10 Years Ago: Race Halted With Joe Rosa On Record Pace

It's hard to believe that 10 years have already passed since one of the most controversial and surreal moments in NJ track and field history took place, and it's still just as hard to believe that it really happened.

Some of you reading this were there, a few of you were in the race, many of you have heard tales about it, and there's a huge group of young T&F athletes who have no idea what I'm talking about it.

Regardless of whether you know where this going or not, what you are about to read is one of the most memorable moments in NJ T&F lore, and what better time to give you this important history lesson about NJ T&F than on the 10-year anniversary of Joe Rosa's remarkable race against the clock that ended in heartbreaking and head-shaking fashion.         

So let's crank up the old NJ T&F time machine and rewind it back exactly 10 years ago today when Joe "Thunder'' Rosa of West Windsor-Plainsboro North was on target to take down his own state record in the 3,200-meter run at the Meet of Champions on June 9 of 2011 at Lombardi Field in Old Bridge when lightening and chaos struck.

Here is the story I wrote that night.   

Joe Rosa of West Windsor-Plainsboro North was on record pace, running the race of his life in the boys' 3,200 meters at the 43rd NJSIAA Meet of Champions on Thursday night when lightning and controversy struck at Vince Lombardi Field in Old Bridge.

The race will always be remembered for Rosa's historic pace and for what might have been because for the first time in the history of the Meet of Champions, a race was halted because of weather. Lightning strikes interrupted the 3,200, stopping Rosa's run after 2,800 meters, and forcing eight other events to be postponed until Monday at the same site.

Rosa, who was at 7:38 on the clock with a lap to go, was building up to make a run at history when lightning lit up the sky and thunder rang out as heavy rains started to come down. That prompted meet officials to run onto the track and stop Rosa and the rest of the field from continuing.

Rosa and his twin, Jim, who was about 15 meters behind Joe, wanted to keep on running. Joe threw his hands up in the air in disbelief when he was met by the wall of officials at the finish line that prevented him from continuing. A chorus of boos came cascading down from angry fans.

The boys' 3,200, shot put, pole vault, long jump and 1,600 relay and girls' 3,200, javelin, triple jump and 1,600 will all be held on Monday.

Don Danser, the NJSIAA track and field tournament director, said he had no choice but to stop the race immediately at 7:24 p.m. Though the lightning detection system that has been used at previous meets was not on hand, officials called for the stoppage at the first lightning sighting.

"Those lightning detectors were last used about five years ago," Danser said. "They are costly and right now we couldn't afford them anyway."

Shortly after that, Danser postponed the meet. It has been rescheduled for 6 p.m. on Monday at Old Bridge.

But the real issue is not why and when the meet was stopped, but whether or not the 3,200 should have started at all?

Danser said he saw no reason to not start the race.

''I have four spotters looking in every direction and no one detected lightning or thunder in the area when the race started,'' said Danser. ''But as soon as the lightning and thunder came we have to stop the meet under the National Track and Field Rules. It's a safety issue. We have fans in aluminum bleachers with lightning overhead. We had to evacuate right away.''

Rosa, running the final race of his sensational high school career on NJ soil, was seeking his first M of C track title and was on pace to break his own state record of 8:44.06 that he set last year when he won the two-mile at the New Balance National Championships

Among the angry spectators were members of the Rosa family.

''It's pretty crappy,'' Jim Rosa said. ''I guess it's a rule, but we had one lap to go and we should have been able to just finish it.''

Other members of the Rosa family voiced their displeasure.

''The race should never have been started,'' said Larry Rosa, Joe and Jim's dad. ''Once it started it should have been completed. This is just atrocious. My boys are running one of the biggest races of their lives and this is how it ends. I just can't believe it.''

West Windsor-Plainsboro North coach Brian Gould wasn't happy either.

''This is just bizarre,'' said Gould. ''I don't even know what to say. I just can't believe this actually happened.''

The Rosa twins, who are are scheduled to run in the Dream Mile on  Saturday in New York, may not come back and run the race again here on Monday.

''I don't know if they will run,'' Gould said. ''We'll make that decision in the next 24 hours.''

So, what happened next?

Well, the Rosa twins, two of the greatest distance runners in NJ history, ran the Dream Mile as planned two days later at Icahn Stadium on Randall's Island - Joe ran 4:07.66 to place seventh in the loaded race, and Jim was 13th in 4:11.11. How loaded was the race? Lukas Verzbicas won in 3:59.71 and Edward Cheserek was 4th in 4:03.29.

Then the Rosa twins opted to skip the re-run of the Meet Champions that took place back at Lombardi Field four days after the original race. Why? Because they were preparing for the two-mile that was just four days and the DMR the day after that at the New Balance Nationals in Greensboro, N.C. Joe, the defending champ, wound up second in the national championship race in 8:54.46, and Jim was third in 8:57.56. 

