The Distance Gala completed it 7th edition last night and the event reminded us, once again, why athletes continue to return in droves each year. Conditions were not ideal leading up to the event and the fields were slightly down in quality from most years, but what the races lacked in talent, they more than made up for with guys. While the mile is the event of choice for so many this time of year, each race required our full attention as athletes took risks and accepted the results good or bad. For all the athletes we talked to, it was a night they won’t soon forget.
For the last several years, the event has kicked off with an open 5k event, but we don’t normally see high school athletes entering with credentials like we saw from a pair this year. Junior Tate Schienbien (Union County HS, IN) posted a 9:08 for 3200 meters last week at Indiana’s State Meet and clearly came into this race with a purpose, while senior Christina Gastfield (Rolling Meadows, IL) posted a 10:47 to take 3rd in the 3200 meters at Illinois’ State Championships last weekend. Schienbien couldn’t keep contact with Jack Kafel and Brendon Moody, who ran together almost the entire race, en route to 14:49 and 14:52 clockings, respectively, but Tate hung tough in no-man’s land and posted a 15:08 to claim 3rd and post a top ten time in the country. Gastfield ran with a group for much of the early part of the race and crossed as the first female in a very strong 17:39.38, also easily amongst the top ten in the nation. Both will have the opportunity to compete next weekend in the New Balance Nationals after doing their part to kick off the excitement for the night.
The boys’ steeplechase saw 4:19 1600-meter man Sam Telfer (Lyons Township, IL) post a 6:10.42 win over the competition. Telfer had never run the event before, but he noted that he has an affinity for the hurdles and runs over them every now and then in practice. He was surprised to hear that his time had qualified him for New Balance next week and, though he had no plans of attending before now, may find himself in North Carolina next weekend for another go at his new event. Last year’s champion, Kodi Mullins (Homestead, IN), tried to defend his title, but after surgery on his toe this spring, and only six weeks of training before this race, he was forced to realize that the stamina wasn’t there as he struggled to a 6:36 clocking.
For the second year in a row, Carmel, Indiana had an individual win the freshman boys’ mile after Daniel Williams took the title last year. This year, it was Bobby Browning’s turn and though Browning had only posted a 4:37 coming into the meet, he was hoping for more than the 4:33.42 that he posted. Browning won a battle to the line with Nathan Mroz of Illinois (4:34.26), Addison DeHaven of South Dakota (4:35.30), and another Illinois athlete, Nick Hess, who posted a 4:35.34 in 4th.
The girls’ 800 meters was a solid race with several sub-2:15 talents in the field, including Evanston Township junior Jahnell Horton, York’s Michelle Frigo, and Onlaska, WI standout Jamie Burr. The pace went through in about 63 and it was set up perfectly for a run at that 2:10 barrier. Frigo took off and gapped the field in the backstretch, but started to tighten up with about 200 meters to go.
That’s when Horton took over and closed the fastest for a 2:13.42 to 2:14.19 victory over Frigo. Burr moved well at the end, but settled for 3rd-place with a 2:15.24 clocking.
The boys’ 800 meters is a battle to the line with Minooka, IL standout Joe McAsey and Daniel Mazar of Rockwood Summit HS, MO making the headlines. Mazar, who moved across the river from Illinois to Missouri for his senior year, was well known by the Illinois group and McAsey knew that he was the competition coming in. McAsey’s goal was clear: hang with Mazar through the first part of the race and then unload at the end. Mazar was rolling with the pacer, but when the dust had settled, it was the University of Illinois signee McAsey who kicked best, edging Mazar 1:50.80 to 1:50.87. Both athletes earned impressive PRs and Mazar, who is headed to the University of Oklahoma next fall, couldn’t complain about the time, as he was clear that he had came here to run fast.
