2018 USA Indoors 1500 Preview: Craig Engels Tries to Make His First U.S. Team; Can Anyone Prevent a Bowerman TC Sweep in Women’s Race?
February 14, 2018
Believe it or not, it’s already time for USA Indoors. And you’re going to want to be watching because this is the meet that will determine Team USA for the only global championship of 2018: World Indoors. We’re going to be previewing the mid-d and distance events all week long and will have boots on the ground in Albuquerque providing coverage of this weekend’s big meet.
Our previews continue today with the 1500. In the men’s race, defending champ Ben Blankenship will look to repeat as Craig Engels and Kyle Merber try to make their first World Championship teams. Plus WCAP studs Shadrack Kipchirchir and Paul Chelimo are both set to double back from the 3000 the day before. Will they try to force a fast pace since neither of them has the World Indoor standard?
The women’s race should be a good one and features three stars from the Bowerman Track Club: reigning US 5k champ Shelby Houlihan (doubling back from the 3k) and the women who went 1-2 at Millrose, Colleen Quigley and Kate Grace. All three women qualified for both the 2016 Olympics and 2017 World Championships, but with only two spots to Birmingham available, at least one of them won’t be able to run the 1500 at World Indoors. There are a host of women who will be looking to break up the BTC sweep, led by Rachel Schneider and Cory McGee (made 2013 World Outdoor and 2016 World Indoor squads).
Here’s what to watch for in each race
What: 2018 USATF Indoor Championships
When: February 16-18, 2018
Where: Albuquerque Convention Center, Albuquerque, N.M.
Men’s 1500 (straight final Sunday, 6:11 p.m. ET)
Athletes in bold have the World Indoor standard (3:39.50 or 3:55.00 mile indoors in 2017 or 2018, or 3:33.00 outdoors in 2017)
|Brannon Kidder||3:38.71||3:39.17||2nd in the 1k at USAs last year but didn’t make 1500 final outdoors|
|Garrett Heath||3:34.12||3:41.03||Made US indoor team in ’10; 7th in 3k at Millrose; doubling back from 3k|
|Craig Engels||3:35.95||3:53.93 mile||4th at USA outdoors last year; took 3 tries but has World standard now|
|Ben Blankenship||3:34.26||3:54.77 mile||Reigning champ was top American in Wanamaker Mile|
|Shadrack Kipchirchir||3:54.71||3:55.52 mile||Having big year but lacks standard & is doubling back from 3k|
|Eric Avila||3:36.37||3:57.45 mile||Won B section of mile at Millrose|
|Kyle Merber||3:34.54||3:57.75 mile||2nd American at Millrose but not a fan of altitude|
|Ford Palmer||3:36.98||4:01.81 mile||Has run 4:01 and 4:05 in his two miles this year|
|Kirubel Erassa||3:39.05||3:57.86 mile||Has run PRs for mile & 3k this year but doubling back from 3k|
|Paul Chelimo||3:39.33||3:58.59 mile||Total stud at 3k/5k but unproven at mile; doubling back from 3k|
|Emmanuel Bor||3:41.65||3:58.77 mile||Has improved a lot since joining WCAP; doubling back from 3k|
|Henry Wynne||3:38.05||3:58.80 mile||2016 NCAA mile champ|
Before we dig into the analysis of who’s actually going to win this race, let’s make note of a few variables.
1) As usual at USAs, there’s no prelim in the 1500. This is a straight final.
2) Only five guys in the field have the World Indoor standard, and to get it at USAs, it will require a big performance (3:39.50 at 5,300 feet is no joke).
3) Five of the 12 guys in the field will be doubling back from the 3k the night before, including the two favorites to make the 3k team (Shadrack Kipchirchir and Paul Chelimo). Since neither of those guys have the 1500 standard and the 1500/3k double is impossible at Worlds (the finals are less than 30 minutes apart), don’t expect Kipchirchir or Chelimo to take a spot in the 1500 if they qualify in the 3k on Saturday.
With that in mind, let’s run through the five guys with the standard. Two men stand out as clear favorites: Ben Blankenship and Craig Engels. Blankenship, a 2016 Olympic finalist, is one of just two men in this field to have made a World Championship/Olympic 1500 squad (the other is Garrett Heath, though that was indoors and it came eight years ago). He’s shown he can race well at altitude (he won last year in Albuquerque) and has run well at USA Indoors in the past, finishing 2nd in 2015, 3rd in 2016 (behind two studs in Matthew Centrowitz and Robby Andrews) and 1st last year. Plus he’s in shape right now: he was the top American in the Wanamaker Mile at Millrose, finishing 3rd overall, almost three seconds ahead of the #2 American, Kyle Merber. He’s a good bet to take one of the spots to Birmingham.
