Colby Alexander Crushed It At Millrose. Now He Needs a Sponsor.

By Jonathan Gault
February 3, 2022

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The men’s Wanamaker Mile at Saturday afternoon’s 114th Millrose Games in New York went mostly as one would expect. On Athletics Club’s Ollie Hoare, the 25-year-old Australian known for racing in a speedsuit and pushing the pace, led through the first 1200 meters in a quick 2:52.23. The Brooks Beasts’ Josh Kerr, the 24-year-old Olympic bronze medalist from Scotland who likes to attack when the race gets hard, edged past Hoare with 300 to go and hit the bell in the lead.

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The two men, both based in the United States, had spent the 2021 season dispensing wedgies to America’s best milers, many of whom did not even attempt to follow once they hit the front of the race. Most knowledgeable track fans would have predicted that Kerr and Hoare, two of the world’s best milers, would be running 1-2 as the bell rang at the Armory on Saturday.

The surprise came two meters behind them. Though Kerr and Hoare had opened a sizable gap on 10 of the other 11 men in the race, one remained stubbornly in their slipstream. Sporting an understated black Empire Elite singlet, hair pulled back into a makeshift bun/ponytail and a formidable mustache perched across his upper lip, unheralded American Colby Alexander was still there. And though he would ultimately slow over the final 200 meters as Hoare tore away for the win, Alexander actually wound up gaining on Kerr over the final 100 and held on to finish third in 3:52.84, taking over two seconds off his six-year-old mile personal best.

 

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Seven Americans lined up for the Wanamaker Mile on Saturday. Six of them had a shoe contract. And yet it was the unsponsored Alexander, more than two years removed from the expiration of his contract with HOKA ONE ONE, who was the class of the domestic field, finishing almost three seconds ahead of fourth placer Sam Prakel and well ahead of the fourth and fifth placers at last year’s Olympic Trials (Craig Engels and Henry Wynne) and the reigning US champion at 800 meters (Clayton Murphy).

Alexander himself was not surprised with his race. Sidelined with an Achilles injury, Alexander did not get the opportunity to race against Hoare when he was terrorizing the US early in 2021, but he studied the Aussie and knew how he likes to run.

“Every single time, he goes out hard and nobody goes with him,” Alexander says. “No Americans do, it was always Justyn Knight or Jake Wightman. He just runs away, and I’m like, I don’t understand…I told myself if I ever got the opportunity to race anyone of that caliber, Ollie’s a good example, I would run with them, I would just give it my all. And I did.”

Of course, you can’t just decide to go out at 3:50 mile pace. You need the fitness to back it up, and right now Alexander has it. How long that lasts, given Alexander’s injury-prone history, is fair to wonder. But at 30 years old, Alexander feels like an entirely new runner and is talking big. Two days after Millrose, I called him up and asked where he feels he ranks in the hierarchy of US milers.

“I’m feeling very confident right now,” Alexander says. “I’ve only raced Cole [Hocker] once, I would like to race him again. And also [Yared] Nuguse is really good. But I think I’m top three. I don’t know where in the top three, but yeah.”

A few minutes later, I get a text. It’s from Alexander.

I didn’t say Centro in that top three US rank. I’m friends with him…he’s gonna kill me lol. Gotta toss him in the mix.

Okay, so maybe not that confident.

***

Alexander’s current breakout actually began in 2021. At the US Olympic Trials in June, he finished 8th — about what you would expect from an athlete who had finished 9th, 7th, and 13th in three previous appearances in the US final. But three weeks after the Trials, Alexander ran 3:33.65 at the Sunset Tour meet in California to win the 1500 meters. In the past six years, only three Americans have run faster: Hocker, Engels, and Matthew Centrowitz.

It was Alexander’s first personal best in almost five years, and on paper, it was an unlikely one. Alexander’s previous best had been the 3:34.88 he ran at age 25 in 2016 a few weeks after he finished 7th at the US Olympics Trials, and his career appeared to be following the typical path for an aging miler. He had run 3:36 in 2017, 3:37 in 2018, and, after missing all of 2019 following surgery to correct Haglund’s deformity in his left heel, ran 3:37 again in 2020.

