Tell us a Story
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In case you haven’t noticed, we here at LØPE Magazine love running. Heck, we started up a publication about running because we couldn’t find a home for the types of stories we wanted to tell. And the types of stories we want to tell are those hard-to-find ones, the ones that not many people know about that are hiding on some wall on the results sheet after a local 5K or trail race. It’s not easy work, though, finding those stories. Sure, we love going through archives of results and rifling through old newspapers for stories … but we want to try something new.
So, we’re asking for some help. We were inspired by all of the #GlobalRunningDay posts, and it got us thinking: We want you to share your story with us.
Then, we’ll tell it for you.
How? Simply write us 100 or so words about your “best run/jump/throw ever.” It could be any run you want–a race, a workout, or the run you got engaged on. Anything works. We simply want to tell your story. And please, field event competitors, we are eager to report on you, too! We may even have a story in the works on the shot put in the pipeline.
From there, we’ll sift through everyone’s submission and pick one for an upcoming issue of LØPE, where we’ll report, write, and edit your story in the “oral history” format. That’s three-thousand-ish words on your best run ever. Sound like a plan?
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So hurry, but slowly.
Over a decade later, stories are still coming out of the women’s 600-meter dash at the 2008 Big Ten Indoor Track and Field Championships, where Heather Kampf (née Dorniden) shocked everyone.
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 005, January 2019
Written by: Nicole Bush and Liam Boylan-Pett
Images Courtesy of Minnesota Athletics and Audrey Smoot
“Oh no,” Heather Kampf says.
Only milliseconds earlier, her left foot drove forward like it had done thousands of times before, ready to land and propel her forward into the bell lap of the 600-meter dash at the Big Ten Indoor Track and Field Championships. But on the path towards its next step, Kampf’s foot hit a snag. Clipped by Fawn Dorr’s stride, it careened into its partnering leg’s calf. The next thing Kampf knew, she was going down. Her arms shot out as if she was sliding into home plate as her legs came out from under her. Which is when she says, “Oh no.”
She says it calmly. Too calmly for someone falling to the ground in the middle of a conference championship race. But that calmness is why things are about work out the way they will. She gets up in an instant, like the fall was all just part of the plan to fit a burpee into her race, shooting off the ground like Flo-Jo exploding from the blocks. The three other runners have distanced themselves, but to Kampf, they are still in reach. So, she begins chasing them.
The lead shrinks slowly at first, but with each step she picks up steam. A combination of fitness and rising confidence seem to buoy her. Like an avalanche growing in strength, Kampf keeps upping the pace as she inches closer to Dorr—who is faltering after nearly falling during the trip-up with Kampf. She blows past Dorr with 100-meters to go, but it still seems unlikely she will be able to catch the leaders.
The crescendo will not abate, however. Around the turn, Kampf continues to move faster, her back arching as if it can’t quite control the flood of speed. And she continues to reel in the field, even if it still seems impossible that she’ll catch the final two runners in the last 50 meters, when the track straightens out.
However, Kampf remains calm and collected. She hears the P.A. announcer say, “Look out for Dorniden,” and she thinks to herself, “Yeah, look out for me.”
The final straight is a rush—Kampf simply swallows up the field. She goes by the runner from Indiana with less than 15 meters left and finds herself in second. Then it’s one final push, and she blitzes past her teammate in the final steps, crossing the finish line to take the race.
What happens next is no surprise. The Internet, while not quite as fast as it will be in 2019, moves quickly. Kampf’s race goes viral. A combination of clickbait—“This inspiring runner took a nasty fall, but she didn’t stay down for long”—and inspiration make for the perfect online clip.
It remains so today: On January 9, Cracks, a Spanish-language sports media company, posted the video on its Facebook page—where it garnered over one-thousand likes. Over eleven years later, the video and the race still resonate.
But, as is the case with every race, there is more than one story to be told. And, as is the case with many a viral video, there is more to the story than what is captured in the frame.
Part I Heather
“It’s funny because I absolutely hate it,” Fawn Dorr says. “I hate it so much.” She is, of course, talking about seeing the video of the race. Sure, it’s an amazing performance, she knows, but who wants to be reminded of a race where they’re involved in a fall? Especially one where they end up finishing last? And she is reminded. People still post the video to her Facebook page.
Dorr is retired from professional running now, but she had a successful career, making multiple national-team appearances for Canada after a storied stint at Penn State University. On the track, she was brash. Her pre-race stare was piercing, and she competed with energy, which often came through in yells and roars at the starts or ends of races.
In 2008, Dorr was running her first Big Ten Championship meet for Penn State. She was more of a sprinter—her specialty was the 400-meter hurdles—but this was the conference meet, and athletes were taken out of their comfort zones for the good of the team. This meant Dorr was going to have to be flexible.
Team is the key word when it comes to a college conference meet. Whether it’s the Big Ten, Pac-12, S.E.C., or A.C.C., conference meets are circled on the calendar each year for collegiate teams as the meet. Winning the N.C.A.A. team title is nearly impossible for most programs, but pulling together enough points to win a conference meet is much more attainable. Plus, most athletic departments and athletic directors place a priority on winning conference championships—including the practice of sprinkling monetary bonuses for a conference title into a coach’s contract—and that culture is passed down to the coaches and athletes. Runners, throwers, and jumpers alike get excited for the meet, often competing in more than one event to maximize points. Add in the rowdiness of crowds—especially indoors, where spectators bear down on the track—and bragging rights, and a conference meet is track and field at its best.
And the 2008 Big Ten Indoor Track and Field Championship at the University of Minnesota Fieldhouse was no different. The atmosphere was electric, and athletes were doubling and tripling to bring home as many points as possible in the team race. Penn State was in the mix for a Big Ten title, so Dorr was running the 400 and the 600 meters.
Minnesota had a heck of a team, too—and they were on their home track. Heather Kampf was one of many Gophers in more than one event, entering the mile, the 600 meters, and the 4 x 400-meter relay. Kampf was already the school’s most decorated runner. As a freshman, she had won the indoor N.C.A.A. title at 800 meters, becoming the school’s first national champion. By the time she graduated, she was an eight-time All-American and owned ten school records. But the first weekend of March in 2008, none of that mattered. She was simply running for as many points as possible. Minnesota was the defending champions, but winning at home would make it extra sweet. Doubling was no easy task, however. At that point, the men’s and women’s events were held in different locations. With no men’s 60 meters or 5,000 meters held before or after the women’s version of each race, there was less time between events—which, in turn, meant there was less time to rest.
But this was conference. And it was at home. There was no time to worry about rest.
“That morning,” Kampf (who is now married, but went by her maiden name of Dorniden at the time of the race) says today, “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is going to be so hard.’” Eating breakfast that first Sunday in March, her heart nearly jumped out of her chest. “Oh,” she thought, surprised by the spike in heart rate, “I must be getting ready for what I need to do today.”
The day before, she had taken care of business in the prelims of the mile—finishing second in an automatic qualifying spot with a run of 4 minutes, 48.18 seconds—and the 600—winning her heat in 1 minute, 29.65 seconds, the fastest time of the day. Sunday would be a different beast, though.
The mile field was stacked, with a slew of talented runners like Nicole Edwards of Michigan, Angela Bizzarri of Illinois, and a future Olympic Gold Medalist in the triathlon, Gwen Jorgensen of Wisconsin. Kampf, who knew the mile was in her future (today, calling her the queen of the road mile is no stretch), stuck her nose in it.
Edwards proved too strong for Kampf and the rest of the field, and ran away with the race, running 4 minutes, 41.04 seconds to win by over two seconds. Kampf finished fourth in 4 minutes, 44.26 seconds. That meant five valuable points in the team score. She only had about forty-five minutes until the 600 final. She went out into the Minnesota cold and did a cool-down and a warm-up all in one.
Dorr, meanwhile, had qualified for both the finals of the 400 and 600, and had won the “slow” heat of the 400 to take fourth place in the event, bringing in five valuable points.
