Anyone who thinks the men’s 5,000 meters is more of a marathon than a sprint needs to reconsider such a notion, especially after watching Stanford sophomore Grant Fisher dash across the finish line Friday night at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon.
Nearing the conclusion of 12½ grueling laps at Hayward Field, the 20-year-old hit the afterburners and took the lead on the final straightaway, then held off his closest threat by 0.38 seconds.
It’s the first NCAA men’s outdoor title for the Cardinal since 2012.
“I didn’t want to show all my cards too early, because I knew someone was sitting on my shoulder, too,” Fisher said. “So I was trying to gradually ramp it up and about halfway down the straight I kind of realized that I was already going all out. I just tried to hold everything together. I mean, my legs felt like lead at that point and my arms felt terrible.
“The last 100 meters felt like it took a really long time, but I got to the finish line in one piece.”
Fisher managed to avoid a collapse at the end — “Probably a little bit of an adrenaline boost that kept me up,” he said — and almost immediately spotted his parents, who made the trip from Grand Blanc, Michigan.
“My mom was actually crying,” Fisher said. “I didn’t have to look for them, because they came down to the fence right on the track. They were right by the finish line by the end of it, and it was fun to see them.”
No matter the distance, Fisher finds a way to end up on the podium.
In the fall, he placed fifth at the NCAA cross country championships. This season, the Pac-12 champion in the men’s 1,500 meters didn’t lose any of his five races.
It was tough to know what to expect after he sat out the indoor portion of the schedule in the winter nursing a hip flexor injury.
“It just made me limp a lot,” Fisher said. “So if I kept running on it I would’ve hurt something else because my form was so bad.”
The 5,000 meters is a staple on The Farm, with a finalist for nine consecutive years.
Fisher is the fourth Cardinal to win the race at the NCAA championships, beginning with Brad Hause in 2000, Jonathon Riley the next year and most recently Ryan Hall in 2005.
“The history is there,” Fisher said. “And to be a part of that with a coach that really believed in me, that’s kind of why I came here.”
The weather doesn’t hurt.
“Looking back, I don’t know how I trained in the winters in Michigan,” Fisher said. “Because I go home for Christmas and there’s just snow and ice everywhere and it’s freezing. We definitely have ideal conditions here in Palo Alto, as far as facilities and places to run and weather.”
Confident going into the meet, Fisher considered himself a contender, but “in my mind, I don’t think I was the favorite,” he said.
In terms of strategy, the 5,000 meters is long enough to allow runners the ability to recover from any early mistakes, but it’s important to be engaged over the last mile.
“Fifteen minutes is a long time to focus on one thing,” Fisher said. “You don’t want to be so hyper-focused on the race, because that just kind of wears you down mentally, and when moves start to get made at the end you’re already exhausted. But you also don’t want to be so checked out that you don’t know what’s going on around you.”
He added: “I mean, a 5K was won or lost in half a second, so there’s not a lot of margin for error at the end of the day.”
Fisher described the race as “exceptionally slow” through roughly 3,200 meters and felt it was important to avoid being trapped in traffic.
“When you come through two miles that slow, everybody knows that it’s going to be a mad dash for the last mile,” Fisher said. “So it’s all about positioning and getting yourself into a good spot, in this place where you can get out and run and not be impeded by everybody.”
With about 300 meters to go, Fisher breezed past three runners to briefly jump into the lead, before Justyn Knight of Syracuse zipped past him.
Neck and neck as they turned into the homestrech, Fisher dug deep to reclaim the lead with about 80 meters, then held off a surging Jack Bruce of Arkansas to cross the finish line in 14:35.60.
“Everybody competing in the NCAA dreams about that and thinks about what it’s going to feel like,” Fisher said. “And then when it happens, it’s just like, ‘Wow.’ … It’s kind of surreal. It hasn’t really hit me.”
The moment was overwhelming enough that it was easier for him to fall asleep the night before rather than later that evening.
“There’s just so many thoughts and so many emotions,” Fisher said. “I didn’t want to go to sleep, because then the day would be over and it’d be already a day removed from a race that I really wanted to remember.”
Asked if he thought qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was a possibility, Fisher returned to reality.
“Tokyo would be fun, but that is a long ways away,” he said. “Right now I have a final in the morning, so that’s first on my radar.”
A more realistic goal is a team title in cross country before he graduates, with plenty of enthusiasm on campus after he flew back on Sunday.
“Word spread quick,” said Fisher, with shout outs in the dorm, dining hall, etc. “It’s been a lot of fun coming back, and all the guys on the team are fired up, so hopefully we can build that into cross country.”
.@Phresh_Fish wins the NCAA title! First Card male to win outdoors since 2012. Here’s the story: https://t.co/ChHGnCdOzb