By: Michael Weidenbruch
With the demolition of Hayward Field well underway, many athletes are taking time to look back on their best memories of great races on the legendary track. The track has seen so many incredible performances, from collegiate and world records to crazy wins from underdogs that nobody considered. I will be counting down what I see as the top 10 performances at Hayward Field. There are so many great races to choose from, so I have limited this to men’s collegiate distance races (800m and up) in order to narrow it down a bit.
10. Brian Barraza’s gutsy steeple at 2018 NCAA's
The list starts with a race that isn’t even a month old. Brian Barraza came into the 2018 NCAA Championships with the fastest PR in the field. He was sharp, ready to go, and did not hesitate to push the pace. The rest of the field was struggling to hang on as Barraza slowly pulled away. At the bell, Barraza dropped the pace even more and there were only 5 more barriers remaining between him and an NCAA title. The Houston star was looking strong, but on the fourth to last barrier, with about 300 meters to go, he tripped and fell hard. There was no coming back from this as most of the field had gone by once he got back on his feet. Barraza didn’t finish in an All-American spot, but he earned a spot on this list due to his aggressive racing style that was reminiscent of Steve Prefontaine. Regardless of the outcome, this performance will be remembered as one of the best at Hayward Field as it highlights both the glory and the ugly parts of racing at the highest level.
9. Mac Fleet wins the 2014 NCAA 1500m title
It is no surprise that a handful of Oregon athletes will make this list, and the first is Mac Fleet. Fleet was a dangerous weapon for the Oregon team during his senior year as he was a contender in every race he entered. Fleet won his semifinal heat of the 1500 meters with a young Sam Prakel right beside him making for a great finish-line photo (seriously, look it up if you aren’t familiar). The final didn’t go out slow, everyone was pushing for the front to try to beat out the rest of the stacked field. With a lap to go, Lawi Lalang was in front with Fleet close behind. Lalang was likely feeling a bit tired after winning a thrilling 5K the night before, and Mac Fleet took advantage of this and blew by Lalang while holding off the rest of the field over the final 100m. Fleet leaned at the line and wasn’t immediately sure of the result, but his reaction was priceless. This secured Fleet back-to-back titles in the 1500 and he ran an incredibly fast final lap to do so.
8. Mason Ferlic wins the 2016 NCAA 3k steeplechase title
In 2015, Mason Ferlic took a bad fall at NCAA's which put him in last place in the final results. Ferlic was a very strong steeplechaser for Michigan, and this result was surely devastating. In 2016 he returned with a vengeance and took the title. The race was close throughout and Ferlic looked a little shaky on the final water jump. It looked as if he were about to be overtaken, but he powered over the last barrier and crossed the line three seconds ahead of 2nd place. It's one of the better comeback stories after seeing Ferlic take a tough loss and return stronger.
7. Craig Engels at the 2016 Olympic Trials
Craig Engels had a stellar 2016 season, and he capped it off with a wide-array of impressive performances at the Olympic Trials. Engels qualified in both the 800 and the 1500, qualifying for the final round in both distances. Engels won his preliminary heat of the 1500 and placed 2nd in his semifinal. Heading into the final, Engels was looking sharp and ready to go after two strong performances earlier in the week. Engels ended up running 3:37.66, a personal best time, for 5th overall. Unfortunately, he missed out on making the team by just over a second.
In the 800, things got a little more interesting. Engels qualified for the semifinal on time, not by placing in the top three of his prelim. In the semifinals, Engels was in good position with 100 meters when he was jostled and fell hard. A protest got him through to the final. After a rocky qualifying process, Craig Engels finished 4th in the final in 1:46.03, less than half a second away from making the Olympic team.
Not many other collegiate athletes have ever had the opportunity that Engels did. Although he went home with two near misses, he still ran two very fast times, and gained valuable experience for the 2020 trials. Running six races and making two finals was enough for Engels to make our top 10.
6. Matt Centrowitz wins his first US championship in 2011
Matt Centrowitz is one of the top talents to ever come out of the Oregon program, and he has shown for it in his share of races at Hayward Field. In 2011, he represented Oregon at the US championships. Despite being younger and much less experienced than most of the field, Centrowitz executed the perfect race and held off one of the greatest 1500 meter runners of all time in Bernard Lagat. Centro’s win was one of his last races in an Oregon uniform before he turned pro and joined the Nike Oregon Project. This race was the start of a recurring theme of Matthew Centrowitz winning US titles, and he did it while still in college. He went on to win a bronze medal at the World Championships in Daegu later that summer.
