By Jonathan Gault
May 25, 2018
EUGENE, Ore. — Greetings from a muggy, overcast Tracktown USA, where the 2018 Prefontaine Classic is mere hours away (heck, by the time you read this, day 1 may well be over). I got the chance to speak with three American stars (Matthew Centrowitz, Evan Jager, and Christian Coleman) at today’s press conference as well as one Qatari high jump star (you can probably guess that was Mutaz Essa Barshim).
I’ll get to their insights in a minute — including Centro’s thoughts on Asbel Kiprop‘s EPO positive, and Jager giving us some insight into the mind of Jerry Schumacher — but first, let’s talk about 2019. As we all know, Hayward Field is scheduled to be demolished after next month’s NCAA Outdoor Championships and will be out of commission for the 2019 season as it undergoes a $200 million rebuild. But meet director Tom Jordan said today that the Prefontaine Classic will still be held next year. Exactly where is still up in the air (Jordan said the plan is to keep it “in the region” but a site has yet to be finalized), but the when is not — it will be held June 28-29, 2019. In recent years, Pre has been during the last weekend of May, but with World Champs running from September 28 – October 6 next year, the rest of the calendar has been pushed back.
Centro on Kiprop’s EPO positive: “To be honest, I was [surprised]”
Centrowitz has been racing Kiprop since 2011, and the men have shared two global podiums in that span, with Kiprop taking gold and Centro bronze at Worlds in 2011 and Kiprop gold and Centro silver at Worlds in 2013. Centro said that when he found out about Kiprop’s EPO positive earlier this month, he was surprised. But that reaction was, at least in part, due to the fact that when it comes to his competitors, Centrowitz intentionally chooses not to speculate.
“As a competitor of his, you want to think that everyone is on the same playing field,” Centrowitz said. “You don’t like to speculate, or at least I don’t speculate on who is and who isn’t. I could do that with other events, I could do that with other sports, but when it comes down to my event, I don’t really take my mind there because at the end of the day we have to race each other and it doesn’t make any difference.”
One thing Centrowitz does remember, however, is something Nick Willis said to him before the medal ceremony at the 2016 Olympics. Willis, who earned bronze, told Centrowitz, who earned gold, that he was happy that Taoufik Makhloufi, not Kiprop had finished ahead of him in second.
“To me, that was kind of strange because of all the accusations on Makhloufi the years before,” Centrowitz said. “So when everything came out recently, that kind of reminded what Nick said after the race.”
Kiprop — who, despite the positive test, has claimed he was sabotaged and denied taking EPO — was the 1500-meter world champion in 2013, when Centrowitz earned silver in Moscow. Looking back on that face, does Centrowitz feel robbed of gold?
“The way my career ended up panning out, I don’t feel robbed compared to other athletes,” said Centrowitz, who claimed Olympic and World Indoor titles in 2016. “Had maybe I gotten second [at] the Olympics [behind] him, then yeah, I would have felt that way. But the way my career shaked out, I’m not going to sit here and say I’m a victim.”
Centrowitz’s main takeaway from the Kiprop news was that drug testing needs to be dramatically improved in Kenya.
“After reading that, there’s gotta be something that needs to be done over there,” Centrowitz said. “It seems like getting tipped off, knowing when they’re coming, not coming, that’s just not how that works here in the US. When I’m in different countries, over in Europe, everything is random. You don’t know until they’re knocking on your door.”
The Bowerman Mile is going to be HOT
I got a chance to sit down this morning with Bernard Ouma, coach of last year’s gold and silver medalists in the 1500, Elijah Manangoi and Timothy Cheruiyot. He told the IAAF yesterday that he thinks those two are in 3:46-3:47 shape right now, and that’s the time they’ll be looking to run tomorrow. It is not easy to get to Eugene from Nairobi, where their group is based (Ouma said it took him 22 hours), and Ouma told me they have not come all this way to run slow. There aren’t many fast miles run each year, and they want to make sure this one is fast. It’s also the best way for Manangoi or Cheruiyot to win the race. Those two were the only guys under 3:30 last summer for 1500, and on paper, they’re the class of the field. Make it a sub-3:50 race and there aren’t many guys in this field who could hope to hold on. The rabbits, for the record, are scheduled to hit halfway in 1:53.5-1:54.
