2016 NBNI: Who’s Coming—Distances Edition

by Steve Underwood

Fourth in a 5-part series on top athletes coming to the 2016 NBNI.

Kate Murphy – Building on greatness

Those who saw it – especially savvy prep distance aficionados who understood the significance – will probably never forget it: Last June’s USATF Junior 1,500 meters.  Kate Murphy, a 4:46 1,600m runner, running well in 2nd-place and headed for a very nice time, though trailing by a big margin in the final lap.  Then, forged from deep within, the Lake Braddock, VA soph unleashed a kick that at first was simply very impressive, then made you realize with dawning wonder, ‘Oh my God, she’s going to catch the leader.’  Indeed, she reeled in BYU frosh Sarah Feeny for a shocking 4:16.98 triumph, torching anything she’d done in the past and moving to #8 all-time.  Murphy – who’d been having a very nice year at that point, including a runner-up finish in the NBNI 2-mile – went on to dominate the Pan Am Juniors 1,500, winning as she pleased in 4:21.36.

Flash forward to 2015-16 and Murphy has continued to run like a boss.  Cross country was solid – she won her 6A state meet and finished 16th in the NXN finals – but a preface to her true racing love, the oval.  She’s unbeaten indoors, including a jaw-dropping 2:45.36 1,000m – #3 all-time – a 4:43.87 in the Camel City Elite mile and a meet record 4:41.84 triumph at Millrose, where she won by a huge 8-second margin.  Her biggest test actually came in the 6A state 1,600, where Rachel McArthur gave her a very good test before falling 0.35 seconds short.  But Murphy is the clear mile favorite, primed to dip under 4:40, and could lead her Lake Braddock DMR team to victory Friday, as well.  She’s listed in the 1M and 2M Sunday, but here’s guessing she’ll focus on the shorter race.

Tom Ratcliffe – Rolling out on his own

The performances were shocking, not because the Concord-Carlisle, MA senior’s potential was in question, but because of when and where and who against they came.  On January 6, Tom Ratcliffe clocked a then-US#1 4:14.01 mile in the 3rd weekly Dual County League meet of the 2016 winter campaign, winning by 29 seconds.  A week later, at the 4th weekly Dual County meet, he crushed a 8:57.47 2-mile, winning by more than a minute – and still US#1 almost two months later.  Unable or uninterested in seeking competitive races at other times or venues, Ratcliffe was making statements with fierce solo efforts.  He had the creds coming into the winter, no doubt, with a best performance of 4:07.63 in the mile coming in a very competitive Prefontaine Classic (5th) last June.  So what would happen when (and if) Ratcliffe finally got in a big race this winter?

The answer: Run very well.  In February, Ratcliffe was a very close runner-up at the New Balance Indoor GP in Boston, hitting an indoor best of 4:08.74 – losing by just 0.41 seconds to Jack Salisbury and improving from 4th in the same race in 2015.  He then capped off the home state campaign with a 4:06.92 mile at the All-State meet, US#2 behind Drew Hunter’s HSR.  At NBNI he will return to the deuce, where he will face a crazy deep field of 8:58-9:05 talent – two days after contesting the DMR with his teammates, who have clocked a US#3 10:14.45.  Ratcliffe won’t be rolling on his own this weekend, but he could twice wind up at the top of the podium.

Weini Kelati – Ready for a big reveal

Contrary to, say, her fellow Virginian Kate Murphy (see above), Weini Kelati isn’t a huge fan of indoor track.  She would rather be racing over hill and dale, or perhaps on the roads, where her hard work and distance-running talent revealed itself so well last fall.  The Leesburg Heritage, VA sophomore ran herself into the center of the national spotlight this past fall, and she stayed there during an unbeaten cross-country season – running a best of 16:29 for 5k, claiming 4A state and then Foot Locker South titles, then finally winning it all at Foot Locker Finals with a 17:09.  She and Drew Hunter, in fact, made it a Virginia sweep and Kelati had truly fulfilled the potential she had shown the previous fall.

In fall of 2014, Kelati had come to Virginia from her native Eritrea, having taken 8th in the World Junior 3,000 weeks earlier in Eugene with a scintillating 9:12.32.  Big things were expected and Kelati delivered – early in the season.  Her performances waned somewhat later in the fall, however, eventually leading to a 20th-place finish at the 2014 Foot Locker Finals.  On the track, she was 9th and 7th in the NBNI and NBNO 5,000s – not bad, but not up to her potential for sure.  This past fall, however, Kelati was obviously back to top form.  She has raced just once indoors, but it was a dandy: a 9:19.99 3,000 vs. elites at the Camel City meet that showed she had lost nothing from the fall.  Here at NBNI, she will race both the 5,000 and 2-mile and it’s very reasonable to think that the meet records in both are in grave danger.

Garek Bielaczyc – On the cusp of something huge

With his opening salvo at last month’s Simplot Games, Garek Bielaczyc showed that Tom Ratcliffe is not the only elite this winter who seems to like running fast simply for the sake of running fast.  Simplot is the only meet in the country that runs prelims in a race as long as a 3,200 – and Bielaczyc soloed a head-shaking 9:02.75 that seemed more suited for the final two days later.  But in said final – against fellow Utah star Casey Clinger (who’d run a reasonable 9:29 in his prelim) – Bielaczyc held up for an impressive 8:57.03 triumph, reinforcing that he’s truly one of the nation’s rising distance talents of 2016.

