Matthew McClintock and Purdue University distance coach Jeff Kent looked at the roster of competitors in last weekend’s Big Ten 5,000-meter finals and decided the junior from Athens, Maine, was going to have to be aggressive to offset the foot speed advantage some of the runners had over him.

Kent told McClintock it was up to him to decide when he would have to take control of the race, but even he was surprised to watch how his star pupil’s race unfolded.

“He made a bold, convincing move with about 2K to go. It was a fun surprise,” Kent said.

McClintock, the former Madison High School standout, convinced himself a long time ago that he was going to be a conference champion some day, so he wasn’t surprising himself, or making the race any fun for the competition. The junior took a no guts/no glory approach to the race and gambled that he could take command in those final 2,000 meters.

“I was able to maintain the same pace throughout,” he said. “I think a lot of the guys behind me kind of assumed I was racing a suicide race and that I’d come back.”

Instead, McClintock opened a lead that extended to as much as 70 meters with about three laps to go. The gap did close some in the final 800 meters, but there was no stopping McClintock.

When he crossed the finish line in 14 minutes, 15.38 seconds, about five seconds ahead of the runner-up, a feeling of relief washed over McClintock on the East Lansing, Michigan, track.

“It was more getting a monkey off of my back,” said McClintock, who is the first male Boilermaker to win the race. “I’ve been waiting for that for quite a while. It was more, finally I can stop worrying about that and focus on racing.”

McClintock has shifted his strategic focus this year with the presence of Kent, who Purdue hired last summer to train its distance runners in indoor and outdoor track and cross country.

This wasn’t their first successful collaboration. Last fall, Kent, who ran collegiately for Ball State and Iowa, helped McClintock become Purdue’s first two-time cross country All-American in 64 years.

McClintock, who also won silver in what is actually his best event, the 10K, at Big Tens, said last week’s success was the culmination of a new racing method laid out by Kent to maintain his strength and aerobic capacity throughout the race.

McClintock freely concedes foot speed is not one of his strengths, but by making each race a hard, grinding test of endurance, he can make the outcome depend more on the full 10,000 meters rather than the final 800.

“If you’re going to beat me, it’s going to be in my type of race,” he said. “It’s going to hurt. You’re going to have to hurt for eight, nine, 10 minutes.”

McClintock and Kent first met late last summer, and the former admits he initially questioned Kent’s blueprint for success. But he bonded with the coach quickly, not only during practice and meets but long talks in Kent’s office that “really helped me not only gain confidence in my own racing abilities but also to buy into what he was teaching us,” McClintock said.

“Ever since back in high school I’ve had very close relationships with my coaches,” McClintock said. “I put enough pressure on myself that I often feel I need my coach to take that off of me, and I think Coach Kent has done that for me.”

Athlete and coach both point to a mid-April meet in Walnut, California, as the turning point of McClintock’s season. At the Mt. SAC Relays, he had perhaps his strongest finish of the spring and raced the 10K in under 29 minutes for the first time, setting a school record with his time of 28:54.77.

“That was pretty awe inspiring,” said Kent, noting McClintock ran 14:42 in the first 5,000 meters and 14:12 in the final 5K. “To see him drop the hammer like he did, with such conviction, was so impressive.”

McClintock now holds the four longest school race records (5K and 10K outdoors, 3K and 5K indoors), as well as numerous cross country records.

Next up is the NCAA East prelims. McClintock qualified to compete in both the 5K and 10K but will race in only the 10K on Thursday.

The meet is in Jacksonville, Florida, so McClintock and Kent are anticipating a hot day and a slow race. He needs to finish in the top 12 to move on to the NCAA Outdoor Championship on June 11 in Eugene, Oregon, so the goal is to finish the race strong, finish somewhere in the top 12 and be ready to put all he can into peaking for nationals.

“It doesn’t sound right but I want to run as easy as possible to make it out of regionals,” he said. “Running three 10Ks and 5Ks in three weeks is going to be very difficult on my body, and I want to be as fresh as I can going to nationals.”

A movement and sports sciences major with a 3.67 GPA, McClintock has already distinguished himself in the classroom. He earned Academic All-District 5 honors on Friday. He’ll learn June 25 if he is an Academic All-American.

He’ll know two weeks earlier if he is a track and field All-American (with a top-eight finish) or, perhaps even a national champion.

Kent believes McClintock has “all the tools” to take gold in the 10,000 meters, including one tool that he thinks ultimately sets him apart.

“There are very few people that I’ve met when it comes to student-athletes that have his heart,” Kent said. “Matt has miles and miles of heart.”

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

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Twitter: @RAWmaterial33