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.
By James Chu
NCAA track & field features the most thrilling and competitive races in the sport that we love. Collegians race not for a paycheck, but because they care about the glory and love of sport and competition. For that, and the tremendous depth and parity in the college ranks, I am a huge fan of NCAA Cross Country and Track & Field.
As a Princeton University track alum myself, I have a rooting interest in the sport. Princeton is not exactly known as a powerhouse in the major sports of football, baseball, or basketball (save for the occasional March tourney berth), but Princeton has fine programs in Cross Country and Track & Field, turning out a few professional runners in recent years. When I saw the start lists for the 109th Millrose Games, I got excited as I saw quite a few Princeton alums and two current students on the lists. I decided that I wanted to see how many representatives from each college were in the meet, and while I was at it, I scored the meet NCAA Championship style by college alma mater of the participants.
As expected, University of Oregon dominated the athlete count with 15. Princeton had the second most representatives with 7 including Olympian Donn Cabral (3000m), Liz Costello (5000m), Greta Feldman (5000m), Justin Frick (high jump), Joe Stilin (mile), and current students Noah Kauppila (800m) and Garrett O’Toole (800m). If you throw in incoming future frosh Conor Lundy (HS mile), the Tigers would have 8 representatives. For this, I use the orange and black as my title and column header colors.
I will use the green and gold of Oregon for the team scores, as their superior numbers and dominating performances take the wins for both men and women. The men’s competition actually came down to the last event of the meet, the Wanamaker Mile. Oregon trailed USC (with wins from Andre DeGrasse in the 60 meters and Duane Solomon in the 800) by 7.5 points. Oregon had three guys in the mile (Matt Centrowitz, Blake Haney, and Daniel Winn), needing to collect at least 8 points collectively to win. Haney got one point (8th place), so Centrowitz needed at least 7 points (2nd place) for the team win, and he got 10. Six points (3rd) or fewer would not have been enough.
The MVP of the men’s competition can go to none other than the greatest athlete in the world Ashton Eaton of Oregon. Eaton scored 8 pts in the 60m hurdles and 4 pts in the long jump for 12 of Oregon’s 32 points.
The women’s MVP goes to Shannon Rowbury for winning the Women’s Wanamaker Mile tallying 10 of Duke’s 15 points for a 3rd place finish in the women’s team standings.
My Tigers finished with 5 points coming from the current Tigers Kauppila and O’Toole in the 800.
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.
The Wanamaker Mile is the signature event of the Millrose Games, but the six-hour track party at New York City’s Armory on Valentine’s Day was loaded with enticing appetizers. Among them was the 25-lap, 5000 meter race. Cam Levins was the favorite after his stellar performance at the Armory two weeks prior. The pacer for this race was to run 8:00 for the first 3k (13:20 pace), and from there Levins was expected to speed up over the last 2k to beat his own Canadian indoor record of 13:19 while securing the outdoor championships international qualifying standard of 13:23.
Though the 5000 is a race in which all the action seems to come late, the positioning set up the drama early in this one, as Lopez Lomong of the Bowerman Track Club quickly settled in behind Levins. Lomong possess great speed – he set the Wanamaker Mile record with a 3:51.21 in 2013 – and at some point he’d try to use it. After the pacer dropped out, Ryan Hill of the BTC led the train, and close behind Levins and Lomong were BTC teammates Andrew Bumbalough and Matt Tegenkamp. Around and around they went, Levins in his Nike Oregon Project black surrounded by the blood-red of BTC. Levins is nobody’s idea of a villain, but this was taking the appearance of a choreographed strike.
Levins did not increase the pace at 3k as expected, and the race, if tactical already, had become moreso. Lomong passed Levins with four laps to go, Sam Chelanga burst to the front with three to go, then Lomong reeled him in and outpaced Hill to win by two tenths of a second in 13:27. Levins faded to sixth in 13:33. Some days you have it, some days you don’t.