As for the Meet of Champions 3,200 re-run.

Let's take you back to Monday, June 13, 2011 at Lombardi Field for that.

Here is the story I wrote- 

Although Morgan Pearson crossed the finish line first, he could not help but think about the runners he didn't beat. The Delbarton star had mixed feelings after winning the controversial re-running of the boys' 3,200-meter run in a personal-best 9:02.48 at the 43rd NJSIAA Meet of Champions on Monday at Lombardi Field in Old Bridge.

That's because the Rosa twins, Joe and Jim of West Windsor-Plainsboro North, were not in the race, which was suspended with one lap to go last Thursday night.

Joe Rosa was leading that race by a comfortable margin over Jim, with Pearson third, as they approached the start of the final lap. But NJSIAA officials ordered the runners to stop because of thunder and lightning, using a barricade of officials at the finish line to make sure they did not continue.

Joe Rosa, like his brother a senior headed to Stanford, seemed headed for a sure victory and was on state-record pace.

``Joe deserves to be called the winner of this race,'' Pearson said. ``He was going to win the other night. I would trade this win for where I would have finished on Thursday with a much faster time (under nine minutes). I was running the best race of my life when that race was stopped. I'd much rather have that performance than this one.''

The Rosa twins, who also raced in the Dream Mile in New York on Saturday, did not feel that running three hard races in five days was in their best interests. The Rosa's also want to make sure they are well prepared for the two-mile on Friday and the distance medley on Saturday at the New Balance Nationals in Greensboro, N.C.

Joe Rosa said Pearson deserved a lot of credit.

``Anyone who watched that race on Thursday saw how tough Morgan was throughout the race,'' Rosa said. ``I really feel like I want to be champion, but there are few people more deserving to win a state title than Morgan is.''

``It felt like a dual meet,'' Pearson said. ``The other night was crazy here. This didn't feel like a big race at all. When I won the 3-K at Penn, that felt unbelievable because of the competition I had to beat. Today, I didn't beat the best guys who were in the race on Thursday, so it just feels a little strange.''

Pearson kept a good sense of humor about the whole thing when told he'd be listed as the official winner of the event.

``Maybe they should put a star next to my name or something or list the 2,800 winner instead,'' Pearson said. ``The whole thing is just such a mess.''

So there you have it. Joe Rosa will probably always be the unofficial world record holder for a 2,800-meter race with his unofficial time of 7:38 and change.  

It's a shame we'll never know just how fast Rosa would have run that fateful night a decade ago? But it's not very hard to figure out approximately what his time might have been.    

If you give him a 62-63 for that final 400, which is very conservative, that would have put Rosa right in the 8:40 range. But  the way he was hammering as he prepared to blast off on the bell lap, there was no way he wasn't closing in around 60 or under that night! I guarantee you won't find anyone who was there who will disagree.

Something else to remember about that 2011 3,200 M of C race. The amount of talent that toed the line was ridiculous! It was probably the deepest collection of studs in one race on NJ soil for a 3,200 race when you combine the high school, college, and post-grad resumes of the top guys in the race.

There were the Rosa's, Pearson, Jeramy Elkaim of Livingston, and Matt McDonald of North Hunterdon. 

Check out some of their stats. 

Joe Rosa still holds the state record in the two-mile with his 8:44.06, and for those that don't know, Joe is the first runner to ever break 15 minutes at Holmdel Park (14:56 as a junior in 2009). As for Jim Rosa, he finished is high school career with three Meet of Champions titles (2 outdoors-1600 and 3,200), and he ran 15:14 at Holmdel Park, No. 3 in course history, when he won the M of C race in 2010. Joe and Jim Rosa went on to All-American careers at Stanford University. 

Pearson went on to star on the trails and the track at Duke University and the University of Colorado (he was a 7-time All-American for the Buffaloes). Now he's one of the top triathletes in the world! Pearson qualified for the 2021 U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team with a bronze-medal performance at the World Triathlon Championship Series in Yokohama on May 15. And he became the first U.S. man in history to win multiple World Triathlon Championship Series medals, earning silver in Leeds on June 6.

A lot of people forget that Elkaim, who opted not to come back for the re-run, was the defending champ in the 3,200 in 2011. As a junior the year before, he defeated Joe Rosa in one of the greatest 3,200 duals in state history at the M of C when he ran a still-standing meet record of 8:46.08. Elkaim went to have a great career at the University of Oregon where he ran a sub 4 mile (3:59.18)!     

McDonald, second in the re-run behind Pearson in 9:04.82, had a great career at Princeton University before turning his attention to marathoning after college. In 2019, he qualified for the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials by running a 2:11.10 to place 14th overall and fifth among Americans at the Chicago Marathon.

I told you that 2011 Meet of Champions 3,200 was stacked!