2015 USA 800 Preview: Ajee Wilson Leads a Loaded Women’s Field; Can Boris Berian Go From 1:48 to National Champ in Three Months?

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By LetsRun.com
June 24, 2015

Finally, it’s time to select Team USA for this year’s World Championships in Beijing.

By the end of the day on Sunday, June 28, the team won’t be finalized (some athletes will try to chase the IAAF standard; others may later surrender their spots due to injury) but we’ll have answers to the questions that have been driving conversations in track circles for months. Those include:

  • Can 800 studs Duane Solomon and Nick Symmonds regain their form in time to make another Worlds team?
  • Which of the U.S.’s five sub-2:00 800 women will be left home?
  • Can Ben Blankenship and Boris Berian cap breakout years with a World Championships appearance?
  • Will Ben True finally make a U.S. team on the track?
  • Can 40-year-old Bernard Lagat make his seventh U.S. team?
  • Can NCAA stars Eric JenkinsEmily Sisson and Colleen Quigley make the team?
  • What will Galen Rupp say to the media and how will he perform under intense media scrutiny?

We’ll be previewing all the mid-d/distance events in the ensuing days before the 2015 USATF Outdoor Championships kick off at Hayward Field on Thursday. So far, we’ve covered the men’s and women’s 10,000s, 5,000s and 1500s. Today, it’s time to look at the 800s.

Below, you can find all the key information for USAs, followed by a preview of the men’s and women’s 800s.

Schedule/entries/results * Official USATF site * Entries * TV/streaming information

We’re also running a prediction contest offering fabulous prizes, which you can enter here.

As a reminder, the top three finishers in each race with the 1:46.00/2:01.00 IAAF standards qualify to the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing from August 22-30. Athletes have until August 9 to achieve the standard. But there are several other ways to qualify for Worlds without the standard, which we’ve outlined below. Here’s how to qualify:

  • As a result of being one of the best ranked athletes at the end of the qualification period (to fill the remaining places in order to reach the target number of athletes by event established by the IAAF). This target number is 48 for the 800, and 45 for the 1500 and 3,000 steeplechase (athletes cannot qualify this way in the 5,000 or 10,000). So if an athlete places in the top three at USAs and not enough athletes worldwide achieve the IAAF standard, he/she can still make it in by being ranked highly enough on the global descending-order list. We go into more detail about this process here, but suffice to say that it makes it a lot easier for Americans to qualify. When you limit each country to three entrants (four if that country has the defending world/Diamond League champ), the #48 times for the 800 as of June 22 are 1:46.79 for the men and 2:02.31 for the women.
  • By being the defending World or Diamond League champion in an event. These athletes (Jenny Simpson in the 1500 is the only American in the mid-d/distance events who meets this criteria) only need to compete in one round of any event at USAs to make the team.
  • By placing top three at USAs and winning their event at the 2015 NACAC Championships in San Jose, Costa Rica, from August 7-9.
  • Remember that the priority always goes to the higher finisher at USAs. If Runner A places 3rd at USAs in the 1500 and doesn’t have the IAAF standard by August 9 and Runner B places 4th but does have the IAAF standard, USATF will only enter Runner B if Runner A doesn’t receive an invite from the IAAF based on his ranking on the global descending order list.

Men’s 800 (prelims Thursday, 7:00 p.m. ET; semis Friday, 11:44 p.m. ET; final Sunday, 4:57 p.m. ET)

Athletes in bold have IAAF qualifying standard (1:46.00)
2014 USA finish in parentheses

