A biased and incomplete recap of the New Hampshire divisional state championship meets
Various records are in jeopardy at Saturday's Meet of Champions as a weird and beautiful season approaches its denouement
The six New Hampshire state divisional track and field championships—the boys’ and girls’ D1, D2 and D3 meets—were staged over a five-day period ending on Saturday. Owing to COVID-19 restrictions, the boys’ and girls’ meets were held separately, with the D3 girls going on Tuesday, the D3 boys on Wednesday, the D1 girls on Thursday, the D1 boys on Friday, and the D2 girls and boys back-to-back on Saturday.
In my previous writing about the New Hampshire 2021 outdoor season—which, as is the case almost everywhere in the country, has been the first track season any of the kids involved have enjoyed since the 2019-2020 indoor season ended fifteen months ago—I have focused mainly on the individual racing efforts of boys from D1 Concord and D2 Coe-Brown, as Concord is my alma mater and these two teams by themselves currently boast the majority of upper-echelon talent in the Granite State. As a result, I paid no attention to the fact that the Concord boys were in the hunt for an overall team title on Friday. This changed the dynamics of the meet and how key personnel executed their events, and I had to account for this on the fly as I watched live from Colorado. Also, with only one gender competing at a time, athletes doubling and tripling—which included virtually every distance runner of consequence statewide—were repeatedly bounced back onto the track after unusually short breaks.
I will again praise and draw attention to the many people behind NewHampshireTrackAndField.com, which puts out video after video for free, with wise and entertaining commentary provided entirely by volunteers. (If only they had the drive to take their energy to Twitter and Instagram instead, where the real work of contributing to and improving the sport gets done.)
Heading into the D1 boys’ meet, I was expecting Eben “Humble” Bragg to abandon his bread-and-butter style in the 1,600 meters and simply run away from the competition from the start. The only kid with a chance to beat him on paper was Keene’s Torin Kindopp, who had run 4:17.98 three weeks earlier in a race he won by over 20 seconds. I’m always leery of eleventh-grade boys, whose propensity for redefining their limits even when they are already fast is well-established; for all I knew, Kindopp was prepared to run 4:10. I knew Bragg was. But after Kindopp, apparently conceding the 1,600 meters to Bragg in advance, anchored the Keene 4 × 800m squad to victory in the first running event of the way, it looked instead like Pinkerton’s Stephen Connolly—seeded with a 4:27, but with a more relevant and week-old 1:55.14 800 meters to consider—would prove Bragg’s main challenger.
What I didn’t expect to see, but what made sense as I watched it, was Bragg going to the front and controlling the pace. But with Kindopp not at full steam, there was really no one in the race with any chance of trying to run away from Bragg. It became a matter of every kid in the race trying to place as high as possible with the least resistance.
It took almost three and a half laps, with the first three circuits all in around 66-low, for anyone to show that resistance, and it came from Connolly in an impressive flash. In almost every race at this level I have seen in New Hampshire, Connolly’s move would have been decisive. In this case, it had the same effect as a minor bee sting—annoying, and a signal to move the hell on out:
Ordinarily, that kind of move by Connelly at a meet of this caliber would have put paid to the leader’s chances. But Bragg covered his last lap in a very exclamatory 57.93, and I eyeballed his last 200 meters at around 27.5.
Bragg would return for the 3,200 meters, where his 9:13 seed time gave him a 27-second cushion on the number-two seed. But in the interim came an unusually anticipated 800 meters (aren’t they all, though?). Londonderry’s Matthew Griffin entered the fray with a 1:53.35 to his credit, under the thirteen-year-old D1 meet record of 1:53.42 by Matt Paulson of Manchester Central.1 (His name is Matthew Paulson. His name is Matthew Paulson. Okay, never mind.)
Griffin’s self-assembled indoor campaign featured 600m, 800m, and 1,00m performances of 1:20.32 (third in the U.S.), 1:55.07 and 2:29.35 (fourth in the U.S.). That slate of performances provides the perfect basis for a Power Point presentation about why Russell Brown’s 2003 state record of 1:50.85 is in jeopardy. Brown’s time, which hasn’t been seriously threatened since (Noah Bellomo’s 1:52.45 from 2017 is the only sub-1:53.00 since Brown left for Stanford University) itself smashed a thirty-five-year-old New Hampshire record—Gerard Pregent’s 1:52.5 for a full 880 yards in 1968, equivalent to 1:51.85 for 800 meters. This means that…well, there are lots of lenses to choose from, but the least cluttered point is that the New Hampshire boys’ state record in the most exciting event on the track is very rarely broken or even approached no matter what the digits in that record are. Which is still a cluttered way to put it.
On Friday, Griffin settled for a 1:54.57 and a clean two-second margin of victory. Given that he goes into the Meet of Champions with a season’s and personal best over three seconds faster than anyone else, it looks, again on paper, like Griffin will have to shoot from the record alone from the front, which is just how Brown nabbed Pregent’s mark at the 2003 Hanover Invitational.
But if you think Griffin won’t have any literal challengers, you need to watch the D2 boys’ 800m from Saturday. The kid who takes off at the beginning is Owen Fleischer of Oyster River, went in as the top seed with a 1:57.02 as well as a personal 400m best of 52.32. And even if you don’t care who wins or sets records, if you are or ever have been a competitive runner with a soul, for the love of every hieroglyphic etched in the bowels of the deepest pain caves, watch this race.
