MILING IS BREAKING OUT in Duck Town. Again. With head-scratching times and depth. Many aspects of life have come without precedent in the era of the novel coronavirus. Quite impressively, that includes the marks put up by Oregon milers this winter as the Ducks cranked out a fastest-ever distance medley time in January and then, 2 weeks later, an all-Oregon mile at the Tyson Invitational reeled off with astounding times: 1. Cooper Teare 3:50.39; 2. Cole Hocker 3:50.55; 3. Charlie Hunter 3:53.49.
Teare and Hocker sped well under the old Collegiate Record, 3:52.01, set by Edward Cheserek — of Oregon — in ‘17. And Teare claimed the 1500 CR at 3:35.46 en route. Aussie Hunter advanced to the No. 11 spot on the in/out mile compilation.
Even the athletes themselves were floored. On some level, anyway. “Back to real life pretty quickly,” said Teare when reached for comment before confessing he had not seen his CR coming: “I don’t think anyone really did, except for, honestly, maybe Ben Thomas, which is pretty crazy.”
Thomas is Duck coach Robert Johnson’s men’s distance assistant, on staff since autumn ’18 after molding milers in quantity for 17 seasons at Virginia Tech. Thomas’s optimism before the Tyson race drew in the athletes, though not instantly.
“I was talking to some of my roommates, talking about, you know, 3:54, maybe 3:53-high, and just really going in hoping to PR,” Teare recalls. “I mean, we’ve done some good workouts, but really nothing crazy that would say 3:50. And then on race day Ben handed us all this warmup sheet with sort of the paces, ’cause the race was pretty much just us. We had two pacers and [the sheet] basically said their jobs and what coach wanted them to come through.
“We were looking at it and he had like 800, 1:55 about, then a K in 2:24 and hopefully 2:53 [for 1200].
“And then it said on there if we closed in 41 for the last 300 we’ll run like 3:34 [at 1500] and 3:49. And I remember getting that and looking over to Cole and us laughing at that, like, ‘Why does he even have 3:49 on there?’
“And then after the race, we were like, ‘How does he know this stuff?’ It really baffles my mind how accurate he can be with our fitness. He’s been doing this for years, just telling us stuff. And we’re thinking, ‘I don’t know if we can run that,’ and then we’d go out and do that.
“So it wasn’t really in my mind, but I figured, ‘Ben knows best. So just go out and try to go get it.’ And then I ended up running 3:50, which was pretty insane.”
Oregon, mile fans will have noticed, is not the only school banging out sub-4:00 milers this year (and Washington’s Sam Tanner took away Teare’s 1500 CR). Going into the big Conference Weekend, there were no fewer than 35 collegiate men who had broken 4:00 in ’21. That includes oversized tracks, but no converted marks. Oregon’s 5 entries on the list tops all schools, of course, but isn’t the only one with more than 1: Virginia Tech has 4, Mississippi 3 and Texas & Washington State 2 apiece.
No other school’s tradition is steeped quite as thoroughly in the mile and 1500 as Oregon’s. At the outdoor NCAA, since ’54 when Bill Dellinger became the first to win a mile crown for Oregon, Ducks have taken titles 14 times in all, often with teammates close behind.
In 2010, Olympian Andrew Wheating, A.J. Acosta and Matthew Centrowitz kicked to an Oregon sweep up front before a home crowd at Hayward Field. Might we see a repeat this June when the NCAA returns to Hayward — a rebuilt 21st-century version — for the first time since ’18? We absolutely could.
If it happens, is CR-setter Teare likely to be part of it? Not necessarily, says Johnson: “If you look at it, he probably still is a 5K guy. All the greats or the people that win medals or win championships have those types of credentials in the mile. So I think this is just another arsenal in his toolbox.
“If the pace lags, he knows he has 3:50 speed there in the last 800, last 1000 of the race to take off and run with anybody in the country — or the world, for that matter. You’ve seen it early on in his 13:17 in one of those meets that they had [late last year] to provide kids with opportunities, he’s well capable of being able to have the long grind-out as well. So [the mile PR] is ultimately him just adding another piece to the toolbox that he has to be able to move into championship-season racing.”
Translation: don’t use pen to write in Teare’s name for the 1500 on your outdoor formchart. Use a pencil. But don’t rule out a sweep. Duck depth says you can’t.
Here’s the thing. While Oregon may have 5 sub-4:00 men on this year’s list, the more thorough accounting is 7 or even 8 heading into outdoor.
Sub-4 Ducks This Season
(classes reflect indoor eligibility)
3:50.39 — Cooper Teare
3:50.55 — **Cole Hocker
3:53.49 — *Charlie Hunter’
3:56.61 — *Reed Brown
3:59.95 — ***EJ Holland
Add to this list at 3:56.79 British senior James West, who apparently has one more season of eligibility. Then there’s redshirt senior Jackson Mestler (3:59.77 in ’19).
