The competition keeps getting better, and Blake Haney keeps getting faster.
The latest iteration of this elite game played out Sunday in Donetsk, Ukraine, in the 1,500-meter final at the IAAF World Youth Championships, where Haney finished fifth in 3:44.69, the best placing and fastest time ever recorded by an American in the race.
"It was definitely a great experience," said Haney, who will be a senior at Stockdale. "I don't really know how to explain it, getting to wear the USA (uniform) and compete at worlds and race for my country. The atmosphere was amazing, and it just pulled me along."
Race winner Robert Kiptoo Biwott of Kenya set a furious pace that he followed to a meet-record time of 3:36.77. For comparison, the 17-year-old's time would have placed ninth in the 1,500 final at the London Olympics last year.
"It was kind of ridiculous," Haney said. "He was gone. I just looked up and he just looked so easy."
Haney, also 17, ran near the back of the pack for most of the first 1,000 meters, but he made a move as the race entered its final lap.
"I didn't feel as great as I did in the prelims (Thursday)," Haney said. "I didn't really know what to expect, and I couldn't see my (time) splits. The only thing I could see was the clock where (Biwott) was, and he was so far in front I had no idea what I was running. At the end, I didn't have much left."
He surged into third place and was still in medal position entering the homestretch before two runners passed him.
"I was a little disappointed -- I thought I was going to medal, and it got taken away at 80 meters," Haney said. "But I was hoping for a 3:45, and realistically I thought I would be in the 3:46 range, so 3:44 was a nice relief, and so was placing so well in the worlds."
All four runners to beat Haney were African, but his time is the fastest by any American 18 or younger this year. It stands up well against history, too:
* It's the ninth-fastest high school-age time in U.S. history, and the fastest since 2003.
* Among California high schoolers, only Big Bear's Ryan Hall (3:42.70) has run 1,500 meters faster. That was in 2001.
* Some of the greatest distance runners in American history couldn't match Haney's time at such a young age. The only high school junior ever to run faster was Jim Ryun, who was the first high schooler to break four minutes in the mile and later set a world record in the mile (3:51.1) at Bakersfield College.
"It really hasn't sunk in," Haney said. "It's nice to hear how fast that is and where it ranks. It's kind of motivation for next year, too."
The time at 1,500 meters converts to a 4:02.7 mile, suggesting that with some small improvement, Haney could become the sixth high schooler in history to break the 4-minute barrier.
"I want to try to make more national teams," Haney said. "But I've still got to focus on that last year of high school."
First, though, will be time for travel back to Bakersfield, some well-earned rest and a big decision: Haney will have his pick of college track teams and still says his decision is wide open.
"I haven't talked to any coaches for a while, and I haven't really thought about that much at all," he said. "I'm just excited to get back home. We'll deal with that after a week or two."