Inside track: Kelati shows heart at NCAAs

James Chu gives credit to those who did double (or triple or quadruple) duty at the NCAA Indoor Track Championships:

I love NCAA track & field. There is something pure about collegiate athletes’ desire to compete and win without the influence of a paycheck. This type of desire is best exemplified by the legendary Steve Prefontaine and his need to make races into a measure of “pure guts.” Many collegians embrace this brave style of racing and have no fear putting themselves out there at the risk of an epic blowup.

In last weekend’s NCAA Indoor Track Championships, the athlete that most earned my admiration was New Mexico sophomore Weini Kelati. The women’s 5000 meter race on day 1 featured a loaded field and a clear favorite in Wisconsin’s Alicia Monson. Monson is known for a fierce kick which she executed to perfection in the 3000 meters at the Millrose Games earlier this season.

Wisconsin’s Alicia Monson winning the 3000m race at the 2019 NYRR Millrose Games

In that race, Monson took down a pro field for the win, and also defeated Kelati by a full 8 seconds. Fast forward to these NCAA championships. Often we see runners do little to shake up the game plan of an overwhelming favorite who has a big kick, but Kelati knew that her best chance to win was to run the kick out of Monson. When Kelati sensed the pace was too slow, she took control of the race and started to push from the front. Monson latched onto the hard pace set by Kelati, and late in the race, the strain began to appear on Monson’s face. In the end, Monson was able to weather the storm and kick away from Kelati once again to win in 15:31.26 to Kelati’s 15:32.95.

The Distance Medley Relay (DMR) races are always a thrill at the indoor championships, and these were also held on day one. A team race for distance runners with school pride on the line, winning is much like the bragging rights earned from a great performance at the NCAA Cross Country Championships. The stock in the DMR is so high that last year’s NCAA 1500 meter champ Jessica Hull of Oregon did not compete in the mile, so that she could run the 1600 meter anchor leg of the relay. The move paid off as Hull and the Oregon Ducks were able to win the women’s DMR championship.

On day 2, we would see Monson and Kelati again in the 3000, and they would be joined by Hull. Many in the field doubled back in this race, which added a layer of intrigue. Kelati again jumped to the front when she sensed the pace lagging. Monson remained in the pack, in contact with the lead, but the hard running by Kelati from the prior night had clearly taken a toll. Monson eventually faded out of the picture and finished in 10th, 30 seconds slower than the time she ran to win the Millrose Games 3000. Kelati would not win either, but she held on for a courageous 3rd place finish to follow her 2nd place in the 5000, earning valuable points for New Mexico in the team competition. Jessica Hull would be the one to win this race, pulling away with a fluid and powerful stride to hold off a challenge from Arkansas’ Taylor Werner.

Kelati’s weekend performance was impressive, and Hull appears to be a star in the making with the relay and individual victories. I would like to see Hull vs Monson in the 3000 when both runners are fresh, but I imagine Monson’s 8:45 PB is a challenge for Hull to beat.

In other distance action, Julia Rizk of Ohio State won in a tactical mile, and Danae Rivers of Penn State waited until the last possible moment to out lean Nia Akins of Penn in the 800.

In the men’s distance races, there was speculation as to whether Wisconsin could win the team title on the backs of their two distance stars Morgan McDonald (5k, 3k) and Oliver Hoare (DMR, mile). With a mile PB from the Millrose Games that was a full 2 seconds faster than the next fastest competitor, Hoare was favored in the mile. First order of business on day 1 was to qualify for the final out of the prelims. Hoare coasted through in his heat in 2nd place for an auto-qualifier to the final. He would need to save his energy to come back in the DMR later that evening with roughly 3 hours of rest.

Morgan McDonald was next up in the 5000 meter final. McDonald known for his devastating kick, looked comfortable for a majority of the race and kicked away from Colorado’s Joe Klecker for the win in 13:41.76 to 13:42.79. The rest of the field was out of the picture.

In the DMR, Hoare ended up running the leadoff 1200 meter leg instead of the all-important 1600 meter anchor leg. In the Letsrun roundup, it was astutely pointed out that it was a waste to run Hoare in anything other than the anchor leg to go for the win. As it so often does, the DMR comes down to the tactical 1600 leg. Indiana had built up a decent lead over the first three legs, but the field would eventually re-establish contact with the lead. Stanford star Grant Fisher would be the first to make contact and went to the front. The real racing resumed shortly after with Notre Dame’s stud sophomore Yared Nuguse narrowly beating Fisher to the line. Fisher could not be blamed as he split a 3:54 for his 1600 leg to lead his Cardinal squad to 2nd place. It was a visibly hard effort, and it seemed that doubling back in day 2’s 3000 meter Millrose rematch against McDonald would be a heavier lift for Fisher than for McDonald.

And indeed it was. The 3000 predictably came down to a kick between Fisher and McDonald. McDonald struck first with Fisher able to cover the move, but unable to gain ground. Fisher had the quicker cadence, but McDonald the more powerful and longer strides. The 3:54 DMR leg took more out of Fisher’s kick than did a relatively comfortable 4600m + 400m kick in McDonald’s 5000. McDonald completed the double and turned the tables on Fisher, who edged out McDonald earlier in the season at Millrose. Shout out to Joe Klecker who impressively followed up his 2nd place 5000 meter finish with a 3rd place finish here in the 3000.

The mile final came earlier in the second day of competition. The question was whether Hoare was sufficiently recovered from the mile prelim and 1200 meter DMR leg. Like many championship mile races, it was a tactical affair with a relatively pedestrian opening 800. This would once again come down to a kicker’s race. There are few milers who don’t think they have the best kick in the field. In one of the big surprises of the day, Northern Arizona’s Geordie Beamish would be the kicker to win it all, and by a healthy margin. Beamish had the slowest PB in the field of only 4:06.96. Everyone else sported PBs under 4 minutes. We have seen this before, most recently from Cristian Soratos, when runners from schools at altitude come down to sea level; NAU’s Beamish trains in Flagstaff. The favored Hoare finished in 3rd.

Hoare ran 4 races in the meet with the mile prelim, 1200 leg of the DMR, mile final, and the 3000. This superhuman effort yielded a disappointing 3rd place finish in the mile, 7th place team finish in the DMR, and last place finish (16th) in the 3000.

Finally, in the men’s 800, there was another major upset as newly minted American collegiate record holder (1:45.27) Devin Dixon of Texas A&M looked plain tired. A frontrunner, Dixon got out in front, but simply didn’t seem to have much pop in his legs. He would end up in 4th with Bryce Hoppel of Kansas winning in 1:46.46. Dixon would partially redeem himself with a good leg in the 4×400 relay to help A&M finish 2nd.

Categories: Indoor track

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