Donavan Brazier in Szekesfehervar (Bob Ramsak) © Copyright
Feature Szekesfehervar, Hungary

Chasing Gray, part 2: Brazier relishing rare opportunity to test his 600m capabilities 

When he crossed the finish line first in the 800m final at the World Athletics Championships in Doha last year, Donavan Brazier also took down a US national record which had stood for 34 years. That 1:42.60 standard belonged to Johnny Gray, Brazier’s former coach.

Tomorrow he’ll be chasing another mark with Gray’s name next to it: the 600m world best of 1:12.81. Set in 1986, 11 years before Brazier was born, it too, recently celebrated its 34th anniversary.

Brazier insists though that his race over the rarely-run distance at tomorrow’s Gyulai Memorial World Athletics Continental Tour Gold meeting in Szekesfehervar, Hungary, isn’t an intentional record assault. It just may turn out that way.

“I didn't think about [strategy] until you asked me,” Brazier said. “I didn’t really think about the record at all.”

He readily admits though, that since his breakout 2019 campaign, which included World and Diamond League crowns and a 1:42.34 performance in Doha that elevated him to equal ninth on the all-time list, expectations have risen.

“Definitely there’s a lot more pressure on me to run fast. It comes with the territory so, I’m happy with that.”

Brazier has never run an outdoor 600m but his experience over the distance is still pretty solid, given the 1:13.77 world indoor best he set last year. He’s generally more fit, relaxed and confident as a runner and racer now, he said, and after a strong 1:43.15 opener in Monaco last week, clearly in good form.

In Szekesfehervar, Brazier will have Doha finalist Wesley Vazquez of Puerto Rico for company, a sub-1:44 800m runner who is exceptionally strong over the first three-quarters of most of his two lap races. That bodes well, Brazier said.

“I think with Wesley in there it will definitely be a great race,” he said. “The race will go out plenty fast. The race will take care of itself with the guys in the field.

“But before a race I just think about winning every time. But with Wesley in there, it’s definitely a good opportunity to run fast.”

In his run in Santa Monica 34 years ago, Gray went out hard in typical ‘Gray zone’ style, covering the first 400 metres in 47.1 and hanging on over the last 200 metres in 25.7.

When hearing the splits, Brazier worked out a quick calculation.

“In an ideal world, I’d run it a little differently. Maybe 47-high or 48-low,” before covering the final 200 metres in under 25 seconds.

He acknowledged that it’s a difficult task.

David Rudisha has come closest, running 1:13.10 in Birmingham four years ago in what was his second serious stab at the mark.

“He couldn’t break that 1:13,” Brazier said. “He wasn’t even close (to the world best). You’d think that if anybody was able to break it, it would be Rudisha.”

Only 10 men have broken 1:14, including Brazier, the only runner to pull it off indoors. Szekesfehervar organisers are hoping another name or two can be added to that list tomorrow. For his part, Brazier said he’s looking forward to a rare opportunity to race an unconventional distance. That’s part of a vow he made to himself when fighting his way back from an injury-plagued 2018 season.

“Last season was really a redemption year. I know this year everyone is not getting the chance to race because of the coronavirus. That’s how I felt all of 2018, prior to my year of coming out in 2019. I took being healthy for granted a lot of times. When I finally got the chance to race again I really wanted to capitalise on every single opportunity.”

“Plus,” he added, 2020 is now an off year, “so it’s great that we get an opportunity to do a 600. Once you get to the global stage like this it's hard to get competitions like this.”

A recent reshuffle of his training routine to include more speed work as he begins to wind down his season may also be in his favour. 

“In Monaco, I was just trying to win, to do what I had to to cross the line first. Bryce [Hoppel, the runner-up in 1:43.23] made that a little harder than I thought it was going to be - that last 50 metres especially (laughs). 

“I’ve had little things tweaking and bugging my body a little bit, so I was trying not to press too hard. Mainly we just wanted to feel better after each and every race.

“So going from Monaco, to Hungary and then to Stockholm I just really want to stretch this out as far as I can. But I really want to get a good 600 metre time here.”

Bob Ramsak for World Athletics