Well, that escalated quickly

Fast times in New Hampshire are traditionally impossible until May, but this is a nontraditional year featuring a special selection of athletes

A week ago I wrote about some male distance runners to watch in my home state of New Hampshire this spring. While I have obvious personal reasons for enjoying this task, a confluence of factors, both random and systematic, make this a very easy and fun thing to do for any fan of high-school running with a few spare minutes to burn on something besides inducing or experiencing social-media dyspepsia.

For one thing, the state only has 1.4 million people, so if you can keep track of all the really good distance runners to watch in, say, the city of Dallas, you should be able to do the same thing with New Hampshire. For another, the Granite State people in charge of ensuring a slate of meets offering ideal matchups and a smooth build-up toward the championship season are simply the best around—unhindered in their work, as it happens, by being almost universally white, male, and at least my age; say their names if you know them—and have worked nicely around the enforced absence of midseason invitationals by scheduling a series of mini-elite meets instead. And finally, at least three boys have legitimate chances to claim statewide records in one or more of the distance events this spring, and one is expected to take down two records at my alma mater, Concord High School. More on that later.

On Friday, Aidan Cox and Luke Tkaczyk of Coe-Brown, the top cross-country team in the state, faced Eben Bragg and Brayden Kearns of Concord in a 1,600 meters at Oyster River High School (where in the late 1980s this guy was one of my Route 4 rivals) in Durham.

In last fall’s cross-country season, Cox, then and still a 15-year-old sophomore—he won’t turn 16 until August, so he’s actually young for his grade—set a New Hampshire course record at Derryfield Park, the site of the divisional state meets and occasionally the venue for the New Englands, and at Mine Falls Park, where the Meet of Champions was moved from Derryfield Park after the 2004 season. After the season ended, in December, he logged official track times of 4:21 for 1,600 meters and 14:39 for 5,000 meters.

Bragg was second to Cox at the Meet of Champions where Cox’s Coe-Brown team prevailed over Concord, with each time having clobbered its opponents at the previous weekend’s divisional meets, which Bragg won individually. Tkaczyk, meanwhile, was third to Bragg at the Meet of Champions and was in the low 15’s in the same race Cox ran 14:39, and Kearns, in addition to having a very impressive indoor 4:05 1,500 meters to his credit as a junior (New Hampshire’s indoor tracks are slow), was fifth at the Meet of Champions.

The Coe-Brown pair had not raced yet this season, but some of their Strava efforts over the winter were bonzer, including one “tempo run” with a 4:37 closing mile. Bragg and Kearns came in with the benefit of two recent meets, where the pair ran 4:26-4:28 and 4:27-4:32 in controlled efforts, at least for Bragg. In the second of these, the SUNY-Stony Brook-bound senior split 2:20/2:07 on a typical breezy April day.

Not to be disregarded were Oyster River’s Andy O’Brien, who by now has to be tired of people mentioning that his mom ran in two Olympic Marathons, and Owen Fleischer.

Not surprisingly, there are spoilers aplenty below the embedded video that you’ll see almost immediately after reading this sentence by ever so slightly engaging the extraocular muscles of your face. So if you plan to watch the race at all, I am almost begging you, for the sake of all that is farcically masked, watch it now.

My favorite part of this is the almost apologetic-sounding comment by former Concord High state cross-country champion Forest MacKenzie once Bragg made his move with 250 meters to go: “Yeah, he might win this…by a lot.”

Bragg’s splits appear to be very close to 66.0, 65.0, 66.5 and 60.5. He ran his last 200 meters mostly into a nasty headwind in around or under 29 seconds, and you can see that he was by far the least taxed of the top finishers. He also suffered a severe shoe laceration when he was spiked during the race—damage that fortunately didn’t reach to skin, but leaves him with a damaged and impossible-to-find pair of Nike Dragonflys. (I talked to someone over the weekend who knows at least as much about this as anyone in the business, and was told that getting a new pair of Dragonflys in a standard size in the next couple of months would require something on the scale of genuine magic, so warm up those thoughts-and-prayers modules.)

There can be no doubt that the Coe-Brown runners were both fit and soundly beaten in this contest, but it’s also undeniable that doing all of the pace work in s four-lap race is a delicate matter even on a calm day, let alone a windy one; Cox and Tkaczyk shouldering the pace burden made an unknown but significant contribution to Bragg’s win. Swap the people doing the leading and you may see a different result under the same conditions. (Kearns seemed to be ailing on this day, and became a non-factor when handed an invisible dorm fridge to haul along to the finish with 600 meters left.)

