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Fleshman Wins Second National 5,000-Meter Title

Lagat wins men’s 5,000 final in 13:54 with furious finishing kick.

By David Monti

(c) 2010 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

DES MOINES, IOWA — A year and a day ago in Eugene, Oregon, Lauren Fleshman failed to show up on the starting line of the 5,000 meters at the USA Outdoor Championships. Plagued by a series of mechanical problems stemming from a broken navicular bone in her foot that spawned other injuries, the 2006 US champion in the 5,000 scratched from the race, unable to compete. She seriously considered retiring at 27.

“If you’d have talked to me 12 months ago I was ready to, I don’t know, open up a shoe store or something else,” Fleshman said after winning her second national 5,000-meter title Friday night. “Move to another state. I was very frustrated.”

But under the patient coaching of Marc Rowland at the Nike Oregon Track Club in Eugene, the former NCAA champion at Stanford University had been slowly working her way back to the form which put her on two national teams for the IAAF World Championships, and allowed her to run a personal best of 14:58.48 in 2008.

“If I didn’t have coach Rowland and the Oregon Track Club, I don’t know if I would have made it back,” Fleshman explained, her wavy light brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. “I definitely wouldn’t have been national champion this quickly. So, I’m full of gratitude for my situation in Oregon. I can’t say it enough.”

In tonight’s race, Fleshman ran most of the way in the pack and did not respond immediately to a big surge by three-time Olympian Jen Rhines, who threw in a 69.7-second lap with five laps to go. Rhines managed to build an eight-second lead with four laps to go, and it appeared that her aggressive strategy might work.

“My thinking was to go with five or six laps to go, but I got antsy,” said Rhines. “I was just trying to get out of the habit of just running for second or third.”

With two laps to go, Rhines’s lead was down to five seconds. Fleshman was working with Molly Huddle to catch the 2002 national 10,000-meter champion, and with 600 meters left in the race, decided to go for the win. “It was just knowing that I had enough left to put on a good kick,” said Fleshman. “I didn’t know if it would be enough to win, but I just got this smirk where I knew I had something left.”

Running 66.9 seconds for the final lap, Fleshman was too far in front for the chasing Huddle to catch her, stopping the clock at 15:28.70. Huddle came next in 15:30.89, and steeplechaser Jenny Barringer third in 15:33.33. Rhines faded to finish in fourth place.

Fleshman’s return to the top was painstaking. She said that she had to totally reinvent herself by changing her form, strengthening weak muscles, but most of all, taking things one step at a time. She said that she couldn’t put together four weeks of training without getting reinjured. “I had to first take it day by day, never think more than one day at a time, never get frustrated, try not to think about how good I had been,” she said. “It’s really all about learning to live in the moment, which is hard to do.”

She added: “I just reinvented myself from the ground up with help.” That help came from a chiropractor named Dr. Ted Forcum and a physical therapist named Robyn Pester, Fleshman said. “‘I need to start over and I need you two guys to help me,'” Fleshman recalled telling them. “And they did. They were the first two to jump on board helping me.”

Fleshman won a trail run last September in Bend, Oregon, then a road 5K last October. She didn’t step on the track again until this past April when she won the low-key Oregon Relays 5000 in 15:42.46, giving her a qualifying mark for tonight’s meet. She also ran a special 1,500-meter race for elite athletes held at the Oregon State high school championships, clocking 4:12.30. Arriving at Drake Stadium this afternoon, she wasn’t completely sure she was ready to mix it up with the other contenders. “There was a big part of me which wasn’t sure, but there was this little part of me which felt that I might be able to win it,” she said. “And that scared the crap out of me.”

While her victory in 2006 was satisfying, Fleshman said it had far less meaning than tonight’s. “This one is so sweet,” she said, her eyes growing misty. “I mean, I don’t know how else to put it.”

The men’s 5,000-meter final was far more predictable. Off of a slow pace, Bernard Lagat overwhelmed the field with his final 100-meter sprint to win easily in 13:54.08, collecting his third national title in the event. Tim Nelson, an aspiring marathoner, finished second (13:54.80) and Georgetown star Andrew Bumbalough ran his final race as a Hoya, finishing third in 13:55.16.

When asked if it was an easy victory, Lagat smiled, paused and said, “No. It was a great race.” Lagat said that he was thankful for the slow pace because he was feeling some fatigue from his recent 5,000-meter American record in Oslo on June 4 (12:54.12) and his 1,500m race in New York on June 12 (3:34.36). He compared tonight’s effort with a tempo run. “I didn’t come here to run a fast time,” said the reigning world 3,000-meter indoor champion. “I promised people here that when I came for the Drake Relays that I’m coming back in June. I’m glad I did.”