Track Is Back, Baby! Athing Mu 2:01, Selemon Barega 27:58 at 7,700 Feet, & Recapping Track’s First Big Weekend of 2021

By Jonathan Gault
January 19, 2021

Maybe it’s because it has felt like ages since we’ve had a full weekend of track & field action. Maybe it’s because there were a slew of athletes bursting at the seams for an opportunity to compete…because it has been ages since we’ve had a full weekend of track & field action with meets being scaled back because of COVID-19. Whatever the reason, indoor track was back in a big way last weekend, from a triple jump world record in France to a collegiate phenom making her debut in Texas to a slew of high school stars showing off in Virginia. And if that wasn’t enough, we had some outdoor track as well, with Ethiopian stars Selemon Barega and Gudaf Tsegay ripping some incredible times at altitude. Below, a recap of the notable performances.

We have our first world record of 2021

Well that didn’t take long. 2020 brought a deluge of world records — 16 in all, going by World Athletics’ standards — and on Saturday, Burkina Faso’s Hugues Fabrice Zango claimed the first WR of 2021 by leaping 18.07 meters in the men’s triple jump in Aubiere, France. That broke the previous record of 17.92 set 10 years ago by Zango’s coach, Teddy Tamgho. Zango is the seventh man to surpass 18 meters (59’0.5″) in the triple jump (indoors or out).

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Zango took bronze at Worlds in 2019 and his 18.07 shows he’s a clear threat for gold in Tokyo this year (Burkina Faso has never won an Olympic medal in any sport). But it won’t be easy to knock Christian Taylor off his perch. It has been almost four years since Taylor, 30, jumped 18.07 or better, but he is as clutch as they come, which explains why he has won the last four global triple jump titles (and six of the last seven). If Taylor wins in Japan, he’ll become just the ninth athlete, male or female, to win three straight Olympic titles in an individual event.

Athing Mu dazzles in collegiate debut

Remember Athing Mu? Two years ago, Mu, then just 16, stunned Raevyn Rogers to win the US indoor 600-meter title, running 1:23.57 — an American record and the #2 time ever indoors. By any woman.

Mu, now a freshman at Texas A&M, didn’t race at all outdoors in 2020, which meant her collegiate debut at the Ted Nelson Invitational on Saturday was her first race in almost 11 months. She showed no signs of rust, blasting a 2:01.07 — an overall pb (her previous best was 2:01.17 outdoors) and the fifth-fastest time ever indoors by a collegiate woman.

And again, this was her first collegiate race. Given what Mu has already accomplished at the senior level, we could be looking at another one-and-done 800 star at Texas A&M, just like Donavan Brazier in 2016.

Making it even more impressive: Mu was all alone (she won by over eight seconds) and ran a negative split (60.75-60.32). Just check out how easy the long-striding Mu made her last lap look:

We have an early NCAA 800 favorite on the men’s side too: Texas Tech’s Takieddine Hedeilli. The 24-year-old Algerian ripped a 1:45.98 at the Corky Classic in Lubbock, which is faster than any collegian ran during the entire 2020 season. While that was a pb of 2.52 seconds, it shouldn’t come as a total surprise. After all, Heideilli did run 3:37 back in 2017 and beat 1:45 man Festus Lagat twice to win the Big 12 1000 and mile titles last year before NCAAs were cancelled.

Back at A&M, there was also a debut for the Aggies’ two star male freshman 800 runners, Brandon Miller (who ran 1:49 as a high school freshman in 2017) and Allon Clay (who ran 1:46 and won the Japanese title as a 17-year-old in 2019). They went 1-2, although their times (1:50.92 for Miller, 1:51.22 for Clay) weren’t nearly as impressive as Mu’s.

Lightfoot breaks collegiate pole vault record

This is a crazy sentence to write, but you could argue that collegiate pole vaulting has gotten better after Mondo Duplantis left the NCAA following his freshman year at LSU. Consider: Duplantis set the collegiate indoor record of 5.92m in February 2019. That mark did not even last a year, as South Dakota’s Chris Nilsen vaulted 5.93m in February 2020. And now Nilsen’s mark is gone as well, as Baylor’s KC Lightfoot went 5.94m at the Corky Classic on Saturday.

Okay, so it’s a little misleading to say NCAA pole vaulting is better now than when Mondo was around. The pole vault and high jump are different in that athletes chasing a record usually elect to break it by one centimeter and call it a day — it is not always a reflection of an athlete’s ultimate capability for a single performance, as a record in the 60-meter dash might be. And obviously Mondo — who would be a junior now had he not turned pro — would be the undisputed king of the NCAA had he stayed in Baton Rouge.

But none of this is meant as a slight at Lightfoot. His huge 11-cm pb immediately…(sigh)…vaults him into the Olympic medal contender conversation. Lightfoot is now the 10th-highest vaulter in US history, and 5.94 would have tied him for third on the 2020 world list (combined indoor/outdoor).

