Razorbacks ready for 35th Chile Pepper Festival

The Chile Pepper Festival is celebrating its 35th year in 2023.

FAYETTEVILLE — A month after the Arkansas men’s and women’s cross country teams opened the season by sweeping titles at the Cowboy Preview, the Razorbacks will get back to competition and host races today at the 35th Chile Pepper Festival.

It will be the first home meet for Chris Johnson as coach of Arkansas’ women’s cross country and track and field teams.

Johnson, an Arkansas assistant for 12 years, was promoted to replace Lance Harter, who retired after 33 years with 45 SEC championships and seven national titles.

“It’s big shoes to fill,” Johnson said. “But nevertheless very exciting.”

Johnson will continue to specialize in coaching sprinters and hurdlers, with Megan Elliott, Arkansas’ long-time director of operations and a former All-American, coaching the distance runners.

“I think we have a formidable team,” Johnson said. “I think Megan’s done a fantastic job of getting the young ladies ready.”

Arkansas’ No. 20-ranked women’s team will be led by sophomores Sydney Thorvaldson, Mia Cochoran and Mary Ellen Eudaly and freshman Paityn Noe.

“Youth is always good when they’re taking care of business,” Johnson said. “They’re growing and maturing.

“They’re not a very seasoned team since they’re young, but the expectations are the same. Obviously we want to go out and compete and we want to win.

“They’ve got to stick together, run as a tight group and get after it.”

The women’s 5,000-meter “Harter’s Habanero” race will start at 4:30 p.m. at Agri Park with the men’s 8,000 “McDonnell Memorial” race at 5 p.m.

“It’s always a big deal to run well at home,” said Chris Bucknam, coach of Arkansas’ men’s cross country and track and field teams. “Our kids are excited. We’ve been training for over a month now without a race.

“I wouldn’t call that first meet at Oklahoma State a real race. It was a short 5K run.

“This is the real deal now. It’s really going to tell me a lot about where we’re at, where our fitness is and what our chances are moving forward.

“The writing won’t all be on the wall, but we’re going to start figuring it out.”

The No. 22-ranked Arkansas men will be led by junior Patrick Kiprop.

“Patrick has a rich history with us,” Bucknam said. “He’s an All-American on the track. He’s an All-American in cross country. He looks really good.”

A key newcomer is Kirami Yego, a junior transfer from South Alabama who earned All-American honors last year.

“He looks really good and he’s highly motivated,” Bucknam said. “He’s really blending in with the group.”

Junior Lexington Hilton will run in his first race since January when he was sidelined by a stress fracture. Also running for the Razorbacks are Reuben Reina, Myles Richter, Tommy Romanow, Elias Schreml, Ben Shearer, Josh Shearer and Jack Williams.

More than 70 college teams will compete including Arkansas State, the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, University of Central Arkansas, Oklahoma, TCU and Tulsa.

“I’m not so much concerned about the competition,” Bucknam said. “I’m concerned about how our guys race and how we look, so I can get an evaluation on them after training all summer.”

Friday's Chili Pepper race schedule (Agri Park in Fayetteville)

3:15 p.m. — Women’s collegiate “Prairie Fire Pepper” 5K

3:45 p.m. — Men’s collegiate “Prairie Fire Pepper” 8K

4:30 p.m. — Women’s collegiate “Harter’s Habanero” 5K

5 p.m. — Men’s collegiate “McDonnell Memorial” 8K