Sponsors, Spikes and Sprints ⏱️

Sponsored by Bandit Running

Lap 172: Sponsored by Bandit Running

Courtney Okolo has an Olympic gold medal, five World championship medals and heads into the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials unsponsored.

This summer, Bandit Running is proud to bring back the Unsponsored Project for 2024, helping athletes represent themselves at the Track Trials. They're offering unbranded gear, financial support, and a platform to spotlight athletes who are betting on themselves at the highest stage. And as we head into the Trials, Bandit's Dialed Youtube Series takes us behind the scenes as various unsponsored athletes prepare for Eugene. Head to their YouTube channel now to watch their episode with 400m athlete Courtney Okolo, and keep an eye out for more episodes dropping in the next 10 days.

Fred’s Big Bet 🎰

Sunday was a day to forget for Fred Kerley. (Photo by Johnny Zhang)

Track & field Twitter was abuzz on Sunday afternoon as photos surfaced of Fred Kerley about to hit the track at the NYC Grand Prix wearing PUMA spikes despite being – at least we thought – ASICS’s star sprinter. As if his feet needed extra attention, slipping twice out of the blocks and withdrawing from the race surely didn’t help the switch-up fly under the radar. People who awaited a world record-setting run, as promised and prophesied on Twitter, would have to wait a little longer.

Shortly after telling reporters that he wore the spikes because he left his bag at the airport, we were the first to report that ASICS and Kerley agreed to mutually part ways. Suddenly, the 2022 World champion was unsponsored by a major footwear/sportswear company heading into the Trials.

There are still several details that need to be sorted out. Was it premeditated by Kerley? Why did he do it? Was it considered a breach of contract? Who will scoop him up now? How will this saga look when it airs in Season 2 of Sprint on Netflix? 

Kerley is one of the most confident athletes on the planet and is always vocal about betting on himself. The switch from the 400m to the 100m paid off with a silver medal and then a gold. We wrote about the switch from Nike to ASICS in this very newsletter. Kerley made a major coaching switch heading into an Olympic year. There’s no denying that he’s willing to try new things to make the marginal gains to earn a gold medal.

Because he’s also been able to attract other sponsors like Tag Heuer or Oakley while also investing in farmland and small businesses like a Miami-area barbershop, he’s not as dependent on his ASICS contract to be his sole source of income. There are probably a few million reasons why he maybe could’ve approached this differently, but he’s made his move.

Given how his season has played out, it’s a big risk. He’s currently just the 11th-fastest American man in the 100m and ninth-fastest American man in the 200m. He’s got his work cut out for him to crack the top three in either event for Paris. Some of his recent comments about the Team USA relay coach may not help his cause for selection for the 4x100m or 4x400m. Kerley could either make the team for one or both of the events and cash in with a new shoe contract… or his value could further diminish if he misses the team entirely.

On Sunday night, Kerley tweeted: “There is more to something than what meets the eyes.” Kerley's all in; the odds are uncertain, but the thrill of the gamble will for sure keep us all on edge.

College Stars: Time to Level up to the Big Leagues ⭐️

Shane Cohen with one of the most epic races of the NCAA Outdoor Championships. (Photo by Elijah Agurs)

We’re not sure if the overused university-marketing quip “what starts here changes the world” is something actually said about Eugene, or the University of Oregon, and we don’t intend to look it up. But we’ll paraphrase it in the context of elite level track & field: “Collegiate performances that pop at Hayward tend to lead to pro careers that are at least noticed by the world.”

And this being an Olympic year – have you heard??? – the focus on NCAAs as a springboard is especially pointed. It was one last chance for the top dogs of the collegiate ranks to signal to their pro peers that they are coming to elbow them out for one of those coveted Olympic berths.

When it comes to NCAA champions, it’s a safe bet they’re all names to keep at least vague tabs on. But after last week, who among their ranks has cemented themselves as likely Paris-bound stars who demand our immediate, breathless attention?

Here are a handful of the youngsters we’re expecting to shake up their events’ pecking orders domestically or in some cases, internationally:

McKenzie Long – We’ll get into Long’s inspiring story more later in the newsletter, but for now, let’s just focus on the fact that she pulled off the 100m/200m/4x100m triple. That not only makes her an intriguing prospect for Team USA across any of those events, it puts the short sprint world on notice. When Long won the 200m – her third NCAA title in a span of less than two hours – it was in the fastest wind-legal time in the world this year!

