January 23, 2019
The 2019 professional indoor track & field season kicks off in earnest this weekend with the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix (NBIGP) in Boston — the first stop on the IAAF World Indoor Tour, and the only one that will take place outside of Europe. And distance fans are in for a treat, as some of the most exciting runners in the sport will be on display — Clayton Murphy, Donavan Brazier, Jenny Simpson, Emma Coburn, Konstanze Klosterhalfen, Edward Cheserek, and Yomif Kejelcha, just to name a few. Plus there’s the New Balance professional debuts of 19-year-old sprint phenom Sydney McLaughlin, NCAA indoor 200 record holder Gabrielle Thomas of Harvard, and American indoor 400 record holder Kendall Ellis.
It’s going to be a great weekend of track & field as the Dr. Sander Invitational / Columbia Challenge, which includes a 4 x mile world record attempt and an American HS record attempt by Katelyn Tuohy in the 3k, will also be taking place in New York at the Armory on Saturday, and LetsRun.com will have on-site coverage from both meets. If you can’t make it to one of the meets yourself, you can watch them remotely. The NY meet is on NBC Sports Gold (subscription needed) from 12-3 p.m. ET while the NBIGP is on NBC Sports Network from 5-7 p.m. ET on Saturday (NBC Sports Gold subscribers can also stream the meet live online).
We’ll also have insight from the pros from Friday’s press conference, but before then we wanted to give a quick rundown of the races to watch in Boston on Saturday. We list them below in chronological order.
Women’s 600 (5:03 p.m. ET)
This is a race that Raevyn Rogers should win. The 22-year-old had an outstanding first season as a pro last year, finishing 2nd at USA Indoors and Outdoors, 5th at World Indoors and #6 in our World Rankings; she also lowered her PR from 1:59.10 to 1:57.69. Rogers is also ideally suited to the 600 as she was a star on the 4×400 in college (who could forget her famous anchor leg to clinch the NCAA title for Oregon in 2017?) and holds the NCAA 600 record at 1:26.34 from 2016.
In fact, Rogers is so good that we expect her to win this race easily. Which is unfortunate, because one of the only women in the country who could beat her — her training partner, Ajee’ Wilson — is also racing a 600 this weekend at the Dr. Sander Invite in New York.
That’s right. The two best American women in this event, who have the same coach, are racing the same distance on the same day. But instead of racing each other, they’ll be racing at two separate meets 200 miles apart. Why? Because Rogers’ agent is Mark Wetmore — who just so happens to be in charge of the professional fields at the NBIGP. And Wilson’s agent is Ray Flynn — who just so happens to be in charge of the professional fields at the Dr. Sander Invite.
LRC prediction: Rogers FTW.
This is our pick for Race of the Night. Obviously the big story here for American fans is the battle of the two Nike Oregon Project teammates: Brazier, the US indoor champ, vs. Murphy, the US outdoor champ. But don’t sleep on Spain’s Saúl Ordóñez, who earned World Indoor bronze and ran 1:43 in Monaco last year.
Last year, it took Murphy a few indoor races to get up to speed after joining the NOP; will Brazier, a famously low mileage guy (before this meet last year, he told us he’d never run farther than 7.6 miles) suffer the same growing pains in his first year with the group?
More than anything, we’re just excited to see three studs on the track at the same time. The 800 is already a hectic event, and when you tighten the turns (and run twice as many of them) in an indoor race, positioning becomes even more crucial. Does Brazier, whose 1:45.10 indoor pb is just .10 off the American record, just go to the front and try to blast this thing? Or does he try to play sit and kick on Murphy — an incredibly tough guy to get around once he’s in control of the race up front? And how does Ordóñez factor into all this? We can’t wait to find out.
LRC prediction: We’ll take Murphy’s tactical savvy over Brazier’s raw speed, but this should be a good one.
Women’s 300 (5:34 p.m. ET)
To be run as a two-section final.
The women’s 300 is LOADED. It includes NCAA indoor 200 record holder Gabrielle Thomas, who is still a Harvard undergraduate but is running as a pro during her senior year (this is her pro debut — she runs for New Balance), US and NCAA indoor 400 record holder Kendall Ellis (also a new New Balance pro), and US outdoor 400 champ Shakima Wimbley, who earned silver at World Indoors last year in the 400. If that’s not enough for you, it also includes 2016 world junior 100 champ Candace Hill, still just 19, who is trying to resurrect her career after enduring an awful 2018 during which she only ran 11.43 (her pb is 10.98).
