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Men’s U.S. Olympic Trials Preview: Distance Races

We preview the men's 1500, 5000, and 10,000 meter races. Though they seem a little lighter on top-end talent than perhaps they have in recent years, that should open up an intriguing level of uncertainty.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Editor's note: This preview comes at you from the desk of Jeff Duncan, who was last seen telling you everything you need to know about the Jama Aden doping bust.

Men’s 10,000m (9:15 PM EST, Friday July 1st)

The USA Men’s 10,000m will likely be the Galen Rupp show as the seven-time event champion has blasted the domestic competition over 25 laps time and again. While many have spoken about his recent loss at the Portland Stumptown twilight meet, it would be wise to consider that Rupp was well beaten by Collis Birmingham at the 2014 Oxy 5000m just prior to running the American record over 10,000m. He clearly shows up for the races that matter.

Moreover, if rupp’s closing speed was in question after moving up to the roads and his recent loss, remember his recent finish at the Portland Track Festival 5000m where he ratcheted the pace down over his last two laps as he closed in 59 and then a dominant 55. That should be more than enough to dispatch the competition.

The race for second, however, is shaping up to be a tight competition. USATF has provided a generous qualifying window allowing athletes to chase the 28:15.00 standard starting January 1st, 2015. The majority of the olympic-hopefuls in this race have taken advantage of this window and used this past spring to hone their fitness in off-distance events which makes our job of predicting the race somewhat challenging, particularly considering that the 2nd, 3rd and 4th fastest times were posted May of 2015.

While the second fastest qualifier, Diego Estrada, has taken the scalps of Hassan Mead and Ben True, the third and fourth fastest qualifiers, at the 2015 edition of the Prefontaine classic, Estrada has struggled since then. Last year at the 2015 USA Championship 10,000m, Estrada was 18 and 20 seconds back on True and Mead, respectively. More recently, an attempt at the Olympics in the Marathon trials this past February ended when Estrada stepped off the course before the 20 mile mark running well off the lead runners. However, Estrada has appeared to be on the upswing. He rebounded with a quick 62 minute half marathon at Brooklyn AirBnB, good for third. In May, he finished third at the Bolder Boulder 10K where he turned the tables on Jared Ward, the third place finisher from the Marathon trials in February. His margin of victory over Ward was a substantial thirty seconds and in the process, he also beat Scott Fauble who was just a few weeks off of a 28:04 track 10,000m at the Payton Jordan invite. Perhaps Estrada offers a more substantial challenge than previously believed based on his recent track performances. In his only track race of 2016, the 1500m at the Oxy classic, Estrada was well beaten running just 3:45 but that was almost eight weeks ago and if Estrada’s speed has made strides forward since, he will be a formidable challenger to the team though it is worth noting that Hassan Mead was nearly a straightaway ahead of Estrada in 3:37 that day.

This brings me to the biggest threat to Rupp and the most likely man to finish second - Hassan Mead. Mead has been on fire this year. After a pair of runner-up finishes indoors over 3000m to fellow Americans Matthew Centrowitz and Ryan Hill (both of whom went on to win medals at the world championships less than a month later), Mead ran a near PR 13:03 5000m at Pre Classic and followed it up by storming away from the field in the Oxy 1500m with a personal-best of 3:37. If Mead’s strength is on par with his under-distance performances, it is hard to see him not finishing second to Rupp and if the race becomes tactical, my money is on Mead to separate himself from the field with his newly developed speed.

Ben True also appears to be in form after a subpar 13:12 performance at Prefontaine that left him well beaten by Mead (13:03). However, True’s fitness seems to have improved since as he blasted an eye-popping 3:36 1500m in a trials tune-up. The 27:41 man is the returning runner-up and appears to be rounding into form right when it counts. A major concern regarding True will be the conditions in Eugene. With a 6:00 pm start time, the race is expected to be run in warm conditions under the hot sun (forecasts predict 80 F). At the 2013 USA 10,000, the Des Moine, Iowa heat affected True and he faded to 4th place over the final laps despite having the second fastest qualifying mark at that race as well.

Other competitors to watch out for include the ageless Bernard Lagat who made his debut at the 25 lap event this spring with a 27:49. The master tactician has proven to be Rupp’s kryptonite as the Olympic silver medalist has beaten Lagat just once at the US championships over the past seven years. Perhaps the now 41 year old Lagat could challenge after all. Though his DNF at Prefontaine Classic was concerning but afterwards Lagat said he was recovering from illness so it’s hard to say what kind of a factor Lagat will be but in a kicker’s race he could upset any of Mead, True or Rupp.

