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After 24 laps of Hayward Field, it was still anyone’s race, with 12 guys coming through the 9,600m split within less than 2 seconds of each other.
27 minutes earlier, as the U.S. Olympic Trials men’s 10,000m final got started on a warm and breezy night in Eugene, Ore., there was a wide range of possible storylines, but no distinct, shoe-in favorites for making the Olympic team. Eight of the 25 runners on the starting line had already run faster than the 27:28.0 Olympic-qualifying standard, and three-time Olympian Galen Rupp had already said he would be focusing on the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics so wasn’t expected to run all-out to make the team.
After an initial speedy surge by Oklahoma State sophomore Isai Rodgriquez, passing 200m in 31 seconds and 400m in 1:04:50, BYU junior Conner Mantz took over the lead and started pushing the pace with 2016 Olympian Leonard Korir directly in tow.
Mantz had finished second in the event behind Tulsa’s Patrick Dever in the NCAA Championships a week earlier on the same track in 27:42, so he was fit, capable and eager to give it a go. With Mantz up front and Rodriguez, Frank Lara, Korir and Georgetown’s Robert Brandt giving immediate chase, the big field strung out into a long single-file line for the first several laps.
But not long after Mantz took the pack through the opening mile in 4:22, he started looking around for help. In the coming laps, the lead changed repeatedly as the pace slowed. The biggest drama came at the top of the turn on the 11th, when two-time Olympian Lopez Lomong, who came in with a 27:04 PR, the fastest time in the field, suddenly pulled up lame while grabbing what appeared to be his right hamstring.
The leaders passed through 3 miles in 13:22 and the halfway mark in 13:58, the pace now slowed from the initial 4:22 to high 4:30’s. As the field settled into a series of 68-second laps, it brought the realization that the fastest and fittest runners — namely Grant Fisher (27:12), Woody Kincaid (27:14), Joe Klecker (27:23), Rupp and Ben True (27:14) — were biding their time, trying to stay patient while being content to let others do the work up front. As the laps wore on, there was jostling and inadvertent elbowing here and there, with still about 16 runners in contention.
That was still the case when James Mwaura took over the lead and took the field through the 4-mile mark in 17:57 (4:29 pace). Mwaura, a Gonzaga sophomore coached by Steve Prefontaine’s Oregon teammate Pat Tyson, made a similar move a week earlier in the NCAA finals, only to fade to ninth in the final laps. His move was similarly doomed here.
Unsung Reid Buchanan (On Running) made a valiant but short-lived surge with three laps to go, which seemed to put a jolt into the remaining runners and prompted Fisher to take over the lead. At the bell, however, a pack of 12 guys were still within 2 seconds of each other.
With Fisher still in the lead, Kincaid was suddenly right at his side and it was time to go. As those two separated at the start of the backstretch, True moved into fourth and looked poised to make the team. But it was Klecker who made the strong move, blowing past Biya Simbassa and moving up on the leaders.
As Fisher and Kincaid started to accelerate at the start of the final turn, Klecker was riding their slipstream, with about four strong strides separating him from True, who had also passed Simbassa. Down the homestretch, Kincaid surged ahead slightly for the win in 27:53.62 but Fisher clung to him to hold on for second (27:54.29) just ahead of Klecker (27:54.90), who secured the final Olympic spot, pumping his fists at the finish line.
True, possibly running the last 10,000m of his career, finished in the always-disappointing fourth-place position (27:58.88). He’s been one of the best runners of his generation but has never had the thrill of going to the Olympics. The tenacious Mantz (27:59.37) rounded out the top five.
24-year-old Fisher owned the top U.S. time in the field heading into the race, but he ecstatic to finish second.
“Today was a little bit choppy and a little back and forth, but the quality was there and you had to fight for it,” Fisher said. “It felt good (to finish second). Obviously, I wanted to win this race and went into it trying to win, but sometimes that doesn’t always happen. Today, if you’re first or second or third, you’re on the team. It’s mission accomplished. When I crossed the line, I looked at Woody, and I knew we were going to Tokyo. And that’s an incredible feeling, doing it with a friend and teammate like that. It’s a good sign for U.S. distance running, in my opinion.”
Kincaid (28) closed with a 53.50 final lap and 4:12 split for the final 1,600m. He and Fisher, as well as Klecker and True, will all double-back in the 5,000m next week.
“Going into that race, I had no idea how that race would go, because it was windy and a little bit hot,” Kincaid said. “And sure enough, the race went out at a hot pace and I knew it couldn’t stay like that because it was so windy. So I just hung out at the back and slowly had to fight my way to the front. I was pretty far back at 5K, but I knew we had a long way to go. I knew if I was as tired as I was at that point, I knew everyone else was feeling it, too. But then the last four times were just as I imagined it. It was just about making a hot move and staying on it.”
By making his first Olympic team, 24-year-old Klecker continues the Olympic legacy in his family. His mom, Janis Klecker, won the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials marathon in Houston and went on to place 21st in the Barcelona Olympics. She was in the stands at Hayward Field cheering for him on every lap.
“Having her there gave me a lot of extra push,” Klecker says. “She’s been guiding me through the whole process. She had told me the night before her Trials, she ate a Snickers bar and made the Olympic team and I followed that to a T and it worked out.”
- Woody Kincaid, Nike Bowerman Track Club, 27:53.62
- Grant Fisher, Nike Bowerman Track Club, 27:54.29
- Joe Klecker, On Athletics Club, 27:54.90
- Ben True, unattached, 27:58.88
- Conner Mantz, BYU, 27:59.37
- Galen Rupp, Nike, 27:59.43
- Biya Simbassa, unattached, 27:59.94
- Sam Chelanga, unattached, 28:02.47
- Reid Buchanan, On Running, 28:03.12
- Emmanuel Bor, U.S. Army, 28:05:00
- Zach Panning, Hansons-Brooks, 28:05.96
- Robert Brandt, Georgetown, 2809.92
- Diego Estrada, unattached, 28:10.78
- James Mwaura, Gonzaga, 28:11.89
- Leonard Korir, U.S. Army, 28:13.84
- Girma Mecheso, U.S. Army, 28:20.15
- Jacob Thomson, Tracksmith, 28:42.08
- Frank Lara, Tracksmith/Roots Running, 28:45.41
- Dillon Maggard, Hoka, 28:52.38
- Marty Hehir, Reebok Boston, 29:02.91
- Eric Hamer, Colorado State, 29:34.50
- Isai Rodriguez, Oklahoma State, 29:49.80
Abdihamid Nur, NAU, DNF
Eric Jenkins, Nike, DNF
Lopez Lomong, Nike Bowerman Track Club, DNF