A group of five Michigan runners came into the Boston U. John Thomas Terrier Classic looking to break the four-minute barrier — the barrier that separates great from elite.
The year prior, at the same meet, three Wolverines broke that barrier, and this year’s group anticipated a similar result.
None of them could.
But to Michigan distance coach Kevin Sullivan, that was okay.
“The biggest thing is last year, we put a lot of focus on trying to break four minutes this weekend,” Sullivan said. “What happened was we were really successful in that as we had three guys that were under four minutes, but we didn’t run as well at the end of the season.
“This year, there’s much more of a focus on making sure these guys run fast at the end of the season. The key is improvement instead of having our best race this weekend.”
For the Michigan men’s track and field team, burning out too early is a mistake they want to avoid making again. Connor Mora, one of the three runners who broke four minutes in last year’s Classic, underperformed by his standards for the race, but for the coaching staff, the senior’s performance was well within its expectations.
“So really for us, (Mora) took a step forward from where he was two weeks ago,” Sullivan said. “I know he’s a little disappointed that he didn’t run faster, but we’re moving in the right direction to be at our best when it really matters.”
Finishing the mile with a time of 4:06.81, he tied for 23rd in the non-scoring meet. His co-finisher was fifth-year senior Aaron Baumgarten. Traditionally a 3k and 5k distance runner, Baumgarten lowered his competition distance for an opportunity to run faster in the mile.
Making the best of his chance, he sprinted to a fast start and was on pace to break four minutes. However, with a quarter of the distance left to go, Baumgarten failed to break away with the leading pack and fell behind as he was passed by teammate Chase Barnett. Placing 15th overall, Barnett finished with a time of 4:03.96 — the fastest time out of the Michigan runners.
“I think for (Barnett), it was a really positive step forward,” Sullivan said. “He’s a guy who showed a lot of promise as a sophomore and basically injured his entire junior year. For him to step back in and be at the level that he’s at is really a positive step for us and I think that he’s only going to get better from there.”
Barnett’s promise bloomed as he positioned himself to make the finish that he did. With a final push in the latter half of the race, Barnett finished runner-up within his section and only a tenth of a second shy of his career best.
Freshman Jack Aho shined as well, setting a personal record. With a time of 4:07.03, Aho showed potential that could prove useful down the road for the Big Ten Championships.
“Jack as a true freshman,” Sullivan said, “he was the one guy who came away with the personal best today. He beat his previous best by almost two seconds, so for him to be doing that in January is a pretty (good) sign at least for now.”
As the Classic participants showed improvement, the remainder of the team — which attended the Saginaw Valley State Jet’s Pizza Invitational — followed suit. Many runners posted career-bests. One such runner was freshman Josiah Carpenter, who ran a 22.34 and 49.44 for the 200-meter and 400-meter, respectively.
In a similar fashion, freshman Vail Hartman set personal records in the same distances, posting a 22.64 and 48.66. The Jet’s Pizza Invitational, an event for less experienced runners, proved to be a success for the team’s confidence. The Wolverines used the race as a display of what they can bring to the fold come time when it matters.
“We’re looking to improve every week,” Sullivan said. “And I think we’re better than we were two weeks ago, and we have a month until Big Ten Championships, so we’ll continue to improve until that point.”