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Eaton, Verzbicas Deliver Strong Performances at the Pre Classic
By Steve Ritchie - Special to the Statesman Journal
June 4, 2011

Ashton Eaton

EUGENE - On a day when a few of the local heroes faltered just a bit, Ashton Eaton’s performance at the 37th annual Prefontaine Classic in Eugene on Saturday added to his growing stature in the world of track and field.

Eaton, the former UO star who is one of the top American decathletes, ran against the world’s best hurdlers in the 110 meter high hurdles and more than held his own, placing fifth in a personal best of 13.35. David Oliver, ranked first in the world in the event last year, won the race in a world-leading time of 12.94, edging Chinese rival Liu Xiang by .06 seconds.

Admitting that he was nervous at the prospect of facing a world-class field, Eaton said his race got off to a bad start, but he was able to recover and close strongly over the last half of the race.

“I just got so excited, my steps (to the first hurdle) were really short and choppy, and I was like a mile away when I took off. I just drilled it.

“After that, I don’t even remember what happened. I just saw the time and thought ‘oh cool’ – I should have run faster.”

Eaton’s time was his personal best by .17 seconds and was faster than any high hurdles race ever run as part of a decathlon competition. Eaton said that fact will give him even more confidence when he competes in the hurdles as part of the decathlon.

His day wasn’t over, however. Eaton went directly from the finish line to the introduction of the long jump competitors. After a close foul on his first attempt, Eaton began to find his rhythm, leaping 26-00.25 on his fourth attempt. But, with the US championship meet coming up in less than three weeks, he passed his last two jumps and finished in sixth place.

“The long jump was really good and I was just getting into my rhythm, but coach (Harry Marra) told me to shut it down. We don’t want to risk anything.”

Nick Symmonds talking to his coach Mark Rowland

In the men’s 800, local favorites Nick Symmonds and Andrew Wheating finished eighth and fifth, respectively, in a race won by Sudan’s Abubaker Kaki in a world-leading and meet record time of 1:43.68. Kaki took over from the pace-setter at the start of the second lap and never looked back, winning easily by nearly two seconds over American veteran Khadevis Robinson.

Symmonds and Wheating, who created one of Hayward Field’s most memorable moments with their 1-2 finish in the 2008 Olympic Trials, both expressed frustration afterwards.

“I’m healthy,” said Symmonds, “but I’m just so raw. I haven’t done any speed work. That’s no excuse. I still should be able to run better than that.” Symmonds, who has won the 800 at the Pre Classic twice, and is a three-time US champion, was timed in 1:46.78.

Andrew Wheating

Wheating said he thought he was ready for a fast race, but it didn’t materialize, as he finished in 1:45.95, well off his personal best of 1:44.56.

“It’s kind of disappointing, but it’s early enough (in the season) that I think I kind of expected too much. I wanted to run fast and I wanted to win more than anything.”

One runner whose race did go according to plan was high school phenom Lukas Verzbicas, who will enroll at the University of Oregon in the fall. Verzbicas was gunning for the national high school two mile record of 8:34.40, set three years ago by German Fernandez, and he got it, destroying the mark by five seconds with his 8:29.46 finish.

Verzbicas knew that, with such a world-class field, he couldn’t win the race, so he settled in at the back of the 15-runner pack. He ran the last two laps almost totally on his own, but was bolstered by the roaring Hayward Field crowd, which was well aware of his quest to break the record.

“The crowd was just amazing . . . I didn’t expect that at all. Listening to them (over the last two laps) was so much of a help. I just have to thank them.”

In addition to being the top high school distance runner in the U.S., Verzbicas is also an outstanding triathlete in his age-group. He said he will run one more high school race next weekend, and then shift focus to training this summer for the World Youth Triathlon Championships, to be held in Beijing in September. Following that competition, he will focus on running collegiately for UO.

“I’m so excited,” said Verzbicas. “I just can’t wait for the next four years.”

In other action at the Pre, Eugene’s Jesse Williams high jumped 7-7 ½, good for third place, and former UO star Rachel Yurkovich threw 185’ in the women’s javelin to place 7th. OTC Elite runner Geena Gall broke two minutes for the first time in the women's 800 and was the second American in the race. OTC Elite miler Russell Brown finished 9th in the Bowerman Mile while recording a personal best 3:51.45.


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