This could be the race of the day if it only included Sydney McLaughlin (more on that later in this article).
Women’s mile (5:50 p.m. ET)
Coburn is the biggest name in this field, but she’s far from a lock to win this race. Ethiopian Dawit Seyaum, who won the 1500 here a year ago and claimed World Indoor silver in 2016, has the fastest PR in the field at 3:58.09. If she’s close to her best, she should win; if not, this race is wide open. Canada’s Gabriela Stafford, now training under Laura Muir‘s coach Andy Young, ran a Canadian indoor record of 14:57 for 5k three weeks ago in Glasgow. Her 1500 PB is 4:03.55 (Coburn’s is 4:05.10). Elinor Purrier is the NCAA mile champ, Aisha Praught was second to Seyaum here a year ago and 6th at World Indoors, and Brenda Martinez is always in the mix. Coburn, of course, is the reigning world champ in the steeple, while her training partner Kaela Edwards has impressive speed (1:59, 4th at USAs in the 800 last year) and mile chops (2016 NCAA champ).
LRC prediction: On paper, Seyaum is the class of this field, so we’ll take her FTW. But if she falters, Stafford wins.
Women’s 5,000 (6:00 p.m. ET)
We’ll have more on this race after Friday’s press conference as we’re interested to know what Simpson is doing running the 5k here. Apart from this meet (which is a sponsorship obligation), Simpson doesn’t run indoor track, so it’s not uncommon for her to race odd distances — she did the 2-mile in 2014 and 2015 and the DMR in 2017. But she hasn’t run a 5k at any meet, indoors or out, since running her PR of 14:56 in Zurich in August 2013 (she was also the US 5k champ that year, shown above). Is Simpson running this because she wants to challenge Shalane Flanagan‘s US indoor record of 14:47.62? Is it because, at 32, Simpson wants to test the waters for an eventual move to the 5k?
We don’t know, but we’re excited to see how she does, especially since she has some genuine competition in Germany’s Konstanze Klosterhalfen, who is now training with the Nike Oregon Project. Klosterhalfen, still just 21, has gaudy PRs of 1:59/3:58/8:29, and her range extends up to the 5k, where she’s run 14:51. What can she manage after a 2:43/4:29 1k/mile double in Seattle two weeks ago?
Also, can we give props to Stephanie Bruce? Bruce is running her first indoor race EVER at the age of 35, and she’s doing it after running two marathons in the last two months (a 2:30:59 in New York in November and a 2:29:20 in Sacramento in December). In fact, this will be just her second 5,000 on any kind of track since she ran her PR of 15:49 back in 2012.
LRC prediction: We try to study the sport here at LetsRun.com, but we honestly have no idea what to expect out of Jenny Simpson in an indoor 5k in January. But she hasn’t lost at this meet since she miscounted her laps back in 2014, so we like her to win here — if she can keep track of her laps (there are 25, Jenny!). That being said, Klosterhalfen is just 21, has already raced indoors, and has a 14:51 pb, so it wouldn’t shock us to see her win as the Nike Oregon Project has never been shy about hitting it hard indoors.
Men’s mile (6:32 p.m. ET)
Two-time Olympic medalist Nick Willis is easily the most accomplished miler in this field, and while we know Willis is gearing up for Millrose in two weeks — he’s never won the Wanamaker Mile in six tries — we can’t pick him to win here at age 35. Not with Kejelcha in the field, who just ripped a 3:52 mile in Seattle two weeks ago — less than an hour after beating Clayton Murphy in a 1k. Kejelcha is a stud and we’re not betting against him. Plus we aren’t sure Willis is in super shape as he lost to an 18-year-old in an 800 in New Zealand over the weekend (Samuel Tanner ran 1:49.42 to Willis’ 1:50.05).
Bethwell Birgen (bronze in the 3k at World Indoors last year behind Kejelcha) is another guy to watch, while 2017 NCAA XC champ Justyn Knight will run his first race in a Reebok singlet after turning pro last year.
LRC prediction: We’re confident Kejelcha wins. We’re more interested in how fast he can run. Edward Cheserek ran 3:49 in Boston last year (#2 all-time indoors), and Kejelcha is way more accomplished than Cheserek. Kejelcha is likely capable of something similar, but considering Cheserek ran that race on a faster track (Boston University) in a race geared around him (he was the only finisher), it will be tough for Kejelcha to beat that mark.
