July 7, 2013
At the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials, Johnny Gray's front-running race tactics produced a fast and furious 800 meter final. The American record-holder's torrid pacing resulted in Gray [1:42.80] leading Mark Everett [1:43.67] and Jose Parrilla [1:43.97] not only to Olympic team spots, but also to 3 sub-1:44 same-race American clockings for only the second time ever. It was an occasion of celebration - a hopeful moment - as there was reason to believe that this event might be the signal of a renaissance of American middle distance racing. It was not to be. The trio's feat would not be replicated for over two decades.
But - finally - that elusive sub-1:44 hat trick was once again repeated just last month in Des Moines. In the USATF Outdoor 800 final, Olympic 4th place finisher Duane Solomon - now coached by Gray - channeled his inner-Johnny Gray as he charged to a wire-to-wire victory. Solomon's winning time of 1:43.27 was good enough to better Nick Symmonds [1:43.70] - snapping his 5-championship win streak - and third place finisher Brandon Johnson [1:43.97]. All three will run in Moscow in the world championships this August. "This was the deepest field I've ever faced in a US championship," proclaimed Symmonds - whose second place clocking was faster than every one of his 5 consecutive national championship winning times. "We are sending three really good guys to Moscow and we really have an honest opportunity of putting three guys in the final which would really be a huge accomplishment for America."
Once again it may be time for cautious optimism about the US's fortunes in the men's 800. The source for this hopeful outlook is not limited to the sterling performances rung up by the trio who will represent the U.S. in the this summer's world championships. Four other Americans have posted "A" standard 800 marks [sub 1:45.30] this year. Here are a few of the up-and-coming young guns who are worthy of watching:
Tyler Mulder, 26, has improved steadily since his '09 graduation from Northern Iowa. Coming in with a '12 PR of 1:44.75, Mulder placed 5th in the USATF outdoor 800 final with an "A" standard mark of 1:45.13. Mulder was philosophical as his looked back on his performance in the Des Moines 800 final. "Physically, I needed to be more relaxed so I could have more over that last 100 - spread my energy out around the track. I think I just used too much energy early on."
With the exception of Mary Cain, no one has had a more gratifyingly unexpected break-through year than 23 year-old Erik Sowinski. Lifted this winter by his stunning American indoor record in the 600 - beating Solomon and Symmonds at Millrose - and by capturing the indoor U.S. 800 title in Albuquerque, Sowinski has carried that momentum over into the outdoor season. In Des Moines, Sowinski posted two "A" standard PR's capped by his 6th place finish in the 800 final in 1:45.21. "I knew it was going to be fast. It was going to take 1:43 or 1:44 to make the team," a reflective Sowinski explained in the mixed zone. "I am definitely disappointed. But at the same time, it has been a long year. I've made a lot of progress. And I've PR'd two days in a row. Some things you take with a grain of salt and keep pushing on. This is sort of a journey and I'm looking forward to it. I am going to race in Europe and re-evaluate after that." Sowinski is relieved to be a Nike athlete - ending his year-long search for corporate support. "I am just extremely grateful to have such a supportive sponsor - just meeting all the needs of an athlete. They are a bunch of great people there. I've met a lot of them out here. I am extremely thankful and extremely humbled that they see in me an athlete that merits that kind of sponsorship."
Talented Elijah Greer also rang up a PR - 1:45.04 - in just missing the WC team by finishing 4th in the Des Moines 800 final. "I thought it would take breaking 1:45 to get on the team. But it took breaking 1:44 to make the team. Certainly, it was a very talented field. This year, I was not ready for it. Next year, there will be no team to get on. But two years from now, I'll be gunning for the next team. It's all behind me now. Today was this day. I just wanted to give it my best. I ran a PR. I would have like to have broken 1:45. Hopefully I can go to Europe this summer and finally crack 1:45." The new professional offered a detail insighted into the subtle elements of 800 meter racing. "I wasn't in a good position. I was too far back. I felt Sowinski on my outside and I still had more juice. I gave that last push and I caught Mulder and held Sowinski off for 4th. My mistake was my first 400. I spent too much time on the outside. I was too far back and I was wasting energy to get into one position - and I didn't get that position." Like Sowinski, Elijah Greer, 22, is another newly-minted professional who displays gratitude for his recently-acquired professional support. A new University of Oregon graduate, Greer will maintain his Pacific northwest presence. "I am going to train with my coach Mark Rowland of OTC. I feel it will be a really great transition from U of O. And it is a really great transition to the professional scene. I am glad to be a part of this program," Greer explained in Des Moines. "I am glad I could wear the uniform today," offered Greer as he tugged on his new green and black OTC singlet. "And tomorrow I look forward to training with the guys." Asked when he turned professional, Greer smiled and said, "This morning."