Bielaczyc started to rise on the national scene as a Salt Lake City East HS, UT junior in 2014-15, as he first took 9th at Foot Locker West, then 27th in the Final in San Diego.  A solid progression on the track followed, with 4:13 and 9:11 bests for 1,600 and 3,200.  This past fall, however, Bielaczyc’s ascension continued, then really accelerated at the end when he won Foot Locker West and took 4th in San Diego.  And when he returned to the track in early February, he caught all distance fans’ attention with a smoking 9:00.07 3,200 at the New Balance Boise meet.  Simplot followed and now Bielaczyc is smack in the center of that great NBNI 2M field with Ratcliffe and a host of other 8:55-9:05 types, with as good as chance as any of rising to the top.

Katie Rainsberger – Taking the next step

If there was any remaining question of how good Katie Rainsberger could be – in the middle of the senior year of a career that had already yielded many fine performances – it was answered resoundingly at this past December’s Nike Cross Nationals.  With a devastating mid-race surge that no one could answer, she routed the field with a course record 16:56 that completed an unbeaten season and led to her receiving the Gatorade XC National Runner of the year award.

It’s not like Rainsberger hadn’t already excelled at the state and national level, training and racing for Air Academy HS in Colorado.  She quickly become one of Colorado’s best as a freshman, kept getting better as a sophomore and by the end of her junior year last spring had rung up five top-5 finishers over two years in major miles with times between 4:40 and 4:48 – but not yet a major title.  Now, fans wonder, what can she do on the track as a senior?  Her indoor season has been low-key so far, with a few 800 wins in her home state, then a 3rd-place finish in the Simplot 800.  That seemed like a somewhat surprising defeat, but it was Rainsberger’s first high-level indoor meet of her career and first time racing on a banked track.  She shrugged it off with a smile in interviews, conveying bigger and better things to come.  And that could all start this weekend in the NBNI mile.

Conor Lundy – Everywhere, racing hard

Every year, there’s guys and gals on the national prep scene who seem to be racing anywhere and everywhere, taking on all comers in meets big and small, and generally maintaining a national class level – if not actually winning titles and more.  In 2016, Conor Lundy seems to be one of those guys.  It seems like the Fordham Prep, NY senior has been in nearly every major race this winter and before that, as well.  After an XC season where he was 7th at Foot Locker Finals, he was 2nd in the Hispanic Games mile a month later and, in the period of X weeks, was 2nd in the Millrose Games Trials, won the Yale 3k (then-US#1 8:22.06), was 11th in the New Balance Games mile (vs. Pros/Elite, with then-US#1 4:08.25), was 3rd at the Armory Track Invite 1k, then was 4th in the Millrose Games mile.  And pretty much every week there wasn’t a major race, Lundy was racing CHSAA events.

Last spring included a 5th in that great Loucks Games 3,200 and, at the end, a runner-up finish in the NBNO 5,000 – which was a nice improvement over his 8th at the NBNI mile.  But Lundy is nothing if not tough and durable.  And hey, he actually took a “break” last weekend at his New York state indoor meet, just running the 4x800 relay.  As for this weekend?  Lundy is in the 2-mile this time, with Ratcliffe, Bielaczyc and almost “everyone else,” as well as the 4x1 Mile the day before with his teammates.  You can bet he’ll be high in the mix, like always, and he may just have the right stuff for a victory this time.

Hannah Debalsi – Indoor swansong

Hannah Debalsi is one of those female runners who wowed you as a young prodigy, winning major titles and setting records as a freshman and sophomore – then has persevered through injuries and other challenges as a junior and senior, filling especially New England fans with a profound sense of appreciation for the four years of greatness she has displayed.  It started when she was a freshman in the traditionally strong Staples, CT program in 2012-13, as she went from a solid XC season in the fall to a spectacular outdoor campaign in the spring, improving to a 10:10.26 for 3,200 in June for the New England title and then a 3rd in the NBNO 2M.  As a soph, Debalsi ran to a runner-up finish at Foot Locker in XC, then in the spring won the Penn Relays 3k, PR’d for the 2M at 9:55.05, and won the NBNO 2M.

Then 2014-15 saw Debalsi deal with a series of injuries off and on, but still dominate Connecticut, make the top 5 at Foot Locker, and run as fast as 10:03 for the deuce.  She’s continued to persevere as a senior, times not quite as fast, but adding to her collection of state and regional titles.  She missed the 2015 NBNI with injury, so having her back not only for the 2M, but also the 5,000 is a treat.  Her most recent outing – a 10:29.46 for her fourth straight New England 2M title – suggests she’s starting to return to form and is podium threat to again be taken seriously.

Noah Affolder – Suddenly the mile favorite

With a steady, impressive progression through his sophomore and junior years to date, Noah Affolder has worked his way toward the top echelon of national class distance runners and – thanks both to his talent and hard work, as well as a seeming migration of many other top distance guys to the 2-mile – he has emerged as the top threat to win the NBNI mile this weekend.  Less than a month ago, the prospect of Affolder being the favorite in that race would have seemed pretty unlikely.  His mile and 1,600 bests were in the 4:15 range.  But then Millrose happened.  He lowered his mile PR 5.41 seconds to take 2nd – by .01 – behind Isaac Cortes in 4:09.88.  Now he could add that distance to events where he is a true national title contender.

Previously, Affolder was better known for his XC accomplishments and, on the track, what he had done in the 3,200/2M.  As a Carthage, NY soph in 2014, he was tearing up Class B in New York, winning a class title and performing solidly in the post-season.  Then in the spring, he had a massive 26-second 3,200 PR in May to get down to 9:03.89, as well as hitting one of those 4:15s.  He had rarely raced indoor before this winter, but tuned up at the Hispanic Games and qualified for Millrose – leading up to the big PR at the Games themselves.  Affolder will be in a race with a bunch of other 4:10-4:14 guys and in a rare role of big-meet favorite.  It will be interesting to see his response.

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