Long time, no blog post:  A hurdlers tale for spring

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North Lawndale’s Imani Payton and the Wolfpack’s Conor Dunham race in the 300 intermediate hurdle preliminaries at the 2014 state track meet. Payton won the heat with the day’s fastest time of 37.85 seconds; Dunham had the second fastest time of 38.14. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

It has been a busy spring.  We’re at the IHSA state track meet already.  I haven’t written a blog post all spring.  Before I write about the state meet, here’s a post I began but didn’t finish.  It should catch us up a little bit.

In early April at Lane Tech’s stadium track, our Wolfpack boys track  team began its outdoor season with an annual event that has taken on a great personality—our home and home dual meet series between the Saint Ignatius and Lane Tech boys and girls teams.

Tuesday, April 15 was our fourth installment, the second Ignatius visit to Lane Tech.  It was, as I remember it, one of the first nice weather days of the spring after a cold and snowy winter.  The artificial turf was green, the track was black, and the old Lane stadium was historic.

On the sunny infield I talked with Tony Jones, who in addition to managing his Illinois Milesplit web site, of course, coaches the Lane Tech distance boys.  “This has really become a pretty nice event,” he agreed.  “You should blog about this.”

Two teams, two schools, boys and girls.  The Lane Tech boys and girls are the perennial champion of the Chicago Public League, with some time out for Whitney Young’s teams; our girls have a catalog of Girls Catholic Athletic Conference titles.  Our Ignatius boys are not quite as prolific, but we won the Chicago Catholic League last year.  It is the best of the city public schools against the best of the city Catholic schools.

It is really just an early-season meet—our first on the outdoor track, even a rust-buster, I suppose, after a few weeks off from competition following the indoor season.   Ignatius even took a one-week school vacation—no practice even.  None of the teams stack the lineups trying to win, and the results this year repeated those of past years:  the Ignatius girls won– and the Lane Tech boys.  Both wins were convincing, but not dominant.  And there were several interesting moments of competition.

Lane Tech senior Maciej Markiewicz and Conor Dunham race the 300 hurdles at the Lane Tech-Ignatius Dual meet in April.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Lane Tech senior Maciej Markiewicz and Conor Dunham race the 300 hurdles at the Lane Tech-Ignatius Dual meet in April. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

An email earlier in the week from Lane Tech head coach Kris Roof had asked me politely to confirm whether our senior hurdler Conor Dunham, top returning performer from the 2013 3A state meet where he was third last year in 38.63, would be running in the dual meet.  When the gun went off, the motivation for the email was clear.  Lane Tech’s senior Maciej Markiewicz ran a strong race, stride for stride—even a step ahead—until the last two hurdles.  Dunham, a strong finisher, closed with a burst for the win.  But the two runners’ times—40.19  and 40.76—were quite good for the first time out.

It was our first outdoor meet and the events and logistics outdoors are a little bit different from indoors. The boys range a little bit far and wide on the outdoor track.   Our coaches spent quite a bit of time finding and then hustling our younger runners to their events.  There were a few close calls getting boys on the track in time.  The relays were a little bit ragged.    It was clear during the meet which boys had skipped some training during spring break and which had trained seriously.

The season’s first outdoor meet inaugurates a clean slate, putting the winter indoor season behind us.  The weather cooperated for this meet, at least, although we had some cold weather to follow.  All the athletes begin the new season as a season of hope and excitement for big things to come.

*****

Two-and-a-half months later, I talked once again with Lane Tech coaches Kris Roof and Tony Jones on another infield at the conclusion of another meet:  the 3A IHSA Saint Ignatius Sectional held at Concordia University’s track in River Forest.

In both conversations we remembered back to the meet in early April.    Both the Ignatius team and the Lane Tech team had competed well at the sectional, finishing just a few points apart behind Oak Park-River Forest’s winning team effort.

There were, of course, a few disappointments, and I felt the Ignatius disappointments quite painfully.

But there was also good news, and once again it included the same two hurdlers who had raced so well in early April.

Maciej Markiewicz had achieved the goal he had set out to achieve as a freshman, qualifying for the IHSA state championship meet by finishing third in 39.63 but meeting the state-qualifying time of 39.84 seconds:  “He’s been working for this for four years,” Roof told me.

Conor Dunham, meanwhile, had returned from a hip flexor injury that had kept him out of the Chicago Catholic League conference championship meet the week before.  It had been a painful day of watching for Dunham, as his team fell just short of winning a second consecutive team title, losing to Loyola 124-117.  A win by Dunham in either hurdle race would have swung the win to Ignatius.  But the school trainers had evaluated him and determined he was not physically ready to compete.

But three days later, he was given the thumbs up to practice.  And at the sectional meet on Concordia University’s stadium track, Dunham exploded.  After running conservatively in the 110 high hurdle preliminary heat, Dunham ran 14.15 seconds in the final, beating rival Imani Payton of North Lawndale College Prep by almost half a second—and improving his own personal best by that margin.  It was also at that moment the second fastest time in the state of Illinois this year.  An added piece of good news:  Our second Ignatius high hurdler, senior Chris Hawkins, also ran a personal best of 14.74 to meet the IHSA standard.  He, too, qualified to run in Charleston.