The “slow” heat is common in indoor conference meets. Because eight athletes score at the Big Ten meet, there needs to be at least eight runners in the final (the Big Ten takes nine runners through, so one unlucky runner will leave the final without scoring a point). But because most indoor tracks only have six lanes, a final is run in two heats. At the Big Ten meet, the first—“slow heat”—would have five, and the second heat would have four. The times from both heats are combined for the final score. If, by chance, a runner wins the first heat in a faster time than the second heat, that time would stand as the winner. Dorr ran faster than one runner from the fast heat of the 400, thus her fourth-place finish.
She wouldn’t be in the slow heat of the 600, though. And that was important, the team race was turning into a three-team battle between Minnesota, Michigan, and Penn State. Dorr needed all the points she could get.
Like the mile, the 600 was loaded. Along with Kampf and Dorr, Molly Beckwith, Indiana’s star half-miler who would eventually run 1 minute, 57.68 seconds for 800 meters, and Minnesota’s Jamie Ditmar were fit and ready to roll.
After Audrey Smoot won the slow heat in 1 minute, 31.59 seconds, the second heat lined up. The final four finalists of the 600 stood in their lanes and waited for the gun.
Dorr ran hard from the first step, gliding through the first two turns and moving with determination into the lead. Kampf was close on her heels as they came through the first 200 meters in just under 29 seconds. Beckwith had let a small gap form between her and Kampf, and Ditmar was just behind in fourth.
Dorr continued to lead through the next lap, but slowed ever so slightly. Kampf could feel the pace lag, so moved onto Dorr’s shoulder around the turn. Beckwith and Ditmar inched closer, too, as the pack of four hit the homestretch of the penultimate lap.
As the turn straightened out, Kampf moved to the outside and began to pass Dorr. But Dorr wasn’t going to give up the rail easily—that wasn’t her M.O., she always raced aggressively. She pushed harder, hoping to hold off Kampf. But that’s when Kampf moved inside—which is when Kampf fell.
Beth Alford-Sullivan was on the backstretch. She was at the point just after the first turn and had a perfect view of the start/finish line. At the time, she was the director of Penn State’s track and field program hoping for a heroic performance from Dorr. Then she saw Kampf fall face-first into the track.
“I saw her go down,” Alford-Sullivan, who now coaches at the University of Tennessee, says today. “And you know, as a coach, you have a split-second reaction of ‘Oh, good!’”
Dorr reacted quickly, jumping over the falling Kampf and led the field into the final lap as the bell rung. Coming through in just under 60 seconds, Kampf’s fall took Dorr out of her rhythm. She was already tired from the 400, and having to hurdle a competitor didn’t help. Ditmar went by her with 180 meters left, and Beckwith was by her quickly, too.
Kampf, meanwhile, was up almost as quickly as she had gone down. The way she remembers it, she has no recollection of going down—only that her hands had kept her from falling and had pushed her up so she was running again in an instant. She didn’t quite understand how everyone had gotten so far ahead of her in such a short time, but she does remember the noise.
Everyone remembers the noise.
“The air got sucked out of the room for a second,” Kampf says. “And I was just like, ‘Geeze, is that for me?”
“Everybody went, ‘Ohhhhh,’” Emily Langenberg, a Michigan State runner who was watching that day, says.
“The place went crazy,” Alford-Sullivan says.
The beauty of indoor track and field is its intimacy. Sure, the Olympic stadium when Australian Cathy Freeman won gold in Sydney in 2000 was electric, but being packed inside a fieldhouse with over one thousand fans and athletes at a conference meet is its own kind of crazy.
When Kampf started reeling in Dorr, Beckwith, and Ditmar, the roar inside the University of Minnesota Fieldhouse was palpable—and it only rose as the final lap unfolded.
Alford-Sullivan laughs looking back on it. She was a Minnesota grad, so had mixed feelings throughout the last 30 seconds of the race. After the initial bit of joy she had felt that the top Minnesota runner was likely to end up out of the scoring, her mindset turned quickly.
“I saw her get up,” she says, “and you’re like, ‘Oh no, oh shoot, she’s coming.’”
By the time there was 75 meters to go and she could see that Kampf had a shot at doing something incredible, she got swept up in the moment. “I’m kind of cheering for her even though I’m thinking, ‘I can’t be cheering for her right now.’”
She wasn’t alone. Like Kampf’s pace, the noise kept growing.
“There was this crescendo of noise,” Kampf says after she passed Dorr. “There were people I could already see like out of the corner of my eye. And I got that, like, hungry feeling, like, I could maybe get this, and how cool would that be?”
And it was, indeed, cool. As we all know now, she ran past Beckwith and Ditmar in the final straight and into history. In the moment, she didn’t realize just how crazy the accomplishment was. She knew it was special, but it wasn’t until she watched the video that she knew how bad of a fall she had taken.
She has a theory why she doesn’t remember the actual fall. “Belief is so powerful,” she says.
“You need to have a really powerful vision of what you accomplish in your mind before you start a race, because when stuff like this happens, you don’t just sit there. You bring a powerful version of what you want to do, and that overpowers the barriers that get in your way.”
The immediate aftermath was of shock and awe. No one could believe what they had just seen. Kampf had fallen on her bike earlier that week, and had cuts on her knees—so it looked like the fall was even worse than it was. Her coaches and teammates hugged her and congratulated her. She didn’t have much time, however. After what was perhaps the greatest race in Big Ten history, Kampf needed to get ready for the 4 x 400-meter relay. Her team was still in the mix for a team title, thanks to her heroics in the 600.
There wasn’t a person in the stadium who could believe what they’d seen.
“As a Minnesotan, as a former gopher,” Alford-Sullivan says, “I was caught up in the Hoopla. I thought it was the greatest thing I’d seen in forever.”
But there was one more thing Alford-Sullivan had to consider: She was the Penn State coach. And as far as Penn State fans and athletes were concerned, Kampf had cut in early, no matter if it was the greatest thing they’d seen on a track.
So that’s how it came to be that Heather Kampf was almost disqualified from the race that remains an internet sensation today. After some mental gymnastics in her own head about whether to do it or not, Alford-Sullivan officially filed a protest.
She walked up to a race official she had known since the eighth grade, and told him she thought that Kampf had cut in early, and that she’d like an official review—and yes, she knew how amazing of a race it was.
He looked at her and said, “Really? You’re going to do this?”
But it was the right thing to do, she knew. It was a tight call, Kampf was moving in, and Penn State was in a tight battle for the team title. Dorr, meanwhile, had finished out of the scoring, and if Kampf was out, it would mean less points for Minnesota while tallying one more onto the Penn State score. So, Alford-Sullivan filed a protest.
The officials didn’t have the technology then that they do now. There was no hi-tech, slo-mo replay to see if Kampf had cut in too soon, and nothing to go by other than what the officials remembered seeing. In the end, they decided there was not enough evidence to disqualify Kampf.
(One week later, a note arrived in the mail for Alford-Sullivan. It was a handwritten letter from Kampf, apologizing for cutting in.)
Kampf would go on to help Minnesota take third in the 4 x 400, too, and Minnesota would win the meet by eight points over Michigan. Penn State finished in third, fifteen points back of the Gophers.
Not only had Kampf gotten up from a fall, it was the points from that race that carried Minnesota to the team title.
That part rarely makes the viral video. Everyone knows Kampf pulled off the impossible, but they don’t necessarily know her heroics helped Minnesota win the 2008 Big Ten Championship.
There’s one more detail that is not so well known. In fact, it’s something that came as a surprise to Kampf, too.
Because of the tight schedule of races, meet officials were unable to hand out awards for many of the races that took place throughout the day on March 2. So, once the 4 x 400 concluded, the women were asked to stick around for multiple awards ceremonies. The Minnesota women knew they had won the meet, and, as the runners gathered around to receive their medals for the 600 meters, the Gopher faithful were ready to show Kampf their appreciation.
Kampf lined up behind the top position on the podium—the place reserved for the winner. But someone else was standing there, too: A runner from Indiana, who seemed to want to say something to her. It seemed weird that someone would be standing in her spot. Hadn’t she seen Kampf cross the finish line in first? In fact, it was a little awkward. Then, all of a sudden, Kampf remembered the slow heat. She could swear she heard the announcer say after the race that she was the Big Ten champ in the 600 meters. There was no way she hadn’t won the thing, was there?
