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Most emerging track & field athletes see some benefit in being out of the spotlight, under the radar. Their relative anonymity allows them to be underestimated by their fellow competitors. They can sneak up on them. They can surprise them.

That is exactly what happened in the Thursday evening twilight here in Sacramento when virtual unknown Ford Palmer roared the last furlong of the 1st heat of the men’s 1500 and bulled his way into Saturday’s final. The tactical semi led to a furious concluding 300 meters as Palmer’s unexpectedly powerful kick left in his wake such middle distance notables as Garrett Heath, A.J. Acosta, NJ/NY teammate Kyle Merber, Trevor Dunbar, and David Torrence.

“Nobody saw me coming. And that’s fine,” proclaimed the exuberant Monmouth University graduate. “Now they’re going to see me coming Saturday.” For Palmer – whose previous 2014 highlight was his 4th place finish in the mile at this year’s Penn Relay Carnival – his performance was not that surprising. “For the last the 200 of this race, I’ve just been doing what I’ve been doing all year: staying relaxed, staying calm, and kicking the last 200.”

The 23 year old criminal justice major who joined the elite NJ/NY Track Club after his 2013 graduation from college likes to keep it simple. “I know there were fast guys in front of me like Torrence and Heath. But I just ran my race, that’s it.”

Frank Gagliano – the coaching mastermind behind the many successes coming out of NJ/NY TC – can count the young middle distance racer among his admirers. “Gags told me to be confident, be competitive. That’s exactly what I did,” Palmer confided. “I’m a Gags production,” he proclaimed. “I joined this track club with a 3:44.9 PR and now I come in with a 3:38.5. And now I finish second in the 1500 semi. It will be fun to see what happens Saturday.”

The 1500 meter final – run mid-afternoon in the blazing sun – began with a cautious pace as so many championship races do. Before long, the tempo heated up – complete with the customary bumping that accompanies competitive championship racing. Palmer – a former high school middle linebacker – was able to give as good as he got as the finalists entered the last circuit. The backstretch looked like I5 during rush hour as the bunched milers began unloading their finishing sprints. “I kicked pretty well the last 200,” explained Palmer. “But I had too much ground to make up. “I let them kick too soon and didn’t react.” Olympic 1500m silver medalist Leo Manzano – a furious finisher – prevailed down the home stretch to win in 3:38.63. Palmer – an absolute unknown quantity only weeks before – picked off several big names in the final half lap to get up for 5th in 3:39.11.

It’s been less than a year since Palmer and NJ/NY TC connected. Palmer called them. “I called them in mid-July and didn’t start running until August,” Palmer admitted. “At first, I was a nobody. I didn’t even know who Coach Gags was,” he explained. “And Gags didn’t know who I was. His assistant, Eric Schaffer, who is a Monmouth alum, was the one who vouched for me.” And with a smile he added, “But then it was good.”

Months of dedicated work under Gagliano’s watchful eye produced results. A hint of what was to come was Palmer’s 4th place finish in the open mile this spring at Penn. His time? 4:00.00. Even a Gags-ordered review of the race video could not nudge the final time under the magical four minute barrier. But – no worries – a subsequent workout suggested that Palmer may have several sub-4:00 miles in his future. “In the middle of one of my workouts about 6 weeks ago, I was running a 1200 and my coach wanted a 2:56,” stated Palmer. “And I took off the last 100 and I went through in 2:54 – easy – without a major sprint.” It was then Palmer and his inner circle knew a breakthrough was in the offing.

It happened this weekend. And what about Palmer’s future potential? “I think I can definitely run a little faster,” Palmer offered candidly. “I need to get my mileage up to about 90 miles a week and work year round.” And any additional racing plans this summer? “I have to talk with Gags. I doubt I am going to Europe unless someone is paying for it.”

It’s wonderful to be able to be under the radar and sneak up on your competition, but that’s a bullet you can only shoot once. “Nobody knows about Ford Palmer, but I think now they’re going to know,” observed Merber. “That’s fine,” declared Palmer who admits it’s unlikely he’ll surprise other milers in the future. “Bring it on.”

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Dunaway AwardAt the 2019 annual meeting of the Track and Field Writers of America, Dave was presented with the James Dunaway Memorial Award “for track & field journalism excellence.”

Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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