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Posted: February 7, 2020:  

(RRW) Athletics: Middle Distance Takes Center Stage At NYRR Millrose Games

From David Monti, @d9monti
© 2019 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved.

NEW YORK (07-Feb) -- The NYRR Wanamaker Mile is the most prestigious event in the most prestigious indoor track and field meet in the United States. But the NYRR Millrose Games' signature race is just the crown jewel in a program that has long featured some of the best middle distance competition in the world each winter. The 113th edition of the iconic meet will be held Saturday, Feb. 8 at the New Balance Track & Field Center at the Armory in New York City, and the lineup is among the most impressive ever assembled, including a collection of Olympic, world and European championships medalists.

PHOTO: Nick Willis winning the 2019 New Balance Fifth Avenue Mile, his fifth victory (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)

Saturday's winners will join a legendary list of past champions that includes icons of the sport, including Paavo Nurmi, Glenn Cunningham, Kip Keino, Madeline Manning, Mary Decker, Eamonn Coghlan, Doina Melinte, Maria Mutola, Noureddine Morceli, Johnny Gray, Bernard Lagat, Jenny Simpson and Sifan Hassan.
The fields in both the men's and women's 800's feature a World Athletics Championships medalist, led by men's champion Donavan Brazier. The 22-year-old American won the world title in Doha last fall in commanding fashion, capping an epic season. For all his accolades, however, Brazier has never won at Millrose in three previous tries. Last year the Grand Rapids, Michigan, native finished second to Kenya's Michael Saruni, but set an American indoor record 1:44.41 in the process. Calling Wilson Kipketer's 1997 world record of 1:42.67 unattainable right now, Brazier is instead focused only on topping a field that features several of his leading challengers for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team later this year, including Bryce Hoppel, Isaiah Harris, Brannon Kidder and Erik Sowinski.

Ajee' Wilson, on the other hand, has already established herself as Millrose icon, winning the women's 800 four times since 2014, setting a U.S. record 1:58.60 last year. In fact, she's the face of this year's meet, gracing the program cover.

"It's super humbling," says the 25-year-old New Jersey native. "It's a huge deal because I've been racing here for years. I remember how important it was for me when I was trying to qualify for the high school mile years ago." That was 2011, when she finished third in the girls mile in the final year the meet was held at Madison Square Garden.

Since then, Wilson has established herself as one of the top 800 runners in the world, winning world Under-18 and Under-20 titles and picking up bronze medals at the last two world championships. Despite the expectations placed on her, "coming here to race is one of the most low-pressure meets," she says. "It's like home. I know what I'm going to get. I know the building, I know the people, I know because it's close to home my family is always going to be here to cheer me on."

As Wilson looks to add another title to her Millrose resume, she'll face off against two other finalists from the 2019 world championships, Jamaican Natoya Goule and fellow American Ce'Aira Brown.

The women's mile, which also bears the Wanamaker moniker, has a rich history dating back to 1976. Depending on how tactics play out, the meet record of 4:19.89 (set in 2017 by Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands) could be in play. Canada's Gabriela Debues-Stafford, who finished sixth in the 1500 meters at the world championships four months ago, and Germany's Konstanze Klosterhalfen, the world bronze medalist over 5000 meters, lead a formidable international contingent. They'll have to keep their eyes on Great Britain's Gemma Reekie, a double-gold medalist at last year's European Under-23 Championships who ran a stunning national record of 1:57.91 for 800 meters last weekend in Glasgow, Scotland.

There are also several young Americans in the field who hope to boost their credentials early in an Olympic year. Elinor Purrier, 24, will be racing at Millrose for the fourth time, and hopes a fast race will help her lower her year-old personal best 4:24.88. That kicked off a breakout 2019 season, culminating with a spot in the world championships 5000 final. "It's just a privilege to be here and be a part of Millrose," says Purrier, the 2018 NCAA Indoor mile champion for the University of New Hampshire. "I look up to a lot of the women who have raced in this meet before. It's been going on for years and years and it's cool to be here and potentially be a part of history, because when we're older there are going to be kids looking back on these names and being excited about it."

Someone who is already firmly a part of Millrose history is Nick Willis. Though he has yet to hoist the Wanamaker Mile trophy, the 36-year-old New Zealand native has contributed to some of the meet's most thrilling races as a three-time runner-up (2009, 2015 and 2016). He made his debut at the meet in 2008 at the Garden, and remembers marveling at the mystique of the event and "just knowing how many times Eamonn Coghlan had won the race," he says of the legendary Irishman's seven wins from 1977 to 1987. "And then I had to race against Bernard Lagat, who ended up surpassing Coghlan's record." Lagat won eight Wanamaker titles between 2001 and 2010. "I got so close so many times here in the Armory that it sort of eats at me that's the one thing on my resume that I should, coulda, woulda won, but I never had," says Willis, a two-time Olympic medalist who hopes to qualify for his fifth Summer Games this year.

Standing in the way of finally grabbing a Wanamaker win is a line-up that includes Norway's Filip Ingebrigsten, bronze medalist in the 1500 at the 2017 world championships, as well as a pair of past Millrose mile champs, American Erik Jenkins (2017) and Great Britain's Chris O'Hare (2018). But Willis loves racing in New York—he gave his confidence a major boost by winning the Fifth Avenue Mile road race for the fifth time last September—and will keep lining up at Millrose, motivated, he says, by "the allure of giving myself that chance of trying to get that elusive victory here."


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