By Jonathan Gault
July 23, 2019
It’s been a long time coming, but the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships are finally here (Editor’s note: Although honestly, we think they should be held next month if the US wants to field the best team for Worlds), and there are World Championship spots on the line in every event. LetsRun.com will be on-site in Des Moines once the meet begins on Thursday, and to get you ready for the big meet, we’re previewing all the distance events in detail. Who will be the odd woman out in the 1500 meters? Will Clayton Murphy or Donavan Brazier prevail in the battle of the Oregon Project? Who steps up in Evan Jager‘s absence? The beauty of USAs is that no one can definitively answer any of those questions — though we’ll do our best to try.
One reminder before we continue our previews with the men’s 5,000 and 10,000: unlike in previous World Championship years, USATF is not allowing athletes to chase the IAAF standard in 2019. That means that if an athlete in the top three doesn’t have the standard by the end of USAs, their spot on Team USA will pass to the next-highest finisher with the standard.
Also be sure to enter our $200,019 LRC Running Warehouse Prediction Contest. It’s totally free to enter and our friends at Running Warehouse are giving away three pairs of HOKA ONE ONE Clifton 6 and two $100 gift certificates to the top finishers. Enter here.
Men’s 10,000: Four men race for three spots
Final: Thursday, July 25, 10:29 p.m. ET
Athletes with IAAF standard (27:40.00): Kirubel Erassa, Leonard Korir, Shadrack Kipchirchir, Lopez Lomong
There are 24 men entered in Thursday night’s 10,000, the first men’s final on the track, but this is, in essence, a four-man race since only four Americans have the IAAF standard and the IAAF doesn’t use the global descending order list to fill the field in the 10,000 meters at Worlds. That means that unless someone else can break 27:40 in Thursday in the Des Moines heat (spoiler alert: not happening), the three-man US team will be some combination of Kirubel Erassa, Leonard Korir, Shadrack Kipchirchir, and Lopez Lomong.*
*Lomong, as the reigning NACAC champion, is considered to have achieved the standard as long as he gains approval from the IAAF’s Technical Delegates, “based on the athlete’s level.” What exactly that requires is unclear, but I’m betting a top-three finish at USAs will satisfy them.
So it’s not the most wide-open race of the meet in terms of who will make the team. But that’s not to say that it’s predictable. Any of those four men could men could win the race, and any four of them could miss out on the team entirely. The case for and against all four:
Kirubel Erassa, 26 years old, American Distance Project – 3:38/13:17/27:32 this year
The case for him: Erassa had mostly been known as a 3k/5k guy until this year, but he ran 27:52 in poor conditions in Stockholm on May 30 — shaving almost two minutes from his PR — and slashed a further 20 seconds off in Nijmegen two weeks later. He beat Kipchirchir and Korir by 29 and 32 seconds, respectively, in Stockholm, and beat Korir again in Nijmegen (though by only 1.12 seconds). He’s in the form of his life having set PRs at 1500 (3:38), 3k (7:47), and 5k (13:17) also this year.
The case against him: He’s never come close to making a US team on the track. His best finish is 13th in the 5k in 2017. While an NCAA runnerup in the 3000 once, he never finished higher than 69th in cross country.
Leonard Korir, 32 years old, US Army WCAP – 13:15/27:20 pbs – 13:39/27:34 this year
The case for him: Korir made the Olympic and World teams in 2016 and 2017 and his 27:34 in Nijmegen puts him just behind Erassa on the 2019 US list. He’s already finished in the top three at three US championships so far this year (cross country, 15k, half marathon) and has used his kick to win several races in the past (including USA XC in 2017 and 2018, outkicking Galen Rupp in the latter).
The case against him: Korir finished last among the ADP/WCAP trio in Stockholm, and adding Lomong into the mix could make him the odd man out. Will his kick, so dangerous in XC and on the roads, hold up against his more speed-oriented opponents on the track?
Shadrack Kipchirchir, 30 years old, American Distance Project – 13:18/27:07 pbs. 28:21 this year.
The case for him: Kipchirchir has finished 2nd at USAs three straight years and is the third-fastest American ever, at 27:07. In 2019, he’s already won national titles in XC and on the roads (15k) in 2019 and was the top US finisher at world xc (34th).
The case against him: Kipchirchir has raced just once since March, and he didn’t look great, running 28:21 in Stockholm.
Lopez Lomong, 34 years old, Bowerman Track Club
The case for him: A two-time US champ at 1500 meters, Lomong has the best speed in the field, even at 34. That’s what allowed him to kick to the win in this race last year, and his times this year (3:37 and 13:25, both wins) show that he’s fit right now.
The case against him: Lomong isn’t a true 10k guy — he had never run the distance before last year, and his PR is only 28:21. If the winning time is below 28:00, does he have the strength to hang?
If I were Scott Simmons — coach of Erassa, Korir, and Kipchirchir — I’d be urging my guys to work together to keep Lomong off the team. Last year, Kipchirchir made a hard move midway through the race, but couldn’t sustain it. He let Lomong hang around, and Lomong blew him away with a 54.16 last lap. The winning time in that race was 28:58.
