Bunched with a pack of runners in Friday's 5,000-metre race and more so in the 3,000 the following evening at the NCAA Division I indoor track and field championships, Justyn Knight drew from the experience of placing ninth in the 5,000 at his world championship debut last summer.
The Toronto native stayed in the middle of the pack for most of the 5,000 before taking control in the final 400m and winning his first track title at Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium in College Station, Tex. Knight appeared to have to work harder to avoid getting stuck in the pack in the 3,000 and twice failed to take the lead from Andy Trouard over the final 250m, eventually finishing second to his Northern Arizona opponent in eight minutes 5.76 seconds.
"After world championships I believe that I became more patient in my running," Knight, 21, told CBC Sports on Monday. "In my earlier races [in 2017] you'd see that I would calmly stay on the pace and then always make sure that I'm in the top three when the final laps are approaching.
"Coming to [the NCAA indoor track nationals] was a bit different because the pace was so slow. Everyone would get bunched up. However, I didn't get super agitated about that."
Knight and Trouard were side-by-side halfway around the final turn before Trouard started inching ahead, even regaining his footing after stumbling on the rail, and pulled away from the Canadian with a clocking of 26.23 seconds in the final 200m to Knight's 27.04.
The result was a surprise to some, considering Trouard hadn't ranked higher than 35th in NCAA cross-country, never scored a single point on the track at the NCAAs before Friday and had finished nearly two seconds behind Knight in the 5,000, placing fifth.
"The last lap I had a decent amount of energy. I think my timing to execute my move was just off," said Knight, who didn't get to sleep until 1:30 a.m. ET Saturday after being randomly selected for drug testing after the 5,000. "Andy is a talented runner with a good kick, and he executed his better than mine on that day.
"His kick didn't surprise me. I've seen him do that in cross-country and in a 3K earlier this year that I wasn't part of."
Running the 3,000 and 5,000 was the first time Knight had doubled up at the NCAA indoor track nationals. The slow pace of the 5,000 wasn't enough to sting the legs of the Syracuse senior, who shot some hoops Saturday morning to get rid of some lingering stiffness.
Knight entered the weekend coming off his 14th and 15th conference titles (10 individual, five team) at the 2018 Atlantic Coast Conference indoor championships — winning the 3,000 and 5,000 and capturing meet MVP honours.
He flew home to Toronto on Sunday and gave his trophies to his mom, Jennifer, who put them in her son's bedroom.
Knight is only the second Syracuse athlete to win an NCAA indoor title, joining 2012 60-metre hurdles champion Jarret Eaton. Last November, Knight won his first NCAA cross-country title and was the top finisher on the 2015 NCAA cross-country championship team.
3rd in NCAA 5,000m outdoor final
A "very tired" Knight will take a few days to rest before preparing for the start of his outdoor track season at the Florida Relays on March 29.
"My approach in training will stay the same as it's always been," he said. "I'll be working out as if I've never won a title before."
Last season outdoors, Knight also successfully defended his ACC cross-country title after finishing third in the 5,000 at the NCAA championships. He also won the 5,000 at the Payton Jordan Invitational last May in Stanford, Calif., where Knight set a world standard for the season in 13:17.51.