Nick Symmonds and Duane Solomon - last year's American finalists in the Olympic 800 - remain at the pinnacle of their game and aren't inclined to abdicate the dominant position they share in this event.
Symmonds - who was gracious in the wake of his second-place finish which ended his impressive 5 year reign as national 800 meter champion - offered his take on the final as it unfolded. "It was about what I expected. After watching Alysia [Montano in the w800] going out hard, I knew Duane was going to do the same thing. I wanted windy conditions and we didn't get that. And that makes running the way Duane ran very, very smart," Symmonds explained. "He [Solomon] ran an incredible race and my hat goes off to him. I think he came through [600 meters] in 1:15. And if you want to beat a 'sit-and-kicker' you got to run away from him. And he did a helluva job doing that."
The Olympic 800 finalist offered insight on the last 500 meters of the Des Moines final. "I would have liked to have moved up a little bit on the homestretch - Sowinski was on my shoulder - but I would have had to pump the brakes and go to the outside to go around him. I would love to know what I could have done if I could have gone when I wanted to. That being said, that's the risk you run doing the 'sit and kick.' Sometimes you can't get around bodies." All in all, Symmonds was upbeat about his performance in the final. "I feel that I made some really big tactical errors and I still ran 1:43.7 in only my second 800 final of the year, so I am pretty happy with where I'm at. Typically you would want to run 5, 6, maybe 7 800's going into this race. We took a risk doing this with the express purpose of peaking in August."
The reigning patriarch of the 800 was able to view the end of his championship streak as an emerging opportunity. "There is a lot of relief that comes with the streak being over. As long as I was winning 800 titles, I was going to keep doing it. I would have kept running the 8 until 2020 if I had the streak alive. And I've said multiple times, I want to go for the 8 and the 15 in 2016. And if I am going to make a realistic shot at that, I need to run the 1500 in a championship race. And I think next year, and possibly in 2015, I really need to jump in the 1500 to learn what it takes to get through those rounds as well.
Symmonds has a positive outlook on his 1500 potential. "I've run 3:36 off 800 training. I think I could run a helluva 15 if do the training that I need, up my mileage by about 10 percent, lose 5 pounds, and make the transition from explosiveness to more endurance-type training. The 8-to-15 jump is huge - maybe one of the biggest jumps in track & field - since you go from running positive splits to running negative splits. I think we're going to find out in the next couple years if I can really run the 15."
800 champion Duane Solomon was quick to explain his successful racing strategy in the 800 final. "I went in with a plan that we're going to take it out. Before the race, my coach [Johnny Gray] came up and talked to me and said, 'you know you have to go for it.' We wanted to go no slower than 1:16 [at 600]. That was the plan. I was feeling really good coming in today, so I knew I could do it," explained the victor. "In order to make the team, I have to be on my 'A' game. If came with anything less, I wouldn't make the team." And with a smile he added, "I had to take them into the Johnny Gray zone. That's what I did today."
Returning to a serious moment, Solomon closed with this observation. "I think we have a really good chance of medaling [in the m800] in Moscow. The resurgence of distance running in the United States is just great to have. People don't doubt us anymore. We can go into championships knowing that people are not going to count us out anymore."
So what has prompted this re-birth of top-flight American performances in the men's 800? Some say it has been sparked by young and promising post-collegiate middle distance talent suddenly stepping up to challenge the a couple of established 800 specialists. Others suggest it has been driven by Solomon and Symmonds - two experienced and superior veterans who won't rest until a major podium performance crowns their careers. A third view suggests it is the fortuitous convergence of both of these forces. Whatever the true genesis, this rejuvenation in American men's middle distance racing is a development we all can celebrate and enjoy.