Both Erassa and Korir have run well under 28:00 this year, and Kipchirchir has done so in the past (this plan is contingent on Kipchirchir being close to his best). Lomong’s PR is 28:21. Maybe he handles a hard pace just fine. But we know Lomong can kick well off a slow pace. Considering Lomong is the only other guy with a realistic shot to make the team, it makes sense for Simmons to construct a game plan specifically designed to defeat him. And forcing a hard pace from the early stages seems like the best approach. If Lomong runs 27:55 and still outkicks the ADP guys, fair enough. But you can’t let him jog along at 29:00 pace and blow everyone away over the last lap like last year.
The high in Des Moines on Thursday is 82 degrees, but the race isn’t until 9:29 p.m. local time (sunset is at 8:39) when the temperature should roughly be 75-6 with a dewpoint of 61-62, so the top guys should be able to run fairly fast if they get the pace going early.
JG prediction: Any combination of the above four guys as the team to Doha is feasible, and they will likely finish as your top four in some order. I’ll take Lomong, Kipchirchir, and Erassa to grab the spots on Team USA. I like what Lomong has shown so far in 2019, so I’ll pick him to repeat as champion.
Men’s 5,000: Chelimo, then who?
Final: Sunday, July 28, 7:23 p.m. ET
Athletes with IAAF standard (13:22.50): Paul Chelimo (13:05 sb), Ben True (13:09 sb), Kirubel Erassa (13:17 sb), Drew Hunter (13:21 sb), Josef Tessema (13:22 sb), Hassan Mead (13:23 sb), Hillary Bor (13:09 indoors)
As in the 10k, having the standard going in is important here as the winning time at USAs has been under 13:22.50 just twice in the last 12 years. This race, which will be staged in the sun on Sunday (high of 87 in Des Moines), doesn’t seem likely to break the trend. Of the key guys without the standard, maybe Lawi Lalang tries to drive the pace early. Maybe his training mate Paul Chelimo does it for him. I don’t see Lomong, Grant Fisher, or Riley Masters doing it. Realistically, the seven guys who already have the standard will be the ones duking it out for the top three spots.
As usual, what unfolds earlier in the meet will have an impact on the outlook of this race. If Erassa or Lomong looks terrific in the 10k, their chances in the 5k go up — though Lomong needs the 5k standard, of course (with two days of rest in between, the 5k/10k is a tough but manageable double). Hillary Bor, the favorite in the steeple, is also a threat if he runs this, and that double is doable, both at USAs (steeple final Saturday) and at Worlds (the 5k final is Day 4; steeple prelims being on Day 5). But the 5k could just as easily be an insurance plan for those guys, meaning we could see some scratches between now and Sunday evening. (Worth noting: Lomong is entered in the 1500, 5k, and 10k. There’s no way he runs all three.)
Chelimo is the overwhelming favorite here and one of the biggest locks in any distance event. Since the start of 2017, he’s a perfect 5-0 in US finals on the track (including indoors), and most of those races haven’t been close. He’s the only American with a realistic medal shot in the 5k in Doha, and has been a cut above the rest of the US 5,000-meter runners for the last 2+ years. After his runner-up finish in the 2-mile at the Pre Classic, there’s no reason to bet against him here.
The battle for second and third should be fascinating, though, since neither of the other two guys on Team USA in 2017 — Ryan Hill and Eric Jenkins — are entered this year (Jenkins due to injury; Hill, presumably, the same).
Outdoors, Chelimo is the US leader in 2019 at 13:05, Ben True is second at 13:09, and then there’s a sizeable gap to Erassa (13:17), the only other man under 13:20. That True is still in contention for a US team on the track at age 33 is impressive, but perhaps not surprising. (Yes, I know Bernard Lagat won the Olympic Trials at 41 but Lagat is not normal.) Though True has made only one US team outdoors, he’s been remarkably consistent over the past decade, running 13:12 or better in each of the last seven years and finishing 4th, 2nd, 5th, and 4th in four USA 5,000 appearances during that span.
But let’s face it: if Hill and Jenkins were healthy and at their best, they’d be favored to make this team over True. Both are younger, and both are better kickers (remember, Jenkins was 3rd in the 1500 at USAs last year). The question now is whether another kicker or two rises up to take their place.
One such candidate is Drew Hunter. Only 21 years old, Hunter won USAs in the 2-mile indoors (albeit under strange circumstances) and has looked solid this year outdoors, clocking a 3k pb of 7:39 in Oslo last month. However, he’s come up short in three attempts to hit the World standard in the 1500 (3:37 was his best), has never broken 13:21, and has never raced a 5k outside of Stanford, let alone a US final. Hunter is fearless, but this is a big step up for him.
Hassan Mead was an Olympian in 2016 and always brings his A game at USAs — between the 5k and the 10k, he’s finished in the top three at this meet five straight years. He hasn’t shown anything particularly special this year (3:40/13:23 SBs) and was beaten convincingly by Lomong in his last two races. But given his pedigree, he’s not a bad bet to finish in the top three.
There’s also Fisher, the collegiate star, but he looked bad in his last race (11th in the 1500 at Stumptown Twilight) and has had a long season. I feel more confident in his Bowerman TC teammate, Woody Kincaid, who has great wheels and beat Fisher head-to-head at the Sunset Tour meet earlier this month. Both men lack the standard, however. Even if one sneaks into the top three, they are unlikely to make it to Doha.
JG prediction: Chelimo will have no problem handling this field. I’ll go with veterans True and Mead for the other two spots, though Bor presents an intriguing option, should he run.