A nearly 30-year World U20 relay record is within grasp for four young athletes, who are both at once competitors, and now teammates
Let’s start with the Instagram DM first, because in theory that’s how this whole World Athletics U20 4x800 women’s record attempt began, with a curious message in December to a friend from Wisconsin.
Bailey Goggans: Have you heard of any indoor races coming up this winter?
Roisin Willis: Are you signed up for the 800 at the VA Showcase?
Bailey: Wait? No.
Panic. Followed by some well placed phone calls, followed by some devastating news.
The lost email.
While Goggans, one of the top 800 meter runners in the country over the pandemic-fueled outdoor season, was initially invited to the invitation-only race at The VA Showcase, a crucial email — to a former coach — was lost in cyber space, thereby voiding an opportunity for the Marble Falls senior to race at one of the top meets of the indoor season.
As it stood, with no response, the meet directors moved on and found a full lineup of six girls for a loaded race. Goggans was out. And for a time, that was a hard pill to swallow. But rather than harp on a bad beat, Goggans instead changed gears to a different question.
Bailey: Would you be interested in a relay? I think it would be cool. Text me back.
Ultimately, that change of heart set in motion all the parts that would come later — two more athletes, Sophia Gorriaran and Juliette Whittaker, added to the team with all-time marks in the 800m — which sparked an opportunity to go after a truly elusive mark.
A 30-year-old World U20 women’s 4x800 record of 8:37.71, which was last accomplished by four Jamaican juniors in 1991 at the Penn Relays. Meanwhile, the indoor World U20 record stands at 8:53.67, which was last produced by Boys and Girls (NY) in 2002.
“I wasn’t even aware of a U20 record,” Willis said recently. “I just thought we were going after a national record. Now we’re going after some World Record?”
And from Willis to Goggans to Whittaker to Gorriaran it will go.
The girls have tagged their team ‘800 United.’
“Bailey came up with that,” Gorriaran said, “Since we’re all from different places … We’re uniting.”
And that elite 800m field? Perhaps some virtuous patience — and the idea that sometimes-things-just-work-out — paid off, too, because it was very clear and obvious: Seven great half-milers are just as good as six, and so Goggans was added to the 800m field by late December.
But in the end, the impressionable moment that may last from the 2021 The VA Showcase might not be the well-deserved winner from one of the best 800 meter races of the indoor season (well, this depends on how fast it actually ends up being).
Instead, it could be a record that, if completed as intended, could go down as one of the best World Under 20 efforts of all-time, a nearly unbreakable mark — one that, in a weird twist, World Athletics does not even recognize in their official record books.
If Goggans was the inspiration for this incredible girls 4x800 relay, Willis was the connector.
For years, the Stevens Point junior had yearned to race with an all-star team in some format, and this was her chance to do it. So when Goggans, whom she met at Brooks PR in 2019, mentioned the idea, she was full-steam-ahead from the very moment it was borne.
A welcome byproduct was also Willis’ rolodex. She had raced in Boston the previous February, producing the fourth-fastest 800m time in high school indoor history: 2:03.05. There, she met a quiet but no-doubt impressive freshman, Sophia Gorriaran, who would go on to run 2:02.97 and 2:02.90 in back-to-back weeks in August.
That February, Willis also reached out to Whittaker over Instagram, striking up a conversation with an athlete who ran 2:03.01 on the same day of her own PR, just hours apart.
She felt comfortable reaching out to both. “I think I had a few connections,” she said.
The main question each girl asked right away was a simple one.
“Is this a thing we can do?” Willis said. “Can we do an all-star relay?”
The parents stepped in and helped answer that question. Ultimately, with most state associations opting against sanctioning races, it would leave athletes the freedom to run unattached. The group was good to go.
But then another question: Willis had never competed in a 4x800. Nevertheless, she wanted to take the lead baton.
“I’ve never done the 4x800, but I do have experience running my individual event and then doing a a team relay like the 4x400,” she said. “I’ve had a few experiences. So I think I’m prepared.”
And consider also that Willis’ race experience is arguably the deepest on the team. In 2019, she won the championship 800m at New Balance Nationals Indoor, closing on Athing Mu in the final lap to win in 2:05.70. Then, the following June she won Brooks PR, running what currently stands as her outdoor PR of 2:04.86.
