Boston 3000m Race Analysis and Interview with Alistair Cragg

3 February 2005

BOSTON - 29 January - When asked before the race if he was going to go with Kenenisa Bekele if he made an early move or ran a torrid pace, Alistair Cragg confidently told Irish, "I didn't come all this way to sit back and watch him." It's not an outrageous query when you consider that Kenenisa Bekele is the reigning 10,000m World Record holder (26.20.31) and Olympic Champion along with being the World Record Holder (12.37.35) and the reigning Olympic silver medallist in the 5,000m while Cragg owns a personal best of 13.12.74.

The early part of the Reebok 3,000m race went according to script. Both novice track fans and aficionados alike felt the race would materialise with the pacemaker ushering the Ethiopians around until they were dissatisfied with the pace. At some point Bekele would unleash his potent kick and go onto victory leaving the throng of Ethiopian fans chanting and waving their own tri-colour flags. After all, Haile Gebrselassie did all that last year winning in a meet record time of 7.35.24 and history shows us that Bekele has had little problem matching his mentor's exploits.

Playing the role of the rabbit was Russian Alexander Skvortsov who jumped to the lead opening an almost 10-metre gap on the first half-lap. Only Alistair Cragg played the part of the greyhound with the Ethiopian pair of Bekele and Markos Geneti in their comfort zone trailing Cragg. Cragg closely followed Skvortsov for six laps hitting splits of 28.1 (200m), 58.1 (400m), 1.28.9 (600m), 2.00.4 (800m), 2.31.4 (1 kilometre) and 3.30.6 (1,200m) before the rabbit stepped off the Mondo oval just before the completion of the seventh lap of this fifteen lap contest.

Cragg, 24 and already an Irish Olympian would lead for the next three laps crossing the 1,400-metre mark in 3.34.8, 1,600m in 4.05.1 and lap nine (1,800m) in 4.36.1.

As the trio entered the backstretch, Cragg moved out into lane two forcing Geneti to take the helm. Geneti, who placed second last year in 7.41.06 seemed poised and prepared to do the same this year, reluctantly took the lead and immediately went from hunter to the hunted. Bekele was now tucked in behind Cragg as they passed two-kilometres in 5.08.5 (2.37.1). The next split was 2,200m (5.40.7).

There was still no change with Cragg now the meat in an Ethiopian sandwich passing 2,400m in 6.13.2. A mere 600 metres remained with the racing and surprises about to begin. Shortly after they entered the straightway on the backside of the track with about 500m remaining in the race Cragg burst to the lead passing Geneti. Bekele effortlessly matched the move with Geneti now grimacing in third. Bekele seemed to enjoy the ride on Cragg's shoulder. The unlikely pair traversed the 7,400m mark in 6.42.7 - 400 metres, two laps left!

At almost the identical spot where Cragg showed his cards a lap before, Bekele passed Cragg who gainfully followed but lost precious distance to the Track and Field News Man of the Year. As Bekele exited the final bend, his lead now almost 10 metres, he mysteriously drifted into lane two as if to finish. As Bekele crossed what he thought was the finishing line he glanced in disbelief to his left as a lad feverishly rang the bell signifying one lap to go. Cragg finishes the penultimate lap in 7.10.0 and pursues his idol on the turn. Bekele is now labouring. Cragg recognised the miscue and swiftly passed Bekele on the bend taking a lead he would never relinquish. He peeked up at the television screen to survey his advantage, no doubt fearful that Superman would catch him. The fear was never realised. Cragg raises his arms in victory as he crossed the line in 7.39.89 (2.31.4, 2.37.1, 2.31.4).

Bekele and Cragg exchanged silent taps of respect on each others shoulders. Cragg savoured the victory.

Surrounded by reporters after the race, Cragg was an extremely gracious and reverent winner, admitting, "Ninety-nine times out of a hundred Bekele would have beaten me. I don't know if Bekele is all right, he's had a lot on his mind." Cragg was referring to the recent tragedy that struck Bekele. His fiancée Alem Teshale died after collapsing due to a heart-attack while on a training run with Bekele in Ararat, Ethiopia on 4th January. A grieving Bekele missed some training and a European event but honoured his obligation to the Boston event. Cragg continued, "I saw him kicking with a lap to go, and I knew something wasn't right, whether he just wasn't feeling good or if it was an honest mistake. That kind of kept me going, it kept me excited, because I knew his mind wasn't on the race. I tried to hit him straight after he realised he'd made the mistake. That's it, after that I don't remember much about the last lap."

What was it like to beat Kenenisa Bekele? Did you think he was unbeatable? The questions rang from a chorus of media. Cragg said, "What a feeling! I'd never wish those kinds of circumstances on anyone, but I'm just glad I was there to take the opportunity.

