There is a big smile on the face of David Hunter. His beloved University of Akron had two Pan Am Gold medalists: Shawn Barber in the Pole Vault and Clayton Murphy in the 800 meters. This article is on Clayton Murphy, the man who led in only two steps of the 800 meter final in Toronto, but, dear readers, they were the last two steps.
Clayton Murphy’s victory in the 800 meters, photo courtesy of Getty Images for USOC/PanAm Games
Clayton Murphy: From Out Of Nowhere
Middle Distance Talent Goes From Unknown To Pan Am Gold Medalist
July 26th, 2015
Do you know who Clayton Murphy is? No, he is not the cowboy actor who played the white-hatted force for good in television’s The Lone Ranger. That’s Clayton Moore. But if his progression during 2015 is any indication, Clayton Murphy just might be one of the most promising American middle distance talents in quite some time. While the Lone Ranger went to great lengths to not reveal his identity, this rising junior at the University of Akron has devoted this year’s indoor and outdoor seasons to unmasking his considerable skills in the 800 meters, the 1500 meters, and the mile.
The latest accomplishment for the Zip school record holder in the 800m and the mile came this past week in the 800 meter competition at the Pan American Games. In the qualifying round, a strong drive down the final straightaway – quickly becoming Murphy’s signature move – gave him the opening round win [1:48.88] and propelled him into the final. The 3rd place finisher in both the indoor and outdoor NCAA 800m championship races was able to employ the same even-split racing tactic in the final. “I went out almost exactly the same,” Murphy shared. “In the first 200 meters I got boxed in on the rail a little bit. But at about 300 into the race I was able to sneak around and jump out into lane 2 and got back up front with Rafith Rodriquez [of Colombia] and we went through in 53 flat. I just followed him around until we had 200 meters remaining. I knew he would try to make the same surge he did in the prelim. I made a move onto his shoulder with 150 remaining. We both accelerated and he gapped me again with 80 to go. I just kept moving knowing that if I got to the last 30 meters, I had an extra gear.” Closing hard over the final 30 meters, the Drake Relays 800 meter champion knew it would be close. “I was trying to push Rodriquez into a zone where I could see him tighten up. And as soon as I saw him tighten up, I accelerated through the line and made sure I got that lean in there at the end.” Murphy’s perfectly-time dip may well have been the difference as the 6-time Mid-American conference champion [1:47.19] just nipped the Colombian [1:47.23] at the line for the victory and the gold medal. How close was the finish? “Rodriquez led the entire race,” smiled Murphy in reflection upon his Wottle-like close. “Except for the last two steps.”
Murphy’s Pan Am 800m performance in Toronto is just another chapter in his remarkable storybook tale of 2015 middle distance progression. His improvement over the last two years is truly something to behold. When Murphy graduated in 2013 from Tri-Village High School in New Paris, Ohio – a little hamlet just 5 miles east of the Ohio/Indiana border – the middle distance athlete possessed very good – but not overwhelming – bests of 1:54.19 in the 800m and a Division III state title-winning time of 4:11.72 in the 1600m. Finding a fit with the University of Akron, Murphy headed northeast and embraced superb facilities, experienced coaching, and a winning team culture. By the end of this freshman year, the corporate finance major had trimmed his mile PR to 4:02.04 and had shaved his best 800m time to 1:50.03. And he still had the time, the energy, and the skill to earn USTFCCCA Academic All-American honors.
While the young athlete had achieved commendable progression in his freshman year, no one – except maybe Murphy himself – could have envisioned the stunning further improvement he would forge in just his second year as a collegian. Undefeated in the mile indoors [which featured an oh-so-close record-setting mile win in 4:00.39], the Zip sophomore was named Outstanding Track Athlete of the Meet after garnering a pair of Mid-American Conference crowns in the 800 and the mile. Murphy capped off his indoor season with a podium performance at the NCAA indoor championships – finishing 3rd in 1:48.30 and beating reigning NCAA outdoor 800m champion Brandon McBride in the process.
