Surrey track star trying to beat the clock

SURREY – Sixty years ago at Vancouver’s Empire Stadium, two men set the standard for middle-distance running. England’s Roger Bannister and Australia’s John Landy were the first two men to run a sub four-minute “miracle” mile in the same race at the 1954 British Empire Games. On Thursday (July 10), Surrey’s Keffri Neal will try and match that feat.

The University of Kentucky (UK) Wildcat had an astounding junior year, picking up gold medals at both indoor and outdoor Southeastern Conference (SEC) championships before breaking his 800-metre personal best and collecting a bronze medal at the NCAA championships.

“I ran a lot faster than I ever have before and it was my first time being there, so coming third was pretty unexpected. I’m happy with it,” Neal said, trying not to brag.

Neal is set to run the one-mile race Thursday at the Harry Jerome International Track Classic in Burnaby, and is excited to test his skills against some of the best runners on the continent.

“It will be one of the faster races that I’ve ever been in … I can say I’ve never run against a field that strong before. That should be an experience in itself and possibly breaking four minutes in a mile,” Neal said.

The former Fleetwood Park Dragon has been training hard to get back to running longer distances now that the collegiate season is over. At the Penn Relays in late April, Neal managed to break the four-minute barrier by 1.5 seconds in the 4×1-mile event.

“I’m in 800 (metre) shape right now. It’s really hard to switch it up in two weeks. I’ve been trying to maintain, really, and try to get a little more strength so I can run a fast mile,” he said.

Neal’s personal best for the mile is 4:04.

The Surrey native broke his 800-metre personal best at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships after running 1:46.39. He was 13 tenths-of-a-second away from the gold medalist and fellow Canadian, Brandon McBride of Mississippi State University.

This isn’t the only time that the Ontarian snubbed Neal for gold. At the Canadian Track and Field Championships two weeks ago in Moncton, Neal had to settle for silver with McBride beating him by 22 tenths-of-a-second in the 800-metre race.

Bryan Onstad used to be one of the coaches for the Surrey Athletics Club, Neal’s track and field club, which closed in 2011. However, he still trains Neal during the offseason.

“He was 12 years old when he started (Surrey Athletics Club). For the first five or six years, he was not one of the better runners in the group,” Onstad said. “By about Grade 10 he started maturing and rising up. By Grade 12 he was one of the best in the province.”

Onstad has kept in touch with Sean Graham, Neal’s coach at UK, and they plan on keeping Neal training during the summer. During the season, Neal was running about 70 miles every week and Onstad believes it was the key to his breakout year.

“That’s really catapulted him to a new level now,” Onstad said. “He’s just at the place where he’s verging on international. A lot of the guys at (Harry) Jerome are top U.S. milers and 1500-metre runners, and the top Canadians are in there also. It will be a good experience for him. This year he’s got the confidence and I think he’s going to do well there.”

Neal is a versatile runner and took both of his SEC gold medals in different events.

At the indoor championships in Texas, Neal took first place in the 800-metre event after running 1:48.94 in February.

Neal’s school hosted the outdoor championships, and he walked away with the gold in the 1500-metre race in Lexington, Kentucky after a run of 3:48.69.

Neal also ran the 800-metre race in the outdoor championships, but it was clear that his body was fatigued as he finished in eighth. Again, McBride took home the gold.

“It’s pretty rare for a Canadian to go to a big institution like (University of Kentucky),” Neal said. “At the time, I didn’t really appreciate it or knew what my track career would end up being, but it has worked out very well so far.”

After July 10, Neal will compete in the provincial championships in Kamloops, which starts on July 11. He turned down a spot to represent Canada at the under-23 level at the North American, Central American, and Caribbean Under 23 (NACAC U23) Championships because the event starts too close to his collegiate season.

The 2014 Vancouver Sun Harry Jerome International Track Classic takes place at Swangard Stadium on Thursday. The mile-long race will be the last event of the day, where Neal will be up against another Surrey track star in Luc Bruchet. More information can be found online at Harryjerome.com.

kyle.benning@gmail.com

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