Nickisha Pryce – Pryce won the individual 400m crown in a new collegiate record of 48.89, then ran the third leg for the Arkansas 4 x 400m, splitting 49.20. That squad set a new collegiate record as well, going 3:17.96 and if Fayetteville were to become a sovereign city-state, its women’s 4 x 400m would basically be a lock for a medal in Paris. Instead, Pryce should bolster Jamaica’s odds at returning to the podium in the 4 x 400m and is a legitimate medal contender in a talented but closely-matched 400m field.

Shane Cohen and Sam Whitmarsh – Bryce Hoppel is a good bet to make his second Olympic team for the U.S. in the men’s 800m, but the other two spots feel wide open right now in this highly-variable event. Six men have run between 1:44 and 1:45 this season, and that crew doesn’t yet include Clayton Murphy, who always seems to get it done when it counts. Two of those guys just went 1-2 at NCAAs thanks to some boisterous kicking – can they mix it up with the big boys when they head back to Eugene in a few weeks?

Nico Young and Habtom Samuel – Two collegians have run under the daunting 27:00 Olympic qualifying mark for 10,000 meters this year. One of them, NCAA champ Habtom Samuel, will almost certainly have the chance to measure his mettle against the world’s best in Paris as he’s the only Eritrean with the mark currently. The other, 21-year-old Nico Young, left NCAAs without an outdoor title but looks well-favored for Team USA. He’s one of only three Americans with the standard alongside Grant Fisher and Woody Kincaid. Paul Chelimo and Joe Klecker are also in the World Rankings quota, but Klecker is out with an injury, so unless Trials goes crazy fast (it won’t!), Young really only needs to beat one of those three guys to make his first Olympic team.

Jaida Ross – The NCAA shot put record holder has been on fire all season, as the Oregon Duck defended her home turf well with a 19.57m victory, nearly a full meter up on second place. Her 20.01m season’s best places her #5 on the world list this year, but making the U.S. team will be no easy feat. Ross will have to take down at least one athlete in the formidable trio of veteran Americans that includes World champ Chase Jackson, 2x U.S. champ Maggie Ewen, and Olympic silver medalist Raven Saunders.

Leo Neugebauer – The German multi-event star for Texas is no stranger to international competition, as the 5th placer at 2023 Worlds, but he’s yet to make his Olympic debut. Neugebauer improved his lifetime best and NCAA record to 8,961 points this weekend, a total that beats every Olympic-winning mark except Damian Warner’s Olympic record in Tokyo, but staying healthy and sharp in ten different disciplines at once for the next two months is quite the challenge.

A Long Time Coming 🙌

Three NCAA titles for Ole Miss’ McKenzie long at the NCAA Championships.
(Photo by Elijah Agurs)

If you started watching track and field for the first time ever on Thursday, you’d probably think that Ole Miss sprinter McKenzie Long was an unbeatable force who’d been at the top of the sport for years as she swiftly and decisively picked up three NCAA titles in the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m in the space of a few hours. With winning times of 10.82w, 21.83, and 42.34, you’d also think she has always been in the conversation for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team or even the podium in Paris.

But it hasn’t always been that way. Long has been a contender in the 200m on the collegiate level for a while now, with runner-up finishes indoors in 2024 and outdoors in 2023, but she didn’t make the final at USAs last year. As recently as 2022, she didn’t even make it out of NCAA regionals in either event. She’d never clocked a wind-legal sub-11 second 100m until three weeks ago, and now she has the #1 200m and #6 100m marks in the world this year.

So how’d we get here? At the risk of overusing a bad pun, it’s been a “long” road. The 23-year-old Long began her collegiate career at NC State in 2018, and after a COVID-induced racing gap and a transfer, she ended up at Ole Miss where things really started clicking. The wider track world started taking notice when she ran a wind-aided 10.80 at Texas Relays to kick off the 2023 outdoor season and picked up an SEC 200m title in her conference debut, but the pre-NCAA hype didn’t quite pan out last year. Long also lost her mother unexpectedly in February and still managed to finish second at NCAAs indoors a few weeks later in a season’s best 22.51.

