Willis, Simpson leave a lasting impression

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By Paul Oppenheim

Running Columnist

Stars in New York – I saw them run in Iowa.

Last week I spotted a tiny item in barely readable typeface at the bottom of the Chicago Tribune's sports scoreboard page (but that's about all the coverage that running gets these days). It listed the male and female winners of the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York City – Nick Willis, of New Zealand, in a red-hot 3:52, and Jenny Simpson, of Boulder, Colo. in 4:19. This race is one mile, a straight line, right down New York's Fifth Avenue, attracting some of the brightest stars in running.

Even better, I saw both Willis and Simpson run at last April's Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa, where I go every year with a few other track fans.

Willis did his college running at Michigan, and was a silver medalist in the 2008 Olympics 1500 meters. Last April at Drake he was part of a stellar field, including the sub-4 minute winner of the previous three Drake invitational miles. This year the designated pacer (or "rabbit") led the field through 60-second laps, stepping off the track after two and a half laps. At Lap 3, Willis made his move, surging to a big lead. Entering the home stretch with a wide gap on the field and a big grin, he waved to the crowd, still finishing in 3:55 – top time in the world as of that date for 2013.  Later when receiving his $25,000 award check, Willis said he was unaccustomed to being so far in the lead and he couldn't resist waving through the home stretch. Who could blame him?

Last year, prior to the London Olympics, we saw Iowa favorite, Jenny Simpson, originally from Mason City, win the 1500 meters. She had won the World Championships in 2011, and was headed for a berth on the US Olympic team. But London was a disappointment, and she didn't even make the finals.  This year at Drake, a healthy Simpson set the fastest US time of the year, breaking the stadium record in front of a cheering crowd.

At next morning's breakfast in the Hampton Inn, a lady sitting with her husband asked if she could check the front sports page of my newspaper. I handed it to her, and she said, "Yes! There she is!" referring to a photo of Jenny Simpson waving to the crowd after her 1500 victory. "That's our daughter!" said the lady. We congratulated them on Jenny's success, and sympathized at her difficulty in London. Her mom said that Jenny wasn't feeling well during the Olympics, and couldn't run at her usual level. In 2013, however, she's had a fine year, winning at Drake, and earning the silver medal in the 1500 meter run at the World Track and Field Championships in Moscow in July.

At the Fifth Avenue race, Simpson accelerated to a big lead, winning by a comfortable 4 seconds and saying "I didn't want it to be close." The men's race was tighter, with Willis edging Olympians Bernard Lagat, Leo Manzano, Nick Symmonds and Lopez Lomong among others.

I wish I had been there to watch.


Paul Oppenheim is a member of the Oak Park Runners Club

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