Is there a runner who relies more on adrenaline than Robby Andrews? With 150 meters to go in the men’s 1,000, Andrews leapt across Olympian Duane Solomon to an opening on the outside and gunned for the finish. His 26.34 split on the last lap was the fastest in the race. Erik Sowinski was the only one able to respond and held on for a narrow win in 2:21.18. As in the 5000, it wasn’t the finishing time the athletes were looking for, but was thrilling nonetheless.
Races with ambitious targets often end in carnage. In the women’s Wanamaker Mile, Shannon Rowbury took aim at Mary Decker’s American indoor record of 4:20.5, and her Nike Oregon Project teammates Jordan Hasay, 18-year-old Mary Cain (last year’s champion in 4:27), and Treniere Moser went with her. Trailing the NOP quartet with a pitchfork on her singlet was Arizona State runner Shelby Houlihan, who, while coming in with an indoor PR of 4:38, had said she could run a 4:25. Of the chasers Hasay held on the longest, but Rowbury pulled away, shifting the attention solely on the clock.
With a lap to go, Rowbury needed to split 29 seconds to get the record. Thirty meters from the tape she locked up, Julia Lucas–like, to the gasps of the crowd. Rowbury staggered across the line, and though it clearly wasn’t a comfortable win, it was nonetheless a win by a comfortable margin. No faulting the effort, there. Rowbury’s time was 4:24, Moser was 2nd in 4:27, Hasay fourth in 4:28, and Cain eighth in 4:31. Houlihan finished 7th in 4:30, achieving a sizable new PR, if not her goal.
The main event featured a collision of world class runners. Matt Centrowitz of the Nike Oregon Project and New Zealand’s Nick Willis, the 2008 Olympic silver medalist in the 1500, were expected to challenge the meet record of 3:51.21. Defending champ Will Leer, who ran 3:52 last year, was running, as was 2012 Olympic silver medalist Leo Manzano.
And then there was the old man of the track, 40-year-old Bernard Lagat. Knocking off the masters record of 3:58 seemed a given for Lagat. Since the Millrose Games moved to the Armory in 2011, Bernard Lagat has run the 5000, 2-mile, and 2K, each time setting an American indoor record. At this stage of his career the mile is not his forte, but could the 8-time Wanamaker Mile champ really be counted out for the win?
Known both for his longevity and impeccable form, Lagat glides on the track like Gretzky on a breakaway. With his patented kick, he finished first among the chase pack, running 3:54 for fourth overall, faster than all but two of his winning Wanamaker Miles from 2001 to 2010 at Madison Square Garden.
At the bell, the last lap of so many run by kids, high school students, college students, pros, and masters over the previous six hours, it came down to what everybody had been waiting for: the brash, wisecracking 25-year-old Centrowitz in the lead, and the hard charging new dad, Nick Willis, 31, close behind.
Willis pulled even on the backstretch. Willis had the momentum, but Centrowitz had the inside lane. By hanging back earlier in the race Willis used his competitors as stepping stones to the front, but he also had to run a few extra yards to get around them. Centrowitz drifted into lane 2 and Willis into lane 3. It was Centro’s quickness versus Willis’ speed. The front runner won by a tenth of a second in 3:51:35, barely off Lomong’s meet record from 2013.
See our full photo gallery of the Millrose games.
The marquee event at the Millrose Games – the one that follows the national anthem – has traditionally been the men’s Wanamaker Mile. Since the meet moved from MSG to the Armory in 2012, it has featured a more balanced menu of professional distance events, including the newly formed women‘s Wanamaker mile and whatever event Bernard Lagat is targeting for an American record (5,000m in 2012, 2-mile in 2013, 2,000m this year).
While vets Lagat and Nick Willis will lead the charge for the men, on the women’s side this year the meet is all about youth – and not just Mary Cain. The “Road to Rio” 800m race is loaded with teenage talent, even without Cain who has shifted to the mile, which is hers to lose, which seems so unfair, as she’s only 17.
