AUSTIN, Tex. — You can’t help but feel bad for Grant Fisher.
Tactically, he ran a perfect race in tonight’s 5,000-meter final at the 2019 NCAA Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
He closed his final lap in a scorching 53.61 seconds — a full two seconds faster than his final lap when he won this race two years ago, even though his overall time tonight was almost 30 seconds faster.
Yet as Jean-Luc Picard said, it is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That must be what it feels like racing against Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald, the incredible Aussie who ran 14:06.01 to Fisher’s 14:06.63 to become the sixth man to win an NCAA cross country, indoor, and outdoor track title in the same academic year.
— NCAA Track & Field (@NCAATrackField) June 8, 2019
McDonald ran tonight’s race in much the same way that Mo Farah has dominated the global 5,000-meter scene in the 2010s, moving to the front with six laps to run and controlling the race from the front of the pack. And even though he lost the lead when Fisher made a hard move at the bell, McDonald was prepared.
“I was okay with that,” McDonald said. “Because I’ve raced Grant so many times, I thought that he might fight pretty hard for the lead before the last 100 because at Millrose, that’s how he beat me. And then at [NCAA] indoors, I had the lead and he wasn’t able to pass me. So I thought in his mind, there was going to be a big thing about making sure he had the lead at 400 or 300 to go.
“And I’ve watched videos of him race in the past. For example, two years ago, him and Justyn Knight on the backstretch, they used a lot of energy. So I didn’t want to get caught up in that. I wanted to make sure that I was right on his shoulder that whole last lap and pushing him, but still keeping something for that last 100.”
Turns out, McDonald had a lot left. After shadowing Fisher around the final turn as the two men broke away from the rest of the pack, McDonald hit top gear with 75 meters to go and blew by Fisher. The move was so decisive that he could afford to jog it in over the final 10 meters, yet even with that deceleration, McDonald ran his final 400 in 52.91 seconds, truly world-class stuff. Farah’s last laps in his last three global 5,000-meter titles? 53.4, 52.5, and 52.7.
“It’s weird, you know, because it doesn’t feel like it was that crazy,” McDonald said. “But I just graduated and everything was focused on this race, but now it’s looking forwards and World Champs is on my radar. So of course I want to be competitive there, so that’s the type of stuff that I’ve gotta be able to do.”
McDonald’s final year at Wisconsin was eerily similar to that of Oregon’s Galen Rupp 10 years ago. Both men entered their fifth and final year of NCAA eligibility with no NCAA titles, but ended it as unstoppable winning machines. Though Rupp ended up with six titles to McDonald’s four (Rupp anchored Oregon’s winning DMR indoors and won the 10k outdoors, in addition to earning the XC, indoor 3k/5k, and outdoor 5k McDonald earned in 2018-19), neither man lost an NCAA final as a senior.
Those four NCAA titles make McDonald a bona fide Wisconsin legend — among Badgers men’s distance runners, only Chris Solinsky (5) has more NCAA titles than McDonald. But to McDonald, it still hasn’t sunk in that he is now on level footing with the men he views as heroes. Even today, he psyched himself up for the race by watching Solinsky’s 10,000-meter American record from 2010.
“I have a lot of pride in being part of the Wisconsin Badger family, but I still look at these guys as being levels above me and I still see them as idols I want to try and reach,” McDonald said.
