Big names and bigger dreams at Lakeside Stadium
There’s nothing quite like an Olympic year. Late July can’t come soon enough; when as Australians we’ll get an Olympics in a favourable time zone, in a host city renowned for superior organization and attention to detail. Athletics needs some good news stories and there’s no better stage than the Olympic arena for new heroes to emerge.
Before that, before we get deep into the daily track schedule and plan our sleep around different heats, the cat and mouse game of qualifying for the Olympics is on. If we look at the marathon, especially on the women’s side, we’ve got 4 women currently inside the standard - Sinead Diver, Lisa Weightman, Ellie Pashley, and Milly Clark. Until recently Ellie Pashley was sitting 2nd fastest and feeling pretty safe on that list, before Lisa Weightman ran 2:26:02 in Osaka to go 19 seconds ahead. Milly Clark next races in March and will need to go under Ellie’s 2:26:21 if she wants to get a spot on the team - before Ellie has another crack in London in April.
But enough about the marathon.
A National Championship race in an Olympic year draws our best athletes out from whatever altitude camp or training block they’re in, giving us an increasingly rare opportunity to see them go head-to-head. That’s exactly what will happen in the 5000m National Championships at the Melbourne Track Classic, especially in the women’s race.
In what is probably the deepest field we’ve seen in a domestic race for decades, there are 4-5 realistic chances for the win, and a number of storylines to make the race interesting.
PR: 15:18.43 (2018)
Melissa Duncan pushed all the chips in last year, moving to Tokyo to join Japanese corporate team Sheseido (read about that here), running her fastest 5000m time of the year (15:20.88) in April, shortly after arriving. Prior to that, Duncan won the 2019 Australian 5000m title in windy conditions in Sydney - Duncan sat patiently behind Sinead Diver before moving out with 300m to go. Recently returned to Australia, Duncan cruelly missed the Rio Olympics after breaking her foot in the lead up to the Games. As the defending champ and one of the most experienced athletes in the race, Duncan deserves respect and will certainly impact the race.
PR: 15:00.32 (2019)
Returning from her training base in Beaverton, Oregon for the event, Hull is arguably the biggest threat in this race. Given she was in New South Wales over the holidays and then went back to the US to train, and then break the Australian 1500m indoor record in Boston, her entry into this field is not just to make up numbers or to accumulate Frequent Flyer miles.
As the only entrant who already has the time standard needed for selection (the standard is 15:10.00, Hull ran 15:00.32 in September 2019 for the 3rd fastest Australian time ever), Hull just needs to win - in whatever time, to guarantee selection on her first Olympic team.
Hull is a huge talent and one of our brightest prospects for Tokyo and the foreseeable future. After attending the University of Oregon and claiming a number of school records there, she signed a pro contract with Nike in mid 2019.
The reality for Hull is that even if she doesn't win this race, she's extremely likely to make the team for Tokyo, as it's improbable any Australian will run a faster 5000m than her 15:00.32 this year.
PR: 15:18.77 (2018)
1500m national record holder
Our 1500m national record holder (4:00.86), Hall is an awkward opponent for her competition in this race. If the pace is slow, Hall likely has more finishing speed than anyone in the field (Hall’s finishing speed is less of a lethal-kick and more of an ability to turn the screws from a long way out), and reports circulating around the Melbourne running community suggest her current form will allow her to go with any early moves. A classy runner, you get the impression the 15:10.00 standard is within Hall’s grasp at some point this year - a national title simplifying her path to another Olympic team.
“This has to be one of the best fields assembled for an Australian Champs 5k, it’s going to be pretty special to be a part of. Hopefully the conditions are favourable to run something quick.”
3000m steeplechase national record holder
National record holder in the 3000m steeple (9:14.28), Gregson is one of Australia’s most recognisable track athletes for good reason. In December she won the national 10,000m title (32:47.83), effectively meaning she has a spot held for her if she can run the qualifier this year (31:25.00). Gregson has the leg speed to be a nuisance in this race - her 5000m PB of 15:06.67 indicative of her threat level.
I suspect Gregson is probably using this race as a fitness test 8 weeks out from the steeple nationals, but she’ll definitely have an influence on the outcome.
“It’s amazing to see that in an Olympic year so many talented athletes have timed their run to produce a domestic field like this. I’m eager to be part of it and I promise we will put on a show.”
Others to watch here include Heidi See - former 1500m national champ, See moved to the US in 2019 to join The Mission AC - the same group as Nikki Hiltz. Olympian Madeline Hills is a bit of an unknown coming in; her 15:04.05 PB set in the Rio Games is good enough for 5th Australian all time, but Hills has raced sparingly over the last 6 months. She could absolutely be a factor in this race - another storyline worth following. A group of youngsters, including Paige Campbell, Rose Davies, Caitlin Adams, and Natalie Rule will be on display as well, eager to show they deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the top contenders.
With a field of this quality, the pace should be honest from the start. Add in Japanese star Hitomi Niiya (who won Zatopek 2018, and more recently broke the Japanese ½ marathon record with a 66:38 in Houston 3 weeks ago), and I don’t see this being a slow, tactical race (outside of Lakeside throwing up strong winds). If no one is prepared to do the work early, it sets the race up for Hull or Hall; both have supreme finishing speed and Hull has shown throughout her young career that she’s prepared to sit and kick - most recently against teammate and World Champs medalist, Konstanze Klosterhalfen.
A quick race opens up the chess board more; do we potentially see multiple athletes go under the 15:10.00 standard? (Lakeside Stadium isn’t known for speed so it's unlikely we see athletes go under the time, but if the conditions are right anything is possible). Do the travel miles start to weigh on Hull’s legs, giving Hall or perhaps Duncan a better chance at victory? If Niiya goes hard early (which she is prone to do) who follows? Does Gregson, who probably has the least to lose in this race given she is virtually a lock for selection in the steeple, go for broke and try to stick on the back of Niiya?
Ultimately I think Jess Hull is in her own class when it comes to this event and I don’t see anyone outkicking her. The slightly more achievable scenario is to make the race hot from the start; though with her 15:00.38 PR, that’s not likely to bother Hull much either. I'd love to see an honest pace from the gun, with Hall turning the screws 600m out and seeing who can hold on.
The Men's Race
Stewy McSweyn. That's it.
Jokes aside, it’s hard to see McSweyn being challenged here, and that’s taking nothing away from the field because there are multiple Olympians lining up, but McSweyn has simply been Australia’s best track athlete by a long way over the last 18 months. Consider where he sits on the Australian all time list in the following events; 1500m - 2nd, 3000m - 2nd, 5000m - 2nd, 10,000m - 1st.
If McSweyn is fit and fresh, which we think he is, he wins. Other contenders are likely to be Olympians Dave McNeill and Sam McEntee, as well as Jack Bruce.
The Olympic standard for men is 13:13.00 - a time McSweyn went well clear of in 2019 when he ran 13:05.63. Interestingly, McSweyn is the only athlete in the race to have gone under the standard. Given he has the time already, if he wins he will have some decisions to make - McSweyn has already locked down a spot in the 10,000m for Tokyo.
Editor's Note: If you're in Melbourne, get tickets to the Melbourne Track Classic here. If you're not, check Athletics Australia social channels for live stream details.