Forget about competing against world record holder David Rudisha, or being one of the youngest, most inexperienced runners in a 54-athlete field. Up until last Thursday, Clayton Murphy was mostly just worried about getting his damn passport in time for the 2015 IAAF World Championships, which begin Saturday in Beijing.
“For the last day, I’ve been so nervous that my passport’s been in the mail,” confesses the 20-year-old Murphy, whose first trip outside the United States came when he went to last month’s Pan American Games in Toronto and won the 800 meters. “I’ve just been a nervous wreck waiting for it to get back, and I finally received it this morning.”
This wasn’t some case of college-student procrastination. Murphy didn’t know he’d be competing in Beijing until last Monday, when USA Track and Field named him to the American roster. He quickly applied for a Chinese visa and forked over the dreaded expedition fee to ensure his participation.
Most athletes knew of their Team USA status way back in June, when the USATF National Championships took place in Eugene, Oregon. There, Murphy had finished fourth in the 800, running a personal best time of 1:45.59. It was the culmination of a breakthrough spring for the University of Akron sophomore, who had placed a surprising third earlier that month at the NCAA Championships. Still, he wasn’t expecting to land a spot in Beijing — each country can enter only three athletes per event at worlds.
The winner of that Eugene race was veteran Nick Symmonds, one of the biggest stars in American track and field and the reigning world silver medalist. Heading into the meet, however, Symmonds was thought to be in relatively poor form, having skipped out on the 2014 outdoor season after an injury to focus on less athletic pursuits, such as writing a book and getting into the chewing gum business. He even copped to having seriously contemplated retirement, and was considered only an outside contender to finish in the top three, let alone win.
Naturally, this made Symmonds’s eventual victory all the more sweet. As he charged down the home stretch, he flexed his biceps — which are pretty impressive for a mid-distance runner — for the rapturous Hayward Field crowd. Then, upon crossing the finish line, he popped his neon yellow Brooks singlet. Suddenly, a strong showing in Beijing seemed distinctly possible.
About that jersey-pop, though: It was hard not to view it as a subtle shot at his former sponsor, Nike, which he’d been unsparingly critical of in the past for forbidding its athletes “to market themselves to potential other sponsors.” Symmonds would soon take a more direct stance against the fabled brand, announcing earlier this month that he wouldn’t sign USATF’s mandatory “athlete statement of conditions,” which, due to a massively lucrative contract with the brand, required Team USA members to wear Nike-branded apparel “during competition, award ceremonies, press conferences, and other official team functions.”
Under dispute: the specific definition of a team function, which Symmonds felt was too broad. He didn’t mind racing in the swoosh-adorned Team USA gear, but he wanted to be able to represent Brooks outside of competition. Otherwise, where was his sponsor’s return on investment?
Because Murphy finished fourth at USAs, he was poised to join the American 800 squad of Erik Sowinski and Casimir Loxsom if Symmonds declined his spot on the team. But he never thought that Symmonds would actually go through with it. After all, Symmonds had always been an outspoken advocate of athletes’ rights — this was just par for the course — and there was no way he’d ever pass up the opportunity to defend his silver medal. Something would work itself out. Right?
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Wrong. On August 10, ESPN’s Darren Rovell reported that USATF had officially notified Symmonds that he wouldn’t be competing at worlds. This was when Murphy found out that he was in. “I heard about it with everyone else — through Twitter and Instagram,” he says. “I wasn’t even contacted by USATF prior to Sunday evening.”
In fact, Murphy thought his track season was already over when he got the news. He had just won silver in the 800 at the NACAC Championships in Costa Rica, and was planning to take a short break from running before cross-country started in the fall. He even went so far as to begin indulging in junk food like nachos and soda with reckless abandon.
So, does he still have enough figurative gas left in the tank to run well in Beijing? He certainly thinks so.
“I felt like I still had enough left,” he says, explaining his decision to accept the Team USA invite. “I rested enough between Pan Ams and Costa Rica that I hadn’t gotten to an exhaustion point yet, despite the long season.”
While Murphy’s personal best is fairly pedestrian by world championship standards — this year’s field features six runners who’ve dipped under 1:43 in their careers — he seems to excel in the multiple-round format of a championship meet, where competitors must run in preliminary heats before advancing to the final. Usually, these races come down to the final sprint, as runners stick together early to conserve energy for later rounds. And, man, can Murphy sprint.
He might be the only collegiate distance runner in the country whose university bio lists his 100-meter personal best: 11.84, which he ran in high school. When I bring this up to Murphy, he can’t help but muster a chuckle. “That sub-12 100 is kind of embarrassing because of how slow I was out of the blocks,” he wryly admits. “My dad always says that I was probably the ninth guy out of the blocks, and there were only eight guys in the race. Everyone else had a step and a half on me.”
Murphy also boasts prodigious endurance. While many 800-meter standouts just run cross-country to stay in shape during track’s offseason, this is not the case for Murphy. At Tri-Village Local School in New Madison, Ohio, he placed fourth in the state cross-country meet as a senior, running a blistering 15:32 for 5K. Upon matriculating to Akron, he immediately became one of the Zips’ top harriers, earning All-MAC second-team honors as a freshman. His 5,000-meter personal best — 14:15.61 — is staggeringly fast for a 1:45 800 runner.
Murphy’s versatility has proved to be his greatest strength as a runner. It wasn’t even his intention to focus on the 800 this year — it just sort of happened by accident. “At the beginning of this year, I was focusing on the mile,” he says. But then he ran a blazing 1:47.06 at the NCAA Indoor Championships in March, good for third overall, and, well, how could he not reshuffle his priorities a bit?
He remains steadfastly committed to the mile/1,500 meters going forward.1 “The majority of my training’s been for the mile, still,” he says firmly. “Next year, the goal is to move up to the 1,500.”
The 1,500, a.k.a. the “metric mile,” is run at most championship meets; the actual mile is run less frequently.
Next year, of course, is an Olympic year, and Murphy’s sights are set on Rio. When I prod him about whether he’s given thought to signing a pro contract in light of his breakout campaign, he demurs, opting instead to profess that his “end goal is to run well at the Olympics next year.” In the meantime, though, he’s just excited to be in Beijing. “I was talking with my roommate today, and he said, ‘Hey, Matt Centrowitz is playing FIFA with Mo Farah at worlds. That’s going to be you in a couple days.’ It’s so surreal.”