February 23, 2019
Drew Hunter won his first national title while standing by the side of the track.
In a finish that only track & field could deliver, Hunter, who three hours earlier had run 8:25.29 in the “slow” section of the men’s 2-mile at the 2019 USATF Indoor Championships, was standing just past the finish line at the Ocean Breeze Athletic Complex, barely able to contain his excitement as the runners in the “fast” section hit the bell in 8:04.44. As he watched the seconds tick upwards, his competition chasing an impossible 21-second final 200, Hunter bobbed up and down, an incredulous smile stretching across his face as he motioned toward the clock just past the finish line. 8:23…8:24…8:25…
“I’ve got it!” he yelled.
Seven seconds later, Eric Avila broke the tape in 8:32.41 to win the “fast” section, but Hunter was the one celebrating, jumping up and down as the words “Drew Hunter, national champion” began to sink in.
It was a truly ridiculous situation, the product of some forward thinking by Hunter and his Tinman Elite group and a colossal blunder by the athletes in the second section, none of whom seemed to realize what was going on until it was too late.
So how did we arrive here, with a guy with no seed time or qualifying mark — Hunter had not run a single indoor race in 2019 — as the national champion?
Because so many athletes (23) hit the USATF auto standard, USATF decided to run the 2-mile as a two-section final. Sixteen athletes were placed in the “fast” section, but because Hunter had not run a qualifying time, he was not one of them (we explain why he was allowed in the meet at all later in the article). Instead, he had to run the “slow” section, which was contested at 4:47 p.m. three hours before the “fast” section.
But because this was a two-section final, all times run in the “slow” section would count toward an athlete’s overall placing. The winner of the US 2-mile title would be the athlete with the fastest time — regardless of which section they ran it in.
Knowing this, Hunter and his Tinman Elite teammates Joseph Berriatua and Jeff Thies worked together to try and set up Hunter for a fast time. Berriatua and Thies towed Hunter through 1618 meters in 4:18.25, at which point he took off and slammed his final 1600 meters home in 4:07 for a time of 8:25.29. That is the time the winner of the “fast” section would have to beat in order to be crowned national champion.
Yet a quarter of the way through the “fast” section, no one seemed to be concerned with this fact. The leader, the BAA’s Jacob Thomson, hit 818 meters in 2:13.78 — 8:46 2-mile pace. Someone would have to pick it up soon or risk having a national title slip through their fingers.
But no one did. The US Army’s Lawi Lalang took over the lead, but could only manage a 33.35. Too slow — Hunter’s pace was 31.39 per lap. A 33.11, 32.99, and 33.12 took Lalang to 1618 meters in the lead at 4:26.51, and by that point, Hunter was essentially assured of the win — someone would have to close in sub-3:59 for their final 1600 meters to beat his time.
Finally, Ocean State AC’s Collin Leibold sprung to life with seven laps to go, taking the lead and dropping a 29.99 to hit 2018 meters in 5:29.29. But it was too little, too late. They were all racing for second.
Avila eventually won that race, using a big move on the back straight of the final lap to pull away and win the section. But he would not stand atop the podium today. That honor went to Hunter, who earned his first national title in a manner that he’ll never forget.
Quick Take: Hunters’ teammates offered to pace him without any prompting from their coach
Afterwards we spoke at length with Tom Schwartz, aka “Tinman,” the coach of Drew Hunter and the Tinman Elite team. Schwartz ate dinner with his runners last night. At the end of the meal, he was prepared to ask Berriatua and Thies if they would be willing to help Hunter out, but he didn’t even have to ask them. They suggested it on their own to him and the plan was hatched to pace Hunter.
Quick Take: Hunter and Tinman Elite deserve a ton of credit
Hunter, his coach, and his teammates were the only ones who seemed to know what they were doing today. Rather than sulking about being in the slow section, they figured out a way to use it to their advantage and set the race up to put Hunter in a position to win. Though the first mile wasn’t quite as fast as they were hoping for (Schwartz wanted them to run the first mile in 4:14), the plan worked and Hunter became, at 21 years old, the USA champion. Kudos.
Schwartz said even though the first mile was a little slow, he still thought Drew had an 80% chance of winning the meet with his 8:25. He said a mile into the fast heat, he knew Drew had it won.
