2017 NCAA Indoor Men’s Mile Preview: Collegiate Record Holder Edward Cheserek Is Heavily Favored But Don’t Forget Oklahoma State’s Josh Thompson or CU’s Ben Saarel

By LetsRun.com
March 8, 2017

The 2017 indoor track and field season culminates this weekend at the 2017 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships in College Station, Texas. We’ll be on-site in the Lone Star State starting Thursday, but before we get down there we’ve previewed the mid-d/distance events so that you can know what to watch for at the meet. Below you’ll find our look at the men’s mile where NCAA record holder Edward Cheserek headlines the field.

*Women’s 800 Preview *Men’s 800 Preview *Women’s Mile Preview

*Schedule/start lists/broadcast information *Men’s team projections & analysis *Women’s team projections & analysis *All LRC coverage

TV/Streaming: The meet will be streamed live on Watch ESPN.

Men’s mile (prelims Friday 6:45 p.m. ET, final Saturday 5:10 p.m. ET)

Name Year School PB SB Comment
Edward Cheserek SR Oregon 3:52.01 3:52.01 2015 champ set NCAA record on 2/26
Ben Saarel SR Colorado 4:01.49 4:01.49* Ran 3:38 last spring; MPSF champ
Zach Perrin JR Colorado 3:59.00 4:02.27* First NCAA T&F champs appearance
Josh Thompson SR Oklahoma St. 3:56.89 3:56.89 Big 12 1k/mile champ last two years
Jonah Koech SO UTEP 4:02.14 4:02.14* 6th last year; 3rd at CUSAs
Adam Palamar SR Syracuse 3:57.39 3:57.39 8th last year but didn’t even make ACC final this year
Josh Kerr FR New Mexico 4:03.34 4:03.34* 10th in NCAA 1500 in ’16; Mountain West mile champ
Ned Willig GR Michigan 3:58.09 3:58.09 5th year from Brown was only 7th in Big 10 mile
Neil Gourley JR Virginia Tech 3:59.58 4:01.14^ 4th in ACC 3k
Liam Dee SO Iona 3:58.19 3:58.19 MAAC champ
Dillon Maggard JR Utah State 4:01.68 4:01.68* 2nd at Mountain West; went out in prelims at NCAAs in ’16
Matthew Maton SO Oregon 3:58.34 3:58.34 Sub-4 in HS; ran on Oregon’s winning DMR last year
Thomas Joyce SR California 3:58.47 3:58.47 9th at MPSF
Matthew Fayers JR Oklahoma St. 3:58.53 3:58.53 3rd in Big 12 1k
Sampson Laari SR Mid. Tenn. St. 3:58.75 3:58.75 CUSA runner-up
Tim Gorman SR Oregon 3:58.78 3:58.78 Dartmouth 5th year was 2nd at MPSF

* Got in with altitude conversion ^Got in with flat track conversion

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The mile is one of three events (potentially four, if he also runs the DMR) that Cheserek will run at NCAAs and we expect him to win it. You could even make the case that this race will be the easiest for him to win as the prelim and final are his first races of each respective day — though he won’t exactly be fresh for the final considering he’ll have run two or three races on Friday.

Cheserek used his famous kick to win the NCAA mile title in 2015 Cheserek used his famous kick to win the NCAA mile title in 2015

The reasons to pick Cheserek are obvious. He won this race at NCAAs two years ago, and less than two weeks ago broke the collegiate record, running 3:52.01 in Boston. And while that record encouraged us that Cheserek is super fit right now, the biggest reason we like his chances is that his kick is lethal. It’s almost impossible to sustain a pace at which Cheserek can’t still kick away from you. In 2015, Cristian Soratos dropped a 53.36 400 in the middle of the NCAA mile final. Cheserek still swallowed him up over the final 200, closing in 2:19 for his last kilometer to take the title. Last year, Washington’s Izaic Yorks, a 3:53 miler, tried to run away from Cheserek on the anchor leg of the DMR. Despite winning the 5k just half an hour earlier, Cheserek stuck right on him and kicked by in the final lap, splitting 3:52.84 to Yorks’ 3:54.24. Cheserek is used to a heavy workload in this meet. He doubled as a freshman (3k/5k) and has tripled the last two years (mile/3k/DMR in 2015, 3k/5k/DMR in 2016). A quadruple this year isn’t hard to imagine. Compared to the 30 minutes’ rest he had for last year’s DMR, the 19 hours he’ll have between the end of day one and the mile final on day two will feel like an eternity.

So what are the concerns? Obviously, fatigue is one. If Cheserek runs the mile prelim, 5 final and DMR final on Friday, he’s more vulnerable in the mile final on Saturday than if he just does the two events on Friday, but even then we don’t think he’d lose as he’d have a full night’s rest. Cheserek has been healthy and effective this year, and his losses at NCAA championships in the past generally haven’t come because he was tired but rather because he was facing a total stud. Think about it. He’s only lost three times at NCAAs and the guys that beat him are named Lawi Lalang (13:00 pb), Eric Jenkins, and Patrick Tiernan, and the loss to Jenkins loss has an asterisk next to it in some people’s minds as Cheserek says he let him win. No one in this year’s field has those type of credentials.

But there’s also the recent trend that of the last four guys to set the NCAA mile record, none of them wound up winning the mile at NCAAs.