Name Affiliation PR Qualifying Time Description
Boris Berian Big Bear Track Club 1:43.84 1:43.84 Hadn’t broken 1:48 before this year but has risen meteorically
Duane Solomon Jr (1) Saucony 1:42.82 1:44.30 2-time defending champ has yet to complete 800 in ’15; DNF at NYC DL on June 13
Charles Jock NIKE OTCE 1:44.67 1:45.40 #2 sb among entrants; made Team USA in 2011
Brannon Kidder Penn St. 1:45.58 1:45.58 NCAA runner-up (top American)
Ryan Martin (6) ASICS 1:44.77 1:45.65 Won last 2 races (Oxy+Adrian Martinez)
Shaquille Walker BYU 1:45.78 1:45.78 PR at start of year was 1:49.39; 5th at NCAAs
Cas Loxsom (2) Brooks 1:45.28 1:45.80 U.S. indoor 600 champ/AR holder looking to make first sr. team
Erik Sowinski (3) Nike 1:44.58 1:45.82 Ran 1:45.82 on May 20 but hasn’t broken 1:47 in his other four open 800s in ’15
Harun Abda Nike / NIKE OTCE 1:45.55 1:45.85 1:15.07 for 600 on June 14 behind Jock (1:14.33)
Mark Wieczorek Brooks 1:45.36 1:45.89 2nd at USA indoors in 600
Michael Rutt (5) Hoka One One / New Jersey New York Track Club 1:45.08 1:46.04
Craig Engels Ole Miss 1:46.13 1:46.13
Julian Parker LSU 1:46.17 1:46.17 Won SECs but didn’t qualify for NCAAs
Nick Symmonds BROOKS Beasts TC 1:42.95 1:46.37 5-time champ is T-15th on U.S. list in ’15
Jesse Jorgensen 1:46.49 1:46.49
Dylan Capwell Monmouth 1:46.70 1:46.70 NCAA indoor runner-up didn’t make final outdoors
Brandon Johnson Nike 1:43.84 1:46.90 Ran 1:46.90 on April 18 but hasn’t raced since May 3
Jesse Garn State University of New York at Binghamton 1:46.98 1:46.98 4th at NCAAs
Clayton Murphy Akron 1:47.06 1:47.16 3rd at NCAAs
Christopher Low California State University, Long Beach 1:47.21 1:47.21
Brandon Hazouri Samford 1:47.28 1:47.28
Goaner Deng Minnesota 1:47.32 1:47.32
Ryan Manahan Georgetown 1:47.34 1:47.34
Drew Windle Ashland 1:46.91 1:47.37 Has won 6 straight NCAA D-II titles between indoors/outdoors
Brandon Lasater Georgia Tech 1:47.19 1:47.38
Joe McAsey Illinois 1:47.38 1:47.38
Joseph White Georgetown 1:47.40 1:47.40
Holland Sherrer Ole Miss 1:47.47 1:47.47
Joe Abbott 1:45.04 1:47.52
William Ledder Georgetown 1:47.62 1:47.62
Nick Hartle UCLA 1:47.68 1:47.68
Richard Jones 1:45.56 1:47.72

For much of the spring, no event was cloudier than the men’s 800. The two men who have combined to win the past seven U.S. titles, Nick Symmonds and Duane Solomon, have finished precisely two open 800s this year, both by Symmonds, and Symmonds’ sb of 1:46.37 puts him in a tie for 15th on the 2015 U.S. list. Until June 13, the U.S. leader was 1:45.30 by little-known Boris Berian. The U.S. title was there for the taking; all someone needed to do was reach up and grab it.

No one’s won anything yet, but the events of June 13 brought a degree of resolution to the men’s 800 picture. On that day, Berian ran 1:43.84 in New York in a race where he was closing the gap on world record holder David Rudisha over the final 50 meters (Rudisha held on to win in 1:43.58). Berian’s clocking was his first time under 1:44 — heck, it was his first time under 1:45 — and represented the fastest time by an American since Symmonds ran 1:43.56 in Zurich in August 2013.