So seven total. But don’t forget redshirt senior Austin Tamagno, who formally lacks the credential but has run 1500 in 3:40.59, a 3:58.24 equivalent.
While long-time observers wonder what portion of the mile deluge at Oregon and across the collegiate landscape is attributable to new spike models, soph Hocker, who will have frosh eligibility for the outdoor season, cites a release of competitive steam that had been bottled up for a year by the pandemic.
“It was definitely weird, weird for everyone,” Hocker says, “and I think that’s why all across the nation times and marks are going down right and left — because everyone has been so ready to get out there.
“I don’t know, it was good and bad [my] being a freshman [when the pandemic hit] ‘cause I’ve got some time left. It’s not like it was my senior year, but yeah, I was definitely just starting to click, I think, with my new training and then everything just stops.
“But it looks like I was able to pick up where I left off.”
For Hunter — 8th in the NCAA Indoor mile in ’19 as a soph — the pandemic’s swift onslaught resulted in a near-immediate return home to Australia a year ago.
“We were in Albuquerque for the indoor national championships,” he remembers. “I was there qualified as the fastest miler, and we were ready to go the day before the race, my mum and dad were actually over in America just doing a bit of a holiday, and it just happened so quick. COVID just hit, that Nationals got canceled and I was on a flight back home pretty much 24 hours later. So I spent 6 months back home in Australia.
“Ben was still my coach. I had to alter things quite a fair bit just because in the early days of COVID where I lived, it was pretty much a full lockdown for about 3 months. So I couldn’t even leave the house. We ended up buying a treadmill and that’s where I was running for about 3 months that I kept to the program as best I could. I definitely kind of had to do it on the fly a little bit.”
For Hunter, 24, the spring ahead will also present the need to operate on the fly. Now the Aussie indoor NR holder at three distances following his 1:45.59 4-lapper a day after his big mile, Hunter intends after the NCAA Indoor to fly home, race in the Oz Trials in April, and then return Stateside for the climax of the outdoor collegiate campaign. He will likely need to quarantine twice during the process.
Last year, Teare, who prepped at St. Joseph Notre Dame in Alameda, California, and Hocker, a product of Indianapolis’s Cathedral High, endured a smaller pandemic removal from campus in geographic terms than did Hunter. Yet it was disruptive.
When the Oregon team — still hopeful a Pac-12 fall cross country season might eventuate — reconvened on campus in late August further calamity struck: a conflagration of forest fires that choked the air with thick smoke and ash.
“We had a fall, yes,” Johnson says. “Did we have the fall that we would normally have? Absolutely not. Because of course there were lots of hiccups and lots of inconsistencies there in the fall. And then we had the fires, which threw a wrench in our fall as well. There was a moment where the guys and gals ponied up and went to Montana for some days. Not our typical fall, not even a fall that we would consider productive based on all the interruptions. And maybe that’s the coach in us that always wants to have everything scripted so you can kind of predict the outcomes. Not a traditional fall, but a fall, I guess, better than some.”
Quarantined per state mandate upon their re-return to campus, the Ducks nevertheless, according to Teare, got in “8–10 weeks of really solid, good mileage, good intensity weeks” leading up to 5000s he and Hocker ran at a Southern California meet in early December. In that comp, Teare ran Northern Arizona’s Luis Grijalva close in one section, recording a 13:17.13 PR. In the other section, Hocker ran 13:32.95, crossing the line 0.03 behind Oregon great Centrowitz.
The secret behind this winter’s Duck mile breakout, if there is one, is Thomas, according to his athletes.
“Ben is very meticulous and it’s kinda hard to explain his training,” Teare says. “It’s very aerobic based. Going into that DMR World Best, the Tuesday before that was our first track workout. We had not touched the track besides maybe like some 150s at the end of a run or something. We hadn’t done any specific track workout.
“All we had done was stuff like hills and tempos and long aerobic stuff. And I think it’s a smart way to coach because by the time Nationals comes around and you do start that specific stuff on the track, you’re so strong and then you get that speed. I personally think he’s the best coach in the country.
“I think he knows something that other coaches don’t know. What that is, I don’t know either, but he just knows what he’s doing and the results speak for themselves.”
With the “time trial” part of the season behind them, Oregon’s milers now look forward to the NCAA Indoor — a championships test, racing for wins, places, points.
“We went almost a full year without that,” Teare says, “and that’s what brings out the best in people in track: getting out there and knowing anyone can win that race and just putting your best foot forward and trying to do your best to make sure it’s you.
“You can race the clock all you want, but the circumstances change so much when you have other people in the race and you’re really working to go win a title, not [just] run a fast time. So I’m really excited for that.
“I feel like I missed out on that aspect for a while. And once you get back to that, it’ll be a sense of normalcy getting back to just racing and how it used to feel, going out and competing against your competitors, but also your friends. I feel like everyone on the track scene is very, very close and a pretty tight-knit community. So it’ll be fun to just see those people, run against them, put our best foot forward.”