Stanford cross country competed at the NCAA Championships on Friday at the OSU Cross Country Course in Stillwater, Okla. After a solid performance at the NCAA West Regionals, where both the men’s and women’s teams placed first, Stanford traveled to Oklahoma with different expectations. The men were dominant all year long. Nevertheless, the championship-caliber and No. 1-ranked team in the nation had a difficult task ahead. The final was hosted by one of its main rivals, Oklahoma State University. At the same time, Northern Arizona, winner of five of the last six national championships, tends to ramp up the pressure in the season finale. BYU, Air Force and Colorado were among the contenders as well. As if the strong competition was not enough, adversities hit Stanford hard in the postseason. The situation for the women was quite different. They knew that this was a program-rebuilding season as many experienced runners had graduated in the previous two years. Competing for a podium finish was out of reach and their presence in the final was already a remarkable achievement. The goal was to leave the race with nothing left in the tank but gain as much experience as possible.
The Women’s Race
The day opened with the six-kilometer (3.73-mile) women’s race. The task for the women’s team was as tough as any and the race-start temperature of 26 degrees made it even tougher. Oklahoma’s course is hilly yet quite fast. There is not a lot of wind effect and the ground is cold and firm, almost like a track. Many upperclassmen had a competitive advantage. The cross country final in March 2021 (delayed due to COVID-19) took place at this very course. Unfortunately, only senior Grace Connolly, junior Zofia Dudek and junior Lucy Jenks had this experience. The women finished 13th with 371 points. Dudek, who placed third in the NCAA West Regionals a week before, had a solid performance. She finished 20th in 20:01.7 (112.6 seconds faster and 136 places higher than in 2021). Stanford raced again as a pack. Its second runner was ahead of its fifth by just four seconds halfway through the race, by 11.2 seconds with two kilometers to go, and by 20.1 seconds at the finish line. Second for Stanford and 83rd overall finished Jenks in 20:30.5 (57.5 seconds faster and 9 places higher than in 2021) while fifth on the team and 136th overall placed Connolly in 20:50.6 (81 seconds faster and 45 places higher than in 2021). Sophomore Audrey DaDamio ran 20:34.8 for 93rd overall and freshman Riley Stewart ran 20:45.1 for 121st. The remaining two Cardinal runners were senior Abi Archer (21:25.1) and sophomore Audrey Suarez (21:54.7).
What’s in store for Stanford women’s cross country?
The Stanford women’s cross country team has now competed in the NCAA Championship race for 30 years in a row. The bar is as high as the quality of the program. Nevertheless, what is taken for granted is not always as easy as it seems. In every collegiate sport, all top programs have their trial seasons. Inevitably, 2022 was just that for Stanford, which saw a number of Pac-12 champions, NCAA Regional champions and multiple-time All-Americans graduate in the last two years. We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand. This year, women’s coach and director of Track and Field and Cross Country J.J. Clark and assistant coach Addy Royal had a talented yet young group of athletes in their hands. The fact that a team this young made it to the final race of the season, won first place in the NCAA West Regionals and beat Oregon twice in the postseason speaks for itself. It is a testimony of hard work, commitment and growth. The team kept improving, learned how to feed off each other and gained a lot of experience. All athletes who competed in the title race on the same course back in 2021 saw their times and rankings improve substantially. Two-time USTFCCCA National Coach of the Year and two-time Pac-12 Cross Country Coach of the Year Clark and assistant coach Royal, who recruited top long-distance runners for next season, have every reason to smile looking into the future.
The Men’s Race
Up next was the 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) men’s race. In each of the last four years, the Cardinal finished fifth, except in 2019 when they took sixth place. This season, Stanford finished fourth and senior Charles Hicks became the first Stanford man or woman to win an NCAA individual cross country title. One would typically think that the incumbent and back-to-back Pac-12 Men’s Cross Country Coach of the Year, Ricardo Santos, must be smiling from ear to ear. However, if you and your team had put in the sweat and blood to become the nation’s most dominant program, winning every single race except one back in September, nothing but first place would please you. Unfortunately, the NCAA title is decided on a single day and in a sport with so many random factors (e.g., injuries, elements of nature, altitude, course location, surface diversity and, most importantly, how you feel on race day), anything can happen.
“It’s definitely bittersweet,” Santos told Stanford Athletics post-race. “I’m really happy for Charles. He’s worked really hard. But it just wasn’t our day. We’re happy in the sense that we got on to the podium and we’re bringing a trophy back to campus. So, it’s progress.”
Truth be told, every Cardinal other than Hicks could finish higher. Undoubtedly a top-10 place in the NCAAs is a remarkable achievement. Not for junior Ky Robinson, though. The Australian top runner, whose standards are higher, was fourth with one kilometer to go but ended 10th in 25:55.9. Senior Devin Hart finished third for Stanford and 51st overall in 29:47.0. Fifth-year Meika Beaudoin-Rousseau finished 71st in 29:57.2 and junior Thomas Boyden 75th in 29.59.7, dropping at the end 17 and 11 places, respectively. Running 10K under 30 minutes sounds supernatural to us regular humans, but these elite athletes put the bar higher.
Luck turned its back on Stanford. To compete at the highest level, training hard is an understatement. Cardinal athletes average 80 miles per week or more. It’s the dedication and work ethic that make them super-humans. Under these conditions, injuries are inevitable for all top programs. Although adversities hit every team — not only Stanford — when that happens, it makes an impact. Unfortunately, the timing couldn’t have been worse and made the playing field uneven for the men’s team.
