Shelby Houlihan, Paul Chelimo Retain USA Indoor 3K Titles

By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2018 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

ALBUQUERQUE (17-Feb) -- Shelby Houlihan of the Nike Bowerman Track Club and Paul Chelimo of the U.S. Army rose to the occasion once again, successfully retaining their national 3000m titles on the second day of the USATF Indoor Championships at the Albuquerque Convention Center here. In doing so, both athletes locked-in places on the national team for the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, England, in March.

Both athletes won in tactical races, although their winning times of 9:00.08 and 7:57.88, respectively, were solid given the high altitude of this desert city, 1619m/5312 feet. As expected, both races came down to the closing lap.

Houlihan, 25, was the clear favorite to win today.  Although she had only run one indoor race in advance of these championships, it was a spectacular one. At a low-key meet at Boston University two weeks ago, she became the #3 American woman of all time at 3000m, clocking 8:36.01. On the track today, she ran confidently, running near the back of the 11-woman field in the early laps, saving her energy.

"My coach told me to wait until about 400 to go," Houlihan told the media after the race, referring to Bowerman Track Club coach Jerry Schumacher. "That's what he said; that's what I was going to do."

In the first half, Houlihan keyed off of reigning world steeplechase champion, Emma Coburn (New Balance), who had peaked for this event and done hard training in Gunnison, Colo., at an even higher altitude than Albuquerque. Both women stayed near the back through the first 1000m (3:06.81), letting Lauren Paquette (Brooks) do the leading.

"I kind of expected it to go a little differently," Houlihan explained. "I thought Emma might take it from the gun, or around 2-K to go. She kind of hung back with me, so I was gauging my moves off of her."

By the 2000m mark, the race had sorted down to six women: Houlihan, Coburn, Paquette (Brooks), Katie Mackey (Brooks Beasts), Marielle Hall (Nike Bowerman Track Club), and Mel Lawrence (Oiselle). Lap times, which were as slow as 40 seconds in the early going, fell to 35-second range through 2400m, then down to sub-32 for the penultimate lap. Hall, Lawrence, and Paquette had drifted back, leaving the tightly-bunched trio of Houlihan, Coburn and Mackey at the bell.  Houlihan timed her final surge perfectly, running a 28.83-second final lap to put the race away.

"That was my last lap?" Houlihan asked when a reporter revealed her final-lap split. "All right!  It felt like a 28; I'm glad it was. Yeah, that was pretty hard." She added: "I really thought they were going to catch me on that one."

Behind Houlihan, Coburn and Mackey were waging a pitched battle for second, and the final team spot for Birmingham. For the full distance the women are evenly matched, but Mackey has a slight edge in 1500m speed which proved to be the difference today. With about 120 meters remaining, Mackey went ahead of Coburn, but the steeplechaser did not give up, nearly catching Mackey at the line. Mackey got second in 9:01.68 to Coburn's 9:01.85. That qualified Mackey for her first national team at 30 years-old.

"I've been runner-up, like, three times now," Mackey told reporters, referring the fact that she had been a national team alternate three times. "I've gone through processing, watching everybody fill it out and not go." She continued: "It makes you wonder: can you do it?"

For Houlihan, the meet is not over. She'll be back on the track tomorrow to defend her title at 1500m. Last year, because no national team was being selected, Houlihan raced at one mile and two miles.

"As far as I know, yeah, I'm going to race the mile," Houlihan said, referring to tomorrow's 1500m. "I mean, I won here list year so I kind of want to defend my title. I'm up against some pretty heavy competition, so, I think I have my work cut out."

Chelimo, the 2016 Olympic 5000m silver medalist, used a different strategy than Houlihan, running near the front the entire way with help from U.S. Army teammates Emmanuel Bor and Shadrack Kipchirchir. Indeed, Chelimo led each of the last three laps, squeezed down the pace with each circuit, and slammed the door on his rivals by running 31.35, 30.92 and 26.04 seconds, respectively.

"You know, the altitude's tough," the always thoughtful Chelimo told reporters. "I was trying to test my shape, you know, today. I wanted to see where I am so far." He added: "I'm getting speed at the right time."

Despite making some tactical mistakes, Kipchirchir ended up second, thanks to a blistering close. In the last 150 meters, he was battling Ryan Hill for second position. Coming into the final bend, he got a step on Hill, then shot down the homestretch to clinch the runner-up spot in 7:58.42 to Hill's 7:58.69. Hill, also part of the Nike Bowerman Track Club, was the silver medalist at the IAAF World Indoor Championships two years ago in Portland, Ore.

"I mean, I ran dumb this time," Kipchirchir said, looking a little embarrassed. "I didn't want to run like that." He continued: "I'm glad I made the team."

Kipchirchir will also contest the 1500m tomorrow, he said.

In the men's 800m qualifying, 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Clayton Murphy (Nike Oregon Project) was eliminated after finishing second in the first of three heats where only the heat winners were guaranteed to advance to tomorrow's final. Murphy was right on the heels of Drew Windle (Brooks Beasts) in the homestretch, but Windle got the win in 1:49.20, just 5/100ths ahead of Murphy.

"I felt really controlled," said Windle, who has spent the last five weeks in Albuquerque at a Brooks Beasts training camp. "I saw, like, 55 (seconds) coming through the bell (halfway, actually) and I was like, well, I'm going to have to start closing. That keeps a lot of people in it. I was confident with just the way workouts were going that I would be able to close down the last 200 faster than anybody else."

Murphy did not speak to the media and went straight to the athletes' recovery area.

The USA leader this indoor season, Donavan Brazier, won the second heat (1:48.53), and the other four qualifiers came from the third and final heat which was won by Erik Sowinski in 1:47.69, the fastest time of the day. Sam Ellison (1:47.77), Quamel Prince (1:47.86) and Harun Abda (1:48.66) all advanced on time.

In the women's 800m, all of the favorites, except for 2016 Olympian Chrishuna Williams (Nike), advanced to the final. The fastest time of the day went to former University of Oregon star, Raevyn Rogers (Nike) who blasted through the second heat in an improbable 1:59.99, an indoor personal best that left her bent over with exhaustion. Ajee' Wilson (adidas), who has won the national indoor title on three previous occasions (2013, 2014 and 2016), easily won the first heat in 2:01.95 ahead of Hannah Green (Nike Oregon Track Club) who clocked 2:02.22 and advanced on time. The other three qualifiers for the final were Ce'Aira Brown (HOKA NJNY Track Club), who won the third and final heat in 2:01.43, Kaela Edwards (adidas), and Charlene Lipsey (adidas). Lipsey is the defending champion, although the equivalent race was contested at 1000m last year.

Middle-distance action picks up here tomorrow afternoon with the finals of the 800m and 1500m for both men and women.

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