Stacked final set for Sunday.
DES MOINES, IOWA — Hurdler turned middle distance runner Brandon Johnson led seven men under men under the IAAF 800m “A” standard of 1:45.30 on the second day of the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, setting up one of the toughest finals to be contested on Sunday at Drake Stadium.
“I made it out of the heat of death,” said Mike Rutt, the NJ-NY Track Club athlete who was the final qualifier in the second of two semifinals.
Johnson, 28, the 2004 IAAF World Junior Championships silver medalist in the 400m hurdles, showed a powerful sprint in the final 100 meters to beat back the challenge of 2012 Olympic finalist Duane Solomon. Johnson was timed in an personal best 1:44.78 to Solomon’s 1:45.07.
“I’m not surprised that it went that fast in the semis,” Johnson told reporters. “I’m excited; it’s good,” he added.
Behind the two leaders, reigning NCAA indoor and outdoor 800m champion Elijah Greer of the University of Oregon finished third in 1:45.16, and Charles Jock managed to just hold off NJ-NY Track Club’s Brian Gagnon in the final meters to lock in the fourth and final qualifying spot in 1:45.29.
“I felt relatively good, but I didn’t feel, like, sharp, really ready, you know?” explained Greer, while slumped on a bench in the mixed zone. “Hopefully come Sunday I’ll be really ready to turn it over.”
Five-time USA 800m champion Nick Symmonds, notorious for waiting until the final turn to push for victory, instead jumped into the lead at the bell with Oregon Track Club teammate Tyler Mulder, and the duo finished 1-2 in 1:45.22 and 1:45.24, respectively.
“I feel great,” said Symmonds who wasn’t bothered by the 85-degree temperatures. “These are ideal conditions. You hear about these fast times in Monaco (at the IAAF Diamond League meeting); these are the kind of conditions we’re running in. I don’t think we’re going to see times as deep as this on Sunday, certainly not if it’s 95 degrees.”
Iowan Erik Sowinski was in sixth position on the backstretch, but powered through the final turn on the outside to finish third in a personal best 1:45.29, one position ahead of Rutt.
“Guys started making moves early, even 300 meters out,” said Sowinski, the American indoor 600m record holder. “I haven’t been in a race like that all year.”
MONTAÑO & MARTINEZ LEAD WOMEN’S 800M FINALISTS
In heat one of the women’s 800m, Alysia Montaño ran just as she had 29 hours before in the preliminary round: bursting from the gun into the lead. Passing 200 meters in approximately 27.1 seconds, the 27 year-old already had a sizable gap on the field. Following a 400 meter split of 57.24 seconds, her lead would grow to nearly 20 meters down the backstretch.
“To me it doesn’t feel hard. Fast, maybe, but not hard,” she said, clarifying the difference. “I just really wanted to go through and rehearse what I want to do in the final minus the kick.”
Montaño eased across the line in 2:00.14, while four athletes battled for the next three automatic qualifying spots behind. In order, Ajee’ Wilson, Kate Grace, and Stanford University’s Amy Weissenbach came across within seven one-hundredths of a second of one another, leaving 2011 World Championships finalist Maggie Vessey out of the final.
But, the attention was on Montaño, who wasted little effort during the race.
“I just ran through 600 [meters] and coasted through the last 200. In the final I’m expecting to kick,” she said, rating her effort at 90 percent minus the kick.
Third place finisher Grace, who set a personal best of 2:00.96, was looking calmly ahead to Sunday’s final. Her outlook is much different than where she was at last year’s Olympic Trials.
“This time last year at the Trials, I didn’t even get out of the prelims because I was a complete nervous wreck,” she said. “I feel very composed.”
Heat two would go even faster, as Brenda Martinez executed her race strategy to perfection. Waiting until 250 meters to go, Martinez moved with seeming ease, going from fifth at the bell to first in the homestretch and running the fastest time on the day: 1:59.84.
“My plan was to go in and not do any work for 600 meters,” she said. “We tapped into that system where I can take off in the last 200 meters. I felt good, I’ve done it in practice.”
Martinez would be the only woman to break two minutes. The UC Riverside graduate credited her wait-and-go approach to veteran coach Joe Vigil, who has given her confidence in the last 24 months.
“You don’t win it the first lap. I worked on my kick the last two years,” she said. “It’s the Vigil way, the hard way. He’s not playing around.”
Heather Kampf, Geena Gall, and Laura Roesler rounded out the top four, all earning spots in Sunday’s final..
FAVORITES ADVANCE TO STEEPLECHASE FINAL
In the first heat of the men’s 3,000m steeplechase, Craig Forys was first across the line in 8:37.79, leading a pack that at points was three across the blue Drake Stadium track. Finishing fourth was London Olympian Donn Cabral, who repeatedly looked back during the race as if very uncomfortable.
Asked what was different between this point last year — when he finished second at the Olympic Trials — and now, Cabral was candid.
“I’m not running as fast,” he said, staring right into a camera. “A lot of goods, a lot of bads. There’s been a lot of things going on. Something’s up, I just got to figure it out.”
Fellow Olympian and American record holder Evan Jager bided his time among a pack in section two before taking the lead for good. His finishing time was 8:45.85, less than a half second up on Daniel Huling with whom he trains under coach Jerry Schumacher in Portland, Ore.
“I’m really confident coming into this weekend,” Jager said. “I needed a hard effort to wake my legs up.”
KEY JUNIOR RESULTS
The state of Texas swept the junior 800m national titles. Baylor University’s Olicia Williams won the girls championship in 2:06.35, while Texas Tech’s Nicholas Rivera took the men’s in 1:49.55.
Syracuse University’s Brianna Nerud timed 10:15.67 for the women’s junior 3000m steeplechase win, her second title in a row.
“I’m really happy. This race is always so much fun and a great experience,” said the Syracuse University student-athlete.
Matt McClintock of Purdue University won the junior men’s 10,000m in 31:14.31, the final event of the day.