NEW YORK -- The nation's premier distance runner undertook the first of his four likely final exams with mixed results on Friday: achieving A's in effort, finish time, excitement and official place, but a big fat C in race strategy.
The C is for craziness.
St. Benedict's (Newark, N.J.) junior Edward Cheserek blazed the first 400 meters of the his 1600-meter anchor leg on the distance medley relay with reckless abandon, costing his team any chance of establishing the season's nation-leading time at the New Balance Nationals Indoor.
Despite the pacing flub, Cheserek clearly keyed the effort as St. Benedict's managed to capture the national title in the event with Darien Edwards (1200), Naija Omari (400), Kalonji Foster (800) and Cheserek accumulating a 10:10.08 performance, just enough to outlast in-state rival Piscataway (10:10.63) for the championship rings.
Opening his 8-lap segment with suicidal 200-meter splits of 25.6 and 29.0, Cheserek's 54.6 clocking for the first 400 meters catapulted his team from sixth place into the lead. The piston-like motion he unleashed during that stretch was akin to a finely tuned Maserati tearing through the Autobahn while all others stalled along the roadside. Yes, his aggressive movement was that dominating.
But the prodigious aerobic wonder ultimately succumbed to the suicidal clip, slipping to 65.2 for the next 400 meters, then 66.0 for the subsequent two laps. He eventually closed in 61.6 to complete a lactate-infused 1:59.8-2:07.6 positive split. He had just enough to hold off hard-charging Notre Dame-signed anchor Tim Ball of Piscataway, who split 4:09.9.
"Yes, way too fast," said St. Benedict's head coach Marty Hannon, with a wide smile and a shake of the head. "As much as we try to get him to run more event splits, when there's people ahead of him, he only knows one speed: All out to catch people."
It was the first of at least three title efforts by Cheserek this weekend, with a fourth possibly in the cards. He's slated to anchor the 1600-meter sprint medley (running the 800-meter portion) in the mid-afternoon on Saturday, before running the 2-mile in the early afternoon on Sunday. Depending on how he feels after the third event, a stab at the mile championship 75 minutes later is a possibility.
Hannon will make the decision after the two-mile -- assuming his star pupil has anything left.
"That sprint medley is going to take a lot out of everyone," the longtime coach said. "There's going to be three, maybe four teams capable of putting up unreal times in that one. It's going to be nasty."
The distance medley was enough of a challenge for St. Benedict's. Edwards carried the team across in seventh place after splitting 3:11.6 on the leadoff leg, but Omari ran a superb 400-meter split (49.9) to carry his team into second at the middle exchange. From there, Foster did well to offer up a 2:01.1 split for the 800, but the team lost four spots in the process as the 12-team field began to shift into overdrive.
Cheserek then electrified the crowd in the opening laps of the anchor leg before nearly short-circuiting down the stretch.
"People say to not go as fast at the start, but it doesn't seem fast to me and it's the only way I know," Cheserek explained. "I feel really good and I want to help the team get into first."
Cheserek said as much as it is fun to compete on relays with his teammates, his preference is to compete in the open events.
"I like to get out fast and just keep going, nothing holding me back," he said. "On the relays, I find myself chasing people, not running my race."
"Mentally and physically, he knows what to do," Hannon said. "Cognitively, he understands what needs to be done. But in the heat of the race, his competitiveness takes over and all that thought process goes out the window. He just flies."
Frederick Royster, an assistant coach at St. Benedict's, agrees, but also thinks Cheserek's talents are on the verge of something special.
"He's close to putting it all together," Royster quipped. "He might go out there and run 4 flat the next time out. He keeps learning and he'll only get better."
But Cheserek, who earlier this winter set the national indoor record at 5,000 meters in the Millrose Games, isn't about to make such bold predictions just yet.
"We'll see how it goes," he says. "First (goal) is to win, then to run super fast times."
He can manage to do both, but only if he can learn to master those race-day exams, turning that remaining C into the elusive A.