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Mekonnen Defeats Lagat At The Wanamaker Mile

Young Ethiopian knocks off 8-time Millrose winner.

Young Ethiopian knocks off 8-time Millrose winner.

Written by: Peter Gambaccini

(c)2011 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

NEW YORK — Bernard Lagat had shown absolute mastery of the tight turns and short straightaways of the Madison Square Garden track in his record eight victories in the fabled Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games. But in Friday night’s bid for #9, he knew he’d be up against perhaps his most formidable Wanamaker Mile challenger yet, a man obviously adept at running under a roof. Deresse Mekonnen of Ethiopia is a two-time World Indoor 1500-meter champion and, at 23, is 13 years younger than Lagat.

Lagat had been the one constant of the Millrose Games in recent years, and essentially the towering celebrity of American indoor track, but there would be no ninth Wanamaker win for him, as Mekonnen, after a comfortable 2:01 first half, sealed the victory with a 55-second final quarter to hit the finish in 3:58.58, with Lagat, unable to catch up, next in 3:59:01.

David Torrence of California’s Bay Area Track Club was third in 4:00:13 and Lee Emanuel of Great Britain fourth in 4:04.91.

Besides “nine,” the key number in the race was “three,” as in three strikes, you’re out. When Mekonnen began to push with two of the 160-yard laps left, Lagat tried to pass on the next turn, and was thwarted. He made a second bid on the far turn, and again could not get by. On the final lap, he tried a third burst to get momentum heading into the last straightaway, but it was never quite sufficient, and Lagat went down swinging.

Mekonnen’s race was as masterful as Lagat expected it would be.

Mekonnen hadn’t been so sure. “I had not competed for about six months due to (stomach) illness, and I didn’t expect to run this well,” he admitted. “I expected Lagat would win and I thought maybe I would make second.” In fact, Mekonnen, like thousands of Madison Square Garden fans, was in thrall of the defending champion, and opined: “Lagat is a great guy and if he’d won, I’d be happy, too.” But when he got to the last two laps, Mekonnen asserted, “I knew that I could hang on. I knew in my heart I could win.”

Lagat, accompanied to New York by his wife and two small children, displayed not a trace of distress after his defeat. “My race was not bad at all,” he stated. ‘I knew coming in I was racing against an athlete who was very good indoors and very smart,” and added “he was stronger and he could not let me win.”

Mekonnen’s next task is a 1500 in Birmingham, England, on February 19. Lagat, who has a slew of American indoor and outdoor records, is planning an assault on the U.S. indoor two-mile standard at a place to be named shortly. Both men could be coming back to Millrose. Mekonnen wouldn’t commit to taking aim at Lagat’s record of eight wins but he expressed appreciation for the New York fans’ affection and enthusiasm for the athletes and hoped he’d be back “four or five times.”

Lagat is committed to focusing on the 5000 meters outdoors as he approaches the 2012 London Olympics, but he said his loss on Friday “will only give me motivation to go forward,” and declared “I want to come until I win again.”

Ten years after she’d won the high school girls’ mile as Sara Bei at the Millrose Games, Sara Hall finally broke a string of runner-up performances at the Games, taking the lead in the women’s 1500-meter run from Heidi Dahl with two laps remaining. As she sprinted to the finish, Hall broke the tape with a broad smile in 4:15.35. Carmen Doumas-Hussar of Canada, a three-time Millrose champion, moved to second in 4:16.73 as Dahl took third in 4:16.99.

“I wanted to win,” an ebullient Hall stated and she’d been anxious to fly in from California, where she’s now training with her Stanford coach Dena Evans, “even though it’s January and I didn’t know if I was in mile shape. This is a special venue.” Outdoors, Hall will again be mixing 1500s and 500s and getting more involved with the steeplechase. She did just one in 2010, and “I finished feeling like I’m hungry to do another,” she said.

A men’s two-mile, a rarity at the Millrose Games, was designed to have 2008 Olympian Galen Rupp fly in from Oregon to contest it. But he’d suffered an asthma attack in a recent mile race in Idaho and did not make the trip to New York. Anthony Famiglietti, a two-time Olympic steeplechaser, also withdrew. That left Stephen Haas, a former Big Ten 5000-meter champion at Indiana, and Harbert Okuti, a Ugandan who’d attended Iona College, as the leading combatants. Haas was well in command with six of the 160-yard laps to go and took first in 8:48.61, with Okuti next in 8:57.99. Haas had expected to encounter Rupp and “obviously a little bit faster race. I thought I was ready to go through in 4:10 and rock that last mile,” he explained. He actually went through the first mile in 4:23. Haas knew “the turns are so tight” at the Garden and had watched YouTube videos of past races there “to see the body posture. In two three laps, I got the hang of it. Towards the end, I was just coasting.” In any case, slow race or not, depleted field or not, Haas figured “I’m still running at the Millrose Games, at Madison Square Garden. That’s something I’ll have on my resume forever.”

Other winners included Natasha Hastings, who’d grown up in New York and competed at Millrose on high school relays. Her 53.60 won the women’s 400. She fulfilled her promise to be in the lead as the runners cut from their four inside lanes to the inside rail, and she thwarted a brief challenge from Olympic relay teammate Dee Dee Trotter, who was second in 53.82.

Renny Quow of Trinidad won the Mel Sheppard 600-yard run in 1:11.82. Samantha Nadel of North Shore in Glen Head, New York waited patiently as the high school girls’ mile looked to be turning into a two-way battle between Lindsay Crevoiserat of Glastonbury, Connecticut, and Ajee Wilson of Neptune, New Jersey. “My coach told me ‘just start out the race the way you normally do, and you the middle, which is your strength, to catch up,'” said the junior, who did that and more, scoring an upset in 4:50.58, with Crevoiserat (4:51.10) and Wilson (4:52.45) in the next two spots. “I can’t believe it,” gushed Nadel.

In the high school boys’ mile, Chad Noelle’s plan was to “stay relaxed the first half, get in position the third quarter, and move in the last quarter.” That’s precisely what he did. The runner from Green, N.Y., prevailed in 4:16.71, just ahead of Matt Jablonski of Loyola Blakefield in Towson, Maryland (4:16.88). Jeremy Elkaim of Livingston, New Jersey third in 4:19.60.