In track and field, improvements are made incrementally, by tenths, if not hundredths, of a second, so when BYU’s Lucas Bons busted a 3:55.45 mile in Seattle a couple weeks ago he created quite a buzz in the sport. In a single race the Ohio freshman improved his best time by a whopping 14 seconds. His previous best was a 4:09.25.
In BYU’s long, rich history of track and field, only Miles Batty has run a faster mile — 3:54.54 in 2012, which was the collegiate record at the time.
“In 21 years of coaching, it was the most shocked I’ve ever been,” said BYU coach Ed Eyestone.
Lucas, along with Courtney Wayment and Olivia Hoj Simister, will be among BYU’s top three entries in the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships, which will be held Thursday-Saturday in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Like many other teams, the Cougars will enter the meet at less than full strength. The NCAA postponed the 2020 cross-country championships — traditionally held in November — and rescheduled them for Monday, just two days after the national indoor track championships. That’s not enough rest for distance runners to recover for a 10,000-meter (6.2-mile) cross-country race, but the NCAA refused to change the date despite protests from coaches. It was a ridiculous decision by the NCAA, which could have easily put more distance between the two meets.
“I wish they were more than two days apart,” said BYU’s star distance runner Connor Mantz. “Then I would be fine to do both.”
BYU, Northern Arizona and Stanford, among others, have elected not to enter their distance runners in the track championships to save them for the cross-country championships. It’s a pragmatic decision — those teams rank among the favorites in cross-country. BYU is ranked No. 1 in the men’s competition and No. 2 in the women’s competition. In the last three NCAA championships, the men have finished first, second and third, respectively; the women second, 10th and seventh.
Because of the NCAA’s poor scheduling, BYU will take only three men to the NCAA track championships, leaving behind an all-star team of distance runners, including Connor Mantz, Casey Clinger and Brandon Garnica, who have the three fastest times in the world in the 5,000-meter run this year (Mantz also has the nation’s third fastest time in the 3,000-meter run). All of the above will race only in the cross-country championships. The Cougars top entries will be Bons and pole vaulter Zach McWhorter, who has the second best mark in the nation (a school-record 18-103⁄4).
Wayment and Simister, who were part of the BYU team that finished second in the 2019 NCAA cross-country championships, have completed their cross-country eligibility so they will compete in this week’s track championships. Wayment has the fastest times in the nation in both the mile and the 3,000-meter run, and Simister ranks third and fourth, respectively.
Notwithstanding, they will not enter the mile race and will enter only the 3,000-meter race; the track schedule doesn’t allow enough rest to run both races. Instead, they will contest the 3,000 one day and run legs on the distance medley relay a second day, pairing up with sisters Lauren and Alena Ellsworth. The relay is seeded seventh.
Wayment, a two-time cross-country All-American (she was fifth in the 2019 championships and 23rd in the 2018 championships) has been the frontrunner on a remarkably deep team of middle-distance runners. Wayment, Simister, Heather Hanson, Kate Hunter and Simone Plourde all produced times in the mile that rank among the top 15 in the nation and among the top 10 times ever run by BYU athletes.
Wayment and Simister rank 2-3 on BYU’s all-time fastest times for the mile, with times of 4:30.47 and 4:31.73. Clare Seymour has the nation’s fourth fastest time in the 800 and the second fastest in school history, 2:02.20.
“It’s awesome that we have the depth to send women to both meets (track and cross-country),” said women’s coach Diljeet Taylor.
Taylor, a former runner-up at 800 meters in the NCAA indoor championships, has made her mark at the school. She has been coaching at BYU for only five years and already her athletes dominate the top-10 board for the all-time marks in the middle distances, including the top 10 times for the mile and the top two times in the 800 (as well as the top two times in both the 3,000- and 5,000-meter runs). This year’s team has seen eight women run under 2:08 in the 800 and five of them 4:37 or faster in the mile.
BYU has delivered a memorable season in track and cross-country. Probably no one has delivered a more stunning performance than Bons. According to Eyestone, Bons’ best time in the mile at the outset of the season wasn’t even fast enough to justify the expense of an airline ticket to the Husky Invitational in Seattle, “but I felt he was ready to make improvement, based on his workouts.” That said, he wasn’t prepared for what happened.
“I thought maybe he could run close to 4:01,” said Eyestone.
A rabbit — or pacesetter — was hired to lead the race, hoping to drag Washington’s Sam Tanner — who set a collegiate record in the 1,500-meter run earlier this season, to a fast mile time. The rabbit approached Bons and asked about his race plan. Bons said he wanted to run 4:05. The rabbit took the field through the first 800 in 1 minute, 58 seconds.
“Lucas was hanging in there behind Tanner,” said Eyestone. “I thought, I hope he can hold that.”
The rabbit dropped out of the race and Tanner picked up the pace, running a 58.1 third lap and still Bons was sticking with him. “At that point I was thinking he might break four minutes as a freshman,” said Eyestone. Tanner again picked up the pace, running a 57.5 last lap, and as they neared the finish Bons actually pulled up on his shoulder, but was held off. Tanner edged the freshman, 3:55.23 to 3:55.45.
As Eyestone tweeted after the race, “You know it’s an epic race when you check your stopwatch three times and then put on your reading glasses and check it again.” Later, he would explain, “That’s true. That’s what I did. When he crossed the line I looked at my watch thinking, OK, maybe a sub-four and then, what!? I hugged him with my mouth agape.” The delighted pacesetter approached Bons and said, “Four oh five, my a--!” Bons turned to Eyestone and uttered the understatement of the day when he asked, “Will that qualify me for the NCAA meet?”
“That’s the second fastest time ever run at BYU, ahead of three Olympians,” Eyestone replied, referring to Doug Padilla, Paul Cummings and Jason Pyrah.
Bons, seeded third, will compete in a very deep mile field at the indoor championships.
BYU has a lot at stake in the men’s and women’s races the next few days, both in track and cross-country.