A learning experience aside at the USATF U20 Championships — Willis finished second to Mu in that race — she’s essentially won every big race she’s ever been in.
“I want that mentality of being calm,” Willis said. “There’s nothing I can do. Moments before the race, I trust myself. I know what to do when the time comes. I want to stay as relaxed as possible. Racing doesn’t have to be something that’s stressful and nerve wracking. We’re in high school. And that’s what excites me. I get to be a part of this team with girls who work so hard.”
She says that confidence will work wonders with a turnaround of less than 24 hours. That elite 800m takes place at 6:20 p.m. EST Saturday evening.
The women’s 4x800, which will also feature a handful of other teams, will line up at approximately 11 p.m. EST on Sunday.
If Willis sets up the team correctly, Goggans will be well on her way.
Perhaps Goggans’ persistence is what stands out the most.
Because while she’s seemingly always improving, she’s also never quite satisfied with a personal record. Or being left out of a race. She could have ended her outdoor season in June after running 2:06.66 against a field of girls in Texas, winning by a 12-second margin.
But just 10 days later, she found a mixed boys race and went 2:04.93. Then in August she did it again, earning a personal record time of 2:04.70.
A small coaching change over the offseason changed up the structure of her training, moving her from a higher mileage plan to one with less so, with an emphasis on quality workouts. Goggans, who’s headed to Texas A&M next fall, is out to prove she’s as fast as ever.
“The mileage has decreased, but the miles are harder miles, and my speed workouts are really impactful,” she said. “I’m still doing a long run on the weekends, too.”
Consider that persistence when it comes to this race, too. In another scenario, maybe this doesn’t take place if Goggans doesn’t have the foresight to change things up. If she just shrugs off the minor misunderstanding.
But from the DM to Willis, to the group chat the duo eventually set up with Whittaker and Gorriaran, she’s made things happen from Day 1. She’s been the idea queen.
“I just thought it would be a cool way to end the weekend,” she said.
On Saturday, you will likely see the 2.0 version of Goggans, who’s looking to drop a sub-2:04 in the 800m — if it’s in the cards.
Then, on Sunday, she’ll take the hand-off of a lifetime and try to set up the third leg.
“I honestly am super excited for it,” she said. “I think it’s so cool to put together and relay and achieve a hard record. I think we can do it.”
Granted the second position, Goggans understands the focus she must have.
“The race adrenaline, I think it will be a big deal,” she said. “I think I’ll be fine. I’m used to running multiple events the same weekend, too. I’m not too worried.”
But the chance to be in the record books? That also motivates her.
“Having my name in the record books, especially such an impressive one, that would be super cool.”
Whittaker was officially third on board. And much like her counterparts, she didn’t need much coaxing.
“I just thought, ‘I’d love to,’” she said. “I thought it would be an amazing experience.”
Perhaps it was fitting that she’s the third leg.
But then again, Whittaker didn’t really know anyone. She had only briefly spoken to Willis. She had never met Goggans or Gorriaran.
Teaming up with a group of powerhouse girls was a little nerve-wracking, especially considering she would be pairing up with her direct competition on Saturday.
Then again, Generation Z are built different. Rivalries aren’t what they used to be. Nowadays, you take your talents to well-executed super teams.
“Being a part of this relay, I think our bond will get stronger,” said Whittaker, who added that the group chat has maintained a steady stream of texts since beginning in December. “To go after a record like this and get it, I think it’s something I’ll never forget.”
Whittaker’s leg will be especially important, as she will have the added burden of making sure it’s on time for the anchor. Without a crowd, and with such a fast time needed for each leg — each girl needs to run at least 2:09 to hit the record — there are some variables that could ultimately be problematic.
But the Marylander also has an added advantage: She has the strength of a cross country season behind her. This fall, she ran a 3-mile PR of 16:45.19 and a season 5K best of 17:29.00. She also posted a stellar track 5K of 16:58.32 in October.
“In the middle, it’s harder,” Whittaker said. “I know that. But you have to focus on what you’re trying to hit.”
For an individual in an equal position, they may rely on having exact splits to code them through a race. But Whittaker said she might just run based on feel.
“I think in the end it might be more of a timing thing,” she said. “To be honest, I haven’t thought much about it yet.”
