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  • BackTrack Board of Directors

50 Years of Greatness At Middle Distance

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

In late August of 2020, as we held an emergency zoom call with a number of the Cross Country and Track & Field alumni, we looked around to see who had joined. As we talked, we found ourselves noticing the depth of the program at middle distance for both men and women.

Some of us have seen a photograph taken at Randy and Shelby’s house of Brian Hyde, Hal Michael, Ron Martin, and Paul Vandegrift. They were on the call along with many other members of the W&M track & field family which included many middle distance runners. We could identify Al Sharett, Alex Gibby & Kathy Newberry, Amy Morris, Brian Mount, Charlie Duckworth, Ed Gibbons, Hiram Cuevas, John O’Connor, Lauren Kroepfl, Lauren Finikiotis, Lindsay Schott, Matt Lane, Sean Graham, and Phil Wiggins. It is as if the school had arranged a call for middle distance runners!

How do you judge whether a program or an individual has been great at the middle distances? This is a topic of discussion that may get a lot of mileage as the average person knows about the 100 meters, certainly knows about the mile, and almost everyone has something to say about the marathon.

But when you talk about a range of events from the 800 meters to the mile, throw in indoors & outdoor track, it is really hard to make a determination about greatness.

For men, is it based on breaking the 4-minute barrier? Or 3:42:22 for the 1500m? If you are running the 800, is it breaking the 1:50 barrier? How about for women? Is it 4:20 in the 1500m? Is it 2:08 for 800m? Is one performance below those barriers enough for greatness? What does consistency earn you?

While times are easily digestible for most track & field fans, our sport may in fact place greater weight on whether you have advanced to national competition, participated in the Olympic trials, or even represented a national team. After all, the ability to run a good time in a rabbitted race is a necessity in our sport, with its demands for fast times, but respect is EARNED when the pace slows down and the elbows come out.

Regardless how you measure, the William and Mary program does well in every aspect of those attributes for measuring greatness.

Yet, there are always fun facts about the middle-distance program that still surprise most.

Did you know that in 1970 Hal Michael broke the 4:00 barrier 6 days before Steve Prefontaine recorded a sub-4:00 and that Hal was the 35th American to do so? Almost 2 years to the day later, Juris Luzins broke the barrier becoming the 49th American with a sub-4:00. Again 2 years later, Ron Martin became the 38th British citizen to break the barrier. It would not be until 1992 that Paul Vandegrift would run a sub-4:00; then Brian Hyde followed in 1995, Matt Lane in 2002, and alum Sean Graham in 2007.

But why the time gap? In some cases, many of our middle-distance greats never got a chance to race a mile and only competed at the 1,500 meters.

In the 1500, Hiram Cuevas broke the 3:42.22 barrier in 1988 and would certainly have broken that magical sub-4:00 mile barrier if given the chance. Yet, he never raced a mile as a collegian or in a post- collegiate race. There are limited high-end opportunities in a track & field schedule and other obligations, such as end-of-the year championship meets with the need to be prioritized in training. Secondly, national-class milers need to be developed. They do not grow on trees and that process can take years. Thirdly, the form, the competition, and the facility all need to line up. These days Boston University is home to the sub 4:00 mile as competitors take advantage of its perfect physics.

It would be really interesting to have had these facilities over the years. Our school records would look a lot different.

Of all the runners who have competed in either the 1500 or mile, Vandegrift stands out with 11 performances at or better than 4:00 in the mile or 3:42 in the 1500 while at the college and many more during his professional career. With his All-American honor in cross country on his resume as well, Paul lived up to his reputation as one of the best runners in Pennsylvania prep history.

In 1995, Brian Hyde traveled south to Chapel Hill, NC with Coach Walt Drenth, who probably aggressively competed with every car that passed him, to set the American Collegiate Record at 1500m defeating NCAA Champion and Olympian Steve Holman (whom the press had anointed “the next great one”).

Asked about his first reaction after beating Holman, Brian answered questions politely: "I wanted his autograph, I wanted him to sign my hat, but I didn’t want to seem like a jerk, asking for his autograph after just beating him. I’ll wait for some other time. He’s going to be one of the best." As the AP article stated, however, Hyde was #1. His time of 3:35.84 at the UNC meet put him atop the world list.

