Michigan’s Erin Finn goes for broke in a record-shattering national 5,000
As featured in the Web Only issue of Running Times Magazine
The high-flying boldness expected to vault American female middle- and long-distance runners into medal contention at this summer’s London Olympics was on display at the New York Armory last Friday night in a 95-pound Michigan girl who said after winning the national high school 5,000m in a record time of 16:19: “I feel like lately women’s running has gone hog wild. I want to be a part of it. I don’t want to be left in the dust.”
Those words came from Erin Finn, all of 17, whose racing style stunned the hard-wired crowd at the New Balance indoor nationals. With the toughness of a Shalane Flanagan, flair of a Kara Goucher and cool confidence of aJenny Simpson, Finn shot out to what seemed like a reckless 5:07 first mile. With the elegant strides of Haley Pierce of Delaware in close pursuit, Finn was unfazed, drawing away from a sensational field, to shatter the girls’ national indoor record by 15 seconds.
It’s one thing to run fast and break a record; it was the nationals, records will fall. It’s another to say to rivals with credentials a mile long, in effect: I’m going for it from the gun. You want a piece of me? Try and keep up.
But with the trickle-down effect of how Americans have stopped waiting and gone for it — how women like Flanagan, Goucher and Simpson have challenged the Africans at their own game — Finn made no bones about letting her competition know, enough already, this will be no sit-and-kick affair.
Finn, a 5-1½” junior at West Bloomfield High, had “front-runner” written all over her like a scarlet letter. Last December, Finn had led the Foot Locker national cross country 5K race in San Diego by a wide margin before being reeled in by Molly Seidel of Wisconsin and taking second. In January, Finn led an international junior 4K cross country race in Edinburgh, Scotland, before fading to seventh. In late February in Seattle, Finn shot to the lead of the talent-rich Brooks PR invitation 2-mile before placing third as Seidel was again victorious.
Fast Pace, Pure Racing
“That’s how I’ve always raced. Just go out until you die,” Finn said after running 16:19.69. “There’s no sense in not doing your all. I want a race to be a race.”
Erin is a purist at heart, favoring the work over the win. Leave everything on the track, come what may. In New York, she felt she could have it all — the ecstacy of “feeling trashed,” as Peter Snell once put it, plus the gold medal and a record to boot.
“I told myself that no one was beating me tonight,” she said. “No matter how hard it was, even if I died out there, I was going to win.”
Finn chose a schoolyard strategy of saying “bye-bye” to the field, this was her turf. She was in the right place indeed, the 103-year-old track palace, headstone of Washington Heights, the Dominican neighborhood depicted six miles south on the Broadway stage for its swagger and spice.
Finn had the performer’s goods, Michigan-style. Her hometown of West Bloomfield was situated in the same area as the Hansons-Brooks professional team, the blue-collar program whose latest star is 2012 U.S. Olympic marathoner Desi Davila. Finn knew the Hansons’ people and had met Davila at the Brooks meet. She said the aura had inspired her.
At the Armory, if Finn lacked anything it was a kick. She was by far the slowest miler in the field. Pierce, a senior at Tatnall School in Wilmington, had times in the low-4:40s. The other top contender was Wesley Frazier of Raleigh, N.C., the star of last June’s outdoor nationals in Greensboro, N.C., where she won the 5,000 over Finn in a soph-record time (16:24.83) while also capturing the mile (4:44.76) and placing third in the 2-mile (10:10.86).
“My mile PR stinks,” Finn said. “It’s like 5-flat.”
At the Brooks meet, only been three weeks before, Pierce, Finn and Frazier had run 2-3-4 behind Seidel. The race, and the opposition, was fresh in Finn’s mind. Finn felt that in New York, in a 5,000, she would have to employ a go-for-broke strategy.
Don’t Let the Kickers Prevail
“Obviously,” she said, “I’m the one who pushes the pace, and they kind of follow me and kick at the end. And that’s where I lose. I didn’t think that in a 5K they would want to go out at a fast pace. I felt that’s where my strength was.”
After a 2:31 first 800, Finn thought she might set a mile PR en route. Chasing her, Pierce was stunned but stuck close at 5:09. “I’d expected something about 5:18,” said Pierce, last spring’s Penn Relays 3,000 champion over Aisling Cuffe of New York and Waverly Neer of Indiana, who’d set the previous indoor 5,000 record of 16:35.15 at the 2011 nationals.
