2015 Wanamaker Mile Preview: Matthew Centrowitz and Nick Willis Lead a LOADED Field

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By Jonathan Gault, Predictions by LetsRun.com Staff.
February 11, 2015

I already previewed most of the events at the 108th Millrose Games (Saturday on NBC Sports Network from 6-8 p.m. ET, additional pre and post streaming on USATF.tv). But the night’s final event — the Wanamaker Mile — is so good this year that it deserves its own preview. Below, everything you need to know about the eight-lap race.

Men’s Wanamaker Mile (7:53 p.m. ET)

MatthewCentrowitzUSANike OP
EdwardCheserekKENUniv of Oregon
EvanJagerUSANike BTC
JohnGregorekUSAUniv of Oregon
PatCaseyUSANike OTC

The marquee event of the meet might also be the marquee event of the entire American indoor season. With no World Indoors to make this year, USAs won’t be quite as dramatic as last year — and besides, guys like Edward Cheserek, Lawi Lalang and Nick Willis wouldn’t even be allowed into that meet. This race has the perfect combination of name recognition, in-form stars and element of the unknown (what can Cheserek run in an all-out mile?) to make it the most intriguing — and exciting — race of the 2015 indoor season.

The entry list is a who’s who of American-based milers. There are four Olympic/World medalists (Matthew CentrowitzBernard LagatLeo Manzano and Willis), the last two NCAA record-holders (Lalang and Chris O’Hare), the best runner in the NCAA (Cheserek), the runner-up at outdoor USAs last year (Pat Casey) and, of course, the defending champion (Will Leer). And even though it’s February, many of these guys are already in great shape: Centrowitz blitzed a 2:17.00 1k in Boston last week, Willis set a New Zealand record with his 3:51.61 at the same meet and Lalang split a 3:52.33 1600 two weeks ago on this track.

After his 3:51.61, Willis said after that race that he felt the Reggie Lewis Center wasn’t quite as fast as a track like Arkansas’ Randal Tyson Track Center or the Armory in New York. Since this race is at the Armory, it’s possible we could see an even faster time on Saturday out of Willis or whoever wins the race; the meet record is 3:51.21 by Lopez Lomong from 2013.

Willis isn’t the only one who could threaten that mark. Centrowitz, Casey and Lalang have all looked great over the past two weeks, while Lagat and Leer both have experience running fast at Millrose in the past.

The fans are pumped for this one, and so are the athletes. Minutes after racing in Boston, several of the guys in this race, including Centrowitz and Lagat, remarked how excited they were to test themselves at Millrose. And they should be. American indoor races don’t get much bigger than this.

It’s such a great race that you could make the race that as many as eight different men could win it (sorry, Evan Jager, even with your 3:53 pb I don’t think you have enough speed to win this race). In fact, I’ll do just that below.

Fist Pump from Centro

Centro cruised to a win in the 1k in Boston last week

Matthew Centrowitz • Nike Oregon Project • 25 years old • 2012 Champion

2015 races

1/17/2015UW Indoor Preview10002:19.531st
1/17/2015UW Indoor PreviewMile3:58.601st
1/31/2015Armory Track Invite1200 (DMR)2:49.471st
2/7/2015NB Indoor Grand Prix10002:17.001st

After missing last year’s indoor season with a virus, Centrowitz has returned with a vengeance in 2015, winning all four races he’s been a part of this year. Each result from the two-time World Championship medalist has been more impressive than the last, most recently running a 2:17.00 1000 (#2 all-time U.S.) during which he looked in control as soon as he took the lead with about 300 to go. Based on his 2015 results and the ease with which he’s accomplished them, he deserves to enter as co-favorite with Willis.

Edward Cheserek • University of Oregon • 21 years old

2015 races*

1/24/2015Rod McCravy Memorial30007:49.561st

*Cheserek also ran the 1600 leg of Oregon’s DMR on January 23 (the Ducks were first in 9:32.61) but I couldn’t find a split for Cheserek

Last week, I wondered in a messageboard thread where a Wanamaker Mile victory would rank among Cheserek’s career achievements. Winning NCAA XC is always going to be a major feather in any runner’s cap; every collegiate runner is aiming to peak for that race, and the way Cheserek won his first one in 2013, destroying heavy favorite Kennedy Kithuka (who had in turn destroyed Stephen Sambu and Lawi Lalang the previous year) made it a truly legendary performance. But Kennedy Kithuka isn’t a name with global recognition. His pbs at the time of that race were 13:25 and 28:18. He was a very good runner when Cheserek beat him, but he wasn’t world-class.

