“Try to get him at the 1,200-meter mark by 2:57 and if that’s the case then I think he can dip under the record just barely. If he gets to the 1,200-meter mark feeling even fresher than we expected, it’s possible he could get well under the record.”
By Jonathan Gault
May 26, 2016
On Saturday, when Drew Hunter lines up to race in the Bowerman Mile, he will be chasing history — Alan Webb‘s 3:53.43 high school record, set fifteen years and one day earlier in the very same race. Or at least, that’s the way most American track fans will see it.
The reality is different. Drew Hunter will be chasing Ben Blankenship.
The Bowerman Mile, held on Saturday as the final event of this weekend’s two-day Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., is annually one of the world’s most competitive miles and has produced the fastest mile of the year three years running. Hunter, who is scheduled to attend the University of Oregon in the fall, is just the third American high schooler to receive an invite to the prestigious event since Webb set the record in 2001, joining Steve Magness and Michael McGrath (both of whom competed in 2003).
This is the first time since 2001 that anyone has even contemplated running 3:53, so incredible is Webb’s record. It’s certainly a possibility on Saturday. But Hunter has broken all his records this year by racing the field, not the clock, and that approach will not change on Saturday.
“I think focus on the guys who are within your range and the chances for getting the record increase,” said Hunter’s coach Tom Schwartz. “It’s always been my contention to [to have him] be a competitor first and go after times second. Yes, we would love him to go after Alan Webb’s record but the best approach in my mind has always been focus on being competitive and pacing wisely. You’ve got to have that combination in all races.”
Hunter enters the race with more impressive credentials than Webb did in 2001. When Webb ran Prefontaine, his PR was 3:59.86, set in January of that year. Hunter has already eclipsed that time twice, running 3:58.25 on February 6 and before lowering his pb to 3:57.81 on February 20. But it’s still a big leap from 3:57.81 to 3:53.43.
Hunter has run four races so far this outdoor season. He opened up his outdoor season at the Larry Ellis Invitational in Princeton, N.J., on April 22, running 3:42.42 to finish third in the top heat of the 1500 behind pro Sam Penzenstadler and collegian Garrett O’Toole of Princeton.
“The 1500-meter race was just getting his feet wet, so to speak,” Schwartz said. “He hadn’t competed in quite a while prior to that, several weeks in fact, and he was in heavy training volume at the time anyway, no backing off. So running 3:42-low against some seriously good competitors in a meet that required him to change pace and deal with tactical issues, demonstrated that he was on the right path.”
Hunter raced again the next weekend at the Penn Relays, anchoring his Loudoun Valley (Va.) High School squad to victory in an epic Championship of America distance medley relay. Loudoun Valley’s winning margin was just one-thousandth of a second, with Hunter splitting 4:00.73 for 1600 meters on the anchor leg.
“Most people don’t realize we almost bailed on the meet simply because he’d had a back issue,” Schwartz said. “Really, really bad back all week, didn’t even know if he could run at all. To run as well as he did under those circumstances, we were quite pleased.”
Most recently, Hunter ran 1:48.64 for 800 meters at the Dogwood Track Classic on May 7, as he was edged out by high school junior Brandon McGorty (younger brother of Stanford’s Sean), who ran 1:48.58. Alex Lomong (brother of two-time U.S. Olympian Lopez) was third in 1:48.67 in what was arguably the greatest high school 800 race of all time.
“Certainly the 1:48.64 800 is a really, really good result and I’m very happy that he competed well against some guys that are specialists in that event. He had virtually no practice at the event. He’d only run it one other time in the last two years. So that was a pretty good showing.
“The 800 is one of those events where you get better with frequent racing. It’s really a challenging event, in terms of figuring out your best way of using your energy, dealing with the severe fatigue in your muscles as well as being able to deal with the subtleties of competing.”
Schwartz said he believes that Hunter is in better shape now than when he ran 1:48.64 and that, with more experience and better pacing, he is capable of running in the low 1:47’s for 800 meters.
“If you watch the video, you’ll see that he basically got around at 100 and realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m way behind, I better haul and catch up,'” Schwartz said. “So he was just cranking the back straightaway on the outside trying to get to a decent position. So he went out way too slow.”
No matter how he ran it, 1:48 for a high schooler is impressive. Remember, Hunter’s not a pure miler like Webb. His best event right now might actually be the 3000/2-mile; indeed, Schwartz lobbied Pre Classic meet management to add a 2-mile to the program for Hunter to run but was turned down. On the same day as that 1:48, Hunter ran 8:43.18 for 3200 meters on tired legs to get a qualifier for next weekend’s Virginia state meet. Schwartz said he told him to run the race at 5k pace.
“I figure he’s in sub-13:30 shape right now, about 13:28, 13:29 for 5,000 meters,” Schwartz said. “Yes, I know that’s very fast but he’s he’s easily capable of that right now. I think he’s in about 8:21/8:22 shape for two miles.”
The high school records for those two events are 13:37.91 (Galen Rupp in 2004) and 8:29.46 (Lukas Verzbicas in 2011).
