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Nike Outdoor Nationals
June 18-20, 2009 at Greensboro NC
DyeStat on-site

Boys 800
By SteveU

'Plans go awry,' but Andrews wins anyway
Beach winds up in fast heat, nearly takes tactical battle

by SteveU, DyeStat/ESPN RISE senior editor
Photos by John Nepolitan

Ah, “The best laid plans,” the common version of the old Robert Burns poem (made famous by John Steinbeck in Of Mice and Men) said, “The best laid plans of mice and men, go oft awry.” 

Saturday night at the Nike Outdoor Nationals, there was certainly a best laid plan for the boys 800.  It was going to be one of the greatest, deepest 800s ever; that was for sure, the track pundits said.  We were going to see the 10 best and most deserving runners in the final, the seeding people would make sure of that.  And there would be more guys under 1:50 and 1:49 than ever before, some fast starter like Cas Loxsom would make sure of that.  No, we probably wouldn’t see a national record, but otherwise it could be the greatest half mile ever.

But of course, there can only be so much orchestration of the outcome of an athletic event, with dependent factors of wild and wacky weather and the mid-race whims of any given competitor – and you can also throw in those occasional split-second, game-changing decisions by those helping run the show, too.

Thus, midway through the six-o’clock hour, we were still in the throes of a scorching, wind-swept day and we had 11 runners toeing the line, including one opportunistic decathlete who always seems to be in the right place at the right time.  Yes, Curtis Beach was surprised to be in the fast section, but not as surprised as some of the race officials on the infield who rather publically questioned what was going on.  “I think it was somebody under the table,” said a slightly giddy Beach afterward, “and I just want to say, I’m really, really grateful!”

That wasn’t quite the story, but as we all know, in any massive undertaking, the left hand doesn’t always know what the right is doing … but more on that later.

So the runners finally took off … but there was no front-running effort by Loxsom, the Wilbur Cross CT senior who had finally decided another strategy might work better, and none of the other key players wanted to break the wind for the rest, either.  Ryan Lynn IL finally stepped up and towed the pack – the entire pack – through at 56.74.  Whoops – fast time out the window.

Then the fun began.

Terrance Livingston NY had been right behind Lynn around the previous curve, with Robby Andrews NJ behind and just to the outside of Lynn, and Devon Snack OH to the outside of Andrews.  Mac Fleet CA was behind Andrews, and Beach was behind Livingston.  But Livingston gave up the inside a bit on the first homestretch and Beach slipped right through, sitting on Andrews’ left shoulder as the rounded the next curve to 500 meters.  The Albuquerque Academy senior was obviously not here just for a USATF Jr. decathlon tuneup; he was here to win.

And the slow pace and the positioning of the others was playing right into Beach’s hands.  Lynn, too, was not tight on the rail while leading down the final backstretch and at 250 to go, Beach rocketed through the gap and into the lead.  He could win this thing! 

Fans were quickly reminded, however, that there’s few runners out there with a better kick than Andrews, especially in the last 200 of a moderately paced half.  The Manalapan NJ senior was perfectly positioned, too, and responded immediately.  Fleet started kicking and it was a 3-man race.  But Beach with his 46-point/21-point speed wasn’t going to be caught easily.  He continued to lead, ripping around the curve and down the homestretch as Andrews shifted to the rail.

Into the final 80 meters, however, Andrews moved to the outside and started pumping his arms and legs as fast as they could go.  It’s a vision we’ve seen from him time and again, especially in his indoor national record runs.  Beach flagged slightly and it was enough for the US leader to pull away.  A final time of 1:50.05 meant Andrews had covered the second lap in an impressive 53.19, while Beach was 53.82 for 1:50.75.

It also meant the race was slow enough, overall, that the winner of the previous section was actually second overall; Bedford MI soph Nick Kaiser had clocked a stunning 1:50.47 earlier, the best time in the country this year for a non-senior.  So the flat-out, blast for fast times had not happened, but an exciting race with lots of subplots had indeed taken place.

Beach thought he’d been given a gift; after all, his seeding was one of the most difficult of the meet.  He didn’t have an outdoor scratch time to make it in, but he had his 1:50 relay split from Great Southwest, that scary-good 1:52.72 from the second of six sections at NSIC that made him fourth overall, and that “he can do anything he sets his mind to game-day competitiveness that is becoming impossible to ignore.  The race officials agonized, but finally put him in the penultimate section.

But in the staging area, Peter Callahan IL was nearly a no-show, prompting an official there to move Beach into the fast section.  Callahan did get under the wire, though, but it was too late to move Beach back, so he was left in and an 11-man final ensued.  “He might just be a better 800 runner than decathlete,” an official was heard to whisper after the race.

Of course, Beach is hardly ready to give up the 10-eventer, but he embraces the 800 enough and took the race quite seriously.  “I would have really loved to have run sub-1:50 and gotten Cody Harper’s school record (1:50.3),” he said.  “But I thought I ran a very good tactical race and moved at the right time.  I’m just a little disappointed that I didn’t really have proper sprint technique down the stretch.”

The final irony was this: When Beach was originally put in the slower section, it was feared that he would run a time that would prove he belonged with the fast guys.  He wound up running with the fast guys, and someone (Kaiser) from the slower heat still placed extremely high.

Meanwhile, Andrews had quite his own race agenda and subplots to deal with.  He wanted to run fast (“I had missed the state record by 0.16 at the Meet of Champions”) and he was looking to avenge his loss in the Portland Track Festival (“I definitely wanted another chance to beat Mac Fleet”).  But he was also willing to take what the race gave him.

“I was kind of tired and it was hot and windy,” he said, “and a tactical race is usually a good thing for me.  With 200 to go, I was in good position, and then when Beach made a move, I tried to cover it.  In the last 100, I just let it all out.”

Andrews would have liked to improve on his time, but he was most happy to win and do it in front of loved ones.  “It’s a huge honor to win, especially with my family here.  I didn’t the season to end on a low note.”  Are you running at Juniors, he was asked.  “No, no, it’s over.  I’m done!”

The saga of 2009 prep 800-meter running is not done, though.  The NON race did not have last year’s fastest pair – Elijah Greer OR (1:47.68) and Zach Mellon MN (1:48.64).  Greer made a last-minute choice to run the Portland Track Festival mile, where he was 4th in 4:08.08, then passed on the chance to come east and race the best at 800.  Mellon was in Greensboro, but chose to run the 1600 sprint medley, where he ran a 1:49 leg for his runner-up Buffalo HS team.  Both will be in Eugene for the USATF Junior 800, again running in the meet where they set their PRs last year.

To date, Andrews certainly has proven himself the best, with NSIC and NON titles and the fastest time indoors and out.  Greer and Mellon have one more card to play.  This weekend will determine how well their best-laid plans unfold.