“Wait,” Kampf said to the Indiana runner, “what was your time?”
Part II Audrey
Audrey Smoot had a good feeling about that weekend. That’s why she urged her parents to go to Minneapolis on March 1 and 2 in 2008. It was going to be good, she told them. It would be worth the ten-hour drive, she said. It was her goal to make the final of the 600 meters at the Big Ten meet, and she wanted her parents, Mark and Diane Smoot, to be there if, and when, she did.
So, Mark and Diane drove all the way up to Minnesota to watch their daughter run.
Smoot was a 20-year-old junior at Indiana University then. Today, she works in legal and compliance for a broker dealer in downtown Indianapolis, but, as she says, she remembers March 2, 2008 better than she remembers yesterday.
Despite having a good feeling about the weekend, the prelim did not go to plan. “I had a bad race,” she says. “I felt terrible.” Fortunately for Smoot, she was able to win her heat, which meant she automatically qualified through to Sunday’s final. Her time of 1 minute 33.95 seconds was the slowest time to make it through the heats, so she was going to be in the first heat as the ninth seed. That was fine for Smoot, who was relieved to have achieved her goal of making the final. Same went for her parents, whose ten-hour drive was going to at least be for two races instead of only one.
It was time for a new goal, though, so Smoot came up with a race plan for Sunday: “I only have to beat one person, and I can score at Big Tens,” she thought.
She barely slept that night, twisting and turning thinking about the race. But when she woke up, her legs felt amazing, better than they had maybe ever felt. She started thinking that, not only could she maybe score a point, but maybe she could run a personal best.
She knew the five runners in her heat and came up with a plan to finish in at least fourth to secure that sought-after point. Penn State senior Brienne Simmons and Ohio State senior Chandra Krempel were runners that Smoot was unlikely to beat—they were both perennial Big Ten scorers—but she decided to key off them to run her best race.
So, when the gun went off, she settled in behind the two of them, who she figured and hoped would go out too quickly. Smoot says Simmons and Kremple came through 400 meters in about 56 or 57 seconds. She was in third and felt pretty good. Then, “They started to kinda die, I guess,” Smoot says.
Smoot is giddy when she talks about that last lap. She speaks quickly and in bursts, her midwestern accent bringing just a little more joy and sense of awe to it all. “I caught Chandra,” she says, “and I’m like ‘Oh wow, I’ve never passed Chandra before.’ Then I made the final turn onto the homestretch and there was Brienne, and she was tying up, and I felt like I was charging the finish line. And I passed her and I will never forget the finish line: Not only did I make the Big Ten final, I just won the final. And I got at least fifth place, dude.”
She also PR’d. That feeling she had before the weekend? It turned out to be pretty spot on. She found her parents by the finish line to watch the fast heat. Maybe she could even sneak in front of a runner or two from the second heat and finish higher than fifth, they thought.
Then Heather Kampf fell. “She smacked the ground,” Smoot, who was about ten meters away, says. Like everyone else in the fieldhouse, her and her parents had the same reaction: “Oh my gosh, is she going to catch everyone?”
She was amazed by the race and by the roar of the crowd. She couldn’t believe what she had just seen, Kampf had just fallen down, gotten up, and won the Big Ten 600 meters. At least that’s what everyone thought.
The race times started showing up on the scoreboard. Next to Kampf, the time was 1 minute, 31.72 seconds.
Smoot’s heart dropped into her stomach. “Mom,” she said, “Oh my god, I think my time is better than this heat. I think my time carries over. Do you remember my time?”
Smoot did remember her time. It had flashed on the scoreboard less than five minutes ago, and the 1 minute, 31.59 seconds was the best she had ever run for 600 meters. She couldn’t have remembered it incorrectly, could she?
“One-thirty-one-fifty-nine is what I ran,” she told her mom.
“Oh my gosh,” her mom said, “I think you’re right.”
“What is happening?” Smoot said.
What was happening was this: As the roar of the crowd died down in the aftermath of one of the most amazing races a Big Ten crowd had ever seen, Audrey, Mark, and Diane Smoot knew something that no one else did.
At most track meets, there is a results wall. It’s often under the bleachers or next to a bathroom in a gym, and it’s the place where sheets of printed out results in Courier New font are taped to the wall, kind of like an F.B.I. crime board, but without all the connecting strings.
That day in Minneapolis, Smoot walked over to the results board to see if her crazy hunch was right—to see if she had somehow won the 600 from the slow heat.
And sure enough, there on the wall was the proof:
“It finally set in,” Smoot says. “I not only made Big Ten finals, but I won.”
She lets out a small giggle. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Smoot’s memory of the medal stand is the same as Kampf’s.
“They’re lining us up behind the medal stand for the 600 meters and I kind of lightly stand behind the first position,” Smoot says. “And so does Heather, and that’s when it crosses my mind that she doesn’t know. Then I saw Jamie Dittmar stand behind second position, and I’m like ‘They don’t know, and if they don’t know, no one knows.’”
Her mind raced. “How am I supposed to tell her? I’m thinking of all the ways this could awkwardly go down and hoping that someone will walk up to us and sort it out before they start.”
Finally, after what seemed like minutes, Kampf turned to her. “Wait,” she said to Smoot, “what was your time?”
“Ohhhh,” Kampf said, her eyes wide. She congratulated Smoot and moved behind the silver-medal spot of the podium, telling Dittmar to move into the third place spot on the podium. Smoot says Kampf was a fantastic sport about it.
The Minnesota fans weren’t exactly sure what to do when it was announced that Kampf had finished second. But it was those eight points that made the difference—it was the greatest second-place finish ever.
For Smoot, meanwhile, it is the story she gets to tell whenever the video shows up on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook like it does so much. She loves the story, and smiles whenever she tells it—and she’s okay with the fact that her side of it might not be remembered as much.
She loves saying that she had a good feeling about the weekend, and that her goal was simply to make the final. She loves saying that it was “the highlight” of her track life. She had never won state in high school, had never even come close to winning a Big Ten title. But on that day, she did, and it’s something she will always cherish.
She always adds one extra part to her story, just to make sure that whoever she is telling knows there is always more than one story to every race.
“Yes, I won,” she always says, “but have you seen Heather’s video on YouTube?”
Imagine it is July 2001, and that you are 15 years old at a ski lodge in the middle of the summer in Southeast Michigan, crammed into the dining hall with forty to fifty other toothpick-legged, sleep-deprived high school runners.
It’s the middle of the week at cross-country camp, and you, like everyone else, are exhausted. You have run four hilly miles each morning with the rising sun, then you do hill repeats or a fartlek or a tempo in the afternoon as the heat bears down. In between, you eat in the dining hall and talk about running. All you do is talk about running. Speakers come in and relive their glory days, thinking they’ve imparted a lesson on you. Coaches come in to say what makes a champion. You revel in it, envisioning that one day you’ll be the one these coaches are putting on a pedestal.
Then Ron Warhurst stands before the group. He is the men’s cross-country coach at the University of Michigan, and he is the camp director. He is usually spouting off instructions about what each day’s run will be in his nasally voice. He’s a storyteller, talking in gruff, short sentences, pausing for effect just when the time is right. You want to impress him because, well, he’s one of the best coaches you’ve ever met.
In this moment, he waxes about his favorite workout. It’s a simple workout when he explains it. You start to think about how you might run it. You let your mind wander and can see Warhurst talking to a group one day about how you ran so and so getting ready for the Olympics.
Then, Warhurst explains how Kevin Sullivan ran it, and how he somehow ran every rep faster than you have ever even thought about running.
And your world crashes down around you. He couldn’t have run that fast, you think to yourself. That’s impossible. But you know he did. Warhurst wouldn’t lie about his workout, his pride and joy. You have a long, long way to go.
Now go run 1600 meters at 10-kilometer pace. Then rest for about twenty seconds before going into a 2-kilometer tempo on a road loop. Finish back at the track and roll into 1200 meters at 5-kilometer pace. Then do another road-loop tempo before you hammer 800 meters at mile to 3-kilometer effort. Go out for one last tempo and come back to tag 400 meters. As fast as you can.
