Fisher finds stormy going in college race

by Jeff Hollobaugh

Allendale, Michigan, Feb. 13–The flashing signs above the freeways leading toward Allendale today read “WINTER STORM WARNING.” Weatherwise, most of the attendees at Grand Valley’s Big Meet knew what they were getting into. But for Grant Fisher, looking for what he and his coach called “a hard effort,” his initial foray into collegiate competition turned out to be stormier than he expected.

“I learned quite a bit,” said Fisher. “It’s a lot more physical on the college side.”

Running unattached in the invitational section of the mile, Fisher settled into fourth place in the early going, passing 440y in 61.1. The rabbit slowed the pace after that, and the field bunched somewhat before 880, which Fisher in third place hit in 2:04.6. Ricky Perez of Grand Valley took over the lead.

“They went through too slow,” said Mike Scannell, Fisher’s coach. “There were too many people up front.”

Fisher moved to second with 700m left, and appeared to be in great position for a final drive. At 1100m, the field started bunching again, and runners started moving on Fisher’s outside. Feeling himself falling into a box, Fisher accelerated quickly to the lead, and immediately let up on the gas, letting two others pass him before the corner, one on the inside, and one on the outside. Riley McInerny of Eastern illinois took over the lead.

Charging again on the turn, Fisher moved back to second despite some elbows and contact, hitting three-quarters in 3:07.9. Then, coming off the turn, he was clipped by Daniel Garcia of Cardinal Strich and nearly went sprawling on the track. “There was a bit of a move,” recounted Fisher. “A lot of people went to react to it–I went to react to it. I kind of got swiped from behind. I’ve never gone down in a race before, but I was pretty close today.”

By the time Fisher had recovered, he had been passed by four people. Sixth at the bell, he mounted his charge, but by then the lead was 15m away. He started passing people, but it wasn’t until the final stretch, after hitting 1500m in 3:50.6, that he made his way to third and it was clear he could get no closer to the front.

“I had a goal,” said Fisher, clearly a little frustrated with his experience. “I didn’t exactly meet the goal today. It wasn’t exactly a true measure of my fitness right now… I should have expected [the contact] a lot more than I did. I had hoped to be closer to the front with 200m to go.”

Scannell emphasized that the effort was not an effort at any sort of record. Rather it was for Fisher to get a hard run under his belt in his second race of the season. Apparently, his 4:07.29 on this same track two weeks earlier didn’t fit the bill.

The 4:06.72 clocking is an indoor best for Fisher, but doesn’t rate as a state record since it came on a 300m track. It is, for what it’s worth, the second-fastest high school time ever on an oversized track. The best is the 4:05.4 run by Dave Merrick of Illinois in 1971. Taking into account all track sizes, Fisher is now the No. 8 high school miler in U.S. history.

“It was definitely a learning experience,” concluded Fisher. “I’ve got to be ready for the little setbacks in races.”

Derrick Williams of Colorado State/Pueblo took the win on the strength of his final stretch sprint against McInerny. Behind Fisher, Wuoi Mach, a 4:23.43m runner at Grand Rapids Christian a few years ago, clocked 4:07.75 as a Grand Valley freshman.

In other notable marks, Katie Nageotte took the pole vault win over Kristen Hixson as both cleared 14-6.25. Cleary College coach Sarah Boyle blasted a 9:14.70 over 3000m. Grand Valley’s Amy Cymerman clocked 16:38.35 at 5000m. Central Mississippi frosh Erika Kinsey leaped 6-0.75. Shatora Lewis of Ashland threw the weight 70-1.75, topping the 67-6 of Bowling Green’s Brooke Pleger.

East Kentwood grad Tori Brooks (the brother of shot star Tia Brooks), cleared a PR 7-2.5 in the high jump for Davenport. Meanwhile, Antonio James of Michigan State won the throws double at 61-2.75 SP and 72-0.75 Wt.

Watch the video

 1 Williams, Derrick   SO Csu-Pueblo             4:05.67 PROV    1       
  2 McInerney, Riley    SO Eastern Illinois       4:05.93 PROV    1       
  3 Fisher, Grant       SR Unattached             4:06.72 PROV    1       
  4 Hall, Nick          JR Ashland                4:07.31 PROV    1       
  5 Garcia, Daniel      SO Cardinal Stritch       4:07.73 PROV    1       
  6 Mach, Wuoi          FR Grand Valley St.       4:07.75 PROV    1       
  7 Murphy, Robert      SO Vincennes              4:09.39 PROV    2       
  8 Barnett, Chase      FR Unattached             4:10.23 PROV    2       
  9 Askin, Aidan        JR Illinois State         4:11.41 PROV    1       
 10 Tredway, Adam       SR Central Missouri       4:11.90 PROV    2       
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How Grant Fisher Did It

Grant Fisher and coach Mike Scannell cooling down at what they call "OMP"--Old Man Pace.

Grant Fisher and coach Mike Scannell cooling down at what they call “OMP”–Old Man Pace.

by Jeff Hollobaugh

He made it look so easy. That’s what has confounded the media about Grant Fisher.

Sometimes the running media takes on the echo chamber qualities that we see in the political media. We write for the sake of writing, and like errant pinballs, we bounce off the words and ideas that others write. We scan blogs and discussion boards. We even read what the crazies have to say.

All because we have to generate buzz: Foot Locker Nationals is next week! We need to preview it! We need to say something! And what was said? We saw plenty of predictions that so-and-so would challenge Fisher because his times have been faster this year. The writers looked at the times—these deceptive points of data—and interpreted them at face value. Some haled Fisher as the strong favorite, but that gets boring to repeat article after article, so alternate story lines had to emerge.

Then when Fisher won, gapping the field with deceptive ease, looking over his shoulder repeatedly as if he were wondering where everybody went—the running media said, Of course. What’d we tell you?

They slapped the “legend” mantle on him, for a race that might have been as easy as it looked.

The real question here is not whether Grant Fisher is a legend. He is what he is. It is not how fast he ran or how fast he might have run had the race rolled out differently. The real question is how Grant Fisher did it.

Amazing Training Secrets. There are none. Coach Mike Scannell is an open book and is glad to talk to other coaches about training. But he admits, “I’m almost embarrassed by what we do for training, because it’s so mild [in comparison to the competition].”

That’s because in a Foot Locker field where many of the young men are pushing 100 miles a week, Fisher’s volume was half that. But Scannell cautions: “Who cares? I mean, miles a week is nothing to me. The way you train, the manner you train, the how you train—is everything to me. If I tell you how many miles a week he runs, it means nothing. In the United States, people would say, ‘Grant Fisher runs X miles a week, I’m going to run X miles a week. I’m going to be just like Grant.’ Well, it doesn’t work that way. It’s how you run those miles.”

That volume difference seemed especially striking in the midst of summer, while his competitors crushed serious mileage. Fisher, with his last track meet in late July, was still on a zero-mileage break. “That was kind of nerve-racking at the beginning, knowing that these guys who I would be racing down the road had a three-to-six week jump on me training-wise,” admits Fisher. “But I sat down with Mike, and we planned out the season and pushed all the hard efforts back. We didn’t want to rush things just to get back on the racing scene quickly.”

Says Scannell, “Our training is very tight, there is no doubt about it. It’s very tight. But I can tell you that these other kids run way harder than Grant does. Way harder. It’s just that we are on a very tight line for stress and adaptation.”

The training is specific. The paces that Fisher runs in practice are carefully calculated. The tempo runs are perhaps the most important part of building his fitness. Every run in between serves its purpose. There are no “junk” miles for the sake of building a mileage count.

Scannell and his boys made a lot of trips this fall to Perryville Road, a little dirt lane south of Grand Blanc. The angles of hill match the Balboa Park hill; there is even a tree at the spot where Fisher rehearsed his big move. While his training partners ran repeats up the hill, Fisher ran his up and over. He prepared his legs to not only attack the aggressive downhill, but to sprint at the bottom. He and Scannell learned from the previous year: “He was kind of out of control, and he hammered his quads, do you remember that? And then when he went to his quads 30- 40 seconds later [for the final sprint], they were shot.”

Fisher’s feelings for Perryville Road were, well, complicated. “I would see it on the schedule and cringe. That was a super tough workout. It was harder than a lot of stuff you could do on the track. No matter how good of shape I was in, it was always hard. At the beginning of the year, the first time we did it, I did eight repeats, and I was pretty tired because the hill is steep and long. It definitely takes its toll on you. By the end of the year I could do 10 max, but I was going a lot faster. Even though I dreaded going to the hill, it really prepared me well for the hills out in Balboa and Wisconsin.”

Restraint is important. “There is no workout where at the end Grant can’t walk to the locker room,” says Scannell. “We’re not even close to that. At the end of a race, absolutely. But at the end of the workout, we’re not even close. And I tell people, this is the truth, Grant Fisher ran four quarters hard in training all year. From January 1 to December 31, Two in one workout before Adidas, two in another workout before Juniors. And that was it.”