Moving outdoors this year, Murphy intensified his focus on the two-lap event. His concentration on 800 meters proved to be the right move. A withering kick in the 800m final [1:47.81] at the Drake Relays earned him the crown in Des Moines. And his under-distance racing at 800m helped callous him for 1500 meter victories he claimed at the Mt. SAC Relays and the Longhorn Invitational. At the MAC outdoor championships, he doubled again – winning both the 800m and the 1500m. His thoughtfully-assembled racing schedule set him up nicely to run the 800 meters in the NCAA outdoor championships – his first time racing through the rounds on Hayward Field’s big stage. In the 800 final, an uber-tactical race unfolded. While a distracted third 200 left Murphy too far back to challenge Iowa State’s Edward Kemboi [1:49.26] for the win, the Zip’s superior finishing charge coming off the Bowerman curve was enough get him on the medal stand in 3rd [1:49.52].
Riding the wave of outstanding outdoor performances, Murphy headed back to Eugene two weeks later for the USATF championships with expectations tempered by realism. What a week he had. In the 3-round war of attrition that is the 800 meters, the young collegian calmly rang up 3 PR’s, set – then later broke again – the University of Akron school record for 800m, and just missed [by .24 seconds] punching his ticket to Beijing World Championships as his finished a roaring 4th in the 800m final in 1:45.59. “Any competitive runner would be disappointed not to reach his or her goal,” offers Murphy on his initial reaction right after the final. “But to me, I won the gold just by making the semifinal. I walked away from the final disappointed that I didn’t make China, that it was only a quarter of second between me and a spot on the team. But when I came back home and sat back down, I was super excited at the opportunity to go to the Pan Ams that I earned. I didn’t have any disappointment after I got home and looked at what I did.”
It is startling to fully appreciate that Murphy has improved his 800 meter PR by nearly 9 seconds in just a little over 18 months. Charting on that pace of progression, shouldn’t you be eclipsing Rudisha’s record just about the time of the Rio Olympics? “Yeah, that’s how it works, right?” laughs Murphy. “Hey, I take seconds off my mile time every year, too. That will eventually get the mile straightened out for me, too!” But the joking exchange does raise the question about how the young standout was able to make that Beamonesque leap of improvement. “I would say the training is the biggest factor,” Murphy offers. “I am able to do a lot more miles. I’m able to get on the track, do more workouts. Staying healthy has been the biggest thing for me. I’ve had very minor injuries over the last two years.” The 20 year-old also sees that strategic planning played a role. “My coaches [head coach Dennis Mitchell and distance coach Lee Labadie] and I are very capable in game planning, working on our races, getting ready for our races.”
Murphy – who next month will head off to Costa Rica to conclude his outdoor season by participating in the 800 meters as a member of the USA contingent competing in the NACAC Senior Championships – currently sees the 1500/mile as his better event. A big fan of under-distance racing, the middle distance athlete knows that 800 meter competitions will help him no matter which way he goes. “All these 800’s are eventually building up to the mil
e,” Murphy candidly admits. “In the mile, you can run a fast time to qualify for the [Olympic] Trials. But to qualify for the Olympics, it’s all about championship racing. I know some people don’t really like that style of racing. But it really does come down to that,” he explains. “Look at the USA championships: Matthew Centrowitz ran 1:48.7 for his last 800 in the 1500. So if I am able to run 1:45 consistently and am able to run consistent, even splits and can kick off an 800 and run 53 on the last lap of the 800, it will give me confidence.” The middle distance star knows the battle-testing he is enduring in the two-lap wars is aiding him in both events. “With championship racing, the 1500 can become an 800 meter race, a 600 meter race. I like the [1500m/mile] distance. I do enough distance work – tempos and stuff – to keep my strength up.” And concluding with an understatement, he adds, “Having the speed from the 800 really helps.”
As an athlete who knows his past successes have been initially founded upon the careful identification of and commitment to goals, Clayton Murphy is already clear on his next primary objective. “Whether it’s the 1500 or the 800, the goal is to run well on the third day [of competition] at the Olympic Trials. To get to that point would require a little more mileage, a little tougher workouts, staying healthy, staying competitive, staying hungry about what my goals are, keep working with my coaches, keep laying out goals, and always looking forward and making sure that everything I do – even if it is just going to play a round of golf – is helping me achieve my goals.”