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Year Athlete Mile record NCAA result
2009 German Fernandez, OK St. 3:55.02 Did not compete
2012 Miles Batty, BYU 3:54.54 3rd
2013 Chris O’Hare, Tulsa 3:52.98 7th
2014 Lawi Lalang, Arizona 3:52.88 2nd

But that doesn’t worry us. This trend is a neat historical oddity, but we don’t put a lot of stock into it. If Lalang had run just .11 slower in 2014, he wouldn’t have broken the record. Would that have changed his chances of winning NCAAs at all? Of course not. Now you could make the argument that the guys who broke the record peaked too early (Batty, O’Hare and Lalang all did it at Millrose). But Cheserek broke the record less than two weeks ago at the end of a hard training block. We highly doubt he peaked too early.

Our biggest worry about Cheserek would be the presence of another stud in the race. But apart from Cheserek, only one guy (Oklahoma State’s Josh Thompson) has ever broken 3:57. We just don’t see who is going to beat him. For Cheserek to lose, he’d need to make a serious tactical blunder or be totally exhausted from day one.

Thompson may be the best bet to take down Cheserek. He has the #2 SB in the field (3:56.89) and swept the 1k/mile at Big 12s for the second consecutive year. He’s also a freak athlete with an unconventional background (he doesn’t train on Sundays due to his religious beliefs). Thompson is still growing as an athlete — his mile PR was only 4:10 as recently as January 2016 — so if anyone is going to break through to an entirely different level at NCAAs, it’s him.

We spoke to Thompson’s coach Dave Smith, who has coached 11 guys to sub-4 since 2009, and he summarized the quandary that many coaches this weekend face: how to approach racing a massive favorite like Cheserek.

“I can tell Josh, ‘Hey, let’s give up on this win and let’s go maximize. And I think you could very easily be the second-best miler in the field. And lets’s go do that, play it safe and make sure we get that second place because that’s better than third, fourth, fifth, sixth.’

“Or you say, you know what, let’s go and do what you gotta do, run to win. Swing for the fences. Maybe you get it, maybe you blow up and get eighth. But either way, I think it’s more fun to say let’s go for it.

“And so my instructions to Josh are going to be, let’s come up with whatever strategy we thinks gives you the best chance to win and do that. And who cares if you don’t win, who cares what you get? Do the best you can do.

“I think track and field and what we do is supposed to be fun. My AD is a golf coach. He was a golf coach for a long time, a very successful one. And he always tells me, you know, it’s no fun to lay up.”

Ben Saarel is also an intriguing prospect. Though he’s never broken 4:00 in the mile, he’s run the equivalent of well under 4:00, clocking 3:38 for 1500 last spring and running 4:01.49 at altitude earlier this year. The NCAA converts that to 3:55.60 at sea level, and before you complain that the conversion is too generous, recall the lesson of two years ago. In 2015, Cristian Soratos ran 4:05.18 on a flat 200m track at altitude, which the NCAA converted to a 3:56. There were complaints until Soratos went to Seattle a month later and ran 3:55.27. Saarel’s time came on an oversize track, but Boulder is also higher than Bozeman (5,400 feet vs. 4,800 feet) and Saarel ran four seconds faster. Saarel looked good in winning the MPSF mile a few weeks ago and definitely has 3:55 ability. However, it will take more than that to dethrone Cheserek. Saarel’s Colorado teammate Zach Perrin also ran a time that converts to just marginally slower than Saarel (3:56.36) but this is his first NCAA appearance on the track. Saarel, meanwhile, was third in the 3k as a true freshman in 2013 and has two top-10 finishes at NCAA XC.

One way Cheserek could lose is if he waits too long to make his move. Even though Cheserek has the best kick in the field, the outcome gets flukier as the length of the kick decreases, with factors such as positioning take on outsize importance. Recall two years ago, when Cheserek let the 4 x mile at Penn come down to the final 200 and was beaten by 1:46 800 man Jordy Williamsz. A repeat this weekend is unlikely, but if the race is super tactical, watch out for UTEP’s Jonah Koech, who has run 1:46.53 for 800. Koech was only third in the mile at the Conference USA meet, but a slow race plays to his favor.

Koech is also the top returner from last year’s mile final (sixth) and that tells you a lot about why Cheserek likely won’t be challenged this weekend. Only three of last year’s finalists graduated, yet Koech and Syracuse’s Adam Palamar (eighth) are the only ones back this year. Here’s what happened to the others:

1. Henry Wynne, Virginia: The guy who didn’t run the Olympic Trials last summer but ran the NACAC champs instead came on strong with a runner-up finish at ACCs, but he’s run the mile three times this year with a best of 4:00.80.
2. Blake Haney, Oregon: Hasn’t been the same since NCAA Indoors last year. Has only finished two races in 2017, with SBs of 4:09/8:12.
4. Sam Prakel, Oregon: Injured; hasn’t raced all season.
9. James Gowans, Cornell: 3rd at Heps, SB of 4:02.07.
10. Jacob Burcham, Oklahoma: Finished last in 1000 final at Big 12s; SB of 4:04.90.

This is a big event for Oregon. The Ducks will be counting on a win from Cheserek, but if they are to upset Florida in the team race, they’ll need Matthew Maton and Tim Gorman to steal some points.

LRC prediction: No one but a true stud is going to stop Cheserek from winning this race. The king gets his crown. We like Thompson for second.

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*Women’s 800 Preview *Men’s 800 Preview *Women’s Mile Preview

*Schedule/start lists/broadcast information *Men’s team projections & analysis *Women’s team projections & analysis *All LRC coverage

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