June 8, 2016
EUGENE, Ore. — Order is restored. Not that things ever went full-Bizarro, but Edward Cheserek, after losing twice during the regular season, returned to his usual title-winning self on Day 1 of the 2016 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships on Wednesday night at Hayward Field, becoming the fourth man in history to claim three straight 10,000-meter titles. That brings his individual haul to 12 (plus two DMR titles); he’ll go for #13 in Friday’s 5,000.
Cheserek took the lead with three laps to go and at the bell it was a six-man race. But no one could match his hard move on the backstretch, and Cheserek closed it out in 57.24 to win easily in 29:09.57 over Northern Arizona’s Futsum Zienasellassie (29:10.68). Arkansas senior Gabe Gonzalez, who was only third at SECs, ran a terrific race to take third in 29:11.09.
Officially, this race was 10,000 meters, but in reality, it was 2,000. Duke’s Shaun Thompson, who before the race spoke about wanting to hit the Olympic Trials standard of 28:15, did most of the work, but after a 67-second fourth lap, the pace gradually slowed until the leaders hit halfway in a pedestrian 14:45. The nadir came during mile 4 (4:49), which featured a 75-second 15th lap.
At 8 kilometers (23:48), 20 of the 24 starters remained in the lead pack and Zienasellassie had had enough: he dropped a 62.79 as the racing began in earnest.
Yet after running a 67.07 for his next lap, Zienasellassie hit the brakes and moved into lane two, imploring Cheserek, who had stuck to his rival like glue the previous two laps, to assume the lead. Cheserek reluctantly took over, running a 68, and as they hit two to go, he tried to pull the same move, drifting out into lane 2 to try and force the lead back on Zienasellassie. But Zienasellassie was having none of it and Cheserek remained in the front.
Though Cheserek and Zienasellassie were playing games, they were still running fast enough to drop most of the field as it was a six-man race with 800 to go: Cheserek, Zienasellassie, Gonzalez, Colorado’s Pierce Murphy, Portland’s Reid Buchanan and Kentucky’s Jacob Thomas. It was the same group with a lap to go but once Cheserek dropped the hammer at the bell, the pack quickly splintered. Zienasellassie gave chase around the first turn, but Cheserek opened up a gap on the backstretch, even as Zienasellassie began to gap the rest of the field. As he rounded the final turn, Cheserek was untouchable, his lead eight meters. He cruised it in for the win, as Zienasellassie held off a hard-charging Gonzalez for second. Murphy wound up fourth, with Buchanan edging Thomson for fifth.
Lap by lap splits here but note there are some errors in it.
|2||Futsum Zienasellassie||SR||Northern Arizona||29:10.68|
|7||Luis Vargas||SR||North Carolina St.||29:18.40|
|20||George Parsons||JR||North Carolina St.||29:48.76|
|21||Charles Mathenge||SR||Stephen F. Austin||31:11.02|
|22||Ryan Rutherford||SR||Illinois State||31:34.05|
Quick Take #1: NCAA individual title #12 for Cheserek, who is now the favorite for Friday’s 5,000
With the win, Cheserek joined Washington State’s Gerry Lindgren (1966-68) and John Ngeno (1974-76) and UTEP’s Suleiman Nyambui (1979-82) as the only men to win three NCAA 10,000 titles. If he wins the 5,000, he’ll be five-for-five in NCAA championships this year (six-for-six counting relays), his first undefeated NCAA championships season (he lost the outdoor 5k in ’14 and the indoor 3k in ’15).
Cheserek looked good tonight, good enough to make him the favorite in the 5,000 on Friday. He’ll have to close faster than his 57.24 final lap to win the 5k, but given that Cheserek was on cruise control for the final 100, that shouldn’t be a problem.
The 5k features a stronger field, with studs like Sean McGorty and Patrick Tiernan waiting for him fresh, and Cheserek is not a slam dunk. Cheserek didn’t need to be 100% to win tonight. Let’s say he was 80% (a wild guess); that might be good enough to win a tactical 10k but not enough to prevail against tougher competition in the 5k. But if he was 85% or 90%, he will probably be able to handle the 5k field as well. It can’t have hurt that the race went extremely slow (Cheserek’s 29:09 winning time was the second-slowest since 2004), which should make Cheserek’s recovery easier (not that he’s had any problems doubling back in the past).
Cheserek looked vulnerable earlier this season after suffering two losses but said afterwards he’s started regaining his confidence as the outdoor season went on. He “took it easy” a little bit in training earlier this season because of injuries.
He had “no comments on that at this moment” when asked about his citizenship status.
Quick Take #2: Why didn’t Zienasellassie take it out from the gun?
Zienasellassie, who ran 27:52 this year (44 seconds faster than anyone else in the NCAA) was well ahead of everyone bar Cheserek on paper. And though he finished second tonight, he likely cost himself any shot at the win by allowing it to come down to the last lap.
We can only speculate about Zienasellassie’s strategy, as he declined to talk in the mixed zone. Cheserek saying “I wasn’t 100% during the race, because I think I was just a little bit tired” will only make Zienasellassie wonder if he should have pushed harder during the race.
He went hard with 2k to go, only to back off the gas for the next few laps and hand the lead to Cheserek. Was he hoping Cheserek was limited enough by his injuries this year that he could beat him over the final 400? Was he planning on going hard from 2k out but backed off once he realized he couldn’t hold it? Was he simply not feeling good himself? We can’t know for sure. But Zienasellassie’s best bet may have been to try to run 28:00 from the front and dare Ches to hang on. That’s a very tough strategy to employ, and it likely would not have worked in the end. But it probably would have been Zienasellassie’s best chance at victory.
Zienasellassie has nothing to be ashamed of. This was his best finish at an NCAA championship — he was 3rd in XC in ’14, 4th in XC in ’13 and 4th in the indoor 5k this year — but Zienasellassie is probably getting tired of losing to Cheserek, who denied him a Foot Locker title in high school and won all of the races mentioned earlier in this sentence.
Quick Take #3: Finally healthy, Arkansas’ Gabe Gonzalez closed out his career with six big points for the Razorbacks
Gonzalez, who transferred to Arkansas after two years at Kansas, battled a series of stress fractures early in his collegiate career, but he’s been healthy as a redshirt senior and has flourished, clocking PRs of 13:45 (indoors) and 29:01 (outdoors). Still, this result qualifies as a big surprise. He was only 48th at NCAA XC and only third at SECs on May 12. Going in, Gonzalez was hoping to finish as an All-American (top 8). And Gonzalez admitted he doesn’t normally have great speed: his mile pb is only 4:10 yet he closed in 4:16 tonight.
He was at a bit of a loss to explain his result, saying that he felt smooth the whole way and just tried to key off Cheserek and Zienasellassie up front.
“I had it in me and I just went with them,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez, a senior, is out of eligibility but is hoping to keep running. He’s certainly got the potential to keep developing if he can remain healthy.
Quick Take #4: Pierce Murphy’s Collegiate Career Comes to an End
Murphy, a film major, said he wants to continue running professionally (though he had never heard of Alexi Pappas). He’s put together a strong senior year (3rd in XC, 3rd in the 5k indoors, 4th tonight) but his PRs (13:37/28:48) aren’t remarkable so it will be interesting to see how much interest he attracts.