By Jonathan Gault
February 8, 2020
NEW YORK — For 70 minutes on Saturday evening at the 2020 NYRR Millrose Games, the American distance running world lost its collective mind.
It began just after 4:35 p.m. with an American record in the men’s 800-meter run. That was followed, in short order, by: a US high school record in the men’s 3,000 meters; mile records for the United States, Germany, Great Britain, and Canada (including the second-fastest time ever run) in the women’s mile; and ended just as it had begun, with an American record in the 800-meter run (this time in the women’s event).
Shy of a world record — you had to be in Poland for that today — you couldn’t ask for much more from a track meet.
It’s going to take a while for some of these performances to set in. A 7:56.97 by a high schooler (Nico Young). A 24.89 last 200 en route to a 1:44.22 American record (Donavan Brazier). And 4:16.85 by Elle f—ing Purrier! (Yeah, that’s her name now). Here’s my best shot at analyzing the Millrose madness of 2020.
1) Elle Purrier arrives
Before today, Elle Purrier was a very good runner. She owned PBs of 4:02, 4:24, and 14:58, the last of which came in last year’s World Championship final in her first year as a 5,000 runner.
What Purrier did today blew all that out of the water. Not only did she run 4:16.85 to win the Wanamaker mile — an American record and the #2 indoor time in world history — but she did it by outkicking last year’s World Championship 5k bronze medalist (Konstanze Klosterhalfen), by outkicking a woman who ran 1:57 for 800 last week (Jemma Reekie), and by outkicking a woman who ran 3:56 last year (Gabriela DeBues-Stafford). There’s no doubt about it now: Purrier is world-class.
Final lap below. (For full video of race click here):
SHE'S DONE IT!
— #TokyoOlympics (@NBCOlympics) February 8, 2020
Klosterhalfen (4:17.26), Reekie (4:17.88), and DeBues-Stafford (4:19.73) all ran national records behind Purrier, but this race was about more than fast times: it was a fantastic race. Klosterhalfen, as she did last year, pushed the pace up front, but unlike 2019, several women were capable of going with her. Once Klosterhalfen pushed past the rabbit at halfway, the eventual top four formed a breakaway pack; Koko still led at the bell, with Purrier quickly passing Reekie and then DeBues-Stafford to move into second with 100 to go. Klosterhalfen would put up the toughest fight, but Purrier went wide off the final turn and pulled away to win a thriller.
Purrier’s time requires some context:
-It broke Mary Decker Slaney’s 38-year-old American indoor mile record of 4:20.5 — the longest-standing US women’s track & field record, indoors or out.
-It was the second-fastest mile by an American, indoors or out — only Slaney’s 4:16.71 from 1985 is faster.
-She passed 1500 in 4:00.20 (drug cheat Regina Jacobs has the American indoor record at 3:59.98), which is a 2+ second PR for Purrier. Using the 1.0802 conversion, her full mile was worth 3:57.78 for 1500 — which would rank 6th on the all-time US outdoor list.
Purrier said it’s still too early for her to decide whether she’ll focus on the 1500 or 5,000 outdoors, but she has more pressing matters ahead: next week’s US indoor championships in Albuquerque, where a showdown with Shelby Houlihan awaits. Houlihan has already said she’s doubling in the 1500/3k; Purrier is still deciding, but will run at least one and perhaps both.
2) Donavan Brazier breaks American record while toying with field
Through 400 meters of this evening’s men’s 800, it was fair to wonder what, exactly, Donavan Brazier was doing. The world champion has historically been at his best when he’s near the front, but despite a manageable pace (51.09 for rabbit Robert Downs; first racer Erik Sowinski was at 51.82), Brazier was back in 5th, coming through in 53.04.
Turns out, Brazier was exactly where coach Pete Julian wanted his star pupil to be.
“He just wanted me to get in a crappy position,” Brazier said. “Because last year, I was kind of getting lucky in my positioning and stuff like that. He’s just like, ‘you’re not always going to get that lucky, so you’ve gotta kind of work with your tactics and work how to get around people and get boxed in and all that.’ And there’s no better way to do it than indoors.”
