Men’s track shines despite increasingly competitive field, gears up for Nationals

Megan Lin

This year, eight Ephs will enter the championship, collectively ranked fifth as a team. (Photo courtesy of Sports Information.)

Eight members of the men’s track and field team have qualified for the 2023 NCAA Div. III Men’s Indoor Track and Field Championship, to be held March 10–11 in Birmingham, Ala. To compete in the men’s NCAA championships, an athlete’s top time or score for the season must be in the national top 20 for an event, or for relays, in the top 12.

Bryce Cooper ’26, Jack Davis ’24, Jackson Davis ’25, and Oscar Newman ’25 are ranked sixth nationally in the 4x400m relay with a time of 3:13.81. Co-captain Elias Lindgren ’23 qualified for the 3000m with a time of 8:08.07, ranked seventh in the nation, and the 5000m with a time of 14:00.54, ranked fifth in the nation. Nate Lentz ’24, ranked 20th with a time of 4:07.85, will run the mile. Jackson Anderson ’24 will enter the championship ranked first in the heptathlon with a score of 5194 and fifth in the 60m hurdles with a time of 8:08. Co-captain Sam Riley ’23, ranked seventh for pole vault, qualified with a mark of 5.01 meters.

In 2022, the men’s team achieved an overall third place finish at Nationals, having sent 10 members to Winston-Salem, N.C. for the 4x400m relay, distance medley relay, heptathlon, 5000m, and 3000m events. This year, eight Ephs will enter the championship, collectively ranked eighth as a team.

This season has seen athlete after athlete break into the College’s all-time top 10 records. Among the top 10 records for each of the 20 track and field events, 30 of the 200 total slots are occupied by team members from the 2022 or 2023 season. Of those 30, 20 have been from this season alone. In the 60m and 5000m events, half of the top 10 records have come from the last two years.

But this record-breaking phenomenon extends far beyond the College. “The last few years — roughly since COVID-19 — people’s performances have just really improved across the board,” Lindgren said. “This has been especially pronounced in distance events, but to a lesser extent in field events and sprints as well.”

From an MIT athlete breaking both the Div. III and Div. II mile record with a 3:55.29 time, to three different runners all breaking the 29-year old Div. III 5000m record on the same day, this indoor season has been nothing short of historic on the distance side of Div. III men’s track and field. “We’ve seen every single distance event national record go down this indoor season,” Lindgren said.

This record-breaking has also resulted in a more competitive field — and to the detriment of many Nationals-hopefuls, has lowered the times necessary to qualify for NCAA Championships. While the average qualifying time in the mile for Div. III Indoor Track Championships was 4:14.43 before the onset of the pandemic in 2020, all 20 Nationals qualifiers for the mile were at or below 4:07.85 this year. Meanwhile, the average time to qualify for the 5000m was 14:42.51 in 2020, compared to 14:17.75 as the slowest qualifying time for this year.

“Any year prior to COVID, we would now pretty safely have four guys qualified for the 5000m,” Lindgren said. “But as it stands, we have one.”

According to Lindgren, new shoe technology might contribute to these faster times. Carbon-plated running shoes — shoes with a carbon-fiber footplate that give the runner more energy return with each step — have taken the running world by storm after Eliud Kipchoge, a professional long-distance runner, ran a sub-two hour marathon sporting them in 2019. According to a 2017 study, they can boost a runner’s performance by 2 to 3 percent per kilometer. This uptick in performance has resulted in its own set of controversies, as some feel it violates the spirit of the sport.

Nevertheless, the shoes have trickled down to the masses, and the College, like other schools across the country, has bought pairs for its runners.

Yet another factor has to do with the pandemic; some athletes, like Lindgren, took gap years or time off and are now older than the rest of their peers. But what Lindgren said he thought was the biggest factor in the performance boost was the implied challenge that came with running in a more competitive field. As athletes saw their peers running faster times, they too knew they had to run even faster in order to compete.

As the first Nationals qualifier from the College for pole vaulting in decades, Riley is all too familiar with raising the bar. This season, he beat his own school record and set the NESCAC record for pole vault.

He said he has noticed the sprinters, jumpers, and throwers on the team gain more traction and send more athletes to Nationals in the past couple of years. Though the College has historically been competitive in every event group, its distance runners have generally made up the largest portion of its Nationals qualifiers. This year, Riley said he’s seen more of a “holistic team effort” as both sprinters and distance runners have excelled. “It’s been super cool to help [the team] out on the sprints and jumps and throws side of things,” Riley said.

Both Riley and Jack Davis spoke of the community and support they have found on the team, which Riley characterized as critical due to the variability in performance from meet to meet and the individual nature of competing in the sport.

“[One meet] I jumped five meters, set the NESCAC record, and the next meet … I was seeded first and I didn’t even clear the bar,” Riley said. “I felt [equally] supported in both instances.”

When not competing or warming up, members of the team can usually be found cheering on their teammates from the sidelines, according to Jack Davis. “We pride ourselves on trying to be the loudest team there,” he said.

The support from the team has often eased the pressure of competing, he said. “When I run, I feel like I can’t hear anything around me,” Jack Davis said. “And then I’ll be coming around this turn and I see the team and [hear] them, and that’s a pretty cool moment.”

As the championship approaches, Jack Davis will have to make do with a smaller cheering squad, but he said he is looking forward to the culmination of the season. “We know that we can do good things, and we can do fast things,” he said. “I’m excited to just go there with my friends and try and take that opportunity.”