By Joe Navas
The New Balance Indoor Grand Prix rolled into Boston for its 20th edition on Saturday night, bringing many competitors who have become usual suspects, some newcomers, a few local rising stars, and a couple of veterans who showed they’ve got plenty left in the tank.
As has become tradition in the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center’s annual hosting of this event, the evening kicked off with the Masters Mile, featuring as strong a field as has ever competed here.
Local faves Chris Magill of the BAA and GBTC’s Chris Blondin and Titus Mutinda were joined by 10 more 40+ speedsters from around the U.S., the most decorated of which was none other than ’92 Olympian John Trautmann. Trautmann first ran the Masters mile here in 2011, when he was just getting back into the pain of the mile. The talent was there, and the heart was willing, but the body needed time to come back. The fire didn’t take long to reignite, as Trautmann’s 2011 time of 4:37 became a 4:24 last year, which might have won were it not for the untimely (for him) coronation of a new local Masters powerhouse in Mike Galoob. But this year, Trautmann looked even leaner, stronger and hungrier.
Trautmann stayed in the middle of the pack for the first four laps, as Blondin pushed through the halfway mark in 2:11, but Trautmann had a faster result in mind, and as the frontrunner eased into a more sane pace, the ’91-’92 US national 5000m champ ratcheted it up and began to build a lead, one that became nearly four and a half seconds over his nearest challenger by the time he broke the tape following a feverish, relentless drive down the homestretch. Trautmann was well aware of the meet record that had stood for four years, the 4:19.72 posted by the ageless Charlie Kern in 2011, and his pained, driving expression bore that out as he kicked it in for a new meet record 4:18.73.
Peter Brady came in at 4:23 for 2nd, a time that would have won the mile in many previous editions, and first-half leader Blondin came in at 4:30 for 8th.
The Boys Distance Medley Relay featured a young athlete who would surprise no one were he to show up in one of the big pro events here a few years from now. The Lasalle team began the final leg of the relay in 2nd place, trailing Amherst by nearly 3 seconds, with Mansfield close behind with a speedy closer on their roster. However, Lasalle’s not-so-secret weapon was none other than sophomore David Principe, Jr., the kid who’s been seen crushing competition of all ages for longer than seems possible, the same kid who, at just 13, ran 5:40 pace for 4 hot miles at the Run 4 Kerri in 2012. He closed the gap and held off a chase by Mansfield’s final man to seal the title for Lasalle, finishing with a 4:19.48 leg and giving the team a 10:18.14 total.
The Girls Mile was a runaway, no-contest win for Ryen Frazier of North Carolina in a meet record 4:44, but carried along in that “easy” victory was the rather serendipitous factoid that the woman who’s record she took, one Emily Lipari, was warming up somewhere nearby in anticipation of her match against the formidable competition she’d be facing as a member of BAA’s elite team in the women’s 1000 meters.
Lipari stayed in the hunt for the first 3 of the 5 laps of the race, but in the end, the likes of Moser, Cain, Uceny and Lagat proved too much and she placed 8th, a still very respectable 7 seconds off the win in 2:45.
Prior to that event, the Men’s 1000m featured an expected combination of 800 and 1600 meter runners, with, as expected, Matt Centrowitz having the tools it takes to win, doing so handily in 2:17 flat to Matt Casey’s 2:18.3.
Yet another record fell as the Women’s Distance Medley took to the oval.
At the outset, the mission was for someone, anyone to take down a world record that seemed ripe for the taking, what with 3 stacked teams ready to duke it out in the form of two New Balance-sponsored squads (one from the USA, one from Ireland) and a likewise solid team from New York, along with Northeastern, Harvard and Boston College filling out the lineup.
The big three pro teams were tightly matched from the outset. Going into the final leg, NB-USA and NY were nearly neck and neck, with NB passing off to Brenda Martinez and NY giving it to Nicole Tully.
Tully took the lead with less than 400 meters to go and did so with such conviction that it appeared that much like last year, when the Mens 4×800 record fell (but not by who’s effort it was expected to), this record would not be signed by the presumed hand.
Even as the final turn was rounded, it looked as if this result might hold, but Martinez and her well-known furious speed proved too much for the courageous Tully to fight off and NB-USA became owners of the world record in 10:42.57.
The Men’s Mile featured New Zealand legend Nick Willis, who at 31, an age when milers have already begun looking to either the 5000 meters or coaching, is unwittingly setting records and gearing himself up for another run at an Olympic medal to accompany his 2008 Silver from Beijing.