Double sprint champs aren’t uncommon at NCAAs – Long is the fourth in the last decade – but it’s quite rare to see a fifth- (or sixth-)year senior atop the podium in the short events. Hotshot 100m/200m runners rarely stick around in the NCAA when lucrative pro contracts are dangled; the only fourth-year to win either event in the last decade was Aleia Hobbs in the 100m in 2018 (then-freshman Anglerne Annelus won the 200m that year). Long’s story isn’t just about improvement and overcoming personal tragedy; it’s about sticking things out and trusting the process. She didn’t wake up one morning a champion; it took two schools, one pandemic, and just as much losing as winning.

Long’s narrative is still unfolding – there’s a niche, little-known track meet called the U.S. Olympic Trials coming up in a few weeks where she’ll surely be aiming to extend her summer season into August with a trip to France. And when non-collegiate track fans tune in, it’ll be easy to look at “3x NCAA champ” and her shiny new PBs and assume that she’s the Goliath to someone else’s David. But McKenzie Long is just the kind of feel-good underdog story we love to root for at every level.

Here’s hoping we’re not done cheering for her just yet.

These Boots Were Made For Racing 🥾

It was hard not to be distracted by Parker Valby’s customized super shoe + spikes.
(Photo by Elijah Argurs)

Remember my magnum opus on the kooky state of U.S. women’s 10,000m running? Parker Valby was just a side note in that, but alas, now I’ve got to write a bit more on the matter. Valby just capped one of the greatest academic years by an NCAA distance runner ever, having won five national titles. She’s a star in the making and will undoubtedly be a contender at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

In the 5000m, she’s the seventh-fastest American woman this year and was just 0.18 seconds shy of the Olympic standard with her victory at NCAAs. It’s worth noting that for this race, she wore what experts might call “normal spikes.” Now for the 10,000m, Valby came out wearing what looked like a pair of Vaporflys with spikes in them.

Super shoes on the track are a no-no for World Athletics qualifying purposes on the track but there’s no regulation in the NCAA, which means many athletes opt for the chonky bois to bounce around the track for 25 laps. However, those performances would not count toward an athlete’s World Ranking. Valby opted for them to save her legs for the 5000m but she may have missed a chance at improving her ranking ahead of the Trials.

We still don’t know if she’ll even run the 10,000m at the Trials but I figured I would crunch some of the numbers on what it may take at the Trials for her to qualify. Once you remove some people who are injured (like Alicia Monson) or those who will likely opt for other events at the Olympics (Romania’s Joan Chelimo Melly and Finland’s Camilla Richardsson are both qualified in the marathon), Valby may only need to average 1210 points to get in the Road to Paris quota. 

She would need to get ahead of the likes of Slovenia’s Klara Lukan or Mexico’s Laura Galvan. Over the next few weeks, Americans will be rooting for slow times at national championship 10,000m finals for all other countries who don’t already have three qualified athletes for Paris.

As of Tuesday, based on the current Road to Paris List, and our own calculations after Lukan’s Euros performance (Remember: It’s a moving target!), Valby’s best shot at making the team in the 10,000m would be to get to an average of 1210 (to go ahead of Lukan’s 1209-point total). Since WA scores the average of an athlete’s two best results, and Valby’s Bryan Clay showing is worth 1221, she needs at least a 1199-point showing to get there. 

She can do so by:

– Finishing 3rd at the Trials and running 31:43.72 or faster: 45 placing points + 1154 result points = 1199 performance score.

– Finishing second at the Trials and running 31:49.35 or faster: 50 placing points + 1149 result points = 1199 performance score

– Winning the Trials and running 32:00.65 or faster = 60 placing points + 1139 result points = 1199 performance score.

Of course, the only way for Valby to be 100% certain she’ll be a part of the U.S. 10,000m contingent in Paris is to place top three and run under the Olympic standard. But in the entire history of the U.S. Olympic Trials, the women’s 10,000m has never been won in a time faster than that current Olympic standard of 30:40.00, and more often than not, the race plays out far more tactically. Third place last year was 32:22 and first was 32:12. In 2022, the race was won in 30:49 and third place was 31:29. And at the last Trials, Emily Sisson’s beatdown of the field in the crazy heat resulted in a 31:03 – third was 31:18.

Insofar as it’s possible to hunt down a world ranking, Valby knows roughly what she has to do: finish on the podium in under 31:40. But if anyone in the field feels they’re capable of soloing an Olympic Trials record, it’s gotta be the front-running Floridian, who’s no stranger to flying solo in a championship setting.