At his best, Centrowitz should be able break 3:50 (his PR is 3:50.53 from Pre in 2014), but he is not at his best right now and even 3:49 may not be enough if Manangoi and Cheruiyot really go for it. Centro said that he’s approaching this race as he would any other on the DL circuit.
“Obviously I’m not going to put myself in oxygen debt,” Centrowitz said. “If they go out in 53, I’m not going to be right on 53. But it is what it is and I’m just going to approach it like I normally do: just put myself in the mix. And if I find myself there in the last lap up in the front, usually good things happen.”
Evan Jager on what he’s changed heading into 2018
Jager is always very thoughtful during interviews, and he spoke to me for almost 17 minutes this afternoon about a variety of subjects. Regarding Saturday’s race, Jager said that the rabbits are slated to run 8:08 pace, and that’s something he definitely feels as if he can handle right now. He’s been doing workouts over barriers at 8:00 to 8:15 pace — at 7,000 feet — and right now he feels as if he’s in 8:00 to 8:08 shape.
Jager has been one of the world’s best steeplers over the past several years, but he has yet to claim a global gold. That’s because he’s had to deal with probably the two greatest kickers in the history of the steeplechase — Ezekiel Kemboi, and now Conseslus Kipruto. Jager said that heading into this year, he’s kept most of his training the same, but he has bumped up his mileage. From the time he adopted in the steeple through 2017, Jager had been running 85-90 miles per week consistently. But since the fall of 2017, he’s been doing 95-100 and says he’s pleased with how his body has responded to it.
“[I] still feel pretty strong,” Jager said. “I don’t think I’ve lost much speed, if any speed. The big goal is just getting more aerobic to where running faster just feels easier.”
Jager is also planning on experimenting with his tactics. In recent years, Jager has pushed from a few laps out, knowing he lacks the speed to match up with a big kicker like Kipruto. But with no championships this year, Jager is going to try a different approach.
“I just want to work on just not being the guy to push from a mile out in races this year,” Jager said. “Things happen to go slow and guys don’t want to push the last three laps, I’m not gonna feel responsible for making sure the race is going fast. And I want to focus on my own race and just run free and relaxed.”
Finally, Jager said that he is trying to run really fast at the Monaco Diamond League meet on July 20. If Jager is going to break the 8:00 barrier for the first time this year, that is where it will happen.
Jager’s interview was quite long, so if you want to skip around, here’s a rough guide to the topics covered:
1:00 Jager’s favorite race at Hayward Field and his chances at this year’s Pre Classic
3:27 Changes Jager has made to his training and the races he plans to run this summer
7:12 Bowerman Track Club’s selective approach to racing
11:00 Jager’s mental approach to training and racing
14:18 Jager’s plan to try the 10k once he’s done with the steeple and his desire to one day run a competitive marathon
Jager & Centro explain NOP & Bowerman TC’s different approaches to racing
One thing that struck me about the two distance runners in attendance was how they spoke about the races they choose to run throughout a season. Evan Jager and Matthew Centrowitz have been two of the most successful American distance runners of this decade (indeed, of all time), and they train for the US’s two most prominent training groups. But they differ when, and how often, they choose to race. Saturday’s Bowerman Mile will be Centrowitz’s seventh outdoor race of 2018, while the steeple will be just #2 for Jager.
Obviously it’s easier to run more races as a mid-distance runner than a steepler, but the bigger reason is the different ways they choose to structure their racing schedule. Alberto Salazar likes to have his Oregon Project athletes run a full indoor season if they’re healthy (Centrowitz was injured in the fall and ran only one race indoors this year). Jerry Schumacher‘s athletes race plenty indoors too, but outdoors it’s a different story.
Centrowitz is fine with racing a lot and, in his seventh year in a pro, knows enough not to panic if he’s not running fast early in the season. He clocked just 1:53 in an 800 in Brisbane on March 22 and 3:40 in taking 6th in the Payton Jordan 1500 on May 3, but said he was never worried as he’s working on his own timeline and is pleased with the progress he’s making.
