2011 USATF PLOTLINES — Will Anybody Force The 1500 Pace?

The ’07 version of Webb was rewarded for his bold frontrunning. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

The USATF men’s 1500 should go off as one of the most competitive and unpredictable events on offer at Hayward Field. But if history is any guide, the pace will be predictably “tactical.” Odd if considered in light of the upswinging standard of U.S. running in the event in recent years but more understandable when the realities of racing for place come into play.

In the last 30 years, just three USATF finals—Steve Scott’s 3:34.92 in ‘82, Gabe Jennings’ 3:35.90 in ’00 and Alan Webb’s 3:34.82 in his mile American Record year of ’07—have come in at sub-3:36.

Webb also left the ’04 OT field more than 15 meters behind with a bold attack just 700 meters into that final, which ended up at 3:36.13.

“We should be setting the bar at winning an Olympic gold medal,” says Vin Lananna, coach of ’10’s fastest American, Andrew Wheating.

“Good athletes, good advisors, good training partners, and good competitive opportunities will take us to the Olympic and World Championship finals. All of those factors and a little luck will get the Americans on the podium.”

For this summer’s metric mile action, Lananna envisions an elevated bar also.

“I believe that they will see three Americans in the final and someone on the podium,” he says. “I am very encouraged by our work ethic and optimism. This is a great time for American distance running.”

The ’09 Kenyan Trials went to Olympic champion Asbel Kiprop in 3:32.82—at altitude. Is it conceivable we’ll see a similar outcome in Eugene, where four 1500 men with PRs in the 3:32s or faster should be in the final?

Not likely.

“At this stage in the game it’s going to be a tactical race,” analyzes Leonel Manzano (see Interview), who has placed 2nd at the meet the last four years. “I mean it always is. Unless there’s a guy who’s willing to sacrifice himself, I really don’t think that it’s going to go out very fast.

“It’s a championship race, which is totally different from any other race that there is. Championship races always go out slow. It’s just something that you already know from experience.

“Unless something changes, unless there’s a guy—and I’m not going to say it’s going to be me; it could be anybody—that’s willing to go through 1:54–1:55 through the 800 and just try to hold on to the finish… That would change things, but it’s a championship race.”

Manzano is right. Championship races, especially championships that are also qualifiers to the World Champs and Olympics, always come with a calculation for every competitor who has a real shot: “How soon can I move and still feel confident I can hold on to finish in the top 3?”

Webb’s surge at the ’04 Trials and Jennings’ with 500 to run were rare examples at U.S. Nationals of athletes taking a hard chomp at the apple early.

The final in Indianapolis in ’07 presented a different competitive picture from today’s. Webb and Bernard Lagat (running in his first USATF 1500 final) stood out enough from the pack on PRs and competitive record to justify the gamble, “If I forge an honest pace, there are not three others who can beat me.”

Even then, Lagat, although he was a two-time Olympic medalist, came up short against Manzano’s 55-flat last lap. He placed 3rd in 3:35.55. His legs weren’t totally fresh.

He had won the 5K two nights earlier, and he would win both events two months later at the World Championships. His gamble had worked. Fourth-placer Chris Lukezic trailed in 10m back.

Webb’s face told the tale. Smiling, he wept at the same time. Putting yourself out there with 11 fit milers behind you means racing into an emotional minefield, facing a yawning abyss.

This year, the formchart says there is too much parity. Who’d roll the dice?

While the shortened World Championships qualifying period for ’11 and tightened Daegu A-standard, 3:35.00, have added pressure to run fast and no American had the A-mark at press time, finishers in the USATF top 4 will be given through August 8 to chase the time.

Then there are Eugene conditions. The 1500 final will go off at 3:15 in the afternoon. That’s similar scheduling to the finals at the ‘08 Olympic Trials and ‘09 Nationals. For both of those races, particularly ‘09, wind kicked the runners in the teeth each time they hit the backstretch.

In the ‘08 competition, after which no standard-chasing was allowed under an edict of the USOC, Jennings, the winning Trials gambler 8 years earlier, pushed early against the wind in pursuit of the mark. Then he faded, to 12th in 3:47.92, as Lagat, Manzano and Lopez Lomong scooped up the team berths with times of 3:40.37, 3:40.90 and 3:41.00.

So it was then. So it’s likely to be now. But never say never. [Editorial note with hindsight: The 2011 USATF final did go like that. In spades as Oregon junior Matthew Centrowitz, the NCAA champ, grabbed the win in 3:47.63 in front of Lagat and Manzano and turned pro thereafter.)