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In Episode 48, we recount the high drama at the U.S. Olympic Trials, where America’s best distance runners left nothing on the track, and we discuss the participation of Intersex athletes at the Games. Gregg welcomes a new runner to the fold.
Jenny Simpson and Brenda Martinez, here pictured at the 2015 5th Avenue Mile, won spots on the Olympic team in a dramatic 1500m race.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
In the men’s mile, it was pretty simple. With two laps to go, Nick Willis was exactly where he needed to be.
And with one lap to go, Matt Centrowitz was exactly where he needed to be.
The last move wins.
Meet roundup by Brenn Jones. All photos by Andy Kiss.
See our full photo gallery of the 2016 Millrose Games.
In Episode 28, we digest the daylong street festival of running that is New York City’s 5th Avenue Mile. We’ve got post-race interviews with the pro race winners Jenny Simpson and Jordan McNamara, as well as Brenda Martinez and Irishman Paul Robinson. We also chat with Central Park Track Club masters runner Daniel Gercke, who shares keys to his remarkable improvement after a late start in the sport. Elsewhere in the show, Brenn recounts his double mile, and the recently relocated Gregg offers his first impressions of running in the U.K.
Jenny Simpson again punctuated a dominant track season with a win at the 5th Avenue Mile. Simpson’s 4:19.4 was her third win and second consecutive sub-4:20 at the race, following last year’s 4:19.3. Including Simpson’s victory last year, it was only the fourth time in the 34-year history of the event that the winner broke 4:20. As runner-up, Brenda Martinez, who closed fast to a 4:19.6, ran the ninth best time in the event’s history, slicing 4.6 seconds from her own winning time in 2012.
The race was a much tighter victory for Simpson than last year’s, which she won by more than four seconds. “Last year I don’t think I had a strategy to go out hard. I just kind of went by feel. I was kind of surprised how the race came to me. This year was different. I was ranked #1 in the world coming out of the track season and just ran a great 3k. My fourth race in four weeks, I said just run it as I’ve been running and go hard from the gun. With that plan in mind, I think it was actually a little harder. The pressure was there.”
The race was a clean sweep for New Balance, which sponsors Simpson, Martinez, and Ireland’s 22-year-old Ciara Mageean, who finished third in 4.21.2.
Early in the race Jordan Hasay, Mary Cain, and Treniere Moser from the Nike Oregon Project settled in behind Simpson as Martinez hung back. Hasay gamely gave chase before fading in the final kick, and the hard charging Martinez nearly caught Simpson at the line. Hasay, Moser, and Cain ended up 8th, 9th, and 10th with times ranging from 4:23.9 to 4:25.5. While Nike clearly dominates men’s middle distance, on the women’s side New Balance, for now, has gained the upper hand. Throw NOP’s Shannon Rowbury into the mix, along with NB’s Kim Conley, Abbey D’Agostino, and Emma Coburn, and these two groups are destined to clash well into the future.
Regardless of sponsor, that the United States is home to the best women’s miler (and 1500m runner) on the planet deserves a little shouting from the rooftops.
In the men’s race, a trifecta would have payed handsomely, as Jordan McNamara, Garrett Heath, and Irishman Paul Robinson stormed by favorites Matt Centrowitz, Augustine Choge, and Will Leer to win, place, and show. Robinson’s performance came out of the blue, as he was even less touted than the other Irishman (Ciaran O’Lionaird) in the race, though probably equally unexpected as countrywoman Mageean in the women’s run. It was a good day for Ireland: even Feidhlim Kelly of The Irish Examiner got into the mix, scorching the Media Race with a 4:27 victory.
Back to the pros: Leer and Lawi Lalang took to the front, but the two burnt fuel in a mid-race surge to claim the $1,000 bonus for being in the lead at the 800-meter mark. Leer got it in what would be a mid-race photo finish, if there were such a thing. The stipulation of the bonus held that the runner in the lead would still have to break four minutes, which Leer did by finishing in 3:55.9.
Remarkably, 15 of the 16 competitors ran faster than 3:58 and a mere two-tenths of a second separated McNamara’s winning time of 3:51.0 from fourth place finisher Choge.