Thank you USATF for getting Hunter to stay around for fast heat
Immediatley after the race before talking to Schwartz, Hunter himself didn’t think he had done enought to win as he said, “We thought 8:22 would be the winning time so my goal was to run 8:20.” With the 2 mile not being run that often Hunter said of his 8:25, “I don’t even know if that’s good.” He knew however that he had put in a pretty good effort saying of the guys in the “fast” heat, “I tell you what, at least those guys are going to have to try a little bit.”
Turns out none of them really tried to beat Hunter’s time and it was national title #1 for Hunter and we expect he’ll have quite a few more.
Hunter inititally wasn’t going to stay around and watch the fast heat, but thankfully USATF encouraged him to stay which made for good TV. If he had won the 2 mile from the “b” heat and wasn’t in the building it would have been terrible television.
Videos with Hunter below.
Hunter after finding out he “won”:
Hunter after the “B” heat, not thinking his time would hold up:
Quick Take: The athletes and coaches in the second heat weren’t playing to win
As soon as USATF announced that there would be two sections, every athlete and coach in the second section NEEDS to know what the winning time was in the first section. And they also need to have a plan if the race goes out slowly and that time starts to slip away.
It’s a classic prisoner’s dilemma situation: no one wants to take a risk by being the one to do all the work at the front of the race. But someone has to do that work, or else everyone ends up going to jail. That’s what happened tonight.
Quite frankly, what happened tonight is inexcusable. We have to give Hunter a lot of credit — 8:25 is by no means a slow time. But several of the guys in tonight’s final were capable of running it, and none of them made a concerted effort to do so.
It’s not easy to run 8:25 from the front — even Hunter had help from his teammates. But becoming a national champion is not supposed to be easy. Everyone in the “fast” section knew what was required to win, and none of them were willing to do it. None of the guys in the “fast” section deserved to be a champion based on how they ran today.
Quick Take: Nice Run for Avila, Who Had No Idea He Didn’t Win the USATF Title Until After the Race — “I thought I won”
The fast section was full of guys who had never won a national title and it showed. None of them ran like their goal was winning the USATF title. Everyone was more content to try to win the race and lose the national title then try to win the national title and risk losing the race. Avila said, “I feel like I’m the national champion. I know that’s cliche to say but I really wish Drew was in that race. I would have loved to race him… I knew in this field I was not going to take the lead with this field with Sean and those guys.” He even added that before the race his coach Terrence Mahon gave him specific instructions: “You will not lead.” As a result, he was just in a zone during the race and had no idea what the splits were. He said when he crossed the line, “I thought I won,” until he saw everyone congratulating Drew.
Quick Take: With all that said; please, no more two-section distance finals at USAs
While tonight was undeniably entertaining, USATF really shouldn’t be running a two-section final at nationals in any race above 400 meters. Could you imagine if there was a Worlds team on the line and Hunter grabbed one of the spots from the “slow” section?
No, the best guys (and girls) should be racing each other head-to-head. USATF either needs to make the auto standard tougher or use the NCAA indoor qualifying system where it simply takes the top 16 athletes in each event. Yes, that makes it more difficult for athletes on the bubble to plan their trips to nationals. But at its core, USAs is about crowning national champions and selecting teams for Worlds, and those athletes rarely have trouble getting into the meet.
Quick Take: Here’s why Hunter was allowed to run without a qualifying time
Some of you might be wondering why Hunter was allowed into this meet at all considering he didn’t have a qualifying time. Well, it goes back to the two sections. Because so many people hit the auto standard (8:01.50 for 3k or 13:30.00 for 5k), USATF created a two-section final rather than put 23 guys on the track at the same time.
Because there were two sections, USATF chose to fill the field in the second section with athletes who had not qualified for the meet — just as USATF filled the field to 12 guys in the men’s mile after only four men hit the auto standard. If there was only one section with 16 auto qualifiers, Hunter would not have been in the meet.
This is also why Colleen Quigley was allowed into the women’s 2-mile without a time, which we explained in our meet preview; USATF High Performance Division Men’s Track & Field Committee chair Andrew Valmon confirmed that the same reasoning applied to Hunter earning a spot in the men’s 2-mile.