Fast Times at U of O: The 2014 Prefontaine Classic
By Roy Stevenson
Someone flipped the ‘nice weather’ switch for the 40th annual Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon. The perfect, clear, sunny, weather–about 70 degrees F–with nary a cloud in the sky, had the crowd’s spirits up for the meet at high noon.
International Men’s Mile
The Track Town crowd likes an exciting, rousing mile to kick the meet into high gear–and they got it with the first track event, the Men’s International Mile. This event, although technically a ‘B’ race, usually unfolds in the same competitive realm as the Bowerman Mile, and this year’s 4-lapper was no exception, loaded with world class milers like Evan Jager, Leonel Manzano, Lopez Lomong, and Garrett Heath–to name a few.
The early leaders tucked in behind Matt Miner who paced the first lap in 57.2 seconds. Then, the pace drifted slightly in the middle stages, ruling out a sub 3:50 time, but leaving the race no less competitive.
Second pacemaker, Paul Robinson, took over in lap 3, to take the field through the three lap mark in 2:55.6. Casey Patrick, David Torrence, Manzano, and Jordan McNamara were the main contenders, when the sprint began in the final lap, with several others breathing down their necks. At 200m a huge pack was poised to kill, bunched so closely that it’s a wonder anyone could breath.
Manzano unleashed his usual high-powered kick to prevail in the year’s best time of 3:52.41–a world leading time that would last for approximately 2.5 hours before Ayanleh Souleiman would annihilate it in the Bowerman Mile. But more about that later.
McNamara ran an honest race, clawing his way into second place up the home straight, in 3:52.89, followed by canny Olympic steeplechase finalist Evan Jager who came through for third with intelligent pacing in the last 300m, in 3:53.33 (his PB). Casey Patrick hung on for fourth in his PB, 3:53.71.
The class of this field is indicated by the finishing stats: Seven milers finishing under 3:54, and 12 under the 4-minute barrier.
The Women’s 2-mile was also a highly competitive field. Well spread out by 800m, led by promising pacemaker Anne Kesselring, they glided through the first mile in 4:33.5.
By this time, four distinct packs had formed with Mercy Cherono (Ken), Sally Kipyego (Ken), and Mimi Belete (Brn), in the lead group, closely followed by Viola Kibiwot (Ken).
As laps 5, 6 & 7 unfolded, Belete led briefly with Kipyego falling off by 30 meters and the other suspects playing a waiting game. Meanwhile, Shannon Rowbury was quietly working her way through the field. The last 200m was a 3-way duel with Cherono prevailing in 9:13.27, over Kibiwot (9:13.48) and Belete (9:13.85). Rowbury’s fourth place 9:20.25 was an American record.
With fast times in the Men’s Mile, Men’s 400m (43.97), Women’s 1500m, and Women’s 3000m Steeplechase, the Eugene crowd was well and truly fired up, and in Eugene mode, for the Men’s 5000m, the third-to-last event.
On paper, Kenyans Augustine Choge, John Kipkoech, Albert Rop, and Edwin Soi, plus Ethiopians Hagos Gebrhiwet and Yenew Alamirew, all had best times under 13 minutes on the start line–however, none had gone under 13 this season. On his home turf, former World Champion Bernard Lagat was the crowd’s favorite, with a PB of 12:53.60.
After a false start(!) the lads got down to business. The U.S. pacemakers Bumbalaugh and Fernandez led through a promising 62.1-second first lap. Gideon Gathimba (the third pacemaker) held 3rd from a posse of Kenyans: Choge, Isiah Koech, Kipkoech, Rop, Lagat and Soi.
When Bumbalaugh took over the pacesetting duties at 1400m, he was shadowed by the same lead pack, with the field spread out over 40 meters. The pace drifted off from sub-13 minutes in the middle stages, but the closing three laps were killers. Gathimba led through 3000m in 7:52.78 followed by Koech, Soi, Kipkoech, Rop, Ndiku, Alamirew, and Gebrhiwet; the lead pack packed in tightly over ten meters.
At 4K, reached in 10:33.40, the pack was comprised of the same seven runners, with a predicted finishing time of 13:12: Rop, Soi, Alamirew, Gegrhiwet, Ndiku, Koech, Kipkoech.
Then, with 400m to go it was Rop, Soi, Alamirew, and Ndiku in the lead. Ndiku and Alamirew had a royal sprint off in the home straight, with Ndiku proving too strong, to win in a World Leading 13:01.71 to Alamirew’s 13:02.91, and Soi’s third place in 13:04.92.
The Mens 800m seemed to be wide open despite World Record holder and Olympic Champion David Rudisha toeing the start line. And so it was. Pre-race favorites were Aman Mohammed (Bot), Nijel Amos (Eth), and Duane Solomon (USA), who was hoping for a U.S. record. The first lap was 49.8 seconds.
The real sprint started with 230m to go, with Rudisha looking like his old, pre-injury self, but we all know that anything can (and probably will) happen in the last 150m of an 800m. Rudisha absolutely dominated the sprint until 80 meters to go, then ran out of steam and proceeded to fall dramatically out the back door, clearly short on races and speedwork.
Meanwhile, Nijel Amos unleashed an excellent sprint to win going away in a World Leading 1:43.63 as the rest of the chasing pack set sail down the home straight to blow Rudisha’s doors off. This might well be their last chance to beat Rudisha (1:44.87) for a long time. Remember, you read it here first.
Mohammed chased Amos well over the final 40 meters for second place in 1:43.99, and Abubaker Kaki (Sud) scrambled through for third in 1:44.09. Solomon finished 10th in 1:47.40.
Men’s Bowerman Mile
The crowd was well and truly primed for the Bowerman Mile, with a stellar field of 16 milers boasting PBs ranging from 3:48.5 (Asbel Kiprop, Ken) to Will Leer’s 3:56.39. This was one stacked field!
With the first 200m in a cracking 27 seconds, it was clearly game on. The first three racers, Kiprop, Aman Wote (Eth), and Collins Cheboi (Ken), went through 440 yards in 53.8, an indicator of fast times to come. Kiprop, the pre-race favorite, had already won this race three times and was out to make it a record four.
The half-mile time in 1:53, led by Hillary Maiyo, indicated the finish time could be competitive, but no one could predict the astonishing times they would eventually run. At three laps it was Kiprop, Ayanleh Souleiman (Dji), Wote, and Taoufik Makhloufi, in a stellar 2:51.9!
Kiplagat led with 200 to go from Souleiman, with a pack of wolves baying closely behind them. Souleiman scraped past Kiplagat to win by a yard in 3:47.32, a World Leading time and PB for him. Kiplagat’s 3:47.88 second place was his PB, and Wote’s third in 3:48.60 was his PB. In fact, PBs were set by the top 13 milers. Kiprop would eventually finish 7th in 3:50.26.
Iguider’s 4th in 3:49.09, Magut’s 5th in 3:49.43, and Cheboi’s 6th in 3:49.56 closed out six milers under 3:50! Amazing! Places seven through 14 ran between 3:50.26 and 3:56.72. Imagine finishing last, as Will Leer did, in 3:56.72?
Doing a sub 4-minute mile seems pedestrian in races like this. Has the sub 3:50 mile become the new sub 4-minute mile?
This was one of the more exciting Pre Classic meets for several years, and a sunburned, but happy crowd went home with memories of some phenomenal races and times.