German Fernandez just ran 3:56.50 in his first indoor mile race ever. He won the race with a big finish, despite being just two months removed from an Achilles injury that kept him from finishing the NCAA Championships. It set an unofficial* junior indoor world record, and was among the greatest ever performances by an American junior. He is 18 years old, and will turn 19 in November of this year.
What I found interesting about this weekend was that another young runner, Matthew Kisorio, ran what was arguably a more impressive race that went largely unnoticed. He won the Discovery Cross Country Championship in Eldoret, Kenya, defeating such elite studs as Luke Kibet (World Marathon champion), Asbel Kiprop (Junior World Cross Country champion) and Barnabas Kosgei (World Cross Country bronze medallist). Kisorio is apparently 1.5 years older than German Fernandez, and boasts a 5k personal best of 13:11, run as a 19 years old. As an 18 year old, his best was 13:28.
For all intents and purposes, these two look pretty equal to me. I'd be shocked if Fernandez didn't run 13:28 this year, given the speed he showed on Saturday and the fact that he has an amazing ability to run at pace. But I have to wonder about their respective "development arcs" and whether Fernandez will show the same improvement as Kisorio has. I wonder about this because so much of this sport is mental, and a simple difference between who you compare yourself to can make all the difference in what you believe you can achieve.
Kisorio's "baseline" for comparison is so much higher than Fernandez's. Even as a 19-year old 13:11 guy, his baseline is Eliud Kipchoge's 12:52. Here, we are content to compare Fernandez to other American high schoolers and collegiate freshman and say, "He's the greatest ever!" And in that limited respect, he certainly could be. But if we cast the net a little wider, we get an entirely different picture. In fact, one could argue that our national measure of greatness is a bar set a little too low.
Here are the junior American records for the distances and middle distances (German's most likely "baseline"):
Junior American (Ryun/Gregorek times from here)
American (just for comparison, full list is here)
800m - 1:42.60 - Johnny Gray
1000m - 2:13.9 - Rick Wohlhuter
1500m - 3:29.30 - Bernard Lagat
1 mile - 3:46.91 - Alan Webb
3000m - 7:30.84 - Bob Kennedy
2 mile - 8:07.07 - Matt Tegenkamp
5000m - 12:58.21 - Bob Kennedy
10000m - 27:13.98 - Meb Keflezighi
There do not appear to be any indoor lists for American juniors, unfortunately. I would say that all of the American junior records from 3000m up are within Fernandez's reach, though I'm not sure he'll attempt a fast 10k while still eligible as a junior.
Now compare those times with the junior world records for the distance and middle distance events.
Indoor (full list here - only updated to 2006, unfortunately)
800m - 1:44.35 - Yuriy Borzakovskiy
1000m - 2:15.77 - Abubaker Kaki Khamis
1500m - 3:36.37 - Mike Too
1 mile - 3:56.50 - German Fernandez (previously 3:58.60 - Geoffrey Rono)
3000m - 7:40.83 - Markos Geneti
2 mile - 8:13.32 - Tariku Bekele
5000m - 13:32.90 - Ismael Kirui
Fernandez would appear to have at least two of these within reach this year, the 1500m and the 5000m. Both would be a stretch, but they remain a possibility. But check out the outdoor junior world record list (the true "baseline" for athletes like Kisorio).
Outdoor (full list here)
800m - 1:42.69 - Abubaker Kaki Khamis
1000m - 2:15.00 - Benjamin Kipkirui
1500m - 3:30.24 - Cornelius Chirchir
1 mile - 3:50.25 - Alex Kipchirchir
3000m - 7:28.78 - Augustine Kiprono Choge
5000m - 12:52.61 - Eliud Kipchoge
10000m - 26:41.75 - Samuel Kamau Wanjiru
steeple - 7:58.66 - Saif Saaeed Shaheen
Did you notice that the junior world records for 3000m and up are significantly faster than the American records in those events? Every day, when Kisorio wakes up, he knows he's 20 seconds behind his "baseline" at the same age. In fact, whereas most American runners view the American record as a reasonable career goal to shoot for, athletes like Kisorio treat our national records as milestones on the path to their ultimate destinations. That difference in mindset makes a huge difference in performance.
My hope is that German takes a similar approach to viewing this mile race and his subsequent performances. With his ability, he needs to be using the world as his benchmark, assuming the American records are his for the taking, and then settling for nothing less than his best.
*Indoor performances are not ratified as world records by the IAAF. They are simply "best performances".