3:50 For Gold?

How to properly view Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz’s 1,500-meter victory at Rio.

Mel Sheppard had stunned the President just by running far fast.

He’d run so far, so fast, at the 1908 London Olympic Games that sitting President Teddy Roosevelt asked for a private sit-down with Sheppard at his home in Oyster Bay, New York.

Sheppard had managed to win the 800 meter gold medal in a world record time of 1:52.4 and anchored the sprint-medley relay—back when that was still an Olympic event—for the United States at the Games for another gold medal. But the race Roosevelt wanted to know most about was the men’s 1,500-meter final. He called it “the greatest race he’d ever read about it.”

Sheppard described how the event had unfolded. How he won the Olympic final in another world record time of 4:03.5. Then, as he described it in his autobiography, “Spiked Shoes and Cinder Paths,” he pulled out one of the three gold medals he’d won at the Games and showed it to the President.

“This is my prize for winning the event,” Sheppard said. “I would be honored if you would keep it.” Roosevelt knew what the medal meant and vehemently refused to take it. “I have two others,” Shepard said, “and I will not miss this one.”

Roosevelt graciously took the gold medal. “This will be one of my most treasured possessions,” he said.

That gold medal would be the last one an American—male or female—would win the 1,500 meters for 108 years. Then Matthew Centrowitz stepped to the start line in Rio.

They’d run the first lap around the track in just 67 seconds in the 1,500 meter final that would decide who would be crowned 2016 Olympic champion at Rio, and many savvy track and field fans couldn’t believe it.

It wasn’t that American Matthew Centrowitz was leading field full of men who were more than capable of running faster than the 4:30-mile-pace they’d set—a time that wouldn’t even be fast enough to win the women’s 1,500 meter final—but that none of the men in the field had challenged Centrowitz for the lead.

As a rule, though, kickers—sprinters in a middle-distance race—don’t push the pace. The longer the race, the more kickers lick their chops. So why should Kenya’s Asbel Kiprop, a man who has come THIS CLOSE to breaking the 1,500-meter world record push the pace to sub-4-minute territory.

Why should New Zealand’s Nick Willis, who won silver at Beijing in the discipline and has sprinted to a 3:29.66 1,500 time, try to push the pace toward anything that even looked like respectable?

The only person who might be forgiven for sitting on Centrowitz’s shoulder when the pack of world-class milers came through at what equates to the tempo run pace for them of 2:16 seconds through 800 meters was defending 1,500-meter Olympic champ Taoufik Makhloufi. When the Algerian’s legs feel good, he can churn out a 3:28 1,500 meters. But he’d run both heats and semifinals of the 800 and 1,500 winning silver in the former. So he was just fine with letting the pace remain slow in the latter.

Until he wasn’t.

With 700 meters left to run Centrowitz dropped the hammer not because he wanted to, but because he knew if he didn’t the better kickers in the field would run him down with a quarter mile to go. So he kicked first and held off attacks while covering the last lap in 50.62 seconds, which is not a time 400-meter time your friend John next door can run on fresh legs and rollerblades.

But he won in a time of 3:50 flat—equivalent to a 4 minute, 8-second mile—and that’s the rub.

Melvin Whinfield Sheppard, nicknamed “Peerless Mel” didn’t remember running as a kid in his native Almonesson, New Jersey.

He remembered swimming in the Almonesson Lake. He remembered working in a glass factory and earning $9 a month. He remembered moving to Philadelphia where he worked as a messenger, and he remembered being gang-affiliated when he was 15. His crew, the Grays Ferry Roaders, used to be “special enemies” with a gang that called itself the Ramcats “with whom we would fight when we had nothing else to do.” Just goes to show Cripps and Bloods ain’t nothing new.

Sheppard didn’t actually start running competitively until he was 17 when his family moved to West Philadelphia, and he joined the Preston Athletic Club was where he spent most of his days. Chilling out, maxing and relaxing all cool. Running the track when he was outside of the school.

His first race was nowhere near 1,500 meters long. It was a 100-yard dash, and he managed third place. But he quickly discovered the longer the race, the faster he was. While the 1904 St. Louis Olympics were being held, he was winning races handily for Brown Preparatory School in Philly.

Four years later, he made the U.S. national team by winning the 800 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials. He was 25 years old.

Genezebe Dibaba tucked in behind the pacemaker. They’d gone out quickly. They hit 60 seconds for the first 400 meters and splitting 2:04.52 at 800 meters. Dibaba had already run as fast as 3:54.11 in 2015, and now she was going make her assault on the world record. When the bell rang for the final lap, she needed to come make it back around in 60 seconds or less. With the pacemaker having stepped off the track, Dibaba was on her own. Running against the clock.

She came around the final turn of the 1,500 final at Monaco in June 2015 looking almost fresh as she broke the 22-year-old women’s 1,500-meter record of 3:50.46 in a time of 3:50.07 seconds and collapsed on the track in excitement. The pacing so fast it carried American Shannon Rowbury to a time of 3:56.29 seconds, which broke the 32-year-old national record.

And Rowbury finished third.

So the men’s 1,500-meter Olympic winning time of 3:50 flat in 2016 is more than a letdown. It’s perplexing. It’s perplexing because nobody was out to run fast. Nobody was out to run hard. It’s perplexing because 3:50 would not have been good enough to win any Olympic men’s final since the Los Angeles Games—in 1932.

It’s perplexing because Matthew Centrowitz is not slow. He’s run as fast as 3:30 in the 1,500, and his best MILE time is 3:50.53. That’s nearly equal to his Olympic gold winning time. And a mile is measured about 120 yards farther than the 1,500 meters.

But it’s most perplexing because Centrowitz missed the podium at the 2012 London Games by 0.04 seconds. If anybody should’ve been letting it all hang out; going for broke; preparing for what the Spartans called “a beautiful death” on the track, it should’ve been Centrowitz.

They called it a tactical race. But that’s just a nice way of calling the race slow. As a fan of racing, I want to see fast times. I want to see athletes pushing themselves to limits of human performance—and then surpass those limits. The only way to do that is to go for it. But to go for it you have to be willing to hurt.

You have to be willing lose it all.

Mel Sheppard competed for the U.S. in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics too—the same Olympics where Jim Thorpe became a legend—in four events winning silver in the 800 meters and gold in the 4x400-meter relay.

But Sheppard’s most compelling race will always be that London 1,500-meter final because he wasn’t even supposed to run it at all. He hadn’t qualified for the race by placing in the U.S. Olympic Trials in the event and was a late entry in London. But he dropped a quick 4:05 1,500 to win his heat and found himself racing for gold.

It’s a remarkable feat really. Not just because Sheppard won, but because of how he won. One there, in a final he should’ve never been racing in, he had pledged to go out hard and make the pace stick.

“If it was necessary to die at the finish, why, that would be perfectly satisfactory as long as I hit the tape first,” Sheppard said.

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