And that’s it. You’ve completed the workout that Warhurst is so proud of. The workout that mixes strength and speed. The workout that is great for cross-country and the track. The workout that coaches and elite athletes nationwide have incorporated into their repertoire. The workout that is so well known it goes simply by one name.
That’s The Michigan.
A workout so nice they only named it once.
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 003, November 2018
Written by: Liam Boylan-Pett
Illustration by: Bobby Peavey
It is cliché to start a running story with Steve Prefontaine, but that is exactly where The Michigan begins.
Ron Warhurst was about one year into his coaching stint at the University of Michigan when he met famed Oregon Coach Bill Dellinger for the first time when walking through an airport. It was only a few weeks after Pre died, and as coaches are wont to do, they, as Warhurst puts it, “were B.S.’ing” and talking about workouts.
Before he died, Pre had done this workout in Eugene that piqued Warhurst’s interest. “We ran him a 1200 on the track,” Dellinger told him. “Then he went out to the trail and ran two or three miles at five-minute pace.” Then, Dellinger explained, Pre came back to the track for another 1200-meter rep.
It was genius, Warhurst thought. “You’re busting your ass on the track,” Warhurst says looking back on the conversation today. “Then you go do some pace work. Then you bust your ass again.” He couldn’t get the workout out of his mind, and the seed was planted.
The story passed down through the Michigan track team is that Warhurst jotted the notes that would bore The Michigan onto a beer-soaked napkin. And, according to Warhurst, it’s not far from the truth. All you have to do is ask him.
When he talks about creating the workout today, he speaks quickly, giggling at times when he remembers how he conceived the thing. He’s 75 now, so he says some of the details may be a little off, but he remembers sitting down, having a few beers, and devising The Michigan…
It wasn’t long after his chat with Dellinger in the Summer of 1975, and Warhurst could not stop thinking about Pre’s workout. It reminded him of a cross-country race. But he thought he could make the workout even more suited for a race over hill and dale.
“OK,” he thought to himself, visualizing how a race begins. “Everybody goes out like a bat out of hell. Then they settle into a pace.” A mad dash to get to the front of the pack with the other contenders. “So,” he decided, “we’ll start with a mile on the track.”
Then, to mimic that “settling in,” he would have the team do a tempo run off the track. He’d send them out around Michigan’s football stadium, he thought to himself and laughed. The climb up South Main Street is no joke—this was going to be hard.
But no cross race stays on pace, Warhurst knew. Eventually, someone would test the field to find out who the players were. “They’re gonna make a break,” he thought. “So, now we’ll do a 1200 on the track, and you gotta run your ass off.” Warhurst scribbled notes. He tried thinking like a runner who felt good. That was the mindset he wanted to be in as he created this thing.
After the 1200 rep, the pretenders would gone. Time to settle in again, he thought. One more tempo loop around the Big House. They would only be about seven kilometers into the workout at that point, and this was a 10-kilometer race he’s trying to get ready for. Someone would try to break the field one more time before the final sprint. So, Warhurst decided, let’s do an 800 on the track. He cussed at himself that the workout still wasn’t long enough, so he added one more tempo loop.
But a race does not end with a tempo. It ends with a sprint. So Warhurst prescribed one more 400.
“A.U.G.,” he thought for the final rep.
All. You. Got.
A.U.G. is exactly what Warhurst gets from the majority of his athletes. He began his coaching career at Michigan in 1974 after running for Western Michigan in the 1960s. He served in the Marine Corps until 1970 and brought both a toughness and loving attitude to his coaching. Like many old school coaches, he’d yell at you in one moment and wrap his arm around you in the next. He cares. And it showed in his 35-year career at Michigan, which ended in 2010 when he retired.
There are staples at many collegiate track programs, workouts and races that teammates reminisce about for years. Routes are passed through generations. Workouts are spoken about in lore. Races are dissected and scrutinized. For the Michigan track team, The Michigan is mentioned just as frequently as the unforgettable races.
Warhurst remembers Alan Webb, yes the same Alan Webb who was the subject of a book during his one year at Michigan, running 3 minutes, 2 seconds for the 1200 rep. He remembers a handful of guys running 1 minute, 54 or 55 seconds in the 800. And he remembers Nick Willis getting down close to 53 seconds in the 400. Willis says it was 51, and he has training partner Will Leer’s running log as proof.
Willis is Warhurst’s most accomplished athlete. He has won silver and bronze in the 1500 meters at the Olympics and is a sub-3 minute, 50 second miler. He remembers what he calls the greatest Michigan of all time—and he isn’t the one with the accolade.
The New Zealander came to Ann Arbor in the fall of 2002 as one of the best recruits in school history—he was more comparable to Webb than most remember, despite Webb’s 3 minute, 53.43 second national high school record. Willis had run 4:01.32 in the mile as a 17-year-old, and he was redshirting his sophomore track season because he was going to represent New Zealand in the Athens Olympics.
It was the weekend of Penn Relays, and he was back in still-chilly Ann Arbor with sleet whipping down, working out with two other Olympic hopefuls: Kevin Sullivan and Tim Broe. Sullivan was fifth in the 2000 Olympic 1500 behind a who’s who of the some of the 1500 meters’ best of all time. Kenya’s Noah Ngeny upset Hicham El Guerouj of Morocco, who won silver. Bernard Lagat, of Kenya at the time, was third, and Mehdi Baala of France was fourth. Broe, meanwhile, would be an Olympian in the 5,000 meters in 2004, and was a world championship team qualifier in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. He graduated from The University of Alabama in 2000, and in 2004 was training under Warhurst in Ann Arbor.
The three of them met at the Michigan track for a crack at The Michigan. It was the year after journalist Chris Lear spent the year chronicling Webb as a freshman in the maize and blue. On this day, not even Warhurst was at the track. Instead, Willis found himself with two veterans who were ready to hammer the hell out of a benchmark workout.
“I jumped into the big league with the big boys,” Willis says.
Normally during the workout, you take turns leading. One guy takes the first half of the mile, then someone takes the second. Another gets the 1200, then the 800 and the 400 are decided based on who is feeling good.
This day, however, Sullivan was on a mission.
At the Ferry Field track in Ann Arbor—which is home to the location where in 1935, Jesse Owens set four world records in one day—The Michigan starts near the steeplechase pit, 200 meters from the standard finish line. “That’s so they can go right into the tempo,” Warhurst says.
On that April day in 2004, Sullivan walked to the 200-meter start line and took off in front of Broe and Willis, taking the three athletes through what Willis calls the most impressive Michigan he’s ever seen. Not that Willis was really a part of it. “We took off and we never saw him again,” Willis says.
Despite the wind and sleet, Sullivan ran 4 minutes, 17 seconds for the opening mile. At that point, Willis had never broken 4:30 in the workout. He ran 4:23 with Broe, but it was a fool’s errand to keep up with Sullivan, who didn’t have time to wait with them to begin the tempo. For Willis, it was all a blur after that point.
He went through the motions. Hammering up the hill to the Big House, doing his best to keep Sullivan in his sights. But he couldn’t make a dent in Sullivan’s workout. “He was all business that day,” Willis says. “That was when I was introduced to what being a professional runner was. No joking. No complaints about not having pacemakers. He just got the job done that day.
“It was also bloody frustrating.” Willis wanted to keep up. But he couldn’t on any part of the workout—the reps or the tempos.
Which is the beauty of The Michigan; there are so many different areas a runner can excel. If you’re more of a strength runner, you push up the hill on the way to the football stadium. Middle-distance runners survive as long as they can hoping to get to the final rep. The 5,000-meter runners hope to master the entire thing.
Somehow, the workout that was developed on a napkin has turned into one of the most versatile pieces of training in the world of track and field.
“I didn’t realize how smart I was back then,” Warhurst jokes.
At Columbia University (where, full disclosure, I ran track), our coach called our version of The Michigan “Baker Blast”—after the name of the stadium. Coach and agent Stephen Haas recently posted on Instagram that his star athlete Edward Cheserek ran a “Michigan” in Flagstaff, Arizona, and that they were thinking about calling it The Lumberjack, with it being at seven-thousand feet and all. Warhurst remembers telling North Carolina State coach Rollie Geiger the workout—they started running it with a name of The Frasier, the restaurant where Warhurst told Geiger*.
