Sometimes, all it takes is just one race to rise to national prominence.
Such is the case with McGill-Toolen Catholic (Mobile, Ala.) junior Carmen Carlos. She won last Saturday’s Mobile Challenge of Champions 2-mile for the third consecutive year. The city is best known for producing five members of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, but the versatile distance runner is on her way to being Hall of Fame material herself.
Carlos had in the past three years become a dominant state and strong regional-class performer in the 1,600 and 3,200-meter runs, as well as cross country, and one figured it was just a matter of time before she made a breakthrough on the national level.
That breakthrough came in March at the New Balance Nationals Indoor in New York City.
Carlos was up against some of the best distance runners in the country in the 2-mile run, including Sachem East (Farmville, N.Y.) senior Rachel Paul and Bernards (Bernardsville, N.J.) senior Dana Giordano, who was at that time the nation’s 3,200 leader (10:24.73 from the New Jersey Meet of Champs.
It was a hotly contested race from start to finish, and it culminated with Carlos nearly colliding with Paul at the finish line. Carlos won with a time of 10:25.30. It was 18 seconds than her previous best (outdoors) for the deuce and the equivalent of a 12-second PR over her 10:34.02 3,200 best set in February.
Some felt that Carlos should have been disqualified because it appeared she impeded Paul’s progress. Carlos’ coach, Drew Bentley, had a different take.
“Carmen had the inside lane,” he said. “The other runner (Paul) came out of the straightaway in lane two and literally stopped running, and then cut across to hold her back. If you watch the video, (it shows that) the other girl tried to obstruct Carmen. In fact, the third-place runner (Giordano) said the second-place runner tried to cut her off.”
Bentley said that despite the last few moments of the race, Carlos never lost focus.
“Carmen never changed her running style,” he said. “The other girl (Paul) put her hand back. But I thought it was a great finish, because when you get in a championship race, that’s what you want to see, and if anything, the other girl was in jeopardy of being disqualified.”
“I was sure that I wasn’t disqualified, but I thought about it some,” Carlos said. “I felt bad that she (Paul) fell down, but what happens, happens.”
Just like that, Carlos wound up in the national spotlight, and with that, the challenge to find enough quality competition to keep progressing and prepare for possible outdoor nationals.
“Her season has to be catered to where she can get personal bests and competition,” said Bentley. “There are so few opportunities locally for her to be challenged.”
Saturday’s Challenge 2-mile loomed as one such opportunity. Carlos was primed to challenge the meet record of 10:23.05, set by Laura Zeigle of Bingham High in South Jordan, Utah in 2002. Despite a solid field, Carlos was unchallenged for most of the race, and managed to run ‘only’ 10:44.71.
Still, she won by a substantial margin. The time was not all bad—it was just a second slower than she ran here last year and a current U.S. leader for the full two miles.
“I felt that I wasn’t at my best, but I was still determined to stay on pace,” Carlos said. “I ended up falling off the pace, but I’m happy that I won.”
“You can be up only so many times,” said Bentley. “But even in the elite field at the Challenge, she almost lapped a runner. People have to realize now that she’s at a level where you have to train and be in select meets where she can have strong performances.”
Carlos hopes she will have some more opportunities to run in more elite meets.
“Hopefully, I can go to other meets at other states and run some fast times,” she said. “Of course, I’m also looking forward to meets like the Mobile County championships and the state meet to help my team win.”