Track Meet Preview: Houlihan, Centro, Cheserek & Dozens More Studs Chase Olympic Standards
By Jonathan Gault
December 4, 2020
Tuesday was December 1, which means the Olympic qualifying window — paused since April — is officially open again. American-based distance athletes are wasting no time; dozens of Olympic hopefuls will line up in California this weekend chasing Olympic qualifying standards in the deepest meet to be held on US soil in 2020.
The meet, known simply as “Track Meet,” is essentially Payton Jordan in December: a bunch of fast, rabbitted races with the aim of hitting qualifying standards, whether for the US Olympic Trials or the Olympic Games themselves. And even as California COVID cases continue to rise — the state recorded 18,041 new cases on Wednesday, a daily record — athletes will come from all over the country to hit those marks. Meet director Jesse Williams told LetsRun.com he has already had to shift venues twice, but as of now, the two-day meet, which will be held on Friday and Saturday night, is still on.
Only two distances will be contested: six heats of the 5,000 meters on Friday, and four heats of the 10,000 meters on Saturday. No sprints, no jumps, no fans, but plenty of talent: Shelby Houlihan, Matthew Centrowitz, Edward Cheserek, Weini Kelati, and Nico Young are among the stars scheduled to compete.
While many of the athletes are no doubt trying to go under the automatic Olympic qualifying standard, hitting that standard does not guarantee one will be at the Tokyo Olympics; it is just the automatic way to ensure you are eligible to run in Tokyo. Eligible athletes then need to be selected for their respective Olympic teams, which in the United States usually means finishing top three at the Olympic Trials. Athletes can also earn Olympic eligibility by maintaining a high enough world ranking.
Here’s what to watch for in the top races this weekend.
What: Track Meet
Where: Undisclosed location, California
When: Friday, December 4 – Saturday, December 5
How to watch: The meet will be streamed live by USATF.TV+ (requires subscription). Races start at 10:40 p.m. ET on Friday and 10:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Entries & full schedule * Results
Men’s 5,000 B heat (11:55 p.m. ET)
Olympic Trials standard: 13:25.00
Olympic standard: 13:13.50
Requested pace: Sub-13:30
Notable entrants: Nico Young, Casey Clinger, Charlie Hunter, Matthew Centrowitz, Cole Hocker
What is the reigning Olympic champion doing racing a bunch of college kids in the B heat, you might ask? Well, if you’ve followed Centro’s career closely, you’ll know this isn’t exactly new for him: he did the same thing at Payton Jordan in 2017. Is he “dodging” the top guys? Well that’s one way of viewing it. But this meet means different things to different people. For some pros, it may be the race they’ve been building toward all fall and their best chance to hit an Olympic/Trials standard. For the collegians, it’s an opportunity to finally get out there and race against good competition after a mostly lost cross country season. But for Centro, it’s just something to break up training. Centro, who already has the Olympic standard in the 1500 and 5000, doesn’t need to worry about anything other than the Trials and the Olympics. He doesn’t need to be race-sharp in December. And if he isn’t, why go and get smoked in the A heat when you’re not fully fit?
It’s more interesting to see how some of the college studs fare. In NAU’s Nico Young (2019 NXN champ), BYU’s Casey Clinger (2015/2016 NXN champ), and Oregon’s Cole Hocker (2018 Foot Locker champ), three of America’s biggest young distance talents are all in this race. We know Clinger (3rd at the OSU Invitational in October) and Hocker (7:45 in a 3k time trial on November 24) are super fit right now. Young, a year younger and in his first season at altitude at NAU, may be a little behind them at the moment — he didn’t race for NAU at the OSU Invitational and was outside of 8:00 in a recent 3k on the track — but obviously the talent is there.
Hocker, in particular, bears watching. After he ran 7:45 in a time trial at the new Hayward Field last week, his Oregon teammate Cooper Teare (who ran 7:44) commented on Strava, “7:45 as a 19 year old, dude is going to be FUCKING insane.”
