Sickles star tops all-star cast in one of Florida’s fastest fields ever.
TALLAHASSEE - It's not often the high school 3200-meter race turns out to be the premier race of the day at a major invitational, but the all-star cast assembled for Friday's rain-soaked FSU Relays made that happen.
In a field that included four Florida boys state cross country champions and the runner-up in the mile at the Nike Indoor Nationals, Tampa Sickles junior Derek Wehunt stole the show.
Wehunt used a 61-second final lap to upstage the field, winning in a state-best time of 9:06.78; a 23-second personal record that stands as the nation's fourth fastest time to date this outdoor season.
In what may go down as the deepest, fastest, 3200 in state history, Wehunt edged Tallahassee Leon's Matt Mizereck (9:09.24) and Bishop Kenny's Colin Barker (9:11.20). The top eight finishers in the field all bettered 9:22, with four of the top six posting PR's of 15 seconds or more.
"It was fun," Wehunt said. "I knew I couldn't go out there running hard. I had to stay in the back of the pack and draft off them. I knew if I would take the lead in front of those guys it would be a tough last few laps. It was tactical. It was kind of like a NASCAR race …
"It was very tactical. It was fast and it was packed. We had to watch where we were running so we didn't trip over each other."
Wehunt followed his plan to perfection, staying near the back of an eight-man pack from a field of xx runners.
Melbourne's Brian Atkinson, the Class 4A state cross country champion, and Mizereck, the two-time defending 3A state champion, led the way through the mile at 4:37. Hoover (Ala.) star Patrick McGregor, who finished second at the Nike Indoor Nationals in the mile, was close behind along with Tampa Jesuit's Connor Revord, Bishop Kenny's Michael Wallace and Barker, Wehunt and Leon's Will Stanford in tow.
Stanford made the race's first bold move down the backstretch on lap five, bolting from eighth to first with a surge which put him roughly three seconds in front of the field.
"It didn't feel like they were slowing down, but I felt like I could get position on the track so I was just moving on up," said Stanford. "For some reason I just decided I wanted to go for it."
In a field of proven half-milers, Stanford figured it was his best play to win the race.
"I don't really have the greatest kick or speed," he said. "I was just going to try and use my strength to hold them off."
The move enabled the field to maintain the desired pace because it forced everyone to behind Stanford to pick it up, or lose contact.
"I was prepared for pretty much anything to happen," said Mizereck, Stanford‘s teammate and training partner. "I had to accept that there were going to be some surprises in the race, so I prepared for anything."
"(Will's move) changed it pretty dramatically on my part. I was in the front with Brian (Atkinson) for like the first five laps. … It was a good thing to happen because I was not going to be the one who had to lead it."
Stanford held the lead until the final curve of the seventh lap, when the pack finally reeled him in.
Wehunt, whose previous best 3200 was 9:36, had his doubts about catching Stanford initially.
"Knowing the runner that he is, I thought he was going to hold it," Wehunt said. "Also what was going through my mind was I was waiting for maybe someone to go off with him. Maybe he was trying to help Matt out, but nobody went with him. From there I was just waiting for the chase pack to catch up to him
"It was a very gutsy move for him. The chase pack, we were just keeping that same pace until we got him. And when we got him, he was still (staying) with the pack."
Wehunt overtook the pack a few strides after taking the bell lap, then gained some separation down the backstretch before Mizereck and Barker rallied with big kicks. But his 61-second final 400 was just too much to overcome as he crossed the finish line and collapsed in a heap.
It was the sweetest of victories for Wehunt, who has altered his training after a disappointing 2008 track season and a late-season fade in the fall cross country campaign.
"This is a new season and I'm feeling great," said Wehunt, who to this point has limited his running to 45-50 miles a week with a heavy emphasis on tempo runs.
Ironically, Wehunt wasn't planning to attend the meet until his recent duel with Revord back home in Tampa.
"After the 800 at Jesuit, Connor was saying, ‘Are you going to FSU?'" Wehunt explained. "I was like, ‘No.' He said, ‘You probably should go up. It's going to be a fast race.' I've been looking forward to it since then."
And there's more to look forward to from the group, which included six underclassmen among the top eight finishers.
"I'm very proud of myself," said Mizereck, one of five juniors in the front group. "I may not have won but I had a great time and I'm satisfied with that. It was great competition."
Stanford, the lone sophomore and eventual sixth-place finisher (9:15.58), was equally pleased.
"It was really my first race with competition this year," he said. "I'm happy with my time."
Most everyone in the field was.