Slower times, same outcome
Nov. 22, 2010
Brian Hendrickson, Special to NCAA.com
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. - Sam Chelanga didn’t want to win a boring race this time.
So rather than run away from the field, as the Liberty senior did in a 25-second championship win last year, Chelanga hung back with Arizona’s Stephen Sambu on Monday until the final straightaway, when his prolific stamina took over.
After running shoulder to shoulder with Sambu for the entire race, Chelanga burst ahead to a four-second lead to win his second consecutive individual NCAA Division I men’s cross country championship at the LaVern Gibson Cross Country Championship Course.
Chelanga finished the 10k race in 29 minutes, 22 seconds, nearly 40 seconds slower than last year’s time, but enough to defend his title against Sambu and Oregon’s Luke Puskedra.
“Last year, I thought it was boring, just me running away,” Chelanga said. “So I’m gonna keep this race exciting. If you’re home watching (a big lead) on the screen, it’s not fun at all to watch.”
Large margins of victory are not unusual to the 10-time All-American, though. In addition to last year’s cross country crown, Chelanga captured the 10k national title at the NCAA Division I outdoor championships by 18 seconds, the meet’s largest margin of victory since 1996.
But Liberty coach Brant Tolsma said Chelanga has learned to discipline his races to conserve energy, rather than expend it by running out to big leads. Using so much energy early can leave a runner vulnerable at the end, Tolsma said. So Chelanga has learned to hold back when necessary.
“He’s definitely getting smarter,” Tolsma said. “But it makes me nervous, because last year he was ahead by 40 seconds at the 8k (marker).”
This time, though, Chelanga led Sambu by a second after two kilometers, and the pair stayed shoulder-to-shoulder through the 8k marker. Sambu, who joined Arizona this year as the two-time national junior college cross country champion, appeared to be giving Chelanga a stiff challenge.
But that’s not the way Puskedra saw it as he crossed the midpoint alongside the Kenyans. Puskedra said he felt the draining effects of the 20-mile-per-hour winds buffeting the course early in the race. Sambu said he ran behind Chelanga at times to find some relief.
“He looked over (at the 5k marker) and said, ‘You guys want to help out a little bit?’” Puskedra said. “I’m hurting for air at this point. I’m thinking, ‘How is this guy even talking right now?’”
Because he expected the wind to affect some of the runners, Chelanga said he decided to hang back and conserve energy until Sambu attempted to make a move. The two were alone with about 200 meters remaining in the race and the next group was more than 10 seconds behind when that time came.
Sambu said he stepped away from Chelanga and tried to push ahead, but he struggled to advance against the strong headwind. Chelanga saw it as his cue, and in an instant burst in front by four seconds.
Watching from behind, Puskedra said he thought to himself, “Oh, well, there’s the race. He just waited one lap later this year.”
Chelanga admitted to growing slightly nervous until making the final turn. At that point, though, he knew the national title was his.
“I knew I could out-kick him,” Chelanga said. “I said, ‘I’m gonna wait for him to make a move just a little bit, and then surprise him and just blow him away.’”