The Michigan has lived many lives. Will Leer, who ran at Pomona Pitzer before heading to the Oregon Track Club and placing fourth at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials in the 1500 meters, ran his first version of The Michigan in Eugene under coach Frank Gagliano. Running at Eugene High School and on a flat loop of the Amazon Trail, it wasn’t that bad. A few years later, he was training with Willis and Warhurst wondering how the hell anyone could ever finish one of these workouts. “For it to be done properly,” Leer says, “it needs to be done at Ferry Field. I needed Willis to hold my hand through the whole thing because I was convinced that there was no possible way I was making it.”
That feeling of despair, according to Warhurst, is the point. There is a simple adage in running: You must learn how to run fast on tired legs. You can go into the science behind it and look into lactic acid, or you can think about it logically and within the parameters of how a race plays out. Warhurst remembers watching Kenyan runners dominate the 1970s running scene by throwing a 61-second lap into the middle of a 5,000-meter race. They would then drop back to 68 seconds, but because no one went with them, the race was done for anyone who didn’t respond to the move. So, Warhurst thought, we must throw surges into our workouts. He laughs thinking about the torturous workouts he would create, like 20 by 400 with a 50-meter jog between each one and times ranging from 68 to 61 seconds. To contend at a world level, however, an athlete had to learn how to get through it. When he created The Michigan, he had a workout that forced a runner to “get through it.”
“This is something that is very unique,” Warhurst says. “It’s not just an interval session. This gives the athlete an opportunity to explore where his or her head is at. Where their emotions are. When the grinding starts, it tests your mettle.”
Warhurst loves the mental side of it. He loves that the athlete has to get it done on the tempo loop when no one is watching. “I think it’s a good, true test of becoming physically and emotionally tough when no one is around to browbeat you into it,” he says.
He loves that it makes the athlete tougher. Or, as Warhurst says about The Michigan, “It’s like eatin’ dirt and spinach.”
Dirt and spinach are acquired tastes.
“I’m not sure it’s so great for everyone,” Willis says of The Michigan. “From my experience, nearly everyone fails on their first attempt.” He coaches runners of all levels through his Miler Method program, and he understands how daunting a workout that interchanges track and tempo work can be for an athlete not ready for it.
Warhurst solves that problem by telling coaches to adapt. When he speaks to high school coaches, he recommends doing a 1200-meter rep to start. And he also suggests measuring out a shorter tempo loop. “Most high schools have some loop around campus that has to be around 1200-meters,” he says.
Or, if you’re Lex Williams, a Michigan grad who was living in Normal, Illinois as a coach at Illinois State a few years ago, you create your own version of The Michigan by finding a loop that resembles the route around the Big House. Williams combed over the terrain around Normal’s track and put together a loop worthy of The Michigan.
“Lex is such a believer in this workout,” Leer says. “He believes in its effectiveness to transform athletes.”
And while the workout has trickled out to the rest of the running world, it’s still at home in Michigan. Sullivan is the head coach of the Wolverines now, and he has his athletes run The Michigan. It is still part of the lore.
Warhurst still coaches, even if it’s not for Michigan in an official capacity. He works with professionals and helps out with Sullivan when he can. He is, however, still very interested in The Michigan. “I go down there when Sully has the team do it,” he says. “I get them fired up for it.” He is also still prescribing it to his athletes.
On November 12, a little over forty-three years after its inception, Warhurst meets Willis at the Ferry Field track at the University of Michigan. They have been working together for nearly 15 years, and they both know what they’re there for that day.
Willis, 35 now, is getting ready for the Manchester Road Race on Thanksgiving Day in Connecticut. It’s a 4.78-mile road race that historically gets out extremely quickly thanks to a slightly downhill mile. The second mile is a drastic climb, however, so the pace slows. Then there’s a downhill third mile before the pace relaxes in prep for a final push for home. The ups and downs and pace changes are a lot, Warhurst knows, like a cross-country race.
So, ten days before Thanksgiving, Warhurst and Willis are at Ferry Field getting ready for another go at The Michigan. It’s cold day in Ann Arbor, but the weather is supposed to be even worse the next day, when the workout was originally scheduled. Willis ran 2 hours and 8 minutes on Saturday then 10 miles on Sunday. It’s not the ideal lead-in, but it’s the card they have been dealt.
Willis’ best version of the Michigan included a 4 minute, 16 seconds mile, 3 minutes, 8 seconds for the 1200, 1 minute, 58 seconds for the 800, and 51 for the 400. That was in the midst of the spring track season. On this day, he runs the first mile in 4 minutes, 22 seconds. It’s a good start. Nothing amazing, but for this time of year Willis will take it. He heads straight out and hammers the loop around the Big House. The 1200 goes well, too: Willis runs 3 minutes, 15 seconds. As he slowly makes his way over to the start of the tempo loop, Warhurst yells at him: “Put it in your head that you better run sub-2:06.”
Warhurst wants him to focus. He wants him to get through the grind. That’s the whole point. Willis can’t ease up on the climb up to the stadium, but he has to be ready for another surge, too.
He returns to the track and leans into the 800 as Warhurst clicks his watch. Warhurst encourages him as he runs, Willis’ smooth stride nearly unchanged from his days on the Michigan track team. Warhurst stops his watch after two laps: 2 minutes, 5.5 seconds.
No time to revel in it, however. There is one more tempo loop to go before the A.U.G.
Willis does not slack. No, Warhurst isn’t out on the loop shouting to keep pace. But that’s what Warhurst and Willis love so much about it. The workout forces the athlete to contemplate the pain. “It’s not a bee sting,” Warhurst says. “It’s a steady thing that keeps coming at you. It’s a toothache, a grind. But you can function with a toothache. It’s an annoyance, but you can’t feel sorry for yourself. You get through it, and when you’re done you feel like you climbed Mt. Everest.” Willis keeps grinding through the last tempo lap and rolls into the final quarter-mile.
“Then he ran a 56,” Warhurst laughs of Willis’ last rep.
It’s still a thrill, The Michigan.
And it still connects.
Later that day, Willis texted Leer. “He only sent four numbers,” Leer says.
“I knew exactly what they meant.”
*This article has been updated to note the name the N.C. State track team called the workout. h/t Emily Pritt
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When the Fifth Avenue Mile Was Yuuuge
In 1997 and 1998, Donald J. Trump sponsored the 5th Avenue Mile. But two years into a six-year deal, he opted out.
For Jake LaSala, mostly everything about the Fifth Avenue Mile in 1997 was business as usual. As the start-line coordinator for many of the New York Road Runners races not named the New York City Marathon, he knew how to handle the pressure of a race with multiple waves and start times. In the midst of the controlled chaos of runners gathered at 82nd Street in front of the steps at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—not to mention all the tourists and New Yorkers—LaSala corralled and directed runners throughout the day. He calmed eager youths itching to burst from the start line and patiently gathered masters competitors who gingerly made their way to the race course. There was a media race, too, which sometimes brought in some minor celebrities. Plus, there was the elite race, where there was bound to be a sub-four-minute mile on the men’s side, and the women were likely to dip under 4 minutes and 30 seconds.
LaSala, who today is the owner of a road racing consulting firm, was too busy to notice anything out of the ordinary—except that there was something about the start and finish line banners hanging about twelve feet above the street. Those were different this time. They normally weren’t so …
The race had a new sponsor this year, and the signage was not the blue with white-blocked letters that had become the standard at N.Y.R.R. races. This sign was white with gold, glittery lettering that sparkled as the sign swayed in the wind. It had a graphic of a runner dressed in a suit (presumably depicting the sponsor) crossing finish-line tape with his arms raised in victory, too. The gold on white was difficult to read from far away, but it did make sense with the sponsor. In fact, it seemed like it would have fit right in at an Atlantic City casino.
The sign wasn’t something LaSala was worried about, though. The sponsor had been around the start line at one point in the day, and he had been quite pleasant. LaSala had seen some demanding celebrities in the past—like the one who needed a tent for meditation at a charity race—but this guy seemed easy, walking around in his hat, chatting and posing for pictures with runners and fans on the street.