Selemon Barega runs 27:58…at 7,700 feet!

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On Saturday, there were some impressive distance performances in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. According to World Athletics’ Bob Ramsak, the meet was “organized by the [Ethiopian] federation as a test of fitness for most of the country’s leading candidates for a spot on the Tokyo-bound Olympic team. About a dozen athletes were invited to compete in each event, with the goal being to narrow the selection pool to six per event prior to the next test or selection meeting.”

The highlight was the men’s 10,000, where world 5,000m silver medalist Selemon Barega ran an Ethiopian all-comers record of 27:58.48. Why is that performance notable for a guy with pbs of 12:48/26:49? Because it came at serious elevation — roughly 2,355 meters, or 7,726 feet (hat tip Michael Crawley). That’s 700 feet higher than Flagstaff.

Using the Race Time app (modeled on NCAA altitude conversions), 27:58 at 7,726 feet converts to 26:13 at sea level — just two seconds off Joshua Cheptegei‘s world record. That conversion isn’t perfect — it’s likely a bit generous toward an athlete like Barega, who has lived his entire life at altitude. But it’s still incredible running and yet another reason to get excited about what should be an all-time classic men’s 10,000m final in Tokyo.

The other performance of note was Gudaf Tsegay, who won the women’s 1500 in 4:02.35, which converts to 3:51.68 on Race Time. Again, that conversion is worth taking with a grain of salt — but it’s clear Tsegay, who ran 3:54 to earn the bronze at the 2019 Worlds, remains a major obstacle in Shelby Houlihan‘s path to an Olympic medal.

High schoolers Sydney Thorvaldson (9:47) & Juliette Whittaker (2:02) impress

Thorvaldson will be a Razorback next year

Last weekend’s Virginia Showcase featured some of the top high school talent in the country, and they didn’t disappoint. Running at the brand new Virginia Beach Sports Center, which will host NCAAs in 2025, Wyoming’s Sydney Thorvaldson defeated Texas’ Brynn Brown in one of the fastest high school 2-miles ever, 9:47.95 to 9:51.00. Those are the #2 and #3 times ever run by high school girls for a full 2-mile (indoors or out), behind only Mary Cain‘s 9:38.68 national record from 2013.

If you include outdoor marks and converted 3000’s and 3200’s, Thorvaldson and Brown are #5 and #7 all-time, according to Track & Field News. This was Thorvaldson’s second victory over Brown in two months as she beat her by 26 seconds to win the High School XC National Invite in Lubbock in December.

The 800 was also full of star power. Juliette Whittaker, a junior from Mount de Sales Academy in Maryland, ran 2:02.07 to win; behind her, sophomore Sophia Gorriaran (2:03.96) and junior Roisin Willis (2:04.31) also broke 2:05. Whittaker’s run was just .29 off the high school indoor record — only Sammy Watson (2:01.78) and Mary Decker Slaney (2:01.8) have gone faster.

The next day, Whittaker, Gorriaran, Willis, and senior Bailey Goggans teamed up to run a world U20 best in the 4×800 relay, clocking 8:37.20. The previous best of 8:37.71 was run outdoors by Jamaica’s Vere Tech at the 1991 Penn Relays.

Tom Brady (!!!) runs 7:58 for Michigan; Conner Mantz is back

Normally I wouldn’t be writing about a college man running 7:58. It’s a fine performance, no doubt, but not exactly breaking news — 37 collegians ran 7:58 or faster last year. Last weekend, however, there were two 7:58’s worth discussing.

The first was by Michigan’s Tom Brady.

Yes, you read that right.

No, Michigan didn’t somehow find an extra year of eligibility for the 43-year-old future Hall of Fame quarterback, who played for the Wolverines football team in the ’90s and spent his weekend leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the NFC Championship Game. This is Tom Brady of Park Ridge, Ill., who ran a 28-second pb of 7:58.06 to win the Simmons-Harvey Invitational in Ann Arbor.

The younger Brady (who, as far as I know, isn’t related to the QB) is a sophomore, which means he would have been born in 2000 or 2001, when Brady was a rookie fourth-string quarterback for the Patriots.

The other 7:58 has a little more national significance, as it belonged to 2019 NCAA XC third-placer Conner Mantz. That’s a great run for Mantz, considering it came on BYU’s home track, which sits at 4,627 feet of elevation (it’s a flat 322-meter track, though the turns are tight). The NCAA converts it to 7:47.50.

Mantz’s run is also great news for BYU’s NCAA XC title defense (considering the proximity of NCAA indoors and NCAA XC, Mantz may not even run NCAA indoors). Mantz looked good in his one XC race last fall, finishing second to NAU’s Luis Grijalva at the OSU Invitational in October, but he missed several weeks of running due to injury afterwards. Clearly that time off didn’t hurt too much; if he’s running the equivalent of 7:47 in January, Mantz should be ready to roll at NCAA XC in March.

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