“We race so many times throughout the year, we like to race so many times [that] I’m not gonna be fresh [every time],” Centrowitz said. “…I’ve been doing this since 2012 as a professional athlete where I never historically come out of the gates feeling great and looking fresh. I’ve always had some rust-busters, and that’s no different than this year.”
Jager, meanwhile, explained that the way Schumacher structures training, it’s not possible to race often and race well for an entire season. BTC incorporates a lot of longer, endurance-based workouts in its training, and Schumacher likes to keep his runners’ mileage high throughout the season. But in order to race really well, Schumacher’s runners need a few race-specific sharpening sessions and they need to back off mileage in the days leading up to a race so that they’re fresh and ready to go. You can do that for one race and then get back into training, but if you’re racing all the time, suddenly it’s harder to run a lot of miles and a lot of long, hard workouts — it’s just too difficult to bounce back from them and race effectively. And if you stray from the fundamentals for too long, your results will eventually suffer — a diet of speed workout, taper, race, repeat is not sustainable in Schumacher’s system according to Jager. Jager would rather make the most of the race opportunities he does have.
“Possibly just being in the system so long, I’m just mentally and physically trained to be ready to go every two weeks,” Jager said. “And I feel like that’s allowed me to be really consistent racing over the years. I feel like — knock on wood — I haven’t had too many really bad races in my career and I feel like I’m always up there running close to my best most races. I would definitely take that over racing more and having a really crappy race and then a really good race.”
The results back that up — Jager has medalled at the last two global champs, and has finished in the top three in six of his last seven Diamond League steeples dating back to 2014 (and he was fourth in the other one). But he admits that Schumacher’s approach is not the only way to achieve success.
“You can do it both ways,” Jager said. “There’s other people that race well at a lot of meets. And there’s also people that race really well at a small number of meets. I feel like in our training system, it wouldn’t work to race every weekend all summer. We’re so strength-based that you’d be either training through all these races or tapering all the time and Jerry doesn’t let us just crush speed in order to stay tapered and fit over a long period of time. If we were to race every weekend or every other weekend, we would just be missing the necessary pieces of training to keeping us fit for that extended period of time.”
Christian Coleman says he’s ready to go
Coleman withdrew from Shanghai two weeks ago after suffering a minor hamstring injury and yesterday it came out that he’ll only be running the 100 after initially entering both the 100 and 200. But the world indoor champion at 60 meters is still feeling confident. He said he could have raced in Shanghai if necessary but chose not to risk it and scratched from the 200 here to ensure he does not overextend himself in his first individual race of the summer.
“It just being my first race, just decided to focus on one event, just put all my effort and energy and effort and just go from there,” Coleman said. “[I’ll] worry about the 200 later in the year.”
I asked Coleman whether he was 100% healthy and he essentially told me that’s irrelevant: if you’re racing, you’re healthy.
“If I step on the track, I’ll be 100%,” Coleman said. “If you step on the track, there’s no excuses. You step on the track, you can’t get out there and say, Oh I lost, I was 90% or 85. Nah. If you get on the track, you gotta be ready to go. So when I’m out there, I’m 100% already. I’ll be ready to go.”
Mutaz Essa Barshim is looking to add another bar to his collection
Barshim cleared 2.40 meters at last year’s Birmingham Diamond League, his 10th career 2.40m clearance (Javier Sotomayor, with 17, is the only other man in double digits). To commemorate the occasion, Barshim grabbed the bar and walked off the track, and afterwards he asked the meet director to ship it back to his home in Qatar, which he did.
Now it has become a tradition, and meet director Tom Jordan is already prepared to donate the bar should Barshim clear 2.40 and win tomorrow; Barshim added that he already has his instructions for this meet from his father: “Make sure you bring home another bar.”
Barshim doesn’t know what he’s going to do with all the bars just yet, but he said that if he can one day break Sotomayor’s 2.45 world record — Barshim is #2 all-time at 2.43 — he is taking the entire high jump pit.