Pacing always adds another layer to the races at the Distance Gala, and this year was no different, but in the boys’ two mile, the pace was in danger of taking a very slow turn after the pacer dropped out at the mile mark. After crossing in 4:31, though, Connor Martin (Westfield, IN) took up the pace and started hammering. After a 67.8 on lap five, the Princeton-commit dropped all challengers except Futsum Zienasellassie (North Central, IL) and they battled right through the next three laps. A 66.9 split on lap six, then a 66.4 clocking on lap seven, and the pair was still in range to challenge the 9-minute barrier with one to go as the clock read 7:57 at the line. Futsum would kick slightly better over the last 400 meters, pulling away at the end and posting a 9:00.34 to Martin’s 9:04.39.
Futsum mentioned that this race was about gaining some experience and having fun as it didn’t involve all the pressure of most of his competitions. He is done until the fall, though, working on taking summer classes to make his load easier for the next year when he intends to do some traveling to compete in more national meets. He mentioned that this season was a frustration in the shorter distances after he had hoped to post PRs in the 1600 and the 800 this year, but that he definitely satisfied with his performance at Indiana’s State Championships last week, saying his goal for the year had been 8:55.
As for Martin, he will turn his attention to the steeplechase now, as he will compete in the national championship meets in that event. It was two years ago that Martin had set the steeplechase record here at the Distance Gala and he qualified for the World Youth Championships as well that year. Last year he took 2nd place at both New Balance Outdoor and USATF Junior Nationals, so he is definitely hungry to claim that first national title.
Returning girls’ mile champion Molly Seidel (University Lake HS, WI) was in a very different race at this event last year. She kicked past two established milers to gain the win in 4:52.63, but she had no intention of sitting back at all in this race. Following the pacer out in 2:22 for the first half mile, Seidel told herself to keep hammering as she was well aware of the kind of race she was putting together. She continued to extend her lead over the chase pack, moving well all the way home to a very impressive 4:47.94 performance for the full mile. It was a nice PR for the junior who rarely enjoys competition when racing in the spring, but she mentioned that she loves the atmosphere of this event and we hope she will be back again to try for the three-peat next year.
The highlighted event of the night didn’t disappoint us at all as the boys’ mile starts off with full introductions of the competitors. With Charlie Kern leading the pace, the group came through right at 60 seconds for the first 400 meters and a gap behind Kern and returning champion Jack Driggs (York, IL) opened up on lap two as the pair clicked off a 2:02 for the first 800 meters. Kern would stay on for just 100 meters more, and Driggs took up the lead and continued to try and press the pace. The pack closed quickly, though, as Driggs was followed closely by Colorado standout Connor Winter at the 1k mark, but at the bell, it was Lancaster, Ohio’s Brannon Kidder who found some daylight up front. Kidder would gap the field over the next 200 meters, before tying up a bit coming off the last curve. As Winter pulled even, the two battled down the straight before Kidder claimed the win off his 60 second split for the last 400 meters (4:06.73 to 4:07.02 for Winter).
Kidder, who last weekend claimed Ohio’s 1600 meter title in 4:09.32, was confident that if he was in the race for the first half, his half mile speed would help carry him through the finish. It’s that half mile speed that Kidder will test in the postseason after lowering his mile PR here, he intends to run the 800 meters and the DMR at New Balance Nationals next weekend. Only a junior, few saw Kidder coming this year with a solid class of individuals in Ohio this year, but he is a great example of focusing on what you can control and forgetting about everything else as he claimed his second huge victory in as many weeks.
As for Winter, it was a tough loss, but he was very upbeat and seemed satisfied with his performance after making the trip over from Colorado to get into this kind of race. Driggs was left to 3rd, and though the time and place were not what he wanted, he put himself out there in position to do something great and, while that risk didn’t pay off this time out, there’s no doubt that it is going to in the future.
We hope to have several video interviews up in the next day and a few pictures as well from the awesome event. It started as a cool and windy evening and actually warmed up a bit as the winds died down for the championship events, making for an awesome atmosphere. The fans, as always, are well-informed and they were buzzing when the featured races started. It is an event to experience and each year only adds to the growing legacy of one of the great distance events in the country each spring.