Clayton's Quest: A New Opponent Emerges: Brutal Weather Punishes All Athletes

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Murphy_ClaytonQ-USAout17 copy.jpgClayton Murphy in the 800 meters, June 22, 2017, photo by PhotoRun.net

Clayton Murphy had a busy day on Thursday, running both the 800 meter heats and the 1,500 meter heats. He made it through the trying conditions, and now, as David Hunter eludes to below, he had a busy three days ahead of the University of Akron grad.

June 22nd, 2017

Sacramento, California

In building a carefully-assembled, detail-oriented plan that would see Olympic bronze medalist Clayton Murphy compete in both the 800m and 1500m in the USATF outdoor championships, both Murphy and his coach Lee Labadie knew that the reigning Olympic 800m bronze medalist - hoping to battle competitors in 5 races over 4 days - would be facing many worthy opponents. But prior to this week, they did not know that perhaps Murphy's most formidable opponent may well be the Weather Gods who have transformed Sacramento into a broiling hell hole fit for neither man nor beast.

USATF leadership - attempting to make lemonade out of a lemon - has taken extraordinary steps in an effort to improve a punishing, and potentially-dangerous situation. Moving competition away from the peak heat of the day, USATF reassigned Thursday's events to begin either earlier or later. Starting an hour later than originally scheduled, the women's and men's 10,000 meter finals were rescheduled to be run at 9:27 p.m. and 10:09 p.m. But the previous day, the thermometer did not drop below 100 under until well after 8:00 p.m. and the temperature was still in the mid-90's after 10 p.m. And with a mid-afternoon record-tying reading of 111 degrees, Day One proved to is even hotter...

In the late afternoon, under blazing sun and with the temperature barely under 110 degrees, the middle distance athletes were led out onto the track for the first round of the men's 800m. There was no jumping, fidgeting, or even a run out. They looked like they were walking to the gallows. Common goals abounded as all wanted to capture a slow-paced big Q and get back to the hotel. Some advancing athletes were expected: including Big Q qualifiers Erik Sowinski [fastest qualifier in 1:46.55], Georgetown's Joseph White [1:48.23], and rapidly-improving Drew Windle [1:47.64], while Donovan Brazier [1:46.97] and Charles Jock [1:47.11] were notable time advancers. But, as always, some non-qualifiers were a surprise, most prominent being pending indoor 600m world record holder Cas Loxsom. All eyes were on Clayton Murphy as he took his mark in heat 3. It was a classic Murphy performance. Murphy was comfortably tucked in at 6th as the bunched field passed through 200 meters. The field hit the bell cautiously, around 54 seconds, with Murphy biding his time in the middle of the pack. With 300m to go, the wily Murphy began positioning himself for the final rush to the line. Just past 600m - the 3-time NCAA champion began to move, stepping it up around the curve and easing into the lead at the top of the homestretch. Aided by a solid lift down the final straight, the former Zip - looking well within himself and taking a couple of quick glances back to ensure he was safe - crossed the line first in 1:47.88 followed by White [1:48.23] who grabbed the other automatic qualifier. With a Big Q in hand, Murphy - a who had earlier advised the USATF staff he would bypass media interaction after his first round 800m race - immediately dashed off to head back to the hotel to recover and prepare for his heat of the 1500 meters just over 3 hours away.