Women’s 3000m 3:29 p.m.
Two of the headliners in this race were involved in the classic 2012 Olympic Trials 5000m race: Kim Conley and Abby D’Agostino. Conley’s gutsy run – she pushed the pace to get it below the 15:20 qualifying standard, then came-from-behind to pass the cratering Julia Lucas at the line – got her 3rd place and an Olympic slot. Abbey D’Agostino finished on the other side of Lucas, two tenths of a second later. Now it’s Rio in the distance, not London, and these two will likely be competing head to head to get to Brazil. Conley has been on a tear this indoor season, with a 4:24 mile time to D’Agostino’s 4:28.
Men’s Paavo Nurmi 2000m 3:56 p.m.
Evan Jager, Andrew Bumbalough, and Cam Levins have been cast members in Bernard Lagat’s indoor record-setting 2-mile run (since bested by Galen Rupp) at the Armory last year. This year they’ll be looking to beat the old man of the track. Lagat likely still possesses the best kick, though David Torrence, if he could hang on, may threaten with his track speed. The American indoor record of 4:58.6, set by Steve Scott in 1981, serves as an unoffical pacer to this race.
Women’s Wanamaker Mile 4:18 p.m.
Without the New Balance middle-distance stars in the race (Jenny Simpson, Brenda Martinez, Kim Conley), Mary Cain is the clear favorite. Olympic steepler Emma Coburn was fourth in the mile last year. She and Morgan Uceny were both throttled by Conley in the 2,000m at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston, and Conley has been running on par with Cain, so it would be a surprise if either of them competed up front. In good form are high schooler Alexa Efraimson, who came in 4th at the University of Washington Invitational in 9:00 in the 3,000m, and Oiselle’s Amanda Winslow, who won that race in 8:56. One of Cain’s advantages though is that she’s got home-track advantage, having competed and trained at the Armory on numerous occasions. Cain’s NOP teammate Treniere Moser will be in the mix, but was two seconds back of Cain in a 1,000m on Feb. 8.
Mel Sheppard 1000m 4:32 p.m.
This event is among those on Nick Symmonds’ record-breaking list in 2014, but to win he’ll need to beat a few guys who ran quite a bit faster than him indoors last weekend, Erik Sowinski and Mike Rutt. In the Mel Sheppard 600m run last year, the unheralded Sowinski handled these guys, running 1:15.61 to Symmonds’ 1:16.89 and Rutt’s 1:17.68. The extra 400m takes it out of everybody’s comfort zone. Who would have thought before that race that Sowinski would represent Nike and Symmonds Brooks for the next go-round? We like Symmonds outdoors and in championship races, but we think Sowinski’s the better off-season and indoor runner. Watch out for France’s Pierre Ambrose Bosse, who could play the spoiler.
Women’s Road to Rio 800m 4:38 p.m.
Teenagers from the U.S., Iceland, and Canada face top competition from Jamaica in an international field of 800m prodigies. Iceland’s 18-year-old Anita Hinriksdottir, who resembles a jet when she runs with her forward lean and outstretched arms, has drawn numerous comparisons to Cain, who originally was slated to run this event. She ran 2:01.81 indoors Jan. 19 in Reykjavik. Jenna Westaway, 19, a first-year student at the University of Calgary, ran a 2:02.57 at the Boston Valentine Invitational, and Jamaica’s Natoya Goule, 22, last year went under two outdoors. Ajee Wilson, 19, has the best 800 PR with a 1:58.21, though she struggled last week in the 1,000m. The event should be highly entertaining.
Men’s Wanamaker Mile 4:48 p.m.
Can anybody compete with Nick Willis? Wouldn’t it be fun to see Galen Rupp try, but that attempt was interrupted by a balky cuboid bone last week. Chris O’Hare of Scotland ran the race of his life at the Wanamaker Mile last year, finishing 4th in 3:52.98. Lawi Lalang was 5th in 3:54.56. Those two guys are the best bets to push Willis towards the Wanamaker Mile record of 3:51.21, set last year by Lopez Lomong.
