Admittedly, there aren't a ton of opportunities to watch track and field. So maybe Alysia Montaño's running strategy isn't as unique as I suspect. But it's still jarring to watch.
Maybe I just find it amazing because I used to be an 800 meter runner myself. More accurately, I started as a 400m runner before adding the 800m. Adding that extra lap around the track wasn't fun - every single time it was a battle to make my legs keep going past the first 400 meters. Many runners argue that the 800 meters is the toughest track distance because of how it combines the need for both endurance and pure speed. I can certainly say that my body hurt more after a tough 800m race than it did after a two or three mile cross country race.
In the finals of the USA Olympic Trials, Montaño ran her first 400 meters in 55.8 seconds, somewhere around 2 seconds faster than anybody else in the race (video here). For perspective, there were women in the 400 meter finals who ran in the 51-52 second range. But Montaño still had one more entire lap to go. Running 800 meters is hard, but intentionally going out at a blistering pace and hoping that you can somehow hold on in the last 100 meters when all of the muscles in your legs are telling you to quit? That's gutsy. Needless to say, she held on to win.
She ran a similar time for the first lap in the 2011 World Championships, and the race ended with Montaño tumbling to the ground in exhaustion, finishing just 6 hundreths of a second away from a medal. Her strategy of going out fast and holding on looked excruciating, but it arguably worked. She was right there with the best in the world, Mariya Savinova, Caster Semenya and Janeth Jepkosgei - the same runners Montaño will likely have to compete against for medals in London.
In addition to battling her 800m rivals, Montaño will be battling history. United States women have only won seven Olympic medals in distance events, and only two gold medals. Way back in 1968 Madeline Manning won the 800m in a time of 2:00.92, and Kim Gallagher won a silver and a bronze in the 80s. Since then, not a single medal in the 800m.
Can Montaño win gold? It won't be easy. Her personal best is 1:57.34, and she ran a 1:57.37 this year on June 1st. So she's running as well as she's ever ran before. But it will probably take at least 1:56 to win gold, if not 1:55. Can Montaño lower her personal best by a second or more? It's a tall order, and if she does it she'll at least break the American record of 1:56.4 set 12 years ago by Jearl Miles Clark.
But she and her coach, current Cal distance coach Tony Sandoval, have a plan:
Sandoval crafted a plan for Montaño that was designed to mimic the type of racing she'll encounter in London. Through three rounds here, Montaño did not trail.
"For me, my first 600 meters, I wanted to simulate what it has been like on the world stage," Montaño said. "There's no need to run conservatively if you're not going to get to the next round. My first 400 was exactly how it played out at the world championships" in 2011, when she was fourth, missing a medal by .06 of a second.
Montaño and Sandoval have been working on strength and endurance, and that focus has given Montaño the ability to run strong and maintain a lead for the first 600 meters of the race. Everything between now and London will be focused on speed, the final sprint over the last 200 meters that will likely be the difference between a medal or a spot off of the podium. She'll be doing that work in Berkeley on campus, and if you check out her twitter you can see a bunch of pictures at Edwards Stadium.
But regardless of the results in London, making the trip is a just reward for an athlete that seemed destined for the Olympics even when she was running as a Bear. In 2007 she won both the indoor and outdoor national titles, the later of which was won in a stunning time of 1:59.29, the 3rd fastest time ever by a collegiate. She went on to win the US Championship that same year and seemed assured of a spot on the US Olympic team in Beijing before she broke her foot running in a heat at the Olympic trials.
But that broken foot has been one of the few setbacks in a running career that has otherwise been on a constant upward trajectory. Now Montaño has the chance to make history, and she's the Calympian I'm most excited to watch.