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Kal Lewis best college freshman miler in Big 10

Last weekend the University of Iowa won the Big 10 Indoor Track & Field Championships at the SPIRE Institute Indoor Sports Complex in Geneva, Ohio.

The last time the Hawkeyes won the Big 10 Indoors was in 1929. Kal Lewis’ “Gram” and former Shelter Island Councilwoman Christine Lewis was not even born yet.  On Saturday, Gram watched on live stream as her 18-year- old grandson became part of the Iowa school’s history.

In the biggest meet of the year, Iowa Coach Randy Hasenbank, entrusted the young freshman with the lead-off leg of the first scoring event of the meet, the Distance Medley Relay.  He was rewarded with Iowa’s first points in the historic and long-awaited Hawkeye victory.  

From the start of the 1,200-meter leg, Lewis showed he belonged on the Big 10 championship stage. Content to stay a little off the lead, he passed 800 meters comfortably at 2:01 in fifth place. Closing fast, he covered the last 200 meters in 27 seconds to hand the baton off in third place less than a second behind the lead with a blistering 2:58 split.

The team made up of all underclassmen ran well, finishing seventh in 9:42.16, putting Iowa’s first 2 points on the board and recording Iowa’s second fastest time ever in the 2.5 mile relay. Indiana won the race in 9:36.49 

The next morning, it was back to the track for the preliminary rounds of the mile run.  Twenty-five milers, divided into three heats, were vying for 10 spots in Saturday’s final.  The first two from each heat and the next four fastest times would move on to the next round. Lewis was seeded 12th in the field and drew the fastest heat with two sub-4:00 milers in it.  

He was brought to the Big 10 Meet  to run the Distance Medley Relay. Since he was there and had a qualifying time, Coach Hasenbank put him in the mile “for the experience.”

He knew his rising star would be a factor in future championship miles, but this year was to be a learning experience. Expectations that the rookie would actually make it to the finals, especially out of the fastest heat,  were not high — except in Lewis’ mind.

“I wasn’t focusing on time or splits during my prelim,” he said after the race. “I really wanted to make the top two to solidify my spot in the finals.”

From the start, he stuck doggedly to a fast early pace sitting between third and fifth places until the final 300 meters when he moved into second behind Michigan’s Nick Foster. Lewis stayed close to Foster to the finish, holding off Foster’s teammate, Tom Dodd, a 3:58 miler, in the final stretch to punch his ticket into the finals.

His time, a very fast 4:04.21, topped his previous best of 4:07 from just two weeks earlier. After the race Lewis said, “When I crossed the line in second it was great to qualify for the finals, but seeing the 4:04 made that moment even better.”

Saturday’s final was purely a tactical race, as is often the case in championship finals.  The early pace was a pedestrian 1:07 for the first quarter with all 10 finalists bunched together. Lewis, in 8th, held that spot through the half in 2:11. Nebraska’s George Kutche, a 3:57 miler, decided it was time to start racing and upped the tempo pulling the pack through three quarters in 3:10. Lewis was back two seconds at that point.

With 400 meters to go, Kutche, Michigan’s Foster and Owen Hoeft of Minnesota lit it up.  The trio all ran the last 400 meters in around 55 seconds to a near-blanket finish with all three finishing between 4:05.45 and 4:05.75. 

Lewis could not match the speed of the older, more experienced runners in the end, but was the top Big 10 freshman finisher, scoring another team point for Iowa. Though he got out-kicked, he still had a strong finish, covering his last 800 in 1:58 finishing eighth in 4:09.48—his third fastest time ever. Because it was a tactical race where no one pushed the early pace, almost all the runners were three to five seconds off their best times. Championship running is all about place and points.

Three hard races in three days takes its toll.  A tactical sit and kick final race of the weekend is the hardest on tired legs. When asked about that, Lewis responded, “My legs were fading in the last 300. I didn’t have anything left, my hamstrings and calves were just dead with no juice left.”

The Islander showed plenty of “juice,” however,  in his first season as a collegiate runner.

To recap his freshman year, his 4:04 mile is a freshman school record and the third fastest indoor time in school history; he improved his high school mile by 13 seconds; he is the best freshman miler in the Big 10; he led off the second fastest Hawkeye Distance Medley Relay in school history; and he contributed points to Iowa’s first Big 10 indoor champion team in more than 90 years.

Coach Hasenbank summed it up: “Kal stepped up and scored points for us, wrapping up a great freshman season.”

Gram is proud.