Simpson vs. Martinez at 1500, Berian vs. Sowinski vs. Murphy at 800 & Loaded Fields in Men’s 400 & Women’s 100H
April 28, 2016
If last week was all about marathons, with Boston and London both taking place, then this week is all about relays. The Penn Relays (in their 122nd year) and the Drake Relays (in their 107th year) are among the United States’ longest-running meets and the 2016 editions figure to be exciting as the track season heats up. We’re previewing the top events in both Philadelphia and Des Moines this week. Below you can find our Drake preview; our Penn preview is here.
What: 2016 Drake Relays Presented By Hy-Vee
Where: Drake Stadium, Des Moines, Iowa
When: Wednesday, April 27 – Saturday, April 30
How to watch: NBC Sports Network will have live coverage on Saturday from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. ET. The rest of the meet will be streamed on USATF.TV, but you need a paid +PLUS account in order to watch it.
Events to watch (in chronological order)
Before we get started, we just want to give out some thanks.
Drake is absolutely loaded and we must give thinks to the main sponsor — supermarket chain Hy-Vee — that has made it all possible. The employee-owned chain of more than 230 stores in eight Midwestern states has really turned Drake into something special the last few years. Hy-Vee knows that everyone needs to eat. That applies to track and field stars as well. If the stars can eat (get paid), they will show up.
Since Hy-Vee began sponsoring the Drake Relays in 2013, thanks to its generous prize purses (some years there has been more than $500,000 in prize money, the specifics of this year aren’t known), the meet has attracted some of the world’s top pros to Iowa. The result this year is some terrific early-season matchups featuring big names such as LaShawn Merritt, Kirani James, Marquis Dendy, Jenny Simpson, Aries Merritt and more. This year, the top pro events are being billed as “Rio Olympic Games Previews.” We’ll take a look at several of them below.
Fields are subject to change but are up to date to the best of our knowledge.
Coed Shuttle Hurdles Relay (Friday, 8:03 p.m. ET)
|Team 1||Team 2||Team 3||Team 4|
|Jasmin Stowers||Dawn Harper-Nelson||Kristi Castlin||Brianna Rollins|
|Jackie Coward||Queen Harrison||Nia Ali||Kendra Harrison|
|Aries Merritt||David Oliver||Ronnie Ash||Aleec Harris|
|Hansle Parchment||Andrew Riley||Spencer Adams||Omar McLeod|
The men’s and women’s high hurdles at Drake are loaded. The main events come on Saturday, but the night before there will be an entertaining coed shuttle hurdle relay featuring many of the world’s top hurdlers (check out this video from last year to see how the event looks). With World Indoor 60 hurdles champ Omar McLeod, who last week ran 9.99 for the 100m and became the first person in history to have PRs of sub-10.00 in the 100 and sub-13 in the 110 hurdles, and early 100 hurdles world leader Kendra Harrison, we like Team 4 for the win, but in a unique race like this, you never know. It’s certainly worth tuning in for.
Men’s 400 (Friday, 8:20 p.m. ET): Kirani James vs. LaShawn Merritt + Luguelin Santos
|LaShawn Merritt||USA||43.65||WC runner-up coming off 19.78 200 pb|
|Kirani James||Grenada||43.74||Olympic champ opened up in 44.36 two weeks ago|
|Luguelin Santos||Dominican Republic||44.11||The Olympic runner-up at age 18 in 2012 has run 20.70 + 45.47 so far in ’16. Last year, he pbd at Worlds and was 4th.|
|Chris Brown||Bahamas||44.40||37-year-old helpd Bahamas to silver in 4×4 at World Indoors|
|Rabah Yousif||Great Britain||44.54||6th at Worlds last year|
|Yousef Masrahi||Saudi Arabia||43.93||8th at Worlds last year|
|David Verburg||USA||44.41||US champ went out in semis at Worlds last year|
|Bralon Taplin||Grenada||44.41||Former Texas A&M stud took 4th at World Indoors, ran pb in outdoor opener|
The men’s 400 is a great event right now as last year three guys broke 44.00 at Worlds (reigning Olympic silver medallist Luguelin Santos ran a national record of 44.11 and was just 4th – his only solace was that it was the fastest 4th place showing in history) and most Diamond League meet directors would be lucky to get a field like this. World champ Wayde van Niekerk is missing, but five of the eight men from the historically fast 2015 World Championship final are here, including LaShawn Merritt, Kirani James and Luguelin Santos, who went 2-3-4.