Going in to the summer, he was Bekele the great, you know? But I knew that with what's happening in his life, he was human again - at least this month. I felt like I could go with him today, no matter what, even if he was going for a World record or something. Definitely, like last time, I was running against one of my idols."

The 'last time' referred to Cragg's last visit to the Boston Indoor Games in 2003 where he beat reigning Olympic 1,500m Champion Noah Ngeny from Kenya. "Last time, a few years ago when I had a chance to race Noah Ngeny here, it was a career-changing race. I just went for Noah. I tried to get him to pull me along as long as possible. I mean, he's Noah Ngeny. He ought to do that. You don't think of him as an Olympic champion. You think about racing fast."

Cragg, a 2004 graduate of the University of Arkansas commented on the on the race, "The rabbit today was a little dodgy. He went out way too quick, and I knew the Ethiopians didn't want to go with him. Everyone stood off him. So I said to myself, 'Let's get something out of this run. I don't want to sit back and then get out-kicked and get nothing out of it.' So I went up to try and keep the pace going. Then the rabbit dropped out, and I was on my own with Bekele and Geneti behind me. Those are two guys you don't want sitting on your butt with 1200m to go. So I went out a little wide and let Markos take the lead."

What went through your mind when Bekele passed you, you had to expecting it? Cragg responded, "When Bekele came around me, it was like wow! It felt like somebody punched me in the face. It was such a big roar! Not much was going through my mind. I don't know what to think when a guy like that comes around you. You don't know how strong he is or how strong you are, it's a matter of just sticking to the plan and following what Coach told me to do. He's never failed me up until today. I had thought I'd just follow what Coach McDonnell said, and take off. I just had to make sure I was there in case the wheels came off, or he made a mistake."

"The plan today was to go hard from 500 metres remaining, no matter what, if I'm hurting or feeling good. I went, and I went hard. Coach said, 'Make sure you're there. Once you're there, you'll forget about who he is, how you're feeling, and where you are. Your racing instincts will kick in, no matter who's around you.' And it did, it happened. When he came around me again, I was thinking, maybe that was a little stupid. But every race you go through those feelings."

His collegiate coach, John McDonnell, from Crossmolina, Co Mayo continues to Coach Cragg in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Cragg relished his victory and wasn't concerned that he narrowly missed breaking his own Irish record of set 7.38.59. "Records can create barriers in your mind. I grew up in the collegiate NCAA system. I've been taught the times will come. I want to close the gap between and the top runners in the world."

Cragg looked under control for the entire race. He remarked, "Training has gone to a new level. I've run 7.38 for 3k twice before but compared to how I felt in those races, today was a walk in the park. This was the easiest it ever felt. A 7.39 may be slow for me now but in this kind of race, under the circumstances, I'm pleased."

Cragg no longer has the demanding university schedule of competitions to deal with, which has had a positive impact on training. "Training has been easier for me this year. I've been training with Mark Fountain, who ran a 3:54 today [Fountain ran 3.54.77 to place 3rd in mile]. There's no way I can think I can run a 3:54, and he and I have been training easily together. We've definitely taken our training to another level. A 3:59 mile is slow for me right now."

What's next for Cragg? "My next race will be the 3k at the Tyson Invite." The Tyson Invitational is slated for 11th February at the Randall Tyson Track Centre in Fayetteville, Arkansas. We were expecting a tactical race at Arkansas and a fast one here. We may have to reevaluate things." Before Bekele's heartbreak, he had planned to go after Daniel Komen's World Indoor Record of 7:24.90 set in Budapest in 1998.

"The plan, so far is to race the European Indoor Championships. It's time to get my career beyond the NCAA. If all goes right, I'll go to World Cross." Cragg joked that he doesn't really think about season goals. He leaves that up to Coach McDonnell. Laughing he said, "We don't really look far ahead at what's possible. He knows. I don't ask. He knew what was possible today, and he told me what I can run and that I shouldn't be scared. He's got high expectations. I'm just here to follow his directions."

With a poorly disguised smile, Cragg concluded, "Not too many people can say they beat Kenenisa Bekele. It will change my entire attitude toward the whole track and field world.

Reebok 3,000m: 1) Alistair Cragg, Ireland, 7:39.89; 2) Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia, 7:41.42; 3) Markos Geneti, Ethiopia, 7:42.97; 4) Tim Broe, USA, 7:44.87; 5) Kevin Sullivan, Canada, 7:50.75; 6) Jonathon Riley, USA, 7:51.63; 7) Bolota Asmeron, USA, 7:57.19; 8) Charlie Gruber, USA, 8:05.76; 9) Steve Slattery, USA, 8:05.99; DNF) Alexander Skvortsov, Russia, pace

With Thanks to Tim O'Dowd

Keeping Track of Ireland


Disclaimer - The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the AAI


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