The festive atmosphere at the third annual West Allis Hale Distance Night celebration on April 28 would have given every long-time track meet referee a headache, if not an outright migraine.

There were literally more people in the infield than in the stands and they would crowd the edge of the track trying to get a view of the high-intensity action. Action that had pulled in literally every great distance runner in the state of Wisconsin. PT Timing, the grandfather of all timing systems, was there to make sure everyone got an accurate result, while MileSplit Wisconsin was there interviewing the winners for their website and taking hundreds of photos of almost every race.

Literally, everyone, who was anyone in Wisconsin prep distance running, fan, parent, coach or athlete was there either competing, recording or timing the event. Hip-hop, dance and pop was blaring on the loudspeakers to provide an appropriately engaging backdrop as veteran meet officials Elliot Kramsky and Mary Blandino did their best to keep things organized.

And they did, as each of the many boys and girls 800, 1,600, and 3,200-meter races went off without a hitch, giving almost every competitor the high-octane, high intensity mid-season adrenaline rush and result that they were looking for. An hour or so after it was finished, the results found their way onto the MileSplit State Honor Roll and it was there that everyone discovered just what a great kick, what a great jolt, the specialty distance meet has become to the otherwise overlooked spring track season in Wisconsin.

On the boys side, there were six new times in the top 11 for the 800 and five in the top seven of the 1,600 and in the girls’ races, the top five times were completely rewritten in the 1,600 and six of first seven in the 3,200 (more on that later in this post).

But it was in the boys’ 3,200 where an insanity of excellence truly reined. Fully 17 runners battered their way into the state’s top 20 this night, led by Bode Erickson of Stevens Point, who edged Oconomowoc’s Zachariah Vance, 9:08.62 to 9:09.18 for the title. The times are the second and third fastest in the state so far this season.

So deep was this race that Hartford senior Nash Merklein, the leader of the Orioles’ eighth place state cross country team last fall, shattered the Orioles’ school record by close to six seconds with an otherwise excellent 9:27.41, but only finished 18th. He currently sits 21st on the honor roll.

Those numbers didn’t bother him at all, as he was elated with his effort.

“I was off four or five months with an injury (after cross country) and couldn’t really train,” he said. “This is only my second solo race and comes off just a month of training. I saw the front group go out really fast (about 4:30 at the mile) and I knew I wasn’t there yet so I went at a pace I knew I could handle. I was just happy that I got a PR, because this is the craziest competition around.

“I was so happy to be here with all these (great) people.”

One person who was not in the race was state leader Homestead senior Owen Bosley of Homestead, who instead opted for a good tune-up in his rarely run 800, where he took fifth (1:56.11) behind winner JJ Williams of Glenwood City (1:55.2). In the 1,600, Stevens Point Pacelli’s Adam Eiden (4:19.4) edged Little Chute’s Riley Huss (4:19.55) as Hartford’s Adam Weyer took third (4:22.35).

Bosley, a Harvard recruit, can understand Merklein’s rationale of valuing the time and effort over the place, because he set that state best 3,200 time of 8:54.19 in the country’s elite early season prep meet the Arcadia (California) Invitational the weekend of April 7 and 8.

There he was in a field of over 175 runners and only took seventh in the second-fastest heat of the day with that state all-time top 10 time. Further, he finished only 27th overall as an astounding 44 runners broke nine minutes, the pinnacle of excellence for the distance. Oregon recruit Simeon Birnbaum of Rapid City, South Dakota turned in a truly elite time of 8:34.1 in winning the Arcadia 3,200.

Bosley, who had also set the state best (and won the race) in the 1,600 of 4:11.13 at the Palatine (Ill.) Distance Night on April 22, was playing it safe at Hale and knew it would be hard to better either his 1,600 or 3,200 times at this stage of the season especially after turning in such elite performances just weeks earlier.

“I don’t think I could better the perfect conditions I had at Palatine or Arcadia,” said Bosley. “Arcadia was great especially with as hard I’ve been working. Just to compete in that field was amazing, because all the best two-milers (in the country) were there, everybody. Arcadia is the biggest race out there. Meets like those are how you ran fast.”

