With Olympic spots up for grabs, it was a hot night in Melbourne
Athletics fans got a stark reminder of the Australian bushfire crisis last night at the Melbourne Track Classic, with smoke haze blanketing Lakeside Stadium on an otherwise clear and sunny afternoon.
The sky burned shades of orange and pink throughout the evening, providing a dramatic backdrop to some incredible performances from two of Australia's brightest young stars.
The women's 5000m was the most anticipated event of the evening and rightly so. We spoke about it at length in our race preview, but the opportunity to see a field of this calibre on Australian soil is rare - and with such high stakes everyone hoped for aggressive racing.
Jess Hull lined up as favourite, but with familiar faces Gen Gregson, Linden Hall, and Melissa Duncan all expected to factor in the race as well. On top of the local threats, Japanese star Hitomi Niiya is known for front running and could easily upset the best laid plans of the main contenders.
From the jump, it looked like a Japanese contingent were happy to do Japanese things and sit on the front, with Hull, Gregson, and then Hall falling into line behind them.
5 laps in and there was a clear separation happening; Niiya, Hull, Gregson, and Hall just dangling off the back, out in front of a second pack of 8 runners, which included Heidi See, young gun Rose Davies, and Caitlin Adams.
Niiya happy to do the work and both Hull and Gregson looking comfortable with the pace.
Halfway through the race and Niiya kept the front group on 15:12.00 pace; a pace that with a finishing kick would allow the winner to get inside the 15:10.00 standard for Tokyo selection.
In the second pack, Paige Campbell and Rose Davies continued to share the work up front, while defending champ Melissa Duncan battled to hold contact.
Ultimately Linden Hall couldn't hold on to the back of the front pack any longer, setting up an exciting final few laps for Niiya, Hull, and Gregson.
With 600m to go, Hull went around Niiya and kicked hard, putting the race out of reach by the time she heard the bell. Hull kept her foot on the gas and closed with a 65.1 final lap, crossing the line in 15:06.12 and securing the first Olympic spot of her career.
Gregson fought on bravely and clocked 15:20.60, showing remarkable range and showing she will again be very hard to beat in the steeple at Nationals next month.
Hitomi Niiya was second across the line in 15:15.41 - an impressive run given she did the majority of the work on the front.
It's rare that we can say a race involving Stewy McSweyn is the 'B' race of the meet, but that says something not just about the quality of the women's race, but also about McSweyn's dominance over the last 18 months.
We've all seen how easy he makes it look on the track, how comfortable he is in a Diamond League race in a deep field full of east Africans, but what many don't see is the before and after of McSweyn's races. Before the race, he's stopped almost constantly be well wishers and kids looking to get a photo - so much so that his AirPods are basically decorative only; he spends more time taking them out to talk to people than he does with them in his ears.
After the race, he no longer makes it off the track before the looters mob him for any sort of momento; his trademark arm sleeves are the most sought after, followed by his bib and even his hip number. I've no doubt he has fielded requests for the shirt off his back as well.
While McSweyn was the undeniable favourite for this one, there was plenty of interest in who would take up the challenge. Sam McEntee seemed an obvious protagonist, and word from the MTC camp was that Matt Ramsden was in a purple patch of form.
The pace in the opening laps was best described as pedestrian; with no one looking to take charge, South Australian based Team Tempo took up position at the front of the field - first with Max Stevens and then with Matt Clarke.
Sam McEntee kept himself at the front of the pack, eager to stay out of any tangles down back, with Gold Coast's Louis McAfee joining him.
With 8 laps to go the entire field was single file but importantly still together, Clarke gradually making the pace more honest.
With 6 laps to go the field was still together, Louis McAfee taking the reigns up front but with McEntee and McSweyn lurking.
As the pack crossed the line to mark 5 laps to go, McSweyn made his move - an effortless acceleration that was too much for everyone except Sam McEntee. In the space of a single lap they put around 50m on the rest of the field, as Jack Bruce and Matt Ramsden led the second pack.
McEntee, A Rio Olympian in the 5000m, stuck on the back of McSweyn as long as he could, finally popping with around 2.5 laps remaining.
At this point McSweyn had the race well and truly won, but he kep the pace on all the way to the finish. His coach, Nic Bideau, tweeting that McSweyn ran the final 5 laps in 5:02.
McSweyn wore a black armband throughout the race, and gestured to the heavens as he crossed the line, dedicating his national title to the late Maurie Plant, a much loved figure in Australian athletics and someone McSweyn credits as helping him get a start in his career.
West Australian Matt Ramsden closed hard to edge McEntee for 2nd place in 13:48.67.
McSweyn now has Tokyo spots in both the 5000m and 10000m, and has said he is focused on getting the qualifier in the 1500m next month at Nationals.