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Rudisha's return to track 'a start' at Prefontaine Classic

EUGENE — For 600 meters, David Rudisha ran like he had never left the international track and field scene.

Then, the world's greatest middle-distance racer did a slow fade, finishing seventh in the 800 meters Saturday at the 40th annual Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field.

The 25-year-old Kenyan, the defending Olympic and World champion and world record-holder at 800, was timed in 1:44.87, nearly four seconds off his world-record 1:40.91 clocking at the London Olympic Games.

Not bad, though, for a runner who missed nearly all of the 2013 season with a knee injury.

"It was tough, but I'm happy to run 1:44," Rudisha told the media throng afterward. "I've been missing (from) track for over a year now. It's a good start."

The 6-3, 155-pound Rudisha took the lead from a world-class field with a 50.5-second first 400, fought off a challenge from Ethiopia's Mohammed Aman on the backstretch, then found himself in a rare position -- watching competitor after competitor pass him on the way to the finish line.

"In the beginning, I started pushing," Rudisha said. "Only the last 100 was a little bit tough. I need to sharpen up to get competition-ready. The body needs competition to build that speed.

"I was tiring over the last 100 meters. I'll go back and see how I can build up so I can finish next time. But to be out for so long, I don't think it's a bad time."

Botswana's Nijel Amos won in a meet-record 1:43.63, a 2014 world best. Aman -- the world's No. 1 ranked runner at the distance a year ago -- was second in 1:43.99 and Sudan's Abubaker Kaki third in 1:44.09. Amos and Aman are both 20 years old, Kaki 25.

"They're good," Rudisha said. "I was happy the way they run. I'm sure in a few weeks I'll be ready to race. I'll get

two weeks of good training and then (race in) New York and maybe go for 1:42."

It was Rudisha's Pre Classic debut.

"It was really great," he said. "The crowd was fantastic. They were cheering. Great place to run."

It was Amos' second race of the year after taking 2013 off.

"It shows I'm in good shape," he said. "I just ran my race. I didn't care who was in the race; I was going to run my race all the way through."

When it was suggested that Rudisha will run faster as he becomes accustomed again to racing, Amos nodded.

"When he gets in good shape, then I can run better times, too," he said. "Maybe the (world) record can go again, who knows?"

There were no world records Saturday, but just about everything else on a post-card perfect afternoon for America's premier track and field invitational.

There were 10 world bests in 16 events Saturday, if you give the international and Bowerman miles a single billing. In the two races, 26 men bettered four minutes, including Djibouti's Ayanleh Souleiman, who won the Bowerman four-lapper in 3:47.32 -- fastest ever on American soil.

'I'm happy to win," said Souleiman, 21. "I'm in shape to run a 3:30 (1,500). Running a 3:47 or 3:48 was my goal today, so I am happy."

The Bowerman mile was so fast that former Oregon standout Matthew Centrowitz -- fourth in the 2012 Olympics at 1,500 and silver medalist in the event at last year's World Championships -- ran a personal-record 3:50.53 … and finished eighth.

"Can't say it was great, but can't say it was too bad, either," Centrowitz told reporters. "I had a personal best, but I expected more of myself. I wanted to do a better job of positioning myself in the front and be more aggressive than I normally am. I tried to do that, but I'm still finding it hard to get to the front and still feel like I'm not sprinting. I'm a work in progress."

For a glutton for track-and-field entertainment -- and most of those among the sellout crowd of 13,158 qualify -- Saturday provided a smorgasbord of delight.

Perhaps nobody performed better than American Will Claye, who took only three attempts at the triple jump but surpassed 57 feet twice, winning with a PR and world-best 57-11 1/4.

The 2012 Olympic silver medalist has dealt with a balky hamstring this spring.

"Two weeks ago, I couldn't even jump at practice," he said. "Nerve issues. My leg was giving out."

More than maybe anybody, Claye was inspired by the Hayward scene.

"It's the biggest U.S. meet," he said. "The crowd had me buzzing."

Really, it was the other way around.

France's Renaud Lavillenie, the world record-holder and second man to pole vault 20 feet, cleared 19-0 1/4 to win his event and took a long bow. Countryman Pascal Martino-LaGarde blazed to a world-best 13.13 win in the 110 hurdles. Kenyans Hellen Obiri and Mercy Cherono won fast women's 1,500 and 2-mile races, respectively. Russia's Anna Chicherova ruled a loaded women's high jump field, winning at 6-6 3/4. Then there was veteran Justin Gatlin, smoking to victory in the 100 in a wind-aided 9.76.

And in perhaps the day's best event, Grenada's Kirani James edged LaShawn Merritt of the U.S. in a photo finish in the 400, both runners timed in a world-best 43.97.

What a day. What a field. What a track meet.

It's what the Prefontaine Classic has come to be about.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers