Boston - The New Balance Men’s Mile at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix meet turned into a gambler’s nightmare at the Reggie Lewis Center in Boston.
On the roster were names like New Zealand’s Nick Willis and Americans Leo Manzano and Alan Webb. All three Olympians.
But after eight laps around the blue banked track, it was former Stanford teammates Russell Brown and Garrett Heath who were elated and Webb and Manzano greatly disappointed. Willis was at best satisfied.
In a furious kick in the last 150 meters, Brown shocked himself with a win in a personal-best 3:54.81 while Heath improved on fifth here last year into the runner-up spot in 3:55.87.
Willis, the Olympic silver medalist and defending New Balance champion, ended up third in 3:56.29, slightly off his winning time of 3:55.26 from 2010.
“I was proud of myself for being aggressive and being a front runner,” Willis said, pointing out that he ran 3:58 on a flat track two weeks prior.
The race had as many story lines as tentacles on an octopus.
You had Nick Willis defending. You had Webb making his highly-anticipated track debut under new coach Alberto Salazar. And you had the sentimental favorite, the kid Lukas Verzbicas, trying to join Webb as the only two high school runners under 4-minutes indoors.
Off the gun, Willis and Webb folded in behind the pacesetter Christian Hesch. When he departed early after 600 meters, Willis and Webb pulled the field through 800 in 1:58 and a lap later, Webb started falling back fast into fifth.
“I thought it was going to be there but it wasn’t,” Webb said.
Meanwhile, Verzbicas brought up the rear with his long lanky stride. The newly-minted 18-year-old had bypassed Millrose the week before for a shot at sub-4 in a fast race of elite athletes. In fact, he is the only high school runner ever invited to race in the elite mile here.
“I was nervous,” he said. “It’s unusual for me to be nervous before a race but I was running with the pros.”
One of those pros, Webb, had just presented the Illinois resident from Lithuania with his second straight Gatorade National Boys Cross-Country Runner of the Year award a week before.
And he was fairly close to Webb as he passed through 800 meters in 2-flat.
“In the middle we really slowed down so I knew I could pick it up,” Verzbicas explained.
The entire field was slowing, too. As Webb was fading back, Verzbicas was reeling in Kyle Miller, Pablo Solares and Manzano.
“When I passed Leo, I was wondering if I should be passing him,” Verzbicas said of America’s No. 1 ranked 1500-meter runner last year.
Up front, Willis still was in control. Brown was tucked in behind Heath, transcending himself back to the workouts they did together at Stanford when he focused on Heath’s back.
“I got out pretty hard, 57 for the first 400,” Brown stated. “Just looking at how many people were in the race, I knew the winner would come from the pack. I knew I was in a good spot. The guys who I thought were going to make the moves in the front were falling back.”
Willis was no stranger to Brown, either. The two met at the Falmouth Mile on August 15 last year, where Brown edged out a recovering Willis in 3:59.61.
And Brown was no stranger to the Boston blue track. As a prep runner from Hanover, N.H., Brown said he had competed on the track at least five times, including a New England Championship in the 600 (1:19.41).
“I think I was No. 2 all-time here,” said Brown, who joined the OTC Elite in the fall of 2008 after graduating from Stanford where he was a nine-time all-America for the Cardinals. “This is the track I ran on in high school. It’s amazing. This always has been the Holy Grail of indoor tracks.”
Willis still clung to the lead through 1200 meters in 2:57.
When Heath flew by Willis to open the final lap, the 25-year-old Brown went quickly by too. Then with 150 meters left into the back stretch, Brown jutted passed Heath into the lead and held around the final turn.
“It just kind of happened,” Brown said of his move. “I saw Garrett go by Willis and I just went. I went by Nicholas hard and then went by Garrett. At 100 going around the corner, I thought I was going get caught.
“And I heard the announcer say ‘Russell Brown is going to win it’ and I was shocked. I gave myself a 5% chance of winning this race.”
The huge win was vindication for Brown, who since graduation suffered tears in both calves. He finished the New Balance mile with spike marks under his knees.
“Given what I’ve been through, you have low points,” he said. “You don’t know if you’ll ever get back. It feels good to be back. The ’08 [Olympic] trials, I was pretty anemic, ran like crap.”
He also topped his previous best of 3:55.79 set in victory at the 2010 Tyson Invitational Mile in Fayetteville, AR.
Heath, who is aiming for the Husky Invitational in Washington a week later, was quick to dish out praise for his former teammate.
“That was quite a kick,” he said of Brown. “I just didn’t have enough for the win today. I’m feeling good in training; this was good for my confidence. I just didn’t have that extra gear today.”
Verzbicas said he closed in 56 for the last 400 meters, overhauling Colin McCourt into eight place with the only high schooler to break 4 minutes in the indoor mile – Alan Webb - just ahead.
“Alan Webb’s like my best friend,” the 6-foot Verzbicas said.
In the end, it was a learning experience for the high school senior heading to the University of Oregon in the fall.
“I should have gone out a little quicker and stayed with the leaders,” he explained. “[Being in the back] definitely made it harder. A tactical mistake. But it’s propelling me to the next level.”
But the pressure builds every time he sets foot on the track and the sport’s fanatics expect a sub-4.
“I can’t disappoint,” he said, posing the possibility of another sub-4 attempt in New York a week later. “I can’t come out there and be last and run a 4:20. But I’ve never had so much fun in a race. It went by really fast.”
The fun ended in a personal-best 4:03.88 clocking, just four ticks shy of joining Webb. “I’m still disappointed,” he offered.
Not nearly as disappointed as the Portland, OR-based Webb, who was just one place and three seconds ahead of the kid in seventh.
“I’m just a little annoyed at the way things have gone over the last several weeks,” a visibly frustrated Webb said, who initially pulled out of the meet recovering from the flu before re-entering mid-week. “It had been going really well prior. I always tell myself that I need a couple of warm-up races to get ready but I thought I could come out here and do some voodoo stuff but it didn’t work out.
“I need to go back and start over. I didn’t do nearly enough race pace training.”
Webb went on to explain that at the end of December, beginning of January, during his transition from strength training to race sharpening, he encountered hamstring issues and then the flu. His workouts, he said, were reduced to jogging.
“I just really wanted to race,” he said of his ultimate decision to come to Boston. “I waited all fall, I got myself healthy. We can definitely build from here. It’s not the end of the world. It’s just me whining. I kind of gave up at the end
“I just need more time to get into it. I just got impatient and I wanted to do it anyway.”
Webb has envisioned the evening going quite differently.
“I was thinking I’d be up there and just would grind it out and hopefully win and if not, then fighting for the win,” he said, anticipating a time in the 3:55 to 3:57 range.
Instead, he stopped the clock at 4:00.70.
“I still ran 4-flat,” he said, when ask what, if any, positives came from the race. “You got to start somewhere. I definitely fell apart mentally though.”