Willis found himself in the midst of a tactical race for the first few laps, as it looked as if the winning time might see a furious dash to see who could win in 3:58. However, the field began to splinter as the laps counted down and got faster, with Ben Blankenship and Willis tearing away on the last 200, a lap that saw Willis not only throw down a searing 26.18 final trip, but in the process, find in his possession his home country’s mile record, one that had been previously held by the also-legendary John Walker, who had held the mark since 1981. Willis’ new national record of 3:51.61 (which was also a new meet record) is a mark that should stand for a while, unless he lowers it himself in the near future. Also in the field was a young man with local roots: Riley Masters. Young Mr. Masters ran a incredible 3:56.15 and finished 4th.
The performance many anticipated was that of newly minted Master Bernard Lagat, he of Olympic, World Championship, World Indoor medals and probably even a Stanley Cup and/or a crystal football or two along the way.
Lagat turned 40 this year, looking - and in most ways running - no different than he did at 28. The man with perhaps the most patented, predictable final-turn move in the history of track racing was set to go up against the infinite gears of Dejen Gebremeskel for 3000 meters. That wasn’t even all the ever fit, Kenya-US transplant had to worry about. The ever-smashingly appointed Will Leer, having a rather notable couple of years himself, was ready to roll.
Leer led for laps 9-12, running confidently and appearing ready for whatever surge may come, but Gebremeskel, perhaps concerned that the pace hadn’t been quick enough to burn any of Lagat’s kick, took off to the front with 600 to go.
Lagat roared back and took the lead with less than 400 meters left, holding it until Gebremeskel delivered the most vicious irony in coming off the final turn to pass Lagat down the stretch, raising his finger in a “number one” sign, still 10 meters out and holding a mere two foot lead on the all-in Lagat.
Lagat, for his part, laid the former world record to waste in 7:48 and couldn’t help but smile afterwards, knowing that he’d very much pushed one of the best in the world, a man who in 2011 on this very track beat Mo Farah while wearing only one shoe. It should also be noted that the top four competitors all finished in a span of .61 seconds. This race surely lived up to the high expectations that preceded it.
The stage was set for the night’s marquee – and final - event, which was going to have big shoes to fill, considering what great tales had preceded it, but as the women were announced for the Women’s 2 Mile, the tone of the packed house went from merely excited to feverish.
Perhaps it was the memory of last year’s miscounted laps, or maybe it was the arena announcer’s attempt at pulling off a very convincing Chris Collinsworth impersonation in relentlessly referencing Jenny Simpson’s early victory relaxation in 2014, but whatever it was, the crowd rose to their feet to welcome the national hero in her attempt at redemption.
Simpson was facing a strong challenge in the form of three Ethiopian stars in Sentanyehu Ejigu, Buze Diriba and Gotytom Gebreslase and were she the timid type, and especially since the race would feature a rabbit for the first 1200 meters, it might have seemed wise to sit with the pack and deploy her considerable weaponry when needed.
Apparently, Simpson didn’t just want to win, she wanted that, everything else and perhaps a little more.
As the pacesetter, Heather Wilson, stepped off, Simpson just held the lead, never giving it up as the race went from tight with 400 meters left, to utter atonement for Simpson and destruction and horror for the three bewildered challengers from East Africa.
With 2 laps to go, Simpson took off, pulling away with a 33 second lap and then following that with a completely uncontested final 200 meters - as if to remind herself, the announcer and anyone else who cared that mistakes fade quickly when you right them with an exclamation point - in 30 seconds.
As the crowd shook the rafters and Simpson, ever-gracious, waved to and acknowledged as many supporters as she could, the clock read 9:18.35, a new American record by a whopping 5 seconds over the 9:23.38 Regina Jacobs clocked in 2002 on the same track.
Simpson, as the announcer noted, took the slowest victory lap ever around the new surface at the Reg., as if to sign it, on behalf of herself and every one of the 5000+ who made that last lap as fast as it was, and the exclamation point that much bigger.
Thanks once again to Joe Navas for making the trek from the Cape to cover this event for us. He failed to report anything on the MBTA Youth Relay though. We’re guessing that several handoffs were delayed due to mechanical problems and that a couple of legs were cancelled at the last minute. Those poor kids. Also, all photos are courtesy of Joe Navas/Organic Photography (additional photos here).