TACOMA – Thursday night's opening session of the WIAA Class 4A/3A/2A Track and Field Championships featured six finals in the 3,200 meters and turned the state meet into a high performance distance carnival.
That's the way it feels these days in the Evergreen state, which has become so deep and unpredictable in the longer events that it seems almost anything is possible when the starter's gun sends another wave of runners on its way.
Marcus Dickson of White River, US#2 in the 1,600 meters and #3 in the 800, couldn't outkick Squalicum junior Patrick Gibson as both ran under the meet record in the Class 2A boys race.
Nathan Weitz of Shadle Park, third in last December's Foot Locker Cross Country Final, couldn't run away from Seattle Prep sophomore Joe Hardy in the in the Class 3A boys race. Hardy broke a 29-year-old meet record and ran 8:55.22, fastest of the meet.
Jordan McPhee of Mt. Rainier, also a Foot Locker finalist, almost won with a final lunge at the finish line. But upstart Chandler Olson of Woodinville PR'd by 12 seconds and beat McPhee by .01 seconds in 10:33.69.
Andrew Gardner of Mead, close so many times before, won his first state championship by kicking past rival Jacob Smith of Wentatchee, the 4A cross country champion. Gardner ran 8:59.83, Smith 9:01.96.
And in the 2A girls race, Cheney's Sanne Holland won for the second year in a row and broke the meet record in the process.
Meanwhile, Katie Knight of North Central won the 3A title, but lamented the absence of her cross-state rival and defending champion Amy-Eloise Neale, who has elected to concentrate on shorter races this year. Without Neale to push her, Knight couldn't stay on meet record pace and ran 10:26.92.
"Honestly, it was weird not having her in the race," said Knight, who finished second to Neale in 2010 and 2011. "I saw in the last couple weeks that she wasn't entering the 3,200. On one hand, that made it a little easier for me. But I love racing with Amy."
Neale took part in a 4x400 relay prelim, jogged circles around the infield with Knight so that she didn't feel completely abandoned, and watched her state continue to evolve as a distance running hotbed.
"I think Washington's kind of pulling it together right now," she said.
When they were freshmen, Neale, Knight and Kendra Weitz (who is injured) looked like they would go through their four years together as a dominant elite trio. Instead, they set a bar that other girls in the state began to chase.
Earlier this season, Neale returned to the track after a resting a tender hamstring and got beat in the 1,500 by a freshman from Camas. Alexa Efraimson ran US#4 4:23.41.
That was just one of several moments that have led to the question: What in the name of Gerry Lindgren is going on around here?
"You never know, especially in Washington, who's going to pop up," Knight said.
Conditions were dry for Thursday's racing, but there was a steady wind blowing in from the north that probably kept finish times from being even faster. In four of the six races the athlete who led the charge into the wind didn't win.
In the 2A girls' race, Holland bided her time behind Kingston's Marina Roberts and Lindbergh's Sarah Reiter. Then she made her move on the third lap and Squalicum's Brittany Gappa joined her up front. But Holland ran away, winning it over the final 300.
Holland said she's glad to be part of what's happening in Washington, sounding as much like a fan as part of the process.
"It's really, really fun," she said. "Weitz, Armstrong, Gardner, Yorks – it is fun to watch them. I am hoping (for good things) for all of them. It's hard to figure out who you want to win."
Dickson ran a leg on White River's 4x400 about an hour before his race in the 3,200, and although he tried to recover, it was clear the relay pulled something out of him.
Gibson knew his best strategy was to push the pace and force Dickson to work and that's exactly what he did. But with a lap to go, Gibson felt like a sitting duck with a 1:49/4:05 guy right behind him.
"I was scared going into that last lap," Gibson said. "(Dickson's) a great runner. With a lap to go I thought I was going to lose."
Dickson tried to lift with 200 to go, but he couldn't find a gear to overtake Gibson, who finished in 9:01.86. Dickson was timed in 9:04.91.
Dickson's primary interest this weekend is to help White River win its first track and field championship. He'll run in the 800, 1,600 and 4x400 and try to score as many points as he can.
Last Sunday, after hearing that Yorks had surpassed his US#1 in the 1,600 by running a solo 4:04, Dickson found the Lakes senior's phone number and called him up.
"Who is this?" Yorks asked.
"You took down my (No. 1) time! How could you?" Dickson blared on the other end with mock indignation.
They talked about their races and said they hoped they'd be on the starting line together at the Adidas Dream Mile in New York City. They may have to travel 3,000 miles in order to settle who is the king of Pierce County.
In the 3A boys race, Weitz ran aggressively from the front in a field loaded with contenders. He came through the 1,200 in 3:20 and then tried to surge away from the field. But Hardy and Kai Wilmot of North Central refused to go away. And Anthony Armstrong of Kamiakin, the defending champion, hung around as long as he could despite some trouble breathing (Armstrong has been hit hard by allergies this spring).
Weitz was about three seconds clear of anyone when he hit the bell lap at 7:49. Hardy set his self-doubt aside and decided to make one final push. He closed on Weitz and then blew by him with 120 meters to go.
Hardy moved to No. 9 all-time in Washington.
"I didn't think I was going to get him," he said. "I just went for it. I gave it as much as I had."
Weitz tied up just a bit and finished in 9:00.02. Wilmot, another sophomore, ran 9:01.83.
In the 4A race, Smith was the one who went on the attack. He went through 1,200 in 3:24 and 1,600 in 4:32. Six runners were still right behind him.
Gardner said he was already on his goal pace and felt the smart thing to do was let Smith lead it and then try to get him on the last lap. The plan worked. With 200 left, Gardner was shoulder to shoulder with Smith. And at 150, he was in the lead and on his way.
"I felt good the last 200, so I decided to push it and see what happens," Gardner said. Not only was it the junior's first title, but he finally got under 9:00 after running 9:01 as a freshman in 2010.
In the three boys' races, nine runners ran 9:05 or better and 17 broke 9:20. But there is more to come. As good as the 3,200s were on Thursday, the 1,600s on Saturday could be even better.