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Zip Middle Distance Star Attends To "The Little Things"

Many believe that when the United States Olympic Trials roll around, the men's 800 meters may well be the most difficult event in which to gain an Olympic berth on The Hardest Team To Make. With established stars such as Nick Symmonds, Duane Solomon, Eric Sowinski, Tyler Mulder, and Casimir Loxsom clashing with younger, emerging upstarts such as Donovan Brazier, Boris Berian, Brian Kidder, and Clayton Murphy, the quality of the athletes who survive the multiple-round war of attrition to make the men's 800 meter Trials' final may well approach the stature of the Olympic Games' finalists. Projecting the 3 who will emerge as U.S Olympians in the men's 800 meters will be a difficult task at best. But when you are poised to select your three favorites as you assemble your own form chart, don't skip the Zip.

 University of Akron star Clayton Murphy continues to make quantum leaps in his middle distance performances. Zip distance coach Lee Labadie soon recognized the diamond in the rough at his doorstep soon after Murphy arrived at the University of Akron campus in the fall of 2013 sporting only modest high school PR's of 4:11.72 [1600m] and 1:54.19 [800m]. The two clicked immediately and progression soon sprouted. After a solid freshman year - which included a Mid-American Conference outdoor 1500m title - Murphy really got it going as a sophomore: an undefeated indoor season in the mile featuring a 4:00.39 clocking; 3rd place finishes in the NCAA indoor and outdoor 800m; Multiple 800m personal bests including a 1:45.59; a Drake Relays 800m championship; a Pan American Games 800m gold medal; a NACAC 800m silver medal; and an unexpected World Championship appearance where he performed admirably as an 800m semi-finalist. Agog at his improvement, Murphy watchers couldn't realistically expect such steep progression to continue. They were wrong. As a junior to date, Murphy has - among other accomplishments - captured 7 more MAC crowns; became the 458th American to break the 4:00 mile [3:57.11]; and won the NCAA indoor 800m title.

It's not just the marks Murphy is posting. It's also the athletes he is beating. Earlier this spring, Murphy returned to Des Moines to defend his Drake Relays 800m title. Conditions were far from ideal on the blue oval. "When I raced, it was probably 45 degrees and a steady rain. The track was filling with water and the wind was pretty strong," explains Murphy. "I was at the point where I just wanted to have fun with it and get the opportunity to race some of the best in the world,'" states Murphy, referencing the star-studded field that included world indoor gold medalist Boris Berian and world indoor bronze medalist Erik Sowinski. "I keep saying it, but coach and I kept telling ourselves we should have fun with it, race, and see where I am at with training. I kind of sat on everybody in the race. I really didn't want to take the lead. I didn't want to go out overly fast. I just wanted to stay within myself over the first 400-600 meters and then try to be strong the last 200." True to his racing style, the newly-minted world championship indoor 800m titlist quickly grabbed the early lead. "Boris was in the front. He went through in 52. And I went through in 52 mid-to-high. It wasn't anything crazy quick. But for the weather conditions, it was a brisk pace," offers Murphy. "I don't know why, but at 450 I thought I'd make a strong move to the front and challenge for it into a headwind on the backstretch. I felt so confident going into the last 200 meters. In the last 250, Boris and I were stride-for-stride until the last 50 meters when I kind of broke away from him at that point," explains Murphy in describing the successful defense of his Drake 800m title. "It was so much fun racing Boris and Erik [who finished 2-3] and all those guys in that race. To race all those guys and come out on top and to win at Drake two years in a row, it was exciting."

The New Paris, Ohio native thinks he knows the underlying reason for his continued progression. "I really think it is Coach [Labadie] staying on top of me and making sure I am staying on top of things. I am doing a lot of the little things that I never used to do before," reveals Murphy. "In high school I did no stretching, no core, no drills, no strides or dips. I did nothing. It was almost a joke how bad I trained," he admits. "So to come here freshman year, Coach knew I wasn't at a high level of training yet. So he knew freshman year would have to be a progression. And I learned from racing as a freshman how to be a collegiate athlete; how to get beat up in races; how to recover from races; and how to get ready for races. I think that aspect of the entire freshman year being focused around being race ready and racing my way into shape really set myself up for the last two years to be able to be more focused on certain races; to be able to get through workouts knowing what the theme goal is. That all sets up with Coach Labadie and how he has developed me through the last two and half years - being patient; providing speed work for the 800; making sure I get my long run in; and keeping my mileage up when I need to. All of that is attributable to Coach Labadie and the way he developed me."

