"Fourteeners" create an avalanche in Alabama at the Garmin RunningLane XC Championships
Grasping for superlatives is an exercise in failure here, but certain lessons from the event lie within anyone's reach
The video below by Total Running Productions breaks down the boys’ gold (championship) race at the Garmin RunningLane XC Championships held in Huntsville, Alabama yesterday.
The quick and statistically crazy: Seventy-one boys ran in the fourteens, and the median time in the bulky 304-finisher field was 15:27. That’s what jumped out at me first, but you can build your own top “Did that really happen?” list with help from the flash insights of TRP.
Because the NXN series stopped at the regional level this fall after a Covidian year off altogether, yesterday morning’s gold races served as the de facto 2021 U.S. national high-school team cross-country championships. The meet also allowed individual standouts to skip the Eastbay (nee Foot Locker, nee nee Kinney) series and still race other mega-fast people, especially given the assured presence of Newbury Park, California's indescribably great boys' team in Huntsville.
In fact, anyone who competed this fall at the NXN Northeast event had no choice but to skip the Eastbay series. That’s because as the NXN Northeast races were unfolding last Saturday in Upstate New York, the Eastbay Northeast Regionals were taking place downriver at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.
Aidan Cox, a runner I have often mentioned in my “coverage” of the high-school scene in my home state of New Hampshire, was one of those kids who opted for the mostly team scene in Alabama. He came into yesterday having won the NXN New England race by over 30 seconds. In early September, predicting such a result might have been safe enough. But had you asked anyone two months ago…well, I’ll get to that.
For me, watching this meet online entailed seeing a minor collision of real and electronic worlds, as I also follow the Colorado cross-country scene closely and have wondered all season how a healthy Cox would do against the likes of, among others, Zane Bergen, who attends an institution visible to the naked eye from a few miles yonder.
Not surprisingly, but impressively, Colorado put four boys' teams in the top ten and three girls' teams in the top five yesterday, including the individual champion Niwot girls (the Niwot boys, led by Bergen, were eighth). But while that kind of raw output speaks for itself, Aidan Cox, who turned 16 in August and missed Ritz's national high-school cross-country best by nine seconds this morning, is a rare study in perseverance, as overused as that phrase may be running and elsewhere.
Cox started his season with a DNF at the Manchester Invitational in late September, not shown in the graphic above. The cause was some acrid flavor of then-undetermined glute-medius or piriformis problem. That 17:32 return to action on October 16 was no easing-back-into-racing effort—he was sharing the lead at two miles and ran plumb out of gas, trudging in about 6:30 pace the rest of the way.
At no point did he appear to give up racing. But this, on his home course, was more than “humbling.”
Cox’s season was very carefully managed from that point on. His solo win at the D-2 State Meet was a resounding statement, but still left him close to 40 seconds shy of the time he'd soloed the year before at the same meet. But the next week, at the Meet of Champions, he came within three seconds of the course-record-breaking time he'd run the previous year there.
At the “New England” Championships the next weekend, Cox had something of an off day, placing seventh, though it must be noted how strong Connecticut it on the boys' side this year. But two weeks later, last Saturday, he captured the NXN New England race in resounding fashion, and then came yesterday, when he found himself part of a historic, really historic high-school cross-country race.
Having now run within nine seconds of Dathan Ritzenhein's just-smashed 21-year-old high-school cross-country best, Cox is now arguably the top male junior in the country who doesn't sip from Newbury Park High School water fountains.
This video shows the last 1.1 miles of the race. You may want to mute the sound, so that you don’t wrongly hear that the two-mile split was 9:41 (it was 8:58) and don’t hear the woman of the pair at all. But it shows Cox in the lead pack until the final 60 meters.
Defying everything, Newbury Park’s top-five average, 14:14, was just four seconds slower than Ritzenhein's individual all-courses mark. Next spring, various NCAA D-1 teams will prove unable to field five men who can average 14:14 for 5,000 meters even on a track. I wonder what's in the water flowing from those fountains, or in the burritos kids must be shoveling down in the Newbury Park school cafeteria by the faceload. (Yeah, that was an offal joke. Boorish, even.)
That data is hard to process. But having some knowledge of the varied forces that have guided Aidan Cox in his long, long trajectory toward real stardom, I can appreciate an amazing and unlikely cross-country season without thinking hard about it.