Both Matthew Centrowitz and Brenda Martinez knew the surge to the finish was going to happen late, and that it was just a matter of timing their breaks right.
Patience proved virtuous for both young runners.
In his first road race ever, the 22-year-old Centrowitz kicked passed defending champion Bernard Lagat and Olympic silver medalist Leo Manzano to win the men’s race while Martinez, 25, sprinted to the lead with 200 meters remaining to take the women’s title at the NYRR Fifth Avenue Mile Presented by Nissan on Saturday.
The victories capped impressive seasons for both Centrowitz and Martinez. Centrowitz became just the second man in history, after Spain’s Isaac Viciosa in 1997, to win the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games and the Fifth Avenue Mile, both iconic races in New York City, in the same year. For Martinez, it was another win at the distance, after titles in the Falmouth Mile on August 11 and at the Great North CityGames in Newcastle, England, last weekend.
“This is definitely huge for me,” said Centrowitz, whose father and mother both have strong ties to the Big Apple: father Matt, a two-time Olympian, was a high school state champion out of Power Memorial, and mother Beverly competed for Hunter College. “I love coming to New York. I came here twice this year and I’m 2-0. I’d like to come to New York a lot more in the future.”
While unsure of exactly what to expect, Centrowitz had the good sense to follow the master Lagat, the defending champion who in fifth consecutive years at this race has never finished lower than fourth.
Similar to the tactic taken by Morocco’s Amine Laalou in 2010, when he, too, was competing for the first time, Centrowitz moved up from mid-pack to Lagat’s right shoulder with 150 meters to go. When Lagat surged, Centrowitz covered the move and then flew passed him in the final 50 meters.
“[This] being my first road mile, I didn’t really feel comfortable the whole way,” Centrowitz said. “It’s hard to settle in these kinds of races. There is no doubt about it, I was definitely keying off Bernard. Early on, I tried sitting off his shoulder a little bit. I knew that late in the race someone was going to make a strong push. They weren’t going to leave it to inside the last 100. It ended up being Bernard and I just went when I felt like it was right.”
Lagat, 37, was well-positioned to make a play for a repeat victory. He said that he began his kick earlier than he normally might have due to the presence of Centrowitz and Manzano, both strong finishers.
“I knew that someone, either Leo or Matt, was going to come,” Lagat, who finished fourth in the London Olympic 5000 meters, said. “I wanted to give my best and run hard that last 100 because if I left it to 20 meters like normal I thought I might not have a good shot at it. I started pushing at 100 to go because I knew these two gentlemen would be in pursuit, and that’s what happened. With 50 meters to go, a great miler just passed me.”
Manzano was also expecting to surge late, but said that he mis-timed his kick and paid the price.
“My plan was to really come out and be the last one to kick, but I kind of got mixed up,” he said. “With 200 meters to go, I really gave it a good push. I guess any time that you run a straight mile it is really easy to get excited and carried away. You have the markers but the finish line looks like it is right there. It seems a lot closer, so it inspires you to really get after it.”
That kind of over-eagerness is a danger that Martinez said she has been working hard to avoid, and only this year have the lessons started to take root. Martinez finished last here in 2010.
“My coaches have taught me that for the 1500 meters or the mile to just be patient, never take the lead and kind of let everyone else do the work,” she said. “I feel like I matured a lot this year and learned to be patient and to just get into a rhythm, be comfortable, and when it is time to go, be ready.”
Martinez executed that plan perfectly. She sat back in the pack while defending champion Jenny Simpson led for the first quarter before fading, and while Chelsea Reilly and British Olympian Julie Bleasdale battled for the lead where the road crested at the half-mile mark.
Reilly was still running strong on the descent toward the finish, but Martinez was coming up behind her and Anna Pierce, the eventual runner-up, and Hannah England, who finished third, were running strong on the left and right flanks of the pack. Those three were in control of the race inside the final quarter, with Martinez pulling away 200 meters from the finish.
“I wanted to wait until 200 meters to go,” Martinez said. “I felt very good so around that time is when I started to drop my head, pump my arms and kick for my life.”
It was the second straight week that Martinez was able to sit and kick with success. At the Great North CityGames, she was able to pull away from England over the final 200 meters along the Tyne quayside.
“I came in confident,” said Martinez, who won mile races in New York at the New Balance Games and U.S. Open during the indoor season. “That win in Newcastle was really good for me. When it comes to courses, hills, wind, that doesn’t really matter. Everyone was still running hard. I just tried to have fun in the race and I did that today.”
For full results, click here.