Berian (right) finished within touching distance of the great David Rudisha in New York

Berian (right) finished within spitting distance of the great David Rudisha in NYC

If you called Berian the favorite for USAs at the start of the year, you’d have been laughed out of the room. The 22-year-old former Adams State runner is unsponsored and as recently as April owned a 1:48.89 personal best. But given the current state of the 800 in the U.S., to call him anything other than the favorite now is to demonstrate ignorance of the facts. Looking at the 2015 U.S. list, Berian sits at the top at 1:43.84, followed by two guys who won’t be running the 800 at USAs (Matthew Centrowitz and Leo Manzano are both in the 1500). Charles Jock is #4 at 1:45.40, but that time is 1.56 seconds behind Berian. That’s a significant margin, even if Berian benefited from using Rudisha as a rabbit for the entire race. In the 1500, if the top entrant has an sb 1.56 seconds faster than the next guy, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the favorite for the win. Evan Jager has run 3:32.97 this year and Leo Manzano has only run 3:38.96 (his 3:53.55 mile at the Pre Classic converts to about 3:36.25). No one would call Jager a convincing favorite over Manzano; in fact, the majority of informed track fans would probably pick Manzano to beat Jager.

But the 800 is different, particularly if the guy with the sparkling season’s best is a front-runner — and Berian is. In the 800 advantages of leading (lowest danger of falling, running the shortest distance around the track, never boxed in) are much greater than in the 1500, while the main drawbacks (breaking the wind) isn’t as bad since the race is only two laps long. When a runner is significantly better than the rest of the field, he can confidently run from the front with the knowledge that no one will be able to pass him. Rudisha employed that exact tactic to win Olympic gold in 2012 and Solomon followed suit to win USAs last year. Of course, in the Olympics, a front-runner is helped by the fact the meet is held in a huge stadium where winds are almost never a factor like they can be (and were at NCAAs) at Hayward Field.

Berian isn’t as commanding a favorite as Rudisha or Solomon were — he’s broken 1:45 once in his life — but the fact is that he’s in 1:43 shape right now and no one else in the U.S. has demonstrated anything close to that level of fitness. And since that’s the case, one of the biggest concern about Berian — his lack of championship experience — goes away. You don’t need championship experience to execute Berian’s ideal strategy, which is simply leading wire-to-wire. Obviously, Berian can’t afford to go out too fast (may we recommend he watch the 2015 NCAA women’s 800 final as a warning of the perils of a fast start) but it’s much easier for a championship newbie to succeed by leading the whole thing than it is waiting in the back for the perfect moment to strike.

Berian is the favorite, but that doesn’t guarantee that he’ll win, or even make the team, as the 800 has long been one of the least-predictable events in track and field. Berian has been running terrifically all year (before NYC, he ran 1:45.30 to win the fast heat at Payton Jordan and then soloed a 1:45.60 at the Jim Bush Invitational on June 6) and he’s still going to be in fantastic shape at USAs. Unlike those meets, he’ll have to run rounds at USAs — three races in four days — but projecting a 1:44/low-1:45s time for Berian in the final is fairly safe given his 2015 results. The question then becomes, can anyone else better that? And the answer is yes.

Just as Berian used Rudisha to drag him to a fast time, the rest of the field at USAs can use Berian to accomplish the same thing. Berian can still win from the front — Rudisha beat him in New York, after all — but with him acting as a rabbit, some of the other top Americans, such as Jock, Penn State’s Brannon Kidder or last year’s runner-up Cas Loxsom, could use him to reach a level they haven’t yet touched in 2015. And that level could be enough to overhaul Berian in the final 50.

The man with the best shot to take down Berian right now is Jock. Jock also enjoys running from the front, and he’s in the best form of anyone outside of Berian. On May 23, he ran 1:45.40 to take down Loxsom, Symmonds, Harun Abda and Mark Wieczorek at the Ponce Grand Prix in Puerto Rico, he acquitted himself well against top international competition by taking sixth at the Pre Classic (beating Adam Kszczot and Ferguson Rotich Cheruiyot) and ran a quick 1:14.33 600 to defeat Abda, Wieczorek and Symmonds again over 600 at the Portland Track Festival on June 14. Jock fell in last year’s final at USAs but he’s got a great chance for redemption in 2015.

