DES MOINES (23-Jun) -- One year ago in Sacramento, Calif., reigning Olympic 1500m champion Matthew Centrowitz walked slowly off of the track at Hornet Stadium after finishing second in the 1500m at the USATF Outdoor Track & Field Championships. Beset by both injury and illness in the months leading up to the race, the combative four-time national outdoor champion wasn't at full strength, and was just relieved that he had qualified for another national team.
PHOTO: Matthew Centrowitz wins his fifth national outdoor 1500m title at the 2018 USATF Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Drake Stadium in 3:43.37 (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly),/b>
"Today, third is as good as first," Centrowitz said at the time. "But, also disappointed that I couldn't win it."
But here in Des Moines today, Centrowitz once again showed his class now that he is at full health. Starting out at the back of a very competitive 1500m final, Centrowitz took stock of the race, reacted wisely to all of the key moves, then overpowered ten men who were right on his heels in a mass sprint to win his fifth national 1500m outdoor title (to go along with his two indoor titles) in 3:43.37
"He always makes running look much easier than it is," marveled his Nike Oregon Project teammate Eric Jenkins who finished third in 3:43.74.
But Centrowitz's view of the race was more critical. When the contest opened up on the backstretch in the penultimate lap Centrowitz said he was caught out of position.
"I actually found myself in a really bad position," Centrowitz told reporters. "With 700 to go I was out in lane three, probably like in eighth, seventh or something, and I had to go around a lot of guys."
Centrowitz kept his cool, worked his way to the front and was sitting in third at the bell.
"I just tried to stay relaxed 'cause I knew that homestretch was going to be windy, that last 100 meters. I wanted to save a little extra something for there."
That last 100 became a massive fight for position with no room for error. Centrowitz was in the right spot in the center of the track and was able to complete a 53.4-second circuit to put the race away. Behind him, the next 10 men finished in the span of just 79/100ths of a second, including Izaic Yorks who got second (3:43.63). Yorks said he has been working on being more aggressive and holding his position.
"I've always been on the side of being a little more timid," explained Yorks. "I've really worked on being more aggressive, being a little bit better holding your ground and position."
With the sting of his disappointment from last year still on his mind, Centrowitz felt grateful to have such a good performance today.
"I don't take these national titles for granted," Centrowitz said. "Even with an off-year with no Olympic or world championships." He added: "I think at this point in my career I want to keep checking off boxes and leave my mark in the 1500 in the U.S."
In the women's metric mile, the fans in Drake Stadium were treated to showdown between two Iowa natives, Jenny Simpson (Webster City) and Shelby Houlihan (Sioux City). Simpson, 31, last year's IAAF World Championships silver medalist, had won the last four national 1500m crowns. Houlihan, 25, has four USA indoor titles, but has never won on the big oval. At last month's Prefontaine Classic, Houlihan won the race in a career best time of 3:59.06, and Simpson finished third. It was a fan-favorite rematch.
PHOTO: The lead pack of the women's 1500m final at the 2018 USATF Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Drake Stadium (front row, left to right, Kate Grace, Jenny Simpson, and Brenda Martinez; second row, Shelby Houlihan (partially obscured) and Lauren Johnson (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly),/b>
Today, both women were at the back of the pack through the first lap, content to let the race play out and to keep an eye on each other. Indeed, with two laps to go they were in 11th and 12th place, respectively.
The pace did not get going until Houlihan's Nike Bowerman Track Club teammate Kate Grace threw in a powerful surge just after the bell for the final lap was rung. Grace was chased by Brenda Martinez, Simpson, and Houlihan. With 200 meters to go, Grace was still leading with Simpson second and Houlihan third and gaining ground, but seemingly not fast enough. Going into the homestretch, she was still behind Simpson.
"The last, like, hundred I was, like, you just got to pull even, then hopefully have a little kick the last 50," Houlihan said in her post-race interview. "I was just hoping that she wouldn't be able to respond to that."
Indeed, Houlihan went by Simpson with authority to break the tape in 4:05.58 to Simpson's 4:06.21. Grace was third in 4:07.04. Martinez was unable to finish.
"I never felt like I really had it because I know she's a fighter, and she's probably right behind me," said a relieved Houlihan.
Simpson, who has been the dominant American miler since winning the world title in 2011, was disappointed, but satisfied with how she raced.
PHOTO: Emma Coburn is chased by Courtney Frerichs in the penultimate lap of the women's steeplechase final at the 2018 USATF Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Drake Stadium (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly),/b>
"People will go on and debate on whether I made the right choice to leave it down to a kick, but I thought going hard from the gun or from far out was the most predictable thing I could do, and it came down to who had the better kick." She added: "I'm totally bummed but I guess I have a lot of practice at losing as well as winning."
Simpson's good friend and fellow University of Colorado alum Emma Coburn fared better today in the final of the women's steeplechase. In a replay of last summer's IAAF World Championships, where Coburn won gold and Courtney Frerichs silver, Coburn held off her top rival to collect her seventh national steeplechase title in a stadium record 9:17.70. Frerichs finished second in 9:18.69, while Mel Lawrence got third in 9:33.30.
Neither woman reacted when Katy Kunc went out hard from the gun, and both stayed near the front of the chase pack until Kunc was caught with five laps to go. The pace stayed level for the next three laps, and with two laps to go Coburn and Frerichs pulled away to fight it out for the win. Coburn ran the penultimate lap in 67.6, the squeezed out a 64.5 for the final circuit, a pace Frerichs couldn't match.
"I came into it thinking just run relaxed, then the last, somewhere between three laps to go and 700 to go, really make a shift and go hard," Coburn told Race Results Weekly. "I knew Courtney is really good at hanging tough, especially when we're slowly squeezing it down. I just thought, I'm going to shoot out like a cannon and try to drop her."
Frerichs was ready for Coburn's move, and had hoped to cover it.
"I felt really good going into that last lap," Frerichs told the media. "It's just what we wanted. I wanted to be there with 400 to go." She added: "I just need to keep working on that faster pace."
Middle and long distance action continues on the final day of these championships tomorrow with finals in the men's and women's 800m and 5000m, and the men's steeplechase.