Rupp’s teammate Eric Jenkins made his debut at the 25 lap event this year with a quick 27:48. He is one of the few top competitors to have actually run a 10,000m this track season and his 5000m at oxy classic was impressive. However, he has been beaten more often than not by the more senior runners Mead and True. In 2014, when Rupp broke the pack only Chris Derrick managed to give chase. The 13:08 man and three-time US 12,000m XC champ has struggled over the past two years and managed just a 7th place finish last year. He was somewhat controversially accepted into the race despite a qualifying time well north of 28 minutes which he ran at the Prefontaine Classic. While he has been a major factor in the past, we don’t see that being that case this weekend.

Our Prediction:

  1. Rupp 2. Mead 3. True

Rupp’s loss was a fluke and he will be good to go. Mead is looking strong and while the heat will affect True, he is still one of the best guys in the field.

Men’s 5000m (Trial - Monday July 4th, 8:02 PM EST; Final - Saturday July 9th, 8:20 PM EST)

The defending champion Ryan Hill has struggled since his world championship silver medal. In his only race since, The Prefontaine Classic 5000m, he finished second to last in a time of 13 minutes 35 seconds. However, if Hill is in the same form we saw indoors then it will be difficult for anyone to touch him. Particularly if his biggest rivals, Jenkins, Mead and True, are all doubling back from the 10,000m. The race appears to be a rematch of the Men’s 10,000m as these guys are all the major players. While Bernard Lagat can never be discounted in a championship 5000m, his age began to show at the Prefontaine Classic where he was dropped early and didn’t finish.

It is also worth noting that USA Indoor 3000m runner-up, Paul Chelimo, is in the field with a 13:21. While Chelimo’s time is well off of what Mead (13:04), Hill (13:05), True (13:06) and Jenkins (13:07) have recently run, his kick has allowed him to easily dispatch the likes of Jenkins and Mead indoors. In addition, his 7:39 3000m indicates he should be capable of performance well under 13:10.

If Hill and Chelimo are in the same form they showed indoors, than we expect them to repeat their 1-2 finish from USA 3000m. From there it is a toss-up between the remaining athletes. Last year, Mead ran himself onto the world’s team in the 10,000m and scratched out of the 5000m. We expect him to do the same if he makes the team for Rio in the 10,000m this year which would leave a spot open for one of Hill, True and Jenkins.

Our predictions:

  1. Hill 2. Chelimo 3. True

Hill’s performance at Pre was likely not representative of his form and we haven’t heard anything about him being injured so he should repeat, same for Chelimo but we expect him to make his first olympic team here. True is fit and likely to double, particularly if the 10,000 doesn’t go to plan. If Mead does run, then expect him to be third.

Men’s Steeplechase (Prelim - July 4th, 7:33 pm; Final - July 8th, 8:23 PM EST)

With returning champion Evan Jager healthy and in form, it seems unlikely anyone can up-end the second fastest white guy in the event of all-time. Jager’s 8:00.45 last spring was on another level and while we saw him struggle at USA Indoor championships over the flat 3000m, Jager has been on a tear this spring. A 3:38 1500m at Stanford was followed up with a fast closing 8:15 steeplechase at Oxy. If he can repeat his 59 second closing lap over barriers and a water jump, he should easily pull away.

Behind Jager, the race looks to be a repeat of the 2015 edition as Donn Cabral (8:13) and Dan Huling (8:14) are 5 seconds ahead of the next qualifier, Andy Bayer. Cabral and Huling have dueled it out in recent years and while Cabral has run just 8:29 and 3:44 for 3000mSC and 1500m, respectively, we believe that he will be ready to go for USAs. Particularly considering his 8:29 steeplechase was a win over a strong field that included 8:23 man Donny Cowart, who is the fifth fastest qualifier for the trials. Dan Huling is 32 years old and likely past his prime whereas Cabral is seemingly on the upswing of his career and so we think this year’s match up will definitely go to Cabral. In addition to the age difference, Huling has raced just once this season while Cabral has run a 5000m, a 1500m, a steeplechase and a mile. None of those performances were in themselves particularly stunning but the consistency and racing sharpness will lend themselves to a strong finish for Cabral over the race rusty Huling.

The runner’s most likely to surprise over Cabral or Huling are Stanley Kebenei and Cory Leslie. Kebenei comes in with the fourth fastest qualifer and has sliced 5 seconds off of his steeplechase PR to run a speedy 8:18.52 at the Rome Diamond League. Kebenei was 5th here last year and while we believe that his fitness has taken a step forward, Cabral and Huling are running on a different level altogether.

