The beauty of the Olympic Trials is that you never know what’s going to happen. Between July 1 and July 10, 2016, I saw plenty of things that I was not expecting to see.
- I did not expect to see two high school boys make the men’s 200 meter final, be seeded in lanes four and six for that final, and come in fourth and fifth in the race. Remember the names Noah Lyles and Michael Norman.
- I did not expect a high school junior to make the Olympic team in the women’s 400 meter hurdles. Sydney McLaughlin is only 16 years old. Look for her in Rio.
- I did not expect the age difference between the first and second place finishers in the women’s high jump to be fourteen years – Chaunte Lowe is 32 and Vashti Cunningham is 18.
- I did not expect to see both Sanya Richard-Ross and Jeremy Wariner pull up injured in their 400 meter races (Richards-Ross in the first round, Wariner in the semi-final). Both athletes stopped about 200 meters into their race and then slowly made their way around the track towards the finish line, in order to exit the track. In both cases, the Hayward Field crowd gave them nice ovations out of respect for all that they have accomplished during their careers. In both cases, the athletes waved back to the crowd.
- I did not expect to see Gil Roberts false start in the men’s 400 meter semi-finals and then file a protest that allowed him to run the race and come in second despite the disqualification. When his appeal was upheld (he claimed that his false start was due to noise from the speaker in his starting block), Roberts was into the final. He got out hard and led for much of the final before tying up badly; he barely held on for second place and a spot to compete in the Olympics.
- After watching Allyson Felix struggle in the opening rounds of the 400 meters due to injury, I did not expect to see her move from fifth place to first place with a furious final kick in the women’s 400 meter final.
Then after seeing Felix’s great 400 meter race, I did not expect to see her finish off the team in the women’s 200 meter final.
- I did not expect the American record holder in the women’s 100 hurdles, Kendra Harrison (12.24), to not make the Olympic team (she finished in sixth place).
- I did not expect the US leader in the 400 meter hurdles, Shamier Little, who had a 53.51 coming into the Trials, to run two seconds slower (55.64) and not qualify for the women’s 400 meter hurdle final.
- I did not expect 2012 London fourth place finisher Duane Solomon or the newly minted NCAA Champion and junior record holder (1:43.55) Donovan Brazier to both get eliminated in the first round of the men’s 800 meters.
- I did not expect to see a massive pile up 150 meters from the finish of the women’s 800 meters causing race favorites Alysia Montano and Brenda Martinez to fall to the track (and out of contention) or Molly Ludlow to stutter-step and then miss the top three by .04 seconds.
- I did not expect to see a woman who only started running the 800 meter race seriously two years ago make the Olympic team. As recently as 2014, Chrishuna Williams ran a lot of 400 and 200 meter races for the University of Arkansas. Her two 800 races in 2014 were 2:09 and 2:06. In 2015, she focused on the 800 and brought her PR down to 2:01. Now, one year later she is an Olympian after surviving the crash described above and finishing in third place.
- Here is a time out from the “I did not expect” list for me to brag that I DID EXPECT Kate Grace and Clayton Murphy to win the women’s and men’s 800 meters. Only Malinda really knows this is true because I was jabbering about them all through the early rounds of the 800. You’ll just have to believe me. Also, after the 800 meter fall, I did expect Brenda Martinez to bounce back and make the team in the 1500 meters. OK, back to the list.
- I did not expect the US to send three women to the Olympics in the women’s triple jump, for the first time since 1996. For this to happen Christina Epps jumped 14.17 meters on her fifth attempt, to leap (pardon the pun) from fifth place to second place and to also achieve the needed Olympic standard of 14.15 meters.
- I did not expect to see total domination in the women’s javelin by Maggie Malone. She not only won the event with a throw of 60.84 meters but also had the second and third best throws of the meet and she would have made the team with any of her four best throws.
- Although before the race I expected both Courtney Frerichs and Donn Cabral to make the Olympic team in the women’s and men’s steeplechase, when during the race they both fell off the pack with a lap to go, I did not expect either of them to make it into the top three. But, both had very strong last laps that booked their tickets to Rio.
- I did not expect to see Kim Conley, one of the favorites to make the Olympic team in the women’s 10,000 meters, lose a shoe during lap nine and then spend eleven laps trying to catch the pack. She moved from thirteenth to sixth before packing it in and dropping out with five laps to go to save her legs for the 5000 meters. And then eight days later she came back and made the team in the 5000 meters.
- I did not expect to see the carnage that took place in the men’s 10,000 meters. After 18 laps (at 7200 meters), the top six runners in the race were Galen Rupp (20:14), Shadrack Kipchichir (20:15), Bernard Lagat (20:18), Hassan Mead (20:22), Leonard Korir (20:27), and Eric Jenkins (20:31). Then things got crazy. A half lap later, Lagat pulled out of the race. Then less than two minutes later, Mead slowed down to a jog and Jenkins completed lap twenty and kept running right off the track. All of a sudden the only runners really left up front were Rupp, Kipchirchir, and Korir, as they had about a :15 gap on fourth place with five laps to go. Other than wondering if another front runner would succumb to the heat and humid conditions, the drama of the race was over.
- After seeing him drop out of the 10,000 with six and a half laps to go, after seeing him finish in a well beaten tenth at the 2015 USA Championships in the 5000 meters, and knowing that the man is 41 years old, I did not expect Bernard Lagat to not only make his fifth Olympic team, but to win the men’s 5000 meters. A side surprise would be that, after seeing Mead’s race go awry in the 10,000 meters, I did not expect him to be leading the men’s 5000 meters down the final homestretch (only to be caught by Lagat) and qualify for his first Olympic team with a second place finish.
The beauty of the US Olympic Trials is that you really don’t know what’s going to happen. The difference between making the team with jubilation versus missing the team with utter devastation can be measured in hundredths of seconds and in centimeters. That’s what makes it so exciting. Because you never know what you are going to see. But you do know that what you will see will be pretty amazing.
The long jump competition at the US Olympic Trials on July 3, 2016 was full of drama and excitement. At one time or another, six different men were sitting in the coveted top three spot to qualify for the Olympics. The Olympic standard, second best jumps, and the wind were all major factors.
The Olympic standard in the men’s long jump is 8.15 meters. This mark must not be wind aided (the wind cannot exceed 2.0 meters per seconds). Coming into the final, all the main contenders for the Olympic team except Will Claye had the Olympic standard. Claye missed the standard by one centimeter in the preliminaries with an 8.14 jump. The general sense was that in order to place in the top three, a jumper would need to exceed 8.15 meters anyway so there wasn’t a lot of speculation about Claye not having the standard. But no one took the wind into consideration.
After the first round of jumping, Jeffery Henderson was in first place with a jump of 8.41 meters. Jarrion Lawson, who was also competing in the 100 meters on this day was in second place with a jump of 8.20 meters. Damarcus Simpson was in third place with a jump of 8.12 meters.
After the second round jumps, Henderson was still first, Lawson improved to 8.32 meters to remain second. Mike Hartfield jumped into third place at 8.23 meters.
Round three saw Maquis Dendy, who was in eleventh place and needed to move into the top eight to receive three additional jumps, temporarily take the lead with a jump of 8.42 meters. Henderson then leapt 8.59 meters to take back first place. That 8.59 would end up being the winning jump. Hartfield improved to 8.34 to remain in third. KeAndre Bates was right there in the hunt, too, two centimeters back with an 8.32, although, he, too, lacked the Olympic standard on a legal jump (non-wind aided).
Somewhere in here, Lawson checked out from the long jump to run the 100 meter semi-finals, where he ran 10.01 to qualify for the 100 meter final.
In the fourth round, Henderson remained first. Lawson had his best jump of 8.58 to move into second place, one centimeter behind Henderson, where he would remain for the rest of the competition. Lawson’s jump made him just the ninth American to ever jump over 28 feet (28 feet, 1.75 inches) with legal wind. Feeling secure that his spot to Rio in the long jump was safe, Lawson would pass his last two jumps to rest for the 100 meter final. Denby, already hobbled from an injury suffered at the Prefontaine Classic, re-injured himself, pulling up on his fourth attempt. His mark remained 8.42 and he was now third. Also during this fourth round, Hartfield improved to 8.39 to be fourth, three centimeters back. Claye jumped 8.38 but it was wind-aided so did not count as an Olympic standard. So Claye was fifth, just four centimeters out of third but still lacking the standard.
In the fifth round, Henderson and Lawson remained in first and second place with their 8.59 and 8.58 respectively. Claye tied Dendy with a jump of 8.42 meters. The good news for Claye was he owned the tie-breaker with Dendy by virtue of the better second best jump 8.38 vs 7.75.The bad news for Claye was that this 8.42 was very much wind aided (+5.0 m/s) so he still lacked the Olympic standard.
With one round of jumping remaining, this was already a historically good long jump competition with six jumpers over 8.30 meters. This is what the scoreboard looked like:
- Henderson – 8.59
- Lawson – 8.58
- Claye – 8.42 (ahead with better second best jump of 8.38; no Olympic Standard)
- Dendy – 8.42 (behind on worse second best jump of 7.75; injured and unlikely able to jump anymore)
- Hartfield – 8.39
- Bates – 8.32
Somewhat unceremoniously, no one improved on their jumps in the last round. Claye, more needing the wind to die down so he could jump 8.15 legal (i.e. NOT wind-aided), jumped 7.93 meters and it was again wind-aided anyway. Lawson passed to save energy for the 100. Hartfield was not able to improve to move into the top three. Dendy passed due to the injury. Henderson did not improve on his mark.
Henderson, Lawson, and Claye would be the three medal winners.
Henderson, Lawson, and Dendy would be the three qualifiers for the Olympic long jump.
Lawson would place seventh in the 100 meters shortly after the long jump ended. Six days later Claye would win the triple jump competition to earn a spot to Rio in a different event.
But the story was not over. On July 29, Dendy pulled out of the Olympics due to the injury and Hartfield was named as his replacement.