Those names alone would make this race exciting even if no one had raced yet in 2016. But several of the men here have already been crushing it on the track. On April 9, Bralon Taplin, who was 4th at World Indoors, ran a pb of 44.41 at the Sun Angel Classic in Tempe; no one had ever run that fast that early in the season. Not to be outdone, James went out and ran 44.36 in the Bahamas the next week, which stands as the current world leader. At that same meet, Merritt ran a massive 200 pb of 19.78, shaving .20 off his previous best and putting him at #15 on the world’s all-time list. In April. In his second-best event.
All of which means that we could see a really, really fast time on Friday. James’ meet record of 44.22 from last year is in serious jeopardy, and there’s even a chance that we could see a sub-44 in April for just the second time in history (Michael Johnson ran a crazy 43.75 in Waco in April 1997). That would take a special effort, but this is a special field.
Picking a winner between James and Merritt is tough. Let’s get crazy – James and sub-44.
Women’s 1500 (Friday, 8:56 p.m. ET): Jenny Simpson Opens Up Against Brenda Martinez as Mary Cain and Morgan Uceny Try To Regain Their Old Form
|Jenny Simpson||USA||3:57.22||Didn’t race at all indoors so this is her ’16 opener|
|Morgan Uceny||USA||4:00.06||Ran sb of 4:27 mile indoors|
|Brenda Martinez||USA||4:00.94||Terrific indoor season culminated with 5th at Worlds|
|Mary Cain||USA||4:04.62||Ran 3 middling indoor races in Europe; outdoor opener|
|Violah Lagat||Kenya||4:04.10||8th at World Indoors|
|Heather Kampf||USA||4:04.50||Won Grand Blue road mile in Des Moines on Tues.|
|Treniere Moser||USA||4:02.85||7th at USA Indoors|
|Rachel Schneider||USA||4:06.90||8th at USA Indoors|
|Kerri Gallagher||USA||4:03.56||Was running great indoors but missed USAs due to illness|
|Kate Grace||USA||4:06.75||Ran 1500 pb in Boston in Feb|
|Amanda Eccleston||USA||4:08.08||3rd at USA Indoors|
|Nicole Sifuentes||Canada||4:04.65||Didn’t make final at World Indoors|
Though this is largely a domestic field, it’s still full of intrigue. Where has Jenny Simpson been and what kind of shape is she in? Can Brenda Martinez build on her tremendous indoor campaign? Can Mary Cain rebound from a disappointing indoor season? Can former world #1 Morgan Uceny find her old form after being tripped at the 2011 Worlds and 2012 Olympics?
Let’s start with Simpson, who hasn’t raced since winning the 5th Avenue Mile in September. It’s not uncommon for Simpson to minimize the indoor campaign, but it is odd for her to not run indoors at all — since 2011, she’s run the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix every year except 2013 and 2016.
Was she a little dinged up? Or did she just want to get a massive base for an Olympic year? We’ll find out this weekend (Editor’s note: Our request to Simpson for an update on her status wasn’t met with a reply).
There’s little reason to worry if you’re a Simpson fan as she’s still in her prime at 29 and has put together three straight strong, consistent outdoor seasons. Plus she traditionally starts fast; you’d have to go all the way back to 2007 — when she was a sophomore at Colorado — to find the last time she didn’t win her outdoor 1500 opener (that streak includes three straight wins at Drake from 2011 to 2013). Assuming Simpson has been/is healthy, she has a great shot to win again on Friday.
If there’s one woman who can stop Simpson in this field, it’s Brenda Martinez. Martinez ran a full indoor season for the first time in 2012 and produced several stellar performances, clocking indoor PBs of 2:00.14 and 4:04.58, earning her first U.S. title and placing fifth in the 1500 at Worlds. Martinez’ focus will shift to the 800 outdoors, but with a 4:00 PB, she’s a more than capable 1500 runner and we know she’s in good shape.
We know a lot less about Mary Cain, who eschewed the U.S. indoor circuit in favor of three races in Europe, none of which went particularly well. Her first race in Karlsruhe on February 6 was an unmitigated disaster as she ran 4:20.73 for ninth; only once has she run slower since turning pro, and that came in the hypertactical 2013 USA 1500 final, where Cain placed third. Cain showed signs of improvement by running 4:13 in Athlone and Glasgow later that month, but that still left her without a USA Indoor qualifier (the standard was 4:11), so she shuttered her indoor season. It was certainly very different to the Cain of two years ago, who went undefeated indoors, recording wins at Millrose and USAs.
