By Jonathan Gault
January 19, 2016
The stories about Donavan Brazier are quickly taking on a Bill Brasky-like quality. Did you hear about the time Brazier split 45.92 (FAT) in the 4×400 in high school? How about the 1:48.07 800 last spring, where he went out in 55.2 and came back in 52.9? Or his 1:14.98 600 time trial he ran outdoors in November, a month in which most mid-distance runners are at least two months from even thinking about running fast?
Surely, you heard about his first 800 race for Texas A&M on Saturday, when he came within .05 of the American collegiate record, blazing a solo 1:45.93 at the Aggie Team Invitational?
Unlike Brasky, the subject of numerous tall tales during the mid-90s on Saturday Night Live, Donavan Brazier, a skinny 6’1″ freshman, draws breath and walks among us. The stories are true, and what’s more, Brazier is just getting started: he’s only 18 years old (birthday is April 15).
All that is…what’s the word…scary?
“Not scary,” said Texas A&M coach Pat Henry today on a media teleconfernce call. “Just exciting. It doesn’t scare us. I don’t think it scared him.”
Brazier said that his 1:45 opener was “very surprising” but when speaking to the media three days later, it was clear he only views it as the beginning.
“I put a lot of effort into that race, it wasn’t easy by any means, but I think we still have a long way to go and I can keep getting better,” the soft-spoken Brazier said. “The indoor season is just really a rehearsal to perform better in outdoor season.”
The race may not have been easy for Brazier, but he certainly made it look that way. Coach Alleyne Francique told Brazier to go out in 51 seconds for the opening 400, and though Brazier questioned whether he’d be able to hold on after the quick first half, he had no reason to worry. His 200 splits — 25.21, 26.40, 26.58, 27.76 — for the first three laps were exceptional and though he is used to closing harder for the final 200, he’ll certainly trade off a slower last 200 for a much faster overall time.
When you run 1:45 in your first collegiate race, there’s not much room left for improvement. Among juniors, only Yuriy Borzakovskiy, Abubaker Kaki and Mo Aman have run faster indoors — combined, they own seven World/Olympic titles (counting indoors). But there is reason to believe that Brazier can go even faster in 2016.
Brazier, a native of Grand Rapids, Mich., chose Texas A&M in part because he would not have to run cross country and could use the fall to focus purely on the 800. Many mid-distance runners who skip cross country do so because they lack the endurance to compete over 8,000-meter races. But Brazier felt cross country was holding him back. He has outstanding natural endurance, running 15:25 over 5k for 6th at the Michigan Division 1 Lower Peninsula State Meet in 2014 and busting out a 4:07 1600 last spring despite running a modest 40 miles per week in high school. That endurance is also what allowed him to negative split that 1:48.
Despite getting down to 1:47.55 in June (making him the fourth-fastest U.S. high schooler of all-time), Brazier still felt he had “untapped potential” upon arriving in College Station, and a few months of working with Francique (himself a 44.47 man at 400) have brought that potential out. Francique has taken a speed-oriented approach with Brazier, dropping his weekly mileage into the 20s (Brazier will do some 25- to 30-minute runs to boost his aerobic base but nothing much longer than that). So far, Brazier’s main workouts have consisted of fartleks of 60- and 90-second intervals on the grass near the Aggies’ outdoor track. He trains with the team’s 800 group, including the Hernandez brothers, Efrain (1:50.26 pb) and Hector (1:47.73 pb).
“Our training on the track has not been very specific to this point,” Henry said. “I think once he gets into a situation where he’s really running some pace work on the track, he’s going to have a better handle on what he can do…
“I really don’t think he’s in great shape yet. I think he’s in pretty good shape, but he’s not in great shape. We haven’t done enough work for him to be in great shape…most of the stuff that we’ve done is all volume.”
That begs the question: just what is Brazier capable of? His career ceiling is extraordinarily high right now but even 2016 is uncertain. Could he get down to 1:44 outdoors? 1:43?
It’s even tough figuring out which races Brazier will run. He’s pencilled in for the 4×400 relay at the Texas A&M Quadrangular on Saturday, and it’s clear that the 800 is his best individual event. But the Aggies, a perennial NCAA contender, will have to figure out whether it’s best to use him in the distance medley relay or in the 4×400 at NCAAs in March. Both are on the table right now; Henry will make his final decision closer to NCAAs.
One thing that is clear: Brazier said he has no plans to run at the 2016 US Olympic Trials. After losing balance and stepping out of his lane at USA Juniors last year, Brazier wants to return to that meet and win it, which would put him on the team for July’s World Junior Championships in Poland.
“I just want to represent Team USA any way I can and that (running Juniors) is the best way possible,” Brazier said.
I asked him what would have to change between now and July for him to consider running the Olympic Trials.
“Maybe finding out I’m 20 and not 19 (he turns 19 in April),” Brazier replied coolly. “I don’t really know what would have to change.”
The hype has found Donavan Brazier. Running 1:45 indoors in your first collegaite 800 as a freshman will do that. But it’s foolish to project anything after one collegiate race. It’s not inconceivable that Brazier runs 1:43 this year. It’s also not inconceivable that 1:45.93 will be his fastest time of the season. Rather than be drawn in by what might be, Brazier remains level-headed, with a plan in place and strong mentors in Henry (who has collected a staggering 35 NCAA team titles during stints at Texas A&M and LSU) and Francique. The path ahead is unforeseeable, but the talent is there.
You can watch Brazier’s entire 1:45.93 on the SEC Network via the WatchESPN app here (race is around the 1:44 mark) or it’s embedded at the bottom of this piece below our messageboard threads.
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