Weekend Preview: Houlihan, Lomong, Brazier & Rupp Return to Action in Portland; Purrier & Huddle Prep for Trials in Massachusetts

By Jonathan Gault
May 27, 2021

Memorial Day weekend is set to be one of the busiest on the 2021 running calendar. Last night, the NCAA East and West Preliminary Rounds kicked off in Jacksonville and College Station with the country’s top collegians seeking qualification to the NCAA Championships in Eugene from June 9-12. Those two meets run through Saturday.

In Doha on Friday, the Diamond League makes its second stop, with distance stars Emma CoburnTimothy Cheruiyot, and Faith Kipyegon all making appearances (full LRC preview here). And on Sunday, there’s the Battle of the Teams in Prague, which will use an innovative team scoring approach to the marathon and will air live on LetsRun.com.

That’s already a lot to take in, but we haven’t even mentioned the pro meets that will be held in the US over the next few days. The most noteworthy of them, the Portland Track Festival, features the first race in 2021 for US stars Shelby HoulihanLopez Lomong, and Galen Rupp, plus a number of other big names, including Matthew Centrowitz and Donavan Brazier (who will face each other in the men’s 800). Back east, there’s the Platinum PT Qualifier in Massachusetts, which will feature Elle Purrier, Molly Huddle, and Ben True, among others (LetsRun will have boots-on-the-ground coverage of that one). We close out the long weekend with the Duval County Challenge in Jacksonville, the third meet of the American Track League season, which will air live on ESPN2.

Rather than preview every single meet in detail, let’s take a look some of the biggest questions and storylines heading into the weekend.

Portland Track Festival (Friday, May 28 – Saturday, May 29)
*Heat sheets *Schedule *Streaming info (The meet is on pay-per-view, but youth and high school coaches can get vouchers so their athletes can watch for free — details here)

Platinum PT Qualifier (Saturday, May 29)
*Heat sheets *Schedule *Streaming info

Duval County Challenge (Monday, May 31)
*Schedule *Meet will air live on ESPN2 from 8-10 p.m. ET

1) How will the BTC stars look? (And where is Evan Jager?)

It’s been a while since we’ve seen Houlihan on a start line (Photo by Talbot Cox)

One of the more curious storylines of 2021 has been the complete absence from the racing scene of, arguably, Bowerman TC’s top two American runners: reigning US 1500/5k champion Shelby Houlihan and reigning US 5k/10k champion Lopez Lomong. While the rest of their teammates were out racing in California earlier this month, Houlihan and Lomong remained on the sidelines. Both have the Olympic standards in their events, so they don’t need to race before the Trials. But the fact that we are now three weeks out from the Trials and neither has competed at all in 2021 suggests something hasn’t been quite right with their preparation.

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Those close to Houlihan and Lomong say they’ve both still been training well, which is encouraging (Lomong scratched from the Track Meet on May 15 with avhamstring injury; the exact nature of Houlihan’s issue isn’t known). But since Bowerman doesn’t televise its workouts, we don’t have a precise gauge for what that means. We’ll get a reading on Saturday, as Houlihan will face Rachel SchneiderDani Jones, and BTC teammates Sinclaire Johnson and Elise Cranny in the 1500. Considering Houlihan hasn’t lost a 1500 to an American since 2017, anything other than a win would be cause for concern.

We’ll also get a read on Lomong in the 5,000m, but he will NOT be up against two of the top 5k guys in the country in teammates Grant Fisher and Woody Kincaid who are also running the 5,000m…wait..what’s that you’re telling me? They’re in different heats?

That’s right. Lomong is in heat 1 — nominally, the “fast” heat — except the BTC’s Fisher, Kincaid, and Kieran Tuntivate are all in the “slower” heat 2…which means it’s not very slow anymore. What, exactly, is Jerry Schumacher doing here? It sure seems like a way to prevent Lomong from facing a baptism by fire in his first race since July 2020 (Lomong’s agent did not respond to a request for comment). Which means we may need to wait for the Trials themselves to truly see how Lomong stacks up against his peers.

Speaking of waiting until the Trials, Evan Jager fans may have to do the same thing. Jager’s plan was to run the steeple at PTF — the first steeple he planned on finishing since 2018 — and he was listed among the early entries but is not on the start list. Jager, as a reminder, still does not have the 8:22.00 Olympic standard, and if he wants it before the Trials, he is running out of opportunities. Neither Jager nor his agent responded to a request for comment, but in an interview with LetsRun earlier this month, Jager made no secret of the fact that he has been battling an Achilles injury in recent weeks.

Discussion: Questions about this weekend’s PTF

2) Brazier vs. Centro!

