You got the impression that there were a few extra paying customers in the stands just to see Northwood High School's Eldad Mulugeta go after the 3200-meter county meet record of 9:04.0. Certainly someone tipped off the stadium announcer at the possibility of a sub-9 performance. There was an undeniable buzz in the air when Mulugeta and teammate Obsaa Feda completed their first lap in 61 seconds. After a 4:27 first 1600 meters by the teammates, Mulugeta broke away from Feda and completed a memorable second mile in 4:35 for a new meet record time of 9:02.19. Feda was second in 9:22.26, the new #4 performance in meet history.
It was one of the greatest moments in Montgomery County Championship Meet history that almost never happened.
Two weeks prior, Northwood assistant track coach Giovanni Reumante told Mocorunning that Mulugeta and Feda wanted to go after a fast 1600-meter time, something they had not attempted since February. They knew that 3200-meter opportunities would come later against tougher competition. Mulugeta said that he wanted to attempt sub-9 in the 3200m at the Loucks Games in New York two days after the county championship meet, but county regulations did not allow entry into that meet between the County A and County B meets.
Then came the conversation with the meet director of the Brooks PR Invitational, the most exclusive elite high school meet in the nation.
"A couple days ago," explained Mulugeta, "I emailed the Brooks PR meet director. I was like, 'I ran 9:04 and I won Penn Relays. Do you think that's enough for me to make it to Brooks PR?'"
The meet director's response?
"He said, 'Right now we have limited spots. We're still selecting people,' but [he said] if I run under 8:55 I have a chance."
Mulugeta said that last part with a demoralized laugh, but he understood the realism of the meet director's standard. He decided that he would lace up his spikes and get to work at the county championship meet. It was his last opportunity to focus solely on the 3200 until after the state championship meet.
"I was like, 'okay, let me take it out like 4:25ish and see what happens,'" said Mulugeta.
4:25ish would have been 66-second laps. He ran his first 200 meters in about 30 seconds.
"I went out a little too fast for the first 400," he admitted. "I went out like 61. I didn't mean to do that. I meant to go out in like 63. I was like...I didn't feel that bad. Just race. I knew it was going to happen like that. So I was like, 'Maybe if I go out fast and start running sub-9 pace, 68, it would be good for me.'"
"After the mile, I was feeling good but then I had to pick it up and I was just running by myself so it got to me a little bit. [Lap 7] was like 7:52, so I was like, 'just close in 65 and I'll be fine.'"
To the credit of the engaged stadium announcer, the entire county got behind Mulugeta. The ace closer was clearly feeling the burn down the final homestretch. The announcer counted the seconds needed to break 9:00, but little did anybody know that Mulugeta badly wanted 8:55.
He described his final lap: "I was just dead...I was like, 'maybe I should just break 9.' I think it just got to me mentally. I'm just going to dig deep, but I don't have it today. I think in a race where there's more people, I can close in like 60, 62....I'm going to try again at states, depending on the wind."
I wrote the above article hoping that it may be of interest to someone who wants to read about that race 35 years from now. You know...assuming that words and reading still exist in 35 years.
Kris Herdt from Whitman High School set the 3200-meter county championship meet record of 9:04.0 35 years ago in 1984. It's a record that has always fascinated. It begs the question: why? Why run so fast at the county championship meet? The second place runner finished in 9:47 that day. Why was Herdt not faster at the state meet?
I was not around so I cannot say for sure, but after reading second hand accounts, it feels like history repeating. Herdt won the Penn Relays 3000-meter that April in 8:20.8. Someone correct me if I am wrong, but Herdt and Mulugeta are the only Montgomery County athletes to ever win the 3000-meters at the Penn Relays.
According to a May 15, 1984 unattributed Montgomery Journal article titled "Sophomore Sweeps at County Meet," (title not referring to Herdt), Herdt swore off the two mile event after the Penn Relays so that he could tackle the mile. The article stated that Herdt changed his mind because he wanted one last crack at breaking 9:00 and altered his strategy to run hard from the gun, which opposed his usual sit-and-kick strategy. Herdt was honored with the first James DeMoss Meet MVP Award, although he shared the honor with pole vaulter Andrew Bevan. It was the only split decision for the DeMoss award in meet history. The tie is fitting since Bevan's record vault of 14-09 still stands today.
Herdt did get faster, just not in the 3200 while in high school. Herdt ran 4:19.3 and 9:52.0 at the region meet, and then dropped a 4:10.3 1600-meter at the state championship which remains a top ten all-time state meet performance today. His 9:25 3200-meter state performance was not bad. He held multiple school records at the University of Virginia including the outdoor men's 5000-meter record of 13:37.44 which still stands today according to UVA's track & field school records document on their website.
Mulugeta's story is still being written, but it is impossible not to link the two athletes, thirty-five years apart, who won the Penn Relays 3k and dreamed the same dream at the Montgomery County Championship Meet.
Photo Credit: Kris Herdt of Whitman, Montgomery Journal by Bill Karmanjar, shared with permission