One of its victims was junior Cole Sprout, a top-10 (if not higher) runner in the nation and podium finisher in the Pac-12 Championships. He did not run in the regionals and, despite his effort, he was clearly not ready for the final. Sprout finished 118th in 30:22.9. Senior Evan Burke was another victim as he suffered a severe injury early in the season. Burke’s ability to compete in the last two races is a true testimony of countless hours working on recovery. Betrayed by his injury, he ran 30:57.4, unable to reap the benefits of his summer training and reach his true potential.
Charles Hicks: Determined to make history
To understand what it takes to become an NCAA champion, one must look back in time. Hicks raced in the NCAA Championships on the same course back in March 2021, where he finished 14th. Next year, he finished fourth running on a familiar course in Florida – his home state. Going from fourth to first is not a small step, but a giant leap that takes full commitment and a perfectly executed plan.
He focused on rebuilding his training base over the summer. Typically, top college athletes put in 80 miles per week. Hicks’ work ethic is second to none. He was running 105 miles during the race weeks at the beginning of the season. That comes with a price tag: your legs don’t feel fresh at the start of the year. You have to fully commit and trust that the process will work out closer to the postseason.
“I just had to stay with the belief that when we started coming down my legs were going to feel fresher,” Hicks stated. “At Pac-12’s (Oct. 28) my legs started feeling so much better. They felt lighter, they weren’t burning as much, and I think that’s what good training feels like.”
The long-term plan paid dividends. Before the race, Hicks expected his strongest competition to be Oklahoma State’s Alex Maier, who was running on his practice course and in front of a home crowd. To his surprise, Northern Arizona’s Nico Young and Drew Bosley created the honest pace he was hoping for.
“It was exactly the race I would have hoped for,” Hicks said. “I prefer to run strong, I prefer to run aggressive and keep a really high intensity over the whole race. They [Young and Bosley] allowed me to run that race I love to run – where we’re going for it, seeing who has more fitness, who’s done more miles and who wants it more.”
Hicks put his perfect plan in motion. He tucked behind the two NAU runners for most of the race, letting them do the work.
“This race was really controlled,” Hicks said afterward. “The NAU guys really made it simple. I knew what I had to do. I wasn’t really looking around, because the only two guys I was really with were just right in front of me.”
“Don’t do any work until we need to.” Santos stated later, “just settling in and conserving his energy was key. He did a great job doing that and it paid off in the end.”
Hicks has an unparalleled ability to read the race under extreme pressure and keep notes in his mind. He consistently remained in the front pack, ready to pull the trigger. However, he did not wait for an opportunity to present itself. Opportunities don’t happen. You create them.
“Every time we went up the hill I felt them fall back a little bit, myself surge up and I started to realize that they might be expending a little bit more energy that might allow a fast last kilometer,” Hicks mentioned.
With 1.3 kilometers to go, it was time to pull the trigger. He decided to take the lead without going all in, knowing that Young would catch him anyway. Sure enough, Young made a big push as they rounded a corner onto a downhill to the finish with 200 meters to go. But Hicks had left more in the tank and pulled away over the final meters.
“I went up on the third hill and I wanted to run. Run from the gun and in my line that’s always the best way to win because you don’t want to have a single percent left over,” added the NCAA champion.
Less than a month after winning his second consecutive Pac-12 title, Hicks made history again by adding the NCAA individual title to his resume. No other man or woman athlete in a Stanford uniform had done that before, even Olympians like Grant Fisher ’19 (runner-up in 2018), Chris Derrick ’12 (runner-up in 2011), Ryan Hall ’05 (runner-up in 2003) and his wife, Sara Bei Hall ’04 (third in 2003), all came very close.
“It’s amazing. I could name off so many people that I thought would have won it,” Santos said. “I’m really happy for him.”
The champion expressed his gratitude to his coach for his achievement.
“I am gonna celebrate with my coach and teammates. Santos has done an amazing job sort of taking this program right when I came in. We had a lack of identity, we didn’t know where we were headed and, I think, this race is a good testament to the direction we were headed in”, said Hicks right after the race. Besides Santos, Hicks emphasized how his teammates helped him to improve over the years.
“My teammates have really elevated me to another level. I always think back to training with Cole Sprout and Thomas Boyden and Michael Vernau as well back in Park City. That really helped me make the jump during Covid from freshman year to sophomore year”, Hicks said. “Every single other teammate that I’ve had just added so much to me either mentally or physically or pushing me in a workout or helping me through a tough day. If I wasn’t on Stanford cross country, I wouldn’t be able to do this.”
What’s in store for Stanford men’s cross country?
Stanford and Northern Arizona were leading halfway through the race. Inevitably the adversities caught up with the Cardinal, who did not reach their potential. They finished fourth with 195 points behind Northern Arizona (83 points), Oklahoma State (83 points) and BYU (132 points). Except for a second-place finish once to BYU back in September, Stanford was beating these schools consistently until Saturday.
This was Beaudoin-Rousseau’s last cross country race in a Stanford uniform although seniors Hicks, Hart and Burke have two more years of eligibility. Coach Santos has done a phenomenal job building a program of top runners and recruiting talented successors. In addition, the team has bonded like a family. Thus, one should expect nothing but fighting for the hardware next year. I have no doubt that if Hicks does not turn pro, everyone else will stay. Hicks will have the opportunity to add his name to a closed list of legends such as Steve Prefontaine who won back-to-back NCAA individual titles and the Cardinal will have their best shot to win the title in 2023.