PHOTO: Matthew Centrowitz celebrating after winning the 2016 NYRR Wanamaker Mile in a personal best 3:50.63 (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)
PHOTO: Matthew Centrowitz celebrating after winning the 2016 NYRR Wanamaker Mile in a personal best 3:50.63 (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)

By Chris Lotsbom; @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2016 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

NEW YORK (20-Feb) — In a highly anticipated rematch that drew comparisons to the famed Ali-Frazier bout of 1971, the NYRR Wanamaker Mile battle between Matthew Centrowitz and Nick Willis was the main event that capped an evening of record-setting performances here at The Armory. Of the distance disciplines contested, four world leads and dozens of personal records were run at the 109th NYRR Millrose Games. None was more scintillating than Centrowitz’s 3:50.63 performance for the win, his third Wanamaker title in five years.

“I didn’t even know I ran that fast until 30 seconds after the race,” Centrowitz told Race Results Weekly. “I’m surprised to see I ran that fast because it felt like such a tactical race.”

In a race set up to attack the 3:50 barrier, no one immediately went out with rabbit Kyle Merber. Rather, the field of ten patiently passed 809m in 1:57.85 led by Garrett Heath. With the crowd (and pack) growing a bit antsy, it would be Willis throwing the first hook to the field, surging to the front. Centrowitz followed suit with a counter punch.

“I gave it my best and did what I wanted to, to get in front of him before the last lap. Get in front of Matt and hopefully try and hold him off,” said Willis, 32. “When he went he was still really strong.”

The battle was on between the 2008 Olympic silver medalist Willis and his younger rival Centrowitz, a two-time IAAF World Championships medalist who also counts Willis as a role model. At the bell, the tandem had cleared the rest of the field and buckled down for what would be a wild final circuit.

First it looked like it may finally be Willis’s day. Having placed second twice and third two more times, he hoped to hoist the silver Wanamaker trophy high above his head today. But seconds later Centrowitz shut the door and proved why he is known as America’s top miler, kicking hard around the bend.

It was Centrowitz maintaining a step’s edge with a 26.5-second final lap, and breaking the tape in a meet record, world lead, and Armory record of 3:50.63. Willis crossed in 3:51.06, breaking his own New Zealand record. To celebrate his third Wanamaker win, Centrowitz paid homage to the crowd.

“I did the three point celebration because today was the third win for me. It was the J.R. Smith move with the Knicks, the New York Knicks, and we are here in New York,” Centrowitz told RRW after signing dozens of autographs and posing for even more selfies. Mid-interview, he’d share a moment with Willis’s coach Ron Warhurst that ended in a firm, friendly, and respectful handshake. The pair acknowledged just how special a battle had taken place. Centrowitz would add, “I love racing Nick.”

Willis took the runner-up honors with grace and class, thanking those around him post-race.

“Full credit to him, I gave it my best and I wasn’t able to get it as close as last year to him,” Willis said. “I was just trying and trying to get on his shoulder on the bend so I had a chance on the homestretch. If you’re not on their shoulder by then –unless they are really fading– you have no shot at passing in the last 50. I could not even get to that point because he was still accelerating.”

Behind the top two, adidas’s Chris O’Hare ran to third in 3:52.91, followed by Robby Andrews in 3:53.16 and Cory Leslie in 3:53.87, all setting indoor personal bests. Oregon’s Blake Haney set a school record to finish eighth in a career best 3:56.36, the final man to dip under four-minutes.

All of the mile magic wasn’t just reserved for the Wanamaker Mile section. High school sensation Drew Hunter shattered his own high school national record by running 3:57.81 in the Invitational Mile hours earlier, placing fourth among a field of professionals and collegians. Johnny Gregorek was the winner in 3:56.57, leading eight men under four-minutes.

“Coming in here I just knew I wanted to be tough and in contention to run fast again,” said Hunter, who has recently been battling a cold. “I did, and it’s nice knowing that I can run 3:57-whatever and not feel great, and that there’s a lot more in the tank. I’m in really good shape right now.”

Shannon Rowbury ran away with the NYRR Wanamaker Mile for Women’s crown in 4:24.39, giving coaches Alberto Salazar and Pete Julian a Nike Oregon Project sweep.  Like Centrowitz, the 31-year-old retained her title and she ran the second-fastest time in the world this year.

Shooting for an American record, Rowbury was the only one to test the pace and stay on the rabbit Melissa Salerno’s heels. Through 880y in about 2:09, she looked smooth and in control.

A year ago, Rowbury barely made it to the finish line in first, struggling to fight off the famed fatigue that the mile bestows on its challengers. This year was a different story, as she broke the tape well out in front. Charging hard in the last 400 meters, runner-up Kerri Gallagher simply ran out of real estate before finishing in 4:26.18, a personal best.

“I knew there might be some women that came with me, but I knew equally that I may be out there by myself,” said Rowbury. “Last year at Millrose taught me that regardless of where you are in a race, whether you are in a pack or by yourself, you have to stay relaxed early and able to bring in home at the end. That’s what I did today.”

Rowbury expanded on how training has been going, and her thoughts on the remainder of the season.