Little did LaSala know: In about twenty years, the sponsor would be the most powerful person in the world.
That’s right, long before he became the forty-fifth president of the United States of America—and long before he said he could shoot someone on a certain avenue in New York and not lose any voters—Donald J. Trump was the title sponsor of the New York Road Runners Fifth Avenue Mile. Gold banner and all.
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But Here Comes Columbia A group of stubborn Ivy Leaguers, a quarter-miler jumping up to the half-mile, and a finishing kick for the ages: an oral history of the 2007 Penn Relays 4x800 meters, and one of the biggest upsets in Penn history.
By Liam Boylan-Pett, originally published in April 2017 in Tracksmith Journal
“We’ve got Kansas, Oral Roberts, Mississippi State, LSU, Michigan, Seton Hall, Georgetown, Villanova all in this mix. But it’s Columbia, in the light blue, leading.”
That’s what Mark Floreani, announcing for FloTrack, said on April 28, 2007, when Erison Hurtault handed me the baton with a five-meter lead in the Penn Relays College Men’s 4×800 Championship of America. Our first leg, Mike Mark, handed off in third before Jonah Rathbun kept us in the race through two exchanges, handing off in fourth. Then Erison unleashed an unruly kick, passing seven runners on the final turn, and there we were: with two laps to go, Columbia University was in perfect position to win the 4×8 at Penn.
As noted by Floreani, who listed off eight other schools in tow, this wasn’t supposed to happen. Columbia hadn’t won a relay at Penn since 1938, and hadn’t won the 4×8 since 1933. No Ivy League school had won at the relays since 1974.
But there I was, leading in front of 46,363 spectators at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field. It didn’t last long — 200 meters into the race, Prince Mumba of defending champion Oral Roberts, who had run more than three seconds faster than me in the 800, sprinted past me and into the lead. I hung as tight as I could, but by the final turn, I had slipped to third behind Mumba and Michigan’s Andrew Ellerton, who had finished second in the 800 at the NCAA Indoor Championships a month earlier.
“This is a great last 150 it’s gonna turn out to be,” Floreani said as we rounded the turn. “Ellerton and Prince Mumba, and Columbia is holding on there in third. This is a great run for Columbia.”
It seemed like that would be the last time Floreani would mention Columbia — and why would he as the two stars battled for victory? With 70 meters to go, Ellerton inched past Mumba, and entering the home straight, it seemed like that was it. Ellerton was poised to sprint away from Mumba for the win.
“Ellerton is on the shoulder of Prince and it looks like Ellerton”—then Floreani stopped. Just then, I moved to the outside and shifted gears, passing Mumba and pulling up on Ellerton’s right shoulder. With 60 meters to the finish line, I was even with Ellerton.
Floreani couldn’t contain the surprise in his voice as he interrupted himself: “But here comes Columbia.”
Ten years ago, Columbia won the 4×800 at Penn, delivering a shocking title to a school desperate for a win on the national stage. I spoke with my teammates, coaches, and others from that day for this oral history — everyone is listed with a short description of their connection to the race. Together, we’ll tell the story of the 2007 Penn Relays 4×8, and one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Relay Carnival.
“The writing was on the wall”
When Willy Wood took over as the Columbia University head coach in 1994, there wasn’t anywhere to go but up. The team was shut out at Heps (the Ivy League Championships) in both 1989 and ’90, and hadn’t won a title in cross-country since 1979 — the school’s only win. Turning the cross-country program around became Wood’s main objective. By 1999, Columbia finished third at Heps, and after taking second in 2002 and 2003, finally won in 2004. The next goal? Building a middle-distance program.
Willy Wood (Head coach, Columbia Track and Field): When I got to Columbia, we had 12 to 15 guys on the team. We had no matching uniforms, no warmups — we had absolutely nothing.
I came in so enthusiastically and told every recruit that we were going to change the world at a place where everybody says it’s impossible. The number one priority was recruiting someone who could help us win Heps cross-country. When I first got there, Princeton was getting the top five guys, so we took the next 15 and decided we were going to outwork everyone. They all came in with a chip on their shoulder.
It took some time, but once we got good enough in cross-country, we started targeting 800 runners, too.
Chris Miltenberg (Assistant coach, Columbia Track and Field): Willy had the cross-country thing going when I got there, but we wanted to do some really good middle-distance running, too. Liam, Jonah, John Heistand, and Zach Richard were coming in as freshmen, and one of the first things we were thinking was: This group of guys, we can have a team that can win at Penn in the 4×8 or Distance Medley Relay and be as good as anyone in the country.
Wood: You win a small wheel when you win a college section [the slow heat] at Penn Relays, and we had done that a few times. It was always a big win for us. But there was a hope we’d stick our nose in a Championship of America race for a big wheel one day.
Liam Boylan-Pett (Anchor leg, Columbia 4×800, and author of story): One of my first weeks on campus Coach Wood told me that if we won at Penn Relays, Columbia would be on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Penn was on my mind early, even if Wood was kind of joking.
I ran the 800 in 1:51 in high school, so I thought it was only a matter of time before I was running 1:48. Then my freshman year happened.
I was awful. I strained a thigh muscle the week of indoor Heps and didn’t make the final of the 1K. Then I never let the muscle heal and didn’t race outdoors. Things didn’t get better the next year. I got a stress fracture in my left foot during cross-country as a sophomore and thought about transferring.
Miltenberg: I’ll admit there were some down points. Guys didn’t develop the way we thought they would right away and all that Penn talk might have been a little much. But we kept at it, and things eventually started to click indoors in 2006.
Liam: I got healthy, and our training group started to focus. We had gotten too relaxed, and we got sick of not being very good. Brian Horneck and Kent Collins were juniors, and they kind of took over. They started training like animals, and we had no choice but to go with them or leave the team. Kent was a 1:56 guy in high school, but he took the Mid-D program and made us believe we could be something. There was no let-up. We were all go all the time. And we finally started running well.
Miltenberg: Jumping ahead to Penn Relays 2006, though, that’s when the writing was on the wall.
Jonah Rathbun (Second leg, Columbia 4×800): We were in the paddock before the 4×8 at Penn my sophomore year, and they told us we were in the second heat. It was Horneck, Zach, Liam, and I. We were pissed, but didn’t know what to do about it.
Liam: Then Coach Wood came up to the paddock and started yelling at the officials to get us into the fast heat.
Jonah: The official yelled back at him, “You want to take last in the fast heat?” Coach Wood said, “Yes, we want to take last in the fast heat.” Then we took sixth.
Liam: We ran 7:25 and broke the school record, but we ran with schools like Penn State and beat Georgetown. Looking back on it, we were seven seconds back of Oral Roberts, but at the time, we thought we were legit.
Jonah: Wood sticking his neck out for us was huge. The fast heat in 2007 would have been so overwhelming if we hadn’t been in the fast heat the year before.
Miltenberg: Even if we weren’t in the mix for the win, I was jacked with how we competed. One more year, I thought, and we could really do this.
Wood: It was the first time we thought we were equally as good as all these people. If things played out in the right way, this could happen.
“I guarantee he can do this”
Heading into the 2007 outdoor track season, Penn Relays was circled on the calendar. Boylan-Pett had won the mile at indoor Heps, and freshman Mike Mark had established himself as one of the Ivy League’s best freshman. Plus, Wood had a surprise up his sleeve. Senior Erison Hurtault, who finished fourth at the NCAA Indoor Championships in the 400 meters and was already one of the greatest runners in Ivy League history, had the strength to run an 800.
Wood: I wasn’t recruiting sprinters in the early 2000s, but Erison was different. He ran 48.8 in high school for the 400, but I saw him at the Armory, and you could tell he was not a 48.8 guy. He split 48 that day but was all over the track, running up behind guys and then out into lane three. It was equally impressive and unimpressive. You saw him and there was no way you can’t have this kid.
