LEXINGTON, Ky. — With temperatures hovering in the low- to mid-50s and a steady breeze making it feel chillier, there was only one thing on the minds of athletes in the Southeastern Conference track and field championships Friday evening: survival.
A promise of warmer weather on the meet’s final day Sunday was the prize that awaited those who advanced through three running prelims at the University of Kentucky’s blue oval.
“Survival,” said LSU coach Dennis Shaver, who saw six of his athletes advance. “It was about getting through it.”
Even that was a challenge, to be sure.
Entrants in the 200 and 800 meters and 400-meter hurdles had to warm up at Kentucky’s indoor facility about a half-mile away before being shuttled to the outdoor track. Then, it was a 30-minute wait for their event to start.
It wasn’t a problem, however, for the Tigers’ Aaron Ernest and Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake in the 200 and Quincy Downing in the 400 hurdles. The Lady Tigers’ also had three advance as Nikita Tracey and Chanice Chase got through in the 400 hurdles and Morgan Schuetz earned a spot in the 800 final.
Ernest and Mitchell-Blake, who missed most of the indoor and outdoor seasons with hamstring injuries, were the most impressive.
Ernest, who clocked the fourth-fastest time in the world this spring with a 20.14 in his 200 debut two weeks ago, easily won his heat in 20.80 seconds.
That came minutes after Mitchell-Blake, who hadn’t run in the 200 this spring, took second in his heat with a time of 21.03 seconds. While only heat winners automatically advanced to the final, Mitchell-Blake joined Ernest when he got the third and final wild-card spot based on time.
“The warmup and everything was pretty normal, the problem was trying to stay warm once we got to the track,” said Ernest, who wore two pairs of pants under his sweats.
“We practiced in the cold almost every day (earlier) this year, so we just had to come out and be mentally strong and get through it.”
“We wanted Aaron to win his heat (and automatically advance),” said Shaver. “We wanted him to run the turn hard, then relax and do what he needs to do.”
While Ernest cruised to an easy win, Mitchell-Blake’s second-place finish behind Florida’s Dedric Dukes, the world leader in the 200 so far this spring, was impressive as well.
“Nate wasn’t expected to get through, but it was important he got that time because that’ll get him in the NCAA preliminary rounds,” Shaver said. “It’s not that he’s not capable of getting in, we were worried he wouldn’t be able to do it in these conditions.
“If he didn’t do it tonight, he wouldn’t be in the final Sunday when the weather will be a little better.”
Temperatures are expected to be in the low-60s Saturday, when the meet kicks into high gear, and in the mid- to upper-60s on Sunday.
Joining Ernest and Mitchell-Blake will be Downing, who finished third in his 400 hurdles heat with a time of 52.39 seconds and earned a wild-card spot based on his time.
For the Lady Tigers, Tracey won her heat in the 400 hurdles at 57.73 seconds with Chase following close behind in 58.07 to earn a finals spot. Earlier in the evening, Schuetz got through when she ran third in her heat with a time of 2 minutes, 8.79 seconds.
“Tonight,” Shaver said, “was about trying to qualify and get to the next one.”
And, of course, survive.
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.