Any concerns evaporated on the home straight of the penultimate lap. One move is all it took, Brazier stormed by the field and turned a competitive race into a rout with a ridiculous 24.89 final lap. It’s an accepted truism in track that the fastest way to run an 800 is to run a slight positive split, which means that Brazier — whose 1:44.22 today was the sixth-fastest ever indoors and an improvement upon his own American record — should be capable of even faster. His time tonight was an enormous negative split (53.04-51.18).
Video of final lap:
Until today, beating the American record in the 800m! pic.twitter.com/Tg06i53Fj8
— #TokyoOlympics (@NBCOlympics) February 8, 2020
Finding different ways to win was a skill David Rudisha didn’t master until well into his career (not that he needed to early on), and it’s one of the reasons he’s the 800 GOAT. Brazier knows that if he is to keep improving, it’s something he needs to do as well.
Brazier is undoubtedly ahead of where he was in 2019 — a year that culminated in Diamond League and world titles — and said that part of the reason is he’s doing more strength work to complement his outstanding natural speed.
Endurance still isn’t Brazier’s strong suit — when other members of his training group run tempos, Brazier will hop in for two laps at a time with one lap rest — but he has all he needs for his event.
“Koko, I can’t ever keep up with her in distance workouts,” Brazier said of his teammate Klosterhalfen.
3) The men’s 800 at this year’s Olympic Trials is going to be insane
It’s easy to get carried away with what Brazier did today, but the depth behind him in the 800 was outstanding. Bryce Hoppel ran 1:45.70 for second — #6 on the all-time US indoor list — and 2017 Worlds semifinalist Isaiah Harris wasn’t far behind in 1:46.01, an indoor PB. Add in Clayton Murphy — who ran 1:47.59 on a flat track at Camel City today, and the 800 is totally loaded (and that’s before you include collegians or anyone else who has yet to break out in 2020).
Hoppel was rightfully pleased with his result today — he wasn’t touching Brazier on that last lap — but one thing he says he needs to work on his his focus.
“I feel like somewhere in the middle of the race, I always kind of let someone get by. I’m not really that aggressive,” Hoppel said. “I like to be more passive and courteous to the other guys.”
Still, for a 22-year-old in his first full pro season, Hoppel is in a good spot.
4) Ajee’ Wilson pulls a Brazier, comes from behind to break her own American record
Brazier is most comfortable at the front of races, but Ajee’ Wilson is there so frequently, she practically pays rent. So it was a surprise when she found herself in fourth place (third racer) halfway through the women’s 800 today. But while Wilson likes to run from the front, she won’t do it if it requires her to push too hard too early; that’s why she was okay with hitting halfway in a still-quick 57.51 tonight behind pacer LaTavia Thomas (56.22) and France’s Cynthia Anais (56.55).
Wilson stayed patient until the back straight of the bell lap, at which point she made a hard move to blow by Jamaica’s Natoya Goule and run away with the race. Her time of 1:58.29 shaved .31 of a second off her year-old American record. It still wasn’t the fastest Wilson has ever run indoors, however; in 2017, she ran 1:58.27 at Millrose, but the time was annulled because of the presence of zeranol in her post-race drug test (Wilson did not serve a ban as she was ruled to have ingested the substance unintentionally).
After the race, Wilson said that she took some inspiration from Brazier before matching his feat.
“He always makes a big, strong, definitive move, and typically I kind of just do what I have to to win,” Wilson said. “And before our race, I guess my coach saw that race and he’s like, ‘When you make your move, go for it and run through the line, because you’ve got a tendency not to.’”
5) Nico Young runs 7:56.97 to break Drew Hunter’s high school 3,000 record
It’s not often that the biggest story in a race is last place, but that was the case in tonight’s men’s 3,000 as Nico Young, the senior from Newbury Park, Calif., who set the course record at Nike Cross Nationals in December, ran 7:56.97 to become the fastest high schooler ever over 3,000 meters (that includes outdoor times as well).
Young was clearly in shape to do something special after running a super impressive 4:10-2:07-4:16-2:06 track workout last week, and today’s race couldn’t have played out much better for him. The pace was fast up front but not crazy fast (winning time 7:46 versus say 735) and the race strung out early, which allowed Young to attach himself to the back of the pack and go along for the ride. Young was able to hang there for most of the race, and though he couldn’t kick like the pros over the final kilometer, he closed fast enough to easily break Drew Hunter’s record of 7:59.33 from 2016.