Scannell is not afraid to pull the plug on a workout if he doesn’t like what he sees. Still very fit himself, he often runs with his boys. Sometimes he can tell by the sound of the footstrike when someone is overextended. Last year, he says, it was rare for Fisher to finish an entire tempo workout as planned. “Grant has never been injured,” he says. “That’s not because of some voodoo doll. We train very specifically and we recover very specifically. It’s not a special skill.”

He’s no longer sharing his body with soccer. In Scannell’s opinion, Fisher’s decision to leave soccer had a huge impact on his fitness. “Our training was shocking, how smoothly it went this year. No slide tackles, no sprained ankles. Last year we interrupted our training and based it on how he felt after soccer. But this year there was no soccer, so it was only stress and adaptation on the running side. We could plan for and complete the training as planned much more frequently than we ever had before. His growth this fall was as good or better than it was in the spring… I’m ready for a spring that we haven’t seen yet out of Grant Fisher.”

Explains Fisher, “It did feel kind of weird but also it was nice not having places to scramble to all the time, all those practices to balance, all those conflicts. Doing two sports at the same time took a lot out of me both physically and mentally… This year I had a lot more time to focus on running, and because of that I paid more attention to details. I really devoted myself to the sport—not that I wasn’t devoted before. But I could really focus on workouts and not be worried about a soccer practice later that evening draining my energy, and not letting me fully recover from the workout and get all the benefit I could.

“Soccer is where my heart was couple of years ago, but running is where my heart is now.”

Most of his races are pieces of a later whole. This is why the running media is usually wrong when they look at a time that Fisher runs and assume it makes a statement about his fitness. In the vast majority of his competitions, he is working on just one piece of the race.

“People have noticed that I don’t really race fast until it’s really time to race fast,” says Fisher. “That’s all due to the training and the preparation. The reason that I don’t race fast in the middle of the year is that I’m not ready to run fast, and the training isn’t geared for me to run fast in October.”

Explains Scannell, “We divide races up like a puzzle. ‘This is the piece that we’re working on today.’ And the thing is, people might say he only ran 4:10 for the mile. No, he didn’t. The kid came home in 1:58. I mean, at some point you’ve got to say, either he’s really stupid, or you’re not working on running a full mile today.”

At the Portage Invitational, where Fisher ran his fastest time of the year, 14:43, he was concentrating on pieces of the puzzle. It was not an attempt to see how fast he could run a complete 5K. Even at the Michigan state finals, where Fisher became only the fifth person to break 15 minutes on the Michigan International Speedway course, he was still working on the pieces.

He kept his cool. Sometimes during the fall it seemed like every other runner in America was saying something about Fisher on the Internet. On occasion, Fisher might glance at the high school scene on various websites, but usually he just follows the college action. Of the prep coverage, he says, “It can be kind of annoying. People running these course records and really fast times, and everyone was asking the question of can they compete for the Footlocker championship. I think seeing that wasn’t the best thing for me training-wise. I’ve realized that it works better to stick to what we’re doing in Michigan, and not really worry about what someone’s doing in some other state. We have our goals and we’re going to do the best we can to achieve them. The websites are great and they are really informative. For me being a racer, I try to avoid them.”

Then there are the fans. When Fisher races, he gets deluged by runners who want to have their pictures taken with him. Not many 17-year-olds have the wiring to handle that kind of overload gracefully. Fisher does: politely, graciously, cheerfully. “Grant gets mobbed,” Scannell reports. “As we’re talking, out of the peripheral vision, you can see people standing right here. They won’t interrupt Grant and I, but they politely stand, and the moment we’re done, boom! ‘Can I get my picture with you?’ He’s a great kid. People love him, and honestly they should. I’m very proud to say that Grant Fisher is a great role model, and if you had a freshman in high school that’s in love with the way that Grant does things, that’s a good thing. Let it go. Because Grant does things the right way. It’s boring. And he does it day after day.”

Every race is meticulously planned. “I know some people think that he just puts on spikes and goes out and wins,” says Scannell. “We cover every minute detail. Honestly. Defending is not easy. When the whole United States wants to beat you? You better be prepared for everything. We prepared for everything.”

Referring to Fisher’s 2013 win, Scannell says, “The success band last year was this wide,” as he holds his fingers an inch apart. “If you don’t do this exactly, you might not win. I knew he was going to be competitive. But winning? That’s a different story.”

For 2014, Scannell prepared Fisher differently. He describes the “mental break” that is important to the Balboa Park course. That’s where runners crest the last big hill, catch their breath, and as they fly the downhill, they gather the momentum for the finish a half mile later. “We went before that,” says Scannell. Rehearsing the move on Perryville Road helped.

“Last year we were maybe 10% ready. This year we were 99.9% ready. Everything was covered,” says Scannell. Even the looking back. “I will take full responsibility for Grant Fisher looking back in the race. He’s never done it before. It was so muddy and so bad on Thursday and Friday. On Thursday we picked out four spots, four specific places to look back. And the reason we did that is, I didn’t want him going around a corner and going down and having somebody jump him. We wanted to know exactly where everybody was. It’s all my fault. He was uncomfortable doing it, as a matter of fact.”

The race did not go as planned. Fisher had no problem sticking to his own plan. It was the competition that didn’t perform the way Scannell thought they might. The hard first mile by Thomas Pollard? That was expected, though not necessarily from him. Fisher did not run alongside him—and no one else did either. Pollard was unable to break away.

What surprised the Fisher camp was the middle of the race. “I expected someone to really hammer the second mile,” says Fisher. “Based on how things went last year, I thought that people might want to try to drain the kick out of a lot of the guys, and push the pace in the middle. Not everyone in that race is a kicker. I thought people would try to string things out. But it didn’t really happen. Some guys went to the front and pushed a little bit, but it wasn’t enough to shake things up significantly. That played more into my hands, with my race strategy. I was prepared for someone to make a solid move. When it didn’t happen, I didn’t panic. It was actually a bit of a confidence booster, because I would be able to make more of a definitive move later on.”

“If I were coaching someone to beat Grant Fisher,” begins Scannell, who stops and admits he shouldn’t say that. But he betrays his thinking when he says, “It had to be so hard at two miles that no one was there, and instead there were 10 guys there.”

In effect, the competition made the race easier for Grant Fisher.

What’s next? Since Fisher made the early decision deadline and chose Stanford, that eliminated half of the questions the media would have had for him this winter. “It could’ve gotten overwhelming if the process had gone on a little bit longer, but I was ready to make my decision. I’m 100% confident in the decision, and it worked out that it happened during the early signing period. From then on I was able to really focus on running, on training, and doing my best, and getting ready for the big meets, and not so much worrying about where I’m going to be next year.”

The other half of the questions Fisher will face all involve the pursuit of the Holy Grail of prep running, the four-minute mile. Just since Foot Locker, he estimates that 75 to 100 people have put the question to him. It’s a topic that makes Scannell cringe, and it’s a conversation that hasn’t happened yet between them.

“For me, Grant Fisher is a sub-4:00 miler. I am 100% certain,” says Scannell. “However, whether or not he does that is a completely different story. And, you know, right now I don’t have any motivation to set up a race to watch him run under four. None.”

Not that Scannell is opposed to seeing Fisher cut 2.03 seconds off his mile PR. “That would be great, but to this day, Grant Fisher and I have never ever discussed going out and running a four-minute mile. Never. I’ve never even asked him, ‘Do you want to do this?’ I’m a terrible coach.” He laughs, but his point is clear. What the coach prefers is competition, not record attempts. “That’s my job – I will find Grant competitive races in track. No doubt about it.”

Fisher knows what’s up. “The pressure is kind of time-driven now in track. It is weird thinking that I’m two seconds away from this barrier that everyone has been talking about… I don’t really view it as a barrier, just because I’ve seen so many people go under it. Obviously not so much on the high school side, but I think it’s much less of a barrier now. If you think of it as a barrier, it becomes a barrier.

“I understand that it’s very difficult to cut time now that I’m pretty low in the four minute [range]. It’s definitely not going to be an easy task to cut down two seconds… Two seconds, it really doesn’t seem like much. Just standing here, two seconds goes by pretty quickly. We’ll see what I can put together this year in track.

“That’s what everyone’s talking about right now. The four-minute mile. But I will set the goals for myself. I usually don’t let other people set goals for me or to set expectations for me. I set them for myself. That’s how we’ll approach the season.”

How talented is Grant Fisher? “I don’t know,” admits Scannell, who thinks his charge probably has 50-second 400m speed now. “Fifty is not fast. So if I can get Grant into the 48-point range this year, I’ll be happy. He’s just getting to the point where he can get fast. But that question really honestly can’t be answered until he’s 21. Then we can see that this is his speed, this is his aerobic capability, his biomechanics, his physiology. This is his cap. But right now, his progression has been like this”—he angles his arm upward—“there’s been no slowdown.”

