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Thursday, February 9, 2012
East Coast track swing gives insight to London field

By Luke Cyphers

BOSTON -- With Super Bowl hoopla sucking up the sports oxygen on the East Coast this week, there still were more than a few people in the region (many with great VO2 maxes, no doubt) just as excited by the recent start of the track and field season.

They showed up en force for the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix here Saturday night, with the crowd of 4,072 marking the eighth straight sellout of the event at the Reggie Lewis Center on the Roxbury Community College campus.

The bustling meet at the Reggie, together with the previous week's inaugural U.S. Open at Madison Square Garden in New York, produced a few revelations as the sport limbers up for the Olympic year:

1. Schism for some, opportunity for others

Madison Square Garden and its longest-running event, the Millrose Games, finalized an ugly divorce last year. After 98 years in the world's greatest sports arena, Millrose took its starting blocks uptown to the fast track at Manhattan's 168th Street Armory, where the venerable games will be held Saturday.

USA Track & Field, the sport's governing body, decided it still wanted a meet at the Garden and hastily put together its own show on Broadway.

Suddenly, athletes had a chance to compete in three East Coast meets in successive weeks, and they liked it. Hurdler David Oliver, the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist who trains in Kissimmee, Fla., said the three-week East Coast swing gives him a chance to maintain a fairly regular training schedule by avoiding long flights to European meets. He's coming off a pelvic injury that hindered him at the end of last season, and the bang-bang-bang schedule is allowing him to gauge his recovery and focus on a different aspect of his race each week. In Boston, he concentrated on his arm action, which was good enough to earn the win in the 60-meter hurdles in 7.60 seconds.

Whether the regional track fan base will support the three-race minicircuit remains to be seen, but the early signs are positive. The Open drew 5,844 to the Garden, many of them Jamaican ex-pat fans who came to see Veronica Campbell-Brown and Asafa Powell win their 50-meter sprints. It was less than a third of the building's capacity, but it wasn't the attendance disaster some predicted for the event, and the atmosphere was loud and lively.

The same could be said for the New Balance meet. The crowd packed the small Lewis center with Boston's running clubs and members of the area's large Ethiopian diaspora community. The latter group came away happy once again, as national heroines Meseret Defar and Tirunesh Dibaba easily won the 3,000 meters and 2-mile run, respectively.

2. Lolo on a high

Of course, it wouldn't be track if there weren't a few kinks in the marketing system. At the U.S. Open, some boisterous male fans doffed their tops to reveal the message "We love Lolo" painted on their chests, an homage to popular hurdler Lolo Jones. The reward for their enthusiasm? They were escorted from their seats by security.

Luckily, the Garden muscle didn't remove Jones, who had the most electrifying moment of the Open with a victory over a rugged 50-meter hurdles field that included defending Olympic champion Dawn Harper and 2011 U.S. national champion Kellie Wells. Jones, who had surgery to correct a spinal defect last fall and saw her 2011 season cut short, went into the meet wondering about her career. She left with a huge smile, momentum that carried her to a meet record in Moscow this past weekend and a loud message that she's ready to be a factor in what will be one of the most contested events in London.

3. Travels, and travails, with Mo and Kip

One of the most hotly contested races at last year's world championships was the 5,000 meters, in which England's Mo Farah edged American Bernard "Kip" Lagat for the gold. Both pronounced themselves in great shape coming into the indoor season, taking time to train in Kenya over the winter and running a mile indoors to test their fitness over the past two weeks.

Lagat ran in the Open and went into the race a favorite based on his glorious history running the Millrose Wanamaker Mile in the same building. But he has been training solely for the 5,000 this year, got no help from the race's sluggish rabbit and didn't have quite enough speed at the end to outmaneuver young Kenyan Silas Kiplagat. Lagat turned in a slow time of 4:00.92 behind Kiplagat (4:00.65).

Farah ran the New Balance meet and finished his mile in fourth behind Ireland's Ciaran O'Lionaird, who trains with Farah under the tutelage of Alberto Salazar. But that told only half the story; the Brit showed grit when he was tripped in the first lap of the race, hit the deck and was trod upon by about half of the field. Undaunted, Farah got back up, caught the pack and held on for a personal record of 3:57.92 behind O'Lionaird's 3:56.01.

Advantage, Farah. But Lagat steps up to the 5,000 this week at the Armory, which might paint a truer picture of his early form.

4. Kids these days

Although knowledgeable Caribbean track watchers were well aware of 400-meter runner Kirani James' potential, the ex-Alabama NCAA star from Grenada surprised everyone by upsetting defending Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea, last year and becoming, at 18, the youngest 400-meter titlist in history.

At Boston, he won easily in a time of 45.96, best in the world so far in the young season. Although he turned pro last year, James is staying with what works. He's still being coached by Harvey Glance, who recruited him to Bama, and living and training in Tuscaloosa. Why mess with a good thing? If all goes to plan, James will break the streak of American Olympic 400 gold medalists that dates back to 1980.

5. Strong silent type

The best performance of the first two weeks? That belongs to Jenn Suhr, the U.S. pole vaulter ranked No. 1 in the world in 2011. On Saturday in Boston, Suhr set an American indoor record of 16 feet. But the upstate New Yorker, known as Jenn Stuczynski when she won silver at the 2008 Olympics, didn't speak to the media after the event, so the public wasn't privy to how she went from no-heighting in New York to a spectacular performance over the weekend.

Suhr, who is married to her coach, Rick Suhr, has had issues with the media in the past, but at a time when the sport needs all the promotion it can get, skedaddling after a record-setting performance is like, well, no-heighting.