U.S. Indoor Women's Preview: Can Purrier Chase Down Houlihan?

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The most interesting match-up of the indoor season materialized quickly. Last Saturday evening at the Millrose Games, Elinor Purrier dropped a stunning 4:16.85 mile to break the American record and dispatch a stacked field in a race that turned into a festival of personal bests and national records. It was a career-defining race for Purrier. A run fast enough to legitimately raise the question if she could beat America’s best mid-distance runner, Shelby Houlihan. This weekend at the US Indoor Championships in Albuquerque, Purrier will have two chances (the 3000m on Friday and the 1500m on Saturday) to pull it off. 

Defeating Houlihan in either race this weekend would require not just a repeat of Saturday’s race in New York, but a step up. As good as the field in New York was, Houlihan is better, particularly in a championship setting where finishing speed is vital. 

Houlihan climbed to the top of the US in the 1500m and 5000m in 2018 and hasn’t let up. Aside from a defeat to Colleen Quigley at last year’s indoor championships in the mile, Houlihan is undefeated in US championships. She pulled off the indoor distance double at USAs in 2017 and 2018. After Quigley beat her, she began a new streak the next day, winning the two-mile. 

Houlihan has only run in one meet this winter, but it was a good one--a 4:23.68/2:01.82 double at the University of Washington in January. Purrier hasn’t raced much either (two races over two meets) but both have been in high-profile meets against stout competition. Houlihan will have the benefit of being surrounded by teammates in both races. In the 3000m, Quigley, Courtney Frerichs, Vanessa Fraser and Karissa Schweizer are all entered. In Saturday’s 1500m, Quigley and Schweizer are scheduled to run the double with Houlihan.

On paper, Purrier has a better chance in the 3000m. She ran the 5000m last year and Houlihan’s kick is so good that the longer distance could minimize it’s impact, even slightly. But Purrier is coming off a 4:16 mile, and Houlihan is a terrific 5000m runner herself. Both women are strong at each distance. What is certain is that a win in either race for Purrier significantly alters the US mid-distance forecast heading into the outdoor season. 

Here’s a look at the other women’s events:

Women’s 800m

This field features the top six from last year’s US Outdoor Championships, making it the deepest in the entire meet. Despite its strength, Ajee Wilson remains a significant favorite.

She broke her own American record last weekend at Millrose and is perfectly suited for this setting. She has 10 US titles in her career and she’s won an indoor title the past four seasons, even when the championships throw her off distances like the 600m and 1000m. Her training partner, Raevyn Rogers, should give her the best challenge. Rogers upset Wilson at the World Championships to claim a surprise silver medal. Rogers tuned-up for this meet with a win on the flat track at the Camel City Invitational. Hanna Green, third at US Outdoors in 2019, will be making her 800m season debut. Olivia Baker missed qualifying for Doha by one spot, but is coming off an indoor personal best at Millrose where she ran 2:02.86.

Athing Mu, a high school senior, returns to the meet where she broke on to the national stage. Last year, she beat Rogers in the 600m at this meet, opening up all sorts of possibilities about her potential. She went on to finish fifth outdoors. This year, she’s run six races-- a 300m, 400m, 500m and three 800s. The most recent was a third-place finish behind Rogers at Camel City. 

60m

Javianne Oliver is fresh off a victory at the Millrose Games where she recaptured the form that took her to the 2018 title in this event. In New York, she beat a good field, running 7.16. Her best competition will come from Mikiah Brisco, the owner of the fastest time in the world of 2020. Brisco ran 7.08 in Albuquerque last month. Destiny Smith-Barnett, Shania Collins, Kiara Parker and hurdler Brianna McNeal should advance to the final. 

400m

Wadeline Jonathas’ pro career is off to a smooth start. Last year’s NCAA champ has run under 52 seconds twice and has the second-fastest time in the world. Any effects from a long track season that ended with a fourth-place at Worlds haven’t materialized. She’s a big favorite to get her first US title. Quanera Hayes has the second-best entry time, followed by Jaide Stepter. 

60m Hurdles

This event, perhaps more than others, seems to be suffering from the cancellation of World Indoors. Keni Harrison, Nia Ali and Brianna McNeal are all not entered (McNeal is in the 60m). Their absence opens up the field for Christina Clemons to win her first US title. Clemons has run 7.89 this year, a full tenth of a second better than the next fastest woman. Kristi Castlin won this event back in 2012 and has a bronze medal from the 2016 Olympics. 

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