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Can Ole Miss cross country finally win its 1st national championship this weekend?

The Rebs are running for a national title in Madison, Wisc. on Saturday.

Beth Elkin — Ole Miss Sports

Ole Miss’ distance boys are headed back to the NCAA cross country championship meet. The runnin’ Rebs legged out a dominant 47-point win over Florida Sate in the NCAA south regional XC meet on FSU’s home turf in Tallahassee last weekend, and in so doing locked the skinny men into their fifth-straight appearance at the US’s premier collegiate distance running event.

The full regional finishing field can be found here (PDF).

Like college basketball’s auto-bid system based on conference tournament wins, a win in XC at the regional level grants an automatic bid to the top two teams in each region. The rest of the race’s field is filled out with at-large bids based on overall season performance and individual runner bids.

The Rebs enter this season’s championship competition ranked No. 17, but national rankings in cross country are a shifting surface. Outside the perennial powerhouses — Colorado, Wisconsin, Stanford, and Oregon — a great number of other contenders can show up on any given day in a team endurance event of this sort. That fact is especially true in this stretch of the season at the regional and national championships, where race distance extends from eight to 10 kilometers.

So, in the space of two weeks the Rebel men have established themselves as the top guys in the Southeastern Conference and now the South Region. Utterly outstanding stuff.

Though race distance increases by a full two kilometers at this stage in NCAA XC’s postseason, scoring format remains the same. Top five runners score, with a team’s collective score calculated by the finish position of each of those runners added together, lowest score wins.

Wait, this win was ... dominant?

Yes, it was. Full stop.

Let’s consider two things first: 1) Ole Miss’ finishing spread at the SEC meet was 14.5 seconds, which is just about the best window a coach could hope for from a five-man platoon; 2) Ole Miss’ finishing spread at the regional race was 29.2 seconds, a touch wider than the conference meet, but when you throw in a 25-percent increase in race distance, that context explains the gap. If you look at Ole Miss’ finishing spread across their full seven finishers, it clocks in at a mere 72.2 seconds.

The entire team ran the south region race together, and their top five finishing spread increased only 14.7 seconds with two kilometers added to the endeavor.

The more impressive side of the Rebs’ feat over the weekend is that, like at the SEC meet, they not only ran well together, but did so at the front of the field. At the SEC meet, they ended the day with 36 points to second-place Arkansas’ 44 points. Their fifth and last scorer finished 11th (ELEVENTH). At the regional level, they placed all five scorers in the top 15 for the second week in a row to finish with 45 points. Florida State ended the day with 92 points in second place, a full 47 points back. AT HOME.

That’s a big damn loss in collegiate XC.

A 47-point win is a cross country shellacking, regardless of the meet in question, much less at a postseason regional tilt.

Coach Ryan Vanhoy, who will almost certainly earn a more lucrative position at a more prestigious program in the near future, earned SEC men’s cross country coach of the year earlier last week, and he must be pleased at true junior Farah Abdulkarim’s performance. Abdulkarim led all Rebel runners on Friday at regionals, finishing third, while at the SEC meet in Auburn two weeks ago sophomore Waleed Suliman paced all Rebel finishers.

Balance and depth have typified this Ole Miss outfit, and Abdulkarim blasting himself to the front of the RunninSharks’ finishing order in Tallahassee only further lends meat to the depth of this top seven Rebel lineup. With weapons all the way down the top five — and Abdulkarim and Suliman trading barbs — that fact alone should be scary to anyone over a course of 10 kilometers. Pick a guy, and he may just be your Rebs’ rabbit.

They’re mean, they’re deep, and they run together.

Abdulkarim and Suliman earned all-regional team honors for their efforts, along with four other Rebels. Dalton Hengst just missed out on all-region honors by six finishing spots in 31st place. Six out of seven all-region awards ain’t bad, though.

So, how does the team prepare for the national meet?

The general contours of a cross country “season” — really, it’s a full year of conditioning with certain periods devoted to specific types of training — follow this pattern: hundreds and hundreds of miles run beginning in the early summer and continuing through September. Say, 90 miles or 630 minutes of sustained heart-rate elevation over seven days with a zero day every other Sunday. Some speed work may pop up once a week — fartleks, in particular, an offseason coaching favorite — or simple one-mile or 1,000-meter repeats.

At this point in the cross country year — and Vanhoy’s strategy may differ in the minutiae — the Rebs are probably taking a long, slow run one day a week, probably in the neighborhood of 17 miles, give or take. That workout is punctuated by shorter but faster interval training during the week to spin down the boys’ fast-twitch muscles — working on your late-race “kick,” or ability to accelerate as you get into the thick of an attack.

At this point in the season, many workouts are perhaps ending with acceleration exercises over 100 meters — beginning slow, building halfway to just beneath a full sprint, then slowly decelerating to a jog — when there’s shit in your legs. Because at the end of 10 kilometers, there’s most definitely shit in your legs.

In short, right now training is wholly devoted to fast-twitch muscles, maintaining long-distance fitness and endurance, and not getting injured. These seven guys are currently in the best physical, endurance, and speed shape of their lives, and that process began in May, and years ago. You do not want to take them on a track, because they will embarrass you five times over.

How to watch the NCAA cross country national championship:

The NCAA national cross country championships are in Madison, Wisc. this year on Nov. 17. Traditional starting times are mid-morning, and the race will be streamed online at FloTrack (subscription required) beginning at 10:30 a.m. CT.

This group has a real shot at pacing for a national title. The pieces are there, and they bunch-run together fast enough to collectively score under 60 points at nationals, which could win the damn thing.