Another man in great form is Penn State’s Brannon Kidder, who ran 1:45.58 to take second at Payton Jordan behind Berian and most recently took second at NCAAs behind Kenya’s Edward Kemboi. After Jock and Kidder, there are several other guys in the mix, but each comes with questions:

Shaquille Walker (1:45.78 sb): BYU sophomore was only 5th at NCAAs

Erik Sowinski (1:45.82 sb): 3rd last year, he’s run 1:48.20, 1:48.09 and 1:47.33 in his last three 800s

Mark Wieczorek (1:45.89 sb): consistent, but hasn’t won a race all year; third behind Jock/Abda at PTF 600

Cas Loxsom (1:46.23 sb): ran great at World Relays and won fast heat at Oxy, but ran just 1:47.52 at Ponce on May 23 and hasn’t raced an 800 since

***

Two Years On…

Then there are the three members of Team USA from 2013: Duane Solomon, Nick Symmonds and Brandon Johnson. All three are aging (Solomon and Johnson are 30, Symmonds is 31) but still young enough to make U.S. teams. Let’s deal with them one by one.

Solomon won handily in Sacramento last year, but for him to get title #3, his body needs to cooperate

Solomon won handily in Sacramento last year, but for him to get title #3, his body needs to cooperate

Solomon hasn’t finished an open 800-meter race this year due to an ailing leg. That injury (it’s unclear exactly what the injury is) caused him to withdraw from the Pre Classic on May 30 and DNF in New York on June 13. The good news is that Solomon still appears to be training well. On June 1, he tweeted that he finished his second-best workout of his career. Then, on June 18, he tweeted that he ran a personal best of 45.9 in the 400 at the end of his workout (3×200, 8×150, 3×150). Solomon hasn’t finished a race since May 2 (he ran the leadoff leg on the U.S.’s gold-medal-winning 4×800 squad at the World Relays) and that’s definitely a problem, especially with three rounds to get through at USAs. But if his body cooperates, he is a threat to make the team to Beijing.

Symmonds, who missed the entire 2014 outdoor season after taking silver at Worlds in 2013, has yet to flash the form that led him to five straight U.S. titles from 2008-2012. His first 800 of the year at Oxy went poorly due to factors outside of his control (a runner fell in front of him with 300 to go, halting Symmonds’ momentum), and though he ran better in his next race at the Ponce Grand Prix on May 23 (1:46.37), he still only finished as the third American in that race (fifth overall), losing to Jock and Abda. Most recently, Symmonds finished fourth in the 600 at the Portland Track Festival on June 14, running 1:16.13 behind Jock, Abda and Wieczorek. The last time Symmonds hadn’t broken 1:46 before USAs? 2006, when he was a senior at Willamette University.

We’re not counting Symmonds out entirely. In his eight career appearances at USAs outdoors, he’s never finished lower than second and has made all six teams he’s tried out for. But right now, we wouldn’t pick him for the team. He’s 31 years old, coming off injury and has yet to show anything in 2015 that suggests he’s one of the three best 800 men in the country. If Symmonds looks great in the rounds and makes it to the final, there’s no doubt he could contend for a spot, but just getting to the final could be a battle for Symmonds.

The final member of that 2013 squad, Brandon Johnson, has been MIA for the better part of two months. Johnson was optimistic at the start of the year (read our chat with him from January here) and after a couple of indoor victories, he opened his outdoor season with a 1:46.90 at Mt. SAC, taking down Sowinski and Ryan Martin. Two weeks later, he split a terrific 1:44.75 on the 800 leg of the U.S.’s World Relays-winning DMR. He hasn’t raced since.

Last year, Johnson dealt with a variety of maladies, chiefly a femoral acetabular impingement, that derailed his season following the World Relays. Hopefully the same thing hasn’t happened this year, but it’s not a good thing to go into USAs without having raced for almost two months (especially in the 800). It’s very unlikely that he makes the team. We called Johnson on Monday for an update but so far he has not responded.

