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Former NXN champions offer advice - Verzbicas and Higginson - 2013 - DyeStat

Published by
DyeStat   Dec 4th 2013, 4:12am

Former NXN champs offer words of advice


By Doug Binder, DyeStat Editor


Four past Nike Cross champions spoke with DyeStat this week, offering advice and words of encouragement to the the comeptitors this week. Additoinally, all four -- Katie Flood, Futsum Zeinasellassie, Lukas Verzbicas and Ashley Higginson -- also doubled back and ran at Foot Locker a week later:

Katie Flood


She is a standout at the University of Washington now. Back in 2009, running for Dowling Catholic from Iowa, she won the NXN championship race and a week later was eighth at Foot Locker:


2009 NXN champ Katie FloodWhat advice do you have for everyone at NXN this weekend?

KF: “I would say first off, enjoy yourself. You deserve it after all of the hard work you’ve done. Don’t worry about the elements or anything else you can’t control. Just enjoy the experience.”


What do you remember the most about your experience at NXN?


KF: “Honestly, the thing I remember most was being on the starting line with my team. We had worked so hard to get there and it was a really amazing experience being there together.”


Did you expect to win that race:


KF: “I wasn’t going in thinking I was going to win. I just wanted to see where I was in the midst of the race, stay up at the front and then see what I had left. I felt no pressure to do anything (like win). I was just out there to do my best.”


As someone who qualified for both NXN and Foot Locker, how did you switch gears in between?

KF: “I think for me, Foot Locker was just a totally different experience and I was equally excited to go to both (meets). My junior year I had injuries and was feeling some burnout. As a senior I was there to have fun and embrace the experience and take it all in.”


Was it a challenge managing those couple of weeks?


“It was fairly exhausting when it was all said and done. But I didn’t think it was stressful. It’s something you love to do so you just do it and enjoy every bit of it.”


Futsum Zeinasellassie


Now a standout at Northern Arizona, won the NXN boys race in 2011 and a week later he finished a close second to Edward Cheserek at Foot Locker. The Indiana champion was a senior at North Central:


What was the NXN course like the year you ran it?

FZ: “It wasn’t that bad compared to other years. It was still muddy in places.”


Futsum ZeinasellassieWhat was your mindset going into NXN?

FZ: “I was trying to win that race as easy as possible because I knew I would be running at Foot Locker. The Nike is race is geared more to the team than the individual, but my (personal) goal was to go out there and win it.”


What was your race plan at NXN?

FZ: “I wanted to run with the guys to start with and then go with a mile (left). There was one guy that went out really hard and I wasn’t sure how good he was, so I had to run and catch up to him. So that changed things. It was about 2.5K when I took the lead.”

What is your best advice for the athletes running on Saturday?

FZ: “My advice would be to not freak out, or (rather) to relax as much as you can. Stay relaxed and focused. You’ve got to always remember you’re not going to be out for a fast time. Put yourself in good position. But it’s really all about staying relaxed and only running for place. Be confident in yourself.”

How do you handle the features like the rollercoaster hills or hay bales?

FZ: “People think of them a lot outside the race. I remember practicing for those (obstacles). But they really don’t play a big role in the race, actually. They’re not as rough as you think they might be. Of course, I guess that could depend on how tired you are.”


Lukas Verzbicas


Three years ago, Lukas Verzbicas embarked on one of the great achievements in the modern landscape of high school cross country: The NXN/Foot Locker double.

Verzbicas, of Carl Sandburg High School in the Chicago area, came to Portland and sloshed through the mud on the way to a victory at the 2010 NXN and then a week later won his second consecutive Foot Locker title.

Verzbicas has become a professional triathlete and overcame a near-fatal cycling accident in Colorado that cast doubt on whether he would walk again. But he has recovered and is focused on his goal of making the 2016 Olympics in the triathlon.

How did you prepare to run two national championship events on back to back weeks?

LV: "I was approaching the whole double (idea) even before cross country season had started. It was my goal so I trained for it. I did back to back hard workouts (at times) ... to be in shape for two weeks straight (at the end of the season."

How do you manage the challenge of both events?

Lukas Verzbicas flies over a hay bale at the 2010 NXN.LV: "When you're doing both you've got to look at both (events) as an opportunity. On the starting line of Nike I wasn't thinking about Foot Locker. I told myself 'Don't think about the next race until the first one is over.' And even then, don't celebrate too hard or go crazy after. (Instead) take a very long cool down to get the lactic acid out of you."

How did you strategize for NXN?

LV: "Obviously with Nike it was a mud fest so I was thinking 'Don't be concerned about splits at all.' Another thing was just going a little conservatively (early). At a half mile I was still in the main pack. It was not until the mile that I worked my way up to the front. I was happy to let other people go through (mud and water) first on the first time around. People figure out ways of going around, where there's less mud or footsteps. The big thing, for me, was going out a little conservatively, because it was so windy, I was sitting behind someone the whole way. Only at 800 or 400 to go, that's the only time I got to the front and took the wind. (EDIT: Interesting that he remembers it that way. Actually, he took command with about a mile to go.)"

How does that compare to Foot Locker?

LV: "At Foot Locker there is a big, huge hill. I used the downhills to their biggest advantage. It seemed like an easy place to break away without putting in too much effort. If you go up the hill hard the second time, it's also a place you can recover. I used the downhills (to set up) a good finishing kick."

