By Jonathan Gault
July 25, 2019
DES MOINES, Iowa — A lot of things happened on the first day of the 2019 Toyota USATF Outdoor Championships at Drake Stadium. There were nine track prelims, two track finals, three field finals, and half a decathlon — far too much to recap every single event.
1. Allyson Felix is back
That was Allyson Felix out there, all right, in heat 1 of the 400 meters, but I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t recognize her. Start with her jersey: black, unmarked — she has not had a sponsor since her Nike contract expired at the end of 2017.
Then there was the race itself. Felix, 33, ran 52.20 — only once has she run slower outdoors in her 16-year professional career. That race, a 52.44 at the 2017 World Championships, also came in a preliminary heat. But while Felix won that heat in London, she finished just fourth today and required a time qualifier to advance to tomorrow’s semifinals.
That’s right. Allyson Felix needed a time qualifier in the first round of USAs. Even Felix seemed a little surprised afterwards.
“I didn’t know,” she admitted, when informed she had advanced.
You’d have to go back to the 100 meters at the 2014 USA outdoor meet to find the last time Felix finished fourth or lower in a championship heat. Before today, she had never done it in the 400.
This may all sound a bit negative. Felix’s chances at making this year’s World Championship team are on life support. And after the race, she said that she felt she wasn’t “quite up to my standards.”
“Felt rusty,” Felix said. “Kind of to be expected. I mean, I haven’t raced in a long time so it’s going to take some time to get back into it.”
The things that came easily to Felix in her (very long) prime haven’t come quite as easily as Felix has worked her way back into shape following her emergency C-section in November, which caused daughter Camryn to be born early, 32 weeks into the pregnancy. Physically, it has been demanding. And off the track, Felix suddenly has much less time on her hands.
“I’m a regular mom,” Felix said. “I’m cleaning bottles, I’m changing diapers, and getting ready for races.”
One thing everyone can agree on: it was good to see Allyson Felix back on a track.
“Tonight I’m just grateful,” Felix said. “I’m grateful to be back racing. It’s a starting point. My biggest goal is next year.”
2. Remember me?
Felix wasn’t the only athlete to come into USAs after an extended break. Ronnie Baker, last year’s World Indoor silver medalist at 60 meters, hadn’t raced all year either after battling multiple injuries, and his race went a lot smoother than Felix’s. In fact, the 25-year-old Baker looked downright fast, cruising to an easy 10.26 wind (into a big 2.0 headwind) to win heat 3 of the 100 meters.
After a hamstring injury in January, Baker suffered a strained adductor which bothered him most of the spring. Even as recently as a month ago, he didn’t think he’d be able to run USAs this year. But things have progressed quickly since then, and here he is.
“It’s crazy, but it’s just like a divine purpose [that USAs is a month later than usual],” Baker said. “Like, there’s no other reason why it’s in July this year and I got injured twice in the span of two months.”
Olympic 400-meter hurdles champion Kerron Clement was running just his second race of 2019 after calf and hamstring injuries and a torn meniscus hampered him earlier in the year. You wouldn’t have been able to tell that by watching heat 4 today, as Clement won in 49.79.
Clement has a reputation for performing his best at the biggest meets — his two world titles, 2017 World Championship bronze, and Olympic gold and bronze attest to that — and thinks that he can still grab a medal in 2019, despite the presence of Rai Benjamin, Abderrahman Samba, and Karsten Warholm.
“When it comes to these big meets, I’m in a zone…I’ve always been right there on the podium,” Clement said. “So there’s no difference for this season or next season. I’m going to be on the podium.
3. Ce’Aira Brown wins heat despite having run 600m TOTAL in workouts since June
Ce’Aira Brown had raced several times this year, but none since June 16, when she ran 2:01 in Rabat. After that, she was diagnosed with a stress reaction in the calcaneus (heel) bone in her foot, forcing her to spend the next five weeks cross training — 90-120 minutes a day in the pool or on the exercise bike or elliptical.