Like Willis, Whittaker says she’s relaxed heading into the race.
“I feel like it hasn’t sunk in that we are going after a U20 record,” she said. “It just feels like a normal race. But then I realize the goal we’re going for, and what we want, and how great our team is…”
And by then, the pressure might really be on.
You might be surprised to know that Gorriaran isn’t even old enough to drive. She’s just 15.
And whether you believe her when she says, “No, I’m not usually nervous,” some part of you just knows — when that moment hits, she’s going to feel it.
A record is a record is a record.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure to it,” Bishop said.
Consider that Gorriaran, who was the last addition to this relay, also asked to be in this position. She wanted to finish this thing off.
And to see that out of an athlete so young, it tells you something.
While she doesn’t quite have the words to describe her latest practice, there’s something else come race time.
The last race of her cross country season, in November, she dropped 44 seconds off her PR, running a 5K best of 17:20.50 and earning a top 10 finish in a national race.
In January, she unloaded for a US No. 1 performance in the mile with a personal best time of 4:47.21 and a US No. 4 effort in the 400m of 55.50. Over the last year, she’s been willing to go at nearly every distance indoors, from the 200m all the way up to the mile.
In August, she ran 2:02.97 and 2:02.90 in back-to-back weeks. She’s just a hair away from the 2:02.50 she needs to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials -- the one event she’s hoping to qualify for just days away from her 16th birthday.
“I’ve always just enjoyed running the anchor leg,” she said. “And I finish strong, so…”
For the last month, Gorriaran’s family has been in Austin, Texas, where her father, Steven, has an office. In that time, she’s met up with a handful of talented young athletes in the city.
She’s practiced block work with Goggans, and then done speed work with St. Dominic Savio Catholic’s Hali Murphy. Her bother, Max, a 1:55 runner at Boston University, has paced in nearly every other workout.
At the end of the day, this is just running to Gorriaran.
Which means this record isn’t as scary as it’s made out to be.
“I think if we all run our best on that day, or close to our best, I think we should be able to do it,” she said. “So, I’m not too nervous.”
It’s important to offer some context here.
This girls relay won’t be the first group to attempt to break the World U20 mark since 1991.
In fact, only six months have passed since the last effort in Indiana.
In July, a group of four girls — three from Indiana and one in Massachusetts — attempted to hit the 8:37.71 mark at the Summer Finale Distance Open in Marion, Indiana.
The ‘800 Project’ foursome, which consisted of Maddie Russin, Amaya Turner, Emily Sonderman and Makayla Paige, came up 17 seconds shy, posting a time of 8:54.83. But the all-star team ran the fastest American high school-based relay of the year.
In the end, while each girl was capable of running under 2:09, the conditions weren’t ideal and the race itself didn’t exactly go to plan.
“The group we had last year, I thought clearly if you add their PRs, that should be in their wheelhouse,” Bishop said. “But last year, look at the timing. We weren’t racing. And I told the girls, it’s hard staying in shape for that long when there is no racing.”
Still, Bishop was impressed.
It was the the second time in a year he had put together an elite 4x800 squad that ran under 9 minutes. In 2019, his team of Russin, Abby Lynch, Maddie Ullom and Marissa Rivera ran 8:46 at a meet in Naperville, Illinois.
And here, it also should be said, why Bishop continually goes after that mark.
“I’m an upstate New Yorker, and on the East Coast the 4x800 is revered,” he said. “It’s like, the 4x800 is the stuff of legend.”
When Bishop was in college, he said, a few of his training partners broke the American record in the 4x800.
“For me, it’s always been a very special thing,” he said.
As a coach, however, he stumbled on the World junior mark and it clicked.
“The crazy thing is, no one knew what the junior record was,” he added. “So once we started doing the math on it …we said, ‘Why not?’”
Only, his one mistake was getting the secret out.
With more exposure came more press. Then December happened: Four of the top high school girls in the 800m — with all-time marks — decided to step in.
That said, Bishop isn’t salty.
“In all honesty, I hope they break it,” he said. “It will inspire another group to do the same. Everyone thinks it’s unbreakable.
“But in my mind, I want those girls to get after it. I can see other junior teams from other countries going after in the years to come it if they accomplish it first.”
And to think, it all started with a DM on Instagram.