LRC Prediction: 1. Berian 2. Solomon 3. Jock

Women’s 800 (prelims Thursday, 6:40 p.m. ET; semis Friday, 11:27 p.m. ET; final Sunday, 4:48 p.m. ET)

Athletes in bold have IAAF qualifying standard (2:01.00)
2014 USA finish in parentheses

Name Affiliation PR Qualifying Time Description
Ajee’ Wilson (1) adidas 1:57.67 1:57.67 Defending champ in great form coming off win at adidas GP on June 13
Brenda Martinez (5) New Balance 1:57.91 1:58.84 2013 WC bronze medalist ran 1:59.03 for 3rd at Pre
Molly Beckwith-Ludlow (3) Saucony 1:59.12 1:59.30 Has gone sub-2:00 in last 2 races, most recently at adidas GP (1:59.93)
Chanelle Price Nike 1:59.47 1:59.47 2014 world indoor champ coming off PR at adidas GP
Maggie Vessey (4) 1:57.84 2:00.07 Won B heat at Pre in 2:00.07
Claudia Saunders Stanford 2:00.63 2:00.63 NCAA runner-up in ’14+’15
Phoebe Wright Nike 1:58.22 2:00.79 Her 2:00.79 at Pre was her best time since July 2013
Charlene Lipsey (6) adidas 2:00.60 2:00.91 Coming off 2:00.60 PR at adidas GP
LaTavia Thomas (8) New Jersey New York Track Club 1:59.67 2:00.95 Only 8th in B 800 at Pre
Lauren Wallace Oiselle / SRA Elite 2:01.13 2:01.13 US indoor 1k champ has PR’d in 2 straight 800s, with 2:01.13 on June 4
Hanna Green Virginia Tech 2:01.17 2:01.17 3rd at NCAAs
Dana Mecke 2:01.49 2:01.49
Chrishuna Williams Arkansas 2:01.61 2:01.61
Shannon Leinert Brooks / Speed Factory Athletics 2:01.62 2:01.62
McKayla Fricker 2:01.64 2:01.64
Alysia Montano ASICS / New York Athletic Club (NYAC) 1:57.34 2:01.78 5-time champ won US 600 title indoors but has struggled outdoors (2:03.72 at Pre)
Geena Lara 1:59.24 2:01.87
Kendra Chambers 2:01.93 2:01.93
Erin Donohue 1:59.99 2:02.17 Largely inactive from 2012-14 but back running again at age 32 (2:02.17 on May 26)
Annette Melcher U.S. Air Force 2:02.32 2:02.32
Megan Malasarte Brooks 2:02.06 2:02.54
Kaela Edwards Oklahoma St. 2:02.63 2:02.63
Christina Cazzola Oiselle 2:02.95 2:02.95
Kenyetta Iyevbele 2:03.01 2:03.01
Bethany Praska 2:02.83 2:03.17
Elizabeth Staker Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University 2:03.28 2:03.28
Dominique Jackson SRA Elite 2:03.37 2:03.37
Megan Krumpoch New Balance 2:03.82 2:04.11
Angel Piccirillo Villanova 2:04.25 2:04.25
Maya Williamson Memphis 2:04.33 2:04.33
Stephanie Herrick Central Park Track Club (CPTC) New Balance 2:04.47 2:04.47
Stephanie Schappert Villanova 2:04.58 2:04.58

You never know what’s going to happen in the 800. With that said, any outcome at USAs other than an Ajee Wilson victory on Sunday would register as a surprise. Excluding her fall in the 600 final at USA indoors, Wilson has lost precisely one race in 2015. Check out what she’s done outdoors:

Date Meet Distance Place Time
3/28/2015 Chester Danny Curran Invitational 1500m 1st 4:30.09
4/3/2015 Princeton Sam Howell Invitational 1500m 1st 4:22.62
4/17/2015 Princeton Larry Ellis Invitational 800m 1st 2:01.09
4/24/2015 Des Moines Drake Relays 800m 1st 2:00.03
5/2/2015 Nassau IAAF World Relays DMR (800 leg) 1st 10:36.50 (2:00.08 split)
5/9/2015 Kingston Jamaica International Invitational IWC 800m 1st 2:00.65
5/30/2015 Eugene Prefontaine Classic 800m 2nd 1:57.87
6/13/2015 New York adidas Grand Prix 800m 1st 1:58.83