This long jump competition that began on July 3, had at one time or another six different athletes in the Olympic-qualifying spots. Finally, on July 29, the US Olympic long jump team was set. Henderson, Lawson, and Hartfield will be the three Americans jumping in Rio.
I love track and field. But being a fan of the sport can be tough at times. The sport is shrouded in allegations of performance enhancing drug use. The professional runner most near and dear to my heart, Shannon Rowbury, quite possibly was robbed of a podium finish at the 2012 Olympics. Shannon faces constant random drug tests by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). The number of tests she has taken is public record, she was tested eleven times in 2015 and four times so far in 2016.
Shannon’s training group, coached by Alberto Salazar, has not escaped allegations either. I know Shannon better than most people and I am very confident that Shannon competes clean.
The most frustrating part about being a track & field fan are the questions about cheating. Was the record I just witnessed legit or the result of performance enhancing drugs? Did the clean athletes place or were they pushed out of the medals by athletes who are doping? The fact of the matter is that in the sport of track & field, there seem to be constant questions about athletes and even whole countries and federations cheating (e.g. Russia, Kenya, and a group of athletes coached by Jama Aden).
All I can do is stay positive and be optimistic in my hope for a clean sport.
It’s because of this feeling that the “bad guys” are stealing medals from the “good guys” and getting away with it, that I found the special ceremony before the start of the 2016 Olympic Trials competition to be quite meaningful. It was a medal ceremony for Adam Nelson. Nelson was receiving his gold medal for the shot put competition….from the 2004 Athens Olympics!
In Athens in 2004, the final results were Ukraine’s Yuriy Bilonoh winning the gold and Nelson the silver. The competition itself was quite dramatic. Nelson threw 21.16 meters on his first throw and that mark had him in the lead until the last round of the competition. Bilonoh was in second with a mark of 21.15 (just one centimeter behind Nelson), which he threw on both his first and second attempts. Nelson, meanwhile, fouled all of his remaining throws after the opening 21.16. And in the sixth round, Bilonoh improved that one centimeter to 21.16 to tie Nelson. With the tie-breaker being best second-best throw, Bilonoh won the gold.
However, over eight years later, in December 2012, a re-test of Bilonoh’s urine sample turned up positive for performance enhancing drugs and he was stripped of the gold medal. In the spring of 2013, Nelson was named the gold medalist. USATF recognized him at the 2013 USA Championships. He received a wreath, they played the national anthem, and he took a victory lap. All that was missing was the actual gold medal. That didn’t get into his hands until later that summer and when he received it, it was without much fanfare, at a Burger King in the Atlanta airport.
Fast forward another three years, to July 1, 2016, almost twelve years since the men’s shot put competition on August 18, 2004 in Athens. Nelson, now 40 years old, finally gets the whole package – a medal ceremony with the gold medal presented to him and the playing of the Star Spangled Banner in front of an appreciative audience. The same day as this medal ceremony, Nelson, now 40 years old, competed in the 2016 Olympic Trials. In the morning he placed in the top 12 to qualify for the men’s shot put final. Then came the medal ceremony. Shortly after that, he was down on the track competing, where he came in seventh with a throw of 20.17 meters.
Nelson is one of the good guys in the sport. He has been a big advocate for a clean sport and for athletes’ rights. He takes on the persona of a madman when he throws, screaming and throwing down his shirt when he gets into the shot put ring to throw. But outside of the ring, I am told, he is one of the nicest guys around. His warm-up shirt at the Trials said “World’s Greatest Dad” on it with a unicorn and rainbow. This must be a man that doesn’t take himself too seriously and can have fun even while competing at the Olympic Trials. The crowd at the Olympic Trials recognized Nelson with a big ovation as he got ready for his final throw.
Like I said, being a fan of track & field can be challenging. It can be hard not to throw up your hands in despair with all that seems wrong in the sport, especially in regards to doping. But moments like this one with Adam Nelson do restore my faith that, at least sometimes, the bad guys get caught and the good guys get their proper due.
Sunday, July 10, 2016. Hayward Field. University of Oregon. Eugene, Oregon. Track Town USA.
It’s 3:00 P.M. Malinda and I have settled into our seats in Section C, Row 28. It’s the last day of the 2016 Olympic Trials. The race we’ve been waiting all week for, the Women’s 1500 meter Final is at 5:00 P.M. T-minus two hours to go. 120 minutes. How will we pass the time?
We’ve come to watch and cheer for Shannon Rowbury. Shannon arrived at Sacred Heart Cathedral as a freshman in the fall of 1998. It was also my first year as the head coach at Sacred Heart Cathedral. Eighteen years and hundreds of memories later, here we are.
You would think that after multiple USA Championships, World Championships, and Olympic Games and this, our third Olympic Trials, we wouldn’t get nervous anymore. We do.
I decide to take a selfie and post the picture to social media. That will eat up some time. It should be noted that the sign Malinda is holding in the selfie was made earlier in the Fan Fest as a means of eating up time and alleviating nervousness.
It’s now 3:09 P.M. Down to 111 minutes.
