DES MOINES (27-Jul) -- The tactics were totally different from a year ago, but the outcome was the same. Here on the blue track at Drake Stadium, Shelby Houlihan of the Nike Bowerman Track Club and Jenny Simpson of Team New Balance once again went one-two in the Toyota USATF Outdoor Track & Field Championships women's 1500m in a fast sprint finish, 4:03.18 to 4:03.41. Along with third place finisher Nikki Hiltz of adidas/The Mission AC (4:03.55), they earned spots on Team USATF for the upcoming IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Doha in September. Houlihan's winning time was a facility record.
But there was a wrinkle. Unlike last year when the race was tactical, this one went out fast from the gun thanks to Lauren Johnson of the Boston Athletic Association. Johnson, who has a personal best of 4:04.17 from 2015, came into the final without the 4:06.50 qualifying standard for the World Championships. So, she needed not only a top-3 finish to qualify for the national team, but also had to run under that standard during the race.
"When you run the rounds without the standard, you have to do something," Johnson told Race Results Weekly after the race.
Johnson took the field out in 64.7 seconds for the first 400m and immediately had a three-step lead over the pack. Houlihan knows Johnson's abilities well, and wasn't quite sure how, or when, to react.
"I was not expecting that," Houlihan told reporters after the race. "I was like, I kept looking up at her and she's getting awfully far away. Should I go? I don't know. Jerry (Schumacher, her coach) would have told me to be patient and just wait."
Johnson ran the second circuit a little slower (66.5 seconds), but it was still fast and her lead swelled to about 20 meters. Behind her, Shannon Osika and Simpson were leading the main pack with Houlihan and Hiltz right behind them. For Simpson, Johnson's lead was getting too big, and about 900 meters into the race she took action and started to accelerate to catch her.
"I remember having this feeling; you never give away a spot," Simpson said. "You never just let someone have a spot. And so, even if everyone was going to ride my coattails, I'm not going to just let her make the team in front of me. I'm going to challenge her for the team."
Like a domestique in a cycling race, Simpson brought the pack up to Johnson and then went past her right at the bell. Houlihan was just off of Simpson's left shoulder, in perfect position to strike.
"I was trying to stay calm, just trying to save that one last gear for the last 100 meters," Houlihan explained.
Coming out of the final bend, five women were still in contention: Houlihan, Simpson, Hiltz, Kate Grace and, in the center of the track, Oklahoma State star Sinclaire Johnson who had the clearest shot at the tape. Houlihan was the first to sprint, and had the shortest line running right on the rail.
"I was just hoping that I could hold them off," admitted Houlihan who, like Simpson, will also race the 5000m tomorrow where she is also the reigning champion.
For Simpson, who won the national title at 1500m four times from 2014 through 2017, the loss was more of a win, at least in her heart. She has now made every outdoor national team she has competed for since first going to the IAAF World Championships in Osaka in 2007 as a steeplechaser.
"I'm going to start crying because this is 13 years in a row of me being top-3 at USA Championships," Simpson said, full of gratitude. "I don't know how to look back on that and wrap my mind around it. What I can say is that making the team this year is so fortunate as much as any other year. It's so special every time you make it and I've been so lucky."
Hiltz, who went from fifth to third in the final 25 meters, was thrilled to make her first national team, and became the first openly gay woman to represent Team USATF in the 1500m in a World Championships. When asked if it was the best race of her life, she said smiled broadly and said, "easily."
"It was amazing," Hiltz gushed. "I don't know; that last hundred was just like a big blur. I was just like, get to the finish, and I believed in my kick."
Sinclaire Johnson, who finished fourth just ahead of Kate Grace, was conflicted about what had just happened. She was thrilled to have run a huge personal best of 4:03.72, but coming so close to making the team and not getting on the podium still stung.
"It's heartbreaking," said Johnson in her orange and black school uniform. "I really thought I was going to make the team today."
Five of the top-10 women set personal bests, and all 10 possess the World Championships standard in case any of the top-3 women can't go to Doha due to injury.
In the other distance event held here today, Hillary Bor of the U.S. Army lived up to his billing as the favorite in the 3000m steeplechase and won his first national title in an exciting last-lap battle with one of his training partners, Stanley Kebenei, who represents Nike. They clocked 8:18.05 and 8:19.12, respectively, and both qualified for the World Championships. Interestingly, this was Bor's first victory in any track race in over two years.
"I've never won in a race in a while," said the always-positive Bor. He continued: "So, it always feels good to win."
Bor made the pace fast from the start, and led every lap but one. The pace was too fast for most of the field, so after four laps of the seven and one-half lap race, only four men were still in contention: Bor, Kebenei, Andy Bayer (Nike) and Mason Ferlic (Nike). Bor said that without seven-time champion Evan Jager in the field, who would often set the pace, he felt that he needed to be aggressive from the start and make sure the pace was honest.
"It's easy when Jager's in the race," Bor observed. "It makes the race easy. You just relax and wait for him to control the pace. Today, we came up with a different strategy; we had to make it harder for everyone else."
In the hot Iowa sunshine, the rest of the field quickly wilted, and after six laps Ferlic was no longer in contact (he would finish fifth). Bor and Kebenei were together as they approached the final water barrier, and Bor leapt off of the barrier with all of his strength trying to put Kebenei away. Kebenei responded, and they were about even again going into the final barrier on the homestretch. It was only then that Bor was able to put his friend and rival away with a quicker sprint.
"I was still feeling strong," Bor said of his approach to the final water barrier. "I was confident; I was confident I had it. I know Stanley. Stanley's good."
Bayer, who was clearly tired, was able to hold on for third in 8:23.23. He was overjoyed with making his first national team after finishing fourth at these championships in 2017, 2016, and 2015, missing two World Championships and one Olympic Games.
"My first team, finally," a smiling Bayer exclaimed. "It took Evan being gone to do it, but you know, if Evan was here the strategy would have been different." He continued: "Third is first at USA's, and now I have nothing to lose at Worlds, and I can put myself out there and go 'till I'm broke. It'll be a fun time."
There is a busy program on tap here for tomorrow on the final day of these championships. Five distance finals will be contested, including both the men's and women's 800m and 5000m, and the men's 1500m where Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz will be going for his sixth national title.