Hoppel A Threat For U.S. 800m Title? 5 Takeaways From Sunset Tour

For many of the top distance stars in the United States, Tuesday’s Sunset Tour in Los Angeles was the final dress rehearsal for the USATF Championships coming up July 25-28 in Des Moines, Iowa. The contenders for World Championship spots are nearing peak fitness, and a bevy of strong performances on the Azusa Pacific track showed who’s trending in the right direction ahead of the biggest meet of the year so far.

Here were my five takeaways from the pre-USAs tune-up that was Sunset Tour:

Bryce Hoppel Is A Legitimate Threat To Brazier And Murphy

At some point Bryce Hoppel will probably lose an 800m race in 2019. Whether it’s in two weeks at the U.S. Championships or later on this summer if he makes the team like I expect he will, logic says that the 21-year-old Kansas senior-to-be will eventually see his streak snapped by somebody like Donavan Brazier, Clayton Murphy or Nijel Amos. 

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But his 20-0 run from January to mid-July has long surpassed gimmickry to the point where it feels like Hoppel could keep streaking through USAs. His win at the Sunset Tour on Tuesday— just off his PB in 1:44.48— showed that Hoppel didn’t lose a step in the month-plus since his NCAA win on June 7, and that he remains locked in tactically. While Brazier and Murphy each have an edge on Hoppel in terms of experience and times, the NCAA star’s finishing speed has been so consistently strong that he poses a threat to both past U.S. champs. He’s also clearly ready to go much faster than 1:44.4: Hoppel ran just .07 off his PB despite splitting 51.41 at 400m, a full 1.2 seconds slower compared to NCAAs.

The Fight For The Final U.S. Women’s 1500m Spot Will Be Brutal

Like most people, I’m willing to concede the top two spots in the women’s U.S. 1500m to Shelby Houlihan and Jenny Simpson in some order, but picking a favorite to claim the third and final World Championship spot is a tough exercise. I’m comfortable cutting down the candidates to four— Kate Grace, Nikki Hiltz, Elinor Purrier and Sinclaire Johnson— all of whom are super fit right now. It’s a bummer that likely only one of those four will get a Doha berth, but whomever emerges will have a shot to make some noise based on the seasons they're each having:

Kate Grace: 4:02.99 1500m PB (June 30), 1:59.58 800m (July 9)

Nikki Hiltz: Won seven of eight races since April 13, 2:01/4:05 PBs

Elinor Purrier: 4:02.34 1500m PB (June 6), 15:08.61 5k PB (June 13)

Sinclaire Johnson: Set NCAA Champs 1500m record of 4:05.98 (June 8), 2:00.43 800m PB (July 9)

Nikki Hiltz won the women's 1500m on Tuesday with a 61-second last lap:

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Grace, a 2016 Olympic finalist in the 800m, is the favorite of the bunch to take the final U.S. podium spot. While she comes from an 800m background, her comeback defeat of Houlihan at Sunset was proof that her kick is world-class right now.

Lopez Lomong Looks Really Fit

The Sunset men’s 5k was the most disappointing race at the meet as no one hit the IAAF standard. With USATF not permitting athletes to chase after Des Moines, those without the 13:22.50 mark at this point basically have no shot at qualifying for the World Championships even with a top three finish at USAs. Sub-13:22.50 in late July in the Midwest, at a championship meet no less, is highly unlikely.

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In that sense I’m sure Lopez Lomong was crushed to miss the standard by less than three seconds (13:25.13), but the silver-lining for the 34-year-old is that he looked really impressive on Tuesday night. Lomong’s last lap was a scorching 54.45, more than a second faster than anyone else in the field. The reigning U.S. 10k champ— who has the 10,000m standard— will hope that his wheels will still be that strong over 25 laps in Des Moines, as Lomong will try to accomplish an unthinkable feat of range and longevity: qualifying for global championship teams in the 800m, 1500m, 5k and 10k in his career.

Lomong hasn’t made a team since 2013, but with only four men having the 10k standard— Kirubel Erassa, Leonard Korir, Shadrack Kipchirchir and himself— the two-time Olympian has a great shot. With the way he finished in LA, it’s hard to imagine all three of those men beating him in the last lap.

The Men’s 1500m Has A Clear Top 3 Of Centro, Engels, Blankenship

Assuming Clayton Murphy makes the consensus choice for the 800m, three 1500m men have shown themselves to be a cut above the rest this summer— Matthew Centrowitz, Craig Engels and Ben Blankenship. I will go on record saying that I will be shocked if that is not the American team for Doha. 

Besides being the Olympic champion, Matthew Centrowitz has never missed an outdoor team. With a 3:52 mile at Pre followed by his fastest 800m since 2015 on Tuesday (1:46.32), that won’t change in 2019.

His former NOP teammate, Craig Engels, is the biggest threat to upset Centro in Des Moines as the 25-year-old was the top American at Pre (3:51.60) and then ran a super impressive 1:44.68 800m PB while nearly beating half-mile golden boy Hoppel in LA. Engels isn’t missing the team either.

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Blankenship’s status may not be quite as firm as those two, but the 2016 Olympic finalist took a big step in that direction with a 3:36 win over Chris O’Hare on Tuesday. The 30-year-old is a gritty racer who finished just one place behind Centro at Pre.

Of course, the glaring odd man out in this scenario is 3:49 miler Johnny Gregorek, the only American man to make the World Championship final two years ago. Gregorek did run 3:52 in Oslo on June 9 while closing well, but his tactical skills have a tendency to betray him— he was just ninth at USAs last summer and just third in the U.S. indoor mile in February. That last result came just a week before he ran 3:49.

Shelby Houlihan And The Sub-2:00, 4:00, 15:00 Club

A running joke with American distance superstar Shelby Houlihan is that her social media handle continues to be “@Shelbo800” even though the 5,000m U.S. record holder hasn’t seriously competed in the distance since college. While Houlihan’s 1500m/5k focus isn’t changing any time soon, her 1:59.92 800m PB in LA— her first ever sub-2:00— added some legitimacy to her handle, and more importantly, was further proof of her status as one of the best all-around distance runners in the world.

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Case in point: the time secured her spot in an exclusive female distance club: the sub-2:00 800m, sub-4:00 1500m and sub-15:00 5k club. (Admittedly, the name needs some work.) Only two other Americans— Shannon Rowbury and Regina Jacobs— are members with Houlihan, and the 26-year-old’s combined PBs are the best of the bunch:

Shelby Houlihan: 1:59.92 (800m) + 3:57.34 (1500m) + 14:34.45 (5,000m) = 20:31.71

Shannon Rowbury: 1:59.97 + 3:56.29 + 14:38.92 = 20:35.18

Regina Jacobs: 1:58.08 + 3:59.98 + 14:45.35 = 20:43.41

A Sleeper In Every USAs Track Event

Every U.S. Championship meet with a team on the line produces under-the-radar names who, against all odds, defy projections to earn a coveted spot at a global championship. The emergence of previously unheralded athletes is one of the best features of USAs, and upsets are bound to occur en masse in a season as atypical as this one.

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