I busy myself watching the pole vault and high jump. I spend some time looking up the heptathlon scores heading into the final event on my smartphone. I make some small talk but at times like this, I prefer to be just left alone – me and the thoughts screaming silently in my head. The women’s 5000 race starts and it’s pretty exciting. That distracts me for about fifteen minutes and five seconds.
Suddenly it dawns on me. Very few people among the 22,000 spectators in the stadium have such an emotional investment in the outcome of an event. For most, if your favorite athlete makes the Olympic team it’s, “woo-hoo” and high five the person sitting next to you. If they miss out on an Olympic spot it’s, “darn it, that’s too bad,” and on to the next event. I’m one of the lucky ones. I REALLY care if Shannon finishes in the top three or not. It’s that mystery of not knowing if it will be the thrill of victory of agony of defeat that makes sports so riveting. It’s why they run the race. This revelation, that I am blessed to be in my current stressful situation reminds me of a quote I often share with the Sacred Heart Cathedral teams, “pressure is a privilege.” If there’s no pressure, you either have no chance or you are such a sure thing that it isn’t challenging and thus not as much fun. You actually should want there to be pressure.
I decide this deserved another social media post.
Now it’s 4:49 P.M.
I look over and notice that Shannon’s friend Aysha is putting lipstick on Malinda. This hot pink or red lipstick has become Shannon’s signature look, an homage to her grandmother Nonie, who passed away five years ago. Aysha asks me if I want lipstick. I look at her questioningly. But then Shannon’s mom, Paula, says “Oh come on, Andy.” Hey, an Olympic spot is on the line. If I need to “lipstick up” to help get the job done, then I better pucker my lips. The timestamp on my phone says that by 4:53 P.M. I had done my part to get to Rio. Now it was all on Shannon.
Shannon and Jenny Simpson were the clear favorites in the race. Brenda Martinez, doubling back in the 1500 after a heartbreaking fall 150 meters from the finish line in last week’s 800 meters, was also someone to contend with. Morgan Uceny, the 2012 Olympic Trials champion, has been looking strong and should not be counted out. The field was deep and there could easily be a couple other runners from the pack who could make this challenging.
The first two laps were typically on the slow side with lots of bumping and pushing. All the contenders were bunched together and in position to make their run for Rio. With about 450 meters to go, right behind Shannon, Alexa Efraimson and Lauren Johnson made contact, with Johnson being bumped off-balance.
With 400 meters to go, Uceny passed and cut-off Shannon, causing Shannon to fall back to fifth place. Shannon was boxed in with Uceny in front of her and Efraimson to her right. There was nowhere to go. I remember hearing Malinda screaming in a very panicked voice. I kept thinking, “there’s still 45 seconds of running left. She’ll get out of the box and then she’ll kick.”
With 250 meters to go, Shannon passed Sara Vaughn to move into fourth place. But with 200 meters to go, there still wasn’t a whole lot of room for Shannon to start her kick. “Still 30 seconds of running. There’s time,” I said to myself, this time my rhetorical voice sounding a little more panicked. Shannon would tell me later at dinner that she stayed patient and she knew there would eventually be an opening and when it came, she’d take it and go.
Finally, with about 150 meters left, Shannon got past Efraimson and had a clear path to chase Uceny and Simpson. Martinez was closing hard as well and Amanda Eccleston was right there in the hunt, too. But Shannon shifted gears and easily pulled into second place where she safely remained until the finish line.
The next few hours are a bit of a blur. We waited for Shannon to come around on her victory lap to give her hugs. She seemed thrilled to see me wearing the lipstick and we of course took a picture together. From there we went out to the Fan Fest where we danced to the live music, drank a few beverages, and cheered wildly when they presented the awards for the women’s 1500 meters. As we left Hayward Field, we noticed they hadn’t added Shannon’s name to the “Who Made the Team” board. Taking out my Sharpie, I decided to help them out.
First there was Beijing. Then there was London.
And Rio makes it a Trio.
Somewhere in Bahrain, Maryam Jamal’s high school coach may be writing a blog about how Jamal deserves the gold medal from the 2012 London Olympic 1500. But I was not Jamal’s high school coach. I was Shannon Rowbury’s; and therefore this blog is from the point of view that Shannon deserves the silver medal from the 2012 London Olympic 1500.
First, I want to go back to August 2012 in London. On August 9, the day before the women’s 1500 final, I wrote a blog entitled, “Keep Calm and Kick.” I was both nervous and excited to be watching Shannon run in an Olympic Final for the second time.
Immediately after the race, these were the results:
|1||Asli CAKIR ALPTEKIN||TUR||4:10.23|
|3||Maryam yusuf JAMAL||BRN||4:10.74|
|12||Hellen Onsando OBIRI||KEN||4:16.57|
|Morgan UCENY||USA||Did not finish|
Shannon’s sixth place finish gave me mixed emotions. Of course sixth at the Olympics is pretty amazing and it was one place higher than in 2008 in Beijing. But there was also a feeling of frustration that maybe not all the women in the race were playing on a level playing field.
