By Jonathan Gault
July 6, 2020
Slowly, professional track & field is returning.
In the United States this July 4th weekend, two states that serve as hotbeds for the country’s considerable track & field talent — Oregon (distance runners) and Florida (sprinters) — featured some of the sport’s biggest stars, such as Donavan Brazier, Noah Lyles, and Shaunae Miller-Uibo, competing in two separate meets. Those meets also saw some surprising returns (welcome back Trayvon Bromell and LaShawn Merritt).
The Portland meet, which was billed as “The Big Friendly,” was held on Friday and featured runners from Oregon Track Club Elite and Pete Julian‘s Nike-sponsored training group. Craig Engels (1:48.55 as the only finisher) and Chanelle Price (2:01.47) earned wins in the 800, but the standout performance belonged to Brazier, who ripped a 3:35.85 personal best in the 1500 and made it look easy, closing with a 52.13 last lap.
The Florida meet, dubbed the “Showdown in OTown,” was held on Saturday in Clermont, home base of the groups headed by coaches Dennis Mitchell and Lance Brauman. Miller-Uibo led the way with her 22.61/50.52 double, and Lyles ran a wind-aided 9.93, but Bromell stole the show with a wind-legal 10.04 to show he is definitely back from injury.
Here are the biggest takeaways from the weekend’s action.
1) Donavan Brazier “jogs” 3:35 for 1500 with 52-second last lap
Sometimes a picture or video can be better than words. If you haven’t seen it, hit play below to watch Donavan Brazier’s final lap in Oregon.
Brazier looked simply majestic running a 3:35.85 personal best (3:37.18 previous best) with his 52.13 last lap.
Back in February, Brazier showed up to the Millrose Games, screwed around for three laps, purposely working on being in a “crappy position” and still ran 1:44.22 to break his own American indoor 800m record.
Friday’s race felt a lot like that. Brazier was content to spend the first three laps sitting behind OTC’s Vincent Ciattei and Will Paulson, his long, easy stride making it look as if he were floating. Then, with 300 to go, Brazier decided he’d had enough. He made one hard move, started pumping his arms vigorously, and immediately left Ciattei (3:39 pb, 2018 NCAA runner-up) and Paulson (3:36 pb, 2019 Canadian champ) look as if they were standing still.
How great was Brazier’s run? Consider that, three days before Brazier’s 3:35, the Bowerman Track Club held a similar meet on the same track. In that meet, US indoor 1500 champion Josh Thompson came through 1100 in 2:43.70 and closed his last lap in 55.96 to run 3:39.65. Brazier came through 1100 in a nearly-identical 2:43.73 and closed almost four seconds faster, in 52.13.
Inevitably, this run will lead to speculation about whether Brazier will one day tackle the 1500 at a global championship. In fact, one prominent recently retired middle-distance runner had pondered that very topic even before Brazier’s run.
“I know eventually he’s gonna break the world record in the 800,” two-time US 800 champ Duane Solomon told the LetsRun podcast last week. “But I would love to see what this guy can do at the higher distances, to see if he can be one of those dual athletes who can go and win an 800 and a 15 if the schedule permits.”
It’s exciting to wonder — pretty much everything about Brazier is exciting right now — but allow me to pump the breaks for a second. Brazier’s run on Friday was great, but running 3:35 with a big close in time trial conditions is very different to doing it in a global championship final with three rounds of the 800 and three rounds of the 1500 in your legs. How about we let Brazier focus on the 800 for a few more years before we start thinking about adding the 1500? He’s still only 23.
2) Trayvon Bromell runs 10.04 and is baaaaack/Noah Lyles runs wind-aided 9.93
Three years, 10 months, and 20 days.
That’s how much time passed between Trayvon Bromell’s most recent sub-10.10’s in the 100m. On August 14, 2016, Bromell ran 10.06 to finish last in the Olympic final in Rio. He would not better that time until July 4, 2020, when he ran 10.04 in Clermont, the fastest wind-legal time of the day.
Bromell’s outing on Saturday was the best sign of progress yet after four years of injury hell stemming from an Achilles issue in June 2016. Back in January, I profiled him ahead of the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix, and while Bromell seemed to be in good spirits, racing is the true test of any comeback effort. And Bromell’s 2020 indoor results didn’t show much (he raced twice; his 6.74 60m sb was tied for 244th globally).