She has a very viable (Valbyble?) path to the Olympics – and that’s not even getting into her odds in the 5,000m. But while wearing WA-legal shoes for the NCAAs 10,000m might have beat up her calves a bit, it also would have also pared down the amount she now needs to stress over the early evening Eugene weather and pacing up front. (And it would have made this week’s newsletter quite a bit shorter!)

Let’s Talk About Blocks, Baby 💨

(Photo by Kevin Morris)

It wasn’t just Fred who had some issues with the blocks at the New York City Grand Prix this weekend. There was a delay before the 200m with Noah Lyles. So what was the deal with the blocks? Kerley didn’t hold back by calling them “elementary school blocks” and told reporters, “We at a professional meet… so you should have professional blocks with professional sensors on them.”

He may have a point here! 

Another sprinter I spoke with on the condition of anonymity – presumably to avoid retaliation from Big Block – told me that when athletes came out to the facility on Friday afternoon, there were bricks set on the track so that blocks would stay put. From my own experience attending track practices with my team on Tuesday evenings at Icahn Stadium, there had been last-minute work done on the track to get it ready for the Grand Prix and other summer races. So there may have been patches where the surface was a bit slippery. Overall, the track is fine, though! (Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone giving the 400m American record a scare proves that.)

The Omega blocks at the Diamond League and Olympics have bigger padding and are heavier so they don’t slip. The World Championships use Seiko starting blocks, which are also more robust. The anonymous sprinter I spoke with did laugh in agreement when I asked if the blocks used at the Grand Prix were “high school blocks” and said these are the ones that are used in prep and college races and practices

There’s a report that Usain Bolt bought himself a pair of Omega starting blocks for about $5,000 to prepare for the London Olympics – a year after his false start at the World Championships in Daegu. Quality blocks aren't cheap. But we shouldn’t cut corners about the few pieces of equipment that aspiring world-class meets are expected to provide for their world-class athletes. 

The blocks used in New York were perfectly adequate for most uses. They link to a false start detection system. They measure reaction times. And they were monitored attentively by an army of World Athletics officials. But the first rule – okay, maybe not the first rule, but it’s a top-15 rule – of hosting a meet is “Don’t give the sport’s top dogs something to complain about in their post-race presser.”

While we here at TLC are fans of PURE RACING, we recognize that especially in the sprints, people also want to see blazing fast times. If athletes feel hampered at the start by blocks MacGyvered together with bricks and other construction detritus, we’ve already lost half the fan support battle.

Checking in with Amanda Vestri 🗣️

Amanda Vestri is on her way to a 4th place finish at the NYRR Mini 10K.
(Photo by Kevin Morris)

Fresh off a big day on the roads in Manhattan, we briefly chatted with Amanda Vestri of Zap Endurance about her breakthrough outdoor campaign, and her hopes ahead of the Olympic Trials. 

After flying largely under the radar of the pro scene since concluding her NCAA career last June for Syracuse, Vestri has been on a tear this spring. In her first race since a third-place showing at the Night of the 10,000m PBs, where she went 31:10.05, Vestri finished fourth overall and top American in last weekend’s Mini 10k. (The race was won in 30:47 by Senberi Tefere for the third consecutive year.) Her time of 31:17 over the rolling hills of Central Park suggests she’s capable of something closer to sub-31 minutes on the track, which could put her in the conversation for a spot on the Olympic team. 

The Lap Count: Top American at the Mini 10K and against a pretty strong field. How does it feel?

Amanda Vestri: It feels pretty good. Honestly, a lot of suffering at the end. I mean it was such an exciting race. I’m really pumped right now. 

TLC: With this hot streak you've been on, what’s been clicking in practice right now?

AV: Honestly, just a lot of hard work. Definitely part of it was bumping up mileage. I've had a couple of big mileage weeks – 100+ – so that’s a lot for me. I think it’s been paying off. We’re in a really good training environment and I think I'm just really happy and I think that helps a lot too. I feel like I've been under the radar for a while, so that put a chip on my shoulder, to be honest. I run better like that. I think all of it combined has just made for a good season so far.

TLC: When we look at this field on paper, it was fairly deep. What gave you the confidence to go with the leaders and believe you could be the top American?

