THE FINAL CHAPTER
Ok, there were definitely some other things that happened in the final two days in Eugene, but seriously, Bernard Lagat just won the Trials 5K at age 41. Is there any better story than that? We’ll just have to wait until he comes back in the final mile to win gold at Rio.
Hassan Mead and Paul Chelimo were second and third. This was not the best race of the Trials (women’s 800, men’s 1500 probably go 1-2) but this was certainly the most interesting for me. And of course, the only way I can analyze it best is through some misguided prose!
Galen Rupp, who had already qualified for two events at Rio, led the race by a large margin going into the final lap. The chase pack strung out well behind him going into the final 400 meters. But it quickly became clear that Rupp, with no real motivation to win the race, had immediately transformed into an incredibly fast pumpkin. The chase pack took out Rupp’s 10 meter lead in about three seconds. Rupp said he wanted to draw the race out to help his teammate Eric Jenkins, but all Rupp’s strategy guaranteed was that he had nothing left to match a surge from the huge chase pack. In the end, Jenkins didn’t even make the team, meaning his efforts were for naught. Galen Rupp faded in the span of ten seconds, his face not one of surprise but of crushed resignation. It looked like he was walking in sand while his competitors were running on a moving airport walkway.
Then, with 200 meters to go, Paul Chelimo made, in my opinion, the bravest move of Olympic Trials (on the men’s side). Knowing the chase pack of Mead, Lagat and Jenkins were going to probably out-kick him if he played it straight, Chelimo decided to go into maximum overdrive from 200 meters out. He shot ahead, but Mead and Lagat immediately matched his bold move with a devastating counter-attack. Chelimo’s gambit was to have enough in the tank to hold off anybody else left in the field, but it came .06 seconds from blowing up in his face. Chelimo, with nothing to lose, with no Wikipedia page or accolades or World Championships to speak of, decided to gamble everything with 200 meters. It took some serious balls to just go for it and try to out-kick Bernard freakin’ Lagat, and yet Chelimo somehow made the team.
Look at Chelimo desperately looking behind him to make sure Jenkins wouldn’t pass him at the end. That is the face of a guy knows he f***ed up royally and that he wasted his energy going for it at the 200 meter mark. That is the face of a man who is really, really tired of running in circles and is about to lose a 5,000 meter race because of the last 10…5…2… meters. That is a face of complete panic.
But meanwhile, entering stage left, was Bernard Lagat, who predictably remained in close contention for the entire race precisely for a moment like this. You can say all you want about “veteran’s savvy” or “experience”, but from my point of view Lagat was in a rare position in the scope of his long career. Lagat, a man used to dominating races from the front and challenging Mo Farah for gold medals, was forced to make a big comeback from sixth (even by his standards) to catch Chelimo and hold off everyone off. Lagat’s speed cannot be debated of course, but at age 41, coming in with a stellar but not spectacular 2016, perhaps you could have debated his will. Remember, Lagat couldn’t finish the 10K earlier this week. For the first time, it looked like his era might be fading.
Did Lagat really need to go for this? His track legacy is as solid as Mt. Everest’s claim to being the world’s tallest mountain. He would have gone down as one of the greats (or at least a member of the Hall of Very, Very Good), no matter what happened in the final meters of this 5000.
The answer is of course Lagat needed to go for it. For the American part of his career, the 5K is his event. Lagat is to American 5K runners as Roger Federer is to Wimbledon. Winning this 5K was just the natural order of Bernard Lagat’s career. And so, entering stage left, Bernard Lagat, aged 41, the boogyman of American hopefuls and seemingly the runner of past, present and future, dove into the lead as he always does, and closed out with the fastest final lap in the field. And while no athlete can ever achieve immortality, (a truth that has been broadcasted endlessly in recent months with Muhammad Ali tributes, crying Jordan memes, lame duck throws from Peyton Manning and Roger Federer himself crashing out up 2-1 at Wimbledon) for a second it seemed like Bernard Lagat could do this forever.
