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Episode 52: Predators and Prey at the NYRR Millrose Games

Guest host James Chu helps Brenn break down the Millrose Games in 79 minutes or less. In post-race interviews, we hear from Kate Grace on signing with Nike, Stephanie Garcia and Kate Van Buskirk on their thrilling 3000m duel, and Ben True on his winning kick. Ajee Wilson and Cristian Soratos reflect on extraordinary runs.


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Ben True dusts Centro in 2-Mile; NOP takes Wanamaker Miles at NYRR Millrose Games

Upstaging even the iconic Wanamaker Mile, the Paavo Nurmi 2-mile was the main event for distance running fans at Saturday’s NYRR Millrose Games. Matt Centrowitz, who last year set the Wanamaker Mile record of 3:50.63 en route to his Olympic Gold at 1500m, was moving up in distance, while his strongest competitors, including the Canadian Mo Ahmed and Scotsman Andy Butchart, 4th and 6th at Rio in the 5,000m, respectively, were moving down. Centrowitz said that the absence of rival Nick Willis was a reason for his choice. Having conquered one hill, he was picking a fight on another, and with unrivaled finishing speed he seemed primed to come out on top.

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His competitors knew this, of course, and it wouldn’t play to their advantage to do any lollygagging. The pace-setters were Ford Palmer and Lawi Lalang. Mo Ahmed led the charge behind Lalang as the field quickly strung out single file, with Butchart in fourth. After Palmer stepped off the track, Lalang was scheduled to lead until 2400m. In a delicious move, Butchart passed Ahmed and Lalang two laps before Lalang was scheduled to forfeit the lead, forcing the rest of the field to start racing in earnest with 1200m, rather than 800m, to go.

Centro was set adrift as the chase pack was unmoored from the leaders. Butchart however, wasn’t the only one to bring a dagger to this fight. With about 750m to go Ben True worked his way around Centrowitz, among others, and bridged the gap to join the lead group of Butchart, Ryan Hill, and Ahmed. Hill and True (who both fell short in their own attempts to make the U.S. Olympic team for Rio in the 5000) stormed Butchart at the bell, and at this point Hill, who closed in 26 seconds to win the 3,000m at last year’s Millrose, seemed likely to win. But the race had one last surprise. After Hill held the lead down the backstretch, True offered yet another move, accelerating around the final turn and passing Hill midway down the last straightaway to break the tape in 8:11.33 to Hill’s 8:11.56 and Butchart’s 8:12.63 (Centrowitz would finish 7th in 8:21). True ran the last lap in 27.68, Hill in 28.04.

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The longest race for the women, 3000m, was a memorable duel between Stephanie Garcia and Canada’s Kate Van Buskirk. Garcia, who specializes in the steeplechase, was the only runner to follow the rabbit Ashley Higginson, and with six laps to go she held a three second lead on Van Buskirk. The gap then shrank until Van Buskirk was on Garcia’s shoulder with three laps left.

“With about 600 to go, I thought, she’s going to beat me. You never want to think that, but I thought if I could just hold on to her and she could drag me though, that would be really great” Van Buskirk said. “I could tell that her arms were getting a little tight. I knew that at some point in that last lap I would have to make a move, but I had to wait that long because she made me wait that long. She was really working for it.”

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Garcia, for her part, said she “was torn between easing up so I had a little bit to give that last bit, or just push it. I chose more to push, which is why I didn’t have that strong last 50 meters.” Van Buskirk took the lead on the last turn and finished in 8:52.08 to Garcia’s 8:53.48. If one second doesn’t seem like much of a difference, well, the race felt closer than that.

David Torrence seemed to be running his own race in the men’s 1,000m as he sprinted away in the mid three laps of the five lap competition. Brooks teammates Cas Loxsom, who on Jan. 28 set the 600m indoor world record; and Brannon Kidder, who finished a close second to Duane Solomon in the 800m at Millrose last year; put the kibosh on this little fantasy. Kidder dominated the final 200m for the win, with Loxsom second, and Torrence third.

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There has been no more dominant performer at Millrose since it moved from Madison Square Garden to the Armory than Ajee Wilson. She won the 800m for a fourth consecutive year, setting an American indoor record with a 1:58.27.

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“When I’m older and look back this is going to be a staple in my career that I’m proud of” she said. “I’ve been running at Millrose for a long time. Of course to be under two my first time indoors is incredible.” Spoken like a true veteran, at age 22. Seventeen year-old Samantha Watson finished sixth in 2:01.78, setting the American indoor high school record.

