2019 USAs Men’s 800, 1500 and Steeple Preview: NOP Stars Brazier & Murphy Battle in 8; Engels Tries to Topple Centro in 15 & Jager is MIA in Steeple
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 kick off our previews with a look at the men’s 800, 1500, and steeplechase: 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 800: Brazier vs. Murphy at USAs at last as Hoppel’s win streak is put to the test
Prelims: Thursday, July 25, 7:47 p.m. ET
Semis: Friday, July 26, 7:32 p.m. ET
Final: Sunday, July 28, 7:02 p.m. ET
It wouldn’t be fair to compare Donavan Brazier and Clayton Murphy to Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather in the late 2000s, considering the Oregon Project teammates have already raced each other twice in 2019 alone. But we’re still waiting for the “superfight” between the US’s two biggest 800-meter stars, who have never raced each other in a US final. It should finally come in Des Moines on Sunday. A quick reminder of their history at USAs:
2016 Olympic Trials: Brazier and Murphy are drawn in the same prelim at Brazier’s first USAs, but the 19-year-old Brazier, just three weeks removed from his 1:43.55 collegiate record, finishes 4th and bombs out. Murphy wins the heat, the U.S. title, and an Olympic bronze in Rio.
2017 USA Outdoors: Murphy and Brazier both make the final, but Murphy is a DNS, the result of a hamstring injury aggravated while trying an audacious 800/1500 double. Brazier wins his first US title.
2018 USA Indoors: Murphy fails to make the final as Brazier wins his second US title.
2018 USA Outdoors: Murphy regains his US outdoor title; Brazier doesn’t compete due to an Achilles injury.
Now, finally, both men are healthy, in good form, and set for a collision course in the USA outdoor final.
Which man will win? Brazier goes off as the favorite. He’s the US leader at 1:43.63 (the only American under 1:44 this year), which he ran in becoming just the fourth American man to win a Diamond League 800 in Rome on June 6. He beat Murphy (1:44.59) in that race and is 2-0 against him on the year (Brazier also won indoors in Boston in January).
A few other things are working in Brazier’s favor. After struggling initially with rounds, he has shown he can get it done at USAs, winning in his last three appearances at the meet (2017 outdoors, 2018 indoors, 2019 indoors). He’s also looked a lot better tactically this year under new coach Pete Julian, showing more patience, maturity, and strength (3:37 for 1500) than in years past. The 800 is a tough event to master, but Brazier is making progress. Remember, he’s still only 22 — he’d just have finished up his senior year of college if he hadn’t gone pro early.
Murphy is hardly chopped liver, though. He doesn’t have a signature win this outdoor season like Brazier in Rome, but he’s raced well against a bunch of high-quality fields, finishing 5th, 3rd, and 5th in three Diamond League appearances. He has the mile strength to make it through the rounds (he ran 3:52 in Oslo in June) and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him topple Brazier in the final. Murphy vs. Brazier is also something of an Oregon Project civil war — though they are nominally teammates, Murphy is coached by Alberto Salazar and Brazier by Julian. Bragging rights are on the line.
The third spot on the team seems destined to go to Bryce Hoppel, the NCAA champ from Kansas who continues to rise to the occasion. Hoppel won all 19 of his collegiate races in 2019, and showed no rust racing against the pros at the Sunset Tour meet on July 9, taking down Craig Engels to win there in 1:44.48. Beating Brazier and Murphy might be too much to ask of the 21-year-old, but it’s clear Hoppel has yet to reach his ceiling.
Of course, this is the 800, where it only takes one dumb move to submarine your chances. Brazier, Murphy, and Hoppel, as the only men in the field to have broken 1:45 this year (Devin Dixon and Engels have also done it but aren’t running the 800 at USAs) are clearly the favorites to make the team but I can’t totally ignore someone like Isaiah Harris, who made the team in 2017. Harris missed a chunk of time this year due to an SI joint injury and has yet to break 1:46 this year, finishing 5th at the Eastern Track League final in Washington on July 13. Can he round into form in time to challenge the big boys at USAs?
Drew Windle also made the team in 2017 and earned World Indoor silver last year but hasn’t run faster than 1:46.88 outdoors since August 2017. Erik Sowinski is consistent (13 straight US finals between indoors and outdoors) but hasn’t broken 1:46 this year; he may not have the quality to make this team.
Two dark horses: Brannon Kidder, who has had a career year (PRs of 1:45.39/3:35.27) and Quamel Prince, who won the Eastern Track League final and ran a PR of 1:45.58 earlier this year.
JG prediction: The 800 is often unpredictable, but this seems pretty straightforward: Brazier, Murphy, and Hoppel are your team to Doha. Brazier is my pick FTW.
Men’s 1500: Engels comes at the king as Centro goes for #6
Prelims: Friday, July 26, 5:30 p.m. ET
Final: Sunday, July 28, 8:33 p.m. ET
Athletes with IAAF standard (3:36.00): Craig Engels, Matthew Centrowitz, Ben Blankenship, Johnny Gregorek, Clayton Murphy, Sam Prakel, Henry Wynne, Izaic Yorks, Brannon Kidder
In the last 90 years, Steve Scott is the only man to have won six US 1500-meter titles. Matthew Centrowitz can join the club with a win on Sunday, and Des Moines has been kind to him in the past: he has an NCAA title (2011) and two US titles (2013 & 2018) in his last three trips there for championship meets, and there’s even a restaurant downtown named for him (okay, it’s not actually named for him, and is pronounced CHEN-tro, but Centro has been known to frequent his namesake restaurant when he’s in town).