Miltenberg: Erison was big time in the 400, but Willy had been saying all year, “I guarantee he can do this.” The key is, he can’t do it too many times, because then he’s going to start thinking about it. From the beginning of the year, the plan was to put Erison into an 800 at George Mason, then bam, run him in the second one at Penn. Not that we weren’t going to talk about it. Naiveté was a good thing for Erison in the 800.
Erison Hurtault (Third leg, Columbia 4×800): Wood would always start me with strength stuff on the track, and then I’d get to speed work. So, I would run an 800 early, but then we would go back to doing 400 training.
Wood: Erison ran 1:51.69 and beat Liam at George Mason. That was exactly when I knew this was it. If we put him on this 4×8, there’s a chance we could do something special.
Erison: I thought that would be it for 800s. Over the next month, I didn’t run anything over a 300 in workouts.
Liam: I was pissed he beat me. I was doubling back from the 1500 a few hours earlier, but I didn’t think I should be losing to Erison in the 800, no matter how good he was. But I also knew what it meant for the 4×8. There was a month until Penn.
Miltenberg: Then we ran an 800 at Long Beach State two weeks out. Liam won and PR’d in 1:50.6 and Jonah and Mike both ran 1:51-mid.
Liam: We thought we were ready — even though we probably shouldn’t have. Adding up our PRs got us to a 7:24.74, but it took sub-7:20 to win the year before. It’s a good thing nobody told us we weren’t actually that good.
The team had two weeks between the west coast trip and Penn Relays. Hurtault thought he’d be the 400 leg on the DMR on Friday at Penn, but Wood had different plans.
Erison: I found out that week I was running the 4×8. I said, “You’re sure I’m running the four by 800?” I knew we were stacking it, and I didn’t know if I was the most logical choice because I had been away from the 800 for so long.
Wood: The hardest part was leaving Kent off the team. We were taking off the heart and soul of the team. And it wasn’t just me. Erison came into my office like Rudy. He said, “Do you think we can honestly win? Because if we can’t I don’t want to take Kent off the team.”
And I did think we could. If Mark and Ratbhun can keep us remotely close, then with Erison and Liam closing you’ve got a shot.
Liam: I had my doubts, too. The Wednesday before the race I told Coach Wood I thought Erison should be the anchor. He had beaten me at George Mason, and I was getting those pre-race doubts that always seem to come around.
Miltenberg: We had talked about it. We wanted to hide Erison somewhat. What if Liam handed off in the lead and Erison went out in 50 point?
Wood: I told Liam he was our guy. The way he was closing races, it was our best chance to win. I told him he was our anchor, and that was it.
Liam: There was no secret coaching lesson in it, he was just straight forward with me. And I accepted it — I kind of had to.
Erison: I was just making sure Wood had given it some good thought. Once we talked about it, I trusted him.
Miltenberg: There was just a good vibe that week. We had a freshman and a 400 guy on the team, but when you have a guy like Erison in the van, that changes things completely. He’s so quietly confident. He didn’t care if the guy was from an SEC school, he just put himself in it. He carried himself that way. There was a confidence and positivity in the lead up to the race that’s hard to explain.
Liam: For some reason, the group just wasn’t that nervous. Knowing that no one other than ourselves thought we had a chance to win probably helped with that.
Miltenberg: Wood and I definitely thought we had a shot at winning, and we had guys that believed we could do it, even though there wasn’t a lot on paper saying that we could. At the same time, though, we thought there were five or six other teams that had a shot as well.
Mike Mark (First leg, Columbia 4×800): In the hotel the night before the race, I asked Jonah what percent chance we had to win. He said 10, and I remember thinking, “OK, that’s not too bad.”
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“Columbia? Columbia. Columbiaaaaa!”
Columbia went into the race with confidence, but would be facing off against Oral Roberts, who had won the year before and had Shaun Smith and Prince Mumba returning. They warmed up before entering the paddock at Penn, a spot where they hoard runners before letting them out onto the track for the race. Their race bib, AF, signified their sixth seed in the race. Oral Roberts wore AA.
Robert Hersh (Penn Relays announcer, Columbia Class of 1960): I was the team manager for Columbia track in the 1950s. I still think it, but track and field was the greatest sport in the world to me then. After graduating, I always paid attention to the Columbia team, and I stayed very involved with the sport of track and field. I announced track meets for 35 years, including six Olympics, nine world championships, and every other meet you could think of. On that day at Penn, I was in the announcer’s booth about a dozen rows up from the finish line, calling the meet over the stadium loudspeakers.
When they came on the track, I knew from the fact that Columbia had a good letter — we were F — that we had a solid team. I had no expectation, however, that we could win. I don’t know whether the coach did, but I was looking forward to the race because I knew at the very least we would be competitive. Which wasn’t often the case.
Wood: I went to the top of the stands. I didn’t want to be near anyone.
Miltenberg: I was on the backstretch with about 250 meters to go, close to the track.
Mike: I don’t think I understood how that big this was for us. In high school, we raced at Penn, but it’s not at the same level — the stakes aren’t as high.
Liam: I was still in the paddock with Erison when they sent Mike and Jonah onto the track. Only the first two legs got to go out. Things move so quickly once you’re in the paddock that you don’t really have time to think about anything.
Mike: Wood kept telling me that I needed to get out really hard. So I did.
Wood: The gun goes off, and Mike gets out perfectly. He’s just off the leader.
Miltenberg: Mike Mark, a Columbia freshman, didn’t hesitate. He got right to the shoulder of the leader. He did exactly what we needed him to do.
Wood: Just keep us in it and give us a chance, I kept thinking. Don’t try do anything heroic. And he exceeded my expectations. He stayed right in the pocket of the leader, no matter who took over.
Hersh: From the very first lap, Columbia ran tactically beautifully. They would get out well, then settle in. They mostly stayed close to the rail.
Miltenberg: Mike stuck with it, closing well, and handed off in third. We were just behind LSU and Seton Hall. Oral Roberts handed off behind us, but not far back.
Jonah: Mike hands me the baton and we’re just little bit back of LSU and Seton Hall. I’m racing against Jamaal James and Shaun Smith — he’s the guy who ran 1:45 the year before to break the race open. But he’s not up on me yet.
Wood: Jonah looked so good and it was unbelievable. I was really starting to think we had a shot to do this. Then he took the lead at 400 meters and my heart sank.
Jonah: The pack started to bunch up, and I didn’t even think about passing, I just thought we were going really slow. I thought I should go by him, so I did. And as soon as I did it I was in the lead and I was like, “Well this is gonna suck.”
Wood: I was worried, but he honestly bounced back so well. Oral Roberts went by him eventually, but they weren’t blowing the race open like they did the year before.
Jonah: I just gotta keep going. They all started to go with 200 to go and I was pretty cashed. I just knew I had to get it to Erison in some form reasonably close.
Liam: I was out on the track and saw Jonah charging home in fourth. He was dead, but we were still in it — especially with Erison.
Wood: We were five yards back. Then we got a gift.
Jonah: Erison takes the baton, and then whoever was in the lead just slammed on the breaks.
Mike: The Oral Roberts leg started jogging. Everyone got back into it.
Wood: That’s when I knew. We actually had a shot. They went out in 57. To me, this is perfect, this is how stuff happens.
Erison: Coming through the 400, I was boxed in, but I wasn’t out of it. I remember coming through the quarter, I was hearing splits, they said, 56, 57.
Mike: After the race, I asked Erison what he was thinking coming through the 400, and verbatim, he said, “Oh these cats are in trouble.”
Erison: I’m a 400 runner. You have no idea, I was jogging.
Wood: I was sitting behind two kids who ran for Penn and they didn’t know who I was. They couldn’t believe that we put Erison on the third leg. He dropped back from 500 to 600, going from about third to eighth and these kids were saying, “I told you.” Then, right as they’re finishing their sentence, Erison went.
Liam: The way they set up the exchange zones, the team that’s in first is closest to the rail and then it goes up from there. I was eighth up from the rail with 200 to go in Erison’s leg. Then he just goes. He passed seven guys in about 10 steps around the curve, and I walked straight to the rail. I wasn’t able to appreciate it at the time, but it was honestly one of the most impressive things I’ve seen on a track. He made those guys look like they were standing still.