Speedwork is coming. The last frontier in Scannell’s training plan is speedwork, and the two will finally move toward it this winter. He even hints that we might see Fisher in an 800m at some point. “I have these building blocks, and once you accomplish one, you can add another. Grant hasn’t done any speedwork. You know why? He wasn’t capable of it yet, in my opinion. He wasn’t capable of doing speedwork because he hasn’t been old enough, strong enough and couldn’t recover from it, so we didn’t do it. So this is the last building block for Grant. I’ve never had a kid get to all of these building blocks in high school. Ever. And I think Grant is ready for speedwork, because he’s getting to the point where he can tolerate the recovery from the demands of speedwork.”

Adds Fisher, “Mike wanted me to go to my college coach and say I haven’t tapped into all my potential, that there are still things I can do to improve my fitness and my speed. To actually do some speedwork this spring will be fun. I think with soccer over the years, it’s helped develop my speed quite a bit, but there really hasn’t been any speed work to speak of on the track. It’s always nice going into a season knowing that there are things I can do to get faster, not like I have tapped out on all the possible things to do, and run out of ways to get better. Having Mike as a coach, he always makes sure that there are things we can do to improve.”

Right now, Fisher is taking his well-deserved down-time. Jogging with his friends, getting his wisdom teeth out, visiting relatives in Canada. We may see him emerge to work on some racing “pieces” during the indoor season. And as long as the running media can stay as calm as the 17-year-old from Grand Blanc, everyone should be able to look forward to a memorable track season.

Watch the entire Foot Locker Nationals webcast.

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Who is this Sarah Kettel, and why is she winning so much?

by Jeff Hollobaughkettel1

Who is Sarah Kettel? More than a few Midwesterners surely asked that after the high school junior won the Nike Midwest Regional in Terre Haute, Indiana, a week ago. Even in her home state of Michigan, those who are familiar with the name refer to her as “that homeschooled girl” without knowing her backstory. How did she apparently come out of nowhere?

She didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, but in running terms, close enough. If one were to look carefully through the previous year’s Nike results, they’d find Kettel’s name in 96th place. Not exactly headline material.

This fall is playing out differently. Kettel has been tearing up cross country courses all season, winning every race she has run and notching an incredible five races between 17:25 and 17:30. She came to Terre Haute hoping for a top five finish. It would be her first race this season against Audrey Belf, who won Michigan’s D1 title in 17:19 and was undefeated herself.

Yet for Kettel, it all started inauspiciously. She grew up in Brighton, Michigan, and while she loved being active and playing outdoors, her experiences with the gateway sport of soccer were limited to age five or six (“I loved to run from one end of the field to the other with the crowd of kids who were chasing the ball”–kicking it, though, not so interested). After starting off in the public schools, she and her family opted to try homeschooling following first grade. Her mother, Dianne, put her career as a veterinarian on hold to school Sarah and her younger sister Rebecca. “I was a couch potato in high school. I took up running probably 12-13 years ago kind of as a stress relief. With little kids at home it was an efficient way to exercise myself and the dog at the same time. And get away from everything. I went from nothing to just really enjoying running,” says Dianne, who eventually convinced Sarah to try some road races as a ninth grader.

The results didn’t set the world on fire (46:34 in her first 10K in August 2012), but eventually another runner complimented Sarah by saying that she might be good enough for a college scholarship.

For his part, her father Richard—himself a sub-17 type as a high school runner—started to have his eyes opened midway through the Ludington Lakestride Half-Marathon. “I saw the first female coming by and I saw Sarah like 50 feet behind her. It really hit me then, ‘Wow, she’s got a lot of talent.’ And the second thing that hit me was she’s going to have to learn to pace herself.’ I think she ended like 15th or something for the females.”

“That was exhausting,” says Sarah of her half, which she ran in 1:45:32.

The enjoyment Sarah experienced on the roads got the family interested in finding cross country and track opportunities. Richard called the athletic director at Brighton High School, as well as the Michigan High School Athletic Association. For home-schooled athletes to be eligible for school sports in Michigan, they generally need to take four classes through the local high school. This can include online classes. (In neighboring Ohio, the state legislature in 2013 allowed homeschoolers to participate in school sports without taking any school classes.) However Sarah remained committed to her homeschooling—“It has been amazing”—and had no interest in changing her program. A student with a very keen intellect (favorite book, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, written in 1678), she is intent on eventually being a nurse or perhaps a physician assistant.

So the Kettels started contacting various homeschooling organizations in Michigan. After hearing of a homeschool athletic organization in a nearby town, Richard says, “I called them, and they said, ‘Well, we don’t have a cross country team. But if you’d like to coach it…’ And I’m like, ‘I haven’t run in 29 years. I’m not qualified to be a coach.’ Then I did some more searching and I found the Lansing group which has been a blessing. It’s still a bit of a drive, but it’s worth it.”

The Capital Homeschool Athletic Program offers eight different sports. The cross country team was still in its infancy, having been started in 2011 by Kevin Shoemaker, who admits, “I started the program primarily for my own kids. We’re a home-schooled family, and I’ve got four kids, and I’ve been a runner, ran in high school and college. My kids were sort of intrigued by watching me run, they were like, ‘Hey let’s try this. It would be fun to run with you, Dad.’ And so we started to run a little bit, and I got some interest from one or two other families that I knew were interested. Honestly, the first season, I didn’t even know if we were going to get seven kids. Things have just taken off. Our team has grown tremendously.”

Currently, the Chariot high school squad has 33 runners; the program offers only two other fall sports, boys soccer and girls volleyball. Shoemaker added a track & field program in 2013. He says there are about six similar homeschool cross country in the state of Michigan.

The dynamics of the team are not entirely unlike most public school teams, but there are differences. Athletes must practice at least three times a week with the team to ensure the squad remains primarily local. Coach “Shoe” leads prayers before and after practice. Not surprising, since he is the pastor at East Lansing’s Capital City Vineyard Church.

He says, “We’re not affiliated with any particular church, and we have kids from all different churches that are affiliated with our team. Obviously, I’m a Christian, but you don’t have to be a Christian to be on the team. You don’t have to be a Christian to homeschool. So we’ll take anybody that’s homeschooling their kids and wants to participate in our program. But by the same token, I’m not ashamed in any way of who I am and what I believe… That’s just part of who I am, and people know that, and if they don’t want to join the team because of that, that’s their choice… We talk about Hebrews 12:1: ‘Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.’ That captures not just the physical reality of how we run cross country, but also the spiritual reality of how we live our lives.”

Shoemaker ran collegiately at D3 Hope College in Michigan, making all-conference in 1986. He also filled in for a year as an assistant cross country coach at Hope when another coach took a leave of absence. “That’s where I got my first taste of coaching and I really enjoyed that experience,” he says.

When Sarah Kettel and her younger sister Rebecca showed up for their first Chariots practices in the summer of 2013, Shoemaker saw that they would make a nice contribution to the team. By the second race, he realized that Sarah showed frightening potential. “Her first race, she didn’t win. She came in eighth place. And she did well, but it was like 20:12. But I didn’t know how good she was going to be. Our second invitational, we ran the Bath Invite. And she went out fairly conservatively, which she likes to do generally. But then she started moving up and picking people off and halfway through the race, she was in the lead. I was like, ‘Holy smokes, where did this come from?’ By the end of the race, she had held onto that No. 1 position and pulled out the win, I was just shocked. I was like, ‘Wow, she’s better than I thought she was going to be.’ ”

The progress continued. By the end of the season, she usually ran in the 18s, with a best of 18:23. She tested the water of national competition at the Nike Midwest Regional, but that didn’t go so well. “It was a muddy, windy mess… It was so muddy and windy that you wouldn’t even recognize it from this year,” she says. She struggled to 96th place in 20:54, her slowest time of the season by far. The Foot Locker Midwest Regional went a bit better. She finished 40th in 18:43.

Her appetite whetted, Sarah trained hard over the winter. Says her father, now a devoted runner himself after decades away, “She went out on a lot of days I wouldn’t have. She’s very tolerant of the cold.”

Able to compete fully in Michigan’s indoor circuit (which is not sanctioned by the MHSAA), Sarah ended up placing eight in the 3200m at the indoor finals in 11:06.66 (Audrey Belf won in 10:31.78). Then she traveled to New York City for the New Balance Indoor Nationals, where she ran the Emerging Elite two mile, placing eighth in 10:58.96.

“I had an amazing time [at New Balance] in New York,” says Sarah, “but then after that I had a couple races with competition and all of a sudden was without competition. It was really hard for me to figure out how to do the same thing I was doing in competition by myself. For most of the season I felt a little discouraged because I wasn’t PRing from what I had done with competition.”

