ALBANY — A small group of athletes at the Freihofer’s Run for Women 5k are afforded certain perks, as befits their elite status.
You get a low bib number with your first name printed on it, race organizers provide free hotel rooms downtown, and there’s a special area cordoned off near the start and finish to stow your gear, cool your heels before the race, and cool them afterward. For the open field, there’s $23,000 in prize money, but you need to finish in the top 10 to get a piece of that.
One elite runner will turn down most of this (including the dough) — not only because she has to, but because she doesn’t need it. Well, the hotel room certainly is unnecessary, since Kelsey Chmiel can comfortably sleep in her own bed the night before the race; the prize money will have to wait for another day, several years down the road.
It’s unusual for a race of this caliber, which draws professional runners, some of whom are Olympic medalists, to offer elite status to a high schooler. But the 2019 Freihofer’s Run on Saturday will do just that, as the Saratoga Springs High School senior Chmiel, a multiple Section II champion, will officially join the elite field, based on her performance in this race the last two years.
While folding the Freihofer’s Run into the busy part of her high school postseason, Chmiel has finished in the top 10 the last two years, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if she did that again, even though she has to balance running a strong Freihofer’s against staying on track for her primary target, the state championships the following weekend. The Section II state qualifier will be held Thursday and Friday at Shenendehowa.
“We focus on state quals first, then show up on Saturday and just try to run a good race,” Chmiel said Wednesday afternoon, after sweeping the 1,500 and 3,000 at the Section II Group 1 championships at Guilderland.
“Generally, it doesn’t happen that often,” Freihofer’s Run elite athlete coordinator John Tope said, of high school kids earning elite status in high-profile road races. “It’s kind of a surprise thing. Maybe a senior will pop in there every once in awhile. Also, a lot of times it doesn’t happen because of the way their schedules work out. They’re not able to compete during the season.
“It just makes sense [in Chmiel’s case]. She earned the right to have an elite number. She’s a very talented runner.”
The 17-year-old Chmiel, only the second Section II runner to win four straight Class A cross country championships, finished ninth (16:42.1) to Sara Hall at Freihofer’s in 2017 and 10th (16:44.4) to Sara Pagano last year to 16:42.1. Hall has represented the U.S. in the World Indoor Track and Field Championships three times and the World Cross Country Championships once, and Pagano, a former Syracuse University runner, competed in the 2017 cross country worlds.
Neither is scheduled to run this year, but Tope got good news for the elite field on Friday, when Diane Nukuri, last year’s third-place finisher, told the Friehofer’s Run that she was sufficiently recovered from the recent Prague Marathon to compete in Albany next weekend.
So among those whom Chmiel will join in the elite field is a three-time Olympian. (Nukuri, who has dual citizenship from the U.S. and Burundi, ran for her native country in the 2000, 2012 and 2016 Games.)
“It’s been a lot of fun; it’s a really cool race,” Chmiel said. “There’s a lot of women in it who are really good.”
Tope said that in a typical year, Freihofer’s issues elite numbers to about 12-15 runners in the open division and 8-10 in the masters.
There were 2,780 finishers last year.
Chmiel was in line for $200 for 10th last year and $250 for ninth in 2017, but the teenager declined the money because it would be an NCAA violation. She’ll run track and cross country while studying veterinary science at North Carolina State in 2019-20.
“We have to be careful, because you don’t want to mess with her NCAA eligibility,” Tope said. “But she gets to be in the elite area. It improves her start position, to line up right in front, if she wants to. We’ll take care of her gear and bags, so she can go to the elite area and get everything afterward. It also makes it easier for you guys [in the local media], so she’s available to the press and you’re not like, ‘Where’d she go?’ It’s a win-win for everybody.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Chmiel will be to tamp down her competitive juices so as not to compromise her high school season, especially since her spring has been slowed by foot tenditinits.
Freihofer’s falls in the midst of the most important part of the outdoor track schedule, bookended as it is by the state qualifier and the state meet. She’ll have hard races this week, during which some runners may concentrate on individual performance to help their seeding at states, then will need to compete at a top level at Middletown High the following weekend.
Overdoing it at Freihofer’s wouldn’t help with that goal.
“I expect she’ll run similar to the last couple years,” Tope said. “That’s the good thing, she’s experienced enough and has done it for two years and has been in the top 10. I think she knows how to control what she needs to do. She seems to be able to handle it. That’s amazing.”
“Yeah, that was cool. It was definitely unexpected,” Chmiel said, of getting an elite bib number at Freihofer’s. “I mean, with state quals, it’s going to be hard, but I’ll just do my best.”