Compare that to this year’s Millrose field, which includes four World Championship/Olymic medalists, and there’s no contest as to which competition has the better talent. The counter-argument, of course, is that it’s February, and that most of these guys are peaking for August, whereas everyone at NCAA XC is peaking for that one race. I concede that point, but everyone in this race is a competitor; the calendar won’t affect how hard they race once the gun goes off. And even though they may not be peaking for this race, several of these guys (Willis, Centrowitz, Lalang, Casey) are in great shape right now. To me, if Cheserek — best-known as a 5k/10k type — wins this race, it’s more impressive than anything else he’s accomplished to date (Editor’s note: The LetsRun suits agree. If a 10,000 guy wins this as a sophomore in college, his legend only grows).

Of course, that’s no easy task. Cheserek has fantastic closing speed — remember how he won the NCAA 10,000 with a 24.8-second final 200? — but that speed, which sets him apart at the NCAA level, is a requirement of any professional miler. He has run 3:36.50 for 1500 (equivalent to about a 3:54.6 mile; his pb in the open mile is 4:02.21), but he lost that race to Lalang — who he’ll face here. I refuse to count out Cheserek on principle, because he’s one of the greatest NCAA runners I’ve ever seen and I’ve learned never to underestimate him, but winning this race will be extremely difficult.

Lalang’s collegiate record (3:52.88) is a possibility if the race goes fast enough up front (the NCAA record has been broken in this race three years in a row), but the biggest priority for Cheserek will be getting a qualifier to NCAAs. Anything under 3:59.00 should accomplish that, so I don’t imagine that will be a problem.

One last note. Cheserek has spoken about how he may run the mile at NCAA indoors this year, and running a fast time here would give him qualifiers in the mile and 3k (but not the 5k); Oregon is also seventh on the DMR list right now. On paper, running those three events would seem to be the best way to utilize Cheserek’s talents to maximize Oregon’s points at NCAAs.

Here’s the schedule he’d have to pull off (30 points if he wins all three events):
Day 1: mile trials (6:15 p.m.), DMR final (9:20 p.m.)
Day 2: mile final (6:10 p.m.), 3k final (8:15 p.m.)

He could counter by trying what Galen Rupp accomplished in 2009 (3k, 5k, DMR) (*LRC recap from 2009, LRC analysis from 2009), but there’s a reason everyone was blown away when Rupp pulled it off: the DMR starts just 35 minutes after the 5k starts (more precisely, Cheserek would have about 27 minutes from the time he finishes the 5k to the time he gets the baton in the DMR). That would also net Oregon 30 points, but it’s more difficult to accomplish. We’ll have to wait another month to see how Oregon coaches Robert Johnson and Andy Powell play it, but no matter what events Cheserek runs at NCAAs, it should be a spectacle.

Daddy Still Can Kick: Millrose Win #9 for Lagat

Lagat won the 2k at Millrose last year; can he return to the winner’s stand in the meet’s marquee event?

Bernard Lagat • Nike • 40 years old • Champion in 2001, 2003, 2005-10

2015 races

2/7/2015NB Indoor Grand Prix30007:48.332nd

Lagat has won this race eight times, but none would be more impressive than a potential #9. Lagat is now primarily a 3k/5k runner, and while he can still close with the best of them over those distances (he almost defeated Dejen Gebremeskel in the 3k in Boston last week), it’s hard to envision him having a 3:51/3:52 mile in his legs at age 40. He hasn’t broken 3:54 since 2011 and hasn’t run a race shorter than 2000 meters in over two years.

