Stanford junior Aisling Cuffe won the Pac-12 women's cross country championship on Saturday, giving Stanford back-to-back individual winners.
Cuffe won the 6-kilometer race (3.73 miles) in 21:04 at Coal Creek Golf Course (elevation: 5,335 feet) outside of Boulder and follows the effort of 2012 champion Kathy Kroeger.
This is the ninth Pac-12 women's individual title for Stanford and the sixth different champion.
Cuffe and teammate Jessica Tonn, who finished ninth, worked together to move up in the field. It was partly by design and partly helped by the slow early pace.
Though Stanford (129 points) finished fifth, it was only one of two schools to have two runners in the top 10, joining winner and top-ranked Arizona (79), which had three.
The Stanford men, led by runner-up Jim Rosa, had five among the top 34, and placed third as a team. The No. 13-ranked Cardinal (79 points) trailed top-ranked Colorado (28) and Oregon (54) on the 8-kilometer (4.97) course.
"A lot of kids are scared of the altitude," Cuffe said. "We went out pretty slow, and I don't mind if the race goes out slow. My plan is to run the first part of my race in my comfort zone and slowly build up and pick people off who go out too fast too early."
Cuffe was in fourth among a pack of six at 4K, with Arizona's Elvin Kibet and Kayla Beattie taking the lead. But Cuffe ran a massive negative split, covering the final 2K in 6:51 -- 13 seconds faster than Kibet, who was second in 21:15. Cuffe's previous 2K splits were, in order, 7:09 and 7:04.
Cuffe said the team's preseason high-altitude training camp at Mammoth Mountain, Calif., was a huge benefit, not because of any lasting training affects, but because it helped boost confidence.
"We know what it feels like when, two minutes into the run, we aren't able to breathe," Cuffe said. "It's the same as running on a hilly or muddy course. It's something you just do, not something to be afraid of."
Cuffe and Tonn have run at about the same level for the past two years and Cuffe explained their symbiosis.
"Jessica definitely pushes me in the first half of the race and helps me go out faster than I would like to," Cuffe said. "And I can help her close faster. We feed off each other's strengths."
It worked Saturday, allowing Cuffe to become the eighth different Stanford runner to win a conference title, including pre-Pac-12.
Previous Stanford women's Pac-12 winners were Erin Sullivan (1999), Lauren Fleshman (2001), Sara Bei (2002, 2003), Arianna Lambie (2005, 2006, 2007), and Kroeger.
Ceci Hopp (1982, WCAA) and Regina Jacobs (1983-84, WCAA; 1985, Pac West) won conference titles as well. There have been 13 in all.
"I'm really happy I could keep that tradition going, and especially that I could follow Kathy," Cuffe said. "But we've still got a long way to go."
Cuffe, a native of Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y., was the 2010 FootLocker high school cross country national champion and twice broke the American junior indoor record for 3,000 meters as a Stanford freshman.
However, injuries slowed her progress until late last season. Cuffe was Stanford's No. 1 runner on a team that placed third at the 2012 NCAA Championships and continued her momentum into track where she earned second-team All-America honors in the 5,000.
She was second at the Pre-Nationals on the NCAA course in Terre Haute, Ind., two weeks ago and is running like an NCAA contender.
"It gave me a lot of confidence that I can run with the top girls," Cuffe said of her Pre-National performance. "But I also learned just to keep my head level and know that I still have to give 100 percent to preform to my best and be up there."
On what to expect ahead at the NCAA championships, "I'm just really excited for it. It's my favorite race of the year."
She's pretty incredible," Rosa said. "We were really high after our race, and watching her destroy everybody over the final 3K made it even better."
Rosa ran 24:42, trailing winner Edward Cheserek of Oregon by six seconds. Rosa and Cheserek, a transplanted Kenyan, were occasional training partners during their high school days in New Jersey.
"We knew this was altitude and we were on Colorado's home course, so we kind of followed them for 90 percent of the race," Rosa said. "There were some hills with 2K to go -- I love hills -- so I started to moving up a lot more."
Rosa and teammates Erik Olson and Sean McGorty ran together for much of the race. Rosa was in a seven-runner lead pack through 6K, and had a bead on the victory until Cheserek opened up a gap with 600 meters to go.
Rosa was followed by teammates Olson (11th, 25:23), Michael Atchoo (12th, 25:30), Tyler Stutzman (20th, 25:50), and Garrett Sweatt (34th, 26:09) among Cardinal scorers.
McGorty, Stanford's No. 1 runner at the Pre-Nationals two weeks ago, faded in the sixth kilometer and dropped out because of illness.
Atchoo and Stutzman had especially strong performances for Stanford, which, with a healthy McGorty and with the possible additions of Joe Rosa and Thomas Graham after injury, could be even better for the NCAA Championships on Nov. 23, though the Cardinal must advance through the NCAA West Regionals on Nov. 15 in Sacramento over 10K.
"We were really happy with how we ran," Rosa said. "But we also know this isn't the race we're trying to do our best. We don't want to get too high or too low at this point."
The tape-delayed coverage will air on the Pac-12 Networks on Monday, Nov. 4 at 6:30 p.m. PT.
Earlier in the day, Tyler Stutzman was named as the Pac-12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year for men's cross country.