More records were set in the women’s Wanamaker Mile. Shannon Rowbury was the two-time defending champ, running 4:24s in 2015 and 2016. Given her strength over longer distances, she would be expected to tuck in behind the pacer Lauren Wallace. Surprisingly, Rowbury ceded the position to long-limbed Kate Grace, a finalist in the 800m at Rio.

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Grace said that “I was pleasantly surprised at first, and then I was like oh no, I don’t want to be rabbit #2 when she drops off.” Wallace and Grace both train with the NorCal distance project and were teammates at Oiselle.

With three laps to go, Sifan Hassan, Rowbury’s teammate on the Nike Oregon Project, breezed by Grace just as Wallace stepped off the track. Rowbury followed Hassan around Grace. Hassan’s elbows flailed wider and wider as she whirled her way to the win. Her time of 4:19.89 was a meet record and a national record for The Netherlands. Grace regrouped and ultimately edged Rowbury for second in 4:22.93. Grace debuted at Millrose with a 4:28 Wanamaker Mile in 2013.

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The undercard to the men’s Wanamaker Mile was the Invitational Mile, and the day’s 2nd fastest time came from this heat. Cristian Soratos said post-race “My plan was to get right on the pacer and the second he stepped off to just start cranking.” He did just that, and plans to race the mile at the USA indoor championships at Albuquerque.

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Without Centrowitz or his combatant Nick Willis in the men’s Wanamaker Mile, the race seemed destined to fall to either Olympian Robby Andrews, who won the high school event back in 2009; the Nike Oregon Project’s Eric Jenkins, a 4th place finisher at the US Olympic Trials in the 5,000m; or Olympic bronze medalist in the 800m Clayton Murphy.

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Eric Jenkins, Robby Andrews, Kyle Merber, and Clayton Murphy follow pacer Daniel Winn in the Wanamaker Mile.

Jenkins, who resembles the carefree, sand splattered character Andrew Lindsay from the opening of “Chariots of Fire,” controlled a relatively uniform race until Kyle Merber made a play for the lead at the bell. Merber won the high school race a year before Andrews had, but in his last attempt in the Wanamaker Mile, in 2015, he finished 11th of 12.

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And so it came down to this: Could the slender longshot and Twitter personality @TheRealMerb hold off the rising star from America’s elite distance running squadron? Well, give Merber credit for making the race more dramatic, anyways. Jenkins sprinted back into the lead on the backstretch en route to a 26.9 last lap and a victory in 3:53.23.

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It wasn’t the first time Jenkins had pulled off such a fast finish. He also split a 26 second final lap in the 3,000m at Millrose last year, and he used a lethal kick to sneak past Centro in the 2016 5th Avenue Mile. In future editions of this race, Centro’s stiffest competition may indeed come from his own teammate, who, on this day, had less trouble moving down in distance than Centro had moving up. — Brenn Jones

What did Eric Jenkins and Sifan Hassan do after winning the miles? Post-race workouts, of course (click the link for our extended coverage). See also our complete photo gallery with pictures from Andy Kiss.

Episode 45: Thirteen ways of looking at Millrose

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In Episode 45 James Chu joins Brenn in the broadcast booth and geeks out on the Millrose Games. In post-race interviews, Garrett Heath addresses gamesmanship in the Wanamaker Mile pacing, Ryan Hill reveals how last year’s narrow loss propelled this year’s thrilling win, and Abbey D’Agostino shares her reading list. Duane Solomon and Molly Huddle also make cameos.

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Olympians burn at NYRR Millrose Games

You can take the NYRR Millrose Games out of Madison Square Garden, but you can’t take the star power out of the games. Rod Stewart was there as usual, conspicuous in a bright red blazer, as if his hair didn’t give him away already. More to the point for track fans, 4-time Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix was in the house, and she won the 60m dash. Matt Centrowitz again stuck it to 2008 Olympic 1500m silver medalist Nick Willis in the Wanamaker Mile, setting a meet record of 3:50.63. Centro’s Nike Oregon Project teammate Shannon Rowbury repeated in the women’s mile in 4:24.39, nearly identical to her winning time from last year. The Olympic vets are getting fit with Rio on the horizon.

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Allyson Felix wins the 60m dash in 7.15s. Angela Tenorio is 4th in 7.23. Photo by Andy Kiss.

If the 200m and 400m specialist Felix can also blaze at 60m, might her exceptional range tilt the other way as well? What could she run in a 600m, or even an 800m, perhaps? She’s highly unlikely to race those distances in the near term if ever, but wouldn’t it be interesting.

Centrowitz, 26, was 4th at the 1500m in the 2012 Olympics. Record aside, the most surprising thing about this race was his revealing in post-race interviews that he had been fighting off congestion and had even considered scratching. Get out there lad, give it a go, one imagines Alberto Salazar saying. Pop! Meet record, and fourth fastest indoor time ever. Is it too early to predict that Centrowitz, who has won two straight and three total Wanamaker miles, will challenge Bernard Lagat’s records of six and eight? And really, must the NOP trot out these improbable performances amid a drugs investigation? If he stays out of trouble, Centrowitz is winding up for a hell of a career. Poor Willis, who has lost to them both, ran the second fastest mile in the 109-year history of the event on Saturday, and still didn’t win.

The depth and breadth of distance events has improved markedly at the Millrose Games since its relocation in 2012 from MSG to the Armory in Washington Heights. At MSG the lighting was darker, the track tighter, and the times slower. In Lagat’s era the mile was marked by thin fields and an annual sacrifice of Craig Mottram. By contrast, a whopping sixteen sub-4 minute miles were run yesterday, including Drew Hunter’s 3:57.81 high school indoor record. The women’s 5000m was the first in the meet’s history.

The Armory track is fast and the banks steep. Racing there takes getting used to, and a few who came up just short last year—Ryan Hill and Betsy Saina, prevailed this time around.

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Ryan Hill takes the 3,000m in 7:38.82. Photo by Andy Kiss.

Hill finished two tenths of a second behind Bowerman Track Club teammate Lopez Lomong in the 5000m in 2015. This time he took the 3,000m by an even tighter margin, at 7:38.32 to Hassan Mead’s 7:38.38.

The young guns in this one showed pluck, as 22-year-old Edward Cheserek and his ex-Oregon teammate/rival, the NOP’s Eric Jenkins, 24, led in the early going. Hill, Evan Jager, and Lopez Lomong formed part of a BTC murderer’s row behind them, and somewhere near the back was the NOP’s Cam Levins. It was an orderly procession until Mead (Oregon Track Club) jumped Cheserek with a surprising move with 500m to go and held the lead until Hill got him at the tape. Hill, Mead, and Jenkins (7:39.43) all lit 26 second splits for the last 200 to win, place, and show.

“The second after the race ended last year, I thought yeah, I should have won that had I just raced more confidently. I tried to carry that forward,” Hill said. “I felt very good the whole way today. I did not think it would be that hard to get around Hassan.”

King Ches finished 6th at 7:40.51.

Last year Kenya’s Betsy Saina was outkicked by Sally Kipyego in the 3000m at Millrose. This time it was Saina who prevailed with a late move to beat Molly Huddle by thirteen hundredths of a second. After stalking Huddle the entire race, Saina swung to the lead as she, Huddle, and Emily Infeld passed Jordan Hasay and Liz Costello shortly before the bell. Huddle’s path to the finish on the last lap was obstructed by two of her Saucony teammates, Chelsea Reilly and Laura Thweatt, as Saina darted past them. It was like some video game with Saina dropping obstacles behind her so that Huddle couldn’t catch up.

Emily Infeld, who pipped Huddle at World’s in the 10,000m last year for bronze in a race Huddle would rather forget, finished third in 15 flat. Saina was the eighth place finisher in that same race. She joined the Bowerman Track Club last fall.

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Betsy Saina stalks Molly Huddle en route to victory in the 5000m in 14:57.58. Photo by Andy Kiss.

“I wonder if I would [have won had I] pushed a little further out,” said Huddle. “I was kind of just waiting, because I wasn’t confident I could drop someone. If I could have fixed anything, maybe [it would be] getting a better line to the finish.”

In the 800m, Saucony’s Duane Solomon, who was 4th in the historic 800m finals at the 2012 Olympic games, set an indoor PR in 1:47.52, edging Penn State’s Brannon Kidder.

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Duane Solomon runs the 2nd fastest 800m in Millrose history. Photo by Andy Kiss.

“Being my first 800 [of the season], I wasn’t sure how comfortable I’d be doing my usual race tactics. I held back a little bit. I didn’t want to end up like last year, going out too hard and not being able to finish,” Solomon said.

In the women’s race, Adidas’ Ajee Wilson had another perfectly calibrated performance to win her third consecutive 800m at Millrose. Four years ago, she debuted as a 17-year-old high school student and finished fourth in a race won by Morgan Uceny.

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Ajee Wilson takes Brenda Martinez at the line, 2:00.09 to 2:00.14. Photo by Andy Kiss.

Another predictable result was Rowbury’s victory in the women’s mile, though it wasn’t without intrigue. Rowbury wobbled over the final straightaway last year, winning with a comfortable margin but clearly spent from an attempt at Mary Slaney’s American indoor record. After the pacer dropped halfway through, the gap to the chase pack narrowed. This time, though, there was no wobble, and Rowbury proved once again the class of the field.

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Shannon Rowbury gathers herself for the final push. Photo by Andy Kiss.

In the men’s mile, it was pretty simple. With two laps to go, Nick Willis was exactly where he needed to be.

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2016 Wanamaker Mile. Photo by Andy Kiss.

And with one lap to go, Matt Centrowitz was exactly where he needed to be.

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2016 Wanamaker Mile. Photo by Andy Kiss.

The last move wins.

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2016 Wanamaker Mile. Photo by Andy Kiss.

Meet roundup by Brenn Jones. All photos by Andy Kiss.

See our full photo gallery of the 2016 Millrose Games.

 

 

 

2015 Adidas Grand Prix: True breaks through

With a lap to go in the men’s 5,000m at the Adidas Grand Prix on Saturday, Ben True‘s eyes widened as if he were in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon with coordinates aligned to punch it to hyperdrive. True was shoulder to shoulder with the leader in a tight pack of six runners. He had triumphed in faster 5,000m races, but not on this stage and against this caliber of competition (he finished fourth at the meet in 2013, running 13:16 as Hagos Gebrhiwet prevailed in 13:10).

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Given the race’s methodical pace, it was clear that True would have a kick, but so too would Olympic 1500m silver medalist Nick Willis, who, with 200m to go, slingshot from sixth to first in a matter of 10 seconds. There weren’t many seconds to go after that. “When I came up to the lead I thought Thomas Longosiwa was going to kick again, but once I passed him I thought I had it. I figured all the other guys I had already passed. But that’s a long straightaway into a bit of wind.” Willis said after the race.

“I had doubts, yeah.” said True. “On that straightaway I moved out to lane 3 and I just really pushed hard. I realized I wasn’t losing more, I was starting to gain, and when you have that little bit of positive feedback, that you are closing a little bit, mentally you get such a big gain that you can really go for it.” True won in 13:29, beating Willis by three tenths of a second. “I can’t let a 1500 meter runner win a 5k,” he laughed.

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For a 1500 meter runner, Willis has dabbled quite a bit in the 5,000m. He has raised his training volume with an eye to the future at both distances. “I still think the 1500 is the event I have the best chance of medals. Perhaps I’ll consider giving the 5k a go as a more concerted effort after this Olympic cycle. At the moment it’s just used as a mechanism to keep me accountable to the high mileage training. My shortest runs have been 90 minutes the last three months. Weekly mileage is 95, I run six days a week. It has taught me how to strengthen my legs to cope with running rounds as well. At the last few championships my legs have been pretty sore after the semifinals. Doing 150s or 100 meter strides after long runs is a good way to toughen up the muscles.”

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The media scrum around Ajee Wilson after her victory in the women’s 800 was thicker than it had been in past meets. The 21-year-old, who appeared on the cover of the event program, finally seems to be getting her due. Wilson likes to keep it simple. Her goal for this race was to win, and she did, in 1:58.83,  dispatching the field by over half a second.

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Living legends

At Friday’s press conference, David Rudisha stated his goal was to run a world leading time. Check. His 1:43.58 clipped the prior 2015 best, Ayanleh Soulieman’s 1:43.78, and bested his own winning time from last year by over a second. The men’s 800 meter race was the most fashionable of the lot, with Duane Solomon matching his orange Saucony singlet with an orange bandana and orange-tinted glasses, while French 800 meter ace Pierre-Ambroise Bosse ran in a white Henley collared tee-shirt equally suitable for tennis.

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What was an off year for Rudisha last year was a year off for Usain Bolt, and the difference showed. Bolt stated at the presser on Friday that his goal was to run sub 20 and that one of his remaining career goals is to go sub 19. Bolt’s narrow victory in 20.29 into a -2.9 m/s headwind wasn’t quite what he was hoping for. The Jamaican legend was upstaged by the 19.58 that 20-year-old Canadian Andre De Grasse ran Friday at the NCAA championships (wind was +2.4 m/s for De Grasse). Bolt is 28, Justin Gatlin 33.

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Comeback stories

In her blog entry on June 30, 2013, Olympic steeplechaser Bridget Franek wrote that “I’ve decided to hang up the spikes temporarily and take an extended break from the sport.” Two years later Franek is once again thinking about the Olympics, this time with a different mindset. “I want to make the team in 2016. Right now I’m running with the motivation of using this talent that I’ve been given and this opportunity that I’ve been given to travel and to compete and to get into some of these big meets as a way to do something bigger. I want to get more involved in communities and reach out a little more and use running as a platform for social change. It’s not just about me any more.” Franek finished sixth in the 3000m steeplechase on Saturday, running 9:36, slicing 11 seconds off her time from the Birmingham Diamond League meet a week ago.

