A Perfect Night At 'East Coast Arcadia'

The skies were threatening to open up all afternoon.

Rain was in the forecast, but even as the lights illuminated the Hewlett Memorial Track for the Henderson Invitational's signature event -- the 3,200 meters -- no more than a drizzle broke through on an otherwise perfect evening in West Chester.

Like PennTrackXC founder Don Rich described the same event at the same meet almost 14 years to the day in the first sentence of his meet dispatch, "the weather was perfect."

It all lined up for another special boys' 3,200 meters at Henderson. Just like that 2007 meet, the race delivered on its promise.

And then some.

The coronavirus pandemic stripped runners of a chance to compete (at least in a traditional sense) last spring. Performances over the last few months have proved that high schoolers were as anxious as ever run fast.

There have been some marquee matchups on the track in Pennsylvania already this spring. But no field was as loaded as the boys' 3,200 at Henderson on Friday.

On the same track where Craig Forys ran to the New Jersey state record in the same race where Paul Springer ran to the Pennsylvania outdoor state record in the event in 2007, it was time to rewrite those record books.

Robert DiDonato did just that, covering eight laps in 8 minutes, 44.98 seconds -- the fastest outdoor 3,200 meter run in PA state history -- eclipsing Springer's previous all-time state best by just under five seconds. Gary Martin, a junior, wasn't far behind, just missing Springer's previous state record. Three others broke nine minutes.

It all came together on another "perfect" Friday night, culminating with a little high school track history, that had the race's stars comparing it to a meet on the other side of the country where the 3,200 also took center stage over the weekend.

Another legendary Henderson 3,200 field

It's no secret that the Henderson Invitational is the place to go for fast 3,200s. It makes sense, after all. The month of May is that time when distance runners start to switch gears training-wise, trading in base-building for more turnover.

With conference championships coming the next week, followed by district meets and then the state meet, running fast times is usually thrown out the window in favor of tactics. This is one of the last opportunities to go after the clock.

"It's always that meet where the 3,200 is really good," DiDonato said of the meet. "I ran it sophomore year and it's the perfect environment to run fast."

The event has been home to many fast times over the years, and has become the go-to spot for many of PA's top distance runners from east and central parts of the state to go after it. The record-setting race in 2007 started that trend, and it has continued virtually every year since.

The field for Friday was set with Germantown Academy's DiDonato and Archbishop Wood's Martin headlining the entries. Nick Bendtsen from Connecticut and Myles Hogan from New York came from out-of-state to get in on the fun. The Downingtown West pair of Aiden Barnhill and Declan Rymer joined too. Hatboro Horsham's Devon Comber, Jenkintown's Luke Miller, and Penn Manor's Graham Thomas, among a host of others were set as well.

Unlike the race from 14 years ago, though. There was no meticulously thought out pre-race plan. In 2007, a pair of Henderson runners took up pacemaking duties for the opening laps and the three favorites, Forys, Springer, and Jason Weller agreed to trade off laps after that before dueling it out to the finish. 

Fast forward to Friday night, it was just some of the area's top distance runners battling it out over eight laps with not much of a discussion beforehand about a race strategy.

For DiDonato, the goal, first and foremost, was to win.

"Generally when I run best is when I'm like 'let's go for the win,' he said. "If it takes a state record, it takes a state record."

And it, of course, did take a state record.

No clear plan, no problem

The race went out with Martin going to the front on the backstretch -- something he's made a habit of doing this year. DiDonato, who will head to Stanford University in the fall, took the lead and led the group through the first lap in 65-high, pretty much right on record pace.

Then it slowed down on the second lap, with Martin taking the pack through 800 in 2:15-high. DiDonato, on the backstretch of lap three, took the lead and the pack started to string out. At 1,200 meters, a lead pack of just DiDonato, Martin, Bendtsen, and Hogan formed after a quicker lap of 65 seconds.

Those four came through 1,600 meters in 4:27-mid, with DiDonato pacing the way. DiDonato said he wanted to go off feel in the early part of the race and go from there.

"I wanted (Martin and my) interaction up front to dictate the pace early, so that ended up being 4:27 (for the first mile)," he said. "But then I was like, 'alright, I gotta beat him now'"

"I really didn't know (how the race would play out)," Martin said. "There's so many guys coming in and didn't know if one would try to break away early or if the pack would be more strategic, so I knew if it went out a little slow, I was going to try and take over, which I did a little bit, but obviously Rob went with me and we went back and forth."

