Big crowd

David La

DES MOINES, Iowa — The prestigious Drake Relays are an enigma.
Generally speaking, the larger the crowd, the more important the event. But for the Gophers men’s track team, the enthusiastic 18,000-plus fans in attendance merely provided a lift in performances, because the goal is to peak at the Big Ten and NCAA championships in late May and early June.
“We’re never going to sacrifice an athlete’s opportunity to perform well in the Big Ten meet for this meet,” coach Phil Lundin said. “That’s why we are pretty underrepresented in a lot of events. But still … the kids did pretty well.”
Among the Gophers who did “pretty well” was junior Eric Pierce. Pierce set a personal best time of 14:14.31 in winning a dramatic 5,000-meter run. He beat Drake’s Jason Lehmkuhle by overtaking him in the final 40 meters of the race.
“It was awesome,” Pierce said. “It was a great day. The fans are so awesome and they cheer so hard.”
Sophomore Marc Johannsen won the high jump with a personal best jump of 7-1 1/2, and also acknowledged a boost from the crowd.
“The number of fans is about nine times what my hometown’s population is,” Johannsen said. “Being in front of all these people definitely gets us going. That’s why a lot of people PR (set personal records) here.”
Also turning in notable results were the third-place 4×1,600-meter relay team, sophomore Jason Owen and senior Tyler McCormick finished third in the mile run and the high jump respectively, and Steve Burkholder took fifth in the 100-meter dash.
While most athletes at the event compete in Drake Stadium in front of enthusiastic crowds, the discus throwers toiled in relative obscurity.
“That’s the real downside about Drake,” junior Mark Fahey said. “You’ve got this fabulous crowd here, and they send you five blocks away to throw in basically a parking lot.”
The event results were in keeping with the surroundings, as junior Adam Reed led the Gophers contingent with only a sixth-place finish.
Also taking place away from Drake Stadium — away from Iowa, for that matter — was senior Chad Johnson’s third-place finish in the 10,000-meter run at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia. His time of 29:11.11 fell just short of the NCAA automatic qualifying time of 29:10.
With the Drake Relays now over, the Gophers now shift their focus to a much lower-profile yet important stretch of meets in which they will continue to prepare for a defense of their Big Ten outdoor title.
“Any time you can win titles here at Drake it’s a good indicator,” Lundin said. “But I would say by May 8th (at the Maroon and Gold Open), after that competition we’ll be able to tell whether or not our training is getting us to the point where we need to be for Big Tens.”