Engels has finished 5th and 4th at the last two US championships outdoors, but only one of the guys who finished ahead of him in those races (Blankenship) will be on the line in Albuquerque. This year, Engels looked impressive in winning the mile at the Dr. Sander Invite in New York on January 27, and while he came up short in his bid for the standard at Camel City a week later, he bounced back to run a mile PR of 3:53.93 last week in Boston. That means that Engels is on the team as long as he finishes in the top two. The two concerns for Engels: he doesn’t have much experience with altitude, and this will be his fourth straight week of racing. Has chasing the standard taken a toll on his body?
Merber is the most accomplished of the other three guys with the standard. Though he ran all right at Millrose (6th in 3:57.75), it’s going to take more than an “all right” performance to make this team. Merber will also have to overcome the demons of his championship performances last year, where he could only manage 6th at USA Indoors and failed to make the final at USA outdoors. And he doesn’t like racing at altitude. The good news for Merber fans is that he’s got the talent to make this team — remember when he ran 3:52.22 a year ago? — and he really only has to beat two out of these three guys to make this team: Blankenship, Engels, or Brannon Kidder (Ford Palmer also has the standard but he’s not a threat to make the team as he hasn’t broken 4:01 this year). We can definitely see Merber beating Kidder, who ran 4:06 and 4:01 in his first two miles this year before clocking a 3:56 PR last week in Boston. Beating Blankenship (against whom Merber is 3-14 in his career) and Engels will be harder, but Merber could do it in a one-off race.
We’re also not sleeping on the WCAP/ADP guys (Chelimo, Kipchirchir, Emmanuel Bor, Kirubel Erassa), most of whom were born, raised, and train year-round at altitude (Erassa moved to Georgia from Ethiopia at age 11, but the others all grew up at altitude). Chelimo is one of the top 5k runners in the world, and we could definitely see him stepping down and being competitive in this race. Ayone remember when Haile G won the 1500 at World Indoors? The same goes for Kipchirchir, who has been the top American in the 3k this year indoors (7:42 and 7:45) and has shown he can double back from a tough race by running a 3:55 mile the day after his 7:42 in Boston. If one of them misses out on the 3k team, they’d have a good shot at making the 1500 squad but they’d need to force the pace as neither has the standard.
There is a solution to that problem, however. It’s very likely that either Chelimo or Kipchirchir makes the 3k team. If we were Scott Simmons, we’d send out whichever guy made the 3k team and tell him to take the 1500 final out hard to ensure a fast pace and an opportunity for his teammates to hit the standard. Even if both of them make it, it’s still something they might do as Bor (7:44 this year) and Erassa (3:57/7:47) both need the standard and have outside shots to make the 1500 team. If both make it, we imagine they won’t even run this event.
LRC prediction: We are assuming that Kipchirchir and Chelimo will both make the 3k team and thus lHence, we’re going with Blankenship and Engels as the two men who advance to Worlds, though we’d still love to see how they match up against Chelimo in a 1500. We’d probably pick Chelimo to be honest. Blankenship 1, Engels 2.
Women’s 1500 (straight final Sunday, 5:42 p.m. ET)
Athletes in bold have the World Indoor standard (4:11.00 or 4:28.50 mile indoors in 2017 or 2018, or 4:02.00 outdoors in 2017)
|Rachel Schneider||4:06.90||4:27.30 mile||Coming off impressive 4:31/9:02 same-day, flat-track double on 2/3|
|Shannon Osika||4:06.17||4:27.55 mile||Has PR’d 2x in mile this year; 7th at USA outdoors in ’17|
|Cory McGee||4:06.67||4:27.67 mile||Made this team in ’16; coming off 4:08 indoor 1500 pb last week|
|Colleen Quigley||4:03.93||4:30.05 mile||2nd last year; won Wanamaker Mile 2 weeks ago|
|Kate Grace||4:03.59||4:30.08 mile||Made Worlds last year outdoors; 2nd in Wanamaker Mile|
|Kaela Edwards||4:10.46||4:33.98 mile||2016 NCAA mile champ also entered in 800|
|Shelby Houlihan||4:03.39||N/A||Defending champ ran 8:36 for 3k last week — #2 all-time US; doubling back from 3k|
|Lauren Johnson||4:04.17||4:31.63 mile||4th at USAs in ’17; 4th at Millrose but 10th + 11th in her other 2 miles in ’18|
|Sara Vaughn||4:04.56||4:31.98 mile||WC semifinalist was 6th at Millrose|
|Helen Schlachtenhaufen||4:11.15||4:32.17 mile||Dartmouth alum ran a 3-sec mile pb last week|
|Alexa Efraimson||4:03.39||4:32.73 mile||5th at USA outdoors last year. Still only 20 years old|
|Eleanor Fulton||4:10.41||4:34.22 mile||Only 12th at Dr. Sander Invite but ran indoor pb last week in Seattle; doubling back from 3k|
|Katie Mackey||4:03.81||4:35.50 mile||Ran 4:35 in ABQ earlier this year; 4th in the 2-mile at ’17 USA Indoors; doubling back from 3k|
This could wind up as a civil war between the Bowerman Track Club as three of the best women in the field — reigning champ Shelby Houlihan, Wanamaker Mile champ Colleen Quigley and Wanamaker Mile runner-up Kate Grace — all represent BTC. However, it’s quite possible that Houlihan — who two weeks ago ran the second-fastest indoor 3k ever by an American (8:36) — makes the 3k team on Saturday night. In fact, it’s very possible that the U.S. World Indoor squad at 1500 and 3000 will be entirely comprised of Bowerman Babes — Houlihan and Marielle Hall in the 3k, Quigley and Grace in the 1500. That’s a scenario that would set Jerry Schumacher‘s heart aflutter.