Hyde would go on to beat out Holman for spots on the 1995 World Championship team and the 1996 Olympic team. What was amazing about Hyde’s 1996 season was that he was unable to run the NCAAs outdoors due to continuing back issues that flared up after a hard race on GMU’s flat 200m track. With fitness severely lacking, Brian had to race himself onto that team. Unofficially, Brian ran 11.2 for his last 100m at the Trials to advance to the Games.

But what people sometimes don't realize is that a number of our middle-distance greats were pounding on the door of sub-4:00 or 3:42:22 for the 1500. Alum Ed Moran clocked in at 4:00.01 in 2007; Ian Fitzgerald ran 4:00.01 in 2009 on an over-sized UW track and made an NCAA final that winter. Terry Donnelly ran 4:01.9 in 1968; Dave Ryan posted a 4:02:02 in 1988; Mac Collins 4:05.3 in 1975, Dawson Connell ran a 4:04.2 in 2016; Ryan McGorty 4:04.7 in 2019; Jimmy Johnson ran 4:07.7 in 1966.

In the 1500 meters, Dave Ryan clocked in a 3:42.88 in 1988; Chris Tyson a 3:43.12 in 2012. Chris Tyson posted 3:43.1 in 2012. Rich Rothschild 3:43.2 in 1979. Brian Sklodowski 3:44.4 in 2011. Ryan McGorty 3:44.7 in 2018. Kevin Cropp 3:45.5 in 1977, Dawson Connell 3:45.6 in 2018 and Rey Mendez and Ian Fitzgerald at 3:45.6 and 3:45.7. John Malone ran 3:51.9 and Tom Noble 3:52.7.

Equally, the 800 meters has included the following at 1:50 or better efforts: Anders Christiansen, Brian Hyde, Chris Short, Chris Wilber, David Groff, Ed Gibbons, Harry Miller, John Hopke, Juris Luzins, Matt Warco, Miles Owens, Paul Vandegrift, Phil Wiggins, Raul Chavez-Gutierrez, Reggie Clark, Ryan Jones, Sean Conway, Terry Donnelly, and Todd Swenson.

For the women, those who have run 2:10 or better: Allie Lewis 2:08 in 2008, Rebecca Patten 2:08 in 1996, Amy Morris 2:09 in 1998, Charlotte Kowalk 2:09 in 2019, and Emily Furia 2:09 in 2001. Kelly McElroy ran 2:09.69 in 2010, Kelly O'Connor ran 2:10 in 1998, and Sonja Friend-Uhl ran 2:10 in 1992. Allie Lewis posted her 2:08 at the NCAA East Regional meet.

In the mile, Emily Anderson ran 4:43 in 2008 and Molly Applegate ran 4:45 in 2018. But these women have all been knocking on the door of sub 4:45: Emily Furia, Marcie Homan, Carolyn Hennessey, Emily Stites, Elaina Balouris, Ali Henderson, Lauren Finikiotis, and Meghan Bishop.

But those are merely times and don't provide color into the races.

Early December marks the start of the holiday season in Colonial Williamsburg but for track & field through the 1990s, it set the stage for the William & Mary All-Comers meet. It meant the indoor oval season was finally underway. A 1982 race in the 1000 yards was especially memorable as Phil Wiggins raced Jim “Jogging” Goggin, the middle distance coach, for bragging rights. If it weren’t for an ugly elbow that was thrown with a handful of yards to go, that race could have gone either way.

December also marks the moment when you glance forward to major meets. These have included the Terrier Classic, Millrose Games, the Olympic Invitational, and the Navy Invitational (home of the biased official). The short number of weeks between the meets made those like a season within a season. In 1986, Hiram Cuevas launched his campaign with a 3:56.8 at 1500m, improved one week later to a 3:53.02 at Navy, and then one week following to a 3:51.7 at the Terrier. In 1983, fresh off of running at the Millrose Games, Todd Lindsley performed a similar progression of his own and set the 1500 meter indoor record at Navy with a time of 3:51.3.

