Few races in high school history have produced so much hype. Californian GERMAN HERNANDEZ suddenly donned the mantle of greatness. In the California state championships the tall, lithe youngster had run the greatest distance double ever. Within a 2.5 hour span he'd posted a 4:01.49 followed by an 8:38.23, that these were run at the non-distances of 1600-3200 meant little. The performance was sensational. Coaches, fans, the entire world of track and field gasped, at his seemingly effortless stride and the uncanny ability to run at the same pace throughout each race. In the 1600 he reeled off 200's in 30 seconds, eight in a row! Over the longer distance it was the same, 2:08+, 2:08+, 2:08+, 2:08+. "He's a machine" marveled all. What would they have thought had they heard the coach state, "The California state meet was to be our last hard training session before Nike." OK, no big deal, just another workout, merely the greatest double in history described as a 'training session'!
On June 20, the date of the Nike two mile, Fernandez announced intention was to go after one of our sport's oldest records, the 8:36.3n set May 6, 1979 by Jeff Nelson, the first time a high schooler had dipped under the 8:40 mark. In 1969, Steve Prefontaine had posted an 8:41.5 followed two years later by Craig Virgin's 8:40.9. Last year's Nike meet saw the best challenge in the "Events Closed to High Schoolers" era when Matt Centrowitz posted an 8:41.55. WHAT COULD A FRESH FERNANDEZ DO?
More importantly, could he even win? Dumb question? Not really. He'd faltered badly at the Foot Locker cross country champs and, up until his state meet hadn't shown even a hint of what he was capable. He'd skipped Arcadia, one of the nation's top prep events, and when he had run, the results were…OK.
In a preview piece prior to the Nike competition, I'd written there would be two serious challengers, LUKE PUSKEDRA and ROB FINNERTY. Puskedra clocked a solid 8:46.41 while Finnerty came tantalizingly close to a sub-4:00 mile with his 4:01.09. According to Holzherr Finnerty came to Greensboro with one purpose in mind, to beat Fernandez. "He's been pointing for this two mile all season," commented Holzherr, It was reported Puskedra felt Fernandez had been ducking him thus the Arcadia absence. Some felt COLBY LOWE's 4:08.07/8:57.32 credentials made him a legitimate contender. So, should Fernandez have an off day, there were guys who could take over the race.
While some felt Puskedra's decision to run at the Prefontaine meet was a poor one, his Dad stated, "It was not a big deal to us, we trained right through that meet and, in fact, Luke got in a good ten miler the day before. What could PUSKEDRA do fresh? So a Fernandez win seemed less than guaranteed.
THE STAGE WAS SET. Then it was almost blown over. About thirty minutes prior to the start a strong wind came up and, as any veteran coach can tell you, 'You can beat the heat, the cold, even the rain but you can't beat the wind.' Fortunately for track and field history, the wind died down and and anticipation turned to reality.
(Ed. Note: The splits within this story are in yards. Penn Relays Director Dave Johnson and I marked out the various 440-880-etc splits before the race. It should also be noted that Fernandez coach had requested a large timer be set up at the 220 mark so Fernandez would know his exact pace. This was done thus we were able to obtain the FAT time for 3000m, also a HSR.)
64.4 LAP ONE: The early leader was Kevin Williams, 8:53.27 from Colorado with Fernandez in the pack, the 440 was passed in 64.4. Announcer David Mitchell called out, "They're right on schedule!"
65,7 (2:10.1) LAP TWO: Puskedra and Finnerty exchanged the lead as the field of sixteen began to spread. Why so early? Well, a half mile split of 2:10.1 may have helped. Setting an 8:40 pace so early will thin out almost any field. Interestingly, this would be the slowest 440 of the race.)
65.0 (3:15.1) LAP THREE: Fernandez took the lead and the game was on. Mitchell, sensing history, exhorted the crowd, "If you want to see a national record, make some noise!" The crowd responded and a roar went up. Surprisingly, Finnerty was out of it dropping back rather quickly. Puskedra was a mere yard back of the Californian. Lowe was hanging tough in third.
64.4 (4:19.5) LAP FOUR: The pace quickened! Lowe, perhaps realizing he was in over his head, tried gamely to hang on but to no avail. Now it was Puskedra and Fernandez. But just before they passed the mile mark, 4:19.5, the Salt Lake City citizen faltered. An increasingly perceptible gap opened.
63.9 (5:23.3) LAP FIVE: The race was over. The CHASE for the record began. Puskedra was now more than 10 yards back and visibly hurting. Fernandez ran on…alone. Mitchell was in a frenzy. "Help him out! Let him hear you" Come on!" The crowd of 4000 came through and Nelson's challenger raced on. No change in expression, the same stride at the same pace. One would expect some grimacing, a slight lift of the arms…nothing.
