- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2009

Meb Keflezighi tried to run away from the field at the USA Cross Country Championships on Saturday in Derwood. The field didn’t let him.

After running mostly by himself for nearly the entire open 12K at Agricultural History Farm Park, Keflezighi needed to fight off Tim Nelson at the finish line to claim his third national cross country title and his first since 2002.

“My coach always tells me he can’t tell me what to do during the race,” said Keflezighi, who won by less than a second in 36:06. “I didn’t want to take it out like that, but if I have to do that, it’s my forte.”

“When I made the turn, I thought I had enough gap. I turned around and saw [them all behind me]. … The run up the hill was rough.”

The women’s open 8K wasn’t as close. Emily Brown, who finished third a year ago in San Diego, claimed her first national title in 26:58, 32 seconds ahead of runner-up Julie Culley of Arlington. As top-six finishers in the open race, Culley and Reston’s Samia Akbar earned berths on the American squad for March’s world championships in Amman, Jordan.

Keflezighi set a fast pace from the start, taking a four-second lead after one loop around the approximately 2,000-meter course and moving out to about 10 seconds by 4,000 meters. The chase group, which included Nelson, 2008 Olympian Jorge Torres and NCAA 5,000-meter champion Robert Curtis, got within seven seconds after 10,000 meters and made several surges to try to close.

As Keflezighi entered the final kilometer, his lead slowly slipped away. As he entered the final turn to head uphill toward the finish line, he looked back. His lead was gone. Nelson made a furious kick up the final 200-meter hill but didn’t have enough to catch him.

“I just had a lot left at the end. I could see in the last 100 meters Meb was tying up,” Nelson said. “He looked back 10 times, and every time he looked backed, I picked it up a notch.”

For Brown, that wasn’t necessary. Once training partner Katie McGregor pulled out of the race after 4,000 meters, the former All-American at Minnesota didn’t have any challengers.

“The [women’s] field was not as deep as it has been,” Brown said. “I’ve learned in the past that if you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. You’re going to be just as tired. I didn’t know where they were at. I don’t know what 25 meters behind means. I heard people screaming, so I kept going.”

The two local runners in the top six, Culley and Akbar, heard plenty of people screaming for them Saturday. And while Keflezighi - who is focusing on the London Marathon - and Brown - who plans to focus on completing her thesis - are unlikely to go to Jordan, the two local women can’t think about anything else.

“This is my first [world] cross country team, and I’m really excited even though it wasn’t a pretty race,” said Akbar, who faded a bit but still finished sixth in 28:02. “I’ve been close before, so it was my goal just to make it.”

Oklahoma State freshman German Fernandez continued his outstanding winter. About two weeks after breaking the world junior record with a 3:56.5 mile, he dropped a blazing final lap to pull away from Stanford’s Chris Derrek and Oregon’s Luke Puskedra to win the junior 8K by 19 seconds in 23:20.

Neely Spence, the daughter of former Olympic marathoner Steve Spence who runs for him at Shippensburg, won the women’s junior 6K in 20:43.

The masters races couldn’t have been more dissimilar. Carmen Ayala-Troncoso, a 49-year-old from Austin, Texas, crushed the field by 30 seconds to win the 8K race in 30:10. Simon Gutierrez, a 42-year-old from Alamoso, Colo., needed a big kick to pull away from Potomac Falls’ Ray Pugsley to win the men’s 8K in 25:15.

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