New Hampshire high-school track regular-season wrap-up, genuine drama included

This fork in the blog road has become fraught with the observer's paradox

The last time I mentioned high-school track, I used a complex series of elegant proofs to show that the 1,600-meter record at my old high school, the older parts of which are now actually rubble, had quite possibly been broken, or not. I looked forward in those musings to Eben Bragg’s next and last regular-season chance to definitively seize the record, which shot he took on Friday.

The set-up: In his last race at the distance, Bragg, with a 4:15.61, had either just missed or just broken Chris Basha’s 1988 mark of 4:15.5, depending on what track and field authority’s guidelines were followed. What he did last Friday was improbable in at least three ways, and on its own this race was the most exciting contest over four laps outdoors that I have watched in real time in years, maybe longer, even allowing for my intense personal interest in the Concord High record books and in Bragg’s exploits in particular.

The video below includes the entire meet, but starts with the boys’ 1,600. If that’s too much work, you can use this link to watch just the final lap. And if you’re just not into videos at all today, the results of the meet with splits for all distance races are here.

One of Bragg’s three aforementioned unlikely feats is obvious—his winning this race in the final stride over someone who himself was kicking strongly and well. The second, obviously driving the first, is that he closed in 59.00 seconds, and it looks from the video like the last 200 meters couldn’t have been slower than 28.5. And finally, he managed to stick a second landing in that hazy 0.24-second zone between breaking and missing the old record by a lean—one he couldn’t spare, because he used a well-timed lean in both contests. That is, either he just missed the mark for the second time in two weeks, or he missed breaking his own two-week-old record by four-hundredths of a second (at least Bragg’s times can be compared unambiguously to his own times).

If you compare Bragg’s splits from this race to his nearly identical result from two weeks earlier, you see that the second halves were practically the same, but even more lopsided—a hard feat to pull off after the kick he displayed on May 7 in defeating the ever-improving Luke Tkaczyk. It’s impossible to really criticize the tactics of a kid who hasn’t lost a 1,600-meter race this season and who seems to know exactly when he needs to move, but it’s equally impossible to not wonder what would happen, and not just to him but the rest of the field, if Bragg just committed to 62- to 62.5-second laps from the gun.

This was the second straight race in which gangly-as-hell-but-ever-more-fluid Concord junior John Murphy, whose racing tactics demand a far more glorious and distinctive name, went out in 3:16-high for the first three laps. Last time, he rigged home in 76 seconds to 4:32.21, still a new personal best, but worse on a points scale than a 3:16 1,200 meters. This time, his pace also dropped off, but not by much as he crushed that personal best by 8.34 seconds with a 4:23.87. Before Friday’s race, Murphy had recorded six 1,600-meter times this spring, all between 4:32.21 and 4:35.57. In demolishing his own record of consistency with such carefree zeal, and in doubling down on his pain-seeking-missile ways, he proved he really needs to be called something besides John Murphy. I mean no offense (or offence) to any John Murphys out there, all of whom are probably grateful for their parents unconsciously endowing them with automatic lifetime Internet semi-anonymity.

Bragg also ran a very smooth and even 1.58.57 leg on a Concord 4 × 800m relay team that recorded a quick 8:06.21 despite all four runners already having a four-lap race in their legs (their second runner, who has a 2:00.74 to this credit this season, managed only a 2:07.49). The New Hampshire state record is an astonishing 7:47.39 from 2013 by a Souhegan foursome that won that year’s Meet of Champions contest by over 21 seconds. The Division I record is 7:57.02 (Manchester Central, 2006). With this event first at the divisional meet on Friday, it’s unlikely that Concord will field its best squad, but if it did…

Bragg will presumably be doubling at those Division I State Championships at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, a town on New Hampshire’s expansive seacoast. The 1,600 meters will probably represent his last chance at the school record unless he finds a post-season 1,600 meters or mile in which to do it, which seems eminently likely. In the 3,200 meters, he’s unlikely to have anyone on him after six laps even if he coasts through it.

In other New Hampshire news, on Saturday, Londonderry’s Matthew Griffin ran among the least-surprising of the state’s smattering of historical sub-1:54 800-meter races with a 1:53.35, and he seems certain to go after Russell Brown’s statewide record of 1:50.85 in the next two weeks. His time from Saturday was 0.07 seconds under the Division I State Meet record, and if there is anything that might stymie his aim at both of these records, it’s a probable lack of competition; front-running in the 800 meters tends to play havoc with fast times unless you’re named David Rudisha.

Finally, I have to mention some Colorado and California high-school stuff, because the former relates to things I’ve posted about before and the latter is just ridiculous.

Last spring, Cole Sprout ran 4:07.2 in a time-trial in the oft-discussed 1,600 meters, well under Rich Martinez’ 39-year-old Colorado state record of 4:10.98. He also ran under the 3,200-meter state record with an 8:49.02. Martinez, who was in contact with Sprout and had waited longingly years for someone to break his record, died in December, with Sprout’s running providing him with some wonderful moments in what proved to be his final few months.

