Ups & Downs For 800 Star Clayton Murphy

One of the highlights of Clayton Murphy’s international campaign has been a World Cup win in London. (MARK SHEARMAN)

“The 800 is a tough event to really get back into things if you’ve been away from it.”

Clayton Murphy would know, having ridden the roller coaster of the sport from obscurity to the peak, and then through injury to the point where he is again a player on the international stage. Just a 4:13 prep miler, in ’14 he was a promising Akron frosh with 1:50.03/3:44.53 PRs, but not yet a blip on the national scene. A year later, he made it to the semis of the World Championships in Beijing thanks to a clutch 1:45.59 PR at the USATF Champs. His junior year was the stuff of fantasy: NCAA titles indoors and out, turning pro early, Olympic bronze medal, 1:42.93, No. 6 in the World Rankings. Just a few ticks away from being on top of the world.

Then ’17 happened. Great early-season performances led him to try a double at Nationals. And it all blew up. A hamstring cramp held him to last in the 1500 final and kept him out of the 800 final completely. The summer season was suddenly gone; he tried an August race in Poland, placing a lackluster 7th.

“It was really tough to get back from that and get that issue solved,” the 23-year-old Ohio native explains. “But the season was kind of over by the point when my hamstrings really healed. Then in the fall I developed a knee injury. I had to have some minor surgery in November. Obviously with surgery comes side effects. That was a pretty big step back in the fall.”

While Murphy worked through rehab with coach Alberto Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project support staff, some fans counted him out. If he had chosen to wallow in the sport’s various message boards, he would have found plenty of doubters. He says he didn’t even bother to look.

“Obviously a lot of people talk and create their opinions,” he explains. “I never really looked at that. I knew I had trust in Alberto and knew what I was capable of. And so it was a lot of trusting the process and really letting things come along. It’s all about consistency and staying healthy. I really wanted to get back to where I was gradually and make sure that I was ready to go before we really let kind of let the horse out of the stable. It was really just being patient and trusting the process, trusting the coach and just seeing myself get back to where I was.”

That coach relationship is everything to Murphy, who also had a positive rapport with his college coach, Lee LaBadie. “Alberto was a very open to what I’ve done in the past and I’ve obviously had success in the past,” he explains. “We sat down to discuss what worked in the past and what I thought with things I really wanted to keep putting in my training regimen and he was very open to that. We worked together to create kind of a plan going forward.”

To the outside observer, the road seemed slow. A full indoor season in ’18 gave him a highlight of 1:46.61 for 5th at Millrose. But then he was unable to make the finals at the USATF Indoor. When he returned to Mt. SAC, site of his 1:43.60 a year earlier, he took 2nd to Mexico’s Jesus López in 1:47.22. In the early Diamond League meets he grabbed 6th in Doha, followed by another 6th in Shanghai.

A 3:53.50 mile at the Prefontaine Classic looked good; still, he was anything but a strong favorite in Des Moines. Yet he put together a dazzling kick to win his first USATF title, negative-splitting a 1:46.50 (54.54/51.96). The hits kept coming: a 1:44.69 a week later in Hungary. Victories in Lucerne (1:46.41) over Kenyan Alfred Kipketer and the World Cup (1:46.52) over Pole Adam Kszczot.

That led Murphy to the London DL, where he chased Emmanuel Korir to the fastest race of the year, 1:42.50, producing his No. 2 performance ever, 1:43.12. “It feels good to start getting back into the rhythm of things… I’m not that experienced at the event anyway to start with and then missing some time made it a little tougher to come back to it. But things are starting to click now and I’m just enjoying the process of coming back.”

And what of the 1500? Last year it looked to be getting equal emphasis. This year, it’s in the back seat, says Murphy, who says that his focus over the next couple of years will be solidly on the 2-lapper. “It’s a transition year for us,” he says. “A bit of trying some new things and keeping some old things.” He adds, “Really I’m just focused on ’19 and ’20 and really being ready for those two big championships.”