Trying to figure out which runner is going to run which event at NCAA's is often a relatively easy task, especially during outdoors where distance relays don't play a role. Rarely do you see national title contenders stray from their dominant event that they have built their reputation upon for the past few years.
In 2019, the men's national picture for the distance events looks pretty straight forward. Morgan McDonald and Grant Fisher will battle it out in the 5000 meters and may even pursue other events like the 10k or 1500 (but it is far more likely that they just settle 5k). In the meantime, Oliver Hoare will highlight the 1500 and will be flanked by a slew of elite milers such as Comber, Nuguse, Suliman, Villarreal, Worley, and Paulson (among others). Even the 800 will be flooded with a handful of familiar names despite Robert Heppenstall sitting out for the entirety of the spring season.
NAU's Geordie Beamish may be the only big-name with an unclear path to Nationals given his ability to move in distance to the 5000 meters (although that may be a bit more unlikely now after running 3:39 this past weekend).
In simple terms, they have it all figured out.
The women, however, are an entirely different story.
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The top female talents have left many fans of the NCAA scratching their heads and wondering what we can expect from these superstars in late May and early June. Many women have not yet debuted in their best event while others haven't debuted at all. Some national title favorites are showing off their dynamic fitness in a variety of events while others are content on sitting back and watching the NCAA leaderboard evolve with each passing week.
With so many unknowns in play, it feels impossible to properly balance postseason expectations.
Let's start with Jessica Hull, the Oregon Duck who has accomplished enough to potentially earn herself a spot on the Mount Rushmore of collegiate distance running. Her 1500 title win from last spring is what truly caught the attention of many result-stalking fans who realized that Hull could be a major threat to Dani Jones once both women were able to toe the same starting line on the track (which may never happen).
After a spectacular cross country season, Hull moved up in distance to the 3000 meters at Indoor Nationals, voluntarily facing a far more difficult field than what the mile had to offer. That, however, didn't matter as she briskly pulled away for the win in a near-effortless last lap which came just one day after she kicked home for NCAA gold in the DMR.
We have seen numerous runners pull off the DMR/3k double gold before, but Hull's ability to handle each race with such phenomenal ease was mind-boggling. Clearly, her fitness has reached another echelon that is almost unmatched by any other woman in the NCAA circuit.
And if there was still any doubt about her level of talent, you can look back at her 5000 meter performance from the Stanford Invite where she ran away from BYU's Erica Birk to take home the win in a time of 15:34.
Yet, as exciting's as Hull's display of fitness has been, it has also left significant questions about what the future holds for her at NCAA's. Will she return to the 1500 meter distance and defend her title? Or will she continue to stay at the longer distance (5k) in an effort to flex her aerobic superiority? Could she possibly event attempt the 1500/5k double?
The event Hull chooses to run at Nationals may not seem like a big deal, but her final decision could have a ripple effect on the rest of the NCAA...especially for other key superstars.
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What will BYU's Erica Birk choose to run at NCAA's? Will she attempt the 5000 or the steeplechase? Could she move up to the 10k? How confident does she feel after running 4:13 for 1500 meters? Your guess is as good as mine.
The 5000 seems like the natural choice for Birk given her success in the longer distances, specifically in cross country and the 3000 meters. However, the BYU ace may be incentivized to try the steeplechase or 1500 this spring with so much talent crowding the longer distances and Hull flirting with the idea of running the 12.5 lap race at Nationals.
To make matters even more complicated, Dani Jones is still absent. Are we really going to see the 2019 NCAA Cross Country champion sit out for two seasons in a row? The idea of her running at the World Championships later this summer may explain her delayed return, but it also forces me to question if injuries are involved. It's only a guess, and I'm not going to act like I know why she's been MIA, but it has certainly left me thinking of possible scenarios.
In addition to Jones' absence, the Buffaloes have yet another title contender who may not even be running attached this spring track season. I am, of course, referring to Sage Hurta who just posted a jaw-dropping double of 4:09 and 2:03 this past weekend.
Despite the pair of monster performances, Hurta was running unattached, meaning that she is likely redshirting the 2019 spring track season just like Dani Jones did last year.
The point of mentioning these two name is that their lack of racing in a Colorado singlet could end up incentivizing a number of women to drop down in distance and pursue a wide-open 1500 distance (i.e. Birk). It could also motivate Jessica Hull to defend her 1500 title knowing that she will have a much easier path to NCAA gold and collegiate enshrinement.
The crazy thing is that the openness of the 1500 may do more than just bring certain athletes down in distance. In fact, it might actually push athletes up...
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Penn State's Danae Rivers was a 4:29 miler this past winter and saw a ton of success in that event as well as the 1000 meters (where she now owns the collegiate record). Her 2:03 from the Florida Relays earlier this season obviously keeps her in the mix to win the national title in the 800, but her 2019 outdoor campaign hasn't felt as convincing as what we saw during indoors. A close call at Indoor Nationals (where she barely snagged the win) along with a plethora of fast times from other women around the country may persuade the Penn State star to look into the 1500 a little more closely come late May. Rivers has the speed to out-kick anyone in a tactical setting and her Millrose mile showed us that she is more than capable of sticking with a fast pace.
It may sound absurd, but crazier things have happened...
But what IF Jones and/or Hurta raced later this spring? What if either of those women pursued a 1500 and did so while running for Colorado? It's safe to say that a move like that could shake things up quite a bit and could force many of the nation's best to reevaluate their options. Would Hull want to deal with a select few title contenders in the 1500? Or would she want to take her chances in the 5000 where she would have to fend off a much deeper field?
These questions may seem like overkill, but I'd find it hard to believe that other top athletes aren't curious as to what their rivals are going to run at NCAA's. The decision of one athlete could have a domino effect on what others decide to do.
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What about Erica Birk or Syracuse's Paige Stoner in the steeplechase? That could be an option for the veteran duo who are likely trying to find any avenue that leads to them crossing the line in 1st. Keep in mind none of the "Big Three" favorites for the steeplechase have made their debuts in this event yet. Neither Allie Ostrander, Charlotte Prouse, nor Adva Cohen* have toed the line to run the steeplechase yet this season which is extremely odd considering that they have always run at least one steeple race by now.
*Cohen has run one steeplechase race this spring, but it was only for 2000 meters
While I am sure that we will see at least one (probably two) of those women run the steeplechase later this season, it's hard not to look at your watch and say that "time is ticking". We are half a month out from conference championships following a weekend where all three of these women were racing non-steeplechase events (meaning that they could be scheduled for a rest week soon).
Regardless, the steeplechase is another event that has become increasingly more attractive for numerous women who are trying to avoid the overwhelming elites that often dominate NCAA headlines.
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At the end of the day, event choice is a balance. Sacrificing experience could yield easier competition and for many athletes, that's a benefit too good to pass up. On the other hand, others may opt to focus on what they're more comfortable with and take the security that comes with the familiarity.
Yet, when all is said and done, it comes down to what you do on the track. When the gun goes off, the best of the best will emerge on top and there is no escaping that reality.