But Sprout’s times were unofficial thanks to COVID-19’s TKO of the Colorado spring season, so 4:10.98 still stood as the record until May 8, when Cherry Creek’s Parker Wolfe knocked out a 4:06.17 at Arapahoe High School in Centennial (elevation 5,620’). That mark fell just a week later, when Harrison Witt of Mountain Vista ran 4:05.18 in Lyons (elevation 5,340’). And before watching Witt eclipse his week-old 1,600-meter state record in the afternoon, Wolfe had claimed the official 3,200-meter record at the same meet in the morning with an 8:55.94, breaking Sprout’s official mark of 8:57.15 from 2019.

Some distance west, on May 7, four kids broke nine minutes for 3,200 meters in the same race. This isn’t unusual, and would in fact be unusual to see otherwise at the Arcadia Invitational 3,200, but the fact that I’m referring to four kids from the same school, Newbury Park High, raises the ante some, and the fact that two of those kids are sophomores and two of are juniors puts the whole shooting match almost beyond workaday comprehension.

Yes, the newest-generation track spikes shoes are having a tremendous, if only loosely quantifiable, effect on track and field right now. After some deliberation, I have concluded that this is one of the primary reasons they were developed at considerable research expense to the companies making them, continue to be manufactured in significant numbers, and are in even greater demand than an honest media outlet these days.

But no matter how stringent a filter one applies to 2021 track times. the substance of what these kids are doing remains very, very solid beneath. An underclassman foursome of, say, 8:50-8:50-9:02-9:03 two years ago still would have been jaw-dropping. And as Richie himself pointed out, his 4:10.98 was in Pueblo at around 4,700’ above sea level. Whatever superspikes giveth Messrs. Wolfe and Witt, close to a thousand feet in elevation more than taketh away. This is just kids incrementally taking prep track to a new level, exactly as we’ve* always exhorted the special ones and gomers alike to do. There are just more special ones now. The days of the wobbly-but-cheerful mascot-style cross-country kid seem to be gone; even the less gifted seem to want to progress, and something is making them want to do that.

Also, while following this kind of stuff has always been fun for me, at the moment, it’s practically a medication. It’s beautiful to see people striving earnestly and honestly for excellence in small, committed, dynamic groups. This counters seeing stories like the University of California system dropping its SAT requirement to placate people who aren’t as good at taking the test—which, contrary to its reputation among people who embrace other SAT myths, is an extremely good predictor of academic success in college. Despite the Wokish refrain of white supremacy ruining everything for people of color, this move by the California educational system takes undisguised aim at Asian-Americans.

What people drawn to Wokism dislike, really—especially the white ones—is not forced unfairness but basic unfairness. They abhor other people’s excellence, not just their often-unearned status but their hard-earned accomplishments, and the most chronically entitled in life overall seem to suffer this self-inflicted madness most acutely. You can easily connect the dots between the personalities of running’s whiners, what they write about and how they cover it; between that clucking bunch and the influencers they buttress and nourish, if the lot of them could, they’d mimic the U.C. system’s move and just do away with timing devices and measuring equipment in running altogether. Then, we* could all download an app called YourHappyTimer or something that blurts out “one-one thousand, two-one-thousand” in a Spotify Top-10 voice and at a user-preselected rate, so that everyone can finish any “distance” in whatever “time” their psyche requires.

I was hoping to travel to New Hampshire and elsewhere to catch some of the upcoming championship action in person, but I received an oblique reminder this weekend about how unpleasant such a journey would be while COVID-19 remains an unresolved public-health issue, and decided to pass. The solo ten-day road trip I recently finished was one thing, but it gave me a preview of what a more interactive trip would be like among Earthlings with widely ranging views about a variety of topics.

In fact, that road trip, plus the very pleasant five days I just spent out here with my mom, may have to stand for the rest of my life as the height of my post-onset-of-COVID-19 prosocial behavior, as almost all of my future smiles will be fake, chemically enhanced, or both. A sizable segment of the U.S. population will remain frankly paranoid about infectious diseases until they die, probably from something they actually could have mitigated; most of this fear will be grossly unreasonable, and its behavioral and conversational stink annoying.

Months from now, tens of thousands of Americans will be falsely claiming to have been vaccinated; I'll be among the few saying I skipped getting the vaccine when I actually got it. The more valid excuses I can produce for avoiding contact with more than one or two people at once, the less unhappy I will be.

Have a good week, folks. Next I’ll probably recap my road trip and my mom’s visit, then quickly forget how nice that all turned out to be and return to dispensing gripes in various directions. Then, I’ll probably briefly preview the New Hampshire state meets, which I’ll be able to watch live from here or wherever I am on Friday.