The annual NCAA Division 1 Cross Country Championships, taking place at Terre Haute, Indiana on Saturday (Nov 22), is one of the sport’s most iconic races. 2002 champion Jorge Torres shares the secret of out how to win it.

1. Have a long-held dream

Since starting as a gifted high school athlete in Illinois, Jorge Torres’ “dream” was to win an NCAA Championship.

“One of the great Americans to win the title was Bob Kennedy,” says Torres. “I remember him winning the NCAA [cross country] championship, and to me that was like winning the Olympic gold. The seed was planted early.”

2. Choose a quality college

Torres was adamant the University of Colorado, who had helped guide Adam Goucher to the 1998 NCAA Cross Country title, would be the best choice for him to develop into the best possible athlete.

“I felt they had a great team, great coach and a great environment to run well. The quality of the athletes there like Steve Slattery really helped teach me what it was like to run at Division 1 level. It really opened my eyes to what was possible.” 

NCAA XC ()

"It can get pretty physical"

3. Find the right coach

Another big motivator in his desire to attend the University of Colorado was to work with head coach Mark Wetmore – a man described by Torres as a coaching “genius.” 

“Mark is a very unique character,” he explains. “It is really hard to explain what he is like as an individual, but as a coach he taught me to be disciplined and serious about running. 

“Mark is a genius and today he continues to develop and work with athletes to make them better, stronger and faster.”

His total dedication to his craft as a coach was a welcome bonus.

“He works hard and never takes any vacation time,” he adds. “For him, coaching is a passion which he shows every day. That work ethic helps makes you the best athlete you can be. He gives you total confidence that you have put in the best work possible leading up to a big race.

4. NCAA Experience 

It took four years of blood, sweat and tears for Torres to finally land the ultimate prize. In his maiden NCAA Cross Country race at Bloomington, Indiana he was tipped for a top five finish but he was “destroyed” by David Kimani [then at the University of Southern Alabama] and placed “40 something.”

In 2000, he returned to finish third and in his junior year placed second. Experiencing these varying degrees of disappointment were essential in giving Torres the tools to win.

“The NCAA is a very tough race,” he says. “There is no room for error. My race as a freshman was the biggest learning curve. I thought ‘these kids mean business’. The following two years I spent trying to perfect the race. This is when I realised I needed to be up front and be in position to win the race.” 

NCAA Cross Country ()

There's no room for error at NCAA Division 1 races, says Torres

5. Planning and motivation

As soon as the university track season was over in spring, Torres would take a short break before starting his preparations for his November date with destiny at the NCAA Cross Country Championships. 

At the 2002 edition, it was gold or nothing.

“Every day I woke up with one goal in my mind,” he says. “By the side of my bed I had three runner-up trophies lined up next to each other [he was second at the 2001 NCAA Cross Country and at the NCAA 5000m in- and outdoors in 2002]. This time I knew I wanted gold.”

6. Be in form

It goes without saying to win an NCAA title you need to be in top form – and Torres in 2002 was red hot. Unbeaten during the NCAA cross country season, he was breaking course records for fun.

One race in particular filled him with total confidence. He smashed Adam Goucher’s course best at the Rocky Mountain Shootout in Boulder, Colorado.

“Few would have thought me, being a sea level athlete, could touch that record,” he admits.

Jorge Torres ()

He had three runner-up trophies by his bed, in 2002 it was gold or nothing

7. Get physical 

The NCAA Cross Country Championships is the ultimate endurance test in US collegiate track and field as it pits champion athletes from 1500m to 10,000m up against each other. It is also not one for the faint-hearted. 

In 2000, hyper-competitive Torres was clipped from behind and took a tumble 1km into his race. A physical and aggressive approach was needed to prosper.   

“You have to put yourself out there,” adds the 5ft 7ins tall athlete. “It can get pretty physical, or the big guys will dominate.”

Jorge Torres secured the 2002 NCAA Cross Country title in a course record time. He later represented the USA over 5000m at the 2003 World Championships and at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the 10,000m.