Too many gifted track & field performers are unwilling to attend to "the little things" as younger athletes - putting off such detail work until they begin to witness their performance slipping. And then some learn the benefit to be derived from such detail work and invariably lament they didn't attend to those little details earlier in their career. It's been different for Murphy. "I think what kind of opened my eyes was when I came in the first day as a freshman to get my physical and the head doctor checked my flexibility and she almost laughed at it. So I thought, 'I need to get on that.' So Coach and I developed a nice stretching routine. The person who really got me convinced about the importance of little things like flexibility, core, and leg work was Rosalie Franek [mother of '12 Olympic steepler Bridget]. She helped me to slowly progress in those areas and stays on top of me every week to make sure that I am doing it. And now [the routine] has just developed into consistently doing even more drills." The Zip star is honest about his self-starting consistency. "I'm not going to lie. Coach has to hound me on occasion. I get lazy sometimes," Murphy confesses.

With Murphy's considerable middle distance range and demonstrated skills in both the 800m and the 1500m, the event selection decisions for the NCAA championships and the Olympic Trials have not been easy. Deferring the ultimate decision has given the athlete and his talented coach time for experimentation and reflection. "I haven't had a crushingly fast time yet [this year] in either race - which I don't really mind. Last season, I never broke 1:47 until USA's and then I ended up running three big PR's at the end of the season and ended up 4th in the final. Not having a quick time in either race right now is probably OK." Last week - in a move that likely surprised more than a few - the reigning NCAA indoor 800m champion elected to compete in the 1500m. But Murphy still plans to drop down to compete in the shorter event in early July. "The focus of training of has been the 800 meters for the Olympic Trials," states Murphy. "I am training for the 800 meters at the Olympic Trials - that's the big goal right now: to run the 800 meters there."

The seemingly never-ending NCAA seasons have previously tripped up many collegiate athletes with Olympic aspirations. But Akron's middle distance star is confident that he'll still have sufficient gas in the tank in early July when the Trials get underway. "I think that it equates to my race schedule this year. Someone might look at my schedule and think, 'Wow, he's been racing a lot.' But if you really look at it, they have been races - not a lot of time trials. If you look at the 1:47 I ran at the Texas Relays, I ran 53 mid then another 53 mid where I ran right from the front and I controlled the race. And it was more just a test to see where I'm at," explains the multiple-time Mid-American champion. "There hasn't been a race [this year] where I got done and I'm like, 'Wow. I'm taking two days off.' I've been able to handle the travel load all season and come back on Monday morning and get a workout in," adds Murphy. "So I don't think the long season is going to affect me. I had so much time off last fall. That was a huge break for me - one of the biggest ones I've had in my career. And now it is nice to come back from that."

The University of Akron junior has exhibited good strength in all of the middle distance events and has shown he can race effectively off any pace. But his breathtaking speed is his real weapon. In the final event of last winter's MAC indoor championship when the University of Akron needed a victory in the men's 4x400m relay to hold off Eastern Michigan for the team title, Murphy - whose speed goes to 11 - was a late insertion as anchor. Getting the stick in third, the middle distance star dialed it all the way up and blew past the two 400 meter specialists ahead of him for the win. His split? 45.4. And consider this: in 2016, we have not witnessed the maximum fury of Clayton Murphy's potent kick in a middle distance final. Yet.

Murphy marvels at the magnitude of his progression. "I think at some point I knew that I had it in me. I knew I wasn't training at the level I could, but I had no clue what I could do," he explains. "I still have no clue what that can be," the Zip star exclaims with amazement. "Now I'm just kind of enjoying the moment and where I am at, just trying to get better." His staggering improvement has prompted Murphy to recalibrate his goals. "Now I consider success as making the Olympic team in the summer and then making the finals in the Olympics later this year and in the next cycle. Those big goals for me are what I consider to be the more important reasons I have been successful right now - stepping stones to the ultimate goal. Hopefully there is more success to come."

When pressed if he had anticipated the magnitude and pace of his collegiate middle distance success, Clayton Murphy pauses for a moment of reflection before replying. "I don't know if I believed it could have come this quickly." Nobody else did either.

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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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