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I’m not going to pretend Matthew Centrowitz vs. Donavan Brazier will be a close race at 800 meters. Centro hasn’t broken 1:46 in an 800 since 2015, when Brazier was a senior at Kelowna Hills High School in Michigan. Meanwhile, you’d have to go back to March 2017 — 22 races ago — for the last time Brazier failed to break 1:46 in an 800 final. Throw in that Centro appears to be treating this meet as practice — he’s entered in both the 800 and 1500, and ran the same double at the same meet before his Olympic Trials victory in 2016 — and the world champ should have no problem handling the Olympic champ.

Still, it’s awesome to see two of American running’s brightest lights sharing the same track. And it’s worth keeping an eye on Brazier, who has raced just once this year outdoors, a 3:37 at the USATF Grand Prix back on April 24. He’ll be favored to win this race, but between Isaiah Harris, 1:42 man Emmanuel Korir, and in-form Mexican Tonatiu Lopez, there’s some serious talent here.

3) Galen Rupp is running a track race?

The most surprising entry into the meet is the top seed in the men’s 10,000 meters, a man by the name of Galen Rupp. It has been over three years since Rupp raced on the track (he ran 13:34 indoors at the 2018 UW Invitational) and seven months since he raced at all, running 60:22 at a low-key half marathon in Oregon. Rupp gets a home game on Friday night, as he will headline section 1 of the 10k alongside former Nike Oregon Project teammate and 2:05 marathoner Suguru Osako.

The natural thought, seeing Rupp in a track race, is to wonder if he’s thinking of running at the Olympic Trials and replicating his 2016 feat of making both the 10k and marathon teams. His coach Mike Smith tells LetsRun that, as of now, the Trials are not in Rupp’s plans — his Olympic marathon buildup has already begun and PTF simply offers the chance for a hard effort close to home.

4) Last shot for Molly Huddle?

Huddle winning the USA 10k title in 2018

In 2018 and 2019, Molly Huddle had no problem bouncing back from a spring marathon to win the US 10,000-meter title. Once she chose to drop out late at the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta, most assumed she would be able to do the same thing. But Huddle’s transition back from the roads hasn’t been as easy this time around at age 36. She returned to the track with a pair of low-key races in late summer 2020, clocking 8:59 in a 3k in Providence in August and 15:20 in a 5k win in Massachusetts in September. But rather than progressing in 2021, she’s moved backwards: a DNF in the 5k at the Sound Running Invite in March, and a 15:23 at the Sound Running Track Meet on May 9 — over 20 seconds behind winner Julie-Anne Staehli.

The idea of Molly Huddle entering a US championships as a nonfactor seems absurd — she is the five-time defending national champion at 10k — but she has shown nothing recently to suggest she will be in the mix for an Olympic spot in Eugene. On Saturday, she’ll run the 5,000 at the Platinum PT Qualifier outside Boston against a field that includes Emily Sisson and European indoor 3k champ Amy-Eloise Markovc. If Huddle is to revive her fading Olympic chances, she needs to show something in that race.

5) Elle Purrier preps for Trials with one more 800

The debate for Elle Purrier this year has been 1500 or 5000, but she’s run the 800 more than any other distance in 2021. She began with a 2:02.05 in her season opener in Arizona on February 6, and more recently broke 2:00 for the first time with her 1:59.99 at the Track Meet two weeks ago. She’ll run one last two-lap effort at the Platinum PT Qualifier on Saturday, with the aim of going further under the 2:00 barrier. 2019 NCAA champ Jazmine Fray and 2019 USA 4th placer Olivia Baker are also entered.

6) Other races worth monitoring this weekend

PTF men’s 1500: Josh Thompson and Craig Engels are entered, and teenager Hobbs Kessler will chase the high school record (3:38.26) and Trials standard (3:37.50).

PTF women’s 5000: We didn’t mention her in the missing Bowerman TC stars section above, but Karissa Schweizer hasn’t raced since February. She leads a field that also includes 14:27 woman Caroline Kipkirui and Australian record holder Jessica Hull (14:43 pb).

PTF men’s steeple: Sean McGorty is entered for round two in the steeple. If he wins again over a field that includes Mason Ferlic and two-time Olympian Donn Cabral, expect to see him in that event at the Trials next month.

PTF women’s steeple: American record holder Courtney Frerichs is entered, and three-time NCAA champ Allie Ostrander will run her first steeple since the 2019 Worlds.

PT Qualifier women’s 1500: Josette Norris, coming off a huge 14:51 5k pb two weeks ago, will take on a field led by Helen Schlachtenhaufen, who was second at the USATF Grand Prix on April 24.

PT Qualifier men’s 5000: Ben True will try to bounce back from a subpar 13:26 at the Track Meet on May 15.

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