In a few invitationals she found herself mixing it up with D1 stars. While she went undefeated at 3200m (she often ran 3-4 events per meet), she took her knocks at the shorter distances. Still, she finished her first track season ever with bests of 2:21.79, 5:01.46, and 10:51.98. In Greensboro at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals, she placed 16th in the 5000m with a 17:45.74, then followed with an 11:00.27 in the Emerging Elite two mile the next day.

That led to this past summer, and Sarah managed about 50 miles per week in her build-up to her second cross country season. At one point, she ran through the neighborhood where one of the local high school cross country coaches lives. “She stopped me and said, ‘You should run for us,’ ” says the flattered Sarah.

Nevertheless, Sarah is quite happy with her membership on the Chariots team, and has nothing but praise for her coach. “One of the things I’ve most appreciated about Coach Shoe is that he treats me like any other member of the team,” she says. “While I’m getting all this attention because of my success compared to others, Coach focuses on the effort, attitude, and perseverance I put into running, not my preexisting talent. Similarly, Coach has the same words of praise, encouragement, or correction for every single member of the team. This helps the whole team become connected because in reality we realize that the best runners aren’t the ones who get the best times, but are the ones that do the best with the ability they’ve been given.”

When the racing started this fall, she surprised Coach Shoe once more. “She dropped almost a minute from her PR,” he says. “Again we were kind of shocked. I was concerned that it was a little bit of a fluke, like maybe the course was short. And when she went out and ran almost an identical time in the second race, at Ithaca. Then it was like, okay, we’ve got a horse on our hands here, she’s really special. And this was going to be quite a ride.”

By the time she got to Terre Haute, Kettel had opened a lot of eyes. She had also won every one of her races with an average margin of 1:29. Rather than be daunted by the competition, she welcomed it. “It’s amazing. It’s just what I wanted. I do best with competition. I can focus best. It makes the race a lot more interesting to me. It’s definitely my personal preference to have competition. Going into the race, I was like, even if I don’t make it to nationals, I’m just going to enjoy this because I don’t get this opportunity every day to have girls right beside me.”

She passed the mile well behind the pack (somewhere between 25th and 30th place). Says Shoemaker, “She has really developed a comfort level with going out a little bit slower, holding herself back at the beginning of the race, 5:30-5:40 range for the first mile, and then coming back at the exact same pace for the second mile, and then sometimes even throwing down a negative split at the end of the race.”

Sarah adds, “After the 1M mark there was a slight downhill, so I took advantage of that and really pushed. My coach said that in the next quarter mile I passed about 20 girls. So then I was in the top five at the 1.5 mile mark, and then I made my way up to Audrey [Belf] and Anna Sophia [Keller] and was sitting with them for a while.”

With a kilometer to go, she flew into the lead. “As soon as I made myself the leader, I was trying to surge so that they would get discouraged and they wouldn’t follow me, so I surged up a hill, and then coming into the final stretch—right before the final stretch there’s a downhill, so I surged down that too.”

She carried her last drive to victory in 17:29, while Belf finished in 17:31 and Keller in 17:32. Suddenly, Kettel looks like a national contender. “My strongest point seems to be the middle of the race, towards the end,” she says. “I’m not so much a speed demon, and I’m not able to put a very strong kick in at the end. And I’ll just start dying if I put too much in the beginning. I seem to do well if I surge. I’m a very determined person, so as long as my body is not falling from beneath me, I’m able to push through and focus on the final picture.”

With her next challenge the Foot Locker regional in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Kettel says she won’t necessarily be using the same strategy. “I’m still not sure, because it’s a different course, and there’s slightly different competition, so my coach and I have to go over the plans. Every race is a different strategy.”

Shoemaker adds, “I don’t want to peg her. I think she’s capable of running different types of races. I don’t want to become too predictable in terms of how we approach each meet.”

So Sarah continues to train into the colder weather after her teammates have ended their seasons. Last week she ran her speed workout at Michigan State’s indoor track, where she did a VO2 test with noted coach and author Owen Anderson (a friend of Shoemaker’s). She even did part of her workout with one of the Kenyan women he coaches.

With major championships the next three weekends (if all goes well), Sarah has her work cut out for her. And though she is very humble, she also has a clear passion for exploring her talent. “One of the most important things to me is my faith,” she says. “That’s why I run. God’s given me a gift and he’s given me the ability to shape it and use it. That’s one of the most exciting things for me is to see what his plan is for me.”

kettel2For Kettel, preparing for the Nike XC Nationals and the Foot Locker series means training alone in Michigan’s winter cold. She’s not bothered.

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Why Fisher isn’t “the next Ritz”

by Jeff HollobaughRitz-Fisher

Michigan churns out more than its share of great runners. Problem is, it’s hard to be great in Michigan without being tagged “the next Ritzenhein.” While not many actually have to wrestle with the burden of this expectation, a young man in Grand Blanc does.

Ever since Grant Fisher won the Foot Locker national title in 2013, the phrase “the next Ritz” has been popping up. When his breakout track season the following spring included a huge state record in the mile as well as an 8:51.28 two mile, the “next Ritz” buzz got louder.

Taken as a compliment, it is indeed massive. Ritzenhein, who did his prep running at Rockford, won his first national title in the two mile as a sophomore. He followed that with two more two mile crowns, plus two Foot Locker national cross country titles. His stellar career in the years following took him to three Olympic Games, an American Record 12:56.27 in the 5000m, and a 2:07:47 marathon.

It’s easy to see how the comparisons could get a little burdensome for Fisher. The Portage Invitational was the senior’s first truly hard race this fall, and the headlines and chatter afterwards made much of the fact that he missed Ritzenhein’s course record of 14:42 by one second. Yet not only wasn’t that Fisher’s goal, he confessed afterwards he had no idea what the mark was. After the race, I even got a text from his coach asking how fast Ritzenhein had run 14 years earlier.

Leading up to the state finals at Michigan International Speedway, the buzz turned to whether Fisher could challenge Ritzenhein’s legendary course record of 14:11 (rounded up, as per the rules, from the 14:10.4 that is usually reported). As I said in one of my spiels on the announcing team that day, it was an unfair expectation. For one, Fisher doesn’t run for time. Maybe that will change a little in the spring if the four-minute barrier looks tempting, but at this point, both coach and athlete believe that racing to win is the job at hand. Says coach Mike Scannell: “Whatever the time is, that’s for someone else to start and stop their watch and tell him. But what record that is and what rank that is, I don’t care… No one finishes in front of him.”

Secondly, the speed of the course at MIS varies depending on the weather and ground conditions. In 2000, it was perfect. Highs were in the mid-60s all week. Not a drop of rain. At racetime under overcast skies, the wind blew about 10mph from the northwest (a tailwind for the first mile and the finish stretch). The hard ground made the race all the more explosive.

This year, though the week started out warm (75 on Monday), it soon turned cold and miserable. The three days leading up to the race saw a high of 48. It rained on Tuesday, then another quarter of an inch on Friday (with a trace of snow). At race time, the temperature was 38, and the wind howled, with frequent gusts. The weather people say winds reached up to 19.6mph at race time. My trusty wind gauge (never leave home without it) measured the gusts at 23mph at the mile mark, where the athletes turned into the teeth of the zephyr. The well-traveled paths on the course had started getting sloppy, the grass in some spots turning to well-churned mud by the time the 1,229th runner of the day—Fisher—had passed.

Then there was the approach to the race. Back in 2000, Ritzenhein told Scott Collins of, “I knew that if I could go through the first mile fast enough that I would just be thinking about how fast I could run. I just wanted to run as fast as I could.” He took it out hard, hitting the mile in 4:29 (runner-up Chris Toloff already seven seconds back). He passed two miles in a stunning 9:03, leading by 33 seconds.

In contrast, Fisher did not set out to chase any records this year. He ran the first mile side-by-side with Waterford Mott’s Ryan Robinson. They passed the mile in 4:37. Then Fisher, sticking to the plan he laid out with his coach, destroyed Robinson in the next half mile. He hit two miles in 9:26, with a lead of about 200m. While it’s not fair to say he “coasted” in, he had plenty left en route to his 14:53.

The top 100 times ever at MIS – from Michtrack.

Perhaps the biggest reason we should not waste too much time comparing Fisher to Ritzenhein is that the two runners are fundamentally different. Ritzenhein ran serious mileage in high school, up to 100 miles per week at times. He raced hard and from the front. Fisher is a low-mileage guy, his training leading up to MIS less than 50 miles per week. He races tactically with great skill—and he has a scintillating finishing kick. If we had a magic time machine and could put the 2014 Grant Fisher in that Ritzenhein 14:11 race, who knows? We’ll never be sure if Fisher could have stayed with Ritzenhein—but if the two were together at two miles, we would see one hell of a race.