The Bowerman women are all outrageously talented — all three qualified for the 2016 Olympics in different events, though ironically, none of them did it the 1500 (Grace made it in the 800, Houlihan in the 5k, Quigley in the steeple). Still, you can make a viable case for all three BTC women to win the 1500 in Albuquerque. Quigley won the biggest race so far on the U.S. indoor circuit at Millrose. Houlihan has a big kick, is the defending champion and ran 8:36 two weeks ago. Grace probably should have won Millrose had she run a smarter tactical race, and she’s the only one of the three to make a U.S. team in the 1500 (which she did last year). Quigley is the only one of the trio without a U.S. title on the track, for what it’s worth.
We like Houlihan, not just because she ran 8:36 but because she closed that race in 28.6 seconds for her final 200. That is serious closing speed when she’s already running fast, and it should translate very well to the 1500. The biggest question mark about Houlihan is that she’d be doubling back from the 3k the night before, though we should point out that she won both events last year (albeit against weaker fields).
If Houlihan races here, it’s very possible that Houlihan makes both teams. Sifan Hassan, Genzebe Dibaba, Laura Muir, Hellen Obiri, and Beatrice Chepkoech are all likely to run World Indoors, making the 3k the stronger event. That extra competition hurts Houlihan’s medal chances, but Houlihan is also better at the 3k than the 1500. Plus, running 8:36 with a 28-second close makes her competitive to finish in the top three of any race. So we’d expect Houlihan to run the 3k at Worlds if she makes it, but the schedule at World Indoors (3k final day 1, 1500 semis day 2, 1500 final day 3) is amenable to a double — Dibaba has already announced she is running both events. Houlihan may be inclined to pass on the 1500 if one of her teammates is in line to replace her, but if that’s not the case (or even if it is), we could see her running both events at Worlds.
Of course, making the 1500 team is not a given, and Houlihan will have more than just her teammates to deal with. Four of the top five finishers from last year’s US outdoor champs return for this one (Grace, Sara Vaughn, Lauren Johnson, Alexa Efraimson). There’s also Cory McGee, who is running better in 2018 than she was when she made this team two years ago (her 2016 SBs were 4:09.97 and 4:30.93 indoors; this year, she’s run 4:27.67 and 4:08.84). Shannon Osika was 7th at USA outdoors last year and has PR’d twice in the mile this year, including a 4:27.55 that puts her #4 on the 2018 U.S. indoor list.
But based on 2018 form, the woman with the best chance to break up the Bowerman Babe hegemony is Rachel Schneider. In her 2018 opener, she clocked 4:27.30 at the Dr. Sander Invite — the fastest mile this year by anyone in the field — and followed that up with an incredible double. At Camel City on February 3, Schneider ran 9:02 to win the 3k and came back less than 30 minutes later to win the mile in 4:31. Then factor in that both races were on a flat track and that she CRUSHED McGee by over four seconds in the mile and you see how impressive it was. She’ll be fresh at USAs (she didn’t race last week and isn’t running the 3k in ABQ) and ready to roll.
One final note: the fastest female American miler of 2018 won’t be running in Albuquerque. That’s because the current #1 on the U.S. list is collegian Elinor Purrier of the University of New Hampshire, who ran 4:26.55 last week in Boston. If you’re wondering, it would be possible for Purrier to try the USA/Worlds/NCAA triple, but if she were somehow to make the team, it would require racing seven weekends in a row (and a whole lot of travel). Considering Purrier has never won an NCAA title (a drought she desperately wants to end next month) and probably wouldn’t make the U.S. team anyway, it’s smart that she’s opted to run a traditional college schedule.
LRC prediction: The more we think about it, the more scared we become of Shelby Houlihan and her kick. Do you remember when she destroyed everyone over the final 200 in the 2014 NCAA 1500 final? The 1500 is no longer her specialty, but she is still pretty damn good at it. We’re taking her for the win, assuming she doubles back after the 3k. We like Grace for second, assuming she fixes her tactics from Millrose but would love to see an underdog like Rachel Schneider make the team. Has an Under Armour mid-d athlete ever made a Worlds team?
Talk about the 1500 on our messageboard and tell us what you think will happen. MB: Make your picks for the 1500 at USAs: BB, Engels, Kidder or WCAP? Quigley, Houlihan, Grace, McGee, Osika or Schneider?