Updated: Dec 17, 2018
In 2011, Jay-Z and Kanye West teamed up to create one of the best collaboration albums of the new decade. The album, as explained by the title, urged their competition to carefully consider their actions before attempting to cross two of the greatest artists of the era.
Yet, as time does to all things, the two artists (although influential) have since given way to a new wave of artistic creativity and youth that is now dominating rap culture.
And honestly? That may be the best way to explain the departure of Oregon's King Ches.
Is it weird yet? The absence of Edward Cheserek? The void left behind and the inability to safely predict the winner of certain distance events?
Sure, Justyn Knight is the heavy favorite in a majority of races and for the most part, he lives up to the expectations set for him. Yet, with that in mind, there are plenty of instances where we've seen that he's human. The 2017 Outdoor National Championship 5k where he was kicked down by Grant Fisher and Jack Bruce is a great example. Even more recently is the Indoor National Championship 3k where Andy Trouard held off Knight to secure the title. The Syracuse superstar may often be the favorite, but he has his vulnerabilities.
Still, even with the very minor imperfections, Knight is the easy decision when it comes to predicting the 5000 meters. Outside of Knight, Saruni is the safe pick to win the 800 and Kerr is the safe pick to win the 1500. Yes, it is true that the steeplechase doesn't have a clear favorite as of right now, but a superstar will inevitably emerge from the ashes at some point this season and take the reigns. Even so, it wouldn't be fair to speculate on the event simply because we haven't seen the steeplechase since last spring. Hurdles and water pits also bring a high level of variability to a race which can easily change the end result.
Yet, the one race that seems entirely wide open this season is the 10,000 meters, an event that was dominated by Cheserek for three years and headlined by Marc Scott in 2017. Can we convincingly say that there is an overwhelming favorite in the 10k?
Some would argue that even in an event that is two times longer than his ideal race, Knight could still be a title winner in the 10,000. Sure, he definitely could, but are we 100% convinced that he'll walk away with gold? He's only run one 10k during his sophomore year where he was 3rd at ACC's.
Knight may have been the NCAA Cross Country champion this past fall, but as many people often forget, track and XC are two very different types of racing. Maneuvering through grassy, rolling hills is not at all like running in a pack for 25 laps in two unobstructed lanes.
When we evaluate contenders for the title, there are a few names that come to my mind. The NAU duo of Tyler Day and Matthew Baxter are easy picks to consider in this potential battle. No, it's not just because of their success in cross country, but it's because these guys are true long distance runners. Even during the indoor season, we saw the Lumberjacks go to the front early-on in their races to establish a quick pace that they knew they could hold for longer than most. Day and Baxter may not have the same kind of finishing speed that Knight, Fisher, or even teammate Andy Trouard have, but these are guys who thrive off of fast paces that can be extended over a long period of time. The longer the race, the better for them and that's what makes them dangerous in the 10k.
Of course, if we're going to mention the NAU men we also have to talk about a group similar with a similar racing style: Alabama.
The Rolling Tide trio of Chelanga, Kiprop, and Kigen may receive the most benefit from a longer distance that the indoor season never offered. In case you forget, Chelanga was the NCAA leader in the 10k last season after a phenomenal 28:04 performance at the Stanford Invite (which is set to take place again this weekend). He would eventually move on to NCAA's where he failed to find a spot among the All-Americans.
However, this year could be different. With two new training partners and a full year of D1 experience under his belt, Chelanga may be capable of entering the next tier of fitness. Not only that, but he could very easily bring teammates Vincent Kiprop and Gilbert Kigen along with him. Much like NAU, this trio was incredibly strong throughout the cross country season and showed that they can prosper in longer races that have an aggressive pace. We'll get to see this trio battle with Knight at the Stanford Invite this weekend.
Of course, it would be ignorant to leave out the top returner from NCAA's, Rory Linkletter. Throughout cross country and indoor track, the BYU ace has continued to put his name at the top of the NCAA leaderboards with multiple All-American finishes and strong performances in nearly every race he has been in. He's on the cusp of entering that national title territory, but there are a few things he'll need to refine in order to get there.
However, Linkletter's adjustments to different racing styles is impressive and his kick is certainly one of the more underrated aspects of his racing arsenal (i.e. moving from 8th to 2nd during the 2017 Outdoor 10k in the last lap). If the pace lags, Linkletter has a chance of being at the top of the podium if the rest of the pack is caught sleeping or struggling with tired legs.
There are a slew of other talented performers who could definitely enter this mix. Mike Tate may not have the history of being a 10k runner, but his emphasis on a hard pace from the front in longer races makes him an interesting name to watch (although he will most likely pursue the 5k this season). At the same time, other groups like the Campbell men, Kentucky's Jacob Thomson, Oklahoma State's Hassan Abdi, the Colorado State duo of Grant Fischer and Jerrell Mock, Middle Tennessee State's Jacob Choge, and UCLA's Robert Brandt are all men who could easily surprise us and contend for the title.
We'll get our first glimpse of Justyn Knight's fitness in the 10k this weekend when he toes the line to race at the Stanford Invite. Barring any record-breaking or mind-blowing performance, my skepticism regarding Knight's experience and fitness in the 10k will be maintained throughout the season until the National Championships (should he choose to pursue it). With a training regimen of just 60 miles a week, can the Syracuse senior handle the rigors of the 10k and upend the aerobic titans of the NCAA who are running anywhere from 90 to 110 miles a week? At altitude?
Regardless of who you think is the favorite, we can all agree that a new name will come to dominate the 10k this season. Now it's just a matter of who...