“I knew I just had to stay onto the pack as long as I possibly could, and that’s what I did,” Young said.
Young runs with a pained expression that makes it look like he’s always hurting even when he isn’t, but his face was a pretty good indicator of his feelings in the second half of today’s race. Young pushed through his fatigue and pre-race nerves, remaining focused on the task he flew 2,400+ miles to accomplish.
“I was like, this is what I came here to do,” Young said. “I just gotta focus my eyes on the next guy in front of me and just chase him down.”
Young said he doesn’t plan to run any more indoor races, with his goals for the spring being to successfully defend his 3200-meter title at the Arcadia Invitational in April and try to run a fast 1500 or mile. Young said that breaking 4:00 is not a goal of his, as his training has been more geared toward the 3k/2-mile — though he wouldn’t mind if it happened.
6) Chris O’Hare makes a statement
Chris O’Hare had to watch the World Championships from home last year, as the perennially banged-up runner could only manage 6th at the British Championships. GB’s men’s 1500 squad was a tough one to make, though — Great Britain put three men in the World Championship final, a feat no other country could match (3:30 man Charlie Grice didn’t make the team either). O’Hare said that dealing with injuries and failing to make the team last year was “really quite difficult, emotionally” (his wife, Meredith, also gave birth to their second son, Riley, in July), but he has come out on fire in 2020.
It started two weeks ago with a win at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix, and O’Hare was even better tonight, grabbing the lead from the favored Filip Ingebrigtsen of Norway, the 2017 Worlds bronze medalist, at the bell and crushing a quality field on the last lap (56.66 final quarter) to win handily in 3:55.61. The rest of the field followed behind in a blanket finish — .52 separated runner-up Olli Hoare of Wisconsin (3:56.47) and Ingebrigtsen, who faded to 7th — but there was no doubt who was best tonight.
O’Hare was not in the best of health after the race — he had to throw up in a trash can prior to speaking to the media, and coughed his way through his post-race interview — but that is nothing new for the 29-year-old these days.
“Having two children, you are pretty much in a constant state of sickness,” O’Hare said. “You get them over one sickness and they go to daycare on Monday and come back with a whole different virus.”
O’Hare has had some great nights at Millrose — he broke the collegiate record here in 2013 and won Wanamaker in 2018 — but said tonight tops the list.
“It was a very tough field today,” O’Hare said.
7) Justyn Knight is back
After improving every year in college at Syracuse, Knight took some lumps in his first pro season last year, particularly indoors, where he could only manage a 4:03 mile in his only winter race. He eventually put it together to finish 10th at Worlds in the 5,000, but that was one place lower than his place in 2017, and Knight wasn’t happy about it.
“It was a huge eye-opener,” Knight said. “…I wasn’t proud of losing to nine people. My mindset is I’m focusing on how to get to #1.”
So far, so good in 2020. Knight won the mile at the Dr. Sander Invite two weeks ago, but this win, against a much stronger field, was a far greater indicator of Knight’s improvement over the past year. Knight took a competitive race and blew it open on the final lap, winning with plenty of time to celebrate in 7:46.36. A big step in the right direction for the friendly Canadian.
Behind Knight, NCAA XC runner-up Joe Klecker of Colorado earned a measure of revenge on NCAA XC champ Edwin Kurgat of Iowa State by taking second in 7:47.57, the #2 time in the NCAA this year (Notre Dame’s Yared Nuguse ran 7:46.71 yesterday). Rio Olympic 10,000 silver medallist Paul Tanui of Kenya, who ran 13:15 for 5000 on January 25th was only 8th in 7:15.78.
Jemma Reekie interview
The Brit, still only 21, decided to go all-in on running when she signed with Nike a few years ago and it’s paying off in 2020; she broke the British mile record tonight (4:17.88) to go with her 800 record from last week.
Allie Ostrander interview
Ostrander impressed, earning her first professional win in the women’s 3,000 in a PB of 8:48.94.
Allyson Felix interview
Felix was 6th in the women’s 60 in 7.32.