By Jonathan Gault
February 13, 2020
So USA Indoors is here already. That was quick.
After a one-year experiment in Staten Island (which was supposed to host this year before USATF yanked the meet away), USAs is back in Albuquerque for the third time in four years. And despite the 5,300 feet of elevation, the distance fields are surprisingly competitive for a year when there’s no World Indoor team to make. Shelby Houlihan, Elle Purrier, Craig Engels, Bryce Hoppel, Paul Chelimo, Ajee’ Wilson, and Raevyn Rogers are among the big names headed to the Land of Enchantment this weekend (yes, Purrier qualifies as a big name now). Unfortunately, Donavan Brazier won’t be there as coach Pete Julian told Ken Goe earlier this week that Brazier had “accomplished the things we wanted to accomplish indoors. We sharpened the blade a little bit. It’s time to keep our eyes on the big prize.” And Jenny Simpson won’t be there earlier — more on that below.
After Purrier’s heroics at Millrose, her showdown(s?) with Houlihan (they’re both entered in the 1500 and 3000) represents the most intriguing matchup of the weekend. And while some of the other events feature obvious favorites, the timing of the meet — no one is truly peaking in the middle of February — creates an opportunity for some upsets. Just last year, we had Colleen Quigley outkicking Houlihan in the mile, 16-year-old Athing Mu taking down Rogers en route to an American record in the 600, and Drew Hunter winning the 2-mile out of the “slow” section.
What will happen this year? Preview of the women’s events in Albuquerque below. Men’s preview coming in a separate article.
Women’s 3,000 (final Friday, 10:28 p.m. ET): Purrier vs. Houlihan, Part I
|Shelby Houlihan at USAs, 2017-19
There is no way to argue that Elle Purrier’s 4:16.85 mile on Saturday was a fluke. For one, 4:16 is 4:16. Only one American woman, indoors or outdoors, has run faster, and that was Mary Slaney 35 years ago. For another, the women Purrier beat — Konstanze Klosterhalfen, Jemma Reekie, and Gabriela DeBues-Stafford — are all legit elite runners. Moving forward, Purrier has to be considered one of America’s top distance runners.
As good as that Millrose field was, however, Purrier faces an even tougher test at USAs. Shelby Houlihan’s last three seasons constitute one of the most dominant stretches in US distance running history, with American records in the 1500 and 5000 and a remarkable 11-1 record in national championships. Houlihan looked to be in pretty good shape two weeks ago in Seattle, where she managed a 2:01/4:23 double victory in the 800/mile.
It’s no secret how Houlihan will approach these races: she has a top gear that no American has been able to match, one that has carried her to multiple Diamond League victories in addition to all those US titles. She will wait until approximately 200 to go and try to drop the field.
The more interesting question is how Purrier chooses to play it. Trying to drop Houlihan at around a mile or so out isn’t an option, particularly at altitude. So does Purrier move early, say around 600 to go, and try to control the final three laps to the punch? Does she wait until the bell (or slightly before) and try to beat Houlihan to the punch? Or does she wait for Houlihan to make the first move and try to come over the top with one of her own? If she chooses one of the latter strategies, we’ll get to see how her final 200 lines up against Houlihan’s vaunted kick.
Houlihan-Purrier is a mouthwatering matchup, but it’s a disservice to reduce this to a two-woman race. Houlihan’s Bowerman TC teammate Colleen Quigley has great speed, winning the Wanamaker Mile in 2018 and beating Houlihan in the mile at USAs last year, and she’s coming off a big PR of 8:44 two weeks ago. Another Bowerman Babe, Karissa Schweizer, spanked Purrier in last year’s World Championship 5k final. Courtney Frerichs may struggle keeping up since this race doesn’t feature barriers, but she wasn’t too far behind Quigley two weeks ago (8:47). Allie Ostrander won at Millrose last week in a PR of 8:48.
One bummer: Jenny Simpson isn’t running here. Normally this wouldn’t be a cause for despair, since Simpson rarely races indoors. But Simpson is lining up to race this weekend, just not at USAs: she’ll run a 5,000 at Boston University instead.
What’s her goal for Boston?
“I’m just trying to see if I can run the Olympic qualifying time,” Simpson texted LRC. “Sub-15:10. Not super exciting, just trying to tick the box. I’m still planning to focus on the 1500 outdoors.”
We wrote it last year, and we’ll write it again: it’s not a good look for the sport when athletes like Simpson can skip a national championship to run what amounts to a time trial. Simpson is far from alone in this respect — Evan Jager, Kate Grace, and Lopez Lomong are among the other athletes who will be racing on the track this weekend somewhere other than USAs. (And on that note, kudos to Schweizer and Frerichs, who skipped USA Indoors last year to time trial but are running USAs in 2020).
In Simpson’s defense, she hadn’t even raced in 2020 by the time the entries for USAs closed (February 5), which means she would have had to have entered USAs with no time (Schweizer was accepted with no time, so Simpson, who ran 8:51 on February 8, may have been allowed in as well). It’s also understandable that Simpson, who hasn’t run a serious indoor season in years, has her focus squarely on qualifying for what could be her final Olympics: hitting the 5,000 standard gives her a backup plan in case she fails to make the team in the 1500.
JG prediction: As great as Purrier is, I’m still backing Houlihan in a championship race.
Women’s 1500 (final Saturday, 4:42 p.m. ET): Purrier vs. Houlihan, Part II
This is essentially the same cast of characters (Purrier, Houlihan, Quigley, and Schweizer are all double-entered), so whoever wins the 3000 on Friday will be favored again in the 1500 on Saturday, unless it’s Schweizer. With PRs of 4:06 and 4:24, Schweizer has yet to show the same ability in the 1500 as the others in that group, which means she could be vulnerable over the shorter distance.
JG prediction: I’ll roll with Houlihan again here, though I reserve the right to change my pick if Purrier wins the 3k convincingly and opts to double back.
Women’s 800 (prelims Friday, 8:53 p.m. ET; final Saturday, 4:24 p.m. ET): Wilson Goes for 5 in a Row
Ajee’ Wilson, as she has at every national championship of this Olympic cycle, will go off as the favorite. A victory would give her five straight US indoor titles (though they’ve been split across the 600, 800, and 1000) and seven overall (she hasn’t lost at USAs, indoors or out, since finishing second at the 2016 Olympic Trials).
All things considered, Wilson should win; she broke the American record at this distance just five days ago. And her biggest rival for the US title Raevyn Rogers — who beat out Wilson for silver at Worlds last year — has not been in great form. Rogers has won both of her races this year, but neither was a particularly impressive performance: a 2:39 1k at Boston University on January 25 and a 2:03.15 800 on Camel City’s flat track last weekend, barely beating out Canada’s Lindsey Butterworth, who has never broken 2:00 (for comparison, Wilson ran 1:59.26 there last year before breaking the AR at Millrose).
Interestingly, Derek Thompson, who coaches Wilson and Rogers, has kept the pair apart so far in 2020. In Albuquerque, Wilson will finally have a chance at extracting a measure of revenge for Doha.
It’s more likely that someone else beats out Rogers for second than anyone beats Wilson; at 1:58.29, Wilson’s SB is the fastest in the field by over four seconds. Rogers, however, could be beaten. She lost to high schooler Athing Mu at this meet last year, and Mu was .93 behind Rogers at Camel City, which is almost exactly how far behind she was at the same meet last year (.89). Hanna Green, who ran 1:58 last year and won a Diamond League, is also a serious threat. World Championship finalist Ce’Aira Brown, like Simpson, is entered at BU instead of USAs.
JG prediction: I don’t expect any drama here. Wilson should win without much trouble.