Of course, like Cheserek, it’s become foolish to count out Bernard Lagat. This is a man who came within .28 seconds of World Indoor gold at age 39 and ran an American-record 4:54.74 for 2k at this meet last year — a mark the Purdy running calculator equates to 3:51.00 for a mile. Lagat said in Boston he’d like this race to go fast, but a slightly slower pace may benefit him if he wants the win. That would better allow him to use his tactical prowess rather than making the race a test of brute speed. Even if he doesn’t win, Lagat will be happy if he can take down Millrose king Eamonn Coghlan‘s 3:58.15 masters world record from 1994.

Will Leer • Nike • 29 years old • 2014 Champion

1/31/2015Camel City EliteMile (flat track)3:57.542nd
2/7/2015NB Indoor Grand Prix30007:48.804th

Leer ran slower than he did in the 3000 at last year’s NBIGP (7:48.80 to 7:42.95), but he placed higher (4th vs. 8th). Leer also led a good chunk of that race in Boston, something he won’t have to do in New York unless he feels like it. This is my way of saying that he’s in pretty similar shape to what he was at this time last year, when he used a late kick to win this race in 3:52.47. Leer won’t be favored given what Centrowitz and Willis have accomplished so far this indoor season, but he’s proven to be a formidable runner indoors and can beat anyone in this field on the right day.

A Fan Tries to get a Selfie With Willis

Willis celebrated his win in Boston last week with the fans

Nick Willis • adidas • 31 years old

2015 races

2/7/2015NB Indoor Grand PrixMile3:51.611st

Willis has raced just once last year, but that race also happens to be the most impressive performance by anyone on the start list this season. Willis’ 3:51.61 last week in Boston came on the back of his first serious stint in altitude in Flagstaff, and he said after the race that he’s pleased with where his speed is right now, running 1:21 and 51 for 600 and 400 in workouts. His time in Boston was the fastest indoor mile in the world since Lomong’s 3:51.21 at this meet two years ago; that makes Willis extra dangerous in this race because he’s got the speed to close quickly off a slow pace and the strength to grind out a 3:51 from the front. Only six men in history have broken 3:51 indoors; Willis and Centrowitz are the only two guys I could envision joining that club on Saturday with a great race (Lagat already accomplished the feat 10 years ago).

Leo Manzano • Hoka One One • 30 years old

2015 results

1/31/2015Camel City EliteMile (flat track)3:57.794th

Admittedly, Manzano would be a stretch based on his sole indoor race this season, though when you add in the NCAA flat-to-banked conversion, his 3:57.79 is worth about a 3:54.79 on a track like the Armory. Plus that race was three weeks ago.

When I spoke to him last month, Manzano said he hasn’t done a ton of track work so far this year and fast races (as Millrose is expected to be) generally don’t favor Manzano. However, the two-time U.S. indoor champ is always a threat in any race he’s in (in 2012, he went from finishing dead last in a mile at the Tyson Invitational to beating Centrowitz, Rupp and everyone else at USA indoors two weeks later) but he may not have the speed at this point in the season to win in New York.

Lawi wins. Photo by Jane Monti.

Lalang, shown here defeating Lagat at last year’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia 5k, has benefited from training with Lagat in Tucson, (photo by Jane Monti)

Lawi Lalang • Nike • 23 years old

2015 races

1/31/2015Armory Track Invite1600 (DMR)3:52.334th

Don’t pay too much attention to the “4th” in the place column above; Lalang’s 3:52.33 anchor leg for Team Kenya in the DMR two weeks ago in New York was the fastest split of the day. Lalang, who was second in this race last year, has adapted well to professional life under college coach James Li (he was sixth in the Diamond League 5000 final last year) and should be capable of a time in the 3:51/3:52 range on Saturday.

Lalang traditionally likes to lead these races (he did last year), but he’ll at least have a rabbit to help him through the first 800-1000. The problem is, this field is so good that Lalang won’t be able to run away from it unless he’s got a 3:50 in his back pocket, which seems unlikely. Lalang is a tough competitor and will be a factor in this race, but he may struggle with the closing speed of Centrowitz and Willis over the final lap.