Despite a disappointing 2015 and 2016 indoor season, Cain is still a teenager (she turns 20 next week) and was still eighth at USAs in the 1500 last year in a down season. So please don’t call her “done.” But this Olympic year could be critical in determining if Cain is still capable of reaching her ceiling as a global medal contender (her coach Alberto Salazar said last year that he was “very confident” she could run 3:55) or whether her destiny lies as a good, but not great, professional runner. The evidence hasn’t been great so far in 2016, but Cain still has two months until the Olympic Trials.
The 31-year-old Uceny was healthy during the offseason for the first time in a long time and showed some promise by picking up a World Indoor qualifier in the mile at Millrose (4:27.99 at Millrose) but then she didn’t improve on that in Boston and didn’t show at USAs.
While Simpson and Martinez are the class of this field on paper, watch out for Kerri Gallagher and Amanda Eccleston. Gallagher, who was third at USAs last year, was running well earlier this year (8:56 3k on a flat track; 2nd in Wanamaker Mile) before an illness caused her to miss USAs. Eccleston was third behind Gallagher and Shannon Rowbury at Millrose and took third at USA indoors. If Simpson or Martinez is off their game, Gallagher or Eccleston could surprise.
Men’s 800 (Saturday, 3:02 p.m. ET): World Champ Boris Berian Takes On Erisk Sowinski and Clayton Murphy
|Boris Berian||USA||1:43.34||World Indoor champ makes outdoor debut|
|Erik Sowinski||USA||1:44.58||World Indoor bronze medallist makes outdoor debut|
|Tyler Mulder||USA||1:44.34||Iowa native opened up in 1:50.50 two weeks ago|
|Ryan Martin||USA||1:44.77||Top 6 at USAs 3 of the last 4 years; 1:49 at Mt. SAC|
|Edward Kemboi||Kenya||1:45.58||’15 NCAA champ didn’t make final at World Indoors|
|Clayton Murphy||USA||1:45.59||NCAA indoor champ ran 3:44 last week|
|Mark Wieczorek||USA||1:45.36||Ran 3:49 in outdoor opener|
|Chad Noelle||USA||1:48.06||Won Grand Blue road mile on Tuesday|
|Drew Windle||USA||1:46.91||4th at USA Indoors|
On paper, the headliners here are recent World Indoor medallists Boris Berian and Erik Sowinski, both of whom will be running their first outdoor race of 2016. Both men were obviously in good shape indoors and given that Berian ran 1:46.00 in January and opened up last year in 1:46.16, we could see a 1:45 (or even 1:44?) winning time on Saturday. Sowinski, who ran 1:47 in seven of his eight indoor races, could go faster than that on the kinder outdoor oval.
The interesting question here is how does Clayton Murphy do? Murphy has been on fire in 2016 and hasn’t lost since February, running 1:46.13 indoors (ranking him #5 in the world) and winning a loaded race at NCAA indoors. Murphy has mostly faced collegians this year, but he should be prepared for a step up against the pros; after all, he was 4th at USAs last year, won the Pan Am Games and made the semis at Worlds. We’re not betting against Berian, a 1:43 guy and now a world champion, but definitely think Murphy has the edge in the battle for second over Sowinski.
How can we say that when Sowinski won a bronze at Worlds? Well consider this. Indoors, Sowisnki never broke 1:47 (his sb was 1:47.11 and he got into Worlds thanks to a wildcard). Murphy, just 21, three times dipped under 1:47.00.
Women’s 100 hurdles (3:37 p.m. ET): Should They Just Make This The Olympic Final?
|Dawn Harper-Nelson||USA||12.37||2008 Olympic/2015 US champ|
|Jasmin Stowers||USA||12.35||Only 12.74 and 12.78 in 2 races so far despite big tailwinds|
|Brianna Rollins||USA||12.26||AR holder won USA Indoors, silver at World Indoors in 60H|
|Queen Harrison||USA||12.43||Won season opener in Bahamas in 12.64 (+2.6 wind)|
|Kendra Harrison||USA||12.36||Opened season by moving into all-time top 10 with 12.36 in Athens, GA|
|Kristi Castlin||USA||12.56||6th at USA Indoors|
|Nia Ali||USA||12.48||Defended World Indoor title in Portland|
|Jackie Coward||USA||12.73||12.74 (+2.7) to beat Stowers last week at LSU|
The U.S.’s strongest event on the track is the women’s 100 hurdles, and Americans are so good compared to the rest of the world that domestic fields can sometimes be just as good, if not better, than World/Olympic finals. Last year, the US had the five fastest women in the world in the event and put up the 18 fastest times in the world (but somehow failed to win a medal at Worlds). This one is on that level, as five of the seven fastest women from 2015 are entered (for comparison, the 2015 WC final only had three of the seven fastest women from 2015).