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But the raw numbers masked a number of significant changes in Alexander’s life. At the end of 2019, HOKA ONE ONE dropped its support of Alexander’s team, the NJ*NY Track Club, and in the aftermath, a schism developed between the team’s founder and head coach, Frank Gagliano, and assistant coaches John Trautmann and Tommy Nohilly. Most of the athletes who chose to remain with the group, including Alexander, went with Trautmann and Nohilly, who began a new team called Empire Elite.

“I love Gags to death, I would never speak a bad word about him,” Alexander says. “I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want it to get interpreted the wrong way, but the way that the training changed, I guess it felt like we were training much harder. So I think that was a big thing.”

The new coaching setup also afforded Alexander more freedom when it came to where he trained. Under Gags, NJ*NY had largely avoided altitude, but at the start of 2020, Alexander moved to Flagstaff and found that he was a responder to its 7,000 feet of elevation. Though he now resides in Reston, Va., a DC suburb (and Alan Webb‘s hometown), he has already made one trip to Flagstaff this year and is planning another before the US indoor championships at the end of the month.

While Trautmann and Nohilly continue to coach Alexander and the rest of the Empire Elite athletes, Gagliano has returned in a consultancy role and Nohilly says all parties are now on good terms.

“It was a change and it was difficult for us all to go through it,” Nohilly says. “Everything is fine between us now. We talk almost every other day.”

HOKA’s departure left Alexander and the rest of the group without sponsorship contracts, but there was one silver lining: they were now free to race in whatever shoe they desired. As Nike was leading the superspikes arms race in 2019 with New Balance following along in 2020, HOKA had gone years without updating their mid-distance spikes, the MD, LD, and Speed Evo. It is no coincidence that when Alexander began running his fastest time for years in 2021, he did so in a pair of Nikes.

“To deny the fact that the Nike spike is not an advantage, I think is just ignorant,” says Nohilly. “And I don’t want to single out any shoe company, but having the most competitive spike or competitive shoe that’s out there has definitely been an advantage…And even just as far as staying healthy, that was the main thing, having a shoe that possibly has less stress on the lower leg and on the Achilles and everything else I think is also a big advantage for him.”

It is reductive, however, to attribute Alexander’s recent gains merely to a change of footwear. After years of injury struggles, including a lingering right Achilles issue, Alexander received a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection from renowned sports medicine physician (and fifth man on Stanford’s legendary 2003 NCAA XC title teamAdam Tenforde in Boston in September. The injection, plus increased attention to hip mobility drills aimed at attacking the root of the problem, has left Alexander feeling the healthiest he’s been in years.

“I’m feeling pretty confident that my Achilles is going to be good to go for the foreseeable future,” he says.

***

All of those factors — the coaching, the altitude, the shoes — played a role in Alexander’s recent improvement, but he doesn’t believe any of them are the biggest reason for his newfound success.

“More than anything, my breakthrough mentally has just been a game-changer,” Alexander says.

The mental side of the sport has been a struggle for Alexander dating back to his college days at the University of Oregon. In the early 2010s, the Ducks had the best mid-distance squad in the country, and while Alexander could hold his own in workouts, he would find himself overcome with nerves anytime he entered a big race. He qualified for NCAA regionals all four years at Oregon but never advanced to nationals.

“I would always get through that first round [at regionals] and the second round would come around to make NCAAs and I was just destroyed,” Alexander says. “I would get to the line and I was already drained, completely drained. No energy. Just with how nervous I was, I was a mess.”

Though Alexander did run the 1200 leg on Oregon’s NCAA-winning DMR team in 2015, he graduated later that spring with a modest 1500 pb of 3:41. He felt he was still capable of running faster and said as much to his coach, Andy Powell. Powell’s response caught him by surprise.

Kyle Merber edges Colby Alexander at the 2016 Aetna Falmouth Mile (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)

“He was like yeah, but I’m sure everybody feels that way, I’m sure everybody feels like they can run faster and stuff,” Alexander says. “And it pissed me off. I was just like Dude, fuck this guy. We’ve been through so much and it kind felt like he gave up on me. But I know he was just kind of playing a trick on me and it certainly worked.”

In his first meet post-college, Alexander ran a pb of 3:40.32 at the Portland Track Festival to qualify for USAs, where he made the final and finished 9th. A week later he ran 3:36.56, which was enough to land him a spot with NJ*NY and HOKA the following year.