Leslie came off a strong indoor campaign that left with him a 3:53 mile PR and finished third at the Oxy steeplechase behind Huling and Jager. Leslie ran aggressive at USAs last year hoping to top his fourth place finish from 2014 but faded over the last lap to finish sixth. He will probably run a more conservative race in an attempt to make the team and while his speed is there, the question is will he have the strength to use it after a prelim.

Our predictions:

  1. Jager 2. Cabral 3. Huling

Self explanatory picks. We think these guys are the best of the best and they’ve proven they can get the job done.

Men 1500m (Thursday July 7th, 10:21 PM EST, Friday July 8th, 7:12 PM EST)

This event offers the most excitement on the men’s distance side as behind the World Indoor Champion Matthew Centrowitz the field looks relatively open. Two time Olympian Andrew Wheating will be watching the race from the sidelines as his 2016 season saw him struggle to even making the 3:38 qualifying mark. In addition, second fastest qualifier Kyle Merber was out with an injury this season that seemingly left him behind his 3:34 form. Last year’s second placer Leonel Manzano, himself a two-time olympian as well, has struggled this season. He was crushed in the Prefontaine mile where he ran over four minutes and his season best for 1500m is just 3:39. Manzano has only made the trials by virtue of his 2015 track campaign.

Finally, Robby Andrews who was third here last year after rocketing for home with his incredible kick from 200m out has himself struggled. He was beaten by 10,000m man Ben True in Boston running just 3:37 to True’s 3:36 leaving questions about where Andrews signature kick was and while he rebounded running 1:46 in Philadelphia two weeks ago which shows promise but guarantees nothing in this field. We will try to break down all the major competitors here but preface that by underscoring the uncertainty of the event. With three rounds and a tight field, this is a difficult one to call.

Matthew Centrowitz has run just a couple races this outdoor season but his recent 3:37 finish at the Stumptown Twilight Meet left no question that he is fit and ready to go. He stormed away from the field in dominant fashion and his 3:30 qualifier is over 4 seconds ahead of Merber.

Merber might’ve been considered a strong favorite to make the team but an unfortunate injury kept him out of much of the 2016 season. After a 3:41 1500m at Princeton three weeks ago, he has reportedly run a fast 1200m time trial in 2:50. The time converts to something like a 3:37 or 3:38 1500m, so he is clearly on the upswing, the question is will he be back enough before the trials.

Third fastest qualifier Ben Blankenship has been on a tear this spring. While he was fourth last year and has been beaten out in the final kick the past few years, Blankenship has been nothing but consistent this spring whereas his main competitors have struggled. A 7:53 3000m against a strong field in Japan was followed up with a quick flight to Minnesota where he creamed 3:34 man Garrett Heath by four seconds at the TC1 Medtronic Mile. If 3:55 on the roads was not enough, he followed it up with a 3:53 at the Prefontaine Mile - his fourth time running a 3:35 1500m equivalent.

While Robby Andrews was able to run a PR 3:35.2 last spring, he has struggled and since run just 3:37 in the 2016 spring campaign. While indoors he was able to finish a close second behind Centrowitz at USAs, he hasn’t shown the same form. Losing to a 10K guy over 1500m is not a good sign and while 1:46 is a pretty good 800m, it’s nothing to call home about for this 1:44 speed-oriented runner. Perhaps Andrews is just a touch off but that will make all the difference when last year’s second through fourth were separated by just three one-hundreths of a second.

Leo Manzano’s season may also be on the upswing but if Andrews is in trouble, Manzano doesn’t have a shot. Still, many have discounted Manzano in the past but we would be remiss to do so here again and for good reason, too. Manzano is the five time runner up in this event, two time champion and has only not finished on the podium once since 2007. However, this has also proven to be one of Leo’s slowest years since 2006. Admittedly an unfair comparison given that many of his season’s bests have come in July but we’ve yet to see Leo crack into the mid 3:30s and not for lack of effort.

If you like to cheer for the little guy, then Colby Alexander is your pick for the Men’s 1500m team. Alexander has been on a hot streak. A 3:37 at Furman Elite 1500 FTW was followed up by a 3:36.2 at Princeton, again taking the win. The 24 year old never made it to the NCAA championship final in the 1500m, let alone the US championship but the past year has seen Alexander come into his own as a runner. Doe the arrival of Alexander mark the end of an era for the likes of Manzano and the rest of the US 1500m "old guard"? Perhaps.

Our predictions:

  1. Centrowitz 2. Blankenship 3. Alexander

When you’re hot, you’re hot and these guys are the best in the country right now.