By James O'Brien
The B.A.A. Invitational Mile races, held this year on the Saturday before Patriot's Day, are now as much a part of the Boston tradition as is the 26 miler. The events comprise races for middle school and scholastic athletes from the eight cities and towns along the Marathon course, followed by elite miles featuring some of the finest tracksters in the world. The B.A.A. Boston Marathon is all about excellence; that standard permeates all events, all weekend. The B.A.A. Relay Challenge allowed younger kids to participate as well.
Middle School Boys - While the older competitors raced over one mile, the middle school runners contested one kilometer, being two laps of the course starting and finishing in the shadow of the celebrated Marathon finish line. Gorgeous weather brought literally thousands of spectators onto the streets to roar their encouragement, and the talented field of 16 athletes responded in kind.
From the outset, Jovan Talavera and Joel Lara, both from Boston, decided that this was not going to be a race decided by tactics. They forged to the front of the field, opening an advantage along the Newbury St back straight that had extended to a full five seconds by the time they completed the first circuit. Fronting the chasing pack was Sean Lammerding from Ashland; but, even with half the distance still to go, it was clear that the gold and silver medalists had been decided. Remaining to be seen was who would claim which.
Along the back straight for the second time, it was the taller Talavera who possessed the strength to decide the outcome. Inexorably, he began to open daylight on Lara until, by the time the two swung onto the Boylston Street home straight, there were two seconds between them. The sight of the finish line banner was all the incentive that the 15 year-old Talavera needed to drive his advantage home. Accelerating to the line, he added an extra couple of seconds to his margin, breaking the tape in 2:51.6 with Lara finishing in 2:55.2. As Lammerding struggled around the second lap, third place was taken by the hard charging Duncan Grant from Brookline, who clocked 3:03.2.
"My legs were tight," revealed the winner after receiving the raucous applause of the crowd, "but, I was confident of my kick."
Adding to his gratification, with Talavera and Lara going one-two, Boston won the team race with a perfect 10 points, while Brookline took second (Grant and Lucas Aramburu in third and fourth) and Wellesley placed third (Max Perozek, sixth; Collin Sullivan, ninth).
High School Mile - The high school event added a lap to the middle school distance, sending the competitors into battle over the classic distance - and they ran like seasoned veterans, with all the tactical acuity of the Olympians that some of them may become.
The field of 16 charged off the line, but immediately settled into a composed pace that asked little of any of them. A first lap of 1:42 saw the whole gang moving in tandem; Thomas Stephens (Newton), Mike Schlichting (Newton) and Matt Gramigna (Framingham) were near the front, but there was nothing to be gleaned. All were in contention with everything to run for.
A two lap split of 3:14 (1:32) illustrated that these guys weren't going to hang out forever. Stephens held the pole position; but, still, there was nothing definitive. Gramigna and Schlichting were still there, but so were Mike McDonald (Framingham), John Lara (Boston) and Ben Griswold. With just one circuit remaining, the fireworks were ready to explode.
Stephens and McDonald were aggressive along the back straight, but it was Schlichting, a senior, who had the telling combination of strength and speed. In the final quarter mile, he claimed decisive daylight, then compounded it with a blistering kick that took him to the line in 4:39.0, majorly shy of his 4:14 PR, set at this year's New Balance Indoor Invitational, but plenty fast enough to be a source of considerable satisfaction.
"I liked letting the race unfold," he stated, disarmingly eloquent. "I liked leaving it to the end, at least so early in the season; but I wasn't sure, this being my first big, challenging race (of the outdoor season). I don't mind running slowly, just so long as I can push it at the end. That makes the effort worthwhile. But my ultimate goal is winning all-state as a team. I don't care how I do as an individual so long as we do well as a team."
The portents are good. Schlichting and Stephens combined to take the team race for Newton. Griswold and seventh placed Chris Ulian earned second for Wellesley, while third place went to Framingham, courtesy of McDonald in fourth and Gramigna, eighth.
Elite Men - With the age group events concluded, the stage was set for the stars to step into the spotlight. A $3000 first place prize and plenty of prestige meant that it wasn't a surprise to see a field that would not disgrace an Olympic final. Most attention focussed on 30 year old Nick Willis from New Zealand, a man with a 3:30.35 PR, an Olympic silver medal and the 2013 title all on his resumé. Experience, however, has taught Willis that the B.A.A. Invitational Mile medals are not handed out based on reputation; you have to earn them. With 2012 Olympic 1500m silver medalist Leo Manzano also on the line, plus Irish champion Paul Robinson, plus British champion Chris O'Hare, plus World Championships steeplechaser De'Sean Turner...well, you get the idea.
Turner was the early aggressor, towing the field around the first lap in 1:33. Consider that this was slower than the second lap of the high school race and you'll understand how taxing it was for this field of superstars. Tactics, then, was to be the determinant as the field headed off for the second circuit.
Willis has run this race enough times to understand the value of positioning. Along the second back straight, he maneuvered through the crowd to claim a place in the vanguard, not making any moves - yet - but sending the message to anybody paying attention that the moves were coming.
At the end of lap two, the clock read 2:59 (1:26), still a comparative dawdle, but one that was becoming downright interesting. Onto Newbury Street for the third and final time, Willis showed just how lethal a combination of speed, aggression and course knowledge can be. He charged ahead and hit the Boylston Street straightaway with the throttle wide open. As classy as the field was, nobody had any response and, as the Kiwi broke the tape in a time of 4:11.3, he looked for all the world like a man in total control. Robinson held on to a comfortable second in 4:12.0, while Manzano unleashed his trademark kick to edge O'Hare for the bronze medal position, 4:13.3 to 4:13.6. Times were slow - the course record stands to Willis at 4:03.3 from last year - but who cares when the race was so hot?
"It felt great to come across that finish line" exulted the now two-time winner. "It was more challenging than last year, as the pace was slow and there were some great kickers in there. I've only been doing mileage for the last five weeks, and I've only done two workouts...." Willis left the rest unsaid, but the inference for the coming season was obvious.
The third placed Manzano was far from chagrined - "I felt like I had that edge again. But the great man took it. I'm very proud of him" - so much so that he encapsulated a sentiment that pervaded the race and the event: "I just want to say thank you to all the people of Boston for their very warm welcome." Amidst the white hot competition, it was a thoughtful comment that, uttered just steps from the horror of 2013, resonated.