By April and May of every year, there is not much left of the outdoor season. Qualification to the NCAA Championships means that there could be a run on the record books if someone catches fire. This happened with both Emily Furia and Emily Anderson in 2001 and 2008. Over a period of 34 days, Emily Furia first set the mile record at Penn Relays in a time of 4:41:06; 24 days later, Emily ran a 4:21.31 in the 1500 at the ECAC Championships, which at the time was the number 2 time on the all-time list. Ten days later, she broke the school record in the 1500 with a time of 4:18.44 at NCAA Championships. After those short 34 days, Emily held the top 3 marks in 1500, held the mile record, and co-held the 4x1500, which she set two years earlier with Ali Mann, Kathy Newberry, and Adrienne Parker at Penn Relays. An amazing performance.

Emily Anderson’s run on the record book over a two month period would see her improve from 4:23.15 in May 2008 at the ECAC Championships through to a 4:14.73 at the NCAA Championships. That breakout year saw her finish 5th in the NCAA (defeating the defending champion) and ending her season in the semifinals of the US Olympic Trials. Anderson’s outdoor campaign earned her 6 of the top 10 times in the 1500. This is particularly impressive as she was not heavily recruited, had run only 2:15 for 800m by the end of her junior year, and had a stronger background as a Volleyball player.

However, the middle-distance highlight for the Women’s program may have been the NCAA Championships in 2000, hosted by Duke University. In a women’s field of 16, William & Mary had two representatives, Emily Furia and Ali Mann, accepted into the 1500m. 12% of the Country’s best milers belonged to the Tribe. Emily Furia advanced the final round placing 11th. The next year Furia would advance again to the final, placing 9th. Emily would also go on to write for Bicycling Magazine, proving the painful focus William & Mary places on the written word had paid off. The 1500 has also included sub 4:25 efforts: Ali Mann, Regan Rome, Elaina Balouris, Emily Schroeder, Meghan Burns, and Molly Applegate. Many of these women were lightly recruited by the major powers out of high school but developed tremendously in the ‘Burg.

Some performances loom large and may either define your career or set the stage for future performances. When you are part of a relay, that is certainly the case as everyone has felt the pressure of doing their best for their teammates.

The 1969 season was memorable as it set the stage for the breakout performances of Juris Luzins. He finished 3rd at NCAA in the 1000. In the picture above you will see him chewing up Rick Wohlhuter. Rick would run the 800m on the 1972 Olympic team and again in the 800m and 1500m on the 1976 Olympic team. In the picture it appears that Hal is handing off to Juris. In fact, it is the other way around; Hal was determined not to accept the lead and came to a complete stop. Juris ends up handing off backwards to his relay mate.

You may know that the Indoor DMR team of Jim Sporn, Vince Norako, Ted Wood, and Hal Michael set a World Record of 9:39.3. You probably do not know that everyone on that team ran a PR that day and never improved on that time making the combined time an enormous effort. They were individually so focused on their own PRs after the race that they did not realize that they had broken the world record until Randy Hawthorne mentioned it to them days later, after significant research of his own.

Penn Relays have always been an exclamation point for the outdoor season. The Distance Medley Relay in the mid 1980s was hot with records being broken at Penn Relays. In 1987, three teams dipped under the world record running the DMR at Penn. Going into the 1988 relay, everyone understood that magic could happen again. Dave Ryan led with a PR and Hiram cranked out a 4:00.2 on the way to a 5th place finish for a time of 9:37.9. That relay is the number #2 on our all time list. If you look up those results for that year, you will likely read that Joe Falcon and Arkansas ran an inspired race for the ages. Our team did as well.

A fun fact about the Penn Relays is that the College section record in DMR was held by William & Mary in 9:38.41. In 1998, the Meet Director would not let the relay team of Anders Christiansen, George Ashton, Rey Mendez, and Matt Lane into the fast heat, evidently having 2 mult-time All-Americans wasn’t criteria enough for the first section. So they won by 10 seconds and set the record.

By 2019 a new group of middle-distance runners would come together that would help change the fate of the women’s program. Charlotte Kowalk, Lindsay Schott, Taylor Jones, and Lauren Finikiotis would team together in March of 2019 at the ECAC Championships to run 11:50.21 on the Distance Medley Relay establishing themselves on the all-time leaderboard.

In 2019, Lindsay would graduate from the College and move back to California. Yet, the relay team came back together in August of 2020 in order to successfully fight to reinstate our program. Without the determined efforts of those young women this fall, we would not be in the position we are in.

The leadership of Charlotte, Lindsay, Taylor, and Lauren is one of the main reasons why we can continue talking about a middle-distance program at the college.

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