Looking back on 2011 & Daegu, and forward to 2012 & London, I find three areas in the U.S. that concern me. One is the men’s sprints & hurdles which I recently touched on. Another is our field events in general – something I’ll be talking about in the very near future. The other, that I’ll be addressing today, is our male middle distance runners. I say this in spite of Matt Centrowitz’ surprise bronze in Daegu, because it was just that – a surprise. Because right now there is only one middle distance runner that we can count on to produce when needed – Bernard Lagat – and his career is moving away from the 1500 and on to longer events.
We do seem to have potential competitors in wait in the 1500, however. Centrowitz dropped his PR dramatically in ’11 (3:36.92 to 3:34.46) and ran well in Daegu. Andrew Wheating (3:30.90), Lopez Lamong (3:32.20), and Leonel Manzano (3:32.37) all ran well in 2010 (all actually faster than Lagat) but had difficulties with injuries in 2011. A return to good health among this group would make a tremendous difference in our fortunes for London, as they roved in 2010 to n ot only be able to run fast, but to be able to compete with several high placings on the European Circuit between them.
Also potentially in the mix is Russell Brown, who has had steady improvement in the last three seasons – 3:37.32 (’09), 3:36.89 (’10), and 3:35.70 (’11). The Olympic year could prove to be a breakthrough for him. The same could be said for David Torrence who was 3:34.26 in 2010, and after a bit of a letdown this year (3:35.95) ended the season on a high note finishing third in the recent 5th Avenue Mile in 3:52.4. Then there is always the spectre of Alan Webb, who will be trying to pull it together one last time before his window closes on the Olympics.
While there is the potential to make a good showing next year in the metric mile, I’m much more concerned about our prospects moving forward in the 800 meters. We only have one athlete running under 1:44.00 (Nick Symmonds, 1:43.83) in an event that typically finds the best athletes UNDER 1:43 in an Olympic season. Which means getting into a position to medal will be near impossible unless the pace goes very slow – something almost unlikely to happen with David Rudisha and Abubaker Kaki in the race.
There are two things that are of great concern to me regarding this event. One is that our top two athletes are aging. Nick Symmonds will be twenty eight by the Olympics; Khadevis Robinson (1:44.03 this year) will be thirty five. This in an event that has seen a major “youth” movement in the last few seasons with this year’s top four athletes in the 21/22 year old age range and the year’s #5 athlete only 17 years old!
Of even more concern is that we don’t seem to be bringing much speed to the event. Among our current group of half milers only Robinson brings a decent 400 PR to the table – a 46.55 run way back in 1998. The rest of our crew rely more on mile strength than speed – Symmonds 3:38.18, 1500; Robbie Andrews 1:44.71/3:41.09; Tyler Mulder 1:44.83/2:17.91, 1000. With Charles Jock (1:44.67) and Cory Primm (1:44.71) running almost solely the 800 meters.
Personally I see this as a great weakness, as historically the top 800 men have traditionally brought great speed to the event. The first man to break the 1:44 barrier was Marcello Fiasconaro, who moved up to the event after competing in the 400 and setting an Italian record of 45.7. He used that speed to carry him to a 1:43.7 back in 1973. His success was part of the rationale for Alberto Juantorena (El Caballo) moving up to attempt the 400/800 double – which he successfully did winning both events in 1976, and establishing PR’s of 44.26 & 1:43.44, the latter a WR at the time. The man who broke the 1:43.00 and 1:42.00 barriers, Sebastian Coe, ran the open 400 in 46.87 and ran the 4x4 in 45.5. And the last two WR holders, Wilson Kipketer and David Rudisha had/have 400 PR’s of 46.85 & 45.50 respectively. Clearly there is something to bringing a bit of 400 meter speed to this event when it comes to competing at the highest levels.
So hopefully we will see a couple of things in 2012 and beyond when it comes to American’s in the 800. One is that it would be nice to see our half milers spend some time working on foot speed and working to improve their 400 meter times. The other is that it would be nice to see some quarter milers begin to give this event some consideration. Fiascanaro moved up because he realized that while he was the Italian record holder at 400 meters, 45.7 was never going to get him far in the event. Similarly we have a lot of 400 meter runners in that 45.5 to 46.0 range that might find greatness in the 800 instead of being obscure in the 400. America’s #2 all-time 800 man, Mark Everett, competed in both, a la Juantorena, and ended with PR’s of 44.59 & 1:43.20! And U.S. #3 all-time David Mack (1:43.35) was a main cog on both his high school (Locke) and college (University of Oregon) 4x4 squads.
Perhaps we can either get some of our current 800 men to cross train a bit in the 400, and/or get some of our 400 meter men that are currently running in the David Rudisha range (mid 45’s) to give the event a try.
In either case, I hope to see some progress from our male middle distance corps, because it’s been some time since we’ve been on the podium in either event in Olympic competition. Our last medal over 800 came in 1992, when AR holder Johnny Gray took bronze in Barcelona. And, believe it or not, we haven’t medaled over 1500 meters at the Games since Jim Ryun’s silver medal WAY back in 1968! So we have a lot of work to do in 2012.