AS OF Matthew Centrowitz’s first track race in 11 months—the Pre Classic’s Bowerman Mile—the magic numbers were 4, 6 & 5 with the countdown clock ticking toward the USATF 1500 final in Des Moines: 4 weeks to go until the Rio Olympic champ hopes to win outdoor national title No. 6, after 5 weeks of healthy training with a new coach before the season opener.
Centro’s new coach, fittingly, is Jerry Schumacher of the Bowerman TC. The 6-time No. 1 Ranked U.S. miler joined the group in January after 7 seasons with Alberto Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project but injury kept him off the training track in any serious way until late April. His 3:52.26 for 6th in that opener—equaling his second-highest finish ever in the Pre Classic’s signature 4-lapper—suggests he still has time to sharpen enough to continue as the man to beat come Nationals time even though 5th-placer Craig Engels closed like a house afire to haul past him in the final straight.
“I had this hamstring thing that kind of lingered for months,” Centro explained to journalists after the Stanford race. “Then as soon as I was getting over that I had this shin problem that I’ve had since 2016. To be honest with you, I’m not even sure to this day what it is. I don’t know if it’s post-tib or what. But yeah, it felt like a tibia stress fracture or whatever it was, and I had to take another couple of months off because of that. I kind of felt bad. I just got into the group and I was helping to time and once I got hurt I’m watching all my teammates do great workouts and training and I’m just sitting on the sidelines, either warming up with them and that’s it or crosstraining. So it wasn’t the best timing.”
Centrowitz admitted the obvious as he eyed the silver lining, “With injuries there’s never really good timing but I’m very pleased with where I’m at right now and the way this summer’s set up with Worlds being so late. I think this is going to be probably a blessing in disguise.”
After winning U.S. title No. 5 last year, followed by three across-the-pond DL races—including a 3:31.77 seasonal best for 7th in Monaco and a 3:35.22 win in London—Centro’s health “was up and down for a real long time even when I was with Jerry’s group but the last 5 weeks have been tremendous and to come out [to the Pre meet], compete the way I did, run the time I did with just pretty much 5, maybe even less than 5 weeks of Jerry’s training. We’re both pretty stoked just about how I was able to compete here and also my future if I can get some months and years under my belt with his type of training.”
With a healthy spring Centro might have opted for a lower-key first race, but, “I’ll be quite honest with you,” he said. “I didn’t really have a choice, it’s in a lot of our Nike contracts, so if I’d had it my way I probably would have just done a dual meet—I was joking—just kind of shake out the rust or run with Lopez [Lomong] in Eugene last night. But it’s an honor being invited to this meet and racing against this caliber of field and all these great athletes. I mean you can look down the line and everyone is a medalist, a recordholder, a previous winner of this race. So on any given day—I don’t even know who won today!—anyone in that field is capable of winning and so I’m just obviously thankful for the opportunity. It dragged me to a fast time and I was able to get the standard in the first race. It’s a good problem to have, you know? I don’t take the Bowerman Mile for granted, it’s always a prestigious race and I look forward to hopefully winning it one day.” (He placed 2nd in 2015)
After racing his entire post-collegiate career in an Oregon Project singlet with Salazar his coach through ’17, Centrowitz said of moving on, “I think we both can agree that it was time for both of us. I got as much as I needed out of the program and he probably got as much as he needed out of me, and I think it was probably the longest coach-athlete relationship I’ve had to this day. So it gets to the point where I kind of just think it’s time to mix things up, and I felt like that’s where it was in my career. And I think he fully supported that and agreed as well. But before the [Pre Classic] race the whole Oregon Project staff came up to me—Alberto, our sports psych, Pete Julian—and wished me good luck. I wished the athletes good luck. So nothing but respect for that group and those guys and hopefully vice versa.
“I think each group, including the Bowerman group, you get fresh guys, you get new guys and, probably for the same reasons [Mo Farah left the NOP], we felt like we got as much out of it. [There were] other guys before me and after me as well. It’s just the way the business of the sport is. It’s not like I had any intentions on finishing my career there. It’s kind of just one year at a time, you have ups and downs. I just felt like the timing was right to switch things up at this point in my career. I needed something fresh and I really liked what the Bowerman Track Club is about and what they’re doing.
“I felt like had I been coming out of college right now, Bowerman was kind of like the Oregon Project that I joined in 2012, whenever it was—just a bunch of 5K guys, 3K guys, around my level that could pull me along in a lot of workouts. Plus the Oregon Project now is kind of like marathon and 800 kind of thing. I don’t know, I knew a lot of guys on the team. I was obviously the same [academic] class as Evan Jager. Ryan Hill, I believe is the same class as me or just a little bit younger. But I’ve had a good relationship with those guys so it just felt right, felt comfortable. I’ve known Jerry over the years since we obviously lived, were based in Portland, so it was an easy transition for me.”
Is Schumacher’s program different from Salazar’s? “Yeah, definitely,” Centro answered when the suggestion “more strength oriented” was raised. “Definitely more team oriented. I don’t know if that’s because of the size of the team or what but we have team dinners at least once a week, play a lot of games, we pretty much do all the workouts with the girls. Obviously different paces but warmup, cooldown, we’re all on the same schedule.”
Of his readiness for the summer and fall to come, Centro said, “I’m incredibly strong right now. Jerry’s training kind of worked out really well with that type of race. Just looking at how Shelby [Houlihan] kind of moved up as well [in the Pre women’s 1500] was something that I kind of had in the back of my head and kind of just thought about as well.”
Still, opening in a deep world-class race tested Centrowitz’s impeccable racing chops to the fullest and he liked the grade he received: “The time wasn’t special but it was the standard. I didn’t have the [WC qualifying] standard coming into this so that was pretty big for me to get as I only have a few opportunities between now and USAs. But also I stuck to the plan. Jerry knew that this was my first race in almost a year so I just wanted to sit back. Coming straight off of altitude I never feel really good anyway and mixing that with all the rust on me with racing, I kind of wanted to stay as relaxed as possible in the back and then if I had anything left the last lap get excited and move up. So it looked like it went to plan, but the first 800, even 1000 meters, I was a little bit off the guy that was in front of me, I think it was one of the Ingebrigtsens. There was like two or three times where I was yo-yoing and I didn’t even know if I was gonna stay engaged. At one point I was hoping, I think it was Nick [Willis] behind me, could kind of come around and close the gap a little bit.”
While twice Olympic medalist Willis—6 years the American’s elder at age 36 and working to time an autumn peak of his own—couldn’t grant Centro’s wish, talent and a hint of reawakening sharpness did. “Having wheels must be nice,” tweeted the anonymous wag who posts on the @BowermanTC account.
Centro foresees winning results ahead as he familiarizes himself with Schumacher and vice versa. Athlete and coach are “probably not as far along as we’d hoped just because of my injuries,” concluded Centro, who was scheduled to race at the Monaco DL before Nationals but opted for a domestic 800 (1:46.32) instead. “He’s got 20-plus other athletes so when you’re hurt you’re kind of not in communication. He doesn’t see you every day at practice and workouts. We’ve definitely gotten to know each other a lot more over these last 5 weeks as I’ve been training a lot more and am healthy.”