The distance travelled by Clayton Murphy between the first and second of David Rudisha’s Olympic 800m gold medals is hard to comprehend.
Four years ago at the time of Rudisha’s maiden Olympic success in London, Murphy was a good though far from spectacular 17-year-old high school athlete whose personal aspirations extended to carving out a college career as a middle-distance runner. He can’t even recall if he watched the London final and Rudisha’s world record heroics live.
Fast forward to August 2016 and Murphy has just demolished his previous PB by nearly a second-and-a-half with a 1:42.93 run en route to Olympic bronze – behind Rudisha – at the Rio Games.
“At the time I was preparing for my senior year at high school for the cross country season,” Murphy said. “Back then I never would have laid down at night and thought the goal is to win a medal in the 800 metres in 2016 Rio Olympic Games.”
Rural ‘work ethic’ sets the foundation
His rise has been nothing short of sensational.
Raised on a pig farm in the small community of New Madison, Ohio, he was instilled with a “work ethic” which he believes has stood him good stead for his athletics career.
Among the many chores he had to carry out was to show the pigs at country fairs in which pigs are judged and marked on their market quality such as muscle, fat and body structure – a skill which Clayton’s father believes his son had a flair for.
From a family of basketballers and volleyball players, Murphy excelled as a high energy soccer player in his youth before committing to athletics in his sophomore year at high school.
Describing himself as a good though not great high school runner he recalls finishing fourth in the mile in 4:16 at the state track and field championships as a pivotal point in his career.
"That was the moment when it clicked that I could be a collegiate athlete,” explains Murphy. “That race I turned to the next level (in my development) and it gave me a lot of motivation for the following year and the rest of my career.”
In August 2013 he began his collegiate career at the University of Akron under the coaching of Lee LaBadie, a man who guided Mark Croghan and Robert Gary to the US steeplechase team for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
At university, building up the mileage, paying his dues
Dramatically overhauling his training regime in his freshman year proved a demanding challenge for Murphy, who had been accustomed to very “simple workouts” and low mileage at high school. In his freshman year he chopped four seconds from his 800m PB, running 1:50, and found the going tough but he reflects on his freshman year as being an invaluable experience.
“I thought at the time I had raced too much, but looking back it was good for me, because it taught me how to race and learn how to handle racing.”
In his sophomore year and now used to running 45 to 55-mile weeks he was to make huge progress in the 2015 outdoor campaign, where he was to emerge from promising college runner into an international gold medallist.
He had shown huge promise during the indoor campaign, recording a PB of 1:47.06 and finishing third at the NCAA Indoor Championships in Arkansas. Outdoors he was disappointed to match the medal-winning achievement and he used that as motivation for the US outdoor championships in Eugene – which was to prove another pivotal competition in his career.
“I didn’t run to my full potential (at NCAA’s) and I ran with a chip on my shoulder at USA’s,” he says. In the first round heats he ran a PB of 1:46.35 to advance. In the semi-finals he clocked 1:45.78 to progress to the final where he went on to place fourth in a time of 1:45.59. He had set three lifetime bests in four days and had arrived as one of the USA’s premier 800m runners.
“I was surprised by the time, although I could tell coach wasn’t,” he adds. “If the race had been 10 metres longer I think I could have got fourth (Casimir Loxsom recorded 1:45.35 for third) and there was a tiny element of disappointment because I still hadn’t run the perfect race.”
Crucially he also went on to earn vital experience competing on the international championship stage later that season. At the Pan American Games in Toronto he struck gold by just 0.04 from Colombia’s Rafith Rodriguez and following Nick Symmonds decision to withdraw from the US team for the 2015 World Championships in Beijing he placed sixth in the semi-finals.
“It was just awesome being on the same team with guys like Ashton Eaton and to watch and see what they do was really cool,” he adds.
Post-Beijing, Rio aspirations take root
Yet we cannot depart the 2015 season before asking Murphy just why he managed to make such staggering progress?
“Coach and I are both very detailed orientated. We are really detailed in terms of how we run the reps and how we run the different workouts. I am not trying to avoid the question, but it is all about being able to improve the little things such as building the workouts and the mileage which has made the difference.”
With a new level of optimism and confidence coursing through his veins, Murphy targeted winning a spot on the US Olympic team for the Rio Olympics and running 1:44. He was good for his wish as he secured victory at the US Olympic Trials in a new PB of 1:44.76 to pip Boris Berian to the national title. He was on his way to Rio.
In Brazil Murphy did not disappoint. He ran a PB of 1:44.30 in his semi to place second behind Rudisha and than adopted a simple clutter-free tactic in the final.
‘The goal was to go out there and run the first 200 metres harder than I had ever ran the first 200 metre of an 800 metres,” he explains. “I did not plan to look at the clock, it was all about positioning.”
In a final run at a blistering pace courtesy of Kenya’s Alfred Kipketer, Murphy was already aware after just 150 metres the “race was fast” and went through the bell shoulder to shoulder with Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi, the eventual silver medallist.
Rounding the final bend Murphy had climbed to fourth but still trailed the Frenchman Pierrer-Ambroise Bosse by five metres. Yet with 50 metres remaining Bosse started to fade and Murphy seized his chance to take bronze in a PB of 1:42.97 – and become the first US athlete to win an Olympic medal in this event since Johnny Gray in 1992.
Coincidentally the last US winner of this event, Dave Wottle 44 years ago, is like Murphy from the state of Ohio.
“It was awesome to represent the US on the biggest stage and come away with a medal. I think the 800 metres is one of the toughest events to make a final in let alone medal. It was an awesome team effort, but it was awesome to bring that medal back.”
Now a professional athlete he hopes to use the extra time he now has to focus more on training in an effort to reach a peak for the outdoor season culminating with the IAAF World Championships London 2017 and he has not ruled out focusing more on the 1500m and mile.
He may now be a fully-fledged pro who in the wake of his success met the US President, but he insists as he completes the final year of his university degree at Akron life hasn’t changed too much.
“I have been able to come back and just be a normal college guy,” he insists. “To be able to train with the same guys I did every time has been fun. A bronze medal didn’t change a whole lot for me.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF