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By DARREN MILLER
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The pace of Friday’s 3,000-meter men’s steeplechase race at Hornet Stadium was coming easy for University of Iowa junior Nathan Mylenek.
Almost too easy.
At the national level, few competitors — if any — reach their goals after taking an early lead in any race, especially one as demanding and unpredictable as the steeplechase. Mylenek is proving to be a not-so-ordinary competitor for the Hawkeyes. He was strutting his stuff at the front of the third heat at the NCAA Preliminary Round on May 24 knowing two things.
1) He had to run at least 8:39 to advance to the NCAA Championships semifinal on June 5 in Austin, Texas, or 2) he had to be one of the top three placewinners in his heat.
That is what Myelenek knew. After realizing he was in front for a good chunk of the first half of the race, this is what he thought:
“Not going to lie, when I was leading I was like uh oh,” Mylenek said. “Usually leading is pretty tough and once they passed me and I fell back into fifth or six (place), I was like, no, not today. I have fallen back too many times and I’m not going to let today be another one of those days.”
A year ago in the same event on the same track, Mylenek finished 22nd with a time of 8:50.94. But the 2018-19 season has been a different, improved story for the versatile distance runner from Clarkston, Michigan. He finished 11th at the Big Ten cross country championships in the fall, running 24:00.4 over 8,000 meters. At the Midwest Regional in cross country, he placed third at 10,000 meters (30:55.2) and advanced to the national championships.
“He has a good, broad skillset, we try to work on that,” said Randy Hasenbank, Iowa’s distance coach. “He has run 3:44 in the 1,500, he runs the mile, 5K, qualifier in cross country at 10,000 meters. The guy has really good range…and he hurdles well.”
That rare combination of endurance and closing kick allows Mylenek to be a factor in any sort of tactical race. On May 24, he pushed the pace, fell back, and used a 62-second final 400 to place third in his heat in 8:41.89 and qualify for the NCAA Championships.
“I wasn’t expecting to lead off the gun,” Mylenek said. “In that third heat, anything can happen. Once I found out I was leading and I went through pretty fast, I decided I might as well slow it up. I had faith in my kick to get me there. This was kind of a survival race.”
He not only survived, but he also advanced. Mylenek’s lap splits were 72 seconds, 71, 71, 71 and then he finished the final 800 in 2:10.23.
“With about 600 (meters) left I decided I had to make my surge,” Mylenek said. “If I’m not going to do it now, I’m never going to do it. I made a surge and kept going from there.”
Stanford senior Steven Fahy won the third heat in 8:39.60 followed by Brigham Young sophomore Matt Owens (8:39.95) and Mylenek. Mylenek was the race leader after laps two, three, and four. His split of 67.57 was faster than anyone in the race on the seventh lap.
“He had to set an honest pace and he did, but no one went with him so he was going solo and doing a lot of work,” Hasenbank said. “He was smart in pulling back just a little bit because he realized they were sitting on him and he had to regenerate and be ready for the big push at the end.”
Iowa’s school-record steeplechase time of 8:38.53 was set by Mylenek on April 20 at the Mt. SAC Relays in Torrance, California. It broke the mark set by Deacon Jones 63 years ago.
At this point of the season, PRs aren’t as important to Mylenek as placing high enough to move on to the national steeplechase final June 7.
“From this point on, you have to place well and compete hard,” he said. “Anything can happen in any race, nothing is guaranteed.”