Martin went to the front on the fifth lap, but coming up to 2,000 meters on the frontstretch, DiDonato took control and the Pennsylvania pair put some space on the out-of-staters. 

DiDonato kept pushing the pace, and with two to go even opened up a few meters space between him and Martin. That lead continued to grow ever-so-slightly, until DiDonato got to the bell lap and found another gear.

The senior closed in in 59.61 for the final 400 meters to complete a huge negative split and capture the win. More notably, the outdoor state record was his: 8:44.98.

"I always thought he might have another move, so I saved a lot for the last 400," DiDonato said.

DiDonato ran his second 1,600 in 4:17.48, a time that would have won him the event in the same invite, which was run a day later.

Martin closed well in 63.46 for the final lap to finish in 8:49.96, the third fastest 3,200 in outdoor state history, just .12 off Springer's now PA No. 2 all-time performance. 

If there was any disappointment from Martin on taking runner-up, he didn't show it after the race.

"Of course you want to go in and win every race, but you're not going to" he said. "So you just want to run your best and run your race and I'm pretty happy with how I came away and hopefully next time I hope to run faster and win."

After the top two came in a flurry of other boys breaking nine minutes. Bendtsen took third in 8:53.33 edging out Comber (8:53.58), who ran the fastest last lap of anyone at 58.49. Barnhill came next, taking fifth in 8:53.58.

Four others finished sub-9:10, all putting down historically fast times in their own right. Rymer was sixth in 9:04.41. Hogan held on in the final laps after sticking with the lead pack earlier to take seventh in 9:05.93. Miller was eighth in 9:06.72 and Thomas came through ninth in 9:08.73.

'The East Coast Arcadia'

There has never been a 3,200 in Pennsylvania quite like the one we saw on Friday night. When Forys and Springer dueled 14 years ago, they were the only two to break nine minutes. Weller, who was third in 2007, ran a time that would have gotten him seventh in Friday's race.

There have been some terrific 3,200 battles at the PIAA State Championships, specifically in 2015 where four boys went under nine minutes. But it still wasn't as fast and deep as Friday.

Perhaps a more apt comparison exists.

"We were joking before the race that this is our East Coast Arcadia," DiDonato said, referring to the annual Arcadia Invitational in California.

On Saturday -- one day after DiDonato's then-US No. 1 performance at Henderson -- 15 boys broke the 9 minute barrier for 3,200 meters. Newbury Park's Colin Sahlman won in 8:43.42, closely followed by his teammate Lex Young, who ran 8:43.71 (Newbury Park had two others break 9 minutes in that race).

When the dust settled this past weekend, DiDonato's PA record time still sits at US No. 3. Martin, meanwhile, is at US No. 6. Bendtsen comes in at US No. 13, and Comber is at US No. 14.

OK, so maybe Arcadia still has the advantage, but DiDonato certainly makes some good points about the strength of distance running right now in the east.

"I think it's been a while since we've had this concentration of talent in the 3200," DiDonato said. "We have the opportunity here to do something really cool. Fortunately, it came together and it didn't become too tactical."

"You're not gonna get a better group of guys on the east coast, really. It was really awesome to be a part of a field like this," Martin added.


Now comes time for the postseason. Germantown Academy doesn't compete in the PIAA, so there won't be a state meet for DiDonato to compete in this spring. Instead, he'll prep for the Inter-Ac League Championships before he sets his sights on some more fast times.

That could come at Henderson once again for the John Hay Pennsylvania Distance Festival on June 4. There's a good chance he'll see many of the same boys he just raced, including Martin.

But Martin, along with the rest of the PA boys from Friday night, will turn their attention to the postseason. The state meet on May 28 and 29 looms in the near future. Decisions on what races to be run will be made.

The times, though, may not top what we saw on Friday. After all, it was the perfect night.

Maybe Martin, who is only a junior, can take a shot at DiDonato's record next spring at Henderson.

"That'll be the goal next year," Martin said with a laugh. "I mean, I was with him until the last lap and he pulled away, so next time hopefully I can cut down the time a little bit and be right there."