Last summer when the “next Ritz” chatter started amping up, Scannell said, “I would never compare Grant. Grant is Grant. Everyone wants to know what’s Grant compared to Dathan. I don’t know. Because Dathan is Dathan and Grant is Grant… There is no real comparison. My job is to make Grant the best Grant Fisher. I don’t want to make him better than Dathan– I want to make him the best Grant Fisher. That’s my whole job. I don’t compare any times.”

Fisher himself has always dismissed any comparison in interviews. However, Ritzenhein feels that Fisher may have the tools to go even farther than he did in his own storied career. “I believe that Grant has much more potential than I did, mainly because he was wisely held back through high school. I ran so much in high school, up to 100 miles a week but mostly around 80-85 as a senior. He has never been close to that volume, so his upside potential is very big.”

In addition to his mind-boggling MIS record, Ritzenhein also won a medal at the World Juniors Cross Country Championships—running against Kenyans and Ethiopians—and clocked a 13:44.70 on the track a few weeks after his graduation from Rockford. He admits it came with a price. “I was training at a very high level. I was always too aggressive training and it led to injuries later on. I hope he can avoid the mistakes that I made. If he can concentrate on overall strengthening, hopefully his body will be strong when he gets to college and as a professional. It wasn’t until I was 26 and went to train with Alberto [Salazar] that I concentrated on all the other things that I needed to stay healthy.”

To saddle Fisher with “the next Ritz” label—old timers take note—is like comparing Jim Ryun and Gerry Lindgren. Both of them were phenomenal prep runners in the 1960s, but as different as apples and oranges. Ryun was the boy wonder of the mile, Lindgren the 10K wunderkind. Fifty years later, Fisher is lighting up the mile, and may be successful at the 5000m eventually. Ritzenhein rocked in the 5000m and 10,000m and ended up a marathoner (and he never broke 4:00 in the mile, though he certainly had that capability at times). They are cut from different fabric.

Ritzenhein agrees: “The other big difference is that he seems to be faster than I was. I ran 8:11.74 [2M] and 12:56.27 [5000] but I just never had the closing speed, and I did very intense speed work. I was very strong but at the highest level in the world, you don’t just run away from these guys.”

Maybe it’s Fisher’s kick that will make the difference. Certainly it won’t be far from the minds of his opponents in Kenosha and San Diego in the coming weeks.

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1973 Hayward Field Restoration: Prefontaine takes on Wottle

by Jeff Hollobaugh

Tardis, anyone? Surely there are other track fans that fantasize about time travel—not just to pick winning lottery numbers, but to drop in on track meets they wish they had seen. The 1973 Hayward Field Restoration Meet would be one of those. The main event would be a mile race between Steve Prefontaine, nearing the height of his abilities and still burning with the disappointment of his fourth-place finish at the Munich Olympics, and Dave Wottle, the ultimate racer who had left Munich with a gold medal that Pre only dreamed about. Yet this was more than just a race—to Wottle it was an eye-opening experience about what it takes to be a class athlete.

Photo by Jeff Johnson – used with permission.

This event was set up at to raise funds to rebuild the west grandstands at Oregon’s historic track. According to Tom Jordan in his classic book Pre, the organizers put it together with just five days notice.

Some of the history of the mile matchup appears to have gotten tangled, as the Oregon track website says, “In a rare appearance as a rabbit, Prefontaine paced ’72 Olympic 800 gold medalist Dave Wottle through an attempt at the American record…” In other contemporary accounts, it reads as if this was a pure race between the two legendary runners. Which was it really?

“It was both,” clarifies Wottle. “Prefontaine agreed to pace me to a world record in the mile. And we were racing.” The two had roomed together at the AAU Champs in Bakersfield, California, and had made plans to travel the European circuit together that summer. “He came up to me after he ran the three mile and I ran the half, he came up to me and said, ‘What do you say you come up to Eugene prior to our going to Helsinki? We’ll go after the world record.’ He said, ‘I will bring you through into 2:56 flat,’ which back then was pretty unheard of for the mile. We used to go out in 3:00 or 2:59 back then. A 2:56 was fantastic. I said, ‘Sure, sounds great.’ So I went up there.”

The World and American record back then was Jim Ryun’s 3:51.1, set six years earlier in Bakersfield. For either runner, it would be a stretch, though one would think an 800/mile runner with a 1:44.3 world record to his credit would have a better shot than a 13:22.8 guy. Not that it mattered much—sometimes, it’s just about taking that shot.

Gary Atchinson led the field through a 58 first lap and stepped off the track at about 650m. Pre then went to the front and hit the half in 1:56.8. “He took off. You can’t have a better rabbit than Prefontaine. He hit 2:56 flat, right on pace. And then every man for himself for the last lap. Pre was a frontrunner anyways. He was basically saying, ‘I’m going to pace myself to a world record. I’m going to go out quick and hit the pace and bring it through in a good time and then we’ll race for the record.’ “

Wottle, who had recently won the NCAA mile title, ran a step behind. Then Pre appeared to kick with 300 left. He couldn’t shake Wottle, who stormed past with about a half-lap to go. The Bowling Green senior won handily in 3:53.3 to 3:54.6. The first eight runners set lifetime bests.

Their post-race quotes tell much of the story. Said Wottle, “I was waiting for the right time to kick. I felt I had him going into the last lap. He tried to break it at the three-quarter mark, but I hadn’t even started to breathe hard then. I found out what I had always thought, that I can kick after a 2:56 or 2:57 three-quarters.” He also had something left in the tank: “If somebody had come up on my shoulder, I had something left and could have gone faster.”

Said Pre: “I’m not making excuses, but the mile is not my race. I don’t train for it. I can race with anyone–with a little speed work I can do much better.”


“To me it was a very basic strategy,” recalls Wottle now. “All I had to do was hang with him for three laps and put myself in position to win on the final lap. So that was really my strategy there. I didn’t think it through like Liquori with Ryun in 1971 where he just said, ‘Hey I’m going to go out and take the kick out of him in the last 600 yards.’ I wish there was more to it. I wish I could say that I was [a good tactician].

“A lot of people on the Internet say about that [Olympic] 800: ‘What a great tactical race.’ It wasn’t a great tactical race. I didn’t go in thinking I was going to run that race. You don’t go into Olympics and give the guys 10 yards and reel them in at the end. That’s not really the greatest strategy. Same with the 1500. It burned me a lot of times.”

After the race, Wottle embarked on a victory lap but was surprised when Prefontaine joined him. “I remember Pre came up jogging beside me and held my arm up alongside him. I’m kind of ashamed to say, I was kind of like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you holding your arm up next to mine? I just beat you.’ And what he was doing was saying, ‘You were able to run a 3:53, because I was able to run a 2:56 three quarters. That race was a shared victory.’ I think he was also kind of giving his endorsement to the Eugene crowd that I was okay.

“I can remember just thinking that to me it was one person wins, one person loses, but he had the perspective that I wished I had. He kind of knew that often times, it’s not you. It’s your competitors and your coach and all the other things. It all mixes together to develop a world-class runner. I wish I had the perspective back them.”

Postscript: It’s worth noting that Wottle even had some kick after the Hayward Field race. He had thrown his trademark golf cap to the infield of Hayward Field, and a kleptomaniac fan grabbed it and ran away. Wottle chased him out of the stadium and into a nearby field, where the young man fell down and Wottle skinned both his legs tripping over him. He got the hat back.

Results (20 June 1973): 1. Dave Wottle (Bowling Green) 3:53.3; 2. Steve Prefontaine (Oregon) 3:54.6; 3. John Hartnett (Villanova-Ireland) 3:54.7; 4. Paul Geis (Oregon TC) 3:58.0; 5. Ken Elmer (Canada) 3:58.5; 6. Jim Johnson (Club NW) 3:58.8; 7. Scott Daggett (Oregon) 3:59.8.

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2014 Portage Invitational – Fisher “getting real now”

By Jeff Hollobaugh

The promised rain never came. The mud that would have been so good for photography—and so miserable for the 1700+ high school runners in attendance at Michigan’s Portage Invitational—never immersed the course.

The gray skies and the wind did arrive, however. The wind gusted at 25mph and the temperature stood at 42-degrees when Grant Fisher stood at the line with his teammates from Grand Blanc. With most of Michigan’s top teams in attendance, as well as a few from other states, the competition promised a measure of excitement.

Fisher & Company leading up the gutbuster hill. Eventual runner-up Colin Burdette of Hillard-Davidson is number 756.

Some of the athletes lining up even had hopes of beating the defending Foot Locker champion on the two-loop course. The thought is not as foolish as one might think—every great upset in history has had its genesis in such an improbable notion.

For Fisher, though, this race was not about this race. This race was about getting ready for the championships, with the first big one, the Michigan state finals, just four weeks away. “It’s getting real now,” said coach Mike Scannell.