64.8 (6:28.1 — 2:08.7) LAP SIX: Mitchell was approaching hysteria. His voice, usually firm, controlled, perfect diction had turned into a madman's screech. But with a purpose, help the runner, make him aware that 4000 people wanted him to succeed. BUT, the pace had slowed. Was fatigue setting in? Breaking a record that had stood challenges from some of our sports greatest names for 19 years would not be easily bested.
63.3 (7:31.3 — 3:12.0) LAP SEVEN: Where did this kid find the energy to increase the pace so dramatically? A 1.5 second drop? Impossible! Now Mitchell's exhortations were continuous. It appeared he never stopped to draw a breath. "He can do it!" Etc, etc.
The roar of the crowd was now constant. Every stride brought new voices into the mix. On the infield meet personnel were pounding each others backs, shoulders, whatever was close. Fernandez responded as only the great ones can do, he quickened the pace yet again. Above the roar of the crowd, Mitchell's voice rang clear, "HE CAN DO IT!"
62.9 (8:34.4 — 4:14.9) LAP EIGHT: For the first time one could see the strain. But the stride, the inexorable stride, remained the same. He rounded the penultimate turn and one could see the pace increase. As if to inform him how long it would take to reach greatness, Mitchell's voice rose above the pandemonium, "He needs a 64 to break the record, c'mon, help him!" Coming out of the final turn, face contorted, arms swinging almost wildly, he sped on. People standing next to each other couldn't communicate, the noise was deafening! IT WAS GOING TO BE OH SO CLOSE! Would he make it? With the agony of victory clearly visible he breasted the tape. (Ed. Note: October 3, 1951 I was a 19-yr old kid at UVA and a rabid Brooklyn Dodgers fan. I will never forget, NEVER, Russ Hodges screaming, "THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!) I mention this so you oldsters who still love track and field will understand how I felt listening to Mitchell's repeated cries, "HE DID IT! HE DID IT" HE DID IT!"
Completely overlooked, another national record. Fernandez passed the 3000m mark in 7:59.83 becoming the first hs'er to break the 8:00 mark and erasing Galen Rupps' 8:03.67 2004 effort.
It was over. The crowd was emotionally spent. Mitchell, exhausted. Fernandez overjoyed but quiet. This was one for the ages. Thanks kid!
SQUIBS: Nelson's 8:36.4 mark was set at UCLA in the old Pepsi Invitational. This was prior to the ECHS era and the record was set in a losing effort to a kid from the Santa Monica TC along with a field made up mostly of collegians. The winner, one Gerald Lawson, SMTC ran 8:31.6 so Nelson was in the race all the way. This is a pet peeve of mine and as long as you read my scribbles, you'll pick up on this. Were you aware the great Jim Ryun ran in only ONE hs race his senior year? The marks set by Mary Decker, Kim Gallagher, Alan Webb, etc were ALL set in Open races before the ECHS came into play. What do you think Fernandez, Sarah Bowman, Chanelle Price, Christine Babcock, Rob Finnerty, et al could have done in similar conditions? I think we'd see a totally different record board had they been given the same competitive opportunities those earlier greats had.
Asked why they thought the opposition dropped off so quickly, several college coaches all felt the same, RHYTHM. Fernandez got into his and never got out of it. The others simply couldn't find theirs.
Asked what he felt was the most impressive thing about the race other than the time, AJ Holzherr responded, "He came to get the record and he got it. How many times have you ever seen that happen? Most announced record attempts fail."
John Lanza, no relation to Mario, revealed that his kid had done four double workouts the week prior to coming to Nike. "Had he not put in those extra miles, I think he could have gone 1-2 seconds faster." Asked what he thought the future held for his charge he replied, "I think he could string together a string of 64's over 5000m and finish with about 13:15." I don't think Coach Lanza was referring to the present but what the kid might do in the near future.
The T&FN book department can expect a flurry of orders for Jack Daniels' training program. Lanza reports all of Fernandez' work outs were based upon Daniels program. "Of course I tweaked it whenever I felt he needed some emphasis on a particular area."
The difference between the fastest and slowest 440's in the race was a startling 2.1 seconds. As pointed out by NSSF Board member and noted high school coach in his own right, Paul Limmer, "It's been stated many, many times — the most efficient way to run is with even splits." As Carly Simon pointed out, "Nobody does it better…" I wonder if she had Fernandez in mind.
This wraps up this story. Hopefully, it gives you a sense of the excitement we all enjoyed as the race progressed to its final outcome. If there's anyone out there who'd like to share some of your memories, thoughts, surprises, etc about the race, please let me know. email@example.com