But this being an early-season meet, competitive placings and how they were secured, while relevant, are not the big story. Of more interest is how fast a kid who did half of his training on skis over the winter and ran 4:18.15 off a 60-point last quarter, not starting his kick until that last lap was almost half over, in the wind, in April, can run by the end of the 2021 track season.

The Concord High record in the event is 4:15.5, set by Chris Basha in 1988, Basha’s junior and my senior year. I watched him set it as I waited for the final 3,200 meters I would ever run in New Hampshire, and by the time this year’s championship meets roll around I will upload and post the video. At the time, this was considered a New Hampshire state record as well, even though Rolf Sonnerup of Hanover had run 4:13 for a full mile in the early 1980s. I’ll save exploring the progression of the state distance records, and the typically obtuse ways in which those in charge have regulated the qualifying scenarios over the decades, for a later entry.

Barring injury or yet another instance of force majeure, Basha, a great guy who still races today despite back issues that robbed him of all of his speed, can say goodbye to what may be his last remaining state or school record. Bragg’s effort on Friday—and plenty of knowledgeable folks are free to contest this—is suggestive of sub-4:10 potential by late May or early June. Or to somewhat reverse-engineer the problem of how fast Bragg can run in what appears to be his second-best event, ask yourself: If someone can run 4:18 with relative ease and a monster finish in April, what would it take for him to not find eight more seconds in the next six to eight weeks? I’m omitting the hassles of the masklike thing under his chin and getting spiked, the combined effects sum to 0.67 seconds (source: The skinny kid from Criminal Minds).

Complete results of the meet are here, and you can watch all of the other events, including the jumps and throws, at New Hampshire Track and Field’s YouTube channel.

The state records in the 800 meters 1,600 meters and 3,200 meters are 1:50.85, 4:07.76 and 8:44.79. Of these, the 1,600 meters is the softest.

Here’s where the shoe talk starts, as omitting it would be as sorry a display of sports coverage as, say, agitating on behalf of trans girls without mentioning regular ones or dismissing them namelessly as bigots, or simply making up events and “facts” to suit a morose societal agenda. First, I am not an expert on the technology involved in the Dragonfly, Nike’s analog of the Vaporfly (for elite road racers) and Alphafly (for the masses). While the road versions offer clear advantages of 3 to 4 percent for those who benefit most from how the shoes prevent muscle fatigue, the Dragonfly appears to be more of a 1-percenter, if that. This would offer a statistically representative—but not necessarily any specifically chosen—four-minute miler a gain of 2.4 seconds and a five-minute miler 3 seconds. Presumably, but by no means provably, this benefit extends proportionally upward as distances increase. Other sources suggest a clean second per 400 for, say, world-class women, whose times Bragg et al. are rapidly encroaching on.

So, choosing the conservative side, runners at the level of those in this conversation might be able to turn a 2:00 for 800 meters into a 1:58-1:59, a 4:20 for 1,600 meters into a 4:17, or a 9:20 for 3,200 meters into a 9:13-9:14. In other words, with all passion displaced from the analysis, it is possible to say that, no, or course a superstar runner in “super shoes” is still a superstar without, and yes, the shoes matter a great deal for those concerned with numerically marginal, but in practical terms potentially galactic, improvement.

If Aidan Cox, whom I still give the nod to over Bragg at 3,200 meters until given reason to change my mind, can run what would have been around 8:50-8:51 in times of yore, he can ran 8:44. This represents another jump from a 14:39, and to be candid for once, I think Cox will need every bit of advantage from the Dragonflys to get there. I may have mentioned that he has two full outdoor seasons to play with after this one.

Bragg’s upside has been recognizable for some time, and he continues to exceed my expectations despite me being both optimistic and so goddamn on the money about almost everything that even I sometimes can’t stand the stench of my own oracular supremacy—and I think extremely highly of myself, like all mentally stable runners and paid observers of the craft. Before last week, I had seen him “easily” nailing down the 9:11.61 it will take for him to claim the CHS record, but now I can see him under 9:00 by June—and I would not leave Luke Tkaczyk out of that sidebar, either. And although it’s a bit of a reach, I refuse to deny the possibility of a 4:07-something by Bragg its right to exist.

I don’t have enough to go on yet to say anything bold about the 800 meters, but if Londonderry’s Matt Griffin continues to run like he did indoors, Russell Brown’s 1:50.85 from 2003 may go down. That might require an out-of-state race in mid- to late-June, and it’s also fair to say that a kid with decent cross-country ability who runs 2:29 for 1,000 meters indoors might be in the hunt for that 4:07, too.