Tale of the 10k

Women's commentary: Sean Collins

Men's commentary: Michael Weidenbruch

As we exit the indoor season, we lose one of the most interesting events of track and field, the DMR. The relay brings together the best of sprinting and middle distance and brings a needed team element to distance races after a cross country season almost entirely focused on team accomplishments. The 10k cannot replace all of that, but its addition into the outdoor season is crucial in creating a well-rounded, year-long distance cycle. Here is why the 10k could be one of the most suspenseful and interesting events of the season...

There’s a Monopoly on Qualifying

One of the biggest challenges with the DMR and most of the cross country season is how the results of a number of small meets can affect who qualifies for Nationals. For the 10k, that trend is no different. In fact, during the 2018 outdoor season, this was especially true in the 10k.

For the men, 33 of the top 48 runners in the East Regional came from three meets: the Stanford Invite, Virginia Challenge, and the Raleigh Relays, while 39 of the top 48 in the West Regional came from the Stanford Invite and the Mt. SAC Relays. Of those 39, 30 of them came from Stanford alone. For some, this can be one of the more frustrating parts of the event, as it places importance on such a small number of meets to qualify.

The women’s side of the qualifying picture is only slightly more spread out as the West holds steady at 39/48 coming from three meets: the Stanford Invitational, the PAC-12 Championships, and the Mt. SAC Relays. The East, however, slots in at 23 of 48 runners from two meets: Stanford and Raleigh. While this does mean that three meets still hold a near majority of the top 48 10k athletes in the region, there was no third meet that held a high percentage of East Regional qualifiers.

A common argument about the 10k, just like the DMR, is that the event seemingly penalizes smaller schools if they can’t travel to one of the bigger races. On the flip side, the 10k can provide some great drama knowing that you have a handful of regular season races that can act as legitimate previews of what to expect at the national meet. Hopefully this year, there are some great races for qualifying in the early portion of the season as well as might even be some extra late-season qualifying shakeups.

Championship Races Matter

Looking at the NCAA qualifying picture for the 10k, conference championships do not become a major factor on the men’s side at all and only minimally on the women’s side, with most athletes qualifying from the Stanford Invite or the other meets mentioned above. What this means is that conference championships become strategic races. Coaches and athletes have to gauge levels of freshness, postseason goals, and the race for a conference title as they determine who is worth running in the grueling championship-style race. Coaches also have to factor in who might come back in the 5k the next day as a pacer, or as a championship contender and it gets even more confusing and intriguing as you factor in each conference’s unique procedures.

Possibly even more fascinating is the way championship racing develops once you reach the regional meet. The 10k is the only event where all 48 regional qualifiers compete simultaneously, making it a hectic race for the top 12 spots. The regional meets also allow athletes to try and break away from the field while establishing a large enough gap to take home one of the 12 national qualifying spots. It also provides the fascinating scenario where top seeds can strategize how to finish within the top 12 while not fully exerting all of their energy. Mixing up these strategies during such a long, tactical race makes the regional 10k's one of the purest and most complex races in the NCAA season.

Finally, the NCAA Championship final puts all 24 athletes on the line at the same time to determine the NCAA Champion. While the new format has the 5k set up the same way, the final race of the 10k season focuses on providing a straightforward race for the top step on the podium. This is one of the few races that displays so much parity from the front of the pack to the back, but it allows the best on that day to take home the crown. There’s no luck in grabbing the 10k title, just heart, grit, and fitness. That’s what makes 10K championship racing some of the most fun races to watch.

Underdogs Emerge

A 10k title is worth just as a much as any other event (well, that's debatable given sponsorship deals, but that’s for another article). With many of the biggest names continuing to opt for the 5k or steeple, underdogs can grab a national title or secure an All-American finish in the 10k. On the women’s side in 2018, you saw this in the way Sharon Lokedi finally broke through and how Dorcas Wasike cemented her name among the top athletes in the NCAA. Both had been considered good distance runners, but had never made their way to the top step until last year's national meet. For Lokedi, who had been All-American before, that race was an opportunity to no longer be viewed simply as a contender, but as a favorite and someone to truly watch out for.