The top two runners from Turkey, Asli Cakir Alptekin and Gamze Bulut, had come out of nowhere. Cakir had served a two-year ban from 2004-06 for a drug infraction while she was a junior athlete. Tatyana Tomasheva of Russia who placed fourth served a two year suspension from 2008-10 for “fraudulent substitution of urine” – she basically tried to cheat on a drug urine test.
It was also suspicious that these two runners from Turkey and Russia, did not compete at the 2011 World Championships and were not regular competitors in the Diamond League meets, meets where there would likely be drug testing. Cakir, a former steeplechaser, had never made an international championship final before 2012 and had improved her 1500 meter time 7 seconds that summer. In 2011, Bulut’s best time in the 1500 was 4:18. In 2012 she suddenly ran 4:01 and qualified for an international championship meet for what would be her first and only time. Tomasheva competed almost exclusively at home in Russia.
But thinking like this, felt like sour grapes. So instead we went for dinner in the mall by the Olympic Stadium and waited to meet up with Shannon and her family. In a recent Unscriptd interview, Shannon revealed that she was in tears on the practice track during her cool-down because she felt robbed by these dopers. She worked hard to put on a brave face for her family.
Usually dinner with Shannon after her finals race is a fun dinner with lots of laughs and toasts. Thinking back to that night now, that was by far the least celebratory after the meet dinner we’ve all experienced. In the group picture we took that night, we may all be smiling but deep inside we were all pretty upset at the circumstances. I didn’t even blog about this race because I didn’t know what to say that didn’t sound accusatory and controversial.
In late 2013 I saw a picture of the 2012 London Olympic 1500 Final. It was a nice head on shot of the runners as they approached the finish line. Almost every runner’s face was clearly visible. I decided to make a scan of the picture and I saved the file on my computer with the filename “2012 London 1500 Final_x out the druggies as they get caught.”
For a year and a half, that jpg just sat there untouched. But in August 2015, Cakir failed a drug test. She is currently serving an eight year ban and her Olympic gold was striped. I got to make my first X on the picture.
I now realize that there were a few bans in 2014 of runners who finished behind Shannon. The initial ninth place finisher Ekaterina Kostetskaya of Russia was given a two-year ban for a drug violation from a test at the 2011 World Championships. Her ninth place finish has been nullified by the IAAF. The initial seventh place finisher Natallia Kareiva of Belarus had her finish nullified and received a two-year ban for doping after her biological passport showed abnormalities.
Going back to the runners who finished ahead of Shannon, with the Cakir suspension and voiding of her results, the feeling most of us had was that Shannon was rightfully fifth. In the summer of 2015, all hell broke out regarding Russian athletes. First it was rumored that many, Tomashova included, would be named as dopers and have their results expunged. Next, came news that Russia’s anti-doping agency lacked adequate and proper drug testing and would be suspended by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for non-compliance. Russia’s infractions are severe enough that it is still unclear if any of athletes from the Russian Federation will be allowed to compete in Rio at the 2016 Olympics. This obviously shrouds Tomashova and her fourth place finish in London even more.
On February 29, 2016, it was announced that fifth place finisher Abeba Aregawi of Sweden by way of Ethiopia had tested positive for meldonium. A week later on March 7, 2016, after a drug test showed irregularities in her biological passport, Bulut was suspended pending further investigation.
In many ways, this is vindication for Shannon. What we were all feeling that night in London was not sour grapes but justified. It remains unclear what will happen with the official results and medals from the 2012 London Ollympic 1500 race. To date five of the first eight finishers have been busted for drugs. If you believe that they should not be in the results, then the final results should now stand as:
Gold – Maryam Yusuf Jamal, BRN
Silver – Shannon Rowbury, USA
Bronze – Lucia Klocova, SVK
Shannon may or may not ever get a medal from the London Olympic Games. She and her fans will never have the moment back in the Olympic Stadium in front of 80,000 fans, taking a victory lap and being on the podium to receive a medal. That’s what makes me mad and frustrated.
Maybe the best thing to come of this is in Shannon’s mindset. You couldn’t help but wonder back in 2012 if Shannon’s best as a clean athlete would always leave her around sixth place and the dopers would continue to win the medals. But thanks to increased testing, the cheaters are getting caught. What’s left, hopefully, are only clean athletes.
Shannon’s best is good enough to compete against the other clean athletes.
Are you looking for a darkhorse to cheer for at the US Olympic Marathon Trials on February 13, 2016 in Los Angeles? Perhaps a runner from the small town (less than 500 population) of Fawn Grove, PA, who will also be celebrating his 28th birthday when he makes his marathon debut in a couple weeks?
Jonathan Grey ran PR’s of 4:18 in the 1600m, 9:11 in the 3200m, and 15:41 in 5K cross country while at Kennard-Dale High School. He began his collegiate career at the University of Oklahoma before transferring to William & Mary after his freshman year. At William & Mary he was a 3-time All-American, with top finishes of seventeenth at the 2009 NCAA Cross Country Championships and fifth in the 5000 meters at the 2010 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships.