There was an important footnote to the first round of the men's 800m that did not go unnoticed by the dyed-in-the-wool track fans. Racing in heat 4, multiple-time Olympian Nick Symmonds ran what he later identified as his final race on the oval, finishing last in 1:51:52. Afterwards in the mixed zone, the 2013 world championship 800m bronze medalist was gracious and grateful. Far from dejected, Symmonds - who captured 7 NCAA Div. III titles while at Willamette - was upbeat. "I came here all about saying goodbye to everybody. I gave everybody a hug I could find. I said goodbye to my fans and I'm here to say goodbye to you guys," said Symmonds, #4 on the USA all-time 800 meter list. "One of the coolest things for me over the past 12 years has been developing a relationship with the media. You guys allow us to have some kind of name in the sport that makes companies like Brooks want to endorse us." But the 6-time USATF outdoor 800m champion was quick to acknowledge that there already are new goals and challenges: further developing RunGum and - wait for it - his intended participation in the 2017 Honolulu Marathon! "This is my last track race. But I've been training to compete since I was 13. That's all I know: setting goals and then achieving them. I'm done setting goals on the track, but I've got many, many more goals. To rest is to rust, and I am not planning on rusting any time soon. See you guys in Honolulu." And just like that, the 33-year-old American middle distance athlete who has authored an 800 meter career matched only by a few of his countrymen was gone.

The sun had set and the lights were on at Hornet Stadium with the temperature still registering 98 degrees as Clayton Murphy stepped back onto the track for his 2nd race of the day: the 3rd and final heat of the opening round of the men's 1500 meters. A 1500m contest with both Murphy and reigning Olympic gold medalist Matthew Centrowitz in the field would normally stimulate widespread excitement. But the oppressive weather and the first-round nature of tonight's race left the fans dreaming about a Murphy-Centrowitz Sunday showdown.

Murphy_ClaytonQ1-USOut17 copy.jpgClayton Murphy, doing his thing, photo by PhootRun.net

As the race got underway, former Olympian Andrew Wheating rushed to the front, followed by Centro on the rail with Murphy back in the pack in 7th position. After the first 400, Murphy had creeped up to 5th and was tucked in behind Nike's Wheating, Asics' John Gregorek, Centro, and Colorado's Ben Saarel. With another 400 covered in 61 and change, Wheating still had the lead with 2 laps remaining with Murphy now in 4th. A 62 second lap saw Centrowitz leading at the bell with Murphy - his work cut out for him - having slid to 7th. The usual last lap frenzy ensued with Murphy coming off the turn in jeopardy to move on with many competitors ahead of him. Unruffled, Murphy swung wide, upped his cadence, and rallied to finish 4th behind Oregon's Sam Prakel [3:40.76], Gregorek [3:40.78], and Centrowitz [3:40.79]. With a final circuit in 54.85, Murphy crossed the line 4th in 3:40.94 to make him the fastest time qualifier of the evening.

Afterwards, Murphy had a quick exchange with the media and swiftly shared his thoughts on the opening day before dashing back to the hotel. "It went good. I did what I needed to do," he declared. Murphy was business-like in discussing his textbook opening 800m race. "I was trying not to make a move and be top two. I had to make a move at 150 [to go] - exactly what I wanted to do - and I got the win," he recounts. The New Paris, Ohio native was content with how he handled the interval between races. "I got into the air conditioning and cooled down and then got back out here and made the [1500 meter] final." The versatile middle distance specialist was not unduly surprised by the day's brutal weather conditions. "I didn't think it was tougher than I thought," he stated. "It was hotter than I expected. But I don't think it made it tougher."

Murphy was well satisfied with his Day One performance. "I did what I needed to do today," he stated matter-of-factly. Reflecting on the final homestretch traffic jam he sped by in the final 35 meters, he added, "The last race wasn't pretty but it got things done. A little bit of opposition, but we're good," smiled Murphy. "So now it's on to tomorrow. One lap at a time this weekend."

Bottom line? For Murphy, Day One's mission was accomplished. He raced a picture-perfect opening round in the 800 meters. And he patiently handled potential calamity in his 1500 meter heat with a calmly-executed surge on the final straightaway. The Nike athlete is moving on in both events and only single-race days remain. "I just ran two hard races," offered Murphy in responding to an inquiry about fatigue. "So I mean I feel a little tired, but not exhausted." After running two impressive races under near-dangerous weather conditions, Clayton Murphy may not be exhausted. But it's not likely that he'll have any trouble falling asleep tonight.

Dave Hunter

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