AV: I'm more of a gut instinct type of racer, so when the three women ahead of me were going, I was like, “I either need to go with them and suffer a lot at the end or stay with the pack and run a little bit more conservatively.” I just felt like going for it and I was like, “If I die, I die.” But I have to go for it in these types of races. There’s no other way for me to go forward as a pro athlete unless I go for it.

TLC: So Trials are next. Have you made sense of all the rankings and all that stuff for the 10K? I’ve been obsessing over it. 

AV: Honestly, never before have I given any thought to the rankings. But we have started looking and unfortunately, in terms of my time, 31:10 on the track is not going to be good enough. But I think with the rankings, if I run close to 31:00 or under at the Trials and get top three, I might make it. I don't know. I'm just going to race hard. Hopefully, someone really fast is in the race and they take it out really hard and get it rolling a bit so it’s not tactical. I think only Weini Kelati has [the standard]. She's head and shoulders above the rest of the field, so we’ll see how it goes. I'm there to try and make the team.

TLC: Good luck, we’ll see you at the Trials!

Rapid Fire Highlights 🔥

– Clayton Young has been crushing it on YouTube by chronicling his build-up to the Games. The turnaround on these videos to keep us all engaged with the training for Paris has been quality! You can catch up on his Paris Olympic Build on his channel here.

- During the Portland Track Festival’s “Hot Window,” Cole Hocker lowered his 800m PB to 1:45.63 via victorious kick; Nia Akins continued to make the case she’s a lock for the Paris squad with a W in 1:58.04; Sifan Hassan towed Elise Cranny and Karissa Schweizer under the Olympic Standard in the 5,000m; and Daniel Simmons went 13:25.86 to obliterate the old high school 5,000m national record. (Full results)

- Across the Atlantic, the European Championships have been delivering just as much drama and excitement as anything happening on American soil. Highlights include Natalia Kaczmarek’s 48.98 400m victory over Rhasidat Adeleke, Cyrena Samba-Mayela’s breakout 12.31 hurdles victory, and Miltiadis Tentoglou’s world-leading 8.65m long jump. For the first time since 2015, we got two 18-meter triple jumps in one competition as Jordan Diaz Fortun and Pedro Pichardo battled it out, with Diaz Fortun claiming the gold in the third farthest jump in history at 18.18m. Plus, Frenchwoman Alice Finot won the steeplechase, then got DQed, then got reinstated on a very questionable call.

- After weeks of uncertainty (which came after months of lesser uncertainty), World Athletics expanded its list of accepted entrants for the Olympic marathon to include four athletes based on world ranking, which means Lenny Korir has made the cut. With that settled, we can now stop thinking about this bizarre and confusing system for another four years.

- Marin County’s Dipsea Race is the oldest trail race in America, and what it lacks in Olympic Trials implications, it makes up for in quirk, charm, and poison oak. Runners enter the hilly, single-track course on a rolling basis, with head starts dolled out according to age and gender, which leads to interesting outcomes like a 72-year-old man winning in 2012. This year’s champion was Chris Lundy, a 53-year-old woman who bested a field that included 30-year-old 2:13 marathoner and 2022 winner Eddie Owens. (Full results)

- Rhonex Kipruto’s road 10k WR is no more. He’s been banned for six years for abnormalities with his biological passport that suggest doping. His marks dating back to September 2018 have been negated, which includes a 10,000m bronze from 2019 Worlds. (Doha fourth placer, Rodgers Kwemoi, is also serving a doping suspension, so that medal gets bumped down to Andamlak Belihu, who finished fifth.)

- Netflix dropped a 2-minute trailer for the SPRINT documentary series coming out July 2nd. It was produced by the same people that turned several of your friends into avid Formula 1 followers and they clearly didn’t have trouble getting big stars to sign on, as the trailer features Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Noah Lyles, Sha’Carri Richardson, Marcell Jacobs, and more. Netflix must be confident they’re about to put out a banger because the series has already been renewed for season 2.

Thanks to Bandit for sponsoring this week’s newsletter and their continued support of track and field athletes aspiring to compete at the national an global championship stage. As a thanks for reading this far down into the newsletter, they’re also offering up 15% off your next order at BanditRunning.com by using code CITIUS15 at checkout. The newsletter getting longer means we’re in the heart of track season!

On a scale of 1-5, how much did you enjoy this week's newsletter?

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.