Conor  Dunham wins 300 hurdles at the Saint Ignatius 3A IHSA sectional championship at Concordia University.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Conor Dunham wins 300 hurdles at the Saint Ignatius 3A IHSA sectional championship at Concordia University, his fourth sectional championship in that event. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Then, later in the meet, Dunham raced Payton again.  Payton held the year’s fastest time in the state  for 300-meter hurdles, 37.42 seconds.   Dunham had been sectional champion in this same meet for the three previous years, starting as a freshman.  He was the top returning hurdler in class 3A this year after his third place medal in 2013.

In the 2014 sectional, Dunham ran the year’s second fastest time in the state of 37.85 seconds, beating Payton (38.99) easily.  Later we learned that Payton was suffering from an injury.   But the two would meet again on the track at the state championship.

 

******

Indeed, they raced in the same heat at the state championship preliminaries today.

In that race Payton held on to beat Dunham, 37.87-38.14.  The two Chicago rivals had the two fastest times of the preliminaries, and they will race side by side in lanes 3 (Dunham) and 4 (Payton) tomorrow in the final.

Dunham and Payton have been racing for years.  North Lawndale ran at the 2A level last year, so Dunham and Payton did not race at sectionals or state.  But they have competed in summer track for years, always, I think, on separate clubs.  They have followed that path together all the way to Junior Olympics nationals.  They have competed, I remember, on our Ignatius track in small weekday meets.  I don’t recall too many occasions where they have raced in invitationals; our teams run different schedules.

Now they race for the first place medal at the state championship as seniors–although there are a couple others, like Edwardsville’s Craig James, who might battle them, as well.

As Dunham told Chicago Suntimes reporter Mike Clark after the sectional race:  “I’m really thankful for him,” Dunham said, “because he really pushes me to my potential. He’s a great competitor.”

*******

End of the story:  This blog post originally ended above.  If you were in Charleston, you know the outcome of the 300-meter hurdles race between Dunham and Payton.  And it was the kind of race, of course, that you are likely to remember when you watch the 300s again in the years to come.

I made a decision to watch the race from the starting straightaway, which is where I had watched Dunham run to his third-place medal last year.  Like last year, as well, Dunham drew lane three.  Payton, it turns out, was in five, not four, as I had originally supposed.

I was watching him on the first straightaway—and as I discussed with his father later, I watched him misstep on the first hurdle.  I cringed.  Later, Dunham himself wasn’t sure what had happened.

But it was also my impression that once awkwardly but safely over that hurdle, Dunham set to work with a serious resolve.  He seemed to recognize instantly that he had lost a step and needed to recover, and he would do so.  Over the second hurdle, he swung a little bit wide toward the fourth lane, which, because of the stagger, of course, was clear.  He was moving really, really fast–too fast to stay in the center of his lane, even.

IMG_2372

Conor Dunham took the lead off the curve–and then he accelerated to the finish. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Around the curve, he clearly made up a lot of ground.  He was stepping smoothly over the hurdles and the stagger spacing disappeared quickly.  Over the last hurdle on the curve, he had taken the lead.

And on the straightaway, as the stadium crowd gasped, he accelerated.  Imani Payton, also moving fast, drifted back.  He would finish in a personal best time of 37.33 seconds, a fast second-place finisher.

Dunham rocketed to the finish in 36.90 seconds.  He was moving so quickly that people looked at the clock expectantly.  The state record was 36.77 by Jon Schweighardt of Wheaton Warrenville South in 1999.  It was clear that Dunham had finished under 37 seconds.

The meet announcer was watching, too, and he called it out when posted:  36.90, just .13 seconds off the record.  On the all-time Illinois list, it puts Dunham fourth overall.  The missed first hurdle had cost him the record, perhaps, but maybe it had boosted him to victory, as well.

IMG_2383Later Dunham and I debriefed and talked about the race—and about the difficulties of planning and executing a race plan.  He had missed the first hurdle, presumably, because he had reached the hurdle so quickly in the adrenaline rush and excitement of the big state meet.  It is not really something you can practice.  You can never get that same level of energy in practice.  As we noted often, every step he could eliminate from the race between hurdles would mean a faster race.  He should make that rush work for him.  To plan for it, we had talked about cheating the hurdles a little bit closer in practice to develop a step pattern that Dunham could duplicate in the race.  But we had never really tried it.

Instead, Dunham had worked hard at getting comfortable hurdling with both legs, even though he preferred to lead with his right leg.  We did a lot of fast running, at least once a week, over the 300 hurdles in practice—250s, 150s, 100s.  And it is important to note that he had been racing the 300s for four years—a lot of races, finally.   He had learned, it seems, to know by feeling and anticipation when he would have to switch legs hurdling.

“I just told myself to be confident hurdling with either leg,” Dunham said.  “I tried not to think and just let my body do what it needed to do.”

Photo by Steven Bugarin

Photo by Steven Bugarin

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