Montaño, who gave birth last August, made a strong return this year indoors (winning USAs in the 600) and after the World Relays, where her 1:58.90 anchor leg on the winning 4×800 was the fastest of the night, she seemed destined to make yet another U.S. team in Eugene. But since then, she’s raced just once (a subpar 2:03.72 effort at the Pre Classic) due to an SI joint injury (read her Instagram post here for more details). The way Wilson is running right now, even at 100% Montaño would have trouble beating her. Banged-up, she has no chance. Wilson’s only loss outdoors came to defending world champ Eunice Sum, and Wilson still managed to run 1:57.87. Since 2010, only two Americans have run faster than that for 800: Alysia Montaño and Wilson herself.

The other woman who has beaten Wilson consistently in the past is Brenda Martinez (6-7 all-time vs. Wilson), and when Martinez is on her game, she’s one of the world’s best over 800 meters (WC bronze in 2013). But Martinez is 0-2 vs. Wilson in 2015 (most recently losing at Pre on May 30, 1:57.87 to 1:59.06) and was just fifth (2:00.33) at the adidas Grand Prix on June 13, losing to fellow Americans Chanelle Price and Molly Beckwith-Ludlow. Other than Wilson, no one else in the field can contend with Martinez at her best, and she has the best shot of anyone to knock off Wilson.

That doesn’t mean Martinez is assured of a spot on the team, however, as she’ll have plenty of competition at USAs. Check out the world top 10 list for 2015:

1. Eunice Sum, Kenya 1:57.82
2. Ajee Wilson, USA 1:57.87
3. Anatasiya Bazdyreva, Russia 1:58.75
4. Brenda Martinez, USA 1:59.06
5. Rose Mary Almanza, Cuba 1:59.35
6. Janeth Jepkosgei, Kenya 1:59.37
7. Renelle Lamote, France 1:59.39
8. Chanelle Price, USA 1:59.47
9. Raevyn Rogers, USA 1:59.71
10. Molly Beckwith-Ludlow, USA 1:59.81

Price, Beckwith-Ludlow, Montano and Vessey were all smiles at the World Relays, but one or more of them will be leaving Eugene unhappy

Price, Beckwith-Ludlow, Montano and Vessey were all smiles at the World Relays, but one or more of them will be leaving Eugene unhappy

Yes, half of the global top 10 hail from the land of the free and the home of the brave. That statistic, plus the U.S.’s dominant 10+ second win in the 4×800 at the World Relays (its second straight), leaves no doubt which nation is currently the best at churning out female 800 runners (it’s amazing what the drug scandal in Russia has done for this event). And even though Rogers will be competing in the junior championships in Eugene, the senior field at USAs is still very formidable with Maggie Vessey (2:00.07 sb) also entered. At least two of the 10 fastest women in the world (and perhaps more) won’t be running at Worlds.

If we assume Wilson is going to make the team, it then comes down to Martinez, Price, Beckwith-Ludlow and Vessey. Because it’s the 800, it wouldn’t be a shock to see an outsider like Claudia Saunders or Charlene Lipsey surprise, but let’s limit the discussion to women who have broken 2:00 in 2015 (or at least come close, like Vessey). Martinez has the best odds for second, as discussed above, but not by a lot. Price beat her and Beckwith-Ludlow in New York, but Martinez beat Price handily at Pre (Vessey also ran faster than Price did at Pre, albeit in a different section). We lean toward Martinez for second and Price for third (after a PR in New York, she’s peaking at the right time) but anyone who tells you they’ve got this event figured out is lying.

One thing is certain: no matter who the top three are in Eugene, the U.S. will be sending a team with multiple medal threats in Beijing.

LRC Prediction: 1. Wilson 2. Martinez 3. Price

 


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