Cloud nine: Will Brunner and Porter Middaugh both break nine minutes in dramatic Arcadia Invitational 3200-meter race
Battle Mountain juniors were seeded No. 36 and 37 in 37-person field and finished first and second
In a Roger Bannister-evoking spirit, Battle Mountain track coach Rob Parish said he never imagined seeing an “8” populate a clock’s first integer space for any Husky running 3200-meters.
“Nine minutes is kind of an unthinkable time for two-milers,” he said. “I’ve been involved with the two-mile since I was 14 years old and I never thought that we’d have anyone close to that.”
All that changed in dramatic fashion at last Saturday’s prestigious Arcadia Invitational in California. Seeded No. 36 and 37 in a 37-runner field — that’s right, dead last — Will Brunner and Porter Middaugh went 1-2 in the “rated” section (one of nine heats at the meet) in a mind-boggling 8:59.25 and 8:59.28, respectively.
“I mean it was unbelievable,” Parish said. “I turned to some stranger that I was yelling next to and said, ‘did that just happen?’ And the guy said, ‘yep, your guys just went 1-2 at Arcadia.'”
“It’s cool you know. You get to one of the biggest races of your life with the guy you train with every day and you cross the line with the same guy and you break the goal you’ve been aiming after all year,” Brunner said. “…and you’re just on cloud nine.”
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Thanks to Middaugh’s 9:14 school-record run at the 2022 Arcadia meet, and Brunner’s 9:13 last May (which didn’t go into the school-record book because it was run out-of-season), the pair qualified into the Saturday-night “rated” heat at the two-day meet. In Friday night’s “open” race, they watched Eagle Valley’s Jake Drever drop a 9:10. Both were well aware it was the fastest time by any valley athlete ever.
“We were definitely super proud of Jake,” Middaugh said. “He ran a great race and we knew it also showed what the conditions were like and a possible time we could throw down. It also gave us tons of motivation to kind of get the record back.”
“We were super nervous,” Brunner admitted of his mindset going back to the hotel room that night. “That’s a scary feeling watching a guy we race in Colorado — 9:10 is super, super fast — so that was intimidating when we saw him go through the line. We were like, you know, we have to up that.”
Despite both athletes being sick the weekend prior, they derived confidence from a killer 16×400-meter repeat workout conducted at goal race pace (67 seconds) on a cold, snowy day in Edwards 12 days before the race.
“It was definitely not the best conditions,” Middaugh laughed of the Monday speed session. “It’s always good to practice the grit a little bit.”
“We were pretty confident that if we could do it in Colorado, we could string eight of them together in California in perfect conditions,” Brunner added. The same confidence can’t be applied to the meritocracy of the heat sheets, however.
Seeded at the bottom, Brunner and Middaugh balanced off the edge of the track as officials squeezed the field — comprised of athletes with personal bests between 9:06 and 9:14 — onto the mondo surface.
“It was definitely the biggest track race I’ve been in,” Middaugh said. “First 50 meters were pretty hard for me just to get a decent position.”
It wouldn’t be until crossing 800-meters in 2:17 that Middaugh would stop running extra distance in lane two.
“Not a ton of time on the rail for sure,” he said.
Three laps in, Middaugh and Brunner were in 16th and 19th as Alexander Garcia of Marshfield — the Coos Bay-area school of one Steve Prefontaine — pushed the pace. Brunner moved out of a bunched pack to lane three at halfway (coming through the mile in 4:33), then settled back in, content with the hot tempo of three dozen time-trialing high schoolers.
“We knew a bunch of guys were going to try and break nine, but there were no sub-9 guys in the race, so we talked about if they needed to get out and keep the pace at nine minutes, they could,” said Parish.
“Porter ran the race exactly how we talked about it.”
With three laps remaining, Middaugh started to move up from 13th. At that point, with Brunner farther back yet, nobody could have convinced even the biggest Husky homer that the trailblazing Battle Mountain duo would have a shot at a top-5 finish, much less a win.