He’s right. Last year, 7:45 would have ranked second in the NCAA. To run that in a time trial as a 19-year-old in November of your sophomore year is pretty phenomenal. Let’s see what Hocker can do in a real race Friday.
(Side note: Was the Hocker/Teare time trial the first “race” at the new Hayward Field?).
Women’s 5,000 (12:20 a.m. ET)
Olympic Trials standard: 15:20.00
Olympic standard: 15:10.00
Requested pace: Sub-15:10
Notable entrants: Emily Lipari, Kim Conley, Alicia Monson, Abbey Cooper, Shelby Houlihan, Elise Cranny
Shelby Houlihan may have smashed the American record and moved up to #12 on the all-time list with her 14:23 in July, but she still doesn’t have a 5,000m qualifier for next year’s Olympics. Friday seems like an easy opportunity to remedy that; Houlihan and Bowerman TC teammate Elise Cranny (14:48 pb) should have no problem knocking out the 15:10 mark, even if they’re still in their fall base phase.
Two women here — Emily Lipari and Kim Conley — already have the standard and should be in the mix up front, though Houlihan is the obvious favorite. For everyone else, including 2016 Olympian Abbey Cooper (née D’Agostino)and new On signing Alicia Monson, the 2019 NCAA indoor champ at Wisconsin, this is a chance to get qualified.
Men’s 5,000 A heat (12:45 a.m. ET)
Olympic Trials standard: 13:25.00
Olympic standard: 13:13.50
Requested pace: Sub-13:15
Notable entrants: Drew Hunter, Sam Parsons, Luis Grijalva, Ben Blankenship, Cooper Teare, Jossef Tessema, Sam Atkin
No one in this field has the Olympic standard of 13:13.50, which will be the obvious goal for guys like Drew Hunter (13:21 pb), who qualified for Worlds last year but had to back out due to a foot injury, and his Tinman Elite teammate Sam Parsons (13:22). 2016 Olympian Ben Blankenship has never run anything other than the 1500 at USAs, and his 5k pb is just 13:33, so he’s unlikely to get the standard — though it would be nice to have in his back pocket. And keep an eye out for Sam Atkin. The 27-year-old Brit, who ran at NAIA Lewis-Clark State, ran a nice pb of 13:23 at the Sunset Tour meet in August and is within striking range of the standard.
It’s possible a collegian wins this race, however. NAU’s Luis Grijalva, who ran 7:43 and 13:29 earlier this year indoor, has been spectacular in 2020. He looked in terrific form when he won the OSU Invitational in October, and ripped a 7:42 to beat Hunter in a 3k on November 22. And Oregon’s Cooper Teare, as mentioned earlier, just clocked 7:44 in a time trial (World Athletics’ scoring tables convert that to 13:16 for 5,000). Both look set for pbs; some on the messageboards are even wondering if Teare can challenge the Oregon school record of 13:14.80 by the late Bill McChesney, which has stood for 38 years.
As good as Grijalva and Teare are, however, hitting the Olympic standard will be a challenge. Only two collegians have ever broken 13:13.50, and both were all-time legends: Arizona’s Lawi Lalang (13:08.28i) and Washington State’s Henry Rono (13:08.4), who combined for 14 NCAA titles. Grijalva and Teare, combined, have won zero. But it’s worth noting that when collegians usually chase times, they do so in search of an NCAA qualifier, with an aim toward peaking at the NCAA championships. If Grijalva and Teare are peaking for this race instead…watch out.
Before we get to the 10ks, a note on footwear: back in July, World Athletics outlawed any shoes with a sole thickness greater than 25 mm for track events 800m and longer. Translation: no more Vaporflys on the track.
The thing is, World Athletics rules only apply to “international competition and to performances that are to be recognized internationally.” USATF has confirmed to LetsRun that you can still qualify for the Olympic Trials in Vaporflys/Alphaflys, etc. on the track, citing the premise that the Trials is meant to be an “inclusive” event. But an athlete cannot earn an Olympic standard in the super-thick shoes, and they will not be allowed at the Trials themselves. Got it? Good.
