Jenny Simpson, Nick Willis Win 2015 5th Avenue Mile

Jenny Simpson eked out the victory over a strong field. (Photo: Jane Monti/Race Results Weekly)

(c) 2015 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

NEW YORK —Experience reigned supreme here at the 35th running of the NYRR 5th Avenue Mile, as American Jenny Simpson and New Zealander Nick Willis claimed their fourth and third titles, respectively. Both used late kicks to separate from their competition, breaking the tape in 4:29.0 and 3:54.8, respectively.

After a long season that saw Simpson win the U.S. 1500m national title, narrowly miss setting an American 1500m record in Monaco, and finish a devastating 11th at the IAAF World Championships with only one shoe and a badly bruised left foot, the 29-year-old wanted to conclude her season with a resounding victory here in Manhattan. Having raced two days ago in Brussels, Simpson came to New York a bit fatigued but with more intrinsic motivation than anyone else in the field.

“Anything less than winning here was going to be a disappointment for me, personally, so I said the year would be complete when I really put my nose down and get this one done,” Simpson told members of the media.

RELATED: Photos: 2015 5th Avenue Mile

On the start line, Simpson and fellow pre-race favorite Shannon Rowbury were lined up on direct opposite sides of the road. Little did anyone know that their starting spots nearly played a key factor in the race’s outcome: at the start, Rowbury—the American 1500m record holder—narrowly avoided disaster as the television motorcycle stalled at the start. Having to quickly dart to her left to avoid a collision, Rowbury went to the front and was joined by Simpson and Heather Kampf.

Through the quarter mile in 68 seconds and halfway in 2:20.3, the entire field was cautiously preparing for a fast second half. First across halfway was 800m specialist Alysia Montano, setting herself up for a $1,000 prize if she could dip under 4:32 at the finish.

As soon as the group began their slightly downhill charge for the stripe, Simpson and Rowbury established a modest gap up front. Just behind were Susan Kuijken, to their right and Kampf, to their left, battling for podium spots as well. Simpson’s strategy coming in was to wait as long as possible before kicking, and that’s what she did.

With the crowd’s cheers growing, Simpson found an added gear that would carry her through the finish first in 4:29.0, a mere three-tenths of a second up on Rowbury. With her win, Simpson becomes the only woman in event history to earn four titles (Spain’s Isaac Viciosa is the only male to win four, taking home crowns in four successive years from 1995 through 1998).

“It just felt good the last 15 seconds knowing I was going to be able to grind to the win,” said Simpson, who picked up a $5,000 winner’s check. “Winning here was really important to me.”

Simpson’s victory was even more meaningful considering she battled rival Rowbury for supremacy. The pair have raced neck and neck all season long, finishing close week in and week out. Rowbury is a two-time champion of this race.

“I hope it’s been fun for everyone [to watch] because it’s really hard, really stressful, but I think it’s good for our sport to have us facing every weekend and battling it out,” said Simpson, noting how she’s always cherished one-on-one rivalries against other athletes. In college she always would go up against Sally Kipyego, and when she specialized in the steeplechase it was Anna Willard. Now it is Rowbury. “I think it’s good, especially for a race on ESPN. If they are going to put this on television like that, what a great story to bring to the starting line. I hope everyone enjoyed it because it was stressful for me!”

“Jenny got me at the end today,” said Rowbury, sporting her signature pink lipstick. “I figured it would be the two of us battling for the win and that’s how it turned out… If I look at the sum of the season, it’s been a big plus!”

While Simpson and Rowbury were happy with their races, their weekends paled in comparison to third place finisher Kuijken. Her podium spot was only the cherry on top to a memorable weekend. After arriving in New York, the Dutchwoman was running in Central Park with her boyfriend Andrew Krumins when they paused by the iconic reservoir. There he proposed to Kuijken, who said yes.

