Isaiah Harris crosses the finish line to win the 800 meter run at the NCAA Championships in Eugene, Oregon Friday night. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

EUGENE, Oregon — Crossing the finish-line with his arms outstretched before falling to his knees in joy, Lewiston High School graduate Isaiah Harris won the 800-meter NCAA championship Friday at Hayward Field with a personal-best time of 1 minute, 44.76 seconds.

“It feels amazing,” he said. “I’m speechless. It still hasn’t sunk in yet.”

Harris sat in the middle of the pack through the first lap of the race until he and UTEP sophomore Michael Saruni separated themselves entering the final 200 meters. Saruni led around the final curve before the Penn State junior outkicked him to grab the lead and the championship.

The situation looked awfully familiar to Harris, who had been outkicked by Saruni at the NCAA indoors earlier this year. This time around, it was Harris who took the initiative.

“I wanted to be the one to make the move,” Harris said. “I wanted to be in control.”

With rain coming down in Eugene, Harris held off Saruni and Mississippi State freshman Marco Arop, who outlasted the indoor champion for second place with a personal record of 1:45.25. Saruni finished third in 1:45.31.

Despite the less than ideal conditions, Harris’s experience of racing in the Midwest paid off.

“It wasn’t perfect, but we all had to race in the same weather,” Harris said. “I’m kind of used to colder environments. I think that might have played into my advantage a little bit.”

Saruni certainly felt the colder weather had an impact on his performance.

“I’m used to 80s and 90s, and today was kind of cold,” Saruni said. “My muscles were kind of tight. I didn’t warm up properly. It was just the weather.”

The two runners entered the NCAAs ranked No. 1 and No. 2 by the USTFCCCA with Friday’s final signifying another page in their rivalry that continues to grow. Saruni, who set the NCAA 800 record with a time of 1:43.25 in April, was pegged as the race’s favorite, but Harris has always maintained that anybody can beat anybody.

“There was no doubt in my mind I could win this race,” he said. “I know a lot of people didn’t have their money on me. They all thought it was a sure bet with Saruni. But I didn’t let that get to me.”

Harris is the program’s first national champion in the 800 since Alan Helffrich won back-to-back titles in 1922 and 1923. The Nittany Lions have recently developed a reputation as a strong middle-distance school, but they hadn’t been able to take the top spot. Harris is Penn State’s first male outdoor NCAA champion on the track since 1973 and its first overall since 1993.

“We consider ourselves ‘800-U,’” Harris said. “So, I think it was a due time for us to a have a champion.

Harris qualified for the NCAA final after running the third fastest overall preliminary time on Wednesday, taking the lead in the final 200 meters to win his heat at 1:46.99.

The national championship caps off a successful 2018 season for Harris, who won his sixth Big Ten title in the 800, indoor and outdoor combined, with a meet record and season-best of 1:45.31 back in May. That win earned Harris the first Men’s Track Athlete of the Big Ten Championship in Penn State history.

“It’s a perfect picture season,” Harris said. “Everything I could have asked for.”

With his win on Friday, Harris has now improved in each of his three trips to the NCAAs.

As a sophomore in 2017, he placed second behind UTEP’s Emmanuel Korir after Saruni tripped and fell, opening up the race for Harris.

As a freshman in 2016, Harris finished fourth in the 800 won by Texas A&M’s Donavan Brazier, whose time of 1:43.55 still stands as the NCAA championship and Hayward Field record. The time had initially broken the NCAA record before Saruni set his own this year.

Friday also added another chapter to Harris’s history at Hayward Field. In addition to his appearances at the NCAAs in Eugene, Harris finished sixth in the 800 at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2016.

Harris, the Nittany Lions’ outdoor 800 record-holder, came to Penn State after a historic career at Lewiston High School. Harris captured five Maine state titles during his time there, two coming in the 200-meter dash and three in the 800. He also set six school records that still stand.

Though it may take a while for it to sink in, Harris can now add national champion to his long list of accomplishments.

“It’s going to take a while. I just want to go see my family and celebrate with them,” he said.

Isaiah Harris pulls away from defending champion Michael Saruni, right, to win the 800 meter run at the NCAA Championships in Eugene, Oregon Friday night. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Isaiah Harris celebrates after crossing the finish line in the 800 meter run at the NCAA Championships in Eugene, Oregon Friday night. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Mississippi State’s Marco Arop, right, congratulates Penn State’s Isaiah Harris after the finish of the mens 800 meter run Friday night in Eugene Oregon where he became a National Champion. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Penn State’s Isaiah Harris waves to the crowd after crossing the finish line in first place to win the 800 meter run during Friday’s NCAA Championship in Eugene, Oregon. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)


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