After graduating in the spring of 2011, he joined Team Minnesota. Although I didn’t know him or talk to him at the 2011 XC Club Nationals in Seattle, we both raced there. I came in 92nd in the Masters Men’s race with a time of 36:06. He was 1st in the Open Men’s race with a time of 29:38. We both had really good races that day.
Jon has been running some fast times of late. In the spring of 2015 he set PR’s on the track in back to back months at Stanford. In April he ran 13:37.79 in the 5000 meters and then in May he ran 27:59.88 in the 10,000 meters.
I first met Jon at the 2015 USA Championships. We ended up at the same table after the meet for dinner at the Wild Duck Café. He had just come in 14th in the men’s 10,000 meter race. It was really hot that night and the next day he tweeted a picture of the Hayward Field track, melted on the bottom of his spikes. After I was introduced to Jon, I made sure he quickly got a beer in his hands to re-hydrate. We then talked a little bit about the upcoming XC Club Nationals meet in San Francisco. As often happens after something like this, a couple weeks later we became Facebook friends.
Anyone who is friends with me on Facebook (and doesn’t hide me) was well aware that I was a tad bit excited about Club Nats. At Club Nationals, towards the end of the day, the Pamakids were hanging out at our tent. A young runner walks over and immediately starts talking to me – it’s Jon Grey! He has a big smile on his face and he says that he’s been following me on Facebook. He knew I would be here and just wanted to come over and say hi. We talked a little about our races. I think he told that he came in second. I may or may not have told him how proud I was of our open men’s team for coming in 57th and beating the Wednesday Night Laundry Runners. It was only later that I realized that I had seen him during the race because he was the runner leading the pack for most of the race, running with a white baseball cap on backwards. Garrett Heath passed him in the final 100 meters but it was still a pretty awesome race. And I think it shows what a cool person he is, that after this race, he wasn’t down and disappointed. Instead he decided to come find a friend he met once at a restaurant six months earlier just to say hi.
In the summer of 2015, Jon moved to Boulder, CO to be coached by Lee Troop and run for the Boulder Track Club. He has been racing very well including top 10 finishes at the October USATF 10 Mile Championships and the November .US National 12K Championships (both part of the USATF Running Circuit)
At the 2016 Jacksonville Bank Half Marathon, he not only ran under the Olympic Marathon Trials half marathon qualifying standard of 1:05, to qualify for the Marathon Trials, but he won the race in 1:02:47. He’ll be one of 168 runners toeing the line with their eyes on a top three finish and a trip to Rio for the 2016 Olympics.
This marathon on his 28th birthday will be his debut. But Jon seems ready to go. The team just got back from a three week sea-level camp in Tucson, AR. (I guess when you live at altitude, instead of an altitude camp, you go to a sea-level camp). He told me that they were able to get speed/turn-over work in at sea level that would not have been possible at altitude. Jon says his race plan is simply to be patient. Because it’s his debut he wants to focus on being tactically efficient. That being said, he also says his goal is to be top three. He will focus on running a smart race that gets him the highest possible place, whatever that may be.
So if you’re not sure who to look for or who to root for at the 2016 Men’s Olympic Marathon Trials, consider rooting for Jonathan Grey. I will be.
As the Pamakid Open Men prepared for their third USATF Cross Country Club National Championship Meet (Club Nats), they were looking to improve on 50th (and last) in 2011 in Seattle and 45th (and last) in 2013 in Bend. Beating someone, anyone, was all we were asking for.
During the week leading up to the 2015 Club Nats, it was unclear if the Pamakids would be placed into the A race or the B race. While willing to run in whichever race we were placed in by USATF, deep inside, most wanted to compete against the best of the best in the A race. An invitation to run in the A race would also give us the opportunity to do what had alluded us in 2011 and 2013…to get out of last place. It turns out that we were initially placed in the B race but the Pacific Association Cross Country Chair, Carl Rose, argued on our behalf that it was wrong to have the Pamakids as the only club whose A team was being placed in the B race. Rose campaigned for meet officials to move us into the A race and when the start lists came out, the Pamakids were in the A race.
The next step was to find a team of similar speed that we could battle to get out of last place. I scanned the entry list and one team name couldn’t help but jump out at me, the Monterey Bay Wednesday Night Laundry Runners. I didn’t know much about them but I decided to get the Open Men fired up by issuing them a challenge via a group e-mail. The next few hours saw a furry of e-mails that included some predictable laundry jokes. Steve Holcombe did some scouting, also known as Facebook stalking. Before long we had the rundown on their team – one 2:30 marathon runner up front, some 39 minute 10K runners, and a super senior who jumped in to fill out their team. We had our rivals!
The key to victory (yes, that’s what we were calling not being in last place….victory), was for our #1 runner to get as close to their #1 as possible and for our #2 runner to hopefully beat their #2 runner by the same number of places that their #1 beat our #1. Then it would come down to our #3-4-5 runners winning their match-ups, and possibly making up a few more points for us if necessary.
At the starting line, our Open Men went looking for their rivals so we would know what uniform we were targeting. To no surprise, they wore nicely pressed and just laundered Kelly green uniforms. It was game on!
