Youth Rules at the 2019 Toyota USATF Indoor Champs

New York City got its second dose of world class speed this month when the Toyota USATF Indoor National Championships parked at Staten Island’s Ocean Breeze Athletic Facility over the weekend, two weeks after the annual Millrose Games at the Armory in upper Manhattan.

Several who excelled at Millrose outdid themselves this go-round.

Donavan Brazier, 21, set the American indoor 800m record at Millrose in a race he didn’t win. This time the distance was three laps, not four. Within 24 hours of clocking a 1:15, he was settling in behind his feisty, lesser known competitors in the finals. He used these guys like rocket boosters, jettisoning them before the bell and taking flight on the moon-gray track. His time of 1:13.77 was a new World record, more than a full second faster than the prior mark of Michael Saruni, the one who beat him at Millrose. 

For reference, David Rudisha’s 600m split at the 2012 London Olympics in which he set the 800m World Record of 1:40.91 was 1:14.30.

Brazier’s World Record wasn’t even the most exciting 600 meter race of the day. Athing Mu, a 16-year-old 11th grader from Trenton, N.J., seemed too eager when she opened a significant lead in the finals a day after posting the fastest qualifying time. Chasing Mu in the backstretch of the last lap was Nike pro Raevyn Rogers—this was no high school race. In the most thrilling turn of the meet, the agile 16 year old responded to the hard charging Rogers, whose hair was blowing in a gale of her own making, by simply running away from her.

What if Ajee Wilson had been in that race? Mu’s time, 1:23.58, set an American record and was the second fastest women’s indoor 600m ever. Wilson, 24, has also run 1:23.

If the 1000s were less electric than the 600s, they were no less dominant. As in the 600s, the winners, Wilson and Clayton Murphy, also ran the fastest qualifying times. Brazier, Mu, Wilson, and Murphy basically all won their events twice in two days.

Wilson raced as she usually does, by taking an early lead and, like a python, not letting it go. After the qualifying run she noted “I didn’t have a time in mind, but the last two I was looking to close in 30 or better” (she ran 2:37, closing in 29.84; in the finals she ran 2:34, closing in 30.43). Ce’Aira Brown, who won her qualifying heat in 2:40, was about as close to Wilson as you could get for four of the five laps in the final, but couldn’t make the pass.

Nike Oregon Project runners are highly trained at killing the last lap of a race, which is how Brazier’s teammates Clayton Murphy and Craig Engels took the 1000m and mile, respectively. The times of 2:20 and 3:59 were well within their abilities.

Engels seemed to be having fun out there, smiling before the gun and joking afterwards, in winning relief to the tension and seriousness of all the hard running.

Asked whether he’d be doing one of the NOP’s patented post-race workouts, he said “I haven’t seen my coach yet and I’m going to avoid it as long as I can.”

It seems just yesterday that Drew Hunter was a boy wonder, starring in an immaculate relay race and running sub-4 indoors. On Staten Island he emerged fully formed, complete with pony tail and mustache, and winning his first national championship from the B heat, no less.

Credit too goes to his Tinman Elite coach Tom Schwartz and teammates Joseph Berriatua and Jeffrey Thies for this one. The clearly talented Hunter, without a seed time (he recently ran cross-country nationals) was paced through the mile by his two compatriots in about 4:17. Hunter then ripped a 4:08 second mile for an 8:25. At the time he thought it wouldn’t be enough to win. But lo and beyond, the fast heat, lacking a clear favorite (the Bowerman Track Club’s fastest men were not at the meet, and neither were a few other Americans who would have been clear frontrunners) plodded to a painfully slow (this is all relative) 4:24. Eric Avila closed impressively for the win in 8:32, well off Hunter’s time, and had to settle for second overall.

What do you do when your streak of eight consecutive national titles is broken? If you’re Shelby Houlihan, the next day you start a new one. After finishing second to Bowerman Track Club teammate Colleen Quigley in the mile on Saturday, Houlihan won the two mile on Sunday, patiently stalking Elinor Purrier before taking command with 1100 meters to go.

And what do you do when you beat Shelby Houlihan to snap her streak of eight consecutive national titles? If you’re Colleen Quigley, the next day you skip the B heat of the 2 mile go for celebratory brunch in lower Manhattan. Life’s victories should be savored.

Quigley, who in high school saw NYC as the stage for a modeling career, won the Millrose Games Wanamaker Mile last year, edging another BTC teammate, Kate Grace, and was a close second to Jenny Simpson in the 5th Avenue Mile. She was eighth in the steeplechase at the Rio Olympics. She’s no slouch, but her ability to hold off Houlihan still came as a surprise. Said Houlihan, “We hit 200 and that’s usually when I flip the switch and go, and I kinda did, but I wasn’t catching her. She obviously was doing the same thing I was. Maybe I need to find a new tactic there.”

Distance running is not all glory, of course. Avila, the winner of the too-slow “A” race denied the crown by Hunter, took a second shot at a title in the mile on Sunday. “That felt terrible,” he said after finishing a disappointing ninth.

“I didn’t sleep last night. Rookie mistake. I was excited and I know how fit I am, and I’m like, I think I can win the mile. When I was warming up today I did not feel like myself at all. Right when the gun went off I could tell. I felt like I was going to pass out.”

Elinor Purrier also doubled back from Saturday’s mile to run Sunday’s two mile, and got the race in gear.

“I was kind of just waiting to see if anybody else was going to take it, and the plan was to take it if nobody else was. I felt good for the first half. It felt like a comfortable pace after racing the mile last night.”

“Six laps to go is really where you start to test your mental strength and physical strength. It started to feel pretty uncomfortable,” Purrier said. By this point in the race Houlihan was right behind her. Purrier, who had finished sixth in the mile, held on for third in 9:34, three seconds back.

All race photos by Sue Pearsall

Categories: Ajee Wilson, Indoor track, Roundup, usatf

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