1 Morgan MCDONALD SR Wisconsin 14:06.01
2 Grant FISHER SR Stanford 14:06.63
3 Thomas RATCLIFFE SO Stanford 14:07.92
4 Gilbert KIGEN SR Alabama 14:08.12
5 Edwin KURGAT JR Iowa State 14:08.26
6 Clayton YOUNG SR BYU 14:09.00
7 Conner MANTZ SO BYU 14:09.20
8 Kyle MAU JR Indiana 14:09.62
9 Robert BRANDT JR UCLA 14:10.19
10 Geordie BEAMISH JR Northern Arizona 14:13.18
11 Ian SHANKLIN FR NC State 14:13.57
12 Peter SEUFER JR Virginia Tech 14:13.91
13 Morgan BEADLESCOMB SO Michigan State 14:17.59
14 John DRESSEL JR Colorado 14:18.03
15 Luis GRIJALVA SO Northern Arizona 14:20.86
16 Kigen CHEMADI JR Mid. Tenn. State 14:22.92
17 Aaron TEMPLETON SR Furman 14:24.41
18 Brodey HASTY FR Northern Arizona 14:25.54
19 Azaria KIRWA SR Liberty 14:27.38
20 Brian ZABILSKI SR Columbia 14:29.13
21 Zach LONG SR Tennessee 14:52.83
22 Cooper TEARE SO Oregon 15:04.51
23 Luke LANDIS JR Ohio State 15:16.00
Noah PERKINS JR North Florida DNF
As for Fisher, he’ll go down as the Paul Tergat to McDonald’s Haile Gebrselassie during his senior campaign. Today’s race marked the fourth time Fisher has finished second in an NCAA final this year. Three of those defeats were to McDonald; the fourth came to Notre Dame’s Yared Nuguse — who won the NCAA 1500 title today — on the anchor leg of the DMR indoors.
Fisher knows better than anyone how good McDonald has been this year, and after the race, he could do nothing but tip his cap to his rival.
“He ran a great race,” Fisher said. “I wouldn’t say I ran a bad race. I think I actually ran pretty well today. Sometimes you’re in a race and someone runs better. That’s been the case a lot this year against Morgan.”
Fisher said from a tactical standpoint he did exactly what he wanted — get the lead before the bell and shove it hard, since McDonald has a very good last 100. While Fisher lost, he thinks he’s a better runner than in 2017 when he was an NCAA champion.
“I think if Morgan was in the field my sophomore year in the form that he’s in now, I probably wouldn’t have even been close to him. I’m really happy with this year. I think I’ve learned a lot as a runner and a person,” said Fisher.
The outcome may not have been what Fisher wanted for what was likely his final collegiate race (he has an indoor season of eligibility remaining, but is leaning against not using it). But his rivalry with McDonald was one of the best we’ve seen in the collegiate distance ranks for some time, with tonight’s final installment a fitting finale.
Post-race interview with Morgan McDonald
McDonald said that he is planning on continuing his season all the way through Worlds, but because they don’t start for another three-and-a-half months, he will take some time off. Next week, he’s going on vacation with his family to California, where they’ll tour Yosemite and take in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
Post-race interview with Grant Fisher
In addition to talking about the race and comparing his fitness to 2017, Fisher said he’d like to extend his season. “I feel pretty good right now so I’d love to extend it,” said Fisher, who added that USAs is “pretty late,” so reading between the lines it seems as if he might be headed off to Europe to try to PR before USAs.
Quick Take: The next Stanford distance star has arrived
With McDonald gone next year and Fisher likely gone too, the top returner for 2020 is Stanford sophomore Thomas Ratcliffe, who finally got to show what he could do on the NCAA stage. Ratcliffe ran 7:53 for 3k as a true freshman in January 2017, but spent the better half of the next 18 months sidelined with knee injuries that ultimately required two surgeries to repair his patellar tendon. Then, once he was finally able to piece together some healthy training last summer, he suffered a sacral stress fracture during Stanford’s fall training camp that caused him to miss the cross country season.
Ratcliffe took the quarter off from school, returning home to Massachusetts to rehab his injury. He admitted that he considered hanging up his spikes because of the mounting injuries, but credited his parents — both former runners — for continuing to believe in him.
“Their continued faith in me is what kind of brought me through,” Ratcliffe said.
Clearly that faith was well-placed as Ratcliffe ran a terrific race in his first NCAA track final (he ran NCAA XC in 2016 but dropped out). His 54.25 last lap was the fastest in the field save for McDonald and Fisher; those two, both NCAA champions, were the only guys who finished ahead of Ratcliffe tonight. And Ratcliffe did this off of just six months of healthy training after injury-plagued 2017 and 2018 seasons. If he can stay healthy moving forward, he could join Fisher (2017) and former teammate Sean McGorty (2018) as NCAA 5,000m champs from Stanford.
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