The potential has always been there for Clayton Mendez. As a freshman for Chicago Whitney Young he finished ran 9:26.37 and won the prestigious Prospect Wanner Invitational 3200m. As a sophomore he placed 12th at the 3A cross country state meet setting a Chicago Public League record 14:36. As you can see the uber talent has always been there for Mr. Mendez. The consistency has not. Mendez did not qualify for the state 3200 that same year, and he finished 79th this past fall at the state xc meet. But last weekend Mendez may have done something that will ascend his mindset for the remainder of his two years of track and field for the Dolphins. Mendez set the Proviso West Invitational 3200 meet record in 9:01.89. He beat several key figures in the race. Let's take a look at how he accomplished the feat:
Whitney Young coach Billy Poole-Harris was once an outstanding high school distance runner in his own right. So in essence he knows the mental make up of today's athletes. Moreso is the added feature that Poole-Harris is schooled in exercise science which qualifies him as a book expert. The combination of both practical and emperical wisdom help to make champions. "I haven't told anyone this but I measured a two-mile looped course by our school twice when Clayton ran 9:26 on it," said Poole-Harris several weeks ago of his prodigy who opened his season with a 4:20 1600m. "I know he is capable of popping something big I just don't know when" Poole-Harris added in a puzzling manner.
Most distance runners with a plan will often sit back and let a solid take charge early one. Mendez was basically in auto pilot mode as the front runnering and outstanding Danny Kilrea (Jr., Downers Grove North) and Irwin Loud (Sr., Oak Park-River Forest) took charge. 32 seconds for the opening lap and 65.0 at the first 400 check in. Mendez hit just over 66.0 sitting in third.
Kilrea has high expectations for the track season after coming off of an All-American campaign from Nike Cross Nationals. He was also the state cross country runner up in 3A. His 14:08 for three miles is nothing to sneeze at. In Portland at the NXN festivities he indicated that one of his goals is to run under 9:00 for "two miles." The 2nd circuit was clocked at 2:14 with Loud on his tail and Mendez a few strides back in 2:15 high. Mendez looked strong with a 69 quarter mile and he was in the right position and needed only to worry about himself.
The halfway point hit in 4:33- fast! Kilrea, Loud and Mendez were turning the legs over fast. They were also well ahead of the field. There was no doubt by the look of it that the winner was going to come from this trio. Loud moved closer to Kilrea while Mendez stay a few meters back looking smooth. The first half hit in 4:32 for the leaders. Mendez did not show any signs of struggling after logging 70-seconds to post 4:34.
The 5th circuit for those that may not know is the most important 400 of the race. It is a pivotal moment for all distance runners. Some minds are feeling great and some are not. What some do not realize is the race is halfway over and you in a sense are a miler now. Those who fall off the pace are done. Those who make a move to assert themselves further cannot turn back. Mendez moved to the front on the following circuit and put in a hard peddled surge. He must have sensed some discomfort from Kilrea and Loud. No turning back now. Mendez dropped a 66 second 400m. No response from Loud or Kilrea. They appeared to let Mendez go and hope he would burn out. Would he? It did not seem as though he would keeping the leg cadence very sharp.
If you were in the building at Proviso West, you would have noticed that it was his coach guiding him via the loud speaker. Ironically but not surprisingly, Poole-Harris played public dress announcer as he does for many meets including the state championship. His voice seemed to get louder like a preacher in a revival and he command Mendez who continued to gain confidence and stretch out the field. It means alot for an athlete to hear their coach's voice whether in good or bad situations. This situation happened to be one of the most storied indoor races in the long Proviso West Invite history. The meet record of 9:06 has stood since the mid 1970s. It now seemed to be in jeopardy with two laps remaining.
The final two laps was electric. Mendez clearly was on course to smash the meet record and establish himself as a premier runner this season. He hit the bell lap as Poole-Harris called it. "We're on the bell lap ladies and gentlemen... 8:25, 8:26, 8:27 one lap to go" was the voice of Proviso West track and field announcing. Mendez hit the tape in a brand new meet record, state best, and US #2 9:01.89- the final 400 in 66. It was the fastest time that a kid from the Chicago Public League has ever run indoors or outside. The time is so good that only one returner can lay a better claim than Mendez. His name is Jack Aho (Sr., Grayslake Central) finished second in Charleston last year and sports a personal best 9:00.70. Surely the All-American distance runner Aho was somewhere noticing such a feat and possible roadblock to his success on the track. Only time will tell how things will ultimately turn out. But in the meantime it is fun to talk about the present and future.