Track and field was back at the Madison Square Garden as usual this weekend. But for the first time, the action was held under a new name, with a slimmed down schedule, and in a renovated venue.
A lot was different at the U.S. Open meet than its predecessor, the Millrose Games, whose name belongs to the Armory Foundation, which moved that event uptown to the Armory and two weeks later in the season. Gone were the dozens of high school and college races that clogged the early parts of the race here starting in the middle of Friday afternoon. Tonight's meet didn't start until 7:00 p.m. and MSG's maintenance crew was already breaking down the track, with Sinatra singing "New York, New York" by just a little after 10:00 p.m. One of Millrose Games' biggest fan draws was that runners from the earlier amateur races and their families and friends would stick around for the evening's marquee events. Crowds for the Wanamaker Mile would often sound comparable to a Knicks game. But with that base downsized significantly from the restructured schedule, the audience also was smaller – the official count was about 5,800 people.
There also were some small logistical kinks to be worked out by the meet organizers. Events ran about 10-15 minutes behind schedule, certainly not a big deal for anyone. But considering the tight ship kept by the bowtie-bearing Millrose staffers, there was a different attitude. Organizers also had to deal with a renovated arena, which is in the midst of an $800 million facelift. The arena's bowels were completely different than previous years.
Of course, some things didn't change at all. Most of the athletes said they were thrilled that USATF could cobble together the support and financial will to keep hosting a meet at the Garden. USATF spokeswoman Jill Geer said that was thanks to a more symbiotic partnership with MSG, which previously rented out space to the organizers, then let them to figure the rest out. This year, Geer said, the organizations shared resources to promote and market the event and helped attract took on more sponsors to subsidize costs.
And many of the events and their athletes remained the same. Bernard Lagat was back for his tenth consecutive appearance at MSG. Shotputter Adam Nelson, another veteran of MSG, and his younger competitor (and defending champion Ryan Whiting) were also back. The boys and girls miles continue to be stacked with top notch talent from around the northeast. In terms of professional caliber talent, a meet at MSG is apparently enough of a draw, especially at a time when the European circuit seems to be winnowing . Some of the world's top sprinters (Asafa Powell, Veronica Campbell-Brown), hurdlers (Lolo Jones, Terrence Trammell, David Oliver) and high jumper (Jesse Williams) all turned up to compete.
Here's MileSplit summary of highlights seen at some of the races and events.
Girls MIle – At first meet, Nadel makes history
At most inaugural track meets like Saturday's U.S. Open, one of the more worn out jokes to circulate is how fans will at least get to see a lot of meet records. But in the case of the girl's high school mile, Samantha Nadel ran so fast that her record actually meant something. The North Shore senior broke a venue record at the MSG, running 4:47.66 and blowing away the rest of the field. Her senior teammate, Brianna Nerud, came in second in 4:54.65.
Nadel ran alone for virtually the entire race, gapping the field by more than four seconds by the 800 meter point. The Georgetown-bound Nadel split 2:25, then dropped sub-70 laps, including a 68 last lap to secure the record.
By the standard of time, Nadel had her best race earlier this month at the Hispanic Games at the Armory Track, when she ran a US #1 4:46.11. But running just a second and a half slower on this track suggests that Nadel is primed to put up a big time in two weeks when she returns to the Armory for the MIllrose Games. Nadel is the defending champ of that race, having run 4:50.58 in last year's race at the Garden.
I know it's faster, I don't know how much faster," Nerud said of the Armory. "But it's exciting to think it could be faster on a different track."
Zavon Watkins didn't have anywhere to go but up in his return to MSG. At last year's MIllrose Games, the senior entered the race as one of the favorites, but any hope of a win vanished when he fell shortly after the race began.
On Saturday, Watkins made the most of his second chance, out leaning a duo of aggressive seniors from Massachusetts for the win. The race's early pace played perfectly into Watkins, who finished in 4:19.86, strength, which is in the shorter distances. The leaders took it out in 70 seconds, making sure Watkins had plenty of strength left to unleash his sub-50 400 meter speed.
"I really didn't have to work that hard to keep up and then at the end use all of it," Watkins said.
Trading off in first throughout the second half of the race was Pembroke's Wesley Gallagher and Peabody's Nick Christensen, both Massachusetts products. They jockeyed for position on the tight-cornered track throughout but with 400 meters to go, Watkins had established his place in the first lane and never gave it up. Gallagher finished second, in 4:20.01 and Christensen finished 3rd, in 4:20.23.
In one of the slowest professional men's miles run at the Garden in recent memory, American Olympic medalist Bernard Lagat lost the mile for the second consecutive year. Lagat sat on the shoulders of Kenyans Silas Kiplagat and Daniel Komen for the majority of the race while his younger competitors exchanged first and second place. With about 400 meters to go, Lagat made his move as he had done in many of the eight Wannamaker miles he won during his Millrose Games' stretch. He pulled into first, but Kiplegat was not done, making one final surge on the back straightaway and holding him off for a win.
Kiplegat ran 4:00.65, Lagat was second in 4:00.92 and Komen faded in the final quarter to finish third, in 4:03.82.
Kiplegat's time was the slowest winning time at the Garden in seven years and the second slowest since 1992. The slow results had to do with uncooperative pacing, Lagat said. The plan, he said, was to go out in 1:56, but the runners came in at two-flat.
"When the pace starts to go slow, it's going to be almost impossible to...push it back to where you can run a decent time." Lagat said.
Still, Lagat said he was encouraged by the performance as he looks months down the road to Eugene, Oregon, when he will attempt to qualify for the Olympics in the 5000 meters.
"Today it feels like I did not do anything," Lagat said to MileSplit shortly before going out on his warmdown jog.
Women's 800 meters
Ajee' Wilson's "debut" in the a race featuring professional runners was nothing special once she stepped out onto the track and got started.
Wilson and her coach agreed that she made crucial tactical errors that did not put her in a position to answer Ethiopian Fantu Magiso's move with less than 200 meters left. Although she executed the race plan early, preserving energy by staying in the back of the pack in last, she made a mistake in the race's latter parts. When it came time to make a move, Wilson found she was stuck in an awkward position on the inside rail and had to spend an entire straightaway getting out of it. By that time, Magiso had begun making her move and turned out to be too far away to catch. Magiso won in 2:07.54; Wilson finished second, in 2:09.09.