Fisher lined up knowing that his mission on the famous Portage course would be more painful than it might have been, because the race would be a stepping stone. He said, “The goal coming out was to go out, run hard in the beginning, get some lactic in the system, and then try to deal with it the rest of the race.”

Dan Wytko, the founder of the meet and the longtime director until this year, reported that Fisher blasted through 800m in 2:10 and 1000m in 2:41. That first 800m includes a gutbuster of a hill, while the stretch to the kilo is downhill. Still, Fisher had company for the first 600m or so, as a host of athletes wanted their shot at him—or the bragging rights to say they led him at least at some point of the race. However, the Grand Blanc senior barely took note of the crowd: “I couldn’t tell what was going on behind me, but I didn’t want to play around at the beginning, so I just got out and went straight to the front by about 200m.”

By the time he hit the woods leading up to the mile mark, Fisher had plenty of breathing room.

Fisher climbed another hill, losing track of the pack along the way. On a downhill stretch, he hit the mile in 4:31. Then he had a three-quarter mile stretch of flat, where he found a rhythm and raced past throngs of screaming spectators. At halfway, he had a lead of 23 seconds.

Up the gutbuster hill again, and down to the two mile, which he passed in 9:27—commendable, but he had slowed to a 4:56 pace. His lead, however, grew. And it hurt. “The lactic acid didn’t really catch up to me until the last mile. The last mile was really tough, especially into the wind on this backstretch. I was really feeling it, but yeah, it was a good day for me.”

Eventual runner-up Colin Burdette of Hilliard-Davidson said, “I was trying to sit back in the middle of the front pack. I didn’t really see when he left, but around the 1K I just kind of noticed he was far away. I knew that, just the way I race, I had to stay with the pack, and wait till the halfway and try to go get him.”

When Fisher emerged from the woods for the final 800m on the flat, the excitement built. Word of his splits had spread and the masses of runners and fans were cutting across the field to get to the finish line and see if he broke the course record. The electricity of the moment was genuine, even if few recalled exactly what the record was.

With 300 to go, it looked as if Burdette had started a drive and was gaining some ground. Fisher, though, rounded the final corner and faced a final straightaway of 250m, slightly uphill. His kick needed no introduction. According to one coach, “Colin turned the corner and was like, ‘Where did he go?’ ”

Fisher hammered it home, crossing the line in 14:43, considerably faster than his 15:11 a year earlier. By just one second, he missed the course record set 14 years earlier by Dathan Ritzenhein. “The goal wasn’t the record,” said Fisher. “We thought if the record came, that would be great. But the record wasn’t even on my mind when I came into the finish line.”

“We had a plan, and he executed it perfectly,” said Scannell. “He looked good.”

Everyone wanted to see how close Fisher got to the record–it’s a wonder the fence held up. Burdette (far right), got second in 15:17 as his Hilliard-Davidson squad finished second in a tight D1 team race to Northville, 108-114, with Saline at 119.

Complete race results


Port Huron Northern’s Rachel Bonner won the D1 girls crown in 18:04, as Traverse City Central  confirmed its state #2 ranking with a dominating 61 points, winning over Saline (149), Rockford (169) and Northville (233). Bonner wasn’t the day’s fastest, as homeschooled Sarah Kettel (ineligible for the state finals) won D4 in 18:01, and Cedar Spring’s Kenzie Weiler won D2 in 18:00.

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2014 Continental Cup Men’s 1500: Why guts will not help you win that race

by Jeff Hollobaugh

Ron Warhurst, who coaches Nick Willis, told me last year, “All milers think they’re kickers. It’s just that some are better than others.” That is a true statement in a general sense, but there is a greater truth that is at work sometimes, and it could be seen in Marrakech last weekend.

The final major 1500m of the year, at the IAAF Continental Cup, was an exhibition of extreme sit-and-kick. Beyond that, the race was more than simple proof that male milers are all sprint specialists with oversized egos. It also went to challenge the popular notion among many fans that all the race needed was somebody with the balls to make the pace honest, and then we wouldn’t have a crazy sprint finish that leaves some of our favorite runners in the dust. That concept, at least in the States, we can probably thank Steve Prefontaine and his legion of fans for.

That slap in the face? That’s reality.

Souleiman demonstrated his kick in his 3:47.32 victory at the Prefontaine meet. /courtesy of Track And Field PhotoMagazine/

Ayanleh Souleiman grabbed the victory with deceptive ease, and no amount of courage among the other competitors could have changed that.

In some past versions of this race, there have been informal pacing agreements to help the runners cope in the absence of a rabbit. We saw that in 1977 with Thomas Wessinghage and Steve Ovett, and again in 2002, with the controversial Bernard Lagat/Seneca Lassiter situation. In the cool of the Moroccan night, however, no agreements were made. So Henrik Ingebrigtsen took the early lead, presumably against his will. The 32-second first 200m stood as proof of that. Not that Ingebrigtsen felt he had a fast race in his legs. “The tank’s almost empty,” the Norwegian said. “It has been a long season for everyone. You can’t set records from April to September.”

Beside Ingebrigtsen jogged Souleiman and American Leo Manzano. The pace slowed more, and they passed 400m in 65.95. Nick Willis rode the rail in the back of the tight pack. A 69.93 next 400m didn’t shake up anything, except to bring the New Zealander out of hiding. Willis made a half-hearted attempt to move into the lead on the backstretch, but Souleiman and Ingebrigtsen both held him off.

The racing began with 500m to go, as European champion Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad tried to move up, and Souleiman & company braced themselves for the final charge. Asbel Kiprop made the boldest move, dropping back to last and then scooting around the pack to join Souleiman in the lead as the bell rang. Willis was then trapped in mid-pack, as Manzano had dropped to last. They hit 1200m in 3:12.12, a 56.24 circuit.

Souleiman controlled the pole position, and the chase began in earnest. On the homestretch, he and Kiprop floated away from the pack. The Kenyan pressed hard, but with 30m to go, Souleiman lifted and pulled away to victory in 3:48.91. His last 400, a stunning 50.09; last 300, 36.79. It was one of the fastest finishes ever in a championship setting.

In a race like this, what options do the also-rans have? Look at Leo Manzano. The man kicked his way to a silver medal two years ago (a 52.8 last lap in a 3:34 race). This year, the only 1500 he won was the USA Champs in 3:38.63, and that only took a 52.63 closer. In Marrakech he finished in the mid-51s. He simply does not have the speed to finish with Souleiman.

Or Nick Willis. He has produced some notable times in rabbited races this year, topped by a 3:29.91 for seventh place in Monaco (last lap 54.3). In his runner-up finish in the Bislett mile, he finished off a 3:49.83 with a 55.8. In his most important tactical race, he snatched a bronze in the Commonwealth Games at 3:39.60 off a 53.2 last lap. He is another who—at least this season—doesn’t have the speed to handle the top milers.

Even the flamboyant Mekhissi-Benabbad, the Frenchman who won a slow Euro title (3:45.60) with a 52.17 finish, couldn’t hope to run Souleiman down. He snared third in Marrakech, 0.62 behind the winner.

Perhaps the most impressive kick went to Kiprop, who finished second. His last 400m was nearly as fast as Souleiman’s, but he started earlier, from farther back. His last 500m took only 1:02.8—a hair slower than a 25-second 200m pace. His mistake was giving the Djiboutian a head start.

So what options did these fine runners have against Ayanleh Souleiman? Could someone have gone out there and forced an “honest” pace upon the race? Something to make Prefontaine proud? Sure, but Souleiman would still have won.

Could someone have tried a longer kick, say 600m, and held on to the finish? Sure, but Souleiman would have beat him there. His last 600 was in the 1:16s (that’s 1:41 pace for 800m).

Could someone have sat on him the entire way and produced a stunning sprint on the final homestretch? No. And even if they could, Souleiman still would have been faster. His last 100 was under 12-seconds.

That is not to say that on September 13, Ayanleh Souleiman was completely unbeatable. A faster pace early in the race would have given Kiprop the opportunity to beat him. Caveat: if Kiprop had been the one making the faster pace, it would have backfired. And no matter what the pace, Kiprop is doing himself no favors by dawdling behind the pack. His long stride makes tight pack running a dangerous proposition, but at a slow pace, he would lose nothing by running wide on the pack. It’s called a pre-sprint warm-up.

Is Ayanleh Souleiman the best miler in the world? His 2014 record says otherwise, with only three wins in 10 outdoor finals. However, in Marrakech he showed just how unbeatable a great kick is. And he also taught us that while there are places where “guts” count (cross country races, marathons, and training sessions, for instance), on the track, speed is what wins.

Watch the race.