“Training has been going really well and this is a great transition to go into the next few weeks into what will be very important races,” she said, referencing the U.S. Indoor Championships and the IAAF World Championships a week later. “Only two people go [to Worlds] for the USA so I’m going to have tough competition at the Indoor Champs and even tougher competition at Worlds, but I’m ready to rise to that occasion.”

Unlike Rowbury, Bowerman Track Club athletes Betsy Saina and Ryan Hill both played their sit-and-kick cards to perfection, winning their 5000m and 3000m races in 14:57.18 and 7:38.82, respectively, both world-leaders. Saina, the Iowa State product, took over the lead from Molly Huddle after Huddle had set the tempo for more than four and a half kilometers.

Leading a single-file-line of athletes, Huddle methodically led lap after lap, a consistency to her stride that was unmatched. Training for the United Airlines NYC Half next month, Huddle wanted to get a quick 5000m in, and thus took charge once the pacesetters dropped.

Running into lapped traffic at the bell, the trailing Saina cut to the inside and gained a step’s edge on Huddle. The latter tried her best to match the first major move of the race, bit it was to no avail.

Saina sprinted around the last turn and into the homestretch a hair in front, winning 14:57.18 to 14:57.31. This was the first time the women’s 5000m was contested in meet history.

“I didn’t know what kind of shape I am [in], so my goal today was to try and sit around and see how I feel. At some point I felt like I was feeling great, but I didn’t want to risk it because I’ve come back here and in 2014 I was second and 2015 I was second,” said Saina, her time a world lead by over twelve seconds. “I just wanted to win the race today. Millrose is very exciting for me, to just open my season like this I wanted to win today.”

With Huddle’s second place, she defeated IAAF World Championships 10,000m bronze medalist Emily Infeld by a spot — the same athlete who nipped her at in Beijing. Infeld’s time was 15:00.91.

“I knew they would be there. I was kind of hoping a 4:46 or whatever we went through the mile in would shake some people off,” said Huddle. “But Betsy and Emily are coming from altitude so I knew they’d be as strong as I was. I just was trying to save something for the kick… I just didn’t have that last quarter.”

In total, five women achieved the Olympic standard for 5000m by cracking 15:24.00; in addition to Saina, Huddle, and Infeld, Marielle Hall (15:06.05) and Shelby Houlihan (15:06.22) surpassed the mark.

Sporting the same black and red kit as Saina, Hill sat back while Oregon’s Edward Cheserek led early on in the men’s 3000m after pacemaker Colby Alexander retired. An all-Oregon affair, eleven of the twelve competitors had ties to Oregon, either having attended the University of Oregon, trained for the Bowerman Track Club, Nike Oregon Project, or the Oregon Track Club.

Jostling position with 800 meters to go, Lopez Lomong and Hassan Mead moved to the pole within a circuit. Mead held the lead 400 meters out and again at the bell, but Hill used momentum and a slingshot move to propel himself around the final turn, winning an all-out sprint to the tape by just 3/100ths of a second.

Dipping a la Ashton Eaton in the hurdles earlier in the meet, Hill took the title in a world-leading 7:38.82 to Mead’s 7:38.85. Eric Jenkins was third (7:39.43); Evan Jager fourth (7:40.10); Mo Ahmed fifth (7:40.11) and Cheserek sixth (7:40.51).

“This race is just a big cool invitational. The title doesn’t mean anything other than just what it is,” said Hill, scoffing at the fact that he’s now a world leader ahead of double Olympic champion Mo Farah. “I’m not going to gloat that I’m not going to lose in three weeks or something. I need to stay focused, and it’s all about the U.S. Championships.”

Of note, Jager said that he’d dealt with an injury earlier this year and was out of workouts for three weeks. Trying to catch up to his teammates (including Hill), he now feels healthy and confident.

“I’m fit, I know I’m really strong,” he said. “But I don’t think I’m quite, not as on top of my running, as I was [at this point] last year… It’s probably pretty close. I’m very happy with how I did here today.”

Both the women’s and men’s 800m were two-person duels to the tape. Brenda Martinez put in a calculated move with 300m to go, though it was not enough to shake Ajee’ Wilson from contention. Wilson, a heavy hometown favorite, took the lead in the final straight.

“It was really special, the field was really fast. I’m happy with the time as well,” Wilson told RRW, smiling about her new world leading mark of 2:00.09. “My coach Derek Thompson always does a good job of predicting how the race is going to go. The plan that he gave me beforehand prepared me perfectly for what I had to do and I just had to execute.”

Martinez (2:00.14), Laura Roesler (2:00.49), and Raevyn Rogers (2:00.90) all went sub-2:01.

Duane Solomon was challenged by Penn State’s Brannon Kidder over the final lap in the men’s 800m. Solomon held form and claimed the narrow win in his final indoor race of the year, 1:47.52 to 1:47.59.

The invitational high school miles were won by Virginia’s Kate Murphy, just 16 years-old, in 4:41.84 and California’s Isaac Cortes in 4:09.87. Murphy’s victory was a show of pure domination, while Cortes nipped New York’s Noah Affolder for the boys crown by one-one hundredth of a second.