NEW YORK (8 September)—Jenny Simpson and Nick Wills extended their dominance at the New Balance 5th Avenue Mile, earning hard-fought victories in close battles down the famed Manhattan roadway.
For Simpson, a Rising New York Road Runners ambassador and special advisor, it was a record-extending eighth overall (and seventh consecutive) title in the event, while Willis broke the record for most men's victories with his fifth win. A record 9,172 runners soared down the New York stretch of 20 blocks and coming into the race, all eyes were on Simpson.
Under sunny skies with warm temperatures (74F), the women's pro field set off at an aggressive tempo. Simpson, who lives and trains in Boulder, CO, was among the early leaders on the opening downhill quarter mile, with New Balance teammate Elinor Purrier and Jessica Judd of Great Britain beside her. After an uphill second quarter mile, Simpson had a slight lead and continued to press the pace. Purrier, Judd, and American Nikki Hiltz were on her heels at the front of a tightly bunched pack.
As they hit the descent, the Boston-based Purrier pushed to the lead and ran side-by-side with Simpson. Finally, with about 300 meters to go, the second-year professional out of the University of New Hampshire opened up a slight gap. But Simpson never ceded more than a few inches. Her familiarity with the uneven terrain of Fifth Avenue—as well as her ability to use the crowd as a secret weapon—was the deciding factor as she edged ahead to break the tape in 4:16. That cut half a second off the event record she set in 2017 and shared with PattiSue Plumer.
"To set a course record is such a huge point of pride for me," Simpson told Race Results Weekly afterward. "To think that at this point in my career I'm still running personal bests, I am really proud of that."
Purrier was just one-tenth of a second behind, while Rebecca Mehra (4:22) of Bend, OR, was back in third. Hiltz (4:25) and Judd (4:26) rounded out the top five.
Simpson scored her first 5th Avenue Mile title back in 2011 and has now won seven years in a row since 2013. She credits that experience in helping her navigate the bumpy final stretch.
"The road is rough, so learning how to stay on your feet is a big part of this race," she said. "But that will to win is the biggest thing in the last 150 meters. You have to look up at that finish and say that no matter what it takes, I have to get there first."
The 2016 Olympic bronze medalist in the 1500 meters, Simpson will soon head to Doha, Qatar, to compete in the IAAF World Championships, which begin later this month. She previously won a world title in 2011 and picked up silver in 2013 and 2017.
Purrier, the 2018 NCAA Indoor champion in the indoor mile, is joining Simpson on Team USA in Doha, though she will be racing the 5000 meters. She admitted that Simpson's reputation in this event was on her mind.
"It's a little intimidating, I'm not gonna lie," she said. "But I tried not to let that get in my head and just give myself a chance and put myself there."
Astonishingly, the men's race was even closer. After Sam Parsons bolted to the lead on the climb to the half-mile mark, the field patiently reeled him in. With a quarter mile to go, a massive pack prepared for a closing sprint.
Just under 300 meters from the tape, Chris O'Hare of Great Britain bolted ahead and quickly opened up a 10-meter gap. It appeared that he'd startled his rivals just enough to make it home, but Sam Prakel managed to close the gap with less than a 100 meters to go. Moments later, Willis, who had been several strides behind, came sprinting through on the right-hand side of the roadway, sneaking into the picture. Dipping at the tape like a sprinter, the New Zealand native, who lives in Ann Arbor, MI, won by inches, with both athletes clocking 3:51.
"With 40 meters to go I hit a manhole cover and I lost my momentum a little bit and I thought that must be it," said Willis, a two-time Olympic medalist, who previously won this event in 2008, 2013, 2015 and 2017. "But I did just enough to get my chest in front of his."
Prakel was just a tenth of a second behind in third, while Australian Morgan McDonald (3:52) and American Andy Bayer (3:53) finished fourth and fifth.
Though Willis already shared the record for most men's wins on Fifth Avenue before this race (with Isaac Viciosa of Spain), he was considered an underdog this time around. At age 36, he's struggled in his racing this season, and won't know for sure if he's made it into the World Championships field until later this week. He also aims to compete at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
"It's been a challenging season for me and it was hard to stay motivated," he admitted. "There were several times this year where I was like, is it really worth the sacrifice anymore. But today shows that it is. It's going to give me another lease on life for Tokyo, 11 months from now."