The Wild Story of the SEC 11.2K

Jacob Thomson was almost certainly the best runner entered in the 10K at the SEC Outdoor Track and Field Championships last Thursday, May 12.

In the fall, the Kentucky Wildcat took fourth at the SEC Cross Country Championship behind Alabama's Antibahs Kosgei and Arkansas' Frankline Tonui and Christian Heymsfield—none of whom had run within 15 seconds of him in the 10K this outdoor season. And Thomson was the SEC indoor 5K runner-up behind Mississippi's Ryan Walling, who missed some time this outdoor season and was making his 10K debut at the conference meet.

But it took way longer than the standard 25 laps and roughly half hour to determine Thomson was definitively the best.

Lights out

After some scheduling confusion—the race was delayed, then not delayed, and flip-flopped in the schedule with the women's hammer—the 10K finally began. Approximately 800 meters into the race, the lights went out in Alabama's stadium. The athletes kept running for another lap or so in complete darkness before officials forcibly stopped the race.

The three athletes and one coach I talked to slightly disagree on when the lights cut out and how much running was done before and after, but the consensus is it was approximately two laps before the darkness, and one after. They do not disagree on how dark it was.

"Oh man, you could kind of see the rail, but not really. It was pitch-black," said Mississippi's Wes Gallagher, who finished seventh. Thomson used the same phrase, and said, "The power went out there and around the block. It seemed like half of campus lost power. It was pitch-black." Thomson's coach, Sean Graham, described the visibility as "straight dark."

Chaos on the track

The scene leading up to and including the half-hour delay was woolly and wild—as a former Division-III athlete used to amateurish, disorganized meets, it sounded familiar. But this was the SEC Championship! After the lights went out, the runners in the pack agreed they would keep going, and the coaches and fans in the stadium immediately descended to lane two and started lighting the way with their smartphones.

The athletes were, mostly, not humorless—Gallagher said someone in the pack yelled, "Let's drop a 60 right now!" and he said, "We were ready to go." But once officials stopped the race, the chaos ostensibly increased. Walling, who took fourth, admitted the delay messed with his squad mentally. All three athletes said the officials raised the possibility that the race would be delayed until the next day. Graham even said a police officer arrived on the track.

Editor's Note—A tantalizing detail I was not able to tie down: one athlete said an Alabama runner told him during the delay that the exact same thing happened at a small Alabama home meet during the regular season!

'A cool operator'

This was an ideal situation for a runner like Thomson, who described himself as "not as uptight or superstitious as a lot of other runners." Other athletes and coaches "were rattled; some were even yelling at the officials. But I just tried to be flexible. It wasn't too bad, physically." Thomson, a sophomore, probably would have reacted like this no matter what. Graham, his coach, called him a "cool operator; a competitor. I got lucky with him."

But Graham may be selling his own role in Thomson's win short. He said the Wildcat distance squad did several workouts earlier this year where they warmed up, then just sat in the bleachers and waited for 15-20 minutes. Graham wanted his squad to be prepared for big meets like NCAAs where athletes occasionally get thrown in a pen and have to wait standing still before their race. He may have accidentally prepared his best athlete for the biggest race of his season so far. In the moment, though, all Graham did was "tell bad jokes while Jacob laughed politely."

Once the race restarted, it was utterly typical. Gallagher called it a "classic conference 10K, coming down to that last 800 kick," and that's exactly what it was. Arkansas sophomore Andrew Ronoh made the first move with 800 meters to go. And Thomson made the last move with 300 meters to go. For Thomson, who transferred from North Carolina State and had two close calls at SEC meets earlier this year, it was an extremely satisfying win in 29:47.

The results look completely normal. Walling, the fourth-placer, said, "I can't blame anything on the delay." But as Graham put it, "I've been coaching and running for an extremely long time. And I've never seen anything like that before."

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