By Kit Ramgopal
For the past 43 years, Stanford has invited more than three thousand runners from college and high school brackets to compete in various distances on the Stanford golf course in the fall. Hosting the Stanford Invitational is a tradition for the Stanford cross country program — arguably, winning the Invitational has become a tradition as well. Stanford has won 20 of the past 21 years of competition at this meet, and the Cardinal women’s division is currently riding a 12-year winning streak.
However, at this year’s Invitational, held on Saturday, Oct. 1, Stanford shook up tradition, especially on the men’s side of competition. A Stanford runner was victorious in the 8K, but the points did not count in Stanford’s favor. Stanford freshman Thomas Ratcliffe captured victory in the men’s division, posting a strong time of 23:17.0, narrowly edging Tulane’s Emmanuel Rotich’s time of 23:19.9.
Even more surprising? This was the first time Ratcliffe had ever run a cross country race in his life.
The 4:01 miler from Concord-Carlisle High School in Concord, Massachusetts, was a formidable opponent in track and field, but he never ran cross country because it conflicted with the high school soccer season. And although he is on the Stanford cross country team now, Ratcliffe was one of three freshmen to run unattached from the university in order to preserve a potential redshirt year.
The freshmen were not the only runners held back, as the Cardinal also rested their top seven runners in preparation for next week’s Wisconsin Invitational. As a result, Stanford ended up finishing ninth overall. Junior Tai Dinger was the top runner for Stanford on Saturday, finishing his 8K in 23:45.8.
Why redshirt Ratcliffe? It all comes down to long-term potential for cross country runners, according to Cardinal head men’s coach Chris Miltenberg. The transition from high school 5Ks to NCAA 10Ks is a harsh transition for any college runner. In Ratcliffe’s case, the distance gap is even greater — from 1.61 kilometers (1 mile) to a 10K.
Ratcliffe admitted to his own surprise at his victory, but he remains levelheaded.
“I don’t think it’s something to be made a big deal about,” he said. “but it’s a good step in the right direction and a good start to the year. It just tells me I’m on a good path and it’s a good reminder that the training’s paying off.”
At this time, the plan is for Ratcliffe to redshirt, but if he continues to improve at the same rapid pace he currently displays, it’s possible he could compete for Stanford in the postseason.
However, Miltenberg was steady in his decision as of Saturday. “It’s going to require patience and letting him come along gradually. Today is a big step forward, but we’re not going to change what we’re doing with him training-wise. We’re thinking about his big-picture development.”
Over on the women’s side of events, a Stanford athlete claimed victory as well — only this time, her points counted for the Stanford team. Elise Cranny covered the 6K course in 20:02.5, pulling away from teammate Vanessa Fraser and two others within the last half mile for an explosive finish. Like Thomas Ratcliffe, Elise Cranny was running in her first Stanford Invitational, after being rested in the 2014 Stanford Invitational and out with an injury in 2015. Stanford clinched first place (Cranny), fourth place (Fraser) and sixth place (Danielle Katz).
“It was the first race of the season and they wanted to get a good competitive effort out of it,” women’s head coach Elizabeth DeBole said. “They executed that 100 percent. All the girls went out controlled and within themselves the first half of the race. We wanted to work on every 1,000 meters after that, just building intensity, looking up, and keeping the forward momentum.”
Contact Kit Ramgopal at kramgopa ‘at’ stanford.edu.