Brown only resumed running six days ago and didn’t wear spikes again until Wednesday — her fastest speed work was a 400 in 62 seconds and a 200 in 30 in sneakers. She and coach Frank Gagliano actually debated running the 1500, fearing Brown’s speed might not be there yet, but after seeing her run yesterday, Gags decided on the 800.
Brown looked smooth in running 2:03.52 to win heat 3 today, but the real test will come over the next three days. Three races over four days represents a major challenge for someone who lost five weeks of training right before the meet.
4. Donavan Brazier’s longest run ever remains 8 miles — and he’s still never done a run longer than an hour
Brazier looked good, as expected, in winning heat 2 of the 800 today. But talk inevitably turned to his mileage (or lack thereof). Brazier was asked by Craig Masback what his longest run ever is. The answer? 8 miles (same as in January).
Brazier seemed bemused by the fascination with his answer.
“Why is that so, like, a crazy thing?” Brazier said.
Here’s why: Brazier ran 3:37 for 1500 meters on July 9. I feel fairly confident in saying that no one else in history has ever run that fast for 1500 meters without doing at least one run of an hour at some point in their life.
5. Kate Grace felt her best bet to make the team was in the 1500
One of the biggest questions heading into today was: Which event will Kate Grace run? Grace opted for the 1500 meters. So far, so good, as Grace won heat 1 in 4:10.33 to lead a Bowerman TC sweep — teammates Elise Cranny and Shelby Houlihan won heat 2 and 3.
Grace said that she was “majorly leaning” toward the 800 after she ran 1:59.58 to win at the Sunset Tour meet on July 9, and admitted that she’d probably have a better shot at a medal at Worlds in that event. But given that Grace has been training for the 1500, she feels more confident in the 1500 right now.
“I feel like I have this irrational belief that I would be great through rounds [in the 800], but I think if that were to happen, I would need a few more weeks of speedwork, just a few more weeks of working straight speed, just to make sure I was really firing,” Grace said. “…It just came down for training, right now, me making the team, [I] felt most confident in the 15, wanted to get it done.”
Clayton Murphy faced a similar choice, and opted for the 800 rather than the 1500. He said that, based on where his training is at and what was his best shot to succeed at USAs and Worlds, the 800 was the best choice for him (I agree).
6. Bryce Hoppel extends win streak to 21
Hoppel had won all 20 of his races in 2019 (including prelims) coming into USAs, a streak he has become fiercely protective of. He uncharacteristically went to the front of heat 4 and looked to be en route to a heat win before a late charge from the Brooks Beasts’ Brannon Kidder. Hoppel noticed and responded just in time, edging Kidder by .03.
Hoppel’s streak will really be put to the test tomorrow: Donavan Brazier is in his semifinal.
7. Justin Gatlin may or may not be running the semis and final of the 100 on Friday
Gatlin hasn’t been defeated in the 100 at USAs since 2011, his second year back from his doping ban. He was second in his heat today (not technically a defeat, since he still advanced automatically), and may not be defeated this year either as he would not commit to running the semis and final on Friday.
In today’s race, Gatlin ran 10.16, second behind teammate Isiah Young’s 10.14, but the times were mostly irrelevant as Gatlin shut it down early, pointing at Young — while the race was still going on — from across the track once he realized they were clear of the rest of the field.
Gatlin said that his decision to run or not on Friday will be determined by how his body feels, and whether he thinks there is something he can improve after analyzing the tape of his race today.
“If there’s something I can definitely work on and I think it will be a positive step in the right direction for my race pattern, then I’ll come back tomorrow,” Gatlin said.
8. Your daily dose of Jordan Mann
Mann broke out at this meet last year — both on the track and on YouTube — after finishing 5th in the steeple. Once again, he delivered on the track (making the final) and off of it on Thursday. Two of his best lines:
-On continuing to work a job while pursuing elite running: ”A lot of people, you just kind of get the idea that, if I ran this fast while I was working, then how fast could I run if I was sitting around jacking off all day? It’s the kind of thing where I run really fast while working, I don’t see why I would make a major life decision. There’s no predicting how it’s actually going to affect you.”
-On his pre-race nerves today: “Figuratively, I was about to pee myself.”