Pat Casey • Nike Oregon Track Club Elite • 24 years old

2015 results

1/31/2015Armory Track Invite1600 (DMR)3:56.481st
2/7/2015NB Indoor Grand Prix10002:18.302nd

Overlooked heading into last year, Casey, the 2014 USA runner-up in the outdoor 1500, isn’t sneaking up on anyone in 2015. He looked great in anchoring a world record in the DMR two weeks ago and put together a solid 2:18.30 for second behind Centrowitz in the 1000 in Boston, even though he felt he made some tactical mistakes. Now that he’s back to his more familiar distance of the mile, Casey will look to avoid repeating those mistakes at Millrose. With a 3:52.62 mile best, Casey should be right in the thick of things on Saturday.

The Race Itself

It still feels a bit odd to hold the Millrose Games at the Armory instead of Madison Square Garden, and there’s no doubt that the move has had a profound effect on the Wanamaker Mile. Take a look at the top seven fastest winning times in the 89-year history of the Wanamaker Mile (times in bold were run at the Armory):

1. 3:51.21 – Lopez Lomong – 2013
2. 3:52.47 – Will Leer – 2014
3. 3:52.87 – Bernard Lagat – 2005
4. 3:53.0 – Eamonn Coghlan – 1981
5. 3:53.50 – Nourredine Morceli – 1991
6. 3:53.82 – Eamonn Coghlan – 1985
7. 3:53.92 – Matthew Centrowitz – 2012

Part of the appeal of the Wanamaker Mile was the narrow, 11-laps-to-a-mile track that made strategy and positioning such an important part of the race. There is still strategy in 2015, of course, but it comes with the knowledge that the pace will be fast from the gun. And that’s part of the benefit of having the meet at the Armory. As much as it would be fun to throw a field like this onto the MSG track and say “have at it, boys” it makes more sense to hold a race like the 2015 edition — namely, one stacked with quality guys — on the larger Armory track, where every runner has a chance to shine.

Because several of the top guys in this race have already proved their fitness, the rabbit should be prepared to go out quickly — say 1:55-1:56 through 800. That sort of split will make the pace fast enough that a really quick time (sub-3:51) is possible while keeping enough guys in it to make it an interesting race up front. If I had to make a pick, I’d go with Centrowitz or Willis, though I just don’t have enough information to choose between them (I’d lean Willis in a faster race and Centrowitz in a slower race).

Two weeks ago, the Patriots and the Seahawks lived up to the hype by delivering one of the greatest Super Bowls ever played. Let’s hope the 13 men on the line Saturday night can do something similar in the Wanamaker Mile.

LRC Prediction: At first glance, breaking down this race seems next to impossible — so many great runners. But upon a closer look, it isn’t as hard as you might think. We did it in a very logical fashion.

We started with one question, “Do you have the talent level to win an Olympic/World medal?” If not, you aren’t winning this race.

Using that criteria, we cut the field in half (minus the rabbit) to six to seven. Three Four who already have medals — Centrowitz, Willis and Lagat and Manzano (editor’s note: as pointed our in this thread, we overlooked Manzano at this stage of our analysis).– and three who very well could have them in the years to come — Lalang, Cheserek and Jager.

Looking at those six seven, in our view, this race will be won by one of three guys. Centrowitz, Lalang or Willis.

Yes, Lagat has won eight of these but a 40-year-old isn’t winning this race. End of story.

Manzano’s was only 4th in his opener so we don’t think he’s winning here.

A collegiate sophomore who is a 5,000- and 10,000-meter man also isn’t winning this mile — sorry Edward.

A top steepler isn’t winning this mile either — sorry Evan.

In choosing between Centrowitz, Lalang and Willis, we think the edge belongs to Centrowitz and Willis. They are two of the best milers on the planet. Lalang is one of the world’s best 5000 runners.

Willis is scary to us as he is coming off the first significant stint of altitude training in his life, but he’ll turn 32 in April. Centrowitz is 25 — the same that Willis was when he won his Olympic silver in 2008.

Centrowitz or Willis wins this one. We’ll go with Centro. He’s in his prime and it’s time for him to get some early-season publicity as a one of America’s biggest stars in track and field.

More: Please vote in our poll below and then discuss this meet in our running fan forum:


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