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Centrowitz, Uceny Win Bruising 1500 Finals

Lagat passes his world championships spot on to Wheating.

Morgan Uceny, shown here in Thursday's prelims, closed hard over the last lap to win the 1,500m final on Saturday. Photo:

Lagat passes his world championships spot on to Wheating.

Video: Post-race interview with men’s winner Matt Centrowitz.

Video: Post-race interview with women’s winner Morgan Uceny.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

Two weeks after winning the NCAA Championships 1,500 meters, University of Oregon junior Matthew Centrowitz earned his first senior national title in the same event on his home track Saturday at Hayward Field. Ten minutes earlier, Morgan Uceny won her second 1,500 title, having claimed the indoor championship in 2010. The men’s and women’s races unfolded very differently, but they shared one common characteristic: violence.

The women’s final started at 2:34 pm under blue skies with swirling winds that made front running risky. Throwing caution to those winds, Christin Wurth-Thomas, who two years ago became only the fourth American to break four minutes in the metric mile, went out extremely hard from the gun in a bid to run the legs off the 11 other women in the race.

“It’s like Pre said,” Wurth-Thomas said afterward, referring to University of Oregon hero Steve Prefontaine: “’You’ll have to bleed to beat me.’”

Wurth-Thomas completed the first lap in a stunning 62.3 seconds. Treniere Moser led a strung-out and suffering chase pack 10 meters behind, with Uceny on her shoulder—right where she wanted to be.

“I didn’t wanted to be in second place, because if there was a move I didn’t want to get boxed in,” Uceny said.

Wurth-Thomas slowed down considerably on the second lap, passing 800 meters in 2:08.3, but increased her lead even so. Little changed in lap three, which Wurth-Thomas completed in 66.4 seconds, good enough to maintain her 12-meter advantage. If any of her chasers was panicking at that point, Uceny was not among them.

“When the bell lap came, my legs felt good and I knew if I worked I could slowly reel her in,” said the Cornell graduate.

As Uceny, Jenny Simpson and Shannon Rowbury lifted their pace, Wurth-Thomas began to falter. With 200 meters to go, the gap was coming down visibly. Uceny took the lead with 120 meters left in the race, bumping shoulders with a drifting Wurth-Thomas as she made the pass. As Uceny sprinted toward victory, Wurth-Thomas tied up terribly, almost coming to a stop in the last 20 meters despite giving everything she had. By then Simpson had passed her also, but Wurth-Thomas still had a world championships qualifying slot within her grasp.

Rowbury was closing on her fast, however. At the line, an out-of-control Wurth-Thomas keeled into lane four just as Rowbury attempted to out-lean her and the two women collided. A scant 0.01 second separated them at the finish (4:06.20 to 4:06.21). Uceny’s winning time was 4:03.91. Simpson clocked 4:05.66 for second place.

“I went for it and I can’t hang my head over anything,” Wurth-Thomas said afterward. As for the collision with Rowbury, she said, “It is what it is.”

The men’s race followed much more closely the fan-frustrating formula for championship 1,500 finals. The runners sprinted for position at the gun and then slowed to a near walk, passing 400 meters three seconds slower than Wurth-Thomas had in the women’s race (65.8).

The slow pace caused the 13-man field to bunch up tightly. At some points the runners ran five-wide, and there was a great deal of pushing and shoving.

“That’s one of the bumpiest races I’ve ever been in,” said Leo Manzano, a three-time national championships runner-up and a 2008 Olympian.

After passing 800 meters in a pathetic 2:11.9, Jordan McNamara, the slowest qualifier, grabbed the lead and began pushing the pace. The tempo wound up gradually throughout the third lap as the elbowing continued.

McNamara led the group through 1200 meters in 3:08.3 and was then promptly swallowed up. Centrowitz claimed pole position as Bernard Lagat, who won the 5,000 meters here last night, moved onto his shoulder and Andrew Wheating, second on the U.S. all-time list (3:30.93), came forward on the outside.

Most of the 11,000 spectators watching the race expected Lagat to kick past Centrowitz on the home straight, as he has done to so many others in so many races in his storied career, but it didn’t happen.

“I saved something for the last 50 meters,” said Centrowitz, who throughout the last half lap lifted his tempo just enough to stay ahead before letting it all hang out in those last 50 meters to take the win in 3:47.63, a third of a second clear of Lagat, who was no doubt feeling the effects of three races in three days.

Manzano finished third in 3:48.16, just edging out Wheating, who fell at the finish and chewed up his left shoulder blade nicely on the rough surface of the track. Wheating’s despair at having missed qualifying for the world championships by 0.03 second did not last long. Lagat pulled the 23-year-old University of Oregon alum aside and informed him that he would not claim his slot, having decided to concentrate on the 5,000 in Daegu, South Korea. Wheating was in, by virtue of having achieved the world championships A-qualifying standard last year.

“He was very emotional,” Lagat said.

No doubt.