- - Friday, May 25, 2012

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Michael Hammond doesn’t mind waiting.

That, in effect, is the Virginia Tech senior and former Midlothian High School distance runner’s strategy when he races.

“Throughout college, the thing I’ve been known for is my kick, my last lap,” Hammond said by phone this week from Jacksonville, Fla., where he’s competing in the NCAA East regional. “I don’t want to be in front, but I also don’t want to get too far back so I can’t catch people.”

Thursday, Hammond ran a 4:05:30 in the first heat of the men’s 1,500-meter race to qualify for Saturday’s quarterfinals. The top five finishers Saturday, plus the next two fastest times, qualify for the national championships at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on June 6-9.

Two of Hammond’s fellow runners in the 1,500 also reached Saturday’s quarterfinal round, and three Hokies qualified for nationals.

Senior Chris Walizer (fifth in the final heat at 3:46:62) and redshirt freshman Grant Pollock (fourth in the final heat at 3:46:31) also made it through Thursday’s preliminary round in the 1,500.

Juniors Jeff Artis-Gray (10th in the long jump) and Mathias Treff (second in the javelin) and freshman Valentina Muzaric (sixth in the shot put) all punched their tickets to Iowa.

Artis-Gray jumped 24 feet, 116 1/47 inches, to break a Tech record that had stood since 1971.

Hammond — who was born in Houston and spent part of his childhood in Arkansas before his family moved to Midlothian before his junior year of high school — said he began developing his big-finish approach to distance running in high school, though back then it was a strategy he just kind of stumbled upon, realizing he had a natural ability to run hard at the end of races.

“I think in high school I was worse with that. I went straight to the back in races and then just kicked,” Hammond said. “Honestly in high school, I didn’t have too much of a strategy.”

It’s the exact opposite approach from the one Hammond’s brother Stephen used in his time as a prep and then college runner.

Stephen Hammond, who ran his high school track in Arkansas and ran collegiately at Western Carolina, said the differing styles were the product of his younger brother having an athletic edge.

“He definitely has a little bit more foot speed than I ever had,” Stephen Hammond said this week by phone from Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he recently completed his master’s degree at the University of Alabama. “I would try to get out and get away from guys like him before the end of the race. There’s no better way of describing him than coming on strong at the end.”

The younger Hammond has certainly done that in his Tech career. As a junior, he broke the four-minute-mile barrier in an indoor race. This season, he became the first Hokies runner to run under four minutes in the mile outdoors, finishing in 3:58.91 at the Roanoke Twilight event on May 10 at Roanoke College.

When he ran 3:39.22 in the 1,500 earlier this year, he broke a Tech record set in 1987.

All this after missing the indoor season with a knee injury.

Now, Hammond has his sights set on returning the national championships, where he finished 14th last year.

And he’ll do it by hanging back, then turning on the jets for the final 200 meters. It’s a strategy, he admits, can backfire. It did at this year’s ACC championship, when Hammond said he finished second because he started his kick too late.

“It’s kind of a blessing and a curse,” Hammond said. “It’s worked a lot for me but it’s almost, you live by the kick and you die by the kick.”

For his brother, who plans to attend the championships in Iowa if Michael qualifies, it can be stressful viewing.

“It’s nerve racking at times,” Stephen Hammond, 24, said. “I’m not nervous about him, I’m nervous about the other runners. Is he going to be able to navigate his way up to the front? I know he’s always going to have it. When that last lap comes around, I always know he’s going to bring it.”

Read more about the Hokies at VTeffect.com

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