10.04 though? That’s a legit time (it would have ranked #9 in the US last year), and it came in a race in which Bromell comfortably handled his erstwhile college rival, reigning world/Olympic bronze medalist Andre De Grasse, who was second in 10.15. Regardless of where De Grasse is at in his training, 10.04 is 10.04, and it shows that Bromell, who turns 25 on Friday, is very much a contender for next year’s Olympic team, if he can stay healthy.
Given Bromell’s history, that’s a big “if,” and he still has work to do if he is to overcome either Christian Coleman, Noah Lyles, or Justin Gatlin for a spot on Team USA (Lyles and Gatlin ran the fastest times in Clermont, 9.93 and 9.99, respectively, but both benefited from massive 4.0 m/s tailwinds). But Coleman could still be banned from the sport, and Gatlin turns 39 in February. With another year to get up to speed, Bromell could be very dangerous in 2021.
3) LaShawn Merritt and Sha’Carri Richardson are back, too/Shaunae Miller-Uibo doubles up
Merritt didn’t make the 400 final at Worlds in 2017 and raced sparingly the last few years. Had he retired?
No. Turns out, Merritt had been dealing with a bunch of injuries (check out Nick Zaccardi‘s NBC Sports piece for all the details). But he raced on Saturday, clocking 45.98 in a race won by Brit Matthew Hudson-Smith in 45.55, just Merritt’s second track 400 since the 2017 Worlds. Merritt, the 2008 Olympic champ, faces a tougher path to Tokyo than Bromell — he’s 34, and between Michael Norman and Fred Kerley, two of the US’s Olympic 400 spots are essentially spoken for. But, like Bromell, he’s racing again, and that’s a good sign.
On the women’s side, Shaunae Miller-Uibo posted the two best performances (50.52 for 400 followed by 22.61 into a 1.1 headwind), but it’s not exactly a surprise to see Miller-Uibo dominating. The most noteworthy run belonged to Sha’Carri Richardson, the 20-year-old American now training under Dennis Mitchell.
Richardson’s 2019 campaign ended poorly, with her packing it in in the USA 100m final, but that came at the end of a long first collegiate season. You don’t fluke your way to a 10.75 collegiate record, so it was only a question of when, not if, Richardson would return to her old form. Richardson’s 100m runs in Clermont (10.94 with a 2.8 tailwind, then a wind-legal 11.05 in the final) were easily the fastest of the day, and she added a 23.14 200 (into a 1.1 wind). Watching the new star Richardson attempt to unseat the legend Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in Tokyo will be one of the most intriguing storylines of 2021.
4) Kenny Bednarek looks healthy
Bednarek made his first US team last year, but he battled a hamstring injury in the second half of the year — he pulled up lame and had to jog it in at USAs (he finished last but made the team because not enough guys in front of him had the standard) and was eliminated in the first round at Worlds after running just 21.50 in his prelim.
On Saturday, he showed no ill effects, running two PRs in the 100 (10.23 in the prelims, then 10.14 to win the final) and winning the 200 in 20.06 (his best low-altitude time ever). With PRs of 10.14, 19.82, and 44.73, Bednarek has the range to rival that of any American sprinter. And he’s still only 21 years old.
Why weren’t these meets shown live?
I’ve seen the same question pop up several times while discussing these meets on Twitter or the messageboard: It’s great these pros are racing, but why in the world aren’t they showing these meets live? Don’t they want to grow the sport?
So I reached out to Portland Track’s Jeff Merrill, who handled the commentary for the Big Friendly. His explanation:
The facility and others did not want people to see the livestream and head over to the facility. We had to keep numbers below 25 people inside the stadium. We sat on all the info for a day and a half until it was ready to release so people could at least attempt to watch it without knowing results. Tough to do but we were trying to make it surprising and exciting for the fans in this weird time…Since the livestream wasn’t an option we wanted to try to do the next best thing. Everyone involved wanted [a livestream] just as bad as [the fans] do. We’re with them!
Is this an ideal situation? Obviously not. But for the coaches and athletes, priority #1 right now is to find competition opportunities and make sure those opportunities are as safe as possible. If they can find a venue/timing/camera crew but are told they can’t stream live, the coaches and athletes are going to make that trade in order to hold the meet. But considering meets like the Oregon TC vs. Atlanta TC dual and Team Boss’ Colorado Mile have been streamed live and didn’t seem to have issues with fans showing up, one would hope the venues would be willing to lift those restrictions soon.