It used to be races and meets like these were few and far between. In the 1970s and 1980s, Menomonee Falls North distance aces such as Jim Stintzi and Jeff Hacker and Tim Hacker occasionally tested themselves in post-season events such as the Golden West Invitational in California or the International Prep Track Invitational in Illinois, but in-season specialty events were few and far between.

Arguably one of the most celebrated pre-Arcadia, Palatine and Hale in-season specialty distance races came about in 1981 when Wisconsin had a luxury of prep distance talents and the WTFA State Indoor at the Madison West Shell was the stage for a truly remarkable two-mile race. There Kenosha Bradford’s Scott Jenkins (9:01.5), Tim Hacker of Falls North (9:02.7), Wittenberg-Birnamwood’s John Easker and Hacker’s teammate Joe Stintzi (9:09.2) all lived up to the hype that was already surrounding them.

Such was the level of the competition that Jenkins, Hacker and Easker’s times were all in the top six nationally that year. It would serve as a precursor to their future brilliance.

All four would wind up at Wisconsin, where they would become cross country legends. They all earned multiple All-American honors and led the Badger men’s cross country team to two NCAA D1 team titles, with Hacker leading the way to that second crown in 1985 when he claimed the individual championship on his own old home prep cross country track of Dretzka Park in Milwaukee.

Not surprisingly, all four are Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Association (WCCCA) Hall of Famers.

Like the runners at Hale, all four relished the competition that that 1981 WTFA invitational two-mile provided them. In a story I wrote for Community Newspapers in 2001 on the 20th anniversary of that race, Hacker told me the following:

“I recall thinking that it would be great if we could make it into Track and Field News (the Bible of American track). It would be a great opportunity to run fast. Going into most of my races, I never thought about losing that much, but I remember thinking here that I really didn’t care if I won or lost.”

The modern era of the elite specialty track meet began in a big way when Wisconsin’s best prep male distance runner ever, Chris Solinsky of Point, went to Arcadia in 2003 and blew everyone’s mind when he won the 3,200 with a still state best of 8:43.24. The effort made national track news and put Wisconsin prep track on the map. Solinsky would go on to do many great things in the next few years, but as we all know, injuries cut short his amazing career at a far too young age.

To put Solinsky’s time in context, the official 3,200 state record is held by Joshua Truchon of West Allis Hale, who turned in a still exceptional 8:53.87 at the 2021 WIAA state meet held under truly ugly and wet conditions (all of us who were there remember the horror clearly). Further, Chris Rombough of New London in 2005 (8:50.85), Finn Gessner of Madison La Follette in 2017 (8:47.57) and Bosley’s older brother Drew Bosley in 2019 (8:49.28) would turn in eye-popping early season times in specialty meets in the future, but could not quite emulate those kind of efforts at state.

Over the years, early June conditions in La Crosse have just never quite been conducive to turning in such rarified marks, as even in Solinsky’s senior year state meet in 2003, at the height of his powers, the boys D1 3,200 was conducted on a “Hot as Hades” Saturday afternoon. He set a state record of course, but he and all of us in attendance knew it could have been much better if he had been running under cooler and less humid conditions.

But conditions at Hale on April 28 were cool (mid-50s), dry and windless, near-perfect, and those were the impetus for the brilliant competitors in the girls’ 3,200 to annihilate all the meet records as the top five would break the old event mark and a total of seven would break the coveted 11 minute barrier, including six who went under 10:50.

Muskego’s Ella Anschutz and Noelle Jung along with Slinger’s Summer Schuster set a blistering pace. The freshman Anschutz broke free in the end to set a new state best time of 10:32.18, while Schuster rallied in the last 100 meters to edge Jung 10:38.41-10:38.59 for second. Also breaking the old meet standard were Isabella Switalski of Milwaukee Ronald Reagan (10:47.51) and defending state 3,200 champion Zaira Malloy-Salgado of Middleton (10:47.52).