Results (13 September 2014): 1. Ayanleh Souleiman (Djibouti) 3:48.91; 2. Asbel Kiprop (Kenya) 3:49.10; 3. Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad (France) 3:49.53; 4. Henrik Ingebrigtsen (Norway) 3:49.76; 5. Benson Seurei (Brunei) 3:49.91; 6. Nick Willis (New Zealand) 3:50.00; 7. Leo Manzano (USA) 3:50.35; 8. Charles Philibert-Thiboutot (Canada) 3:51.97.

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2014 Jackson Invitational – Grant Fisher starts his senior season

by Jeff Hollobaugh

What’s a young runner to do after a nearly perfect junior year of competition? Start all over.

That was Grant Fisher’s mission at the Jackson Invitational at Ella Sharp Park. The senior, clad in the gray uniform of Grand Blanc High School, took the lead about a third of the way through his first race of the season and cruised to a 15:22.3, just missing the course record of 15:20 set in 1986 by Monroe’s Todd Williams (later an Olympian).

Fisher’s first step of the 2014 cross country season.

Chaz Jeffress, junior from Salem, fresh off his win at the Holly Invitational, led early and didn’t seem concerned that the runner on his heels was the defending national champion. The 4:30.99 track performer held on even after Fisher left him behind, finishing fourth in 15:44.0. Runner-up honors went to Traverse City Central’s Anthony Berry (15:40.4), with Saline’s Logan Wetzel finishing third (15:53.6). Northville packed five into the top 21 to take the D1 team title with 60 points, 30 ahead of Saline.

Said Fisher, “I didn’t expect to take the lead as early as I did. But I think that the quality that we got out [of me] today was stronger than I would have suspected. It was a tough race.”

After running the 1500m at the World Junior Championships in late July, Fisher took a solid two weeks off before starting to work on his base again. He hasn’t even had six weeks of solid training yet. Coach Mike Scannell noted, “He only has had one hard workout, and that was last week.”

“That was the reason why I didn’t race for the last couple weeks,” said Fisher. “We didn’t want to cut the base phase short. We thought that sacrificing a few races at the beginning would lead to some better races at the end of the season.”

Starting a season at a gathering of some of the finest runners in the state can be a challenge, even for the Foot Locker champion. “It’s not the greatest place to come back for your first race,” he said. “But we made the most of what we had. It was a fun race. I love racing against these guys.”

“There’s no such thing as an easy first race. I don’t think his legs were happy today,” said Scannell.

The biggest change for Fisher in his senior season is that he is no longer playing soccer. For so many armchair coaches, it seemed like a no-brainer for the nation’s top returning harrier to quit doing two sports in the same season. However, there’s an emotional side to a teenager’s life, even a teenager as soft-spoken and composed as Fisher.

“The guys that are on the [soccer] team, I’ve been playing with for anywhere from four to eight years. I’m really good friends with them,” he said. “When I let them know I wasn’t playing soccer this year, obviously they were a little disappointed, but they were very understanding. It was a really great reaction from my friends and from the team.”

Meanwhile, Fisher is dealing with the distraction of college visits, while generally ignoring the chatter about himself on the Internet. As for the narrowing of his college list, he admitted, “I’m not too close right now.”

The coming months, if all goes according to plan, will lead to San Diego again, for a defense of the national title. Pressure. Beyond that, there’s another season of track, after a 4:02.02 as a junior. More pressure. Yet Grant Fisher is still Grant Fisher: “It should be a fun senior year,” he said, as he went to join his teammates for a cooldown.


Fisher wasn’t the only national class athlete competing at Jackson. Seaholm’s Audrey Belf churned out an impressive 17:27.9, leading her team to 33 points and a big win over some of the state’s biggest powerhouses. “We’re all really strong and we’re working together,” she said afterward.

Complete meet results

Posted in XC | Tagged | Comments Off on 2014 Jackson Invitational – Grant Fisher starts his senior season

2014 Weltklasse Women’s 1500 – Was It Or Wasn’t It A Dive?

by Jeff Hollobaugh

Running is not baseball. Let’s start there. In baseball, sliding into the plate and diving for the catch are fundamental elements of the game. Players learn those moves when they are children, and they practice them in nearly every game of their lives.

Not so in running. Contact between the ground and any part of your body except the bottoms of your feet is generally to be avoided. Usually it means you have tripped. Often it means you will hurt (in ways that baseball players never seem to).

simpson fall2

Occasionally, though, runner might be faced with the finish line dive, when they want to win a race so badly that they are willing to put scabs on their faces to do it. However, maybe the true dynamics of some of the grand finale falls we have seen don’t fit into a headline. Maybe what looks like a dive is something else entirely.

For Yevgeniy Arzhanov in the 1972 Olympic 800 final, it was a real dive of desperation. He had won every 800 final he had contested in the four years previous. The gold medal practically had his name on it. He had a solid two-meter lead when he entered the homestretch for the final 100m in Munich. He still had a solid lead with 10-meters to go. Then Dave Wottle pulled alongside with just two steps left. Arzhanov thrust his body forward on his last stride, doing everything he could to try to hold on to his gold. Wottle’s momentum was just too strong, however. The American stayed upright and won an upset victory in 1:45.86. Arzhanov crossed the line three one-hundredths of a second later, and lay bloodied on the track, arm draped over the inside rail.

For PattiSue Plumer at the 1991 Prefontaine Classic mile, it was, well, more of a fight. Plumer, one of the strongest U.S. distance runners of the era, had a ferocious rivalry with Suzy Favor (later Hamilton), who won the USA Champs that year. Throw into the mix a young Maria Mutola, later an Olympic champ but at age 19 a high school student in Springfield, Oregon, and you had a real dust-up. The three were close and tangled when they began the kick on the last turn. Plumer claimed she was cut off by Mutola and in nearly falling, had to grab Favor’s jersey. And that was only the appetizer! At the finish, Plumer recovered her sprint enough to chase Favor down. She lunged at the finish and fell, clocking a 4:33.04 that came just short of Favor’s 4:32.99. Fingers were pointed.

“When someone tries to pass you, you try to keep them from passing any way you can,” said Plumer. “At the wrong time for me, she gave an elbow in mid-stride and I went flying.”

“We try to keep it interesting,” Favor said, of her second bumping encounter with Plumer that season.

For Kathy Rounds in the 1999 USA Championships 800, it was the foul with the golden lining. Rounds, a 1:59.28 performer, was not considered a sure thing to make the team for the World Champs in Seville that summer. The competition ran tough at Hayward Field that day, with Jearl Miles-Clark taking the win at 1:59.47, and Meredith Rainey grabbing second in 2:00.36. That left Rounds and veteran Joetta Clark fighting for the last team spot. In the tangle before the line, Clark gave Rounds a push and sent her across the line horizontally. “I felt a hand on my back and I guess I got pushed,” said Rounds. “But it was worth it.” She slid across the line in 2:00.71, winning the trip to Spain by 0.03, along with stitches in her chin.

What happened at the Stadion Letzigrund last night has tongues wagging, since Jenny Simpson and Shannon Rowbury created the most thrilling finish of the year in their clash at Zurich’s legendary Weltklasse meet. The race started off not unlike the previous week’s Stockholm event, with a very similar cast of characters, minus Genzebe Dibaba. Fortunately, Phoebe Wright did a commendable job as the new rabbit.

World leader Sifan Hassan repeated her mistake of running directly to the back of the pack and then wasting ghastly amounts of energy in catching back up. Once again, that put her in the position of having to sprint hard several times during the race. With 100 to go, that put her exactly where she wanted to be—a step behind the hard-leading Simpson—but missing exactly what she needed, a sprint.

When they hit the straight, Hassan moved out for the pass. Simpson saw that coming and moved to the outside of her lane to force Hassan into some extra yardage. Meanwhile, behind them, Rowbury had put together a beautifully intelligent race and decided her best line of attack would be from the inside.

Simpson had vanquished Hassan’s meager kick with 35-meters to go, but was not aware of Rowbury’s inside charge until the last eight meters or so. She moved in slightly, but it was too late to close off the lane. She threw her left arm out a bit wider than normal and made contact with Rowbury, who kept charging.

Pause here to discuss what is intentional and what is reactive. Intentional is when a runner makes a decision and pursues it consciously. “Rowbury intentionally went for the inside pass with all its inherent risks.” Reactive is when a runner acts instinctively in response to a situation that they don’t control. “Simpson threw out her arm reactively.” People who attend too many high school meets in the U.S.—as well as certain top coaches—like to speculate about whether or not athletes should be disqualified for “offenses” on the track. I would agree with them, if Simpson had punched Rowbury. But an arm flailing? That’s a normal, reactive response in the world of international racing. And to those who think their local high school official would DQ Simpson for not running a straight line in the last stretch, watch the video of Rowbury’s finish against Molly Huddle at the USATF 5000.

Bottom line—there are no villains here. This is racing. Anyone bothered by it should stick to high school meets.

