In breaking their respective tapes Saturday at the USATF Cross Country Championships, the men’s and women’s elite race winners boosted their confidence toward a bigger goal: Tokyo and the Summer Games.
Rotich and Rogers each pocketed $2,000 for winning national 10K titles at Mission Bay Park. They also became eligible for U.S. teams competing Feb. 29 at the Pan Am Cross Country Championships in Victoria, British Columbia. But Rotich won’t go. Rogers’ team on Monday said she also would pass, instead focusing on the March 7 national championship Gate River 15K in Jacksonville, Florida, followed by track races.
Instead, both 28-year-olds are laser-focused on making it to June’s Olympic Trials in track and field — Rogers in the steeplechase, 5K or 10K and Rotich in the event he won three times at the NCAA championships — the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
Their stories are contrasting, their drives the same.
Rotich, wearing a fatigues-colored singlet of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, has been a U.S. citizen less than a year. (Before going to the University of Texas El Paso, his hometown was Eldoret, Kenya, a pipeline of Olympic talent.)
On the hill-filled grassy course, Rotich matched strides with Army teammate Emmanuel Bor — taking a commanding lead with a 4:44 opening mile pace. But with more than a half-mile to go, Bor fell behind with a blister on his left foot.
Rotich won in 30 minutes, 36 seconds — 22 seconds ahead of Bor and 24 seconds in front of Lawi Lalang, another Army runner.
It’s “all about the unity,” Rotich said of the sweep. “That’s what we were trying to do today.”
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The teammates who train at 6,000-foot altitude in Colorado Springs treated it “just like another practice,” he said. “But mostly we were just trying to test our fitness.”
He says it’s been a while since he’s run a good steeple. His last NCAA title was in 2014.
“If I get into a good race, I believe I can run a [personal record] this season,” he said, alluding to his best of 8:21.19 at the 2013 NCAA meet in Eugene, Oregon — the site of the 2020 Olympic Trials. The Olympic qualifying standard is 8:22.00.
Asked how he could reach the next level, Rotich said it’s “all about discipline. Because everybody can train, but if you don’t have the discipline in you, it’s going to be hard.”
Rogers, the women’s race winner, knows hard.
In 2012, as a Texas A&M junior, she took second in the 10,000-meter run at the Olympic Trials but couldn’t compete at the London Olympics because her time of 31:59.21 was 14 seconds short of the qualifying standard.
Also hard: getting injured and losing her New Balance shoe-company sponsorship.
“I had some knee issues and then I went for what was supposed to be a standard PRP injection” in 2018, she said after Saturday’s awards ceremony. “And it turned into my worst nightmare.”
She said her treatment was done in a “very untraditional way” and took her out of running.
“I could hardly walk without pain for 4-5 months,” she said. “It started out with one [knee]. He did both knees, which destroyed both of them for a good long time.”
To pay the bills, she took a job selling “tech” last February.
“I’m not a tech-savvy person at all,” Rogers said. “It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Sales is way more pressure than the running thing. The corporate world is a whole other beast, and I lost sponsorships so I had to what I had to do to make money and survive in this world.”
Eventually, she said, her agent wouldn’t stop calling about resuming her running career.
“He knew that I wanted it,” she said. “Luckily, the Hansons were the only ones to really give me a chance, and I’m forever grateful to them for that.” Hansons is a Michigan-based running store and elite running team, wearing sponsor Brooks shoes.
With a cool sea breeze off the bay, Rogers ran side-by-side with Paige Stoner, 23, of Reebok Boston Track Club (although she trains in Charlottesville, Virginia.)
Coming down a hill going into the final 2K circuit, Rogers surged. Stoner, a former Syracuse University star, couldn’t cover.
“I just didn’t have it in my legs at that point,” Stoner said, adding she was disappointed “that she could put that much space on me in that little time.” Her time of 36:07 was 22 seconds behind Rogers’ 35:45.
“Lets me know I got to continue to work on my strength,” Stoner said. “No Pan Ams. Turning focus to the track. I do steeplechase, 5K and 10K.”
For her part, Rogers appreciated the company.