Wood: Those two Penn kids went nuts. To their credit, they didn’t care they were wrong. Erison just embarrassed everyone.
Liam: He gave me the baton with a big lead, and there I was, in first at Penn Relays. One thing, though: I hated running with the lead.
Miltenberg: Liam was way better when he was the hunter. Indoors, outdoors, he was finishing stuff really well. Being in the lead wasn’t exactly ideal.
Jonah: If you win at Penn, each person on the team gets a gold watch. Somewhere along the line, though, we found out that the top East Coast team got one, too. So you could get a watch if you were fourth, as long as you beat all the other East teams. Liam was in the lead, with Oral Roberts and Mississippi State behind him, and I was jumping up and down. We could get third or fourth — and that would probably mean a watch.
Erison: I was dead. But I found Jonah and Mike on the infield. Jonah was watching so intently, talking about the watch, and I was like, “Okay, maybe we’ll get one.”
Jonah: Liam’s in first right now. He’s probably going to get passed by two, but definitely not three people.
Liam: Prince Mumba passed me 200 meters into the race.
Erison: It’s got to be intimidating getting passed by a 1:46 guy.
Miltenberg: LSU went by him, too. That was the best thing that happened — I was so relieved when those guys passed him right away. And he stayed right there. He wouldn’t give them an inch.
Wood: I knew the field was ridiculously good, so I was guarded, but without a doubt, the way Liam raced I knew we had a shot. He came through 400 in 53 point, which wasn’t overly fast for him. When he came through, I thought he could kick with anyone.
Liam: I clipped the rail with 300 to go and felt Ellerton from Michigan come up, but I was still in third and remember thinking, “Just stay close. Just stay close.”
Miltenberg: Liam was tucked in with 250 to go, but if there’s one thing that he was good at, it was getting to the right spot. Then he beat LSU to the corner heading into the last turn, and it was just Oral Roberts and Michigan in front of us.
Jonah: Liam got passed, then got passed again, and I’m like, “Don’t get passed again.” We were in third with 150 to go. This was happening. We were going to get a watch.
Wood: At that point, they got a little distance on us on the curve. And I thought, no matter what happens, I felt like for the first time Columbia had made it on the national stage. If nothing else, we were in the mix, and it was going to be respectful. We were going to run fast and mix it up, and they only barely gapped us. But then you could tell at about 120 that he found a gear.
Jonah: And then the announcer…
Erison: I was dead. I had been lying down. I’ll admit I wasn’t even watching the race. Then I heard the announcer. I bounced up immediately.
Hersh: As the race unfolded, I was very pleased to see Columbia was right in the middle of it — right in the hunt. Then the homestretch and the conclusion just blew me away. I was on the loudspeaker and when we pulled even. I couldn’t believe it. I said, “Columbia?”
Liam: All around the turn I stayed close. Then we were about to hit the homestretch, and I got to the outside.
Wood: Liam swung wide and this was actually it. I thought multiple times that we had a shot, but I was always guarded. I always downplayed expectations. But right then. Liam swung wide and pulled even. It was really there. Oh my god it’s really going to happen.
Liam: The track straightened out and I saw it. I was even and I wasn’t letting up. I thought, “Holy shit we’re going to win.” All down the final 60 meters I kept saying, “This is happening, this is happening.”
Hersh: Columbia pulled ahead and I said, “Columbia!”
Liam: In my memory of it, I’m peering around myself and seeing myself pull even with Michigan. Then I’m pulling ahead. Then I got there. I actually got to the finish line first.
Hersh: I couldn’t contain my excitement, “Columbiaaaaaaa!”
“I didn’t win too many races in college. That was one of the few.”
Boylan-Pett crossed the line in first ahead of Michigan’s Andrew Ellerton, giving Columbia the win in a school record of 7:22.64, just a tenth of a second in front of Michigan.
Jonah: Liam put his arms out as soon as he crossed the line.
Liam: I didn’t stop running. I went straight to Erison, Jonah, and Mike.
Jonah: Mike was bounding around. Erison shot up for the group hug. It was kind of a standing dog pile with us all yelling, “Oh my god, oh my god.”
Erison: I was still dead.
Mike: Erison kept trying to stop on the victory lap.
Hersh: In a way, I wish I was not on the microphone because all I wanted to do was jump up and down and start screaming. But I couldn’t go nuts because I had a job to do. Immediately, I’m making hand signals with my friends a few rows ahead, scrambling to do what I needed to do, which was to figure out when’s the last time Columbia won a race. What about the 4×8? What about an Ivy League team? All of these things, if I had thought those were possibilities before the meet, I might have researched it then.
Wood: I stayed in my seat for a while. I missed the victory lap, missed the whole thing. I was trying to walk down and find the guys, but every high school coach was stopping me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a race where the whole place cared. People were legit happy that we won, we gave everyone hope that they could do it too.
Miltenberg: I saw them on the victory lap. I didn’t even have anything to say. I remember it clearly. I told them later, “What makes that so special is you did it with three other guys. That’s one of the defining moments of each of their careers, because it’s about a team. You do some great stuff on the track, but you rarely get that team feeling.” But right then, I just kind of shrugged.
Liam: It didn’t stop with the victory lap. We had a press conference. I said “Columbia doesn’t win much of anything,” and that’s what the Philly paper led their story with. Coach Milt told me people in the athletic department weren’t too happy with that.
Erison: We were walking back to the van and people were congratulating us on the way. Wood said we were messing up so badly by leaving Penn and Philly. We should have stayed to celebrate.
Jonah: I smiled the whole way home.
The days after the race were filled with congratulatory text messages and emails. Plus, endless replays of the race on FloTrack.
Wood: It would have been a slightly different experience if it had been a year or two earlier. It was a more global experience because people saw it on FloTrack within 24 hours.
Jonah: I watched the race about a thousand times afterwards, just like over and over and over.
Erison: Watching that video, we spotted the Mississippi State guy. He was in second behind Liam on the anchor leg, and ran right up behind him. You can barely see it in the video, but he points the baton at Liam, then makes a throat slash gesture.
Liam: I would have quit immediately if I would have known that was happening behind me.
Jonah: Yeah, but he ended up taking like eighth.
Liam: I still watch the video more than I’d like to admit — not for the throat slash, for the finish.
Mike: I think about the race more than you would think.
Erison: Any times Penn comes up, I do.
Jonah: Any time anyone brings up running I think about it. It was the highlight of my career. I didn’t win too many races in college. That was one of the few.
Miltenberg: Columbia hadn’t fully broken through yet. No team was going to nationals in cross-country. They didn’t have Kyle Merber there running 3:35 in the 1500. This was the first big national recognition of what Wood had been building since 1994. It was very emotional — that group of guys. That was why I got into coaching.
Liam: We didn’t make the cover of Sports Illustrated like Wood said we would, but the inside cover of Track & Field News was pretty cool.
That race was the highlight of my career. I ended up breaking 4:00 in the mile, which was the amazing experience you’d expect it to be. But the 4×8… I still smile whenever I think about it.
Erison Hurtault would go on to finish third at the NCAA Championships in the 400 meters that year, running 45.40 to set a still-standing school record. He would then run for Dominica in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. He retired from professional running in 2016 and now coaches the track team at New York University.
Liam Boylan-Pett (the author) would go on to run 3:57 in the mile and run at the 2012 Olympic Trials in the 800 and 1500 meters. He retired from professional running in 2016. He is the creator of LØPE Magazine.
Mike Mark finished his three more years at Columbia and now works in finance in New York.
Jonah Rathbun stopped running competitively after his Columbia career. He now works in finance in New York.
Chris Miltenberg coached the Georgetown women’s team to an NCAA cross-country championship and is currently the head coach of Stanford track and field.
Willy Wood left Columbia in 2014, and now runs Fast Track Recruiting, a college recruiting service for high school athletes.
Robert Hersh stopped announcing track meets in 2008. He says Columbia winning the 4×800 at Penn is the most exciting thing he ever saw on a track. The background of his computer screen is the image of Boylan-Pett crossing the line in first.
Ten years later, they still grin ear-to-ear when they think about the 4×8, and one of the greatest races they ever ran.