By Jim Ferstle
At every meet, there is usually a marquee event, one that is selected from all the rest to be the most anticipated contest or having the potential for the best result. Such was the men's 3,000 meters at this year's Jack Johnson Classic at the University of Minnesota Fieldhouse on Saturday.
One aspect that made it special, noted one of the race officials, was that it was probably Hassan Mead's last indoor race at "the Barn," as the fieldhouse is affectionately known, as a Gopher. Mead has a special place in the hearts of Gopher track fans, not only for the talent he possesses, but also for the obstacles he has overcome. When Mead won a fast 5,000 meter race at Stanford several years ago, he appeared to be ready to contend with the best in the country, and/or a place on a future Olympic team, thus joining the luminous cast of University of Minnesota alumni who went on to make their mark in US distance running.
A seemingly ordinary leg injury that failed to heal threw a temporary wrench into Mead's rise, but just when he seemed to be ready to get back into the fray, he encountered a life threatening event, not your typical running injury setback, a collapsed lung. He battled back from those obstacles, and this year won the NCAA regional cross country individual title. He's built on that entering what will be his last season as a Gopher, hoping to regain his past form.
With the season still young, Mead was not in peak shape, but University men's track and cross country coach Steve Plasencia could see that he was, perhaps, ready to run fast last weekend. To increase the chance of that happening, Plasencia, a man who doesn't overlook the many small details that often go into creating outstanding performances, began to put the pieces together. He let it be known that Mead appeared to be in shape to run well this weekend.
He changed the schedule of events at the meet to put the 3K in a better spot on the program, so that the crowd would be there to witness and cheer the athletes, that they could become a part of the race by helping to will the runners to new heights. So, right after Goldy Gopher warmed up the crowd with a "sprint race" with kids. Goldy getting down on his stomach to crawl the final meters, while one of the kids who walked next to Goldie with a look of concern fearing that the oversized rodent was indeed in distress, but ultimately relieved as Goldy put up his paw for a high five with the child.
Meanwhile, Plasencia was moving around the track, talking to race officials making sure all was set for the 1 PM race start time. Plasencia brought former Gopher and US Olympic Trials marathon sixth place finisher, Andrew Carlson, onto the infield as Carlson was serving as the honorary starter for the 3K. The preparations finished, Plasencia stood anxiously at the top of the straightaway, a stopwatch in each hand, ready to monitor the action.
Sean Olson, a senior middle distance runner at the U from Menomonie, WI, was given the job of pacemaker. Chris Rombough, a former Gopher who now runs for Team USA Minnesota and holds the meet record for the event, and NCAA Division III XC champion, Ben Sathre of St. Thomas were in the field to challenge Mead.
The plan was to start by running 64 second quarters for as long as possible and take the race from there. Olson kept them on pace through 800 meters, but then the pace started to slide. They went through the mile in 4:20, ran 2:10 for the next half, and the race was on. Mead with his elegant, silky-smooth stride kept in control launching a final quarter of 60 seconds to leave Rombough nearly three seconds back, with Sathre a step behind Rombough, as Hassan moved around lapped runners and flashed past the finish in 8:03.84.
"We wanted to go through the mile in under 4:20 and take it from there," said Mead. "You really need two pacemakers to do (what they were trying to do)." Mead was given a bouquet of flowers and announced to the crowd as he did an abbreviated lap of honor after the race. The overflow crowd in the stands, which included area distance running luminaries, such as former Boston Marathon runner up Steve Hoag, 1976 US Olympic trials fourth place finisher Don Timm, NCAA steeplechase champion Bruce Mortenson, former U of M track and cross country coach Roy Griak, and 1988 Olympic marathon trials winner Rod DeHaven, who now coaches at South Dakota State, among others, gave him a round of applause.
The appreciative audience got what they came for and went away hoping for more thrills in the future from the 3K protagonists--Mead, Rombough, and Sathre--who will seek to build on their accomplishments on Saturday as they face the challenges of the Olympic year ahead.