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Olympics

Why it is Worth Getting Up Early to Watch Track on Saturday Morning

Two amazing distance races. Powerful runners with strides like poetry. Heroes and legends to be made. That's worth a 4:30 wake up.

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The only reason I get up early on Saturday is if I’m going long and want to beat the heat. But tomorrow I’ll have made my coffee and be in front of the TV by 4:45 a.m. MDT.

Why?

Rivals. Challengers. Strategy. Poetry. History.

Sifan Hassan. Letesenbet Gidey. Emily Sisson. Cole Hocker. Jakob Ingebrigtsen. Timothy Cheruiyot.

Long-Distance Relationship

First up, at that pre-dawn 4:45 (MDT – East coasters get it easy) is the women’s 10,000m. Up front, we get to see the showdown between the Netherland’s Sifan Hassan, who broke the world record for the distance on June 6, and Ethiopian Letesenbet Gidey, who lowered that record two days later. Head to head, they famously faced off at the world champs in Doha, where Hassan triumphed. Gidey, on fresh legs, is poised to add an Olympic gold to her world record.

Sifan Hassan and Letesenbet Gidey racing in the women's 10,000
Sifan Hassan of Netherlands, right, on her way to winning the Women’s 10,000m final, ahead of Letesenbet Gidey of Ethiopia during the 2019 World Athletics Championships at Kahifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Hassan of course, was going for triple gold until Friday morning when the rounds of the 1500m and 5,000m caught up with her and she was unable to hold off Faith Kipyegon and Laura Muir in the final 200m. But Hassan has an amazing ability to bounce back — witnessed after her fall in the first round of the 1500m (watch it again, set to Chariots of Fire) — and she’s stronger at 10,000m than 1500m. If she can pull off any medal she’ll still make history, and if she wins gold she’ll join legend Tirunesh Dibaba as the only women in history to win both the 5,000m/10,000m in one Games.

American Hero

If that rivalry isn’t enough, we have the privilege of seeing U.S. runner Emily Sisson at her peak. I’ve been a fan of Sisson since I watched her dance away from the field at the Nebraska State Cross Country Championships in 2006, her freshman year in high school (I was coaching a team in a different class, but we all paused to watch her float past, far in front, aware that we were witnessing something special).

Emily Sisson winning the Nebraska state cross country championships as a freshman in 2006.
Emily Sisson winning the Nebraska state cross country championships as a freshman in 2006. Photo: Jonathan Beverly

She’s proven since to be one of the most consistently-improving U.S. runners of this generation — until the marathon trials in Atlanta, the race she told me she had been focused on since 2015. There, she fell off the pack and eventually out of the race.

Flash forward 15 months and she not only won the U.S. Trials but made a statement, running away from the field and breaking Deena Kastor’s 17-year-old Olympic Trials record despite 85-degree F heat. Sisson has two top-10 finishes in the 10,000m at World Championships, and the stamina, experience, determination, and the training to be in the hunt through the finish.

I won’t be surprised by anything,” Sisson told me in an interview before she left for Japan. “I’m trying to picture all the various scenarios, and I feel it could go so many different ways. Historically it does seem like it is more tactical when it is hot and humid.”

“It will be tactical to a point,” Sisson’s coach Ray Treacy said, “And then the race will get going — pretty early, I think, because no one wants to hang around for Hassan to out kick them. Certainly Gidey won’t want to hang around that long. So it is just a matter of being as comfortable as you can and being able to finish well over the second half.”

Regardless who wins, this is going to be a race to remember.

But that’s not all! About 40 minutes later, the men’s 1500m runners will take the track.

Youth and Excellence

The youngsters have taken center stage this year, with two 19-year-olds going 1-2 in the women’s 800m, and I’m looking forward to seeing if two milers born in this century can stand on the podium.

20-year-old Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the youngest of the exciting Norwegian Ingebrigtsen brothers, has had a remarkable year at both the 1500m and the 5,000m. In June, he ran the year’s best time for 5,000m — 12:48.45, defeating world-record holder, and now Olympic champion, Joshua Cheptegei. In July, he scorched a 3:29.25 1500m, the third-best time of the year. He’s got the endurance and the wheels, but will face the man who beat him in that July race in Monaco: defending world champion Timothy Cheruiyot of Kenya, who is 13-0 over Jakob when they go head-to-head.

Jakob looked in control during the heats, taking second in a semi-final in which Abel Kipsang set an Olympic record ahead of him. But so too did Cole Hocker, another 20-year-old coming on strong. Hocker also took second in his heat of the semi-final, finishing ahead of Cheruiyot.

Cole Hocker of Team United States reacts after competing in the Men's 1500m Semi Final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on August 05, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
Cole Hocker of Team United States reacts after competing in the Men’s 1500m Semi Final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on August 05, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Hocker, just finished with his sophomore year at Oregon, doesn’t have the creds and fast times from the European circuit — his results are from places like Fayetteville and Greensboro and he set his personal best 3:33.87 in that semi-final. But he has the cohones to stare down Olympic Champion Matt Centrowitz, and has covered every move in the trials and Games so far with poise and power. It’s going to be fun to watch him compete, wherever he ends up at the end of the day.

So, two amazing distance races to watch, powerful runners with strides like poetry, heroes and legends to be made. Yeah, I’ll set my alarm early and postpone my long run until a bit later, even if it will be hotter. I’ll just imagine I’m in Tokyo.