Centro has the highest ceiling and the best racing brain of anyone in this field. But the guy coming into USAs in the best form is his former Oregon Project teammate Engels (who has admitted the chance to train with Centro was one of the reasons he joined NOP in the first place). The 25-year-old won the US indoor title in February, beat Centrowitz (and every other American) by running 3:51 in the Bowerman Mile, and just ran a huge 800 pb of 1:44.68 on July 9. Engels came up .02 short of making the team in 2017, but he looks to be much fitter this year (he’s also run a 1500 pb of 3:35.32) and his kick is on point. The main goal will be to make the team, but the more interesting question is whether he can take down Centrowitz and win the whole thing.
It would be a huge shock if Centrowitz, who hasn’t missed a team since he started running USAs in 2010, fails to qualify for Doha. Engels looks like a good bet, but with 2017 champ Robby Andrews out of the meet, the third spot is totally up for grabs; last year at USAs, 2nd through 8th were separated by less than half a second, and we could see a similar situation in 2019.
The Brooks Beasts’ Henry Wynne sits atop the 2019 US rankings at 3:35.14 but he’s never even made a US final outdoors (though he was 2nd at USA indoors in February). His teammate Izaic Yorks was 2nd last year and will be a threat again in Des Moines. The enigmatic Ben Blankenship made the Olympic team in 2016 and the World Indoor team last year and is always in contention in US finals; he was just .25 behind Centrowitz at Pre. Johnny Gregorek‘s 3:49 mile in March was the fastest by any American since Alan Webb‘s American record in 2007; he was also the only American to make it to the World Championship final in 2017 and has one of the best kicks in the field.
There are also several guys double-entered: Murphy, Brazier, and Kidder in the 800/1500; Grant Fisher in the 1500/5k; Lopez Lomong in the 1500/5k/10k. Of those five, the only one I could seriously envision doing the 1500 is Kidder (even if Fisher and Lomong ran it, they wouldn’t be serious threats to make the team). Kidder, who has run 3:35 this year, could make the team, and Murphy would have a great shot as well. But Murphy’s best bet at a global medal is in the 800, and that’s the event I expect him to run at USAs.
One familiar face who won’t be running: Leo Manzano. After finishing in the top four at USAs 11 years in a row and bowing out in the semis the last two years, Manzano, who is 34 and hasn’t raced all year, will miss his first USAs since 2005.
JG prediction: Engels has been on fire, but Centro looks fit enough and is a better racer. Centro FTW, Engels 2nd, and Gregorek takes 3rd. That being said an Engels win wouldn’t be a shock. Remember in 2017, Robby Andrews took down a less than 100% Centro to win the US title.
Men’s steeplechase: With Evan Jager sidelined, Hillary Bor is the man now
Prelims: Thursday, 9:21 p.m. ET
Final: Saturday, 4:54 p.m. ET
Athletes with IAAF standard (8:29.00): Hillary Bor, Stanley Kebenei, Andy Bayer, Jordan Mann, Mason Ferlic, Obsa Ali, Travis Mahoney
After doing his best to get back to racing shape on the heels of a nagging foot injury, Evan Jager will not be defending his US title in Des Moines, meaning his dominance of the steeplechase (seven straight US titles) will temporarily be halted in 2019.
That clears the way for a new champion on Saturday — most likely 29-year-old Kenyan-American Hillary Bor. Bor owns the three fastest times by an American this year and has been in contention for the win at two Diamond Leagues this year, finishing second in Doha and 6th in Monaco. It would be a massive upset if he missed the team and a minor upset if he failed to win.
The next two spots appear fairly clear-cut on paper as only two other Americans have broken 8:20 this year: Bor’s training mate Stanley Kebenei (8:15) and Andy Bayer (8:16). No other American has run faster than 8:26. Kebenei, who finished 5th at Worlds in 2017, has made a team before. Bayer, famously, has not — he finished 4th at USAs in 2015, 2016, and 2017 (and was also 4th in the 1500 in 2012). Bayer actually beat Kebenei at USAs last year to finish 3rd, and with Jager out of the picture, it looks like his time has finally come.
There’s only one problem: Bayer hasn’t finished a race since June 11. We don’t know exactly what’s wrong with him, but he dropped out of his last race in Rabat on June 16. When you go six weeks between races before USAs, that’s usually not a good sign.
If Bayer is at 100%, he should make the team. Heck, even 90% may be enough to do it. If not, it will be a free-for-all for the third spot. Four other men (Jordan Mann, Mason Ferlic, Obsa Ali, Travis Mahoney) have the IAAF standard of 8:29.00, though that’s not totally relevant as it will almost certainly take faster than 8:29 to finish in the top three in the final.
Mann is the fastest of that group at 8:26, and it would be quite a story if he made the Worlds team. Last year, Mann, who once finished dead last at the Ivy League “Heps” cross country meet never finished higher than 5th in the steeplechase in the Ivy League during his collegiate career at Brown, was overjoyed to finish 5th at USAs because it meant he’d get to wear the USA singlet at the NACAC Championships. Now, thanks to Jager’s injury and the uncertainty surrounding Bayer, he’s a legitimate threat to make it to Doha.
But he’ll still have to get by former NCAA champs Ferlic and Ali, Mahoney (who has run 8:28 this year), and Indiana’s Daniel Michalski, who was battling it out for the win at NCAAs before wiping out on the final water jump.
NCAA champion Steven Fahy of Stanford is not running, instead choosing to prepare for the upcoming cross country season (he’s hoping to be granted a sixth year of eligibility). I wonder if he’s regretting that decision now that Jager is out, Bayer is questionable, and he doesn’t have a coach at Stanford.
JG prediction: Bor and Kebenei are easy picks for 1-2, in that order. If Bayer is healthy, I like him for third. If not, I’ll take Mann.