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 Hill_Ryan-USAInd16.JPgRyan Hill, photo by PhotoRun.net

There is a reason the schedulers planned to close Day One of the 2016 USATF indoor championships with the women's and men's 3000 meter runs. Some may note these middle distance competitions were the only running event finals of the day. But perhaps a more compelling reason is they promised to be hard-fought battles and - in the case of the men's race - featured athletes with 4 of the world's top eleven 3K marks this indoor season.

For sure, it wasn't difficult to find other delicious little morsels of excellence on the opening day menu of events. Man Mountain Colin Dunbar - sporting a Goliath physique and a WWF-esque hair style - outdueled 9-time national champion A.G. Kruger to win the weight throw with a world-leading heave of 23.96m/78'7½". Erik Kynard assembled a tidy and pristine high jump card - 5 attempts and 5 clearances - including the winning jump of 2.29m/7'6" as Little Kobe successfully defended his national title. Shot put diva Michelle Carter displayed Olympic year form as she dished up a world-leading winning put of 19.49m/63'11½. In capturing the pole vault, Sam Kendricks showed he's ready for next week's St. Patrick's Day global vault showdown with a winning P.R. clearance of 5.90m/19'4¼" which ranks him as the #4 world performer this indoor season. And Bowerman Award honoree Marquis Dendy, forsaking the TJ to focus on the LJ, delivered a plateful of jumps which included a savory, world-leading leap of 8.41m/27'7¼" to capture the national crown.

But USATF's main dish on this first day was a double serving of 3000 meter finals - two good, old-fashioned track throw downs positioned to close Day One by giving us just a little taste of what Day Two may have in store.

In the women's 3000, world championship 10,000 meter bronze medalist Emily Infeld jumped out front early and led the field of 17 through the first kilometer in an honestly-paced 2:58. Marielle Hall, Leah O'Connor, and Abbey D'Agostino fell in line while defending champion Shannon Rowbury was tucked in on the rail in 5th position. Shelby Houlihan moved up to join the front pack as the racers split 6:04 for 2K. With 900 meters remaining, Hall moved to the lead with hopes of launching a successful, long drive to the finish. The quickened pace did not allow the former Texas star to break away as Houlihan, D'Agostino, and the patient Rowbury all covered Hall's move. Rowbury - who at Thursday's press conference had identified the importance of "being in the moment" as a critical component of her middle distance racing success - did just that. After calmly and alertly assessing her competitors with 3 laps remaining, the Duke graduate struck with 400 meters to go. With a vicious acceleration, Rowbury quickly left the other front runners in her wake. Rowbury's impressive final 400m in 61.51 to cap off a closing kilometer in 2:51 ensured the successful defense of her title as the jubilant athlete crossed the line in 8:55.65. D'Agostino [8:57.31] rallied for second while a fast-closing Shalaya Kipp [8:59.85] got up for third.

After the race, the relaxed champion provided insights into her pre-race thinking and the decisions she faces going forward. "The first priority was just to get through today and give myself the option [to double]," explains Rowbury who last year captured the indoor crowns in both the 3000m and the 1500m and came here prepared to defend both titles. "If I didn't have Worlds next weekend, there would be no question that I'd be doing the double and trying to get it again. With Worlds being a week away and there being rounds, I have to talk to Coach [Salazar] and just see what he thinks is the best plan. My number one priority now that I am on the U.S. team is bringing home a medal next week."

In the afterglow of her seemingly easy victory in the 3000m, Rowbury was effusive about her willingness to undertake the challenge of attempting yet another indoor double. "I would love to do it! I feel like I just ran a hard 400. But who knows? The adrenalin can do crazy things to your body. So, we'll see," laughs Rowbury.