None of the 13 competitors in the women’s Wanamaker Mile on Saturday ran in last year’s 1500m “Metric Wanamaker Mile.” Absent are Jenny Simpson (last year’s winner), Shannon Rowbury (2nd last year), and Morgan Uceny (who won the 800m at Millrose last year), all of whom represented the US in the 1500m at the 2012 Olympics. And yet this year’s race, loaded with young talent and with no clear favorite, is just as compelling without them.
Sixteen-year-old prodigy Mary Cain (4:32.78 indoor PR), former prodigy Jordan Hasay (still just 21), and 20-year-old Dartmouth junior Abbey D’Agostino, who barely missed qualifying for London last year with her 15:19.98 at the dramatic Olympic trials 5000m, headline the youth movement. Sarah Brown (nee Bowman) beat Cain in the mile at the Armory on Jan. 26, running 4:31.61. Emily Infeld (22 years old) is the 2012 NCAA indoor 3000m champ and 4th place finisher at the 2013 USATF x-c championship, and has been training with Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher in Jerry Schumacher’s Oregon Track Club group. Her sister Maggie finished 4th in the Metric Wanamaker Mile last year. Kate Grace (24), running for Oiselle, which recently signed Lauren Fleshman from Nike, has been slashing new PRs and beat both D’Agostino and Hasay in the 3,000m at the University of Washington Invitational. Giving the race the slightest of international feels are Canadian Olympians Sheila Reid (23) and Hilary Stellingwerff (31). A third Canadian Olympian, Nicole Sifuentes (5th last year), was originally slated to run but is out with a plantar injury.
Cain has both a blistering kick and home track advantage. The trick for her will be retaining contact with the leaders for the first seven laps so that she and the crowd can ride the wave of high drama in the eighth. I expect D’Agostino or Reid to take it with a time in the high 4:20s, with Grace and Cain in the mix. Whoever wins, expect to see several of these runners at Rio in 2016.
Unlike the women’s race, the men’s Wanamaker Mile has a clear favorite and plot line. Twenty-three year old Olympian Matt Centrowitz is the defending champ, it’s seen as his race to win, and the question is whether he will
- break his Armory record of 3:53.92 from last year’s race
- break Bernard Lagat’s Millrose record of 3:52.87
- beat Galan Rupp’s 3:50.92 from earlier this season
- go sub-3:50 and take down Lagat’s indoor American record of 3:49.89
Centrowitz controlled last year’s race from the front, a tactic he repeated to win the mile at Boston two weeks ago (3:56.26) and that seems to work for him when Leonel Manzano isn’t in the race. There are some high-upside guys who could pose a challenge: Lopez Lomong, Lawi Lalang, who ran 13:08 in the 5,000m at the meet last year, or Robbie Andrews (winner of the High School Mile at Millrose in 2009). It’s unlikely, though, that they will bring it in the low 3:50s.
Centrowitz is such a smooth runner that it seems he leaves energy unspent on the track. Despite how smooth he might appear, though, we can’t assume that he’s left gears untapped, gears that we wouldn’t see until his veins are popping out of his neck and his head bobs back and his form goes all to hell.
In order to knock all the names off the list, Centrowitz will probably have to win the race by several seconds and run it as a personal time trial, much how Rupp ran his 3:50. In three months Rupp will turn 27, and Alberto Salazar has not been afraid to push the pedal to the floor on Rupp’s short track races, which aren’t even considered his forte. The incentives are different with Centro, who has a longer horizon and less reason to risk a race for a record. He ran a 3:31.96 1500m at the Lausanne Diamond League meet outdoors last year and he’ll likely run sub 3:50 for the mile at some point, but it’ll take elite international competition to push him to it.