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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

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Two Spiders earn the chance to race for Team USA

Two University of Richmond cross country runners will be wearing a slightly different pattern of red, white and blue than they do for the Spiders, when they participate in the World Mountain Running Championship on Sept. 6.

Richmond senior Andrew Benford and sophomore Tim Smith will both represent the U.S. National team during the championships, which will be held in Campodolcino, Italy. Benford will compete for the senior men's team and Smith will compete for the junior men's team.

Both Benford and Smith have competed for the U.S. team at the World Championships before. Benford ran for the junior team in 2006, and Smith ran for the junior team last year. By qualifying for the senior team, Benford became to first runner in U.S. Mountain running team history to earn a spot on both the junior and senior teams.

"A lot of juniors will go out for the senior team and not make it," Benford said. "When I was on the [junior] team, I had a goal for myself that I would like to run on the senior team at some point."

Benford raced his way to a spot on this year's senior team by finishing second during a qualifying race in Colorado Springs, Colo., at the end of July. He spent the summer in Colorado Springs preparing for the race, training at high elevations and adjusting to the lower oxygen levels.

"You're not getting as much oxygen, so you have to adjust your attitude and workout," Benford said.

For the junior team, runners do not qualify; they are selected based on an application. Smith received his invitation to compete on Aug. 1.

Though he ran well for the U.S. team last year, finishing fifth overall, which was the highest finish for any junior U.S. runner in the history of the championships, Smith was still relieved when he heard he had the opportunity to run for his country again.

"I had kind of hoped I'd be able to go back over and compete again," Smith said. "I wasn't 100 percent sure until they let me know."

This year, Smith not only has the experience from running in last year's races, but he also has experience traveling.

"Last year, I had never been out of the country before," Smith said. "I had never been on an airplane before. The entire experience as a whole, I just loved it from beginning to end."

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Though the junior and senior teams compete in different events, the events are held on the same course. Last year, the junior and senior events started at the same time, with the senior race starting further down along the course, Smith said.

Because of the way the races are run, Benford and Smith will be able to travel together and spend time together, Smith said.

"I was really happy when I learned that Benford had qualified," Smith said. "I was even more excited when I learned I'd be able to go with him. We booked our plane tickets ... and will be traveling together."

Both runners will have a lot of down time during the week leading up to the race, and having a Richmond teammate along on the trip may make it easier to pass the time, Benford said.

"It's nice to have a friend there because we're going to be over there with some time to burn," he said. "We'll be able to keep each other relaxed."

The format of the race rotates yearly. During even years, such as last year, the course is run exclusively uphill. This year, the race will cover an up/down hill loop. Both runners said they were working on their downhill running to prepare for the championships.

Benford and Smith hope to improve on their impressive performances at previous World Championships.

For Smith, an improvement this year would mean breaking his own U.S. record of a fifth-place overall finish during the junior event. He also said his team was stronger than last year's, which finished fourth overall.

"We have a really strong team," Smith said. "One of the U.S. coaches said it was the strongest junior team in U.S. history. We'll be looking to [finish in the top three and] earn a spot on the podium."

For the senior event, Benford said he hoped to be a scoring member on the team, meaning he would be one of the top three runners for the six-man U.S. team, and earn a medal as a team. For the junior team, Benford finished 12th overall during the 2006 Championships, which was the highest finish for any U.S. junior runner up to that time. Last year, the U.S. senior men's team finished third and earned the bronze medal.

"We'd like to medal again, and in terms of individual place, I don't really know what to expect yet," Benford said.

The fact that two runners from Richmond qualified for the elite competition of the World Championships demonstrated the strength of the Richmond cross-country program as a whole, Benford said.

"It speaks volumes about where our program has come from," Benford said. "[Richmond head cross country] Coach [Steve] Taylor is the fuel for that, especially on the guys side. We're the only team on campus without athletic scholarships, so we know our guys want to get better. That's been a big part of it."

Both runners said that they looked forward to the opportunity to compete against some of the best cross country runners in the world, but the added significance of running for the U.S. team made the event even more special.

"The honor of wearing the United States jersey and representing my country is the most important thing for me," Smith said. "That opportunity is very rare, and to do it twice is great."

Contact staff writer Reilly Moore at reilly.moore@richmond.edu

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