Several of those women have already started fast in 2016. Nia Ali and Brianna Rollins went 1-2 at World Indoors in the 60 hurdles, finishing just .01 apart, while Kendra Harrison, who was last in the World Indoor final, has come out with a vengeance outdoors, running 12.36 on April 8 at the University of Georgia. Not only was the mark the fastest ever recorded in the month of April, but it was good enough to vault Harrison into the top 10 at the distance all-time. And then there’s 2008 Olympic champ Dawn Harper-Nelson, who won USAs last year, and Jasmin Stowers, who ran four of last year’s seven fastest times (include 12.35, which ranked her eighth all-time).
Only one of these extraordinary women can win on Saturday and only three of them can make the Olympic team. For now, we like Kendra Harrison as in recent years it’s made sense to ride the hot hand when picking the hurdles until they have a bad race.
Men’s 110 hurdles (3:51 p.m. ET)
|Aries Merritt||USA||12.80||WR holder should be even more dangerous in ’16 after kidney transplant|
|Hansle Parchment||Jamaica||12.94||Silver at Worlds last year|
|David Oliver||USA||12.89||’13 World Champ ran 13.30 (+2.7) to win in Bahamas on 4/16|
|Aleec Harris||USA||13.11||Ran 13.32 to finish behind Oliver in Bahamas|
|Andrew Riley||Jamaica||13.14||Has struggled so far in ’16 (13.77 sb)|
|Omar McLeod||Jamaica||12.97||World Indoor champ just became first man to go sub-10/sub-13 in 100/110H|
|Ronnie Ash||USA||12.99||Ran 13.47 last week|
|Spencer Adams||USA||13.33||5th at World Indoors in 60 hurdles|
It’s Jamaica against the United States in the men’s 110 hurdles. Recently, Jamaica has prevailed on the biggest stages (Hansle Parchment took silver to Aries Merritt‘s bronze at Worlds last year; Omar McLeod won World Indoors while the U.S. failed to medal) but overall, this has been an American-dominated event. Parchment is the only Jamaican to have ever medalled at Worlds/Olympics, while recent Olympic (2012, Merritt) and World (2013, Oliver) only added to staggering U.S. totals: in World/Olympic history, Americans have won 31 of the 45 gold medals on offer.
Most of the men in this field haven’t put up a fast legal mark yet this year, which makes sense because it’s April. But Oliver (13.30) and Harris (13.32) have run faster than Jason Richardson‘s world-leading 13.33 (though they had a 2.7 m/s tailwind). And McLeod, who won World Indoors in the 60 hurdles, ran 9.99 100 in his first outdoor race at Arkansas last week, making him the first man in history to break 10 in the 100 and 13 in the 110 hurdles. Given that accomplishment, we’re picking him for the win here.
That being said, the focus rightly on the telecast for this meet is likely to be the fact that this race will be the outdoor opener for Aries Merritt, who had a kidney transplant just days after winning bronze at Worlds last year. Indoors, Merritt had a low-key season, running 7.58 but not doing USAs or Worlds.
The field events at Drake don’t have the star power of the track events, but they do have an interesting twist: in addition to the $6,000 in existing prize money, the meet will award $1,500 to the athlete with the best mark in each of the six rounds of the women’s long jump and shot put and men’s triple jump. Yep, they are handing out an extra $9,000 and they even have come up with a very cool name for the incentive – ‘Throw For The Dough’ and ‘Leap For Loot’. We love the idea and hopefully it leasd to more excitement among the fans in Des Moines as well.
Some of the athletes duking it out for the extra dough include Olympic silver medallist Will Claye and World Indoor long jump champ Marquis Dendy in the triple jump (Saturday, 3:45 p.m. ET), World Indoor champ Michelle Carter in the shot put (Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET) and World Indoor champ Brittney Reese in the long jump (Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET).