Monday, June 10, 2013

Class AA Boys Distance Races Are the Stuff of Legends

Two champions embrace after the 1600.  Stillwater's 2012 XC champ
Wayde Hall(left) and 1600 track champ, Eli Krahn. Photo by Gene Niemi
The Minnesota State High School League championships have a storied history in the distance events and another chapter was written this past weekend at the 2013 edition at Hamline's Klas Field.  There was something for everybody in the various distance duals, but the races most people were talking about was the Class AA boys 3200 on Friday night.

Like the duals between Proctor's Garry Bjorklund(who ran a 4:19 mile as a freshman and was the fastest US high schooler by his senior year with a 4:05.1 ahead of an Oregon kid named Steve Prefontaine) and Harding High's Mike Slack in the mile in the 1960s. White Bear Lake's Dennis Fee challenging the 9-minute barrier in the two-mile in the 1970s, or more recently, Minneapolis South's Hassan Mead and Winona's Elliott Heath in the 3200 in 2007, the stories of those epic contests have been told and retold and no doubt embellished.  This year's 3200 will, no doubt, be added to the list of those legendary events.

In a way it was the "perfect storm" of circumstances that came together early Friday morning. After a miserable spring of weather-induced meet cancellations, the conditions were near perfection.  No wind, overcast skies, and a temperature in the 50s made it a distance runner's dream.  Add to that a field of contestants loaded with talent and ambition. The stage was set.  Then the runners delivered.

There was the Stillwater trio looking for maximum points to enhance their chance of winning the team title.  2012 MSHSL XC champion Wayde Hall; the runner with the fastest time going into the  meet, Eric Colvin;  and the prodigy, freshman Eli Krahn, who had his coming out party of sorts on the Hamline track at the Elite Meet back in April when he blew away a field of his elders in the 1600 with an eye opening last lap that left everyone else in his wake.  Add to that The winner of the Hamline Elite 3200 Chaska's Joey Duerr; runner up in the 2012 MSHSL championship 3200, Richfield's Obsa Ali;  Wayzata's Connor Olson;  Edina's Will Burke; Cretin-Derham Hall's Jake McDermott; and Hastings' Zach Benning.
The lead pack nearing the mile and a quarter mark of the Class AA 3200.
From L to R: Eric Colvin, Wayde Hall, Eli Krahn, Obsa Ali, Joey Duerr,
Will Burke,  Jacob McDermott, Connor Olson, Zach Benning. Photo by
Jim Ferstle
Mix in with that a little strategy and  pre-race plans:  "Eric likes to go out fast," said Krahn of Colvin's front-running.  "We wanted to take it out hard," said Hall.  "I wanted to be behind the leader every lap, run for 3000 meters in second, then 'boogie woogie' the last 200," said Ali.  "My coach(Marty Huberty) had me practice doing that this week."  Olson favored a longer kick, going with a half to1000 meters to go as he had at the Hamline Elite off of a 4:40 first mile led by Colvin and Hall.  Duerr would wait until the last lap before launching his kick, a strategy that worked for him at the Elite meet.  Krahn was the student, still new to the game, not as sure of what he could do aside from close well in the last quarter.

A promising talent in junior high, Krahn was happy to be a part of "the Stillwater dynasty," he said.  He got his first indicator of what he could do at the annual team time trial where Stillwater coach Scott Christensen has the distance runners do a two mile at the beginning of the season as an indicator of both where they are at and where they can go.  Mixed in with the members of the 2012 State Champion XC team, Krahn more than held his own: "I did really well."  The seeds of what would happen this weekend were planted.

The "wild card" in a field of runners who knew each other well, Krahn just tucked in behind his teammates and got a master class in distance running, although in the end it was the "student" who became the "teacher."  Colvin, the endurance animal of the bunch, did what he's been doing all season, took it out.  The first quarter was in 65, the first mile in 4:28.  To the amazement of those watching, none of those expected to be in contention dropped off.  A pack of nine sped along like a runaway train with Colvin as the engine.  "He's done that in conference and sectionals," said Christensen of the fast pace, so it was no surprise, and with the large number of "cars in the train" behind him, it all but assured at least one of them would run a really fast time.

Such was the quality of the field, however, that not one, but all of the nine, ran under 9:10 with the top three under 9 minutes. All of the top three--Ali(8:57.07), Krahn(8:58.67), and Duerr(8:59.03)--broke the All-Time Minnesota State record.   For Ali it was fulfilment of a promise he made to himself after finishing second last year: "I'm not getting second here again," was the thought he carried into the race. A three sport athlete who played soccer and ran cross country during the fall and wrestled during the winter, Ali ran for the first time during the summer of 2012.  He'd been recruited into track as a seventh grader as a long jumper when a social studies teacher asked him if he wanted to run a half mile race.

"I didn't know if I wanted to do that," said Ali. He did, however,  and soon was running the mile in 4:53.  The talent was there, the dedication came later.

"He's a really hard worker," said Huberty.  "He's very disciplined and wants to know everything. What splits to run, who's going to do what...I told him going into the race that we're not running for splits, we're running for position.  I want you to stay right behind the leader, whoever it is, and then in the last 200 meters, you boogie woogie.  That's one of the sayings I use, boogie woogie."

Huberty strives to make what the kids are doing fun, he says.  "Work hard, but have fun," is another of Huberty's mottos, ten of which his team have printed on the back of T-shirts.  On Friday, coming down the homestretch Ali had his fun.  Wearing his now trademark black socks, Ali looked back to see that he had the race won.  He spread his arms wide, smiled from ear to ear and let his tongue hang out in celebration, not fatigue.  That would come on Saturday when he was in position to win a double but couldn't close the deal coming down the straight and was outkicked by Krahn and Hall. Disappointed he said: "The mile isn't my best event."

Eight of the top nine in the 3200 doubled, adding the 1600, and it unfolded similar to the 3200 with Colvin setting the pace and the rest jockeying for position and waiting for the last lap to make their moves.  Going into the final 400, Krahn made a split second decision.  "These races were so tight and competitive," he said of both the 3200 an 1600, "one slip up and three people go by you...With about 400 to go I had a little self doubt, but I just decided to go for it."  By 200 to go, he had the lead, he said, and he held it all the way to the finish(4:09.38 for Krahn, 4:10.42 for Hall and 4:10.91 for Ali).

After finished second and first in what had been the deepest and fastest fields in Minnesota history, helping the team win the State team title, all in his freshman year, Krahn was just trying to process it all.  "It hasn't sunk in yet,"  he said.  He acknowledged the benefit of training with Hall and Colvin and the rest of the Stillwater team.  The ability to learn and train with guys who had already done what he hoped to do was invaluable, he said. Such was the impact of his feats, Christensen noted, that other athletes were coming up to Krahn and asking to have their pictures taken with him.  One weight thrower who made such a request added:  "This guy's going somewhere.  Can I take a picture with you."

When asked: "What do you do for an encore?"  He quickly replied: "Work out harder and better."  He knows he'll have to because four of the top six in the 1600 are underclassmen and the entire top five in the 3200 return next year.  If that's not enough, Stillwater's junior high coach, Shelly Christensen noted that Krahn's brother will probably be joining the varsity team next year and his times were almost as good as Eli's at this stage of his career.

"Next year will be equally crazy," said Krahn.  Wayzata's Olson, who will be one of those aiming to knock Krahn off his perch in 2014 said to the others, probably only half in jest, as he was leaving the track after collecting his sweats and exchanging "what just happened" conversations with the rest of the 1600 finishers: "I guess next year we have to run under two for the first half."

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