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Murphy_ClaytonQ-World15.jpgClayton Murphy, photo by PhotoRun.net

NCAA Champion has Decision to Make

Eugene, Oregon

Just over 50 years ago, The Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian posed the musical question:

"Did you ever have to make up your mind?

You pick up on one and leave the other behind.

It's not often easy and not often kind.

Did you ever have to make up your mind?"

Suddenly, University of Akron middle distance star Clayton Murphy will have to make up his mind. For more than a month, the New Paris, Ohio native - the reigning 800m champion at Drake, the Pan-Am Games, and the NCAA indoor championships - had affirmed he would be competing in the 1500 meters at the NCAA outdoor championships and dropping down to the 800 meters at next month's Olympic Trials. But all that has changed now in light of Day Three developments here at the 2016 NCAA outdoor track & field championships. Murphy's oft-repeated proclamation to run the 800 meters at the Trials will now be subject to further review in light of Murphy's electrifying 3:36.38 win in the NCAA 1500 meter final - a seemingly-effortless performance by the Akron junior whose winning margin was a whopping 1.68 seconds over Washington's Izaic Yorks.

As the final unfolded, Murphy lurked near the front as others took the race through 400m in 56 seconds and 800m in 1:56. "That's the fastest I've ever gone out in a mile or 1500," revealed a relaxed and frankly stunned Murphy in the mixed zone. At the bell, the multiple-time Mid-American Conference middle distance champion was tucked in third as Yorks drove the race past 1200m in 2:53. Down the backstretch, Murphy pulled up behind Yorks and Virginia's Henry Wynne - the NCAA indoor mile champion - with 200 meters to go. Coming off the Bowerman curve, Murphy - who just missed making the 800m final at last year's World Championships in Beijing - simply slid over into lane 2 and stepped on the gas. In an instant, the race was over. After decisively powering past first Wynne, then Yorks, the normally-expressionless Murphy allowed himself a quick pre-finish smile as he crossed the line in the 8th fastest 1500 meter time in NCAA history. No American has ever run faster in any prior NCAA 1500 meter final.

After the race, the always-composed Murphy noted the quick pace did not catch him by surprise. "I was expecting fast. I don't know if I was expecting a 56 second first lap," explained the new champion. "It felt comfortable. And when I saw 56 coming through I thought, 'that's faster than I've ever gone before.' After I saw the split at 800, it was all about racing people."

Good early race positioning and a stinging final quick sprint were all part of the pre-race game plan "Warming up, I was kind of making the decision of when I would try to move - it was 200. In the race, I had a little bigger gap at 200 than I thought so I decided at 100 I would go as hard as I can. I heard Coach say 'Go now' at 125. That was earlier than I'd planned, but I needed to do something." Coach Labadie saw no need to employ anything elaborate. "The race strategy was pretty simple. We figured that two of the guys [Yorks and Wynne] were going to take it out because they wanted to win - that's the object of a championship race," explains the Akron middle distance coach. "He was just to stay out of trouble, stay in position, keep contact, and with 300 meters or less to go, then win it," reveals Labadie, himself a 3:58.8 miler at Illinois back in the early 70's. "And that's exactly what you saw him do. He was racing for the win. Others have seen what Clayton can do the last 400 meters when the pace is on the slow side. But nobody has seen what Clayton can do when the pace is on the fast side - until today."

Murphy's unexpected breakthrough clocking in the 1500 will force the middle distance star and his distance coach Lee Labadie to huddle and reconsider which event - the 800m or the 1500m - offers the best pathway to a berth on the U.S. Olympic team. "I think both events can be very difficult," declares Labadie. "The 800 this year has some old veterans and a bunch of new faces, so it's going to be challenging. If everybody shows up and they're healthy, then you'll see real tough competition. And that's a tough decision - not an easy one to make. And we're just going to have to evaluate what we're going to do. It was always thought that the 15 could be a possibility, too. Now it's a reality. And we'll just have to sit down and look at it and see what's best for him." Neither the athlete nor the coach feel rushed to make this important choice. "I doubt we'll make it in the next couple of days," adds Labadie. "But it's not going to be a deadline thing."

The difficult and important decision the athlete and his coach will need to make became even more complicated just an hour after Murphy's breakthrough 1500. In the NCAA 800m final, Texas A&M freshman Donovan Brazier - one of those new faces - tucked in behind 2014 NCAA 800m champion Brandon McBride as the Mississippi State athlete threw down a blistering opening quarter in 50.48. The duo battled over the final 200m until Brazier unleashed an impressive surge coming off the final curve to pull away for the win. His winning time - a stunning 1:43.55 - set new collegiate, championship, and Hayward Field records. For Labadie - who has seen it all over the past 50 years - these types of youthful breakthroughs are not unexpected. "You have the old guard and then you have the youngsters. And that's always what makes our Trials a fantastic track meet. There is this really neat competition that goes on."

For Murphy - who has the Olympic standard for 800m, but is still .18 seconds shy of the needed Olympic clocking for the 1500m - his weekend of racing is not yet over. Sunday evening he'll participate in the Portland Track Festival competing in the 1500 meters against the likes of Will Leer, Matthew Centrowitz, Hassan Mead, and Nick Symmonds. "Part of the reason we're running the 1500 meters [at Lewis & Clark College] is at the Trials there are three rounds and at the Olympics there are three rounds. And this [trio of races] is good for his training for now and for the future. And it also allows us to evaluate his training between now and the Trials. The thinking is: Can you run 3 races in 5 days and in the last race break that 3:36 barrier?"

Surrounded by media types in the mixed zone, Clayton Murphy took a moment to reply when asked which middle distance race is his better event. "I don't know," stated Murphy after a brief pause, knowing he must eventually face up to the Sebastian quandary. "I guess that's something I have to figure out. I'll be talking with Coach over the weekend and we'll see what happens." Offering a final reflection on his performance before leaving the press tent, the new NCAA 1500 meter champion added, "I expected to run under 3:40 for sure. But I guess I wasn't expecting I would run 3:36 today." Nobody else was either.

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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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