Fleischer’s winning time of 1:56.83 was a personal best. His second lap (62.26 seconds) took him 7.69 seconds longer than his first (54.57). I know more boys and girls who have run half-mile races this way than I can count, but none who have won a state title with such awesomely positive splits. (As a Twitter spectator observed, “Fully developed frontal lobes are overrated!”) I fact, since he ran 200m splits roughly 26-28-30-32, Fleischer should have kept going and hoped someone kept a watch running, as he was clearly poised to suffer on through a 34 (2:30 1000m) and then 36-38-40 to record the most bizarre 4:24 1,600 meters in history.
This kind of running by some kid I will never meet instinctively makes me want to go out and run quarters. Maybe I even will. Such unpredictable bolts of inspiration, which reawaken deeper parts of my ambition and yearning that I actually enjoy, are not the reason I immerse myself in these meets and in entire competitive seasons. But I appreciate them all the same. I am not the only never-has-been but enduring guy over fifty who maintains this kind of reaction to the right kind of footrace, and for some people it’s a feeling that never dissipates, regardless of what we* choose to do with it.
In the 3,200 meters, junior Nate Fondakowski of Bishop Guertin, the number-two seed with a 9:40, appeared to do about the only thing that makes sense against a “tired,” or any, Eben Bragg: You try to escape early, then hope that maybe a sinkhole opens in the track in your wake and swallows Bragg and any other contenders without the race being stopped. But my understanding is that Fondakowski runs most of his races the same way Fleischer runs the 800, and also like almost every solid New Hampshire kid ran in the 1980s, which were a game and stupid time characterized by a great deal of addictively awful music, most of it by R.E.M.
With two and a half laps left, Fondakowski, who led Bragg by almost nine seconds after a 4:38 opening 1,600m, still held a sizable lead. But Bragg, who had been trying to help keep two of his Concord teammates in optimal scoring position, decided to go by just before the start of the last lap. (It worked, sort of; Zach Hooper crossed the line in fourth place with a 16-second personal best of 9:39, but was disqualified for a lane violation, which probably didn’t actually occur since I never saw it, and John Murphy and his 9:41.67 were moved from sixth to fifth as a result.)
This is perhaps the only race this short I’ve ever watched in which the leader was so far ahead that the camera operator had to pan back to show almost the entire track, only to be passed and immediately gapped by such a large margin that the camera operator had to pan just as far out again. Note, though, that Fondakowski didn’t quit when Bragg went by; you could see him try to hang on for a few steps despite his gray matter at some level appreciating the futility of the effort. He looks like a sure bet to run 9:10 by the time he graduates, at least if he’s encouraged to allocate his resources more efficiently.
Bragg closed out his day by helping Concord to a third-place finish in the 4 × 400m relay. As much as I want to offer undiluted praise to kids and coaches across the state for adapting and thriving this spring despite a technicolor palette of external adversities, I’ll dilute the praise a little by saying that I’ve never seen more terrible hand-offs than I did in these six championship meets combined—by the end of the week, it was starting look like one of the producers of Jackass had secretly provided various kids with different instructions on how to botch the simple passing of a baton in a way never seen before.
Once I was aware that Concord was aiming for a team title, I could better appreciate the good coaching strategy behind the distribution of the various Crimson Tide distance kids across events. Unfortunately for CHS, almost every scenario that might have had a 50/50 chance of favoring Nashua North on that now-shredded paper did go NNHS’s way, so Concord in effect hit a long string of red traffic lights solely by chance.
At the Meet of Champions, Bragg is forgoing the 1,600 meters—and any chance to ease doubt about whether he holds the school record in the event or not—and racing Coe Brown sophomore Aidan Cox in a 3,200-meter race that, conditions permitting, should be historic.
I believe that the fastest 3,200 meters ever run within New Hampshire’s borders is 9:13.03, by Patrick Moulton of Pelham at the 2001 Meet of Champions. Dean Kimball of Timberlane held the combined two-mile/3,200m state record for a while with a 9:07.54 from 1977, but I have no idea where Kimball ran that. Regardless, both Bragg and Cox have sub-9:00 fitness, and I suspect that Cox will be interested in chasing that mark whether he has company or not.
Normally, 18 individuals qualify for individual events at the New Hampshire Meet of Champions. Owing to pandemic-imposed restrictions, this season that number is 12, with the top five from the D1 meet, the top four from D2 and the top three from D3 automatically earning a spot at the Em-oh-Cee of the 6-0-3. This is exactly the format in place when I was a Concord High “athlete,” which makes perfect demographic sense given that the state’s population was then about two-thirds what it is now. As of this rambling, the fields are not entirely set because a number of spots relinquished by performers who qualified for the MoC in multiple events have not yet been filled. But the Lancer Timing links to the boys’ and girls’ declared-entry lists will presumably work throughout the week.
In the spring of 2006, senior Alex Hall and then-sophomore Paulson. teammates at Manchester Central, went 2-3 in the 800 meters at the D1 State Championships. The next week, they took the top two places at the Meet of Champions, but reversed their order of finish. One week later, at the New England Championships, Hall and Paulson took first and second by running 1:53.86 and 1:53.94—out of the second heat. Making this all the more poignant was that Hall’s mother had recently passed away (an earlier version of this post incorrectly said “father”—thanks to reader Scott for the correction).
Longtime youth coach and commentator Jim MacKenzie tells this story at some point during one or more of the above-linked championship-meet webcasts. Jim, in fact, has a lot of stories.