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Five Storylines to Follow at the Pre Classic

Published by
RunnerSpace.com/Pro   on May 28 2014, 11:48 PM

Merritt v. James and So Much More

By Scott Bush

The best track and field meet in the world takes place this Friday and Saturday at Hayward Field, as the Nike Prefontaine Classic gets underway. With arguably the strongest fields you’ll see across the board this entire year, we break eight storylines to follow this coming weekend.

LaShawn Merritt v. Kirani James (men’s 400m)

Is there a better rivalry on the track right now? For the past few seasons, Merritt and James have gone back and forth, each laying claim to the world’s top 400m title. James won gold at the 2012 Olympic Games, while Merritt won gold at last year’s IAAF World Outdoor Track and Field Championships.

At this point in the season, Merritt is the heavy favorite entering this Saturday’s competition. The American owns three of the four fastest 400m marks in the world this year, including wins of 44.14 at Ponce and 44.44 at both the Drake Relays and Doha Diamond League events. The two have gone head-to-head only once this season, at the Drake Relays, where Merritt edged James 44.44-44.60.

James stated early on this year he’s set on working on his speed for much of the first half of the season. A focus on 200m could very well improve his overall speed for the 400m event, but we’ve yet to see it much this season.

Saturday’s clash is missing Luguelin Santos, who is the only 400m runner to best Merritt this season (44.82-44.86 at the Jamaica International Invitational), but the Merritt v. James battle is arguably the most pointed to match-up on the Pre Classic roster of events.

Allyson Felix Looks to Get Her Groove Back (women’s 200m)

After running sub-11 and sub-21.70 for 100m and 200m in 2012, Felix is looking to regain her groove. The 2012 Olympic Games gold medalist over 200m failed to finish the same event at the IAAF World Outdoor Track and Field Championships last season, while running the second slowest season best time in the event since 2002.

The California-based athlete finished fifth over 400m at the Shanghai Diamond League meeting earlier this season and has yet to debut over the 200m this outdoor campaign. While her 50.81 400m finish in China wasn’t eye opening, it was a solid performance.

Felix is still only 28 years old, but has proven herself on the world stage for a decade. Eventually the body starts to break down. While her obvious goal is to climb back on top of the world stage, especially in the build-up to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, this weekend will go a long way to showing if Felix is trending downward or if her arrow is starting to point up again.

The Ridiculousness of the Men’s 800m

The return of world record holder David Rudisha (Kenya) continues to grab the lead headlines of this weekend’s loaded men’s 800m event, but the Olympic champion will be hard pressed to win in his first competition in nearly a year. While Rudisha certainly has the talent to pull off the big win, he certainly hasn’t proven he’s race ready this season.

Mohammed Aman (Ethiopia) enters as the favorite. He scored a big win in the Dpha Diamond League over rival Nijel Amos (Botswana) 1:44.49-1:44.54, while coming off of last year’s gold medal IAAF World Outdoor Track and Field Championships performance and this indoor season’s IAAF World Indoor Track and Field Championships victory. Aman is chomping at the bit to best Rudisha, earning top 800m runner in the world status, while Amos has shown consistent improvement and is equally as poised to take over the “best in the world” title. Oh, and both athletes are 20 years of age.

To top it off, American Duane Solomon stated Wednesday he’s going after the American record of 1:42.60, set by his coach Johnny Gray back in 1985. Solomon leads the world in 2014 with his 1:43.88 effort at Mt. SAC, ran a world top ten mark of 1:44.79 in Ponce less than two weeks ago and enters Saturday’s competition undefeated this season. Can he pull off the big upset and win the whole thing while setting the American record? Why not.

Don’t overlook Polish runners Marcin Lewandowski and Adam Kszczot either, Kszczot finished runner-up behind Aman at the IAAF World Indoor Track and Field Championships, while the two runners were the third and fourth legs on the runner-up Polish 4x800m relay squad at last weekend’s IAAF World Relays. Of note, they bested Solomon and fellow Pre competitor Brandon Johnson, as Team USA finished third.

How High Will Lavillenie Fly (men’s pole vault)

After setting the world record in the men’s pole vault during the indoor season, where he soared over 6.16m, the Frenchman looks to continue building on the success. His 6.02m outdoor personal best from last season is an obvious starting point. He trumped the competition at the Shanghai Diamond League meeting earlier this outdoor season, vaulting to a world leading mark of 5.92m, but you can bet he’ll want to put on a show for the American crowd Saturday.

Despite his world record performance indoors, Lavillenie surprisingly hasn’t won gold recently. He finished a surprise second at last year’s IAAF World Outdoor Track and Field Championships, while injury kept him out of the IAAF World Indoor Track and Field Championships this year. He still feels as though he has something to prove and earning some more points toward his Diamond League pole vault lead is certainly a goal.

Lavillenie knows competition will be fierce in Eugene. The field is stacked with experienced talent. Assuming the winds don’t keep the field down, expect him to push the six meter barrier.

Will We See Any American Men Go Sub-13 for the First Time (men’s 5k)

Eight men are entered in the Pre Classic at 12:53.66 or faster, with only one, Bernard Lagat (12:53.60) being American. Of the remaining eight entries, half are American. Ben True (13:02.74), Hassan Mead (13:02.80), Chris Derrick (13:08.04) and Ryan Hill (13:14.22).

The question at the Payton Jordan Invitational earlier this month was whether or not a new sub-13 5k man would emerge. While True and Mead came close, no one was able to crack the barrier. Fast forward to this weekend and again the question is raised, who will be the next American to go sub-13?

The Pre Classic falls early in the season for most of the heavy hitters entered in Saturday’s contest. With no World Championship to peak for this year, key European Diamond League meets have been targeted later in the season for barrier chasing marks. However, that doesn’t mean the Pre race will be slow, quite the contrary. Event organizers don’t invite in seven sub-12:54 5k runners for the pace to lag. While a few of those athletes may be out of shape at this point in the season, many still have a shot to go sub-13, including True, Mead and Derrick. True and Mead actually rank first and second in the world at the moment.

Whether an American goes sub-13 or not really comes down to pacing. Generally, the Pre Classic sets up a rabbit to go at least 3,000m. Sometimes, ever so rarely, the rabbit is set up to go 4,000m. If organizers think the pace may lag once the rabbit steps off the track, you can bet they’ll have at least one rabbit set to go to the later distance. With True, Mead and Derrick all eyeing the magical barrier, it’d make sense for organizers to plan around the top Americans and their quest to break the 13-minute mark on American soil.

Obviously Bernard Lagat has gone sub-13, but to have another American or two (or three!) join him Saturday in Eugene, would be quite the way for Americans to start the heavy part of the 2014 outdoor season.

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