It was amazing how our back pack runners quickly found their rivals. Having not been at the starting line for this race, I didn’t yet know what the rival uniform looked like. My wife, Malinda, ironically carrying a white laundry
basket that the team was using to carry sweats back to our tent, started to describe the Kelly green uniforms to me. But then Ray “Tower” Yu ran by just before the one mile mark and he was pointing excitedly at the runner ahead of him. Now I knew what I was looking for.
Just before the 3K mark, I saw Adam Roach, the Launderer’s #1 runner. Malinda and I started counting the runners between him and our #1 runner, Steve Lloyd. But then Malinda saw Nick Symmonds and yelled, “Hey look, it’s Nick Symmonds!” “Where?” I asked. As we had this conversation we lost track of what number we were on. We cheered on our top two runners, Steve L and Justin Mikecz, and then I started counting the runners between Justin and their #2. But again, I got distracted as people started talking to me. My gut feeling was that it was close but we were probably behind. “The boys are going to have to go to work the second half of the race to make this happen,” I thought to myself. We would later learn that I was pretty much spot on. According to the chip split times, at the 3K mark we were losing to the Launderers by 20 points.
Malinda and I went back into the Polo Fields to cheer for them again. This time I tried to stay away from people I knew so I could stand alone and count undisturbed. I approximated that Steve L was losing his match-up by 90 points and that Justin was winning his match-up by 50 points. That meant we needed our 3-4-5 runners to pick up 40 points for us. Things were trending well. Steve H passed the Launderers #2 (David Erstad). Ryan Pletzke and Ray were not only pulling ahead of their #3 (Mark Moehling) but also closing the gap on Erstad. It was also helpful that our #6 and #7 runners Merick Dang and Jeff Huizinga were beating the Launderer’s #4 (the super senior, Jim Tiffany). Now was not the time to defer to your elders. Take him out! John Gieng running as our #8 runner was still helping the cause, displacing the Launderers #5, Ryan Dunham. We were gaining an important extra one point because at Club Nationals, they score eight runners.
We ran back to the 7K mark. A lot of the runners had passed already and I missed Roach, so I couldn’t count what the lead over Steve L was. I did count that Justin was 50 or so placed ahead of Erstad. I had the same feeling that we needed to pick up some more points. The points were hard to come by for our 3-4-5 runners because there weren’t that many runners in striking range around them. I felt that Steve L and Justin were the key. With a good finish they could pick up ten places and that might be what we needed. We kept yelling to our guys, telling them where our rivals were and to fight for every place. The chip timing splits would later bear out that it was indeed close. We had made up the gap and pulled ahead by a mere two points at the 7K mark. A big part of this turnaround from 20 points down to two points ahead was Justin moving up 20 places while his match up #2 runner was in the same place.
The way we were passionately yelling for our guys, you’d think we were cheering on the Hoka One One guys fighting for the team championship. The guys were focused like never before, game faces on and laser stares with their eyes. We kept feeding them information about the Landerers. At one point when we were yelling at our team and pointing at one of the Launderers, saying, “That’s their #2! That’s their #2!” The Launderer made a weird expression on his face as if to say, “Are they talking about me? Why does anyone care that I’m the #2 runner on my team?” Didn’t he know this was Club Nats and the Pamakids were coming for them?!
With less than a half mile to go, the runners streamed by us again. It was going to be close so we just kept cheering on our guys. The Launderers #2 runner (it was now Moehling, who had passed Erstad due to an apparent shoelace issue on JFK Drive) was a few steps ahead of Ryan and Ray. This was huge. We could swing two to four points with a good finish. Ray nodded as he came by and I knew he was measuring his kick to pass Moehling and run us out of last place. Ray ended up passing Moehling to give us four runners ahead of their #2. Ryan, Merick, and Jeff all beat their #3. We were picking up “little” points that could be the “big” difference.
The rest was a bit of a blur. Knowing it would take time for the results to be announced, we took some team photos and went back to our tent for our Pamakid potluck picnic. At some point I looked at my phone and saw that the results were in. I called for everyone’s attention as I was about to read the Open Men team results. I held up my phone and dramatically scrolled down to the bottom of the results….this took several seconds and only helped build even greater anticipation. I checked last place, first. Hmm. The Mostly Bearded Track Club had supplanted us for the honor of last place (it turns out the Mostly Bearded #1 runner dropped out after the 7K mark which resulted in a 200 point swing in their team score). In 58th place, 13 points behind 57th place was….the Monterey Bay Wednesday Night Laundry Runners! We were 57th place! A mere 13 points ahead of our new rivals! A big cheer went up in our team area. “They don’t just hand out 57th place, you know,” said Jeff. In the bleachers next to us, the Asics Aggies, who like us missed the podium – with their 4th place finish, seemed to get a kick out of seeing us cheer for our 57th place finish and joined in the whooping and hollering.
Our journey out of last place began in Seattle and included a road block known as Rolling Thunder. The journey continued in Bend. But before we could arrive at our final stop on this journey, we had to battle through a laundromat in Monterey Bay. Thanks for the great race, Wednesday Night Laundry Runners.
