A column by Len Johnson – Runner’s Tribe
No sooner had all us ‘experts’ agreed on one thing – these are not the conditions for a good 5000 – than the Australian championships and Commonwealth Games selection trials delivered the best Australian in-depth 5000 in history.
Never before had three Australians broken 13:20 in the same race. Now they did. In a championship. In a selection trial. In sweltering conditions. The only time two have done it was when Craig Mottram and McNeill both ran sub-13:20 at Hesden-Zolder in 2012. With all due respect, the Belgian meeting is set up as graded races to run fast/PB times.
Bold predictions usually have a half-life of at least a few hours. This one was looking shaky from the moment Patrick Tiernan dashed to the front from the gun and reeled off a 64-second opening lap, shakier as Stewart McSweyn, Dave McNeill, Sam McEntee, Morgan McDonald and Jack Rayner clung to his heels and wobbling violently as Tiernan led through 1000 metres in 2:41, 2000 in 5:22 and 3000 in 8:03.
By the time the bell was reached in just over 12:20, with Tiernan, McSweyn, McNeill and McDonald in one pack fighting for three medals and, most likely, three places in the Gold Coast team the ‘not a good night for a 5k’ theory had been smashed to smithereens. It was not a matter of ‘whether’, it was a matter of ‘by how much’.
At the line, 21-year-old McDonald had sprinted to the win in 13:19.05. McNeill, who needed an A-standard (13:22.60), or second with a B (13:35) to clinch a spot in the team, got both, taking second place in 13:19.51.
McDonald and McNeill clinched automatic selection in the event. McSweyn’s 13:19.96 for third was a PB but, more importantly, kept him in the mix for the third spot. He and Tiernan have already been named in the 10,000 after last December’s Zatopek.
Tiernan finished an exhausted fourth in 13:26.38, losing most of those six or seven seconds up the final straight. He had paid dearly for his aggression, but it had set up a magnificent race.
During the race, meeting commentator Maurie Plant had joked about the conditions, at one stage observing that the humidity had dropped from 100 to 90%. I’m not entirely sure Maurie was quoting BOM statistics, but his subsequent remark that it was still hot and sticky was empirically spot-on.
Humidity doesn’t preclude fast performances. I think of Atlanta 1996 and the first of the two great Olympic 10,000 battles between Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat. Atlanta practically dripped with humidity, as did Tokyo 1991 when Moses Tanui ran 27:38 to defeat Richard Chelimo and Khalid Skah and Liz McColgan 31:14 to win the women’s 10,000.
But high humidity is probably tougher in isolation than soaring temperatures. At night, the sun disappears; humidity never does.
Tiernan may not have adopted the wisest tactics in pursuit of victory. Perhaps he thought that, as a local, he was more used to the conditions and that the others would drop off if he kept pushing the pace. Perhaps he thought others would share the load – they didn’t.
Rayner and McEntee did drop off around half-way; McSweyn and, very briefly and misleadingly, McDonald dropped several meters back at one point late in the race.
But, as the French field-marshall observed in questioning the Charge of the Light Brigade: “It is magnificent, but it is not war.” Likewise, Tiernan’s front-running was as magnificent as its tactical wisdom was questionable.
At several points, Tiernan made room for someone else to take over. Not surprisingly, no-one took up the offer.
For the first 3000 metres the pace never slipped above 65 seconds a lap. After a 2:41.57 first kilometre, the next two went by in close to 2:40 (64-second pace). About the only effect on the pursuers was that McSweyn had to put in one solid surge as Rayner and McEntee ahead of him started to lose ground. He moved from sixth to second.
Ominously, McNeill and McDonald, tracked the leader without ever looking in any trouble.
Tiernan slowed notably in the fourth kilometre, the pace dropping back to 2:44 – almost 66 seconds a lap. Even if he was saving himself a little, the drop in intensity must have given his rivals confidence.
Tiernan took the bell like a man heading off to the executioner. He knew what was ahead of him, but he had to go through with it. Onto the final bend he remained in contention, but he was spent. Surprisingly, McSweyn, too, was in a little bit of trouble as McDonald and McNeill fought it out, but he stuck close enough to dip under 13:20.
In the end – and for pretty much of the race – McDonald looked so comfortable that it was no surprise that he won. His rhythm was impeccable, his final sprint unanswerable.
McNeill was in many ways the surprise packet. After his third-place in the Zatopek behind McSweyn and Tiernan, he zeroed in on the 5000 as his route into the Gold Coast team. Despite being ‘only’ a 3:42 1500 runner and 4:00.7 miler, McNeill has a turn of speed as good as any of his rivals. When it counted on this night, it was as good as anyone other than McDonald. For selection purposes, second in an A was as good as gold.
One night, one able-bodied final and the question must be asked: have we seen the best contest of the trials. Hard to know, but we’ll be very happy if we see a better one.
Len Johnson has been the long-time lead columnist on RT and is one of the world’s most respected athletic writers.
He is also a former national class distance runner (2.19.32 marathon) and trained with Chris Wardlaw and Robert de Castella among other running legends. He is the author of The Landy Era.