Seufer finished 12th at last year’s Outdoor NCAA Championships in this event. Two years prior in 2017, he was 9th. Seufer has been around for a long time, but has flown under the radar for a while. After his cross country performance a month ago, Seufer is no longer a national stage underdog. Finishing 4th at the NCAA XC Championships immediately puts you not only in the national qualifying conversation, but the All-American conversation as well.
Thomas Ratcliffe (Stanford)
One of the more mysterious runners in the NCAA, Thomas Ratcliffe has had more than his fair share of ups and downs in his collegiate career. After a rough first couple years at Stanford during which he competed minimally due to injuries, Ratcliffe broke onto the scene with a 13:32 5k last spring. He followed that up with a huge 3rd place finish at NCAA's in the same event. Ratcliffe was having a good cross country season this year until NCAA's where he faded to 183rd.
Thomas Ratcliffe has never qualified for an Indoor National Championship. This could very well be the first time he does, as his personal best puts him in elite company. Ratcliffe’s inexperience could be a hindrance to him, but his top-end speed should help him in a tactical race. He only has a 3:44 1500 PR to his name, but he has shown potential to outperform his peers with similar 1500 times at the end of longer races.
Kyle Mau (Indiana) + Ben Veatch (Indiana)
These two are one of the better distances duos in the NCAA. When looking at their resumes, Veatch has run 7:56 and 13:40 while Mau has run 7:50 and 13:44. Not all athletes of this caliber have somebody with nearly identical PR's to train with every day, but these two do. If they get in a fast race together, they should be able to throw down even faster times.
Both of these men have the capability to make it to NCAA's and finish as All-Americans. After all, they've done it before.
Robert Brandt (UCLA)
Robert Brandt has been one of the most consistent athletes in the NCAA. As mentioned in our 3k Preview, “Brandt has finished 7th, 8th, or 9th each time he has raced [in a championship final on the track]”. If history means anything, Brandt will be back in an All-American position this season, and perhaps in his highest finish ever.
The only question is whether or not the injury that took him out for the end of the cross country season is serious enough to derail his indoor season.
James Sugira (Eastern Kentucky)
It's hard to doubt that Sugira is one of the best distance talents in the NCAA, but we haven't seen him toe the line since last winter. After running 13:35 for 5000 meters and putting together a handful of impressive performances during the 2018 cross country season, it may seem crazy to call him a "dark horse" coming into this season.
But with an extended absence and no recent results, it's just too difficult to keep him in the same conversation as some of the other men that we have already mentioned...at least for the moment.
Others to Watch
Alex Ostberg (Stanford)
Steven Fahy (Stanford)
Andrew Jordan (Washington)
Jaret Carpenter (Purdue)
Athanas Kioko (Campbell)
Abdi Nur (Northern Arizona)
Brodey Hasty (Northern Arizona)
Theo Quax (Northern Arizona)
Drew Bosley (Northern Arizona)
Morgan Beadlescombe (Michigan State)
Tanner Anderson (Washington)
Eric Hamer (Colorado State)
Kigen Chemadi (Middle Tennessee State)
Jacob Choge (Middle Tennessee State)
Gilbert Boit (Arkansas)
Jackson Mestler (Oregon)
Daniel Carney (BYU)
Ian Shanklin (NC State)