Sinclaire Johnson Plays The Waiting Game

Her collegiate career ended with an NCAA 1500 win, but Sinclaire Johnson’s international debut is still on hold. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

THE FIRST IN A SERIES of event-focus articles on the U.S. women’s 1500, an event on a hot streak and one in which we expect to see fierce-fierce racing when the competitive trek toward the Tokyo Olympics resumes.

WHAT’S A MILER TO DO when her season’s shut down by a pandemic with a reopening date still anybody’s guess? Every miler is asking that question as the Olympic year now stands postponed for 12 months. Sinclaire Johnson, who won the NCAA 1500 last June in meet record time, has a partial answer.

“It’s definitely hard,” says Johnson, now in her first pro year on a Nike contract after foregoing her senior campaign with Oklahoma State, “just because there’s no clear end in sight, I guess you could say. And we don’t really know when we’re going to get back to racing. But you know, this is a year that we can get better and so we’re just training as if we’re still having a season.

“With that being said, we’re still breaking up training. So last Sunday I did an 800 time trial, and it was nothing like spectacular. I ran 2:03 but it was just something to break up training and feel like there’s a purpose of what I’m doing, just mentally. So we’re going to do a series of time trials and kind of just act like there is a season.”

Watched from appropriate social distance by collegiate mentor Dave Smith, running with training partner Hannah Fields (2:00.53/4:05.30 PRs in ’17), Johnson has a series of runs against the clock planned over the end of April and beginning of May paced by boyfriend and sub-4:00 miler Craig Nowak.

“What we’re trying to do,” she explains, “is we had an 800 and then in a week we’ll do a K and then 2 weeks [after that] we’ll do 1200. And then 2 weeks after that we’ll do another 800. For that 800 we’re looking at me and Hannah trying to break 2:00. So ,yeah, it’ll be fun. My boyfriend Craig, he’s also running professionally, will be pacing us. He paced us last Sunday and he’ll pace for the remaining time trials. So that helps to have him there. And, hopefully we’ll actually be able to break 2:00. That’d be really cool.”

It would keep Florida native Johnson on the elite-level PR roll she got on last summer. After blasting to her 4:05.98 NCAA win over defending champion Jessica Hull with a 30.7 final 200, Johnson dropped her 2-lap best to 2:00.43 a month later.

At the USATF Championships she cut an additional 2-seconds-plus from her 1500 PR, placing 4th in 4:03.72. Her 60.65 last lap was second-fastest in the field, eclipsed only by the 60.59 of rocket-finishing winner Shelby Houlihan.

With World Championships berths on the line in Des Moines, Johnson admits, “It was so bittersweet, just ’cause it was my first senior national championships. That being said, it was a really, really cool experience and I felt like I got the opportunity to run against the best and kind of feel it out and see if I can compete at this level. So it was sweet in that sense and then obviously bitter in the sense that I was so close to making the team and had to be one spot out.” She had stood 8th with a lap to go before streaking up to miss making the Doha squad by just 0.17.

Her performance in Iowa confirmed Johnson can compete at this level. But she says she “wanted to stay in Stillwater [coached by Smith] leading up to the Olympic Trials because I didn’t want to change my training and my environment” in what was to have been “a really important year.”

Eventually she’ll head west to Portland to join the ultra-elite Bowerman TC squad, “probably in the fall,” she says. “No real rush right now, obviously, given the circumstances. I don’t want to move cross country while [C19] is going on.

Running as fast as she did at USATF meant Johnson was never going to have to spend the spring of ’20 chasing a Q-standard. “Going into this year, since I had the Olympic standard,” she says, “it was all about getting into races where you are going to be pushed, where you’re going to have to learn different tactics and try to just in get as many race scenarios as possible so that when it came to the Olympic Trials, I was going to be ready for whatever race was going to be, whether it was going to be a race that goes from the gun or it’s going to be a sit and kick. So that was the plan going forward.

“And then obviously races got canceled and postponed, and then obviously the Olympics got postponed. So I think that’s still going to be the plan going into next year—as long as they recognize qualifying times from 2019.”

In the interim, she and Smith have emphasized building toward the high work volumes that are routine for Jerry Schumacher’s self-styled Bowerman Babes. Johnson says, “We started to work on more mileage, longer stuff, more aerobic stuff, cause I think that’s something that I have lots of room for improvement on—and is one of the reasons why Bowerman is so attractive to me because they train like that. And I think with already having the standard, I didn’t have to be sharp or race ready anytime early. So we really haven’t done any true speedwork, speedwork that we would touch on normally in a [collegiate] season and tried to just really build that aerobic base.”

Johnson is well aware that at 22 she is the youngest principal in the U.S. event’s top rank but also knows she is not alone. “There’s always a new wave of people,” she says. “I’m sure, you know, that [Colorado alum] Dani Jones will be there. Then there’s me so it’s really exciting to see that it’s just gonna obviously continue on getting better.

“And it will be really exciting obviously to train with Shelby [in the Bowerman group] since she’s the American Record holder right now in the 1500. Getting the chance to train alongside one of the best I think will only make me better. I’m really excited about the future.”

And her past, her last race of 2019, that national title contest. “I remember we were all so close,” she recalls. “That last 100 was such a blur. I didn’t really know what position I was in. But for 5 women to run 4:03 in a championship race was just—it was really cool to be a part of and definitely speaks volumes for how deep the 1500 women’s field is in the U.S.”