“It was a beautiful perfect setting and I was doing what I love to do most, running, so I couldn’t think of a better time to do this!” Kuijken told Race Results Weekly, smiling from ear to ear. “Now we get to celebrate here in New York!”

Kampf finished fourth in 4:30.2.  Rowbury also won the halfway prime (Montano, who led at 880 yards, wound up 11th in 4:35.4). Kampf was followed by Heather Wilson (4:31.7) and Treniere Moser (4:31.9).

Willis Caps Off Season With Big Victory

Having already run here four times and taken home the win in 2008 and 2013, Nick Willis was considered a seasoned veteran in the men’s field. Well aware of the race’s slightly uphill profile through halfway, the Kiwi sat back comfortably and waited until late to make his winning move.

With the field eight abreast approaching 880 yards, it was Americans Ford Palmer and Riley Masters surging hard aiming to reach the halfway point first. Palmer, the former football player, wound up leading in 2:04, though would have to break four minutes in order to take home the prime bonus (he did not, finishing in 4:00.9).

The field would fall back into form through the kilometer, a giant blur of multi-colored singlets taking up one and a half lanes of the roadway.

While a number of athletes in the field had been racing the European circuit in recent weeks, Willis was back home in Michigan. He had returned to the mitten state after finishing sixth at the IAAF World Championships, a frustrating performance for the 2008 Olympic silver medalist. After acing a grueling 2×800, 2×400, 600 workout on Wednesday, he came here with confidence in his kick.

“I knew whatever the pace was I should be ready for whatever,” he told Race Results Weekly. “You’re never licking your chops [though] when Matt Centrowitz is in the race. He’s got a lot of very, very good credentials. Often it comes down to who’s more committed at this stage of the season, and he’s raced a lot this year and I’ve only had three or four races.”

Down the final stretch, Willis exemplified what a world class surge looks like leaving Centrowitz, past champion Bernard Lagat, and the rest of the field in his wake. Taking over the pole with a vengeance, he’d extend his lead and raise his arms to pump up the crowd approaching the finish. Breaking the tape in 3:54.8, Willis tied running legend Peter Elliott with three victories over the iconic Museum Mile stretch.

“It’s a really nice way to finish the season,” said Willis who lost to Centrowitz at New York’s other iconic mile, the NYRR Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games, last February.  “I was quite dismayed after what happened in Beijing, so I wanted to make sure I hung the shoes up for the year with a high.”

Second went to Britain’s Chris O’Hare (3:55.9), with Norway’s Henrik Ingebrigtsen and American Centrowitz a step behind (both timed 3:56.1, with third place ultimately going to Ingebrigtsen). Australia’s Ryan Gregson rounded out the top five in 3:56.2.

After two tough races this week–a DNF in Zagreb and a 10th place, 3:43.97 showing in Brussels—O’Hare gained a bit of momentum to take into the offseason.

“My other two races were pretty dreadful. Today I felt terrible at the start but I was like ‘just get in the mix’ and instincts take over,” he said. “Everybody’s waiting, waiting, waiting and I wanted to make sure I got a jump in… It’s a long last 50 meters though.”

A bit of drama played out regarding the men’s halfway prime, as both Palmer and Masters didn’t dip under the required four minutes (4:00.9 and 4:00.2, respectively). Next up would be Christian Soratos, who missed it by the slimmest of margins hitting 4:00.0 on the dot. Therefore, the $1000 went to Garrett Heath, eighth overall in 3:57.3.

Earlier in the day, Reed Connor of the New Jersey/New York Track Club and Valentine Kibet of Westchester TC claimed NYRR Road Mile Championship titles in 4:06.2 and 4:47.6, respectively. Former high school standout Mikey Brannigan placed fifth in the men’s race, clocking 4:09.9. Also in that race was Jenny Simpson’s husband, Jason, who finished 14th in 4:13.7.

A vast majority of the elites racing today are now done for the season, and will begin their time away from running starting today.

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