As the Garmin RunningLane Cross Country Championships approach on Dec. 4, Sam Rich is yearning to compete against the nation's best. He'll have his chance soon enough.
By Cory Mull - MileSplit
* Sam Rich at the SCHSL AAAA State Qualifier on Nov. 5
Photo Credit: SC Runners
"In high school, people only have one or two moves. So for me, it's about staying patient and matching people." -- Sam Rich
Sam Rich has been reading up lately, and here's a quote that's stuck with him.
The best guys take a long time to die.
He's not sure if that's the exact phrasing. Maybe it's, The best guys don't wear down. Or perhaps it's, The best guys hold on the longest.
But whatever the quote, Rich gets the picture. You should, too.
These next three weeks will be the most important of his season. It's the culmination of the first full-on season since 2019, and it's what he's been building toward -- what teams and athletes around the United States have been competing for, too -- since last November, ever since he finished 23rd at the RunningLane National Cross Country Championships in 2020.
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Rich wants to finish his career among the nation's best.
And three more weeks, he knows, and it's all over. There's no need to hold back any longer.
There's the Eastbay South Championship qualifier on Nov. 27 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and then there's Garmin RunningLane Cross Country Championships on Dec. 4 in Huntsville, Alabama. The latter has become the de facto national team championship in the U.S.
If all goes well, Rich will find himself in San Diego, California, on Dec. 11 at the Eastbay Cross Country Championships, too. That one is seen as the national individual high school championship, with only 40 qualifiers around the country.
"I"m really looking forward to those races and having that competition," says Rich, who is coming off his second straight South Carolina AAAA Championship on Nov. 11. "Just going into it, knowing I have that confidence and knowing I belong in the front pack and stuff. I know I can respond to moves and make them my own."
This much is true. Rich is unbeaten.
* Last year's RunningLane National Cross Country Championships
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He's a perfect 7-0 over the fall season, with impressive wins at The Southern Showcase in September, the Great American Festival in October and the South Carolina State Championships in November. Only a handful of the country's top athletes can say they're unbeaten.
Now, have those successes prepared him for a national championship in a few weeks? Will it carry over to top five finishes in either of those races in December?
That's the harder part to decipher.
High school cross country is often a business of predictions, and sometimes you just don't know until the variables are in front of you. Rich has been arguably the South's most prolific runner of 2021. But what's that exactly mean across the U.S.?
For what it's worth, we have Rich ranked No. 6 nationally on the MileSplit50. But as anyone will tell you, rankings don't hold water unless you race.
So what helps is experience. Rich has no shortage of that.
"One of the things about last year was that I ran based on what other people were doing. This year, I am more focused on myself. I feel like I belong more in the front pack." - Sam Rich
In September, he covered the 5K distance at John Hunt Park -- the venue for RXC2 -- with a time of 14:38.71, which was the the seventh-fastest time in course history.
A week later, he arrived at the WakeMed course at Great American and put down his second straight sub-15, going 14:59.80, which was No. 28 all-time on the course.
Better yet, he's just a 30-minute drive from McApline Park -- the site for the Eastbay South qualifier. Almost every Sunday, he's been at the park putting down that week's long run. So you could say he knows the course inside and out.
What kind of runner is Rich this year compared to last?
To be quite honest, he says, he's a more confident one. He's an athlete who understands what his purpose is, but more than that, he's aware of how he wants to pursue his end objective.
A season ago, Rich went 7-1 heading into the RunningLane National Cross Country Championships. He went on to finish 23rd in the race, finishing in a then-personal best of 14:52.51.
But looking back, he says, he would have executed things differently.
"One of the things about last year was that I ran based on what other people were doing," he said. "This year, I am more focused on myself. I feel like I belong more in the front pack. I know I can use my own strategies and kind of feed off of the other guys. But I want to first establish myself."
Establishing himself is what he did at The Southern Showcase. Rich used the halfway mark to pull away from the lead pack. That same sentiment followed a week later, when Rich pulled away from Walter Williams' Ryan Motondo at Great American.
Across the fall season, Rich has made smart decisions in each of his races. His closest win was by 11 seconds. And every race in South Carolina has seen him win by a margin of 30 seconds or greater.
All of that could change in a week's time. Whether it's at Eastbay or RXC2, Rich will find himself battling the best runners in the country. Athletes like Kevin Sanchez, Rheinhardt Harrison, Larry Josh Edwards, Walker St. John, Keegan Smith and Michael Toppi all are among the region's top runners.
At RXC2, Rich will face MileSplit50 No. 1 Riley Hough, No. 2 Colin Sahlman, No. 3 Leo Young and a host of others, including Zane Bergen and Gary Martin.
But racing the country's best talents is what Rich is yearning to do.
"The fact that there will be guys everywhere around me," he says, "I won't be able to take out the race however I want. I will have to react to other moves. But that's also kind of exciting."
The idea of running one's race, in theory, is also an acceptance of meeting the challenge of another runner. How does a runner separate from that fact?
"In high school, people only have one or two moves," Rich said. "So for me, it's about staying patient and matching people. It's using what you have at the end and not wasting yourself or going out too fast early.
"It's a different race when everyone is fit. No one will drop off."
And at that point, he says, it's about who wants it more. Actually, he says, you can go back up to that quote.
The best guys take a long time to die. At the finish.