Run The Numbers: Cross Correlation

The indoor season is under way and there have been plenty of big performances so far. At The Stride Report, we always like to look at how the past can help us predict the future. With the indoor track season beginning to ramp up and the high of an exciting cross country season beginning to fizzle, we thought it would be interesting to see how cross country performances can help predict finishes in March for the Indoor National Championships.

Although the past doesn't always give us guarantees about what will happen in the future, it is still a useful tool when determining which athletes are likely to succeed on the national stage.

For each trend, we looked at the indoor national champions over the last five years in the distance events for both men and women. Distance events are defined as any race that is 800 meters or longer. Relays were not included in this discussion.

The first trend we will look at is where past indoor national champions finished at NCAA's the fall before their eventual title-winning indoor season.

For example, we looked at where Jessica Hull finished at the 2018 NCAA Cross Country Championships before she ran at the 2019 Indoor National Championships. In Hull’s case, she finished 3rd at NCAA's in the fall before she went on to win the 3000 meters at Indoor Nationals later that winter.

Starting with the past five indoor 800 meter champions, we wanted to see where those athletes finished (on average) at the NCAA XC Championships the season prior.

The only problem? There were (unsurprisingly) not many of them...

The only woman to qualify for an NCAA XC Championship in the past five years was Danae Rivers of Penn State who finished 87th at the 2018 NCAA Cross Country Championships before going on to win a national title in the 800 meters. Previous 800 meter champions, Sabrina Southerland, Raevyn Rogers, and Natoya Goule did not qualify for NCAA's the fall before their half-mile titles.

In fact, the same was true on the men’s side. Only one 800 meter indoor champion qualified for the NCAA Cross Country Championships and that was Emmanuel Korir of UTEP who finished 249th in the fall of 2016 before he took home the 800 meter title in 2017.

It seems safe to infer that cross country has little to no bearing on who will take home the men's or women’s 800 meter national titles this March. The overwhelming need for speed in championship races is clearly more valuable than endurance and thus, we find many of these national champions naturally shifting their attention to the oval.

That trend should continue this year as a majority (but not all) of the favorites to win the 800 meters this March did not run at NCAA's in the fall.

Let’s move to the mile where perhaps cross country performances are slightly more helpful.

At first glance, the women’s mile seems to depend somewhat on cross country results. Last year’s champion, Julia Rizk, was the only one who did not qualify for NCAA's the fall before her mile title (although she eventually went on to qualify with her team this past fall). Other than her, the champion of the women’s mile finished, on average, just outside of All-American status.

Funny enough, Lotte Black, a 4:11 1500 meter who had a breakout 2019 outdoor track season, recently finished 44th at the 2019 NCAA XC Championships. Could the Rhode Island ace be our next national champion in the mile? In a year that seems to be wide-open for the mile on the national stage (depending on who runs it), that could very well be the case.

Still, it's important to keep in mind that this is an incredibly small sample size, and it seems safe to assume that if you have enough fitness to finish well at the cross country national meet, then you can likely translate that success to the indoor oval.

For the men, only Josh Kerr, the 2017 mile champion, did not qualify for the NCAA Cross Country Championships the fall before his title. The men’s mile has seen a range of victors, from all-around distance star Cheserek in 2015, to pure mile stars like Josh Kerr in 2017 and 2018. Last year’s champion, Geordie Beamish was an All-American for NAU in the fall before he won his mile title.

Again, these results are not too surprising. Milers have the ability to run well on the cross course, but many are not elite cross country runners like Cheserek or Beamish were/are.

It's important to recognize the variance in these results. Despite there being enough data to secure an average finish at Nationals, the gaps in results over the past five years are rather significant.

Granted, most of these finishes were within the top 100, but given our extremely limited sample size, it would be difficult to draw conclusions from these finishes and say conclusively, "Well, if you're not an All-American in cross country, then you have a better chance at becoming a national champion in the mile". That would be misleading.

But the 3k? That is where the numbers start to get interesting.

Let’s start on the men’s side this time. In the past five years, with only one exception, the 3k champion has finished in the top three at NCAA's the fall prior to their eventual national title. Northern Arizona graduate Andy Trouard (2018) is the only exception to this rule and he STILL finished 35th at the 2017 NCAA Cross Country Championships.

