I have watched hundreds of track & field meets in person, on television, and on the computer over the years. But I have never seen some of the things that I saw at the Diamond League meet in Monaco on Friday, July 22, 2011. For a brief moment at the end of the men’s 1500 meters I thought I was watching a hockey game instead of a track & field meet. Then less than an hour later, the action during the men’s 5000 meter race looked strangely similar to roller derby.
The men’s 1500 meters was an exciting race won by Silas Kiplagat in a 2011 world-leading time of 3:30.47. However, it turns out that the real excitement would happen after the race. France’s Mehdi Baala and Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad, who finished ninth and eleventh in the race got into an altercation right at the finish line. This was not just a shouting match or some shoving. There was a head butt and some wild punches thrown.
As a result of their “brawl” as the BBC is calling it, both athletes did not receive their appearance fees and the French Athletics Federation has provisionally suspended them pending further investigation. A disciplinary hearing should take place within the next week. After that, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) will determine if they will take action, such as not allowing these two French athletes to compete at the World Championships in Daegu. If you are to believe the quotes from the athletes, it was all just a misunderstanding.
Forty minutes later, the men’s 5000 meter race was underway. The rabbit set a strong pace early and the race was on 12:50 pace through 2000 meters. Even though it slowed down a bit after that, the leaders came through 3000 meters still on sub-13 minute pace. As the race slowed down even more the lead pack started to get bunched together.
The live streaming video on universalsports.com that I was watching then broke away to cover the triple jump. When the camera returned to the track, the race clock read 10:41 and there were about 900 meters left in the race. The announcers started to explain that less than a lap ago there was a fall by the finish line and Galen Rupp went down and was out of the race.
What a shame! Rupp was certainly on pace to better his PR of 13:06.86. Later Rupp’s coach Alberto Salazar would text a picture of Rupp’s shoulder to TrackFocus reporter Doug Binder, with the message, “Scratched up and sore but upbeat, ran good hard workout after, not tired. Has to learn to stay out of trouble.”
Back to the actual race. The announcers had not yet given all the details about Rupp’s fall when there was more pushing as the runners neared the 800 meter to go mark. The announcers stated that Imane Merga of Ethiopia was responsible for a lot of the shoving. The video feed then cut to a shot from a track level camera situated right next to finish line. All of a sudden there was a green jersey coming right at the camera. It was Chris Solinsky! He had been pushed, lost his balance and stepped over the inner rail and off the track. Solinsky angrily pumped his fists at the pack as they continued on without him in the race. The race clock now read 11:02. In the span of twenty seconds, I learned that two top Americans were out of the race.
Later Solinsky would tweet that he let his emotions get the better of him and that he should have gotten back on the track and finished the race. Even if his chances of winning the race, breaking the American record, and setting a new PR were gone, he probably still could have achieved an Olympic A standard for next year if he had completed the race. Kimbia.net has a great sequence of photos of Solinsky being pushed.
The race continued and thanks to a sixty second penultimate lap and a final lap of 53.7 seconds (the last 200 was run in 26.4 seconds), Great Britain’s Mo Farah won the race over America’s Bernard Lagat, 12:53.11 to 12:53.60. Both Farah and Lagat set their respective national records.
There was one final thing at the Monaco meet that I almost witnessed that would have been unique – Usain Bolt getting beat in the 100 meters. However a fantastic final twenty meters and a well timed lean gave Bolt the win over fellow Jamaican Nesta Carter, 9.88 to 9.90.
Saturday’s Payton Jordan Invitational at Stanford University featured a lot of great action. You can find results and race coverage online. I write about the two races that stood out the most to me. In both these races the race winner was wearing compression socks.
A group of nine Pamakids sat together in the stands with Shannon Rowbury’s parents, Gary and Paula, and other assorted Rowbury supporters. We took over a whole section in the stands just off the finish line at Angell Field. The Women’s 5000 meters was expected to be a great race, featuring the American record holder and World Championship 10,000 meter bronze medalist (Shalane Flanagan), the World Championship 1500 meter medalist (Shannon Rowbury), two other World Championship qualifiers (Amy Begley and Julie Culley), the reigning USATF Indoor 3000 meter champion (Renee Baillie), the 2009 NCAA 5000 meter and cross country champion (Angela Bizzarri), and the collegiate 10,000 meter record holder (Lisa Koll).
Flanagan and Baillie, sitting behind the rabbit Megan Metcalfe, took off at American record pace (14:44). Even after the rabbit dropped out and Baillie dropped back, Flanagan, running alone, looked determined to run a record time. I didn’t think this pace made sense since I presumed that Flanagan was in training for longer road races (an upcoming marathon is rumored), so was she really in 5000 meter PR form? But, who am I to know or question Flanagan’s tactics? I was more focused on the two women in second and third place who were taking turns leading into the wind – Shannon, wearing black compression socks, and Begley. I don’t know if they agreed to work together before the race or if it just happened when they found themselves together six to nine seconds behind Flanagan, but it worked. I knew for sure they were working together when, at one point, Shannon moved out to lane two to let Begley pass on the inside.
