Indoor track action is coming into full swing as we reach mid-January. Some big names have already made their mark with big performances while others are biding their time with almost two months before NCAA's. The 5000 meters is the longest indoor event and this year the Division II women will be looking to crown a new champion at this distance. Last year’s winner, Alexa Zeis of the University of Mary, has graduated and moved on to the professional scene which means someone new will be atop the podium this season.
As I'm writing this, 14 women in the NCAA have provisional qualifying marks, two of whom have run automatic times. That number should grow substantially in the coming weeks with a slew of big meets scheduled...but who will walk away with the national title in the winter of 2019?
Caroline Kurgat from Alaska Anchorage has already displayed her dominance in her first indoor competition of the season when she ran an NCAA leading time of 9:07 for 3000 meters at the UW Preview. For perspective, the fastest time that was run last year was 9:22, a whopping 15 seconds slower. The Alaska Anchorage senior already has won titles in outdoor track and cross country, leaving indoor as the only box left to check.
Historically, Kurgat has run the 3k and DMR at Nationals with her best result coming from 2017 when she was 3rd over 3000 meters (she redshirted in 2018). Given how fast she has already run, it would not be surprising to see her in the same event this season. However, Kurgat showed off some impressive range during outdoors, giving potential for a 3k/5k double. In 2018, she won both the 5k and 10k at NCAA's and could also enter the 5k this winter if Alaska Anchorage does not have the depth to field a competitive DMR.
The one (and maybe only?) knock on Kurgat would be her relative lack of success during indoors and her inexperience in a championship 5k. Her indoor personal best of 16:46 from 2016 is substantially slower than the 15:41 she in the spring. Plus, she has only run the event a total of three times on the indoor oval. If she opts to attempt the 5k, it is hard to think that she wouldn't be a favorite for NCAA gold.
Leah Hanle, the current NCAA leader for 5000 meters, has been one of the best over the past year and will look to carry that momentum into 2019. Hanle is coming off a cross country season where she finished 7th at Nationals and is one of the top returners from last year’s indoor meet. In that race, she finished 5th and three of the four women ahead of her are now gone. Add a runner-up finish in the 10k and a bronze medal performance in the outdoor 5k, and Hanle seems poised to finally win a national title.
Hanle ran her NCAA leading time of 16:23 at the GVSU Open back in December, an indoor personal best by almost 10 seconds. Given she still has almost two months of competition left before NCAA's, it wouldn’t be surprising to see her lower that time even more. Her best chance at an NCAA win would be an honest race from the start as her mile personal best of 4:57 doesn’t show the speed to sit-and-kick like some of the other women in the field.
Her time this season is already faster (by 0.02 seconds) than anyone ran indoors last winter and that mark was set at Nationals when Zeis took home the win. If Hanle can run a similar race in two months, she will have a serious chance at standing atop the podium.
Adams State senior Malena Grover is coming off a redshirt cross country season and will be looking to end her collegiate career with a national title. Grover is the top returner from last year's indoor national meet after she finished 3rd. She was also 8th in the 3000 meters. That national meet was the last time she competed collegiately and she has yet to race this indoor season.
Grover holds an indoor personal best of 16:27 over 5000 meters, but has only run 16:52 outdoors. Her best result on grass came in 2017 when she finished 12th at cross country national meet. Like Hanle, Grover would benefit from a fast race at NCAA's. Her indoor mile best is only 5:18, although she has run 4:36 for 1500 meters during outdoors. Although she is the top returner this season, she likely won’t come in as the favorite unless she has a big performance before March.
Is Emily Roberts the heir to the Marauder throne? After her huge cross country season she certainly could be. Back in 2016, Roberts finished 5th overall at the Cross Country National Championships while competing for Southern Indiana. After an injury derailed her 2017 campaign, she made a return to the track in 2018 before transferring to the University of Mary. This fall, she led her team with a 3rd place finish at national meet, cementing her comeback to greatness.
Despite the success in cross country, Roberts has only been to one Indoor National Championship where she finished 11th in the 5k in 2016. That year, she was also the runner-up during outdoors over 10,000 meters.
On one hand, Roberts could be viewed as a favorite this winter. Her success during spring track and cross country shows that she can run fast and succeed in championship situations. On the other hand, she has yet to run fast indoors and only owns a personal best of 16:40 for 5000 meters, not nearly as quick as many other top women in the NCAA. In the coming month, Roberts will likely have the chance to carry over her cross country fitness and prove that she can be competitive an indoor championship meet.
Eilish Flanagan is coming off of a runner-up finish in cross country and will head into indoors looking for her first national title. She is the 2018 runner-up in the steeplechase and has historically focused on the 3000 meters in the winter. However, she could shift gears to the 5k after a stellar cross country season.
In 2018, Flanagan ran 9:30 over 3000 meters to finish 4th at Nationals. With her emphasis on the steeplechase in the spring, she has rarely raced the 5k, totaling only three attempts in her career (all of which were during outdoors). Her personal best is 16:24 which she set in 2018 at the Bryan Clay Invitational.
Flanagan could be a huge darkhorse name to watch over the next two months. That said, she has never actually raced this distance during indoors and that might not change. If she chooses to give it a go this season, expect her to be among the best.
Hanna Groeber, the junior from GVSU, was 9th a year ago in the 5000 meters and currently sits 2nd in the NCAA with a time of 16:25 from her showdown with Hanle at the GVSU Open back in December. She is coming off of the best cross country season of her career where she finished 6th at NCAA's to help Grand Valley State win the team title. She also was 8th and 9th in the 5k and steeplechase at the outdoor national meet in 2018.
Groeber is another woman who would benefit from an honest race at Nationals. Her time from December is an auto-qualifying mark and personal best, but her other times aren’t as impressive. She has only run 5:09 for the mile and 9:57 for 3000 meters during indoors, both of which she could likely best with her current fitness. That said, with only those marks to go off of, it’s hard to see her beating a number of women in a sprint finish. Given many other women in this group are in the same boat, it’s likely we will see a relatively fast race at NCAA's.