Pierce’s coach, Patrick Castagno, was equally stunned. “Finn took it out like it was a 2-mile,” he said afterwards. “My gosh.”
There are not many opportunities for high school distance runners to tackle a 5,000 on the track. The event — contested at the indoor and outdoor nationals organized by the pitch-perfect National Scholastic Sports Foundation — is often a litmus test of where young distance men and women stand, and what the future might hold. Galen Rupp set the high school outdoor record of 13:37.91 in 2004; baby, look at him now.
In the last three years, the 5,000 was part of the repertoire of the remarkableLukas Verzbicas, who last year set a 14:06.78 national indoor record at the New Balance meet. Last month, that record fell to the equally remarkable Edward Cheserek, who clocked 13:57.04 in the Bernard Lagat-led open 5,000 at the Millrose Games.
Rupp, Verzbicas, Cheserek … Move over guys, the girls are here!
“I have to hand it to Erin,” said Pierce, whose second-place 16:31.86 also bettered the previous record. “The bar has been raised.”
And Finn raised it on training that seemed a little thin. She’d hurt her foot in the mud in Edinburgh and expected little of the winter season. Or, as she put it in New York, “I felt like crap after Scotland.”
Big Base Fuels 5k Effort
But Finn worked off her abundant cross country base and into March felt a lot fitter than when she’d run 16:41.33 behind Frazier last June. So fit that she’d considered trying to run 5-minute pace all the way, which would have produced about a 15:30. “I knew that was kind of crazy,” Finn said. “But the idea kept me excited.”
An 11-mile run a week before nationals did not excite her. “I was dead after that,” Finn said. Maybe it was Finn’s pace. It’s hard for her to run slowly. A 2-mile tempo run at 5:45 pace was more like it. After flying into New York the day before the three-day meet, Finn told herself, “This is my chance. This is ‘my’ race.”
Pierce, who will do her college running at Georgetown, held form through 4K. She was 25 meters behind. Finn’s split was 13:02. After that, Pierce fell back. She’d hoped Finn’s front-running would wear on her. Not this time.
Frazier, now a junior, never made a bid for it. After a spotty cross country season and token indoor efforts, she hadn’t had a full racing campaign since last spring, when her nationals’ triple was probably the best three-race distance performance of any high school girl ever. She hung with Pierce until halfway, finishing fourth in 16:46.l5.
“I’m building toward spring track,” Frazier said. To that end, she runs in the mornings at 5:30 while her Dad bikes alongside her; then, she practices with her Ravenscroft team after school. On weekends, she’ll run long, up to 8 miles, with Dad on the bike as well.
In the closing laps Frazier was passed by New York’s Brianna Nerud, a North Shore girl from Long Island who, despite her impressive resume, had been playing second fiddle all winter to teammate Samantha Nadel, the undefeated Millrose Games mile champion. The two girls have been best friends since kindergarten. With Nadel injured, Nerud took center stage, running a third-place, 16:43.56 New York state record.
Friendly Rivals Share Suffering
Nerud — who competed in the World Youth Games 2K steeple in France last summer, running the second-fastest U.S. high school time ever — came back two days after the 5,000 for another sparking third in the mile. She scored a big PR of 4:45.29, even faster than Nadel had run this winter.
Finn, Pierce, Frazier and Nerud were all running buddies, united by the stresses of the high school circuit. “Running’s a cool sport where you can be friends with your competitors,” Finn said. “We know how everybody suffers and I think that’s really special.”
In the final laps, Finn pushed on, never looking back. This was her night; it had to be. She’d been burned too many times before. Her face strained. She stumbled on the track’s curb. With two laps to go, Finn’s split was 15:01; at the bell it was 15:41. That was her slowest lap. “Erin,” I’d told myself, “don’t go over 40 seconds.” She closed in 38 and change to triumph by a full straightaway.
It was not much of a kick. Finn knew that was her weakness. She had to gamble from the gun. “I guess I’m a risk-taker,” Finn said, wrapping up the night after the awards ceremony. “Either go all-out or go home. I try to go all-out.”