Even if she would undertake and successfully duplicate last year's double this weekend, Rowbury has already ruled out any attempted double at next week's World Championships. "The double would be a bit more than I think would be manageable - at least for someone like myself," she admits. "With four races in three days and with them being so close together, I don't think I would doing the U.S. justice." The new 3000m champion knows that race would be the one in which she would compete at next weekend's global gathering. "The plan has been to do the 3K in this indoor season. So it worked out nicely that the 3K was first at U.S. Champs. I made the team in that. I have a guaranteed spot for the U.S. team in the 3K, so now the plan is 'how do I get medal in the 3K next weekend?'"

The men's 3000 - later revealed to be a carefully-scripted science experiment concocted by the elite of the Bowerman Track Club - was a most fitting, concluding event for Day One. Jerry Schumacher's thoroughbreds had crafted a special plan guaranteed not only to ensure a fast pace, but also to challenge a depleted Galen Rupp [still recovering from his Olympic Trials marathon win less than 4 weeks ago] and the mysterious and always-dangerous Bernard Lagat [whose lack of racing left others guessing as to his current fitness level]. At the opening gun and as covertly planned, Andrew Bayer jumped out quickly to lead the first kilometer, passed in 2:31. Bowerman teammate Lopez Lomong then took the reins and kept the heat on as he pulled his teammates Evan Jager, Bayer, Ryan Hill and Brooks' Garrett Heath through 2K's in 5:07. When pace-setting Lomong stepped off, Jager took charge as the steeplechase specialist pushed the pace with Hill, Bayer, and Heath in tow. Bayer soon let go, as the remaining trio entered the final two laps. Hill, the reigning national champion at 3000m indoors and 5000m outdoors and the beneficiary of upfront work performed by his training partners, made his move with 300 meters remaining. He quickly shook his teammates but - unknown to Hill - his surge was not able to discourage Paul Chelimo and Eric Jenkins who had taken advantage of a pace lag by the frontrunners to claw their way back into the race. Chelimo's valiant effort over the final circuit was thwarted by Hill [7:38.59 / #2 on the world list] as the two-time world championship 5000 meter finalist was able to summon a final gear over the last 100 meters to successfully defend his title as Chelimo [7:39.00] crossed second, Jenkins [7:41.19] finished 3rd, and the 41 year old Lagat [7:41.25] - still successfully fending off Father Time - finished 4th.

Candid in the post-race mixed zone, the repeat champion was quick to give credit to his Bowerman teammates for executing the speedy race plan they assembled together. "Well, I benefitted the most from the plan because I didn't have to do any work," notes Hill with a nod to Bayer, Lomong, and Jager. "But the other three guys wanted it to be in the 7:30's anyway. So it was a thrust on them to make it fast." But Hill is quick to add, "But I benefitted the best from it."

Given the division of thinking among athletes, Hill shared his strong feelings about the importance of the indoor season. "To me, indoor track is really important," Hill declares unequivocally. "You can't just sit around and obsess about outdoor track. I think you have time for two peaks. It's healthy to peak in March and then come down for the outdoor season. It's just important as outdoors for me - especially since I think the 3K is my best event. So I want to bring it for indoors."

The 2-time national indoor 3000m champion is already planning his best way to be ready for next week's global 3000m battle. "I'm going to have to take it easy the next couple of days, do like one workout on Tuesday, and hopefully come back. It will probably be a tactical prelim [on Friday] and hopefully I'll have a good kick and can make it through [to Sunday's final]."

Before leaving, Ryan Hill took a moment to reflect on the highlights of what he has accomplished in the past 12 months - two indoor 3000 titles; an outdoor 5000 crown; and an 8th place finish in the world championship 5000 meter final; and an impressive 5000 PR improvement to 13:05.69 - and what those successes have meant to his confidence "It's right where it should be in what should be the peak of my career. I have built up to that. And hopefully there's a little bit more potential in the upcoming years."

In some corners, there had been lingering skepticism about what the vitality of this gathering might be given the decision by more than a few marquee athletes to bypass these indoor championships in this Olympic year. But if Day One's tasty - and teasing - 3000 meter appetizers are any indication of the smorgasbord of track & field finals that await, Day Two should provide us with a most satisfying banquet of world class performances.

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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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