Hassan Mead finished second after a good comeback of his own. He has never made an Olympic team. Mead’s finish was less dramatic, as he kicked with Lagat and was comfortably in third as the finish drew closer. He blew past Chelimo and raised his arms in a tepid celebration. You could argue that this should have been the 26-year-old’s moment, but after his 10K implosion, the only feeling he felt was relief. He could beat Lagat at Rio. But in those moments, as Lagat grabbed a flag and cheered with the crowd, Hassan Mead had to be at least a little bit amazed that Lagat had done it again.
Jenny Simspon and Shannon Rowbury were in a class of their own at the front. Meanwhile, complete chaos ensued for third. Brenda Martinez beat Amanda Eccleston to the line by .03 seconds. Amanda Uceny was also less than a second behind in fifth.
I would not be surprised if Brenda Martinez takes a few mental health days after this week. She deserves it. I guess “The Trip” from the 800m prepared her well to dive for the line in the 1500m. As for Amanda Eccleston…I dunno, I’d take a mental health month after that. She was as close as you can get. Her post-race interview made me feel dismal inside.
Alexa Efraimson ran well but she came up just short. Vaughn was 7th. Mary Cain was 11th. I was pulling for Grunewald to do well but she was well off the pace and finished last.
Instead of writing proper commentary, I will instead give some grades to the performances.
Centrowitz: A+ – Not much to say here. He’s just unstoppable right now. He also set an Olympic Trials record, for what it’s worth. All the pressure will be on him to get a medal at Rio. This was just a test.
Robby Andrews: A+ – Andrews was really impressive and his first Olympic appearance was not really in doubt after he clearly came out ahead of the position shuffling behind Centrowitz.
Ben Blankenship: B – I feel like Blankenship left it very late. I thought he would’ve broken away a bit more from Manzano (I realize that’s difficult). Obviously still a great job. He gets knocked down for pushing Avila as well. That was not necessary (and not DQ’able).
Leonel Manzano: A – This dude really gutted it out. A bit sad he couldn’t make it.
Craig Engels: A+ – First off, he’s a junior at Ole Miss and he just ran 3:37. Secondly, after Yorks, McNamara and Avila went out like ringwraiths to try to get the standard early, I really appreciated Engels’ far more patient approach. And who was the closest to the standard? Craig Engels. Slightly slower than an absurdly fast pace and steady wins the race.
Johnny Gregorek: B+ – Solid race from Gregorek, who had the same strategy as Engels and did pretty well. Unfortunately, it will not be enough for Gregorek to crack that top tier this time around.
Alexander, Winn, Merber: B
Izaic Yorks: C+ – I get the strategy. I understand he didn’t have the standard. However, I feel like you have to plan ahead a little bit if you decide to go for it that hard. Yorks clearly spent too much energy in the beginning and the pressure of getting to third after expending a huge amount of energy at the start led to that fairly horrendous last lap.
Eric Avila: C+ – Same as above. Props for going for it
Jordan McNamara: F – What on earth happened here? A 65 to close? Really?
Andrew Wheating: F– – Was nowhere for the whole race.
Men’s 200m Final
Will Merrit pull out of the 200m so he can focus on the 400m (and relays)? His agency says no. Lyles and Norman, the two high schoolers, did not make the team but still put their names on the map.
Women’s 400m Hurdles
I’m not too familiar with hurdles, but a 16-year-old named Sydney McLaughlin made the team. Her summer trip will be a ticket to the Olympics. She continues to lower the self-esteem of thousands college students around the country who are toiling at low-paid jobs are internships.
Molly Huddle did the double! Gosh, I’m on vacation and honestly I missed this race while eating some food. From the highlights and the results, it didn’t look extremely compelling. Huddle is a beast though.
Crap, I know I missed some events completely (you’ll have to go somewhere else for your heptathlon coverage, I’m sorry). I hope you enjoyed reading through my often inane comments on Olympic Trials. I promise to be back with more coverage for the Olympics itself!