PROVIDENCE – Steve Mazzone, a mainstay for Ocean State Running and former sports writer for the Woonsocket Call and Pawtucket Times, billed it beforehand as “an epic battle.”
Chris Magill, the architect of the new St. Raphael Academy boys track powerhouse, called it “historical.”
As incredible as it is to say, this event – a simple 800-meter time trial between Saints’ junior Darius Kipyego and Classical senior Conor Murphy before a smattering of coaches, parents and a couple of dogs at Providence College’s Treacy Track at Hendricken Field on Sunday night – proved to be even more than that.
The two boys, both of whom have broken the state outdoor 800 record owned previously by Phil “Tiny” Kane since 1973, had decided on their own to conduct such an event dating back to when the high school spring sports campaign was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Because neither could follow their usual training protocol during the quarantine order but instead had joined forces with coaches to improvise workouts over the course of several weeks, they had been itching to see where they stood in terms of time, how close they were to posting a lifetime-best clocking.
Kipyego and Murphy got the answer they wanted – and then some. Following a stupendous race, keyed by Murphy’s Purple senior teammate Max Schmidhauser playing pacemaker for the initial 400 meters, the head official – using automatic timing on his cell phone – clocked Kipyego at 1:51.25, while Murphy came in a stride behind at 1:51.57.
For the Purple senior, headed to the prestigious University of Virginia on scholarship, it happened to be his third-best time, and for Kipyego his approximate fifth. Given the fact they had only been on the oval to train, they had fashioned sparkling outings.
“That was awesome! Just awesome,” Magill screamed to no one in particular immediately after the race, which began with Schmidhauser outhustling the All-Americans through the first 200, and that’s when Kipyego slowly pulled away from his friend and rival.
The two racers had asked Schmidhauser to bring them to the 400 in approximately 54 seconds, and he more than achieved his goal, sprinting to a 53.8 (despite not being in premier shape). Kipyego held the lead on the backstretch, though Murphy began to shave the deficit. It even appeared he took the lead on the final curve.
Down the straightaway, it seemed as if the two were picturing themselves on the Brown Stadium oval at the state meet, which ironically would have occurred in less than two weeks. Both surged, both grimaced, both obviously ached, and it looked like either one would “die” and fall back.
To their credit, they kept their “wheels” spinning and ran to better-than-expected times, despite Kipyego’s inching ahead at the finish line.
“My goal was to 1:52-mid or lower, but this low? 1:51.25? I feel amazing, having that great of a time,” Kipyego grinned, albeit after “losing his lunch” when it was over (so did Murphy). “But I also was trying to help Conor get a fast 800 for himself as well. I’m so happy, more so with the time. I got the slight ‘up’ on him, so it was a good accomplishment. Now I’m ready for more.
“My goal was only to get a really good race out of it; this was my first (competitive) 800 of the season, and I haven’t done any time trials before this. We started talking a long time ago about having this thing; we haven’t been training like usual, and we wanted to know where we stood.”
In addition, the two had been excited about racing against each other at assorted meets this spring, including the states, New Englands and even New Balance Nationals.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where you have two great 800-meter runners competing against each other at the same time; it’s good for me, it’s good for him, and we both know it,” he noted. “It’s a great opportunity with the phenomenal speed he has to train with him. We were both pushing each other. Before we even started, we talked about who should take the lead; I said I would, and I did, but without Conor there, I wouldn’t have gone as fast – no way. I knew he’d be there to push me as well. I knew it would come down to the last straightaway, and that’s what happened.
“I also have to thank Max for great pacing,” he continued. “We asked him to go 54, and he went 53.8, so he was fantastic. Our thanks to him. I also just want to thank everyone who got me, and us, to this point, Coach Magill, (Classical running coach Dan O’Kleasky), everyone.”
Even Magill, the man who built Kipyego’s training regimen, seemed genuinely – and pleasantly – surprised.
“He more than succeeded, and, yes, he blew my mind,” Magill gushed afterward. “What it was was just an awesome competition between two guys literally running until they puked; both of them threw up after the race, and that’s because their bodies aren’t used to that kind of grueling race (not without the proper buildup between practices, dual meets and then the championship events).
“The thing is, you can’t run a 1:51 unless you’re in a competition like this and you’re pushed by an equal – that’s what they are two each other. The pacemaker,Max, did a great job, paced them perfectly through the quarter (mile). Darius took control from there, but Conor passed him just before the 600 and Darius made one final charge to the finish.
“Again, you can’t do that without elite competition and elite talent, and those kids have it,” he added. “I said this was historic. Listen, I’d like to make a statement that it will never happen again, where two special guys like this in the state of Rhode Island grace us with such greatness. These moments don’t come around often. As a matter of fact, it never came around, not since Tiny Kane in ‘73 anyway.
“He ended up going to Villanova and broke four (minutes) in the mile, and these guys are following that path.”
It had been nearly three months since the two had raced against each other, the last at the New England Indoor Championships at Roxbury’s Reggie Lewis Center; Murphy outlasted the Saints’ phenom in the 800.
Still, Kipyego holds the state record of 1:49.42, a time achieved when he placed second at the Pan-Am U-20 Games in Costa Rica last summer, while Murphy posted a PR of 1:50.43 at the Hendricken Invitational last spring.
“This was certainly tough, (as) neither one of us knew our exact fitness (level) for obvious reasons,” said Murphy, who is the son of Cumberland girls cross country and track coach Nessa Molloy. “We had some virtual races, but they don’t give you that good a sense of where you’re at. But racing with each other, that brings out a new version of yourself. That’s what brought us to do this.
“There’s no question I succeeded; I don’t care in the slightest I took second,” he continued. “I got dragged to such a good time, that’s all I could ask for. I wish I could be more excited about it, but I feel so tired. I’m sure later on I’ll be stoked about it.
“I will say the time surprised me. I knew I had been very consistent in training, but I haven’t raced all season. This is a great sign for my near future.”
When asked if the dynamic 800 duo will formulate more such “time trials,” Kipyego really couldn’t give an answer, except they will talk about it.
“I don’t know how many we’re going to do; we might do a 1,500 in the future,” he said. “The (New Balance Outdoor) Nationals (in Greensboro, N.C.) have been postponed to July, but there’s talk they may push it back again to August. Conor can’t run in nationals if they’re held then because he’ll be in (college).
“I’ll go whenever they are. If he’s not able to go, we may try to do one more all-out 800 to get down to 1:49 or even 1:48 before he heads to school.”