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High-flying Flanagan seeks 1st Canadian cross-country title, world berth

Several Olympians will be among the record 1,124 runners at the Canadian cross-country championships on Saturday (CBCSports.ca, 8:50 a.m.) along with 2018 NCAA 10,000-metre champion Ben Flanagan, who makes his racing debut in Kingston, Ont.

Record 1,124 runners to close 4-year run at famed Fort Henry course in Kingston, Ont.

Ben Flanagan of Kitchener, Ont., has flourished on the track and road since capturing an NCAA Division I title in the men's 10,000 metres in June. The 23-year-old hopes his success translates to the grass in the senior men's 10K at the Canadian cross-country championships on Saturday in Kingston, Ont. (Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard via Associated Press)

Ben Flanagan has often benefited from being a hard-working, disciplined distance runner.

"But there have been times in my career where I've been a little too driven to try to make the next level and maybe had the tendency to overdo things, which either led to some compromise in the quality of my workouts or injuries," the Kitchener, Ont., native said ahead of Saturday's Canadian cross-country championships (CBCSports.ca, 8:50 a.m. ET).

In preparation for his debut run in Kingston, Ont., Flanagan and his coaches have been mindful to not sacrifice the "ultimate goal" of qualifying for next year's world track and field championships in Doha, Qatar.

No doubt he saw bigger and better days ahead on the track in 2016 after winning the first of two Big Ten 10,000-metre titles, but a foot injury sidelined him that fall. A sacral stress fracture in Flanagan's lower left back kept him out long-term early in 2017, while right foot discomfort late in 2017 resurfaced earlier this year.

"The back injury was a big learning experience of what [level of workload] my body was able to handle," said Flanagan, whose graduate studies in social work at the University of Michigan don't end until December. "This year, we were able to get a long, consistent training block and that's when progress snowballed into very noticeable improvement in my running."

Race schedule

  • Masters 8K: 9:45 a.m. ET​
  • U18 girls 4K:  11 a.m.
  • U 18 boys 6K: 11:30 a.m.
  • U 20 women 6K: 12:15 p.m.
  • U 20 men 8K: 1 p.m.
  • Open women 10K: 1:45 p.m.
  • Open men 10K: 2:45 p.m.

A banner 2018 campaign has followed Flanagan's 2016 breakout when he set personal bests in the 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000. Since reclaiming his Big Ten title in May, the accolades have piled up for the Canadian:

  • He won the 10,000 at NCAA Division I championships in 28 minutes 34.53 seconds, showcasing a huge kick to beat race favourite Vincent Kiprop of Alabama.
  • Flanagan placed third in the 5,000 (14:36.66) at the Canadian track and field championships behind 2018 Commonwealth Games double silver medallist Mo Ahmed and Reebok Boston Track club teammate Justyn Knight, a three-time NCAA champion.
  • In only his second road race since Grade 9, Flanagan outkicked American professional runner Scott Fauble to become the first Canadian, male or female, to win in the 46-year history of the Falmouth Road Race, an 11-kilometre event in the coastal town on Cape Cod, Mass.
  • On Long Island, Flanagan clocked 3:57.75 to break the four-minute mile for the first time.
  • In September, he won his first national title and set a Canadian soil record with his winning time of 13:56 at the Canadian 5K Road Championships in Toronto.

'I want to take smart risks'

Flanagan said Saturday's senior men's 10K race, contested on grass on a 2.5 km loop at the famed Fort Henry course, is a good platform to show where he stacks up against Canada's best distance runners, including defending champion Lucas Bruchet, three-time defending Canadian 1,500 champ Charles Philibert-Thiboutot and 2018 Canadian men's 10K winner Evan Esselink.

It will mark Flanagan's first race at the senior level of the Canadian event after competing in the junior 8K in 2010 (17th at Guelph, Ont.) and at Vancouver in 2011 (7th), 2012 (2nd) and 2013 (2nd).

A more difficult course like this would probably fall in my favour if people tire a little earlier than expected.— Pro runner Ben Flanagan of Reebok Boston Track Club

"I want to take smart risks and run intelligently," said the first-year professional runner, who trained for the rolling course in Kingston by running hills and other challenging terrain. "Being a lot more comfortable with my closing speed has allowed me to run smarter and with a lot more confidence and energy.

"The goal is to stay in contention for as long as possible. A more difficult course like this would probably fall in my favour if people tire a little earlier than they expect. Being patient with my moves and effort could really pay off in the last two kilometres."

For defending senior women's champion Claire Sumner, this year's race brings with it greater pressure to perform well.

A graduate of Queen's University in Kingston, the 23-year-old is excited to compete on her "home" course and visit with friends following a move to Edmonton to attend medical school at the University of Alberta.

Former Queen's University runner and 2016 U Sports cross-country champion Claire Sumner says she feels greater pressure to perform well in the senior women’s 10K on Saturday as defending champion. (Submitted by Tim Huebsch/Canadian Running)
"I wasn't expecting to win last year," said Sumner, who prevailed in 34:48.9 after taking the lead for good on a hill and breaking away from Victoria Coates, Canadian half marathon record-holder Rachel Cliff and Natasha Wodak, the fastest Canadian woman in the 10,000. "I definitely believe in myself more this year."

The Calgary native placed 30th in 2014 and climbed to third just two years later. She attributed the drastic improvement to familiarity with the Fort Henry course and thriving under Boyd, who remains her coach and emails workouts.

"The course plays to my strength because I like the hills and the [usual] mud and tough conditions," said the 2016 U Sports cross-country gold medallist. "I just trust what [Boyd] tells me to do. He puts a lot of thought into each workout and there is a purpose with each."

Much of Sumner's training in recent months was on the road preparing for the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in October, where she placed third in the half marathon and reached her goal of sub-75 minutes with a time of 1:14:28. Sumner also squeezed in one cross-country race before cross-country nationals.

New world championship qualifying process

"There's more in the tank," Sumner said of Saturday's competition.

For the first time, senior athletes won't have to race at cross-country nationals to represent Canada at the world championships on March 30 in Denmark.

  • The top four finishers in the men's and women's senior races will receive an automatic berth.
  • The other two spots will be filled by athletes who met a specific standard in the last 12 months, or rank top 32 in the world, in either the 5,000, 10,000, 3000 steeplechase or marathon. They would be placed in rank order based on their performance relative to the standard.
  • Should spots remain, athletes would be selected by Saturday's order of finish from fifth to 10th.

In order of eligibility, the following athletes would qualify under Step 2:

Men

Women

  • Natasha Wodak (10,000)
  • Rachel Cliff (10,000)
  • Andrea Seccafien (5,000)
  • Kate Van Buskirk (5,000)
  • Jessica O'Connell (5,000)
  • Geneviève Lalonde (3,000 steeplechase)

About the Author

Doug Harrison

Doug Harrison has covered the professional and amateur scene as a senior writer for CBC Sports since 2003. Previously, the Burlington, Ont., native covered the NHL and other leagues for Faceoff.com. Follow the award-winning journalist @harrisoncbc

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