Every fall, the high school cross country season gets a moment of exclusive access to the spotlight with the Footlocker Regional and National Cross Country Championships. Though in recent years, Nike Cross Country Nationals have threatened to overtake Footlocker in both attention and competitiveness, the latter’s history as the premier high school race in the country keeps it in the top spot. Add to that the fact that NXN’s team competition in which high schools compete under confusing club names that make it difficult to make meaning of the team competition, and Footlocker’s enduring beauty dwells in its simplicity.
With the annual championships set to take place Saturday, December 10, we figured we’d look back at the top five moments of the 2000s before undertaking a full preview of both the boys and girls races Friday.
Despite three runners entering the season undefeated—Edward Cheserek, Futsum Zeinasellassie, and Darren Fahy—the race was billed as a showdown between Cheserek and Zeinasellassie with each winning their respective regions by over 10 seconds. Zeinasellassie was the returning runner-up after finished second to Lukas Verzbikas in 2010, but Cheserek’s dominance winning the Northeast regional by 25 seconds made it clear that it wouldn’t be a cake walk for the top returner.
The field also featured two other top-four finishers from 2010 in South Dakota’s Tony Smoragiewicz and Spokane, WA’s Andrew Gardner. With Cheserek and Zeinasellassie clearly headlining the field, though, neither figured to pose a serious threat to win.
Watching the video of the race, you’ll notice that neither of our two prohibitive favorites are running away from the pack in the first mile. Starting at around 400m into the race, though, there is someone running away from the pack. That boy is CJ Albertson, a senior from Fresno, California, who finished eighth in the West regional to qualify for the meet. By 1200m, Albertson had opened a commanding 30m lead on the field with Cheserek and Zeinasellassie pacing the pack behind him.
He held that gap through the first mile. But, immediately after the mile mark, the course embarks on the first round up the big hill. On that hill, Cheserek and Zeinasellassie clearly decided that enough was enough and quickly reeled in Albertson in the span of only about 200m. They both stormed past him as they crested the hill, and that marked the beginning of what would be a two-boy duel to the finish.
Though the two let the pack catch up for about a minute coming down the hill, Cheserek made the next big move around the turn at the bottom of the hill to remove any doubts about who this race would be between.
For the next mile and a half, the two traded blows, alternating leads and running shoulder-to-shoulder mostly the entire time. By the second time through the hill, both appeared to be sprinting. Zeinasellassie made a move just before it, but Cheserek responded at the outset of the hill and both boys were going all out up the hill. Without historical splits to justify it, I feel confident saying that their ascent on the second loop was as fast as any in the history of the race.
The two remained shoulder-to-shoulder from the top of the hill until about 100m to go. Cheserek refused to surrender the half-step lead he gained on the uphill, but Zeinasellassie certainly wasn’t going anywhere either. Entering the finishing straight with 100m to go, Cheserek found one more gear that Zeinasellassie couldn’t match. He opened up about five meters on his rival and held that through the finish, beating Zeinasellassie by less than one second.
Their dominance over the rest of their competitors is evidenced by the 28-second gap between Zeinasellassie and Nathan Weitz in third place. Cheserek, of course, went on to repeat as champion the following year before becoming one of the most accomplished collegiate runners of all time at Oregon. Zeinasellassie didn’t win any national championships at Northern Arizona, but did finish in the top four in cross country three times over his career and took home a second-place (to Cheserek, of course) in the 10k outdoors as a senior in 2016.