Flanagan’s chances of bettering her own record time were done when she fell off pace around mile two. At this point she was still leading Shannon and Begley by nine seconds, but I also knew that Shannon planned to run 72 second laps until this point and then was going to try to pick it up. With one mile to go, it appeared to me that Shannon had a lot left, but she still trailed Flanagan by seven seconds. With three laps to go Shannon and Begley still had a six second deficit but Flanagan had slowed down so much that she was now on pace to run only 15:00. That told me that Shannon still had a chance to win the race. With two laps to go Shannon and Begley were still six seconds behind. Amid a chorus of cheers from our section I yelled to Shannon to “compete.” There was no point in pacing or holding back anymore. It was time to race. Shannon probably didn’t hear me but she was probably thinking the same thing herself anyway. After three laps at 73, Shannon ran a 71 with two laps to go. The deficit was down to four seconds. This was still a lot of ground to make up, but I’ve seen Shannon come from a long way behind on the last lap and something inside told me she would do it again. With 300 meters to go she was gaining. By 200 meters to go Shannon’s turnover was much faster than Flanagan’s and I knew it was game over. Shannon accelerated past Flanagan with about 120 meters to go, running her last lap in 67.4 and her last 200 in 32.7, to win the race in 15:00.51.
Our section in the stands went crazy! Shannon’s mom, Paula, is pretty well known in the track world for her loud screaming for Shannon. I think Malinda may have earned number two billing as the next loudest in the stands on Saturday. I thought she was going to fall off the stands the way she was jumping up and down and screaming in those last 100 meters.
The next big race was the Men’s 10,000 meters. All week long there was scuttle from Galen Rupp’s camp that he would make an attempt at Meb Keflezighi’s American record of 27:13.98 (set at the 2001 Payton Jordan Invitational). First Rupp said he’d race at the Oregon Relays on Friday. But if it was too windy, he would fly down to Stanford for the record attempt. Then Rupp’s coach Alberto Salazar said that the pollen count in Palo Alto was too high and that maybe they would instead stage a 10,000 meter race in Eugene on Saturday instead of Friday. Finally on Friday at noon they said Rupp would be racing at Stanford on Saturday night. The Nike PR department was so confident that Rupp would set the record that they made plans for Rupp to appear at the Nike Store in Palo Alto Sunday morning should he set the record.
That was the backdrop to what turned out to be an epic race. And what a race it was. Not a time trial record attempt with the outcome of the race a foregone conclusion; not the only drama about the time on the clock. I had made a print out so I could monitor if they were on record pace or not. If I were more of a businessman I would have printed extras, because I could have sold them in the stands. Instead everyone was peering over my shoulder to check my paper. Finally I just started announcing if the pace was on or not to the people sitting around me.
The rabbits were a little slow in the first mile and Rupp was already a few seconds down. I immediately started looking around for his coach Salazar to see what he would tell Rupp. Salazar was on the high jump apron just after the start line so he had an easy time yelling instructions to Rupp after every lap. After the first mile the rabbits, Rupp, and a pack of eight others started hitting the 65.3 pace needed for the American record. I assumed that the plan was to just run that pace and not to try to make up the two or three seconds they lost in the early laps until later in the race. Rupp ran some 64’s during the second mile and when he ran a couple 63’s around lap ten, he was actually ahead of record pace. The split at halfway was 13:34, 27:08 pace.
Once the second rabbit dropped out after sixteen laps, Rupp assumed the lead. However, he was not alone. This was, after all, a race and: the Oregon Track Club’s Chris Solinsky (making his 10,000 meter race debut) and Simon Bairu (hoping to better the Canadian record of 27:36), Liberty University’s Sam Chelanga (the collegiate 10,000 meter record holder at 27:28), and Kenya’s Daniel Salel, were not going to just step aside and let Rupp run into the record books. With five or so laps to go many of us in the stands started to comment on how smooth Solinsky, in his white compression socks, looked. I thought to myself, maybe it’s Solinsky’s day…and wouldn’t that be funny to sort of crash Rupp’s American record party! Based on seeing Rupp run in the past, I felt confident that he could run 2:00 for the final two laps. So even though the pace had slowed to 66 and the lead pack went from three seconds ahead of pace to only right on pace with three laps to go, I felt the record was going to be broken. The question was, by who?
With just over two laps to go Solinsky bolted to the front. Rupp, Chelanga, and Salel chased after him so he didn’t build a huge lead, but Solinsky had definitely thrown down the gauntlet, challenging the others to stay with him. Solinsky’s penultimate lap was a 60. Meb’s record would stand for less than one minute longer. Solinsky, “Socks” as I have been known to call him over the years, wasn’t close to being done. He pulled away from the other three as he lapped runners on this twenty fifth lap. The crowd was incredibly loud cheering him on for a 56 second last lap (1:56 for his final 800) and a new American Record of 26:59.60. Salel would grab second, Chelanga would set a new collegiate record with a 27:08 for third, and Rupp would finish fourth in 27:10, three seconds faster than Meb’s old mark and a twenty-three second PR. Further back in the pack people were still running incredibly fast. Bairu in fifth set a new Canadian record of 27:23. In seventh and eighth place Tim Nelson and Bobby Curtis became the tenth and eleventh fastest Americans over 10,000 meters in history.
But, the main story was at the front of the race. Rupp did what he came to do, he ran faster than 27:13, but “Socks” stole the show.