Lily Kriegel of Whitefish Bay (10:49.62) and Savannah Fraley of Homestead (10:56.62) also turned in times that would have won many state meet titles in past years but were only good for sixth and seventh this night, respectively.

The sheer intensity of the competition left Schuster jubilant. It also left the 2022 state D1 cross country runner-up, two-time state track placewinner and Tennessee recruit wanting for more as she happily joined Anschutz and Jung in a delightful joint post-race interview where they praised each other copiously.

Afterward, she was happily bouncing around the track, delighted in the efforts of her Slinger teammates including the personal best 1,600 turned in by her freshman little sister Piper Schuster.

“I ‘m just so happy,” Summer said, noting that her 3,200 time was just a second off the personal best she set in taking third at the WIAA state meet last June. “I would not have been able to run like this without them (Jung and Anschutz). Having people to push you is so special. You know you have to push it (and not coast) and keep an out for others in the race.

“This field was so deep and so strong and that tells you something about your mental game too. Can you be tough (when pushed) and do you have the will? Because at this level, it’s the mentally strongest who will win the race.”

The other girls’ races did not disappoint either. Freshman sensation Charlize-Trinity McKenzie of Cedarburg dominated the 800 field in setting a state best of 2:14.59 and as noted the 1,600 was so good, so fast, that it put many state finals’ races to shame. 2022 D1 state cross country champ Sara Mlodik of DC Everest led the way with a 4:54.52 time as the first five finishers all broke five minutes.

Her nearest competitor was 2022 D2 state 800 and 1,600 champ Nora Gremban of Northland Pines (4:56.1), while 2022 D3 state 1,600 runner-up Sophia Bablitch of Rosholt (4:56.65), Eva Koos of Mukwonago (4:57.33) and Eva Kuehn of Wisconsin Lutheran (4:59.37) all joined in in rewriting the top of the 2023 honor roll in the 1,600.

And as the music continued to blare long after the final race was over, runners lingered on the infield, comparing notes and talking about how they could have done better or how this night could be a stepping stone when the state meet is contested back in La Crosse in about a month.

As for us distance geeks, which included assorted coaches, parents and fans who were in attendance, there was just head-shaking amazement at what we had witnessed. That group included retired legendary Arrowhead cross country coach Mike Mulrooney, who has been a part of too many state championships to count.

He spends his retirement running around to various track and cross country meets in the area, interviewing top athletes and then posting professional-looking and widely viewed videos of those interviews on You Tube. He did the same thing on Hale Distance Night. He has also done the sport an invaluable service by recording excellent interviews of fellow cross country coaching Hall of Famers such as Bob Rymer of Menomonee Falls and Donn Behnke of Point among others.

Among his interviews this April night was of a joyful Hale distance coach and meet organizer Dan Machmueller, who couldn’t stop smiling the whole time he was on camera with Mulrooney.

“It’s a real fun job,” Machmueller told Mulrooney. “I feel like I’m not doing anything because I just put people in the right places. …Getting people to come here is awesome because its the one night of the year you can get all three (enrollment) divisions together.”

Mulrooney was clearly pumped by the night’s events because he told Machmueller that he noticed that “the kids kept the foot on the accelerator and never let off. They went as hard as they could for as long as they could.”

And that was what clearly Machmueller and his staff were aiming at when they started this thing up three years ago. After Mulrooney thanked him for putting it on again, Machmueller closed with an open invitation to any elite distance runner in the state to come around next April for the fourth iteration of the Hale Distance Night.

“I’ll be buzzing all weekend it’s just so much fun,” he told Mulrooney. “Keep bringing people in because it’s just a blast. If you’re not here, you should be because it’s the best night of the year.”

I couldn’t agree more because it’s events like Hale that make Wisconsin prep distance running fun and cool.

UP NEXT: My apologies to everyone for the year-long hiatus on the track blog. I intend to finish up this summer the summaries of the all state meets in La Crosse, picking up with 2018. But for the time being, I want to continue commenting on this fast-moving season, including the lopsided talent discrepancies in the Milwaukee area D1 sectionals among other issues. Will keep everyone posted and I thank my readers for their patience!