Running with the pros

BY BEN SCHUFF | APRIL 27, 2011 7:20 AM

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After breaking nine school records and earning several All-American awards indoors, the Iowa men's track and field team is proving how talented it is in yet another way this outdoor season.

By running, and hanging, with professional track athletes.

This kind of opportunity — competing in college meets with professional runners — has presented itself to a handful of Iowa runners over the past few weeks.

It's a rare opportunity that is unavailable to athletes in other college sports. Iowa head coach Larry Wieczorek said competition against professional track athletes is a benefit.

"I think you would like a little blend of [running against college athletes and professionals]," Wieczorek said. "You wouldn't want to get hammered by the superior athletes all the time because you'd like to break the tape and finish first. But rubbing shoulders and competing against some of those elite athletes, if you're ready for it, does help you develop."

But getting "hammered" by professional runners, the Hawkeyes have not. Iowa runners have posted respectable times when competing against professionals, and, in some instances, better times.

Distance runner Jeff Thode ran the 1,500-meter premier at the Sun Angel Classic in 3:45.54 three weekends ago. The sophomore ran in the same heat as Nike's Kyle Alcorn, who finished with a time of 3:46.90. Alcorn placed third in the steeplechase at the 2009 USA outdoor championships.

Thode said he didn't realize he was running with a professional until someone told him two days after the meet, and he said it was "a little satisfying" to know he had beaten a professional.

Hurdlers Jordan Mullen and Ethan Holmes competed against professional hurdlers at two meets this year. The most recent came at the War Eagle Invitational at Auburn University two weekends ago.

Holmes' preliminary heat included Nike's Ty Akins and Puma's Maurice Smith. Akins was the 2007 NCAA champion in the 110 hurdles, and Smith is a decathlete who placed ninth at the 2008 Olympics. Holmes finished third in the heat, 0.5 seconds behind Akins and only 0.08 second back of Smith.

"It can be intimidating because they are professional, they've succeeded at the highest level," Holmes said. "At the same time it's kind of fun because you get to look at some of the best there is and you get to race against them. You learn a lot running against them."

While Holmes was defeated by the two professionals, he ran a personal-best time of 14.02 seconds.
"That helped me run my personal best, being next to a professional," he said. "Just being next to a professional puts a little pressure on that you need to perform at a higher level."

Two of Iowa's sprinters also had the chance to run against a pro at the Auburn meet. Zeke Sayon and Justin Austin faced Adidas' Marc Burns in the 100-meter dash. Burns was a silver medalist as part of the Trinidad and Tobago 4x100-meter relay at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Austin fared better against Burns, trailing the Olympian by .08 seconds at the finish line. But Austin, too, posted an Iowa-career-best against pro competition, running a 10.53 100-meter dash.

"It definitely brings a new element to the sport of track," Austin said about running against professionals. "You're not racing people on your level, you're racing people who are above your level. It just raises expectations because if you want to get to that level, you should be hanging with them."

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