Version 5.0 of the Midwest Distance Gala is taking place this weekend on the campus of Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois. This year’s version looks to be bigger and better than last year, and shows that this meet, which started with just 37 finishers the first year, is growing quickly and the quality of the fields assembled is unbelievable. This year there are story lines by the dozen and the main one looks to be a match-up that has been building since last cross country season.
Solomon Haile’s list of accomplishments over the 18 months is absolutely incredible. He has claimed national titles on the track at the 5000 meter distance (Nike Indoor 2008, Nike Outdoor 2008, and National Scholastic Indoor 2009) and two-mile distance (National Scholastic Indoors 2009), as well as a cross-country national title (Foot Locker 2008). Haile, who is a senior from Sherwood, Maryland and is headed to Arkansas next year, has been sharp all spring running 9:13.77 for 3200 meters recently and posting an 8:29.29 at the Penn Relays for 3000 meters. He is looking to finish his high school career in the coming weeks and will probably be facing his toughest competition yet in Lukas Verzbicas (Freshman, Lincoln-Way Central, Illinois).
Verzbicas exploded onto the national scene with several impressive runs last cross country season and again during indoor. While Haile was claiming two titles at NSIC in March, Verzbicas was running a national indoor record of 14:18.42 for 5000 meters at the Nike Indoor National Championships (the day after Haile had laid claim on the record with his 14:22.88 at NSIC); and followed that up with a win in the two mile in 8:57.44. After the incredible performances indoors, Verzbicas made it clear that he would not be competing outdoors except for a handful of postseason meets as he is competing and training as a triathlete. With him not having raced competitively all spring though, there are questions of whether or not he will be up to the challenge. Given that in the time off he acquired a spot on the US National Triathlon team that will compete in the World Championships this September in Australia; fitness does not appear to be an issue.
Haile and Verzbicas will go head-to-head in the first of the main races on Saturday night, but they won’t be the only athletes in that race to watch. Illinois has a very strong group competing in this field, with Steve Sulkin (Sr, York, IL), Jordan Herbert (Sr, York, IL), Andrew Larsen (Sr, Marmion, IL), Phil Farleigh (Jr, Cary-Grove, IL), and Matt Perez (Sr, Hoffman Estates, IL). Sulkin and Herbert finished 1-2 in the 3200 meters at the Illinois State Track and Field Championships this spring after finishing 2-3 in the Illinois State Cross Country Championships last fall. Larsen was 6th here last year and was fourth at the Illinois State Track and Field Championships in 9:10.04, while Fairleigh has already been 9:05.13 this year.
Plenty of others are worth noting as Graham Bazell (Sr, Atholton, MD) will make an appearance and look to improve on last year’s finish. Danny Nicolls (Jr, Regis, CO) will make the long trip looking to improve on his 9:31 two mile PR, and Carmel, Indiana runners Logan Rosenberg (senior) and Tom Ohlman (junior) bring in PR’s of 9:14 and 9:18 as well.
This race is clearly loaded and, with good conditions, it is definitely expected that the meet record of 9:03.04, set by Bobby Nicolls (Parker, Colorado) in 2008, will be in serious danger.
Rob Finnerty stunned the nation with his 4:01.09 mile here last year, and with the field assembled, even that time may be in danger of being surpassed. Jeff Thode (Sr, Hoffman Estates, IL) turned some heads at the Illinois State Meet two weeks ago, running 4:05.17 for 1600 meters, the fastest time in the nation this year by a high school athlete. Thode will look to follow that up here along with two others with impressive resumes.
Andrew Springer (Sr, Westerly, RI) comes in with some very impressive stats this year including a 3:56.50 for 1500 meters and a 4:08.79 for the mile. Springer’s mile came about a month ago and since he was able to peak well indoors when he ran 4:08.47 to win the mile at Nike Indoor, it would make sense that he is ready to pop another fast one here.
In that same mile race at Nike Indoor, only 14 hundredths back, was another competitor slated to run here, Patrick MacGregor (Sr, Hoover, AL). The University of Kentucky signee has followed up some impressive indoor performances with even more impressive times outdoors, running 4:09.13 for the mile distance at the Arcadia Invitational and also running 1:51.96 in the 800 meters this spring.
The difficult part here is trying to figure out which athletes are going to be in the thick of it at the end with these three. Drew Sheilds (Sr, Fishers, IN) was 3rd at Foot Locker last fall and won the Indiana State Meet last weekend with a 4:11.36 for 1600 meters and has been timed in 4:12.34 for the mile at the Penn Relays earlier this year. Michael Atchoo (Jr, Troy, MI) won the Division 1 State Title for 1600 meters in Michigan two weekends ago running 4:07.71 and also, went 4:11.14 at National Scholastic Indoors so he is definitely not one to be overlooked. Chris Hayek (Sr, Prospect, IL) ran 4:13.57 for the 1600 at the Illinois State Meet two weeks ago and Zach Dahleen (Sr, Orland Park, IL) was second behind Thode in 4:10.25 two weekends ago so they with both be looking to hang around late into the race.
Finnerty’s meet record will be tough to beat, but with an honest pace, which is going to be accounted for by race officials I hear, and good conditions, it will be fun to watch. Remember, though, that only one person in the previous four years of this event has gone under 4:07.00, but it seems that this time the field has been put together to ensure that number increases this year.
