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.
The 2000 boys race probably featured the most heralded field up front of any race in Footlocker history. Throughout this series, we’ve seen some fields that are arguably stronger overall—depending on your level of preference for depth versus star power—but none can match the headliners of the three seniors at the front in Dathan Ritzenhein, Alan Webb, and Ryan Hall.
Before LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami, these were the Big Three. Not only did they live up to their billing as such in this particular race, where they finished 1-2-3, but all three went on to figure prominently in the next decade of American distance running. Alan Webb, of course, set an American Record in the mile as a professional. Ryan Hall arguably ushered in the current era of American marathoning with his Olympic Trials win in 2007. Prior to that, he set an American Record of his own in the half marathon. Ritzenhein also managed to carve out some space for himself in the American record book, breaking the 5000m record in 2009.
It’s not always the case that high school success predicts a successful professional career, but for all three of Ritz, Webb, and Hall, it did. That, I would argue, is what makes this race so special historically. Sure, Hall and Webb entered as 4:00 milers and Ritz was looking to repeat as Footlocker champion, but this meet has seen those sorts of credentials before. We can’t explain the lasting greatness of this race entirely by looking at the credentials of the field that entered it. It only becomes truly far-and-away the best Footlocker championship of all time when you add in what occurred in the following 10 years.
Of the races we’ve looked at in this series, this is the only one that took place during the five-year stretch from 1997-2001 when the championships were held in Orlando, Florida. The Orlando course is much flatter than its San Diego counterpart, which led to some fast times, but perhaps not as fast as one would expect.
Everyone expected Ritzenhein to take the race out hard to take the kick out of Hall’s and Webb’s legs. But, for the first 1200m, it wasn’t Ritz leading the group, but Wesley Keating. Heading into the mile mark, with the group all still solidly together, Ritz made his move to take the lead. The only surprise being not that Ritz was looking to take the lead, but that he waited nearly a mile to do so.
Webb made a move to go with him, but never presented a significant threat to overtake Ritz. Unlike many of the other races in this countdown, this was a rout from the mile mark to the finish, with Ritz eventually winning in a Footlocker record margin of 20 seconds.
What was additionally impressive about Ritz’s performance beyond the fact that he obliterated Alan Webb and Ryan Hall is that he somehow came close to his record 14:29 time set the previous year despite coming through the mile in only 4:47. He cut it down to 4:37 for the second mile, but Webb was able to stay close enough that it wasn’t a lock that Ritz would win it.
Ritz clearly had enough of the possibility of this being a competitive race. Over the next half mile, Ritz opened up the lead to the point that he would go on to win by over 20 seconds against perhaps the most recognizable high school runners of all time. He came through three miles in 14:05, meaning that he ran a pretty even pace of 4:41 one that next mile. Webb and Hall finished second and third, 20 and 24 seconds behind Ritz, respectively.
- At the 16:10 mark in the video, take a gander at Peter Meindl’s media photo. Everyone in every other photo is wearing obvious running attire—either a singlet or a jacket—but Meindl is going full unabomber. Did no one advise him that everyone else was dressing differently?
- At 17:30, the announcers refer to Alan Webb as a hanging chad, immediately dating the video. Hanging chads on physical Florida ballots were a great source of controversy in the 2000 Presidential election, which was only a month old at the time of the race.