Looking ahead to the Bowerman Mile on Saturday, Schwartz said that Hunter ran a set of repeat 800’s last week that demonstrated Hunter is in “the best shape of his life” (Schwartz declined to give splits). There will be no special rabbit for Hunter, and Schwartz said he expects the rabbits for the elite professionals to hit 800 in 1:54. That’s a bit too fast for Hunter, but not necessarily a problem given that Hunter will not be at the front of the pack. Schwartz said he’s not worried about the race going out too fast as he thinks that with Hunter’s current 800 fitness, a fast first half won’t overwhelm him.
“I don’t care if goes through in 1:55 or 1:56 because he’s got a cushion,” Schwartz said. “I would like that he go through in 1:57, but if it ends up being a second or a second or a half faster, we’re not going to panic. We’ve talked about this extensively.”
Indeed, Hunter and Schwartz, who lives in Idaho but will be there in person to see Hunter race on Saturday, have watched videos from past editions of the meet in order to study how elite professional miles are run. After careful analysis, they settled on a runner for Hunter to key off.
“We believe Ben Blankenship is probably the best person for Drew to run with,” Schwartz said. “Ben is highly reliable, experienced, known for his great pacing ability. He’s on top of his game right now. So I think that Ben is an ideal person for Drew to target. I think they have similar profiles. Ben is very strong, Drew is very strong. Both have the ability run a fast last lap off of their strength.”
Of course, that last lap for Blankenship will probably be faster than Hunter’s considering he was fourth at USAs last year in the 1500. But if Hunter can hit his splits early (ideally 57 at 400, and 1:57 at the half) and focus on racing people during the second half, Schwartz thinks he can break Webb’s record — with a caveat.
“Try to get him at the 1200-meter mark by 2:57 and if that’s the case then I think he can dip under the record just barely. If he gets to the 1200-meter mark feeling even fresher than we expected, it’s possible he could get well under the record.
“A lot is going to have to do with the subtleties. The wind. The pacing, is it steady or is it erratic? Does he get behind some people who run in good rhythm or are they changing their rhythm? All of those things really matter a lot when you’re running at top speed.”
Hunter’s season-long goal remains to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 1500 meters, where the auto standard is 3:38.00 or 3:54.00 for a mile (Editor’s note: It’s harder to qualify in the mile as we equate a 3:54.00 mile to 3:36.63 for 1500 using the 1.0802 conversion). If Hunter doesn’t qualify at Pre either via the mile or an en route time (there will be a camera set up at 1500 meters to give an official split), he will go after the standard again in the 1500 at the adidas Boost Boston Games on June 17. If he does qualify for the Trials at Pre, he’ll still plan to run the meet in Boston but not necessarily in the 1500 (there is also an 800 on the schedule). No matter what happens, he is planning on running the 3200 (and possibly a relay) at the Virginia state meet next weekend.
If you noticed, there’s no showdown with fellow sub-4:00 high schooler Michael Slagowski on the schedule. Slagowski will also be racing at Pre, but in the National Mile rather than the Bowerman Mile. Obviously Slagowski, who is from Idaho, can’t run at the Virginia state meet, and Slagowski has already committed to the Brooks PR Invitational on the weekend of the Boston meet.
“We’re not focused on Michael Slagowski,” Schwartz said. “He’s a great runner and all that but we don’t fear him, we don’t necessarily care whether he races Drew or not. All the best to him, hope he does well, but we were promised a long time ago that the Bowerman Mile is what Drew could run and we’ve stuck with our guns. Drew has been mentally focused on that, he’s been psyched up for it, he loves the challenge of it, we weren’t switching midstream.”
Earlier in our conversation, he said he’d like to see high schooler Austin Tamagno join Slagowski and Hunter in the sub-4:00 club at Pre.
“I’ve said this all along, one of my big goals is to ensure that track and field becomes a main sport in America instead of a secondary sport,” Schwartz said. “I want us to get back to glory days of the 1960s when we were dominant in the world, particularly in the Olympic Games. That’s what I want. I don’t want us to be secondary to any African nation anymore. I want us to go to any Olympic Games or World Championships and compete and not be trailing. I want us to be up front. And that starts with our youth. If they believe the sport is great, they’ll participate. We’ll get a lot of those kids going over to soccer that are talented to come back on over to track and field.”
I pressed Schwartz. Wouldn’t a showdown between Hunter and Slagowski — the first ever between two sub-4:00 high school milers — bring much-needed excitement to the sport?
“I suppose it would, but again, we’re not focused on any other individual. We’re focused on what Drew needs to do to get to the Olympic Trials and compete well. I’m looking long-term here.”
So a Hunter-Slagowski showdown will have to wait unless Pre Classic meet director Tom Jordan bumps Slagowski up to the Bowerman Mile at the last minute (which is not inconceivable: Matthew Centrowitz did just scratch from the race, potentially opening up a slot…). But even if Slagowski gets into the Bowerman, for Hunter, it won’t be about Drew Hunter vs. Michael Slagowski. It won’t even be about the clock or Ben Blankenship, though he’ll be paying attention to them. Hunter will be focused on one thing: the race. And you should be too.
Talk about the Bowerman mile on our world famous message board / fan forum: MB: LRC Exclusive: Drew Hunter’s coach thinks Hunter might be able to break Alan Webb’s historic 3:53.43 HS mile record