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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).
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
All photos by Andy Kiss. See our full photo gallery of the Adidas Grand Prix.
Nobody doubts Alberto Salazar’s determination to help his Nike Oregon Project athletes run fast, but the potions and lotions he has reportedly used to that end have put him in a pickle. In Episode 38, Gregg and Brenn discuss how Salazar has interpreted the rules of track and field, and why it matters.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All photos by Sue Pearsall. See our gallery of photos from the Invitational.
From one angle, the US Indoor Track & Field Championships was another strong weekend for Nike distance running. Eight of the 12 qualifiers for the World Indoor meet in the 800m, 1500m, and 3000m represent the brand, including five of the six men. Four of the five competing athletes from Alberto Salazar’s elite Nike Oregon Project finished first or second and qualified for World’s. As track goes, Nike prides itself on performance and the NOP is its premiere group. Check, check.
From another angle, never has an indoor track meet been such a public airing of a company’s dirty laundry. Not only did Salazar by numerous media accounts lose his cool, to put it mildly, but he was able to merit a DQ of another Nike coach’s athlete on no evidence, pointing a spotlight not only on the discord between the competing Nike training groups but more so on the inability of the USATF to govern the meet. The USATF is largely funded by Nike. And we haven’t even mentioned the Gabriele Grunewald fiasco that started the whole mess.
The more you look, the uglier it gets. In a statement on Grunewald’s ruling reversal USATF CEO Max Siegel either weakly defended or sold down the river those who made the initial ruling to DQ Grunewald as people who “volunteer their time to serve the sport.” Are we to take this as an explanation for what happened, that those making the initial ruling were unpaid citizens, perhaps with insufficient knowledge of track? That’s not exactly a Nike puppet state, that’s no state at all.
The good news: the off-the-track action was so egregious that the athletes and journalists have gone on record criticizing Salazar and the USATF, which is a touchy business given possible repercussions in terms of access to meets and athletes. Popular ex-Nike athletes Lauren Fleshman and Nick Symmonds had previously called for change in the sport, but when Nike’s current superstars Shalane Flanagan, Will Leer, and Lopez Lomong speak out and when the primary media site for track and field news letsrun.com gets in on the act condemning behavior and demanding answers, it signals the dam has broken. Kara Goucher has signed on to the budding T&F Athletes Association. Expect more to follow. The runners are unifying for change.
Salazar is a remarkable character, seemingly sketched out of a Greek tragedy. Having literally come back from the dead, he has forged a legacy both as athlete and coach transcending running. He’s Vince Lombardi but with MVPs from an actual playing career. It is ironic that what has brought about the public condemnation was Salazar getting his way. His ability to defend his athletes beyond reason and to exert absolute control over the results (initially) was his undoing in Albuquerque.
Salazar is coaching some of America’s (Galen Rupp, Mary Cain, Jordan Hasay) and the world’s (Mo Farah) most precious distance runners. Nike executives may forgive the dark side of his behavior for the sake of winning to a point, but the implosion last weekend is a distraction they (and one would guess, the parents of Mary Cain) may not tolerate again. For Nike, the athletes are the ones selling the brand, not the coach.
It is difficult but not impossible to imagine Salazar offering a public apology and the USATF, having hit rock bottom, changing for the better. The on-the-track distance running action at the Indoor Champs was thrilling, capping a surprisingly robust season for the sport in the U.S. The one race that wasn’t close, the women’s 1500m, was won by rising superstar Cain, only 17. This train wreck should help the sport grow on more stable footing.