Juniors savored every moment in Scotland

Molly Seidel and Katie Knight (middle) lead the charge for the U.S. at the Bupa Great Edinburgh Cross Country International Challenge on Saturday. Michael Scott

The elevator door opened at the hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland and Foot Locker champion Molly Seidel took a step out and instantly recognized the face of the man waiting to step in. It was world record holder and Olympic champion Kenenisa Bekele.

There was so much to soak up and take in during a whirlwind trip to Scotland – not to mention the race – that members of the U.S. junior team were still processing their experiences this week.

“It was everything I wanted it to be and more,” Seidel, of University Lake (Hartland, Wis.), said. “It was so much fun.”

When the Bupa Great Edinburgh Cross Country International Challenge announced it was adding a junior event to pit a Great Britain/N. Ireland team against visitors from the U.S. and a Europe Select team. The USATF quickly assembled two teams of six athletes.

Katie Knight, a junior from North Central (Spokane, Wash.) was proactive. She had seen the USATF’s press release asking for volunteers and dialed the number to leave a message that she was interested.

“I didn’t think I was going to be selected,” Knight said. “I didn’t think that after getting third (at NXN) I’d be chosen. But I thought I might as well try.”

A week after NXN, at Foot Locker, Seidel and second-place finisher Erin Finn of West Bloomfield (West Bloomfield, Mich.) were both asked by officials in San Diego whether they were interested. Both said yes.

Likewise, Nathan Weitz of Shadle Park and Andrew Gardner of Mead – both of Spokane – were selected based on their performances at Foot Locker.

The rest of the athletes chosen for the junior teams were college freshmen, including Stanford's Aisling Cuffe.

“Scotland was probably my most memorable international experience yet!” Cuffe gushed in an email describing her trip. “This was my first trip where I was one of the older girls on the team, so it was cool to be able to help the high schoolers out with college-related questions they had. … It made me remember what it was like being in their footsteps not too long ago.”

Seidel, representing the country for the first time, said opening the package of Team USA gear that arrived at her home was "like a second Christmas.” She and the rest of her family decided to go to Britain early to make a vacation out of the trip. Seidel spent New Year’s Eve in London’s Trafalgar Square and watched the enormous fireworks display over the River Thames.

In Spokane, home to three of the five high school athletes chosen, members of the three families met for lunch the day before Knight, Gardner and Weitz flew out together on a nine-hour plane trip.

“I had met Erin at a couple of track meets before but I’d never met Molly,” Knight said. “Getting to know them was one of my favorite parts of the trip.”

Another highlight was the race itself, staged at Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park. The day’s events included an elite invitational 3K (including Bekele, who was uncharacteristically off his game), senior team races and community races.

The high school runners all acquitted themselves well. In the 4K girls race, Cuffe was the top American in second place. Seidel and Knight were third and fourth and Finn, who had an early lead, finished seventh. Jessica Jackson and Kaitlin Flattmann, both of the University of Arkansas, were sixth and 14th respectively.

In the 6K junior men’s race, Kirubel Erassa of Oklahoma State was the individual winner. Eddie Owens of Princeton was fourth and Gardner, a Mead junior, was fifth. Michael Bradjic (Ohio State) and Thomas Curtin (Virginia Tech) placed seventh and eighth, while Weitz was 11th.

The racers were met with soggy, muddy conditions. Knight said the course reminded her for the NXN course in Portland but with more hills. There were two creek crossings and a log barrier to jump over.

“I’d never seen that much mud on a course in my life,” Seidel said.

Knight, on the other hand, was no stranger to the mud. And she went with five-eighths inch spikes to churn through the slick mud.

“Slogging through that mud was a killer on the quads,” Seidel said. “We did two laps and on the second lap you could really feel it. It was squishy and slippery around the corners.”

January in Scotland that’s to be expected.

The post-race highlight, Knight said, was cheering for fellow Americans in the senior races and trading national team gear with athletes with new friends from other countries.

“I traded a couple of T-shirts and a pair of shorts for British and Irish ones,” Knight said.

Seidel, who recently committed to Notre Dame, had a particular eye out for clothes that might be appropriate when she joins the Fighting Irish.

“I tried to get as much Ireland stuff as I could,” she said.

Cuffe returned to Stanford this week wondering why an international cross country event like this one doesn’t exist in the U.S.

“The entire event was extremely well put together,” Cuffe, the 2010 Foot Locker champion, wrote. “This was a great experience for everyone involved, especially for those with no prior international experience. The dual-meet format of the race made everything feel a little more low-key and relaxed (compared to a world championship event), which I feel like is much more conducive to being yourself in the race and running the way you want to run. Nothing is too overwhelming. … I found myself wishing there was an event similar to this in the U.S. With all of our resources, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet.”

Seidel is just hopeful that the event becomes a fixture on the calendar. If she gets a chance to go next year, she’d snap up it up in a heartbeat.

“It’s a really cool experience and a view into what you can be doing in a few years,” she said.

Plus, you never know who you might bump into in the elevator.