The NXN course is a little different than what's usual. Is it better to go around hazards like mud or go straight through them? 2010 NXN Boys Race Video

LV: "You always want to go the shorter distance, but it's also important to scout out the course. If you're a great mud runner, you might go through it. I had a lot of leg strength from the biking that I did for triathlon training. But everyone is going to be relatively the same (in the mud). Just be smart and tactical before the race. Some people psyche themselves out or get scared of it."
If you happen to be doubling back for Foot Locker the next week, how do you handle the next few days?

LV: "Obviously the next day is mostly rest. Take it easy. Do not do anything more than a couple of strides. Most people will also have flights (on Sunday). I found that a lot of times after long plane rides, like flying back to Chicago from Oregon, I could do a little bit when I got home. The next couple of days is kind of the same. You're not going to change anything about your speed and endurance at that point. Just do something short and sharp to stay ready. Some people think after doing (NXN) you'd be too tired for Foot Locker. You definitely won't. You'll be fine."

So what is the biggest challenge during that two-week stretch?

LV: "The hardest thing is probably the travel. If you're lucky enough to be on the left coast, it's not a problem. But coordinating with school and working out the logistics is harder than the training and racing that week."

What do you recommend as far as sleeping and eating on the road?

LV: "We were fortunate to be in nice hotels that were quiet and so that was fine. The night before races like that no one gets good sleep. For me, it would always take me a while to fall asleep depending on how important a race it is. Sometmes you're replaying it in your head. It's fine. You just wake up and go."

"(As far as food) I would say the biggest thing is not to try and eat something new. The first time I was in California there was all this amazing Mexican food, tacos and stuff I had heard about and I wanted to try it. Wait until after the race. Digestion issues, you don't want that. Stick to as much as you can to what you had leading up to the race, just like normal."

Ashley Higginson

The 2006 winner on Nike Team Nationals as a senior at Colts Neck High School in New Jersey, Higginson is professional track athlete with the New York/New Jersey Track Club and represented the U.S. in the steeplechase at the World Championships in Moscow last summer.

She was in Portland with her team (there were no individual qualifiers in 2006). A week later she ran at Foot Locker in San Diego and placed 22nd. Here are her words of advice:

Thinking back, what do you remember most about NTN?

Ashley Higginson powers to the finish line in 2006 to win at Portland Meadows.AH: "More than anything, it was waking up and wearing that new uniform with my team. I know things are different now, with individuals going there. But I thought it was really cool to have an experience with my team that was so different than the usual high school cross country experience. We worked so hard for it."

Did you think that you were going to win the race?

AH: "I thought 'No way.' But upon getting there, I knew I had done well at Foot Locker regionals so it was a possibility. I just thought there's nothing that can go as planned with all these huge ponds of mud."

So you found out that day you were good at running in mud.

AH: "Ha. I'd say my biggest advice is that if it goes well (in Portland), you should consider the steeplechase."

In the video of your race you slipped and fell as you hit the finish line. But before that, how did you manage yourself on the course?

AH: "I remember vividly speaking with some of the (Colts Neck) parents who said they couldn't see me when I made the move and they had thought there was no way I would catch the leader. The thing is, you've got to believe right around the next bend is the segement of the course where you are better than the person in front of you. No one knows what their strength is going to be ahead of time on that course. It helped me to believe 'I can kick.'"

You had a teammate, Briana Jackucewicz, up near the front with you that day. (She was 11th, the team finished fourth). Are you still close?

AH: "I am actually pretty tight with her. Our families know each other. She went Harvard, while I went to Princeton. We're very good friends. Just two years ago, we had a five-year reunion. All the girls on that team got together. It was probably the highlight of my high school career. When we crossed that finish line we were crying. A girl who was our usual sixth ran huge for us that day. Another teammate ran a couple (thousand meters) with no shoe on. It was intense."

How did you handle the first time flying to the West coast and all of the extra stuff is part of the NXN experience outside of the race?

AH: "It was definitely tough at times. Our coach was good at handling us. We got to do the fun stuff but there was also rest time. Time to keep calm. We went to dinner all together on the Nike campus, then we decorated our van and then it was lights out. We made hair bows to do something calm and quiet and then got to sleep. It was interesting. I remember people complaining about the three-hour time change and that we'd be so awake at night and then scared about having to get up so early (for the race), but it was OK."

How did you switch gears and then get ready for Foot Locker?

AH: "It was extremely difficult for me and I think it is for any athlete. It was a new lesson for me. Foot Locker is an amazing meet and they put on such a great experience for everyone there. I had been on a good high school team and had never gone to a race alone. I was such a dork and had come back to school (and New Jersey) for a week. I should have taken the week of and stayed out there. My dad drove down the coast while I flew back and forth."

How did it end up working out for you in San Diego?

AH: "I had put so much emotional energy into the other race that coming back and pushing hard was very difficult. I met two girls I was going to college with, so that was fun. I got to ice skate and eat ice cream. So I treated (Foot Locker) like the prize at the end of the season."

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2 comment(s)
Fixed it. Thanks for pointing it out.
Kurt Barbara
Futsum was a senior at North Central not Columbus North.
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