Men’s 3,000 (6:40 p.m. ET)
Speaking of Cheserek, he’s taking on Hagos Gebrhiwet in the 3k (wouldn’t it be fun if Kejelcha was in this race too?), which we hope will be more competitive than it was in 2018. That’s not to say we didn’t love last year’s race — seeing Cheserek smoke a couple of Olympic medalists less than 24 hours after running a 3:49 mile was the highlight of the meet — but Gebrhiwet really should have put up a better fight last year.
The week before he ran in Boston in 2018, Gebrhiwet ran a 3k in Karlsruhe, Germany, where he ran 7:37 and closed in 25.73. At the NBIGP, he could only manage a 7:41, closing in 30.29. Yes, he had to fly across the Atlantic in between, but he also didn’t have a 3:49 mile in his legs the night before.
Still, Gebrhiwet is a big-time stud — he’s medalled at three of the last four global championships outdoors and ran 12:45 in the Diamond League final last year, #5 on the all-time list. We don’t expect him to be in 12:45 shape right now, but if he’s fit, Cheserek will have his hands full. And the good news is that Gebrhiwet appears to be fit as he beat 12:43 5k guy Selemon Barega to win the Campaccio XC meet in Italy on January 5.
All of this is assuming, of course, that Cheserek is also in the kind of shape he was this time last year. He did look impressive in November, breaking the course record at the Manchester Road Race on Thanksgiving, but hasn’t raced since. If he’s not in top shape, this is Gebrhiwet’s for the taking.
LRC prediction: As impressive as Cheserek was last year, Gebrhiwet is the better runner with a SIGNIFICANTLY better resume. He’s a 12:45 guy, for crying out loud. That being said, we think indoors means more for Cheserek and he’s not yet eligible for Worlds outdoors so we’re picking him FTW. But that’s risky as we don’t know if Cheserek is crushing it and in shape.
Women’s 500 (6:54 p.m. ET)
No, do not adjust your screen. That’s really the field that Sydney McLaughlin is lining up against in her professional debut. McLaughlin, one of the biggest young stars in the sport, rumored to have signed one of the biggest contracts ever for a female athlete, is running a distance no one ever runs (500) against two 800-meter runners and someone named Dalanne Zanotelli — who is also entered in the 600 earlier in the evening and is so little-known that her name is spelled wrong on the meet website.
This isn’t meant as a shot at McLaughlin’s competitors, but this is clearly set up as a race for McLaughlin to win which is disappointing to us as fans of the sport. Listen, we understand that there are reasons for McLaughlin to run this glorified exhibition instead of racing some real studs in the 300 . This is New Balance’s showcase meet, shown on national TV, and they want their biggest investment to come away with a victory in the final race of the night. It’s also possible that this is McLaughlin’s only indoor race on the calendar, and she doesn’t want to have to strain herself when her biggest race of the year isn’t until October at Worlds. We’re sure that there are a bunch of people who will show up to the meet to see McLaughlin win and won’t care who she’s racing.
But for serious fans of the sport, it’s disappointing to see McLaughlin run the 500 and her biggest competitors — Thomas, Ellis, and Wimbley — run the 300 earlier in the meet. Everyone loved Usain Bolt, but one of the major criticisms of his career — especially the second half of it — is that he wouldn’t race his top competitors until Worlds/Olympics. The watered-down fields Mo Farah normally faced in track races in the UK drove us nuts as well. We’re hoping those type of things don’t become the norm for McLaughlin, but this isn’t a great start.
Stars ducking each other is unfortunately common in our sport but to do it in your very first race as a pro is taking things to a new level and it sends the wrong message. In this day and age of photo-shopped Instagram fakery, it would do the world some good for a celebrity (and McLaughlin is one) to just show up in a real race and get beat, instead of
photoshopping pre-arranging a win so that she and her sponsors look good. Last year at NCAA indoors, McLaughlin got smoked by Thomas in the 200 (22.38 to 22.80) and it certainly didn’t irreparably harm McLaughlin’s image or marketability.
Everyone behind this decision — and we don’t know exactly who is responsible, be it New Balance, meet management, McLaughlin, or her agent — please remind yourself there is nothing wrong with losing. LeBron James didn’t win it all as a rookie, nor did Michael Jordan. Tom Brady was a backup. They went on to do pretty well, didn’t they?
LRC prediction: McLaughlin FTW. Duh.