The boys’ 800 meter race is always interesting as it tends to be in the shadows of the mile and two mile races, but Danny Neff (Sr, Vandalia-Butler, OH) is looking to get your attention, and in a big way. Neff has great mile speed, as he showed in winning the Ohio State Championship for 1600 meters last week in 4:10.57. He followed that up on the same day with a 1:51.36 to win the 800 meters as well. Running fresh here, Neff is thinking about a time below that 1:50 barrier and with Andrew Perkins 2007 time of 1:50.17 as the meet record, it is a great target to have.
Looking to give chase is a geographical smothering of talent including athletes from South Dakota (Alex Muntefering), Michigan (Nick Kaiser), Wisconsin (Evan Ross), Colorado (Ryan Van Portfliet), Indiana (Nathan Hendershot), Ohio (Quincy Downing and Colby Alexander, along with Neff), and Illinois (Max Cink). Muntefering (Sr, Parkston, SD) has impressed with his fastest time of 1:52.46, which he dropped at a meet in early May. Hendershot (Jr, Pendleton Heights, IN) was 1:53.45 just last weekend at the Indiana State Meet and may be looking for a quicker pace to hang onto in this one. Kaiser (Soph, Temperance Bedford, MI) ran 1:52.13 at the Michigan State Meet to bring home the D2 title, and Quincy Downing (Soph, Glenville, OH) went 1:53.60 at a regional meet three weekends ago.
Neff is the clear favorite, but in the 800, with a kick and someone to draft on, guys like Kaiser, Hendershot, and Muntefering have a prayer. The pace should be blazing, but it takes more than a hot pace to break 1:50.
The boys’ 2000 meter steeplechase is a great experience for many of the athletes who were unable to qualify for the other events. This field will have some quality athletes for sure, with Connor Martin (Soph, Westfield, IN), and his 1600 meter time of 4:18.2, and Ian Hancke (Jr, Haslett, MI), who has run 4:18.6, leading the entries. Gerardo Perez (Sr, Lake Zurich, IL) comes in after an impressive 9:19.23 and 4:21.07 double at the Illinois State Meet last weekend, and clearly has the legs to carry this the 2000 meter distance. After these three, there are eleven more entries sandwiched within nine seconds of each other, which means there should be a nice pack to push in this race and there might be some exciting water barrier adventures with close quarters for those runners.
This event is a nice highlight for some of the younger runners who may not get many options for the postseason at high profile meets and is a great experience for any runner who plans on running in college.
The Boys’ Freshman Mile record is held by Ryan Mitsos (Mokena, IL) from last year with a 4:30.44, but looking at the seed times this year, there is reason to believe it will go down as well. The two fastest freshman at the meet will be running in the other mile races as Lukas Verbizcas ran 4:13.93 indoors and Jason Crist (Franklin Central, IN) ran 4:20.98 just last weekend, both for 1600 meters. Instead, the top seed is Cole O’Brien (Burnsville, MN) who comes in with a season best time of 4:26.63. O’Brien hails from the same program that produced Distance Gala alumni Rob Finnerty, so expect big things from him. The next five seeds all fall between 4:31 and 4:35 with Spencer Nousain (Concord, MI), and Rocky Pollock (Fishers, IN), Malachy Schrobilgen (OPRF, IL), Jordan Redd (Fairborn, OH) and Nicholas Kirkpatrick (Brebeuf Jesuit, IN) all looking to steal the win and maybe grab the meet record in the process.
Stephanie Brown (Sr, Tri-Valley, IL) kicked the year off with a bang by running a 2:08.41 for 800 meters at the University of Arkansas Invite in early January. Now, with a strong base of speed under her, she looks to bump up to the 1600 this week in hopes of ripping a fast time. The Arkansas recruit ran a 5:01.50 in taking home an Illinois State title last weekend before coming back and claiming the 800 meter as well. She will be pushed by Lizzy Hynes (Sr, St. Charles East, IL) who went 4:54.13 in claiming 3rd in a different class at the Illinois State Track and Field Championships. Hynes has been more of a 3200 meter runner previously, so she will rely on her stamina and a fast pace to try to drain the kick from Brown’s legs. Michaela Carnegie (Benzie Central, MI) went 5:08.18 and 2:18.81 at the Michigan State Meet and Chelsea Pettit (Jr, Holy Angels, MN) ran 5:01.45 and 11:04.07 at the Minnesota State Meet last weekend, so look for both of them to be in the mix.
The girls’ mile record at the Gala, set here in the inaugural meet by Jenny Morgan of Clarkston, Michigan, stands at 4:52.94 and with Brown and Hynes pushing the pace early, it could very easily be broken as well.
Girls’ 800 field isn't the strongest in event history, but that will make it all the more interesting at the end. With the top nine seeds in between 2:14 and 2:20, it could get interesting very quickly and lead to an all out kick at the end between several individuals. The headliner is Katie Hill (Sr, Onalaska, WI) who comes in off of running a 2:14.28 to win the Wisconsin State Meet at the 800 meter distance. Hill led a large group of ladies to fast times at the Wisconsin State Meet and will look to do that here as well, as she chases after her sister Jami’s meet record of 2:09.14. It may be out of reach for this race, but you can never know what to expect at the Gala.
All of the races bring intrigue to the meet this year, if not meet records, plenty of PRs, and some fun as well. The meet directors have clearly done a great amount of work in putting such strong fields together and it has increased the interest in the meet. Hopefully, this years’ edition, will only add to the legacy and build more steam for the meet in the future. Don’t miss it!