2014 NCAA Men’s 1500: Were Other Outcomes Possible?

by Jeff Hollobaugh

When the script for a race has already been written, how much flexibility does an athlete still have? We’re talking about the NCAA Final, and everyone involved seemed to act as if the top two already had their names set in stone: defending champion Mac Fleet vs. eight-time NCAA champion Lawi Lalang. According to the script, Lalang would lead from the gun and try to burn Fleet’s kick away. The previous night, Lalang did just that to Fleet’s teammate, Edward Cheserek, to win a historic 5000m. Lalang has been able to use that race plan successfully in the 1500 as well, winning the Pac-12 race against Cheserek a month earlier, 3:36.34-3:36.50.

As formidable an opponent as Lalang is, it was hard to be surprised with the outcome of the final stretch match. Remember that Fleet had many months to prepare for this race, and it went exactly as he had visualized, with one exception: “It was a little bit slower than what I expected the first K [kilometer] to be,” he said. Yes, battling to the wire in a fast 5000 takes something out of a man’s legs, and Lalang’s limbs lacked a bit of zip. His 1500 pace of 58.0, 1:58.3 and 2:59 was not fast enough to burn anyone off. In fact, a disciplined rabbit could have done no better for the field. Note that I’m not dismissing Lalang’s kick–he is a true master at kicking off a fast leading pace–but that 13:18 had an inestimable effect.

The script almost seemed too easy for Mac Fleet. Follow, kick, lean. Perhaps the only thing easier would be memorizing Hodor’s lines in “Game of Thrones.” Note that he was prepared for the lean, as he made clear in the post-race press conference. He never expected that getting by Lalang would be easy. In fact, the only surprise was the aforementioned slowness of the pace. (Not a bit slow by NCAA Championships standards, but a bit slow for Lalang.) Said Fleet, ” When we came through 800 and the race was what it was, I was pretty excited because my chances from there got better. I knew we weren’t going to drop the field at the pace we were at.”

Fleet’s observation is spot-on. The slower Lalang’s pace, the greater variety of runners had a chance on the last lap. That generates the real question here. Did some of the other runners, by believing the pre-race hype that this race belonged to Fleet and Lalang, throw away their own chances to win?

The next two finishers bear a much closer look. It is possible to imagine scenarios where either of them could have gone down in history as the biggest upset winner in recent memory.

Loyola’s Sam Penzenstadler is a very curious case. Looking at his season record going into the NCAA meet, the typical prognosticator can be forgiven for not noticing him. On the surface, with a best of 3:43.25, he had no business in the finals. Hence Track & Field News left him out of their final top 10 picks, and LetsRun gave him short shrift as well. Says Penzenstadler, “My goal was to get top eight. That would be first-team All-American. And then a spot on the podium. Anything above that would’ve been great.” Realistic stuff there.

But a post-race look at Penzenstadler’s numbers makes one wonder if maybe he could have challenged the favorites. He ran his last lap in 54.76, just faster than Lalang. And his last two laps took 1:54.87, faster than anyone else in the race. His last three took just 2:55.96–faster than both Fleet and Lalang. (Note that 6th-placer Grant Pollock produced similar closing numbers.)

How did those numbers not bring him closer to the win? It’s not that he went out too slow. At the 300, he ran a reasonable 6th. However, over the next 200m he lost contact and allowed several others to pass him. At 600m, he had fallen back as far as 9th. Finally, at around 800m, he seemed to engage again, tightening the gaps and running more aggressively. He recalls, ” I think I was falling off a little. Then they slowed down just a little bit, which helped me and some other guys catch up. It was like a big pack again with like 600m to go. We were all back in the race.”

Maybe it was that he had slipped to 10th and 11th was knocking on his door. He stuck to the rail, passing one on the inside, and then bumping with another. His move to position himself for the kick at the 400 to go mark brought him to the outside of the pack in 8th place. Then more contact. On the backstretch, Penzenstadler found his rhythm just before Peter Callahan blasted past. “I was moving and that got me going because he just flew by me, and I used his momentum. He kind of left an alleyway for me to go through and I got behind him. It helped a lot. It did catch me off guard, but it was a good thing.” On the turn, Penzenstadler got up to 5th. Though Callahan got ahead, the Loyola junior continued his steady drive to the line, finally nailing him in the last 20m.

After the race, the Loyola coach, Randy Hasenbank, said, “We had a plan, based on how the field would go out, and the race unfolded just how we thought it would. And Sam executed that plan to perfection.” No doubt he did, if Penzenstadler was aiming for All-America status. After all, who would have thought he could have won? Yet, if he had run for the win from the start, he might have kept better contact over the first lap, and certainly been in better position once the kicking began. While we don’t know how Fleet would have reacted to being side by side with Penzenstadler on the final 100, the race would have been infinitely more interesting, particularly because Fleet was only focusing on Lalang.

Now that he’s had some time for it to sink in, Penzenstadler reflects, “I think that if I was up there with Fleet and Lalang, those two wouldn’t have wanted me to win. And they would’ve pushed even harder. It would’ve been close, though, and would’ve been interesting to see how that would have played out. Fleet looked very relaxed in the video. He looked very good.”

As for his amazing improvement this year, the former 4:18 high school miler says, “It’s still kind of unbelievable to think about. It still hasn’t sunk in fully. Now our next goal is I’ve got to go for national title.” And next time, he might not follow the script.

The other upset candidate, Peter Callahan, came into the race highly regarded, even tabbed by some as a dark horse favorite. The New Mexico junior improved steadily all season, and clocked a 3:40.50 in taking a narrow (0.05) second to Lalang at the West Regional. So while Callahan surprised no one by being in the mix on the last lap, what many will remember is his unfortunate fade-out over the last 100m. While fourth place in the NCAAs is not an embarrassing result, take another look at that last lap. If not for bad timing, Callahan might have won. He delivered an incredible 200m stretch in the midst of the last lap, from 1200 to 1400m. From the available videos, it looks like he may have split about 25-flat from post-to-post, even while running on the outside of the turn to pass traffic. Compare that to Fleet’s 26.4 for the final furlong, and Fleet’s sprint was close to the rail for most of the curve, until he ran wide to hold off Callahan and chase Lalang.

Bottom line: if Callahan been closer than 7th at the beginning of the final 400, he would have avoided some of his traffic problems. And if he had held off just a little bit on his final sprint, another 50-100m, say, he very well might have blasted past Fleet and Lalang on the final stretch. It seemed Callahan himself realized this after the race, saying, “I went a little early but didn’t fully commit to it.” He added, “I was in contact… If I can see the leaders and there aren’t gaps, then I’m comfortable.” However, sometimes being in position to win is more important than being comfortable.

Watch the race (bad music apology)

Results (6/14/2014): 1. Mac Fleet (Oregon) 3:39.09; 2. Lawi Lalang (Arizona) 3:39.13; 3. Sam Penzenstadler (Loyola/Chicago) 3:39.77 PR; 4. Peter Callahan (New Mexico) 3:39.90 PR; 5. Jordan Williamsz (Villanova) 3:40.25; 6. Grant Pollock (Virginia Tech) 3:40.41 PR; 7. John Simons (Minnesota) 3:40.57; 8. Michael Atchoo (Stanford) 3:40.66; 9. Rorey Hunter (Indiana) 3:40.75; 10. Sam Prakel (Oregon) 3:41.04 PR; 11. Thomas Joyce (California) 3:41.08 PR; 12. Brannon Kidder (Penn State) 3:44.30.

[photo courtesy of the Horizon League]

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