Human and Super-Human

Cheserek-NCAA-ITF-2016-Web

It was an extraordinary last few days for Indoor Track and Field in the United States. In New York City from Friday to Sunday the Armory hosted the New Balance National Indoors, a national championship meet for high schoolers that produced 10 new national records, and 5 class records. In the college ranks, Birmingham (Alabama) hosted the NCAA Div I Indoor Championships, about which more later. I should mention that the NCAA Div II and Div III Championships were also taking place over roughly the same time period in Kansas and Iowa, respectively. I know this because a former student of mine placed fifth in the triple jump in the Div III Championships to become Concord Academy’s first All-American for Track and Field. If all this scholastic and college action weren’t exciting enough, the USATF National Championships (and team trials for the World Championships) were happening in Portland, Oregon.

[Quick quiz to see who’s paying attention: At which of these five championship events did an 18-year old set a world junior record in the high jump, at the same time becoming the overall world leader for that event? (Answer below)]

I have to admit, I didn’t have time or inclination to follow all these events closely. There were a view races that seemed fairly interesting, but I was content to watch/read about them after the fact, rather than sit through three days of TV or web coverage. Does that make me less of a track fan? Maybe so, or at least less of an indoor track fan during the first few weeks of our outdoor track season at school.

Anyway, I’m neither capable nor motivated to try to recap all of the weekend indoor action, but two results stuck in my mind, prompting thoughts about what happens when the very best distance runners extend themselves beyond what we think of as reasonable in the pursuit of greater glory.

The first race that prompted this train of thought was the Men’s 3000m at the USATF Championships. A month ago, Galen Rupp won the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in his debut at the distance. It was a wonderful result (one that I failed to predict) and a demonstration of Rupp’s remarkable range. 27 days later, Rupp was on the track in his hometown of Portland for the 3000m final against a stellar field. Had he been focusing on the 3000m and not had a recent marathon in his legs, he would STILL have been under pressure, but in his recovery mode, he was no match for Ryan Hill, Paul Chelimo, and others in a race that was won with a 26-second final lap. LetsRun wrote that Rupp deserves credit for attempting the “double,” and I agree. I hope that the race doesn’t set him back in his preparations for outdoor and the Olympics later in the summer.

If it proved nothing else, the result of the 3000m proved that Rupp is human. He isn’t a machine who can be expected to win any race from a mile to a marathon at any time. He is subject to the same properties of time and space (races and recovery) as the rest of us, he’s just good enough that his best is often, but not always, better than everyone else.

But if Rupp appeared appealingly human, what can we say about Edward Cheserek, who accomplished the super-human feat of winning three races at NCAA’s over a time period of roughly 22 hours? As everyone knows by now, King Ches won the Men’s 5000m on Friday night, recovered during the Women’s 5000m that followed, and then ran the fastest anchor leg in the history of the NCAA Championships Distance Medley Relay (3:52.84) to earn the victory for Oregon. That was Friday night. On the next night, competing in the 3000m against a field of very good collegians who had no idea how to beat him, he blasted away with over a lap to go to win his 2nd individual title of the meet, and the 10th NCAA title (7 track, 3 cross country) in his NCAA career. He’s a junior, remember, with (we hope) four more seasons to add to that haul.

Cheserek does lose, occasionally, although when he does it always seems to be under odd circumstances. A year ago, he was beaten in the 3000m by his teammate Eric Jenkins, but he intimated that maybe he wasn’t going all out in that race. And last year at the Penn Relays outdoors, he was outkicked on the anchor leg of the DMR by Jordy Williamz, but was criticized for letting the pace slow to a crawl over the first two laps. The feeling seems to be that he should win all the time, at any distance, regardless of how much rest he’s had since his last dominant victory.

The comparison with Rupp is interesting. It took Rupp a lot longer to get to the point where he was considered invincible, whereas Cheserek has won since his freshman cross country season, and has never looked back. It took Rupp many years to develop a championship kick, but one of the things that is most fun about watching Cheserek race is to see him change pace in the blink of an eye, transitioning from efficient distance runner to video game hero. But in spite of these differences, they’ve both enjoyed seasons where they just seemed to be a lot better than anyone else, super-human if you will, at least in the U.S.

Of course Cheserek is not a machine, and one does worry whether all this focus on winning everything in sight at the NCAA level will limit his future prospects when he has to compete with all the grown-ups at the USATF meet, like Rupp did over the weekend. But, my goodness, King Ches is fun to watch right now.

[Quiz Answer: That would be high school senior Vashti Cunningham, who understandably skipped the New Balance High School meet for USATF Nationals, where she won with a world-leading jump of 1.99 (6′ 6.25″). She’s now one of the favorites for Worlds next weekend.]

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for the past thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. About a dozen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past eight years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, MA. I've been writing for as long as I've been running. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and after a two-year hiatus, began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. In my experience, writing about running is way harder than running itself. I also still have a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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