DES MOINES (26-Jul) -- On the second day of competition at the 2019 Toyota USATF Outdoor Track & Field Championships here at Drake Stadium, nearly all of the favorites advanced to the finals in the middle and long distance events which were contested: the men's 800m and 1500m, and women's 800m and 3000m steeplechase. The weather was sunny, hot and windy and not conducive to fast running.
In the men's 800m, both Clayton Murphy and Donavan Brazier of the Nike Oregon Project advanced, winning the first and second heats, respectively, in 1:45.24 and 1:47.27. Murphy, the defending champion, had to extract himself from a bad position with about 200 meters to go where he was running in fifth place and was boxed in.
"I guess I did run into a little four-wide wall there at 200 (to go)," Murphy told reporters. "I just stayed really, really patient and just relied on that strength over that last 100m."
Coming out of the final bend, Murphy ran around three other men, then closed in on race leader Brannon Kidder of the Brooks Beasts who was running smoothly about ten meters ahead of him. Murphy just passed Kidder (who clocked 1:45.42) before the line. Former Penn State star Isaiah Harris, who now represents Nike, got the third automatic qualifying spot.
"I love running in Des Moines, I really do," said Murphy.
Brazier had a smoother race than Murphy. Following the lead of the University of Kansas's Bryce Hoppel, who hadn't lost any of his last 21 races, Brazier accelerated on the backstretch of the second lap. Hoppel responded, but couldn't keep up with Brazier and had to settle for second in 1:47.84. Isaiah Jewett of USC got the third automatic qualifying spot.
Hoppel was philosophical about having his streak, which began on February 2, finally broken. He thought that if he had to lose it to someone, it might as well be Brazier.
"That's kind of what I was thinking in my head on that last stretch," Hoppel said. "Right now, I kind of feel a little bit free from it and focused on more of the important races instead of this getting every single one. Yeah, Donavan; he's a great guy to lose it to."
Erik Sowinski faded from the front in the first heat to finish sixth, ending his streak of making USA finals, both indoors and out, at 13.
None of the top men were eliminated in the first round of the 1500m, including 2016 Olympic gold medalist Matthew Centrowitz of the Nike Bowerman Track Club, the defending champion. Running in the third and last heat, Centrowitz eased away from the pack with his Rio 2016 teammate Ben Blankenship and 2018 Morton Games mile champion Sam Prakel on the last lap, finishing third in 3:43.46. It was an easy heat, Centrowitz said.
"I looked around with, like, 200 to go we had a gap on the field," Centrowitz explained. "I don't remember the last time we had a prelim where I knew, like, with 200 to go I just had to pack it in. So, I think everyone advanced through that everyone expected in this U.S. final, so I'm looking forward to Sunday."
Also advancing with aspirations of making the podium were Craig Engels of the Nike Oregon Project and Henry Wynne of the Brooks Beasts, who went 1-2 in the second heat in 3:43.22 and 3:43.23, respectively. Engels followed the taller Wynne in the homestretch to shelter himself from the wind before sprinting past him to win the heat.
"It felt awesome," said Engels who admitted that he didn't feel so good before the start. "I didn't (feel good) before the race, but it turned out well. I don't know; I just felt like shit."
Erick Avila of adidas/The Mission AC got the third automatic qualifying spot in 3:43.43.
Josh Thompson of the Nike Bowerman Track Club won the first heat which got off to a snappy start when Kyle Merber of the Hoka New Jersey-New York Track Club went out in 57.9 for the first 400 meters. Merber was trying to set an honest pace for his training partners Johnny Gregorek and Rob Napolitano.
"Kyle did a great job taking us out," Gregorek recounted. "We had to work as a team, me and my teammates out there."
Merber was still leading the race with about 250 meters to go, when the field began to leave him behind (he would finish eighth). Thompson was the strongest in the final 100 meters, beating both Izaic Yorks and Gregorek, but just narrowly. The three men were clocked in 3:42.12, 3:42.28 and 3:42.44, respectively.
"It's my first 1500 in a championship setting for a while, since 2017," said Thompson, who was clearly excited to have advanced to the final. "I was just trying to make it through to the final, play it safe."
In the women's 800m semi-finals, there was one significant casualty. Ce'Aira Brown of the Hoka New Jersey-New York Track Club --who had advanced to the semis despite the fact that she was only able to cross train for the five weeks prior to the meet due to a foot injury-- finished fifth in the second heat and was eliminated. She was third at these championships last year and had hoped to qualify for the IAAF World Championships.
All of the other favorites for the podium --Ajee' Wilson, Hanna Green, Athing Mu and Raevyn Rogers-- advanced. Wilson won the first heat in 2:01.02 with Green second in 2:01.37 and Mu, just 17 years-old, third in 2:02.47. Wilson said the weather was definitely a factor today.
"It was windy," said Wilson. "My coach (Derek Thompson) told me to be mindful of that, and adjust accordingly when we got out. I definitely believe in myself and I still don't take for granted that anything can happen."
Rogers, who trains with Wilson, won the second heat in 2:00.90, and second place went to Rebecca Mehra of Oiselle/Little Wing Athletics in 2:02.86, a surprise. This is only Mehra's first season focusing on the 800m under new coach Lauren Fleshman. She was as surprised as anyone, she said.
"I don't know if I would have picked me, either (for the final)," Mehra gushed. "On paper, it doesn't make any sense. There was a heat of people who were NCAA champions and who've run this event for years, run sub-two minutes, or two-flat. And, yeah, I would absolutely not have expected it."
Nia Akins of the University of Pennsylvania took the third qualifying spot in 2:02.90. Teenager Sammy Watson, who represents adidas, advanced on time.
The Big Three in the women's steeplechase --Emma Coburn, Courtney Frerichs and Colleen Quigley-- all advanced easily. Coburn, the reigning world champion who runs for New Balance, won the second heat in 9:51.43 with Quigley, who runs for the Nike Bowerman Track Club, second in 9:53.48. Frerichs, another Nike Bowerman athlete and the American record holder, won the first heat in 9:46.35, with former Boise State star Allie Ostrander finishing second in 9:47.54 in the kit of the Brooks Beasts.
Coburn, who has a bye into the world championships as the reigning champion, has won seven national steeplechase titles, and hopes to add to that total here this weekend.
"Twenty-thirteen sucked because I couldn't compete because I had a stress fracture in my back," Coburn told a clutch of reporters. "I won in '11, '12, '14, '15, '16, '17, '18. So, that's seven of them, and I would love to continue that." She added: "I have to bring it on Sunday if I want to keep that streak alive."
Ostrander hopes that Coburn's bye will provide an opening for her to make Team USATF for the World Championships.
"I'm definitely excited to be in the mix for Worlds this year," Ostrander said. "With Emma having a bye makes it a whole new ballgame. I'm just excited for Sunday, give it my all, and see what I can do."
Middle and long distance action continues here tomorrow with the women's 1500m and men's 3000m steeplechase finals. These championships conclude on Sunday.