The place was Bend, Oregon.
The year was 2013. The same year that I had double bouts of pneumonia, once in February and again in May.
Thanks to the pneumonia, I knew the 2013 Club Nationals was not going to be my fastest race. When I previewed the hilly five loop course on Friday, I hoped that 2013 Club Nationals was not going to be my slowest race.
For him, 2013 was probably just another year. His third year as a masters runner. Another year removed from the PR’s and glory of the late 1990’s back when we were both in our late 20’s.
In between my bouts with pneumonia, we raced three times. At Sac Town 10 he beat me by a comfortable 7 minutes, 25 seconds. In the 5K, I closed that gap to 1:22.
In the fall at Martinez, it took one of my best races of the season to finish 11th in 23:57. He was 6th in 23:17. He must have gotten lost. Or he was injured. Maybe he had pneumonia.
At Club Nationals, on the first of the five loops, I noticed a familiar figure ahead of me – long hair, black jersey. Could it be? I knew I wasn’t tearing it up, so I concluded he was having an off day, probably running despite an injury. I passed him. But he would re-pass me. I kept hoping I would be ahead of him when we ran by people I knew who had a camera. Maybe a picture would be taken showing me ahead of him. That would make this race memorable, I thought, because certainly neither the speed in which I was running nor place I was in in the race were memorable. I was so “not in the zone” and un-focused that this is what I thought about for most of the second, third, and fourth laps.
On the fifth lap he passed me on the final uphill. Normalcy had returned, I thought to myself. Even injured he has so much talent that he beats me. But as we approached the downhill sprint to the finish, I noticed I was catching up to that black jersey. At least I thought it was him. You see, I had never been this close to him in a race before, so I wasn’t familiar with what he looked like from such close range.
The last 200 meters. I may never have a chance to beat him again in my life I thought. And so I gave it my all out kick on the uneven terrain. I passed him in the final glorious meters, edging him out 40:22 (144th) to 40:25 (148th).
But it gets better. My Pamakid teammate, Monica Zhuang, was right by the finish line. And she was taking pictures. She captured the moment.
For him, it was a race that’s probably been long forgotten.
For me, it was the day I beat the 1998 USA 1500 meter champion, Jamey Harris. I have the picture to prove it and a story for the ages.
Have you ever watched an Olympics or World Championships and seen the athletes who place in the top 3, celebrate with a flag from their country? They usually pose for pictures while holding the flag behind them.
Have you ever wondered where those flags come from?
Do the athletes pack a flag in their sweats bag and run to get it if they medal? Does someone from their federation have a stash trackside?
I distinctly remember in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics, going out and buying a USA flag. I didn’t know where these celebratory flags suddenly appeared from but I’d be damned if I wasn’t prepared. I e-mailed Shannon Rowbury and told her that if she needed one (and that I hoped she did), her old high school coach was prepared with a USA flag in his backpack.
At the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, Malinda and I had very good seats by the finish line in about row fifteen. Bernard Lagat won the silver in the 5000 meters. I waved my USA flag proudly (the same flag I had purchased in Beijing in hopes that Shannon would need it). Lagat was right in front of me and looking up into the stands. He was looking for a USA flag for his celebration. I swear, we locked eyes for a split second. My mind raced, trying to figure out how I would get my flag down the fifteen rows and into Lagat’s hands. But before I could move, Lagat spotted someone with a USA flag sitting closer. He motioned for that flag. If only I had been a few rows closer to the track.
As we prepared for the 2015 World Championships back in Beijing, I noted that we were sitting pretty close to the track and in the middle of the first turn, near the photographers and not far from the finish line. I decided there was a chance US athletes could be asking for our flag. There was only a week left before we left. Luckily, Malinda’s friend has Amazon Prime. We left for Beijing with our original USA flag from 2008 and three new ones… just in case.
Malinda has listened to me talk about fans giving athletes their celebratory flags for seven years. She humored me by helping me acquire the three new flags for this trip… just in case. But all through this, we’ve never really known how this works. Do athletes really take flags from fans in the stands?
On the first night of the 2015 World Championships, we got our answer. Mo Farah won the 10,000 meters with a great final 100 meter kick. He ran around to the middle of the first curve in celebration. Photographers followed him. He made the Mo-Bot gesture with his arms. The crowd cheered wildly. Now he needed a Union Jack flag. He looked up into the stands and the people right in front of us were waving their Union Jack. Mo locked eyes with them. They didn’t move. But I had been in this position before and I yelled to them, “Throw him your flag. Throw him your flag.” They did. The photographers helped relay it down to Mo and he started posing for pictures with the flag. Malinda high-fived the two guys who gave up their flag. I talked excitedly to them about how in every picture they see of Mo celebrating with the flag, they’ll know that it’s their flag! In my mind, they are famous!
Some people go to baseball games, dreaming of catching a home run or foul ball. Me? I go to track & field meets, dreaming that someday I’ll throw my USA flag down to a USA athlete for their celebration pictures.