The underdog line also brought Kaitlyn Benner of Colorado and Jaci Smith of Air Force into focus. Benner has been All-American on numerous occasions, but had not been a name to watch for especially with the range of stars on the Colorado team including Makena Morley and Erin Clark who would have been the favorites for the Buffaloes in that race. Benner continues to hold this underdog narrative as she appears on the podium every other season or every third season to the surprise of some.

Jaci Smith, on the other hand, used last outdoor national meet as her entry onto the NCAA stage. Smith had never earned All-American status before and had never reached an NCAA Championship on the track track. However, that all changed during the 2018 outdoor season when she skyrocketed into 8th for the Air Force Academy in the 10,000 meters. Smith used this past indoor season to push herself forward to All-American status in both XC and indoor track. Simply put, she established a strong reputation by using the 10k as her launch pad into national contention.

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In last year’s NCAA 10k, we saw the ultimate underdog story play out. Ben Flanagan came into the race having finished 22nd at NCAA's the year before, and 20th in cross country in the fall. Flanagan had certainly made a name for himself prior to his final collegiate race, but hardly anyone considered him to be a contender for the title. Flanagan’s battle with Alabama’s Vincent Kiprop over the final 300 meters will go down as one of the most epic races the NCAA has ever seen, and when he crossed the line in 1st, nobody seemed more surprised than Flanagan himself. This sort of story is what championship races thrive on, as it keeps everyone on the edge of their seats.

In 2017, we saw Marc Scott and Rory Linkletter go 1-2 in the 10k. Similar to Flanagan, these two were already established All-Americans in either track or cross country, but weren’t guaranteed locks like Edward Cheserek was. Marc Scott’s win wasn’t completely unexpected, but Rory Linkletter’s 2nd place finish broke him onto the stage of national contenders. Linkletter will be a name to watch this year as he tries to replicate that podium finish.

Big Names Can (Try to) Assert Their Dominance

While the 2018 10k discussion may act as a reminder of Sharon Lokedi’s upset victory, the fire-power of this race is often forgotten. 3rd through 6th place was earned by Karissa Schweizer, Alice Wright, Charlotte Taylor, and Anna Rohrer. Of that group, Anna Rohrer was likely considered the least accomplished despite owning a 3rd place finish in the 5k at the 2017 indoor national meet. Schweizer had already established distance dominance throughout the 2017 and 2018 seasons while Alice Wright was a consistent force for the New Mexico Lobos and had multiple 2nd place NCAA finishes. Charlotte Taylor was the defending 10K champion for that race.

While none of those athletes won the 2018 10k final, their continued attempts to come away with another gold medal at this distance shows the level of importance the event holds. If any of those athletes had won, they would immediately be remembered as an NCAA champion in an era that is considered one of the best in collegiate history.

When we think of recent dominance in the 10k for the men, Edward Cheserek stands alone with his accomplishments at the national meet. Cheserek won three 10k titles in three attempts and would have had a great shot at #4 had he not sat out of NCAA's during his senior year due to injury.

During Cheserek’s reign as king of the NCAA distance events, he faced some challenges from athletes like Lawi Lalang and Eric Jenkins who handed him two of his three losses at NCAA's on the track, indoors and out (the other was to Josh Kerr). In the post-Cheserek era, nobody has risen to the level of being the single best athlete who enters every race as the favorite. This leaves the 10k relatively wide open this year, as it has been in the past two championship meets.

Vincent Kiprop and Tyler Day come in as the top two returners, and will likely be the favorites for the 2019 outdoor season. Gilbert Kigen and Alfred Chelanga could be in there alongside Kiprop, which could create a very interesting dynamic in a championship race (although we saw that cohesion breakdown in the second half of last year's race).

The biggest question, however, lies with Morgan McDonald. Historically, McDonald has opted for the 5k, having only raced 10k's in cross country. As the reigning cross country champion, it is safe to say McDonald will be able to compete with guys like Kiprop and Day. His performances at the indoor national meet also show promise for him in whatever event he chooses, especially in a year that is relatively wide open in the 10,000 meters. Whether McDonald runs the 5k, 10k, or both, he cannot be ruled out.

A few more major factors could lie with Joe Klecker, Edwin Kurgat, James Sugira, and the entire BYU contingent. Clayton Young, Conner Mantz, Connor McMillan, and Rory Linkletter. The idea of four (or more) BYU guys in the 10k is pretty wild, but also very realistic.