This weekend’s Trials of Miles Texas Qualifier meet provided everything a good track and field meet needs: fast races, engaging storylines, and (perhaps most importantly) free, accessible coverage. Although humid weather put a bit of a damper on the second night of the meet, fans of the sport still had the pleasure of watching, commenting on, and appreciating one of the deepest and most fun domestic meets this side of Eugene. There will be plenty to unpack in the weeks and months leading up to the 2021 Olympic Trials, but in the meantime, here are some hot takes from this weekend of running.
If you stream it, they will come
Unlike many professional track meets of a similar caliber, the Texas Qualifier was streamed free on Youtube for all who wished to see. As a result, meet organizers were rewarded with over 10,000 viewers and a surprisingly deep roster of event sponsors, who were able to get their name and logo in front of a large crowd of passionate fans as a result of the somewhat-unique broadcast model. Free streaming helps to expand the viewership of our niche sport beyond the diehard fans paying top dollar for a subscription service or three and into the living rooms, laptops, and phones of a wider audience.
Outdoor track meets have weather
Unlike the climate-controlled bank of the indoor track in Fayetteville, hosting an outdoor track in Austin brings an unpredictable element of weather conditions that athletes don’t normally have to worry about in February. While outdoor meets are more conducive to maintaining COVID-19 safety protocols, it was clear that the humidity and a slight breeze impacted finishing times, particularly on day 2 of the meet.
The spikes are still a topic of discussion
Hoka One One athletes finished 1st and 3rd in the OTQ section of the men’s 10,000 on Friday, an impressive showing from the more distance-oriented NAZ Elite group. There were a few elephants in the room, however: these athletes were wearing the Hoka Cielo LDs, a prototype shoe that, as of mid-February, was not on the World Athletics list of approved competition shoes and is not available on the open market. After the race, Sid Vaughn told Emma Abrahamson that they were approved by World Athletics and he couldn’t say too much else at the moment. While Nike has taken the brunt of the shoe controversy, several other brands, including Hoka and ASICS, have taken advantage of the recent “prototype loophole” adopted by World Athletics in December to race in shoes not available to the general public. In a time where professional sponsorships are harder to come by than ever, racing in prototypes continues to exacerbate inequities between sponsored and unsponsored athletes that World Athletics can, and should, intervene to reduce.
The drones! The drones!
One of the most innovative and occasionally humorous elements of the meet was the use of flying drones in providing overhead coverage of the race. This added camera angle not only provides visually arresting shots but also helps to provide important context to distance between runners in longer races where competitors are strung out along the track. More drones in the future, please!
Don’t skimp on depth
The two-day format of the meet allowed for Friday evening to feature “OTQ” races, which included a higher number of “amateur,” but still elite, athletes and professionals running an off distance. In many cases, these races ended with comparable times to the elite fields the following night, as well as providing entertaining moments including Craig Engels’s 5,000m win and Mexican athlete Andrea Limón’s delightful post-race interview. More races is never a bad thing, and other high-level meets would do well to follow this model to increase the opportunities for a wider range of athletes to shine.
Ajee’ Wilson has a rival
U.S. champion and 2016 Olympic medallist Ajee’ Wilson opened up her “outdoor” season with a commanding win in the women’s 800m, controlling the race from the front to run 1:58.93. The twist? Her time, while impressive, wasn’t even the fastest 800 run by an American woman that day, with Texas A&M freshman Athing Mu destroying the collegiate record in the 800m a few hours earlier in 1:58.40. No matter how things shake out over the next few months, the showdown between these the proven veteran and the up-and-coming stud in Eugene in June should be one of the most compelling narratives of the U.S. Trials.
Frank the Tank
One of the best overall performances of Friday evening was by Roots Running athlete Frank Lara, who set a personal best in the 5,000 of 13:40 then doubled back less than an hour later to pace 5,800 meters of the 10,000. The diminutive distance runner is a fan favorite who, between the Marathon Project and the Texas Qualifier, clearly doesn’t mind selflessly pacing his competitors to fast times.
10ks are hard
The Olympic 10ks on Saturday night were a sweaty, painful affair as many athletes dropped out and Olympic standards were hard to come by on a humid evening in Austin. A few standouts, including collegian Zouhair Talbi and the new German national record holder Konstanze Klosterhalfen, were able to persevere but the grueling 25-lap race was littered with DNFs and athletes clocking time well off their personal bests. Heat and humidity are not conducive to fast 10,000m races, which many runners were reminded the hard way this weekend.
Elle Purrier can run
One of the athletes who seemed impervious to the conditions was New Balance Boston’s Elle Purrier, who continued her hot start to 2021 with a commanding win in the women’s 5,000. While her fellow New Balance athlete Emma Coburn struggled in her 5k debut, Purrier led most of the race once the rabbit dropped off and still had enough in the tank to respond to a spirited challenge from Reebok’s Josette Norris to close her last 400 in 63. With the new Olympic Trials schedule, the 1500/5,000 double will be near impossible and Purrier will have a tough choice to make come June, but whatever distance she does choose, she’ll have a shot at victory and be favored to make her first Olympic team.
Where is USATF?
Despite the global pandemic, many organizations, including Trials of Miles, Sound Running, Bowerman Track Club, and NAZ Elite, have stepped up to organize high-quality elite races that comply with rigorous COVID-19 safety protocols. Notably absent from this list? Our sport’s national governing body, USATF, who has done virtually nothing to support athletes chasing fast times and Olympic standards in unprecedented circumstances. The groundswell of new races has injected some much-needed excitement and momentum into American track and field, but the glaring absence of structural support from USATF is disappointing at best and neglectful at worst of an organization that boasts a $35 million annual budget. Do better, folks.