If we completely ignore Trouard in 2018 and follow the trend outside of his finish, then that leaves only two potential 3000 meter national champions for 2020*. Those men are Colorado's Joe Klecker (who finish 2nd at NCAA's last fall) and Edwin Kurgat (who took home the national title).

*Conner Mantz would have been the third contender if he was healthy & racing this season

This is a great sign for Joe Klecker as Kurgat does not have a great history of competing well in the 3000 meters. If you are looking for a stat that backs up Klecker’s chances at taking home his first NCAA title this winter, then the chart above certainly helps.

And at a bare minimum, no men's distance runner over the past five years has won the 3000 meter national title and NOT been an All-American in cross country. So if you're looking for sleeper picks to win it all in the 3000 meters this March, the numbers say that you should probably avoid picking guys like James West, Thomas Ratcliffe, Jacob Choge, Kigen Chemadi, Ben Veatch, Luis Grijalva, etc.

On the women’s side, the past five years paint a similar, albeit slightly less concise, picture.

Your typical 3000 meter champion has finished within the top 11 during most year's at the cross country national meet while the worst that any 3000 meter champion has finished was 22nd (Dani Jones in 2016).

Based on that, it seems safe to say that this year's champion will likely come from someone who finished inside the top 20 this past fall. With Katie Izzo, Alicia Monson, Ella Donaghu, Whittni Orton, and Weini Kelati as potential title favorites, the streak seems likely to continue...right?

Well, actually, it might be Dani Jones who breaks the trend.

The Buffalo veteran did not have cross country eligibility this past fall (and thus did not compete at NCAA's), but is still one of the favorites to win the 3000 meter indoor national title this year. Even so, Jones was the 2018 national champion in cross country. She may not have competed this past fall, but she is still proof that great results on the grass often translate to major success on the indoor oval

Finally, we have the 5000 meters. Unsurprisingly, it tells a similar story to that of the 3k.

On the women’s side, the indoor 5000 meter champion typically finished in the top five at NCAA's the season before they won their title. This, however, might be an understatement as Karissa Schwiezer’s 11th place performance at the 2017 NCAA Cross Country Championships wasn’t a great indication of her true talent. She had won the 2016 title the year before, but struggled a bit to find that form again in 2017 before she went on the win the 5000 meter title the following winter.

The only women’s 5k champion who did not run at NCAA's the fall before their title victory was Emily Sisson in 2014 who did not compete due to injury. She did, however, finish 7th at the 2013 NCAA Cross Country Championships. So in other words, someone in the top 10 from this past fall will likely win NCAA gold in the 500 meters a month and a half from now.

That leaves us with 10 names: Kelati, Monson, Izzo, Werner, Wayment, Birk-Jarvis, Orton, Donaghu, Kurgat, and Henes. We can whittle that list down significantly because many of these women are either out of eligibility for indoors or are redshirting.

Therefore, we can take out Werner, Wayment, Birk-Jarvis, Kurgat, and Henes.

This leaves us with five women: Weini Kelati, Alicia Monson, Katie Izzo, Whittni Orton, and Ella Donaghu.

It's not totally clear whether or not Orton will run the 5000 meters this winter despite her blistering fast time at Boston University this past December. If she finds more opportunity in the mile on the national stage, then she may drop down in distance to the eight-lap race.

Still, we already knew that Kelati, Monson, Izzo, and Donaghu were the favorites and these past five years of cross country results seem to support that.

As for the men, the average cross country finish for an indoor 5k champion is a measly 1.6 places. The worst finish that an indoor 5000 meter champion has finished at NCAA's the fall before they won it all was Edward Cheserek’s shocking 3rd place finish in 2016.

Like the 3000 meters, the past five years show that the 5000 meter national champion will come from one of two men this year.

Edwin Kurgat or Joe Klecker.

With Kurgat already throwing down an elite 5000 meter mark at Boston University (13:24), the Cyclone ace is the heavy favorite to take home the national title in March.

And if history is any indication, then he almost certainly will.