David Hunter began writing about Clayton Murphy in the spring of 2015 for RunBlogRun. And he has been right on every occassion. During the final, Dave kept his recorder on and did the race live, next to me, as Clayton Murphy ran his race. And a wonderful race it was! Here is David Hunter’s feature on Clayton Murphy and Boris Berian’s fine battle.
2016 U.S. Olympic Trials / Track & Field
Racing Styles Collide In Men’s 800m Final
Independence Day, 2016
“If they’re going to run themselves out in the first 400,
I’ll just catch them in the last 100.” – Clayton Murphy
We should have known. The pre-race scoreboard video was a premonition of the excitement to come. Minutes before the start of the men’s 800m final – with 1972 Olympic gold medalist Dave Wottle waving from the medal podium at the south end of Hayward Field – the stadium scoreboard displayed a montage video of Wottle’s career highlights, including the final strides of his electrifying last step Olympic win over highly-touted Yevgeny Arzanov in the Munich 800m final. Many consider that final the most exciting race of all time. Perhaps until tonight.
Many of the fans who witnessed this evening’s men’s 800m final may wish to offer up a new candidate for that honor. A battle of contrasting strategies was anticipated. And that’s exactly what unfolded. With the inclusion of Mississippi’s Craig Engels – tripped in his semi – advanced to the final, 9 athletes began from a double waterfall start with the crowd still buzzing over the roller-derby-like tangle – a true pile up – in the women’s 800m final just minutes before. As expected, Brandon Johnson stormed to the front, taking the field out quickly in 24.61, followed by Harun Abda and world indoor gold medalist Boris Berian in close pursuit with Clatyon Murphy sitting back on the outside in 7th. On the first time down the homestretch, Berian jumped to the front, flying past the bell in 50.6, with Johnson on his shoulder and Penn State’s Isiah Harris in 3rd. Murphy – the reigning NCAA indoor 800 and outdoor 1500 champion – sat 8 meters back in 8th place – unfazed – as they began the final circuit.
On the backstretch Murphy started to drive on the outside moving up to 5th as Berian – still leading, but beginning to labor – split 600 in 1:17.43. Moving well now, Murphy continued his Wottle-like drive as he sped by American indoor 600m record holder Casimir Loxsom on the turn and swung wide coming off the Bowerman Curve in 4th. Murphy reached down for more – and he had it. Lifting well and exhibiting superior leg speed, Murphy sprinted by Harris and Erik Sowinski down the homestretch to climb into 2nd as Berian – like Arzanov in ’72 Olympic 800m final – was beginning to crack. Inspired by what he saw ahead of him, Murphy kept the pedal down and – as Wottle did to Arzanov 44 years ago – caught Berian just steps before the line for the win. Currently, the former University of Akron star’s 1:44.74 clocking is #2 on the American leader board and#9 on the world list. Berian – nipped at the line, but nonetheless thrilled by his Olympic berth – was 2nd in 1:44.92 while a strong finish by Charles Jock – now a recovering frontrunner – propelled him into the 3rd in 1:45.48 to grab 3rd and the final Olympic berth.
The similarities between this 800m final and the 800m final at the Munich Games are uncanny – a much-anticipated final; a clash of racing styles; favored frontrunners seeking to steal the race; and patient, strong winners using long drives to capture victory in the final steps. The only thing missing tonight was a golf cap. And so it seemed entirely appropriate that Dave Wottle – the Munich 800m gold medalist and Ohio native and legend – would present the Trials gold medal to 800m champion Clayton Murphy – Ohio native and perhaps emerging legend. “It was a great honor to meet him,” stated the winner who has looked up to Wottle since he was a youngster. “It was a surreal moment. Being an Ohio guy like Dave, I have aspired to be like Dave. He’s an Ohio icon.”
Murphy revealed he was ready for the fast pace. “I knew there was a possibility of sub-50 [at the bell]. I knew there was the possibility of that 50 point. I wanted to be closer to 51. I don’t mind the fast race up front.” The tempo and Murphy’s singular focus prevented him from observing some of the finer points of the race. “I honestly had no clue,” admitted the winner about his first lap positioning. “I thought I was further up than 8th. I didn’t realize I was that far back. When I saw 50 point on the clock, I knew it wasn’t as fast as I expected. I kind of wanted to go through in about 51.00 give or take a little bit. I think I was pretty close to that. [Murphy actually split 400m in 51.54.]. And then I just wanted to keep moving and be in the top 4 at 600 and then keep moving at 150. So that was kind of my plan. So my goal was from 200 to keep pushing to the line. I didn’t think I could win until about 10 meters to go. I thought I could be top 3 at 200. I knew if I could come off the curve and be in the top 3 at 100 to go, then I had a pretty good shot at staying in the top 3. But I wasn’t sure if I could get Boris.” Always striving for perfection, Murphy has already identified a few elements of his game that need improvement. “The first 400 is something I’ve got to work on. But this is for sure a shock to the system to go in sub 52. I’ve got a month to work on it and my goal now is to make the final in Rio.”
Berian deflected any suggestion that he was disappointed with his 2nd place finish. “I was just excited. I only saw one person pass me,” added the world indoor 800m champion with a smile. “Clayton is definitely a strong athlete. And I am definitely excited to have him representing the USA with me.” Boris noted that early race jostling made it difficult for him to seize immediate control of the race. “It was a little tough the first 300, 350. I didn’t even know it was going to be a waterfall start until just before I started warming up. But I got out there and didn’t mess around. I had to get to the front. I was kind of debating a little bit, but that’s the way I run: take control right way, finish it up, finish strong.” Berian admitted difficulty in wrapping his head around his new status as an Olympian. “It’s definitely something hard to think about – to imagine yourself on the Olympic team. To actually think that it could happen – it’s crazy. I’m just real happy to be on the team right now – so excited.”
With his major pre-season goal of making Rio squad now accomplished, the New Paris, Ohio native allowed himself to share his feelings on his new Olympian status. “Being an Olympian outweighs the national championship, for sure. I just wanted to be in the top 3 going in. To be an Olympian and to represent Team USA is something I dreamed of since I started running. I just can’t wait to get to Rio.”
The new champion knows he is ready for the big stage that awaits in Brazil. “I think last summer having three international experiences prepared me well to go to Rio,” notes the middle distance specialist, alluding to his impressive championship racing last summer in Toronto’s Pan American Games where he captured gold, in the Caribbean where he took silver in the NACAC competition, and in Beijing’s world championships where he just missed advancing to the finals.
Murphy credited his coach Lee Labadie for cultivating his confidence over the past several years. “My coach has instilled that confidence that it doesn’t matter how fast I run the first three quarters of the race, the last quarter is going to be there,” explained Murphy. “And so it is kind of breaking the race into those quarter segments and getting to that three quarter point. No matter how fast it is, it’s knowing the last 150 I can have confidence to finish hard.”
The new champion shared his thoughts on lessons learned during the rounds of the 800 meters. “We learned today that rankings don’t really mean anything with Donovan [Brazier] struggling in the prelims,” offered Murphy. “It’s all about showing up on the day and being able to run well. I felt like I progressively got better through the rounds. That’s going to give me confidence for another month to run well in Rio.”
Overlooked by many of the sport’s pundits in the pre-Trials form charts, Clayton Murphy was able to duck the limelight, stay undistracted, and come to the track each day ready for business. Quite frankly, the experts in the sport and a goodly number of his competitors underrated him. Such status doesn’t disturb Murphy. He likes being under the radar. That’s not likely to be the case in the event Clayton Murphy elects to toe the line in the Thursday’s first round of the men’s 1500 meters. Dave Hunter