Clayton Murphy had a big win at the American Track League Puerto Rico Classic, held on May 12. Clayton, two time Olympian and 2016 Olympic bronze medalist at 800 meters, is back in Akron, Ohio and training with his college coach.
Dave Hunter, head of the unofficial Clayton Murphy track club, reached out to Clayton and spoke with him about his race, about his rebuilding in 2022 for the long season and about how good it feels to be racing well.
Clayton Murphy takes the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, photo by Kevin Morris / @kevmofoto
Clayton Murphy: On Finding His “Old Self”
May 18th, 2022
Professional track & field athletes know that performance levels are subject to ups and downs. In most competitions, these athletes are well prepared to perform at their best. But on some days that sharp, finely-honed edge just might be missing. Perhaps only a small percentage might have endured the wide swings in performance that have challenged 800m specialist Clayton Murphy during his years as a professional. After a sterling collegiate career which included multiple NCAA titles, Murphy turned pro and embarked on what has been a world-class career.
In 2016 the Nike athlete capped off a terrific inaugural professional year in Rio by capturing the bronze in the Olympic 800m final. But then some ups and downs interfered. In 2017, Murphy didn’t make the USA’s world championship team when sweltering weather conditions nixed his ambitious attempt at a 800m/1500m double.
In 2019 at the Doha world championships, a well- \performing Murphy appeared ready to climb the podium again, but news that his coach Alberto Salazar had been banned from the sport on the morning of the 800m final sent his head spinning, destroying his focus, and he finished last in the final. In 2021, Murphy was terrific in the Olympic Trials, looking great in the rounds, and successfully defending his Olympic Trials 800m title. And he went on to look sharp in the early rounds of the Tokyo Games. But in the 800m final, he finished last. Yet after the Olympics Clayton rebounded to make the podium in the 2021 Diamond League final finishing 3rd in the 800m. And by season’s end, Murphy was ranked as the #1 American 800m performer by Track & Field News.
Murphy knows that periodic nagging tweaks and injuries played a major role in last year’s absence of consistent performances. “I had a lot of little nagging things (that impacted last summer and the indoor season) and lingered into March for me,” he notes. Clayton and his support team know that the way to success is appropriate rest and consistent strength training that allows dedicated athletes to train hard while side-stepping the interruption of injuries. “I think professional training is built around who can train the best on the edge, who can train on the edge of the cliff without falling off. And if you don’t train on the edge of the cliff you’re at a disadvantage because you’re not training as hard as everybody else. And if you train too hard, you go off the cliff and you’re dealing with injuries. So it is a fine line that I think a majority of professional athletes walk. It’s how well you and your coach can balance both sides of that. There’s a teeter-totter balance of a good athlete: sometimes you’re on one side; and some time you’re on the other side. You’ve got to just try to be in the middle most of the time. I think we (Coach Lee Labadie and I) have really been able to balance the conservative side of that line more or less the last 6 weeks. And now we have to find our way to get closer to the edge without going off the edge prior to USA’s.”
The two-time Olympic Trials Champion, who is a stickler for detail and is constantly examining little items to make himself a better athlete, has also been working on cultivating differing race positioning and racing styles. “I used to be much more of a back runner. And I’ve to become more of a mid-pack runner. I’ve really become more comfortable in the front third of the race. That’s kind of my most comfortable spot,” explains Murphy, who is also working on expanding his racing strategy. “Developing that secondary race style of running from the front with a little more confidence is for sure something that I’ve spoken with Coach [Labadie] about and it is something that I will work on. There were a couple of meets last year in the Diamond League where I was toward the front. I think I am extremely close to developing that confidence and strength to lead wire to wire or control the race from the front. Tokyo showed that running from the back of the race at any pace is tough when everybody is on such a level playing field. And not executing there kind of woke me up a little bit to where I need to develop several race styles to race different people in different races around the world.
Murphy and Labadie have developed a racing schedule that provides Murphy with performance stepping-stones leading up to the USATF national championships in June where the composition of the USA team competing in the world championships will be determined. Three of those meets are: the Birmingham Diamond League meet (May 21st); the Prefontaine DL Classic (May 28th); and the NYC Grand Prix (June 12th).
But prior to those three gatherings, Murphy traveled to the Caribbean to compete in the American Track League’s Puerto Rico Athletics Classic held May 12th. In the 800m final, Murphy would have the opportunity to test his early-season fitness in the 800 meters. Some notable athletes would be in the 2-lap field including Michael Saruni (2021 Kenyan national 800m champion and NCAA 800m record- holder at 1:43.25), Shane Streich (new American indoor 1000m record holder at 2:16.16), and 23-year-old Ryan Sanchez (800m bronze medalist in the ’19 World Championships and 2021 Puerto Rican national 800m champion with a PR of 1:44.82).
As the race unfolded, the two early-race pacers took off on a break-neck, ill- advised opening pace, passing 200m in sub-22 seconds and leaving the field far behind. Murphy wisely remained patient in the opening furlong, tucked in on the rail in 6th position. “I just settled in there in a comfortable pace,” explained Murphy. “It was a little breezy, the wind and rain was kinda coming in all night. It wasn’t great running weather. So I kinda tucked in there and layed low. I played it nice and safe I guess.”
When the pacers finished the opening lap in 49.95 and stepped off the track, Sanchez and USA’s C.J. Jones were thrust into the lead. Murphy, now in 4th and behind Saruni, split 400m in around 52 seconds. On the 2nd lap, the two-time Olympic Trials 800m champion began to shift gears, moving up on Saruni’s shoulder with 300m remaining. With 200m to go, Murphy, still in 4th and 15 meters back, had work to do. Clayton, who has an 800m PR of 1:42.93, gained ground around the final curve but was still down 10 meters in 4th position as the leaders entered the homestretch. But Murphy, a veteran of coming from behind, knew what to do. Clayton swung wide into lane 3 and began his final drive, dropping Saruni and moving into 3rd. Continuing to close, Murphy caught the lead duo with 30 meters remaining and sailed on for the victory, even shutting it down over the final meters and offering a vigorous salute as he crossed the line. His winning time of 1:45.54 places him #6 on the world list and is the top American performance early in this outdoor season. Saruni (1:46.14) hung on for 2nd while Sanchez (1:46.42) grabbed 3rd.
Immediately after crossing the line, the victor was visibly elated: smiling broadly, clenching his arms, and crowing “He’s back!” In his post-race interview, Clayton shared his race thoughts. “I left it all to the end, super patient through 600 meters that’s for sure,” offered Murphy. “I knocked the cobwebs out there racing 800 meters. I am super happy to see the time and the finish.” When told he looked like his old self out there, his reply was quick. “I felt a lot like my old self,” Murphy revealed without hesitation. “I told myself when I crossed the line. ‘He’s back!'” grinned the winner. “That was the confidence I needed.” / Dave Hunter /