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As he made his way into the muddy final stretch of Saturday’s 10k race, senior Maksim Korolev found himself sitting comfortably in third place. First place was likely out of reach, but with his tried-and-true finishing kick at his disposal, the second-place runner was within striking distance.
For supporters of the Harvard cross country team, this was a remarkably familiar scene. In each of the squad’s last three meets, the veteran from Harrisonville, Mo. had captured either first or second place.
But this race was different.
It was the final stretch of the NCAA Championships, and Korolev was chasing the defending national champion, Kennedy Kithuka of Texas Tech. The gap between Korolev and Kithuka was shrinking with each stride as the duo approached the finish line, with the clock ticking up to 30 minutes.
In the end, Korolev simply ran out of room to catch the defending national champion, falling just 0.4 seconds short of being the national runner-up.
Despite the half-second loss, Korolev etched his name in the record books, becoming the first runner in Harvard history to finish in the top three places at Nationals. His performance marked the highest Ivy finish on the men’s side since 1945, and just the third time that a men’s Ancient Eight competitor cracked the top three.
Korolev covered the muddy 10k course in Terre Haute, Ind. in 29:59.5—roughly 18 seconds behind Oregon freshman Edward Cheserek, who put on a dominant display to upset the heavily-favored Kithuka.
The Crimson men’s team, which qualified for Nationals for the first time since 1979, racked up 678 team points to take home 30th place of the 31 teams competing. Behind the standout performance from Korolev, Harvard’s remaining runners found themselves in the bottom half of the field.
Junior Will Geiken was the team’s second runner, earning 182nd place. Sophomore Tom Purnell (198th), junior Adam Cotton (208th), and senior Kurt Ruegg (227th) rounded out the scoring runners for the Crimson men.
“It was a great experience for those guys,” Harvard coach Jason Saretsky said. “Obviously, the conditions were less than ideal, and it’s unlike any other race we’ve been to.... But I thought we gained a lot of experience from it, and there’s a real hunger to get back [to Nationals] and cement this program as a national-caliber program.”
After battling a leg injury for the past month, co-captain James Leakos, who kicked off the year by topping Korolev to win the Harvard-Yale meet, competed in the race but could not to overcome the injury.
Leakos was able to cross the finish line, but he did so in an uncharacteristically slow 36:39.7.
“The leg wasn’t cooperative, and he really struggled,” Saretsky said. “But I was incredibly proud of him for finishing.”
In the first 3000 meters of the race, Korolev positioned himself in the lead pack that consisted of about 10 runners. Due to the harsh racing conditions, the veteran tried to stick with the group and let the other competitors battle the wind for him. But his 6’4” frame didn’t do him any favors.
“It was incredibly muddy, windy, and cold out there, and I think that got to a lot of people,” Korolev said. “I remember thinking at one point, ‘Wow, I can see over all of these guys,’ but I still tried to draft.”
“One of the main things is going out there and being patient, letting the race unfold,” Saretsky said of Korolev’s strategy. “I thought he did an excellent job of…executing the plan.”
The large lead pack remained mostly in tact until just before the 5k mark, when Kithuka picked up the pace, daring the other runners to stay with him. Only Cheserek kept up with the defending champion, which left Korolev racing with NC State’s Andrew Colley.
“I just gauged the situation, and I felt like [going with Kithuka] would have pushed me over the edge a little bit.” Korolev said. “I was happy with where I was in the top five, so I decided to be a little more conservative about it, rather than do something crazy.”
When Colley started to fall back, Korolev found himself in third place, in what he called “no man’s land.” Kithuka and Cheserek were well ahead of the senior, and a large pack had formed about 10 seconds behind him.
Though the pack made ground on him between the 8k and 9k marks, Korolev picked up the pace in the final 500 meters, hoping to keep his position as the top American runner in the race.
That’s when he saw Kithuka, who had yet to lose a race in his collegiate career, in his sights.
“I just tried to make as big of a kick as I could to keep my place,” Korolev said. “That’s probably what kept me from second [place], is that I was thinking of staying in third instead of going for second…. With 100 meters to go, I definitely felt like I was reeling [Kithuka] in, but it was just too late.”
—Staff writer Dominic A. Martinez can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @dominicmTHC.
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