In the final kick, it appeared that last year’s third-place finisher Heath would claim his first victory at 5th Ave. Relatively stocky and well-muscled, Heath swung his arms wide in an attempt to ward off McNamara on one side and Robinson on the other, but McNamara snuck around, raising his arm at the tape. Said McNamara after the run, “I was in dead last with 600 to go, everybody was going so fast I thought man, eventually it has to settle and it did. The last 400 people started coming back and I got excited. Once you start getting excited, cool things can happen.”
When the women’s 400m runners knelt into their blocks at the adidas Grand Prix Diamond League meet on Saturday, there was a vacancy in lane 4 where Sanya Richards-Ross, a late scratch, was supposed to be. It seemed cruelly unfair that the fans who were shivering in the wind and rain were denied this attraction, at a meet already handicapped by a number of absences. In the 5,000m, Americans Galen Rupp and Bernard Lagat and Olympic bronze medalist Thomas Longosiwa from Kenya, along with a flotilla of other Nike athletes, were keeping their powder dry for next week’s Prefontaine Classic. Even a specially placed pole-vault runway beside the final straightaway was unused due to the wind and rain. But if the inclement weather and thin fields precluded Olympian high drama, the meet did offer glimpses of the fastest men and women on earth, including a 19-year old who could already be the world’s best long distance track runner: Ethiopia’s Hagos Gebrhiwet.
At last year’s Diamond League meet in NYC, David Rudisha ran the fastest 800m ever in the U.S. with a 1:41.74. The time was less astonishing than the gap of nearly three seconds he had on the field. Rudisha again won handily on Saturday, even if by half the margin, but it was Gebrhiwet who made the statement of the meet.
Gebrhiwet clobbered the field in the 5,000m, winning with a world-leading time of 13:10 as top contender Dejen Gebremeskel (6th, 13:31) faded badly. The 5,000m is often decided by a sprint kick, but Gebrhiwet broke the field early and the drama was actually in the race for third, as American Ben True, who had steadily moved up through the field as Gebremeskel dropped back, dueled with Ethiopia’s Ibrahim Jeilan. Though True (13:16) could not reel Jelian in, he bolstered his credentials with the strong race in tough conditions, and he’s clearly the top American threat to the U.S. Nike-sponsored runners in the 5000m and 10,000m (True is sponsored by Saucony). True will likely run the 10,000 at US Nationals.
The women’s 1500 featured a huge field of 19 runners, including pace setters, jostling for position.
Predictably, as Kate Grace (8th, 4:08.92) noted about her first Diamond League race, there was a lot of pushing and shoving. It was no surprise that Brenda Martinez (3rd, 4:06.25) was the top American runner, finishing strong after hanging back at the start. Morgan Uceny (7th, 4:08.49) sliced 9 seconds off her Drake performance. She said after the race that unlike at Drake, she “felt like herself” and that she stayed off the rail to stay out of trouble. After falls in the Olympics and World Champs over the past two years, Uceny is fated to always be cognizant of this issue. The winner of the race was Sweden’s Abeba Aregawi, who like Gebrhiwet, has a commanding early season lead in the “Diamond Race” standings with two wins in two competitions (the Diamond Race is the cumulative result of 7 competitions over the course of the season).
Elsewhere in the meet, Amantle Montsho ran an impressive 400, 49.91 in far worse conditions than her 49.88 from Doha. Youth was on display with a pair of stellar dream mile races, and the return of Blanka Vlasic to the high jump brought the shutterbugs to their feet. The high jumpers were a sight: impossibly tall and thin, they approached the bar in their warmups like a basketball team completing a layup drill in slow motion. Vlasic was particularly vocal, like a team captain, though she seemed often to be barking at herself.
The one race for which the sun shined uninterrupted was the master’s men’s 75+ 100m dash, won by William Bittner in 14.69. Bittner scored one for the elders, outpacing the Fastest Kids for the boys (Xavier Donaldson, 15.42) and girls (Adaria Reaves, 15.32).
Shore A.C. teammates Alexander Johnson and Michael McDonnell head to the press tent