Victoria Jacobsen
The Bulletin

As Craig Lutz neared the end of his fifth and final lap at the men’s U.S. cross-country championship on Saturday, he had opened such a wide lead that he began passing runners still working on their fourth loop around River’s Edge Golf Club in Bend.

But as Lutz, 23, approached the fork that turned toward the finish line, he instead followed the runner in front of him, veering left back toward the fairway. Race officials and onlookers shouted at him to stop after a few strides, but as he realized his mistake, stopped in his tracks and turned around, the short stretch to the finish line looked longer than ever to him.

“I had my head up, but I just wasn’t paying attention — it’s the end of the race and you’re tired,” said a sheepish Lutz, who graduated from the University of Texas last spring and now trains in Flagstaff, Arizona. “But once you stop running at the end of a race, you really don’t want to have to start going again. I’d have to say that last 20 yards was probably the most painful of my life, trying to wobble across the line.”

Despite the nearly disastrous finish, Lutz won the men’s 10K race in 31 minutes, 40 seconds, beating out second-place finisher Aaron Dinzeo, 24, by seven seconds.

Bend resident Max King, 35, who both designed the course and finished fifth, predicted that the championship would be up for grabs with many of the nation’s top distance runners focusing on next weekend’s Olympic marathon trials in Los Angeles.

“Like Max said I don’t think anybody — even USATF — could’ve picked who was going to win this race at the beginning, so that’s always fun; you don’t have anybody that you’re looking out for, you’re just truly racing,” Lutz said. “Two weeks ago, I wasn’t even signed up for this race. We looked at the entries and said hey, instead of opening up (my season) in the middle of March, let’s just do it this week and just gamble with it.”

It was a gamble that paid off, as Lutz earned $4,000, a spot (should he choose to take it) at the Pan American Cross Country Cup — which will be run in Caraballeda, Venezuela, next month — and momentum going into an Olympic year.

Women’s winner and former University of Oregon runner Mattie Suver, on the other hand, said she never considered skipping the cross-country championship.

“I love cross-country, and so any opportunity I get to race cross-country I always try to jump on that; the focus is on the Olympic Trials in the spring on the track, but this worked well with everything,” said Suver, 28, who now lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “It’s very exciting — this is my first national title, and it’s extra special because I’m here in Oregon, where I went to school.”

Suver ran the first half of the women’s 10K race in a pack of four runners, which grew to five as Bend’s Allison Morgan, 33, caught up with the group with about four kilometers to go. Suver sprinted away from the field on the final lap to win in 36:38, while Amy Van Alstine, 28, finished second at 36:45.

“I couldn’t have planned it any better; I obviously didn’t know that’s how it was going to be,” Suver said. “We had a big group of us for a while there, and I thought it might break up sooner than it did. I didn’t know exactly how many there were — there could’ve been five, there could’ve been eight — but it was fun having that energy of a lot of women there for a while.

“I knew Amy was close to me as I finished, so even that last lap, I knew we were going to fight to the end.”

This was the first year the men’s and women’s championships have been the same distance. The men’s race was shortened from 12K to 10K, while the women’s distance was increased from 8K.

“It was kind of a big shift — it’s a lot longer, a cross-country 10K, than it is on the track, just because the terrain is so much tougher and it’s hilly,” said Suver, who was runner-up at last year’s cross-country championship in Boulder, Colorado. “I just had to make sure I was conservative for the first few laps of the race. But I liked it — I like the longer distances, so I think the 10K change was a positive change for me and helped my race.”

Morgan, a Bend-based runner who caught up with the leading pack late in the race, agreed that the slightly longer race made a big difference in race strategy.

“I knew it was a challenging course and I needed to be conservative the first couple of loops, because you’re going to hit a wall, and once I caught up to the back (of the leading pack) I used them to pull me along,” said Morgan, who admitted she probably would not have run the race if it hadn’t been held so close to home. “My primary distance is the 10,000-meters and half (marathon), and I’m doing the marathon trials next weekend, so I wanted something to get my legs going.”

Although the top five finishers in each race automatically qualified for the Pan Am Cup, both Lutz and Suver said they might turn down the trip to Venezuela in order to focus on the national 15K championship, which will be held the following week in Jacksonville, Florida. Morgan, however, said she planned to make the trip to South America.

“I think I will, just because if you make a team … you don’t get those opportunities very often,” Morgan said. “You might as well embrace it.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0305, .