Alexander carved out a spot as a solid pro, but every time he raced, he was waging a mental battle with himself, allowing the doubts that go through every miler’s head to overwhelm him. Alexander’s preference is to run near the front of races, but whenever he got there, he’d start to regret it.

These guys are all just gonna sit on me and blow by me at the end, Alexander thought. This sucks.

When he went out more conservatively, the doubts would shapeshift rather than disappear.

What am I doing back here? I need to get up THERE!

Alexander reached a breaking point in May 2021. It was his season opener, the Trials of Miles NYC Qualifier at Icahn Stadium, and as he stepped to the start line, he considered running to the bathroom to avoid the starter’s gun.

This was new. Alexander had always been nervous, but he’d always considered himself a competitor. He was not one to back out of a race.

“I was just like, I need to fix this now,” Alexander says.

Through Nohilly, Alexander connected with sports psychologist Adam Wright, who helped him reframe his approach. Wright taught Alexander to be bold in his racing, and unafraid of failure. Alexander still thinks about being passed when he’s at the front of races, but the sense of impending doom is gone.

“If they’re gonna pass me at the end, they’re gonna have to run really fast to do it,” Alexander says. “They’re going to have to PR to beat me here. That slight switch in my thought process has been huge.”

Alexander hasn’t worked with Wright since last year’s Olympic Trials, but he refers back to their sessions frequently. Before races, he uses a technique called box breathing to calm himself down. And on his phone, Alexander has a notes page of one-word cues he learned from Wright such as “loose” and “fly,” reminders that he will run faster at the end of races if he can avoid tightening up.

***

A decade ago, if you ran 3:33 as an American, you were essentially guaranteed a pro contract. But due to supershoes and the industry’s shift toward a team-based model, the goalposts in American distance running have moved. Noah Droddy ran 2:09:09 marathon in December 2020 and Ben True ran 27:14 for 10,000 in February 2021 yet both spent the majority of last year unsponsored. There were some common bonds: like Alexander, both were 30 or older, and neither wanted to move to join a sponsored team. (Alexander’s fiancee Mary — he proposed on Monday — works for the U.S. Maritime Administration in DC and he wants her to be able to keep her job).

That, plus Alexander’s struggles to stay healthy, meant he received little interest following the 2021 campaign.

“With Colby, his reputation is high-risk, high reward,” says his agent Stephen Haas. “He’s a big talented guy and if he’s on, he’s running really, really well, but he’s spent a lot of time hurt over the last couple years too.”

When you are running fast as an unsponsored athlete, it can come to define you in the insular world of track & field, an unwanted epithet accompanying any mention in a post-race recap — unsponsored Colby Alexander. Alexander has tried his best to ignore this part of his reality, but he admits the money situation is tough. Like many freelancers, Alexander got by in 2020 thanks to stimulus checks and the government’s extended unemployment benefits. He also receives a small stipend from Empire Elite, which is registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and has been working shifts at Potomac River Running Store. But that arrangement may not last much longer.

On Tuesday after Millrose, Haas said he expects Alexander will have a shoe contract “very soon,” perhaps even in time for his next race, the mile at this weekend’s New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Staten Island.

“I think [Millrose] showed some consistency in the last six months from running 3:33 outdoors to running 3:52 indoors and I think a lot of people are a little bit more willing to take a shot now,” Haas says.

The big question now is whether the changes that have propelled Alexander to a new level will prove sustainable. Alexander beat some good athletes at Millrose, but Engels and Wynne will improve. And none of the three 2021 US Olympians, Hocker, Centrowitz, and Nuguse, were in the field. If Alexander is to make his first US team this year, he will have to do more than just stay at his current level. He will have to be even better. He and his coaches believe that is possible.

You can see it coming,” Nohilly says. “It’s there. We just have to do our jobs as coaches, and he as an athlete has to stay healthy, with a little bit of luck also thrown in. He’s obviously a contender at this point.”


Correction: The initial version of this article said that Alexander’s singlet at Millrose was unbranded. In fact, the singlets featured faint branding by Miler Running, the Brooklyn-based brand that provides singlets for Empire Elite.

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