“We’re sisters in sport,” she said. “Today I feel like I really got to know her just by running side-by-side with her. We worked together. I find that as a professional, if you’re always grinding, … you’re going to wear yourself out. So I think we really tried to work together.”
Rogers said having “stamina” next to you is really helpful. “But I made sure to pick it up that last loop.”
Easy Wins for Under-20 Men and Women
Gorgas, 18, beat Evan Bishop of East Grand Rapids, Michigan, 25:45.8 to 26:21.6 over 8 kilometers (about 5 miles). Rauber defeated St. Mary’s College freshman Rayna Stanziano 22:11 to 22:47.6 in a 6K race (about 3.7 miles).
“The course is awesome,” Gorgas said, while noting rough areas for footing on the bayside stretches.
“But I tried to use that to my advantage,” he said, “trying to really push through it to take advantage of the turns. I can’t thank my coaches enough for giving me this opportunity to come out here. They did a really good job getting me to this point.”
One was Jarred Cornfield, who said Gorgas looked fantastic — smooth and in control emotionally and physically. “We got a ton out of this.”
Coming from Saugatuck High School in Michigan to 7,000-foot Flagstaff can be a tough adjustment, the assistant coach said. “But he’s pretty well adapted right now. [He’s] reaping a lot of benefits from it.”
Rauber said her flight here Thursday almost got caught in the snow.
“I’m used to training on quite a bit of hills, so this was kind of flatter that I’m used to,” she said. But sometime after 4,000 meters, it started to hurt a little bit.
“But I think the main cause of fatigue out here today was just because of how hot it was,” she said. [It reached into the 60s.]
This was her first national title, but in track she loves the steeplechase, “which we do a lot in New York. And I also love the 5K.” (She also loves raising goats — including one who ran a mile with her.)
What college might she run for?
“I have no clue yet,” she said. “I’m looking everywhere.”
Commanding Victories in the Over-40 Races
Masters titles also were awarded Saturday, with easy victories by Jacques Sallberg, 45, of Cal Coast Track Club over 8K in 26:51.4 — 43 seconds ahead of Eric Blake, 40, of Central Mass Striders.
It was Sallberg’s third time running the bayside course.
A late-bloomer — he didn’t start running until he was a 15-year-old sophomore at John Muir High School in Pasadena — he did the mile and then 3200 (a nifty 9:04.19 in 1992). Now he teaches P.E. at his alma mater and does private coaching.
The Pasadena resident hopes to run the steeplechase at this summer’s world masters track championships in Toronto.
The masters women’s winner — over 6K — was Lorilynn Bloomer, 47, of Bowerman Track Club. Her 24:14 took the measure of defending champ Marisa Sutera Strange of Pleasant Valley, New York — who finished in 24:31. At age 56.
A runner since age 8 who grew up in South Bend, Indiana, Bloomer eventually found work in Portland, Oregon, as a biomechanist in the Nike sports research lab.
She spent 17 years with the sports-apparel giant until a big “workforce reduction” in June 2017.
“It was a big blow, but at the same time it was what my family needed at the time,” she said. “So I let myself go through the grieving process and then my daughter [Zoe] started kindergarten, so that made my life busier, and I just decided to embrace it, knowing that it’s a privilege that I don’t have to work.” She also has a son, Sam, 11.
The math graduate of Purdue and biomechanics masters-earner at Indiana calculated that she wanted to start conservatively the first lap, hold the second lap “and really push the third.”
She didn’t expect to be ahead of the 49-woman field.
“When I saw that I was in the lead, I just stuck to my plan,” said Bloomer, who won her age group here last October in a 5K. “I knew that last lap was going to hurt. And it did. All my guy teammates were letting me know where I was. That was really helpful.”
She liked the extra hills this time.
“I’m a cross country purist,” she said. “Did they put some hay bales out for us?”
Maybe next year.
Co-meet director Thom Hunt says cross country nationals return to Mission Bay Park in 2021 — when for the third time (after 2008 and 2011) it also will serve as the qualifying meet for the world cross country championships.
“It looks like Feb. 6,” he said.
Updated at 7:57 p.m. Jan. 20, 2020