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As an intimate crowd of familiar faces hovered around the Michael Johnson Track on Nike’s campus in Beaverton, Oregon, on Tuesday night, Woody Kincaid faced an ultimatum.
Current and former teammates, his college coach Rob Conner and Kincaid’s mother were among the assembled fanbase on a crisp and cool evening tucked beyond the wooded backdrop of the track’s infield. It was a cast of characters brought together to see a season’s worth of fitness materialize for three men over 5,000m. Running as fast as possible was the objective.
But 20 minutes before the gun, Kincaid confided in his coach, Bowerman Track Club’s Jerry Schumacher, that he wasn’t feeling well. The 26-year-old had spent the day trying to ignore what felt like a cold coming on, but after a sluggish warm-up, he could no longer deny reality. Kincaid hinted to Schumacher that he wanted to scratch the race.
His coach convinced him otherwise.
“But the second I went to him and I’m like, ‘Jerry, I feel terrible I think I have a cold. I don’t know if I can run the Olympic standard today,’" said Kincaid.
"He’s like, ‘You got this. You have to do it. People have run through worse.’" It was almost like a switch in my head like, ‘You know what? Forget it. I’m gonna do it.’”
Perhaps in a different circumstance, if Kincaid had not just come off a U.S. Championships where he placed third but failed to advance to the World Championships because he didn’t have the qualifying standard, the symptoms would have warranted him sitting out.
But Schumacher had set up this race explicitly to prevent the scenario that had doomed Kincaid and teammate Lopez Lomong--who won USAs but also didn’t have the 5,000m standard-- this year from happening again in 2020. Running 13:13.50 was something no one wanted to worry about in the months before the Olympic Trials.
Kincaid was running.
It was the combination of that urgency, perfect pacing from teammate Moh Ahmed and the encouragement of a uniquely inspired crowd that helped Kincaid, Lomong and Matthew Centrowitz run one of the greatest 5,000m races in U.S. history.
The perfect storm pushed the former University of Portland runner to a time of 12:58.10, the fifth-fastest ever by an American. Lomong and Centrowitz followed closely in 13:00.13 and 13:00.39, respectively, but the magical night belonged to Kincaid.
“Having people on the track and essentially no security, it felt like we were playing streetball,” he said. “Everyone was just out there cheering on your friends. It just felt like a community that I’d never felt before anywhere else.”
After embracing his biggest supporters with hugs and high-fives adjacent to a neon red sign that illuminated his name as one of the fastest Americans of all-time, Kincaid found Schumacher.
“He just said he was proud,” Kincaid said. “Which he does not hand out compliments very often, so when he says, ‘I’m proud of you,’ take it, because that’s one in a million chance that he’ll do that.”
While Kincaid understands how his breakthrough performance could be viewed as coming out of nowhere since he has raced sparingly the last three seasons, a rash of injuries in his first two professional seasons obscured an athlete on the rise.
A femoral stress fracture in 2017 followed by edema on the same leg in 2018, and then hernia surgery last September, kept Kincaid away from many a start line. But still, he made gains in training that showed him a breakout could be imminent.
“I had those years of base behind me that I never got to show because I would get hurt right before outdoors even though I would work really hard in the fall to train with these guys on another level and then work really hard with them in the winter and maybe run one race and then get hurt,” he said.
“I understand people [that say], ‘He came out of nowhere.’ The work’s been there, I just haven’t been able to show it.”
The injuries forced him to take weeks and months off from running at a time, but Kincaid never felt like he lost the base he established when healthy. When he was finally able to train uninterrupted this season, his fitness took off.
He and Schumacher kept his mileage low, in the mid-70s per week, and when his training partners Lomong, Centrowitz and Ahmed began fine-tuning for Worlds with more intensity post-USAs, Kincaid did his best to hang on.
“Jerry wasn’t going to mess around. He said, ‘Hey, if you want to hit the Olympic standard you gotta train with these guys because this is where you want to be next year and it’s your best option right now.’ [After USAs] the workouts just got harder.”
“I had been working out with them, but they stepped up their game and I was forced to.”
Kincaid says his last 90 days of training, most of them spent at altitude in Park City, Utah, have been the best of his life. After finishing third at the U.S. Championships on July 28 in a wild race that went out in 2:30 for the first kilometer, Kincaid knew he was ready to rip a fast one.
Kincaid was eager to head to Europe after USAs. He wanted to capitalize right away by racing in the days that followed. But Schumacher, always extremely calculated with his athletes’ racing schedules, urged Kincaid to go back to training.
“I wanted to race like 10 days after USAs. I was a little upset with Jerry for not having set up a race because it would have given me a chance to go to Europe,” said Kincaid. “But now, I feel like an idiot because Jerry obviously knew what he was doing.”
A scant race schedule has frequently been a critique of Schumacher and Bowerman, which was heightened after USAs when Kincaid, Lomong and 1500m runner Josh Thompson all finished top three in events in which they didn’t have the World Championship standard. But this time, the coach’s tactics were perfectly deployed, and fortunately, Kincaid listened.
“He said, ‘Hey, we’re going to get the standard here. You’re going to be on another level if you stay here. This is what you should do.’”
While one of the best times in American history guarantees nothing in a championship setting and the Olympic Trials are still over nine months away, Kincaid took a giant step towards making the team for Tokyo on Tuesday night. As far as ending a season that didn’t include a trip to Doha, he couldn’t have gone out on a better note. It was only made more special by doing it in front of so many people who have seen him through the ups and downs of his running career.
One such person was University of Portland head coach Rob Conner, a man who guided Kincaid from a raw prospect as a teen to an Olympic Trials finalist in 2016. The two know each other so well that words didn’t need to be exchanged after the race.
“He was so excited after this race that he didn’t even want to talk to me. He cares so much,” said Kincaid.
“I would describe him like the guy from Miracle that coaches in the movie. When they win the Olympics, he just goes to the locker room and celebrates by himself. I think [Conner] is the same way. If he’s really excited about something, he’s actually more distant.”