The arm is still the key, however. When the arm made contact with Rowbury, that initiated Simpson’s dive. Or can you even call it a dive? In an email, Simpson herself says no. “Despite the dramatic headlines from Zurich, I did not dive at the line. I fell due to contact in the race. I’m just fortunate that I fell forward and across the line!”

The two tumbled across the line in a tangle, a mere hundredth separating them, 3:59.92-3:59.93. Simpson picked up some stitches and the win (though she didn’t realize it for a while). Rowbury, who hit especially hard, seemed dazed and disappointed. Both athletes competed brilliantly and both have every reason to be proud.

Concludes Simpson, “My personal opinion is that diving is not an effective strategy even when the race is close, and I haven’t ever done it. If it was truly the fastest way to finish I think we would see sprinters trying it when the races are far closer and usually higher stakes. I think the fastest way to finish is to keep your form and stay on your feet. That’s what I’m always trying to do. :)”

Diving? Perhaps you don’t want to practice them, unless you’re looking for more scars as a conversation starter. Recall our conversation about intent? Maybe the best thing to remember is that a fall is not always a dive; sometimes, in racing, things happen to you.

Watch the race.

Results (28 August 2014): 1. Jenny Simpson (USA) 3:59.92; 2. Shannon Rowbury (USA) 3:59.93; 3. Viola Kibiwot (Kenya) 4:00.46; 4. Sifan Hassan (Netherlands) 4:00.72; 5. Meraf Bahta (Sweden) 4:01.34; 6. Brenda Martinez (USA) 4:01.36; 7 Mimi Belete (Brunei) 4:01.63; 8. Abeba Aregawi (Sweden) 4:03.40; 9. Hellen Obiri (Kenya) 4:04.75; 10. Federica Del Buono (Italy) 4:06.80; 11. Eunice Sum (Kenya) 4:10.22; 12. Maryam Jamal (Brunei) 4:18.10;… rabbits—Phoebe Wright (USA), Irene Jelegat (Kenya).

Posted in 1500m / Mile | Comments Off on 2014 Weltklasse Women’s 1500 – Was It Or Wasn’t It A Dive?

2014 USA Women’s 5000m – How Molly Huddle Rewrote Her Ending

Huddle-Molly usatftv

by Jeff Hollobaugh

Molly Huddle knows what it takes to kick to a win in the USA Championships 5000–she’s been on both ends of the decisive end-of-race move. In 2010, the Notre Dame grad saw Lauren Fleschman unleash a kick over the last lap-and-a-half that left her in the runner-up position. Later that season Huddle would clock an American Record 14:44.76 to establish her world class credentials.

Watch the race on

In 2011, she unquestionably had an easier time of it, as a host of big names scratched, including Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher, Jenny Simpson and Shannon Rowbury. The best remaining kicker in the field, Huddle churned out a 64.06 closer that gave her a 4.3 second win over Amy Hastings.”I was thinking that if I made it to Worlds, I would need to close in a 2:10 800, so I was trying to simulate that,” she said.

In 2012 at the Olympic Trials, Huddle led and found herself decisively outkicked by Julie Culley, having only produced a 66.52 last circuit.

Likewise in 2013, the race played out similarly, but that time it was Jenny Simpson who lurked behind Huddle’s lead before outkicking her. Simpson finished in 62.51, Huddle 64.09.

One thing Huddle has clearly learned over her distinguished career is that all finishing kicks are relative. Whether or not a runner’s kick is “decisive,” depends completely on how fast the competition can kick. In 2011, Huddle probably had it a bit easy. In 2014, Huddle knew that wouldn’t be the case.

The line-up for the 12.5 laps in Sacramento included Shannon Rowbury and Marielle Hall. Rowbury, now coached by Alberto Salazar, won the bronze medal in the 1500 in the 2009 Worlds. The veteran had recently peeled off a 4:03.36 at the adidas meet in New York, and two weeks before that had nailed the American Record for the two mile (9:20.25). More to the point, in her previous 5000 this season, at the High Performance meet at Eagle Rock, she kicked over the last 300 to win with a final lap of 64.5. One of her victims was Ethiopia’s Buze Diraba, a 14:50.02 performer.

More of an unknown quantity, at least at this level, was Marielle Hall. The recent Texas grad, in only her second season at the 5000, had emerged with a beautiful kick to win the NCAA title. She topped the field there with a 15:35.11, capped by a last lap of 63.64 and a final 200 of 30.4.

Huddle knew that she would have to press the pace to create some equity on the kick. She also is wily enough to know that pressing the pace is not enough, and that a quality field like this one would not be destroyed by mid-race heroics. So she had a special plan for the last lap.

To be honest, fireworks were absent for most of the race, and little happened that anyone would find surprising. For the first two laps, Huddle ran alongside Jessica Tebo. After that, she took the lead all upon herself. Hall did what any well-coached neophyte with a kick would do, and went to her shoulder. Rowbury ran behind them–her mission to wait for the finish being quite clear.

Huddle made the pace honest–though it is important to note it was not as fast as her seasonal best of 14:55.90. She hit 3000m in 9:13.49, a 15:22 pace. After 3400, her pace started winding up, from 1:13-1:14 per lap, to 1:11.33, 1:10.81, 1:09.84. Behind her, the pain became evident. Her first shifting of gears pulled the three top women away from the rest of the field. Thirty seconds later, Hall–running far faster than her PR pace–started to slip away.

Rowbury, as expected, moved into kicking position, right on Huddle’s shoulder, ready to pounce. When the bell rang for the last lap, Huddle turned it up. As she explains, “In most of my races, good or bad, there’s a moment where I question if I can pull off the goal and that was when the bell rang at 400 to go.

“I tried to learn from last year’s loss to Jenny [Simpson] at USA’s and to Shannon (and Gabe Grunewald) at the London Diamond league and realized that as 1500m runners those girls are used to close finishes, where every move and acceleration is a little more nuanced. The effects are more exaggerated and every second is a little more action-packed than the 5/10,000 where I’m used to just hanging on then spending all my energy–however it goes–on the last lap as the competition is often a lot more spread out by then.”

This time, Huddle decided to layer her kick. “I tried to go about 80% hard at the bell instead of 100% and save something to respond in the finishing stretch. I prepared myself to lean at the line if I had to. Although I had tried to take the sting out of Shannon’s finish in the 4,600m leading up to the kick , I still figured I would have a hard battle when it came to her strengths as a 1500 medalist in the sprint home.”

On the backstretch, wondering if her sprint was giving her any leeway, she stole a glance over her shoulder at Rowbury–still there. Then, with 200 to go, Rowbury burst into the lead. Huddle had seen this movie before, only this time she had rewritten the ending. She didn’t let go of Rowbury, and pursued her all the way to the homestretch, gaining momentum with every step.

Spotting an opening, Huddle dashed to the inside to try to pass her. Rowbury smoothly slid over to close the lane. At that late stage, a closed lane will often mean end of hope. But Huddle decelerated, and went around Rowbury from the outside. Rowbury responded by moving outside. Huddle took the lead only nine meters from the finish and crossed ahead of a stunned Rowbury. Her last 400 took only 62.42 (Rowbury ran 62.44), and her last 200 only took 30.4–and that with the lane changes!

Recounts Huddle, “So I’d say it was more calculated than emotional. I planned to follow close if Shannon went around me and try to take the inside. When I couldn’t get there in time, she closed it off, so I tried to go outside and just went as hard as I could as she forced us both out wider again. I had envisioned a close finish in practice a few times so I felt a little prepared. I think in those situations, it’s almost a bit of an advantage to come from behind, especially when it’s so loud that you can’t hear how close the other competitor is.”

There’s an old bit of wisdom that’s so oft-quoted it’s become a bit of a cliché: “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” Huddle came perfectly prepared to Sacramento, physically and mentally. More importantly, she had the courage to rethink her instincts and try something new. Well done.

Results (27 June 2014): 1. Molly Huddle (Saucony) 15:01.56; 2. Shannon Rowbury (Nike) 15:01.71; 3. Marielle Hall (Texas) 15:12.79; 4. Aisling Cuffe (Stanford) 15:13.15; 5. Kellyn Johnson (Northern Arizona) 15:25.63; 6. Rochelle Kanuho (Boulder RC) 15:25.85; 7. Alexi Pappas (Nike Oregon Project) 15:28.38; 8. Treniere Moser (Nike) 15:43.84; 9. Jessica Tonn (Stanford) 15:48.31;10. Jessica Tebo (Brooks) 15:50.02; 11. Angela Bizzarri (Brooks) 15:59.02; 12. Lauren Penney (Oiselle) 16:07.34; 13. Chelsea Reilly (Saucony) 16:07.79; 14. Katrina Coogan (Georgetown) 16:16.17.

Posted in 5000m | Comments Off on 2014 USA Women’s 5000m – How Molly Huddle Rewrote Her Ending