5. Oregon goes 1-2-3 in the 1500m at 2010 NCAA
There is really nothing like hearing the home crowd at Hayward Field cheer for an Oregon athlete closing in on a win. What makes the crowd go even more wild is when UO is coming up on a 1-2-3 sweep in a race. That is exactly what happened at the 2012 NCAA championship in the 1500. Andrew Wheating, AJ Acosta, and Matthew Centrowitz took the top three spots in a super close finish. This is a race that fans and commentators still talk about today and an Oregon sweep will always be remembered at Hayward Field. Even for a team team with great depth and pristine race tactics, it’s rare to see that happen.
4. Steve Prefontaine sets the American Record in the 5,000 meters at the 1974 Olympic Trials
When people think of Hayward Field, Steve Prefontaine quickly comes to mind. Hayward was his home track, and every year since his death the Prefontaine Classic has been held there. Pre ran countless great races and broke just about every record he went for.
One of his most iconic races was the 5,000m at the 1972 Olympic Trials. To little surprise, Pre won. What was surprising, however, was the fashion in which he did it. The American legend went hard from the gun in his signature race style, and finished in an American record time of 13:22.8. This stood as the Olympic Trials meet record until 2012 when Galen Rupp broke it by a fraction of a second. This is perhaps Pre’s most iconic race in an Oregon uniform.
Pre would go to have a disappointing 4th place in Munich later that summer, but he was at his best for the trials. It would have been hard to make this list without Pre showing up sooner or later, and I think this performance is one of Hayward’s best (regardless of his legacy).
3. Lalang edges Cheserek in the 2014 NCAA 5,000 meters
During his time at Oregon, Edward Cheserek was nearly unbeatable. King Ches won 17 NCAA titles in four years, but he came up short a few times too. The 2014 NCAA 5k is an example of Ches being human, but it took a record breaking performance to do so.
Lawi Lalang was a senior at Arizona in 2014, and had an impressive resume heading into the National Championships. Lawi was by no means an underdog, and the legendary status of Edward Cheserek was not fully cemented yet. The pace was hot from the start, and by the last lap it was just down to Lawi and Ches. The home crowd was going crazy for Cheserek to win in Eugene, but Lawi Lalang ended up leaning for the win in 13:18. Both Lalang and Cheserek finished well under the meet record.
This race will go down as one of the best at Hayward, not just because of the record breaking times, but because this was the best collegiate runner ever being beaten in dramatic fashion.
2. Ben Flanagan wins the 2018 NCAA 10k
This is a race that is surely fresh in everyone’s mind. After the regional preliminary meets, Michigan’s Ben Flanagan was seeded 23rd out of 24 athletes in the 10,000 meters at the NCAA Championships. The race went out at a surprisingly fast pace for a championship setting, and the field was eventually whittled down to about six athletes.
With 300 meters to go, it was anyone’s race. Vincent Kiprop of Alabama took the lead on the back stretch while Ben Flanagan tried to hang on. With 100 meters to go, Flanagan pulled up next to Kiprop, turned on the jets, and took the win with an emphatic celebration at the line.
This has to be one of the biggest underdog wins in Hayward Field history, as Flanagan was hardly on anybody’s radar. The television crews caught clips of him shouting “where’s my mom?” which gained Flanagan some internet fame. I think this race will go down as one of the most memorable in Hayward Field’s long history, as it is a great feel-good story and was a thrilling race to watch.
1. Wheating finishes 2nd in the 2008 Olympic Trials 800
In 2008, Andrew Wheating was a 20 year old who had just finished his second year at Oregon. He had qualified for the Olympic Trials and made it through to the final, but was not much of a thought in the minds of guys like Lopez Lomong, Khadevis Robinson, and Nick Symmonds.
Before the race, Oregon head coach Vin Lananna apparently told Wheating to stay in the back out of trouble, and if he could get in position with 150 meters to go, something special might be possible. Wheating was in last place a lap in, and at the 600 meter mark, he was still in the back of a tight pack. Wheating kicked hard and passed a fading field to grab 2nd place behind Nick Symmonds. The look on Wheating’s face said it all - he was in disbelief.
The Hayward crowd always goes crazy for UO athletes, and seeing this finish must have been absolutely electric. I would argue that this is the most memorable race from Hayward Field because it showcases some of that “Hayward Magic” that Andrew Wheating got a little taste of.