Into the final two laps, the clock ticking past 6:49, Middaugh moved on the homestretch, effortlessly cruising into fifth in pursuit of the Oregon-based trio at the front. He was into fourth by the middle of the turn while Brunner was out of the picture, 1.8 seconds back.
“I thought Will might hit 9:05,” Parish said. “Which would have been amazing.”
Middaugh was in eighth with 500 meters to go, but burst into the front halfway through the penultimate turn.
“I really took the lead with 300 to go and got a pretty decent gap pretty quickly,” he recalled.
“When the pace slowed, he moved up, and when he knew it was within sight, he went for it. He didn’t wait until the final 150,” Parish said, praising his pupil’s improved race instincts.
“That was a difference for Porter — he’s won a lot of smaller races and big races by just sitting and kicking,” he continued. “He saw the window where a hard close wouldn’t just get the win, but get under nine. That was a big step in his development.”
Used to his training partner being the pace-pusher, Middaugh found himself in somewhat unfamiliar territory.
“This time we kind of switched roles,” Middaugh stated. “I actually didn’t know where he was at all. I didn’t know if he was having a good race, a bad race, until the last stretch.”
“I felt pretty comfortable in the pack,” Brunner said of his thoughts at the time. “I was kind of watching Porter — he was running it super smart — so I was letting him get away but I kind of wanted to keep him in my sight, with the goal of trying to reel him in the last couple of laps.”
Brunner gathered steam between the 300 and 200-to-go, going from eighth to second in 14 seconds.
“I was like, ‘this is your time. You gotta go now. This is your training partner. You guys stick together for every workout,'” Brunner said. “This is the ultimate workout.”
He still trailed Middaugh by 10 meters starting the final turn, but caught up and passed him at the top of the homestretch. Brunner slid inside and Middaugh shifted back to lane two for his own retaliation move. Drawing even, they dashed neck-and-neck all the way home, with Brunner raising his arms to break the tape 0.03-seconds ahead of his teammate. Middaugh had momentum, but could have used 10 more meters, perhaps.
“It was probably the coolest feeling of my entire life,” Brunner said. “There’s nothing like breaking the banner at this meet that you’ve dreamed of for like a year with your best friend by your side.”
When they saw the clock, the jubilation went through the roof. “I looked over at Porter and we just made eye-contact and we were just flipping out.”
Even though he lost his school record by the thinnest of margins, Middaugh was pleased the only person to defeat him was his buddy.
“It’s kind of the best scenario if I’m going to get beat,” he said. “And I was super proud of him and knowing there are still going to be opportunities for sure, but it’s a little bit bittersweet. But definitely, if anything, motivating and I’m super proud of Will.”
The combination of the result, the time, the venue and the tactics left Parish speechless. “It was incomprehensible,” he finally said.
“It shows their development as runners,” he said in reference to the perfect strategy employed. “They were so dependent on Sully (Middaugh) for so long — we’re going to tie our shoes now, this is the pace we run our 400s, this is the pace for our easy runs, etc. — and I think they’re starting to spread their wings.”
Looking ahead, both athletes are eying the 1600 and even the 800 school-records now.
“It’s crazy, breaking nine — honestly I’ve been thinking about that number since last May,” the lofty-goal-setting Brunner said. “But it doesn’t end there. We have a lot of season left. We gotta start setting new goals.”
“It’s obviously a huge confidence-booster going into the later parts of the season,” Middaugh added.
Milaina Almonte also competed for the Huskies, cruising to a 10-second personal best in Friday’s 3200-meter (11:02), a time nearly equal to former 4A state cross-country champion Liz Constien.
“She was fantastic. That’s the kind of company that Milaina’s in right now.” Parish commented of Almonte, who came back Saturday morning to run 5:13 in the full mile (1609-meters). At this point, it’s safe to say that Almonte, Drever, Brunner and Middaugh all setting new, once-unthinkable, endurance standards within a 30-mile radius isn’t something to be taken for granted.
“Those longer races, if someone is half-a percent better than someone, it plays it out over the race,” Parish concluded. “But to have two teammates that close in that event is …it’s just unprecedented.”
Link to a full race video replay is available on Vail Daily.com
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