Women’s 10,000 (11:55 p.m. ET)
Olympic Trials standard: 32:25.00
Olympic standard: 31:25.00
Requested pace: Sub-31:30
Notable entrants: Alicia Monson, Kellyn Taylor, Laura Thweatt, Lauren Paquette, Stephanie Bruce, Weini Kelati, Keira D’Amato, Vanessa Fraser, Gwen Jorgensen
The 10,000s at this meet are particularly important, because there are so few world-class 10,000-meter races. Next year’s Pre Classic is after the Olympics, leaving the Stanford Invite and Payton Jordan as the two realistic opportunities to hit the 31:25.50 Olympic standard. Currently, only three Americans — Molly Huddle, Emily Sisson, and Marielle Hall — have achieved that mark during the window, but several others have a great shot this weekend.
Kellyn Taylor leads that charge. Fourth at the last Olympic Trials, she ran 31:07 in a mixed race back in September, so we know she can go sub-31:25 — she just has to do it in a single-gender race. Her NAZ Elite teammate Stephanie Bruce (31:34 in that mixed race) will also be in the hunt for the standard, and both Taylor and Bruce will be keen to get it; remember, they went 3-4 at USAs last year, but fifth-placer Hall went to Worlds in their stead because neither Taylor nor Bruce had the standard.
Keira D’Amato, a breakout star in 2020 at age 36, will also fancy her chances to get the standard, as will Bowerman TC’s Vanessa Fraser, who ran 14:48 for 5k indoors but could get bumped up to the 10k at the Trials given Bowerman’s glut of 5k talent. Her teammate Gwen Jorgensen, the reigning Olympic triathlon champion, who ran a 5k pb of 15:10 back in February, is also entered.
Watch too for Rachel Schneider (4th at USAs last year in the 5k) and Weini Kelati, the newly-signed Under Armour pro. Kelati, the 2019 NCAA XC champ at New Mexico, was planning a collegiate record attempt before inking her deal with UA; that mark stands at 31:18. Though she’s no longer eligible for the NCAA mark, it would give her the Olympic standard.
Men’s 10,000 (12:35 a.m. ET)
Olympic Trials standard: 28:00.00
Olympic standard: 27:28.00
Requested pace: Sub-27:30
Notable entrants: Biya Simbassa, Clayton Young, Edward Cheserek, Eric Jenkins, Wesley Kiptoo, Hillary Bor, Joe Klecker, Emmanuel Bor, Leonard Korir, Patrick Tiernan, Tyler Day, Girma Mecheso, Anthony Rotich
This race is “the big one” this weekend, with more top talent than any of the other three. And just like the women’s 10k, it will be of vital importance given only two Americans (Shadrack Kipchirchir & Lopez Lomong) have the very tough Olympic standard of 27:28 — a mark only 11 Americans have ever bettered.
Word is that Cheserek, who ran 27:42 at the Sunset Tour meet back in August, is very fit right now, as is his former Oregon teammate Eric Jenkins and former NCAA rival Patrick Tiernan. The key, though, is to ensure one of them (or perhaps one of the American Distance Project stars such as Hillary Bor or Leonard Korir) keeps pushing the pace during the second half. Again, 27:28 is hard and would represent a personal best for everyone in this field save for Korir and Sam Chelanga. Someone needs to do the work during miles four and five to ensure the train stays on track.
Aside from those guys, keep an eye new pros Joe Klecker (Colorado/On) and Tyler Day (NAU/Hoka), both of whom were in fine form before the pandemic halted the 2020 collegiate season.
Finally, there’s one collegian entered: Wesley Kiptoo of Kenya and Iowa State, who is the NCAA XC favorite after a series of dominant victories this fall including the Cowboy Jamboree and Big 12 champs.