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Another runner making a splash on the comeback trail was 2008 Olympian Erin Donohue, the surprise winner in the women’s 1000. Nike Oregon Project’s Treniere Moser doubled back from the 800 and gave a spirited chase for second. “We decided a couple of days ago that the double would be best for my future,” said Moser. “When the idea was put to the table I’m like, that sounds so painful, but I’m glad I did it.” When asked to comment on the recent controversy surrounding coach Alberto Salazar, Moser said “[t]he coaches have done a great job of putting it all on them. At the end of the day we know our job is to go out there and perform. They’ve been really good about making sure we stay focused and not letting the distractions take over.”

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All photos by Andy Kiss. See our full photo gallery of the Adidas Grand Prix.

Levins shines at Armory Track Invitational

As Cam Levins limbered up for the 2-mile race at the Armory Track Invitational on Saturday, it was easy to take pity on him. A half hour earlier Levins had bounced mile specialist Chris O’Hare, 3:54.74 to 3:57.26. Now standing beside him on the start line was a fresh Galen Rupp.

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Cam Levins wins the mile at the Armory Invitational.

The Nike Oregon Project is well known for its post-race workouts, but this was a race, not a workout. Had Levins been there to pace Rupp, it would have been insulting, as Levins had just destroyed a 3:52 miler. And if he was there truly to race Rupp, well, he wasn’t being given much time to savor his mile victory, was he? Levins’ 2-mile PR is the Canadian record 8:14.69, Rupp’s is the American record 8:07.41, after which Rupp did a 5 x mile workout, finishing in 4:01. Levins being sent back to double against Rupp would be like Rupp being sent back to double against a fresh Mo Farah. Best of luck.

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As Darth Vader’s theme music from the Empire Strikes Back filled the arena, Levins and Rupp, in their black NOP singlets, shadowed pacer Trevor Dunbar for the first half of the race. With three laps to go, to the surprise of nobody, Rupp swung wide and took the lead.

Levins stuck to Rupp, and the gap to Ben Blankenship in third was about five meters with two laps to go. Then things got weird. Blankenship surprisingly closed the gap, and with slightly over 100 meters to go made a move to pass them both just at the moment when Levins, unaware of Blankenship, powered around Rupp and into the clear. Blankenship ran by Rupp, dodged a lapped runner, momentarily lost his balance, and stepped on the infield. Japan’s Sugura Osako chased down Blankenship for 2nd. Levins, astoundingly, had won again, by a clear margin no less. Understudy, no more.

Levins and Rupp are both scheduled the run the 5,000m on the same track at the Millrose Games on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day.

Preceding Levins’ heroics was an impressively routine victory by his NOP teammate Jordan Hasay in the women’s 2-mile. When Hasay made her move with 300 meters to go, nobody could match her kick, and that was that. Abbey D’Agostino, who had gotten the best of Hasay in the latter stages of their college careers, was a scratch.

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Mary Cain was the cover girl on the meet’s program and was flocked by the media in the interview room after her fifth place finish in the women’s 800m. Cain’s 2:02.75 was a significant indoor PR for her, and the adulation she receives is understandable given the 18-year old is positive, winning with the press, and a fantastic miler. Still, the (slightly) older winner of the race deserves a ton of respect. Ajee Wilson, at 20 years old, is America’s best young 800 meter runner and one of the best in the world. When one reporter asked Wilson about Cain after the race, Wilson patiently explained that there were several other accomplished women in the event to worry about as well.

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The men’s distance medley was highly touted as a record-breaking attempt, and the U.S. anchor leg Pat Casey received the baton in great shape, having to “only” run a 4:02.5 split in the 1600 to break the old mark of 9:25.97. Ireland’s Ciaran O’Lionaird, nearly four seconds back of Casey when he got the baton, made it exciting for the fans by closing the gap.

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Though it seemed unlikely he’d be able to actually pull off the comeback, O’Lionaird did run a 3:52 at the Wanamaker Mile in 2013, and the mere prospect of such an upset made the world-record setting victory for the U.S., after Casey took off in the last quarter mile and O’Lionaird could not respond, that much sweeter.

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Erik Sowinski embraces Pat Casey after Casey anchors the WR 9:19.93 DMR.

All photos by Sue Pearsall. See our gallery of photos from the Invitational.

 

 

 

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