IN SEARCH OF THE DIFFICULT PLEASURE

Meb on top of the world at Boston 2014

Meb on top of the world at Boston 2014

I am a purist at heart, one who believes in the redemptive power of effort in whatever form it may take.  Through a combination of luck, pluck and timing, however, running became the expression of effort that engaged me most fully.  And it has been in the hold of that expression that I have remained for the great swath of my adult life.

Looking back over that now lengthening span, I see how once upon a time racing used to be so simple, so elemental: one foot in front of the other, beginning with either, counting neither.  Truly, it was a heroic sport of thinly clad fools bent on making the connection that critic Edmund Wilson once ascribed to Ernest Hemingway in 1927, “…all that seems to him most painful is somehow closely bound up with what seems to him most enjoyable.”

This apparent paradox of pain-as-pleasure is why it is difficult to explain the sport of distance running to the uninitiated. I have often asked runners at races, ‘what is it about running that those that don’t do it, don’t get?’ as  the concept of the difficult pleasure is beyond the scope of most for whom the passive, purchased pleasure is preferred.

Much like learning to play a musical instrument, learning to run well takes time, dedication and practice; there is no short cut.  Only after a painstaking apprenticeship does one reach a level of proficiency that allows pleasure to be extracted from effort.  Yet it is that very investment in time and discomfort which leads, eventually, to the feeling of accomplishment upon reaching the finish line. Continue reading

MAKE IT PERSONAL

wmmHeader
The Fall 2014 marathon season is upon us, and with the 41st BMW Berlin Marathon about to step out this weekend, we can see how the efforts and budgets of the three fall majors were spent, and what might lie ahead in the coming six weeks.

As per usual, the clock is once again in focus in Berlin, as the USA’s Shalane Flanagan guns for Deena Kastor’s U.S. marathon mark of 2:19:36, set in London 2006.  Shalane sacrificed quite a bit in terms of money by going to Europe rather than racing in the States in Chicago or New York City. But Berlin is the preferred record venue with its flat course, paced races, and more predictably seasonable weather.  Plus, at age 33 the Marblehead, Massachusetts native feels the clock ticking.  Not that she won’t have competition. Paris course record holder Feyse Tadese , and Tokyo record holder Tirfi Tsegaye of Ethiopia will also lace up in Berlin this Sunday, but Shalane has forthrightly admitted that time is the goal, not place, and she won’t sacrifice an even pace for a competitive surge.

But on the men’s side, Berlin has gone against type and recruited three ex-World Marathon Majors race champs rather than a single comet blazing toward another world record attempt behind a phalanx of pacers. In Dennis Kimetto, 2013 Chicago winner; Tsegay Kebede of Ethiopia, reigning WMM series champ; and former London course record holder Emmanuel Mutai, Berlin has three of the strongest racers in modern marathoning.   Kebede once again leads the 2013–2014 standings with 55 points.  Kimetto stands in third with 50, and E. Mutai still has an outside shot for the title, resting in fifth position with 30 points.

There are 25 points at stake for the Berlin win, and with $500,000 on the line for the WMM series winner, yet Mr. Kimetto’s “I know I am ready. My preparation has been good and I’m confident for Sunday. If the conditions are good, yes, we could break the world record,” indicates time seems always to be the primary focus in Berlin.  But who doesn’t enjoy a bloody good race more than a sterile time trial?  Even better when both occur as in London 2002 when Khalid Khannouchi broke his own record in a power tussle against Paul Tergat and the debuting Haile Gebrselassie.

In fact, that is the point of this post. Often, the events and the athletes tout themselves by comparing personal bests (PBs) instead of individual match ups. For men it is how many sub-2:04s, or sub-2:05 are in the field. For the women it is the number of sub-2:20s. But twenty years ago it was how many sub-2:10s and sub-2:30s were running. Times change, and when we reduce the competitors to their times, what we lose are their personalities – assuming they have one.

As a result, when you ask almost anyone but the hardest of hard core fans who they think will win a race, odds are they will say “a Kenyan”, or maybe “an Ethiopian”. While that response might be a market satisfier in terms of promoting Kenya and Ethiopia as places that develop great runners, it is a market dis-satisfier in terms of marketing the individual athletes or developing the sport to a wider audience.

Point is, in order to make it stick, it has to be personal. Enough of this “I am just trying to run my best race”. It has to become “I want to beat that guy!” Him against Him, Her versus Her, not them against the clock. There is no emotional appeal to a time-based presentation. Every once in a while, like with Flanagan in Berlin, it might make sense, but the general public doesn’t know a 2:03 from a 2:13 or 2:23. What they do understand is white hats and black hats, or stakes of $500,000 or more. Continue reading

MONEY VALIDATES

IAAF Continental Cup logo 2014     Our friends at Letsrun.com wrote a preview of this weekend’s 2nd IAAF Continental Cup from Marrakech, Morocco comparing it favorably to the recently completed IAAF Diamond League tour.

“The prize money for the event is insane as compared to the DL meet. The Continental Cup offers $2.9 million in prize money, that’s more than 6 times what a DL event offers ($480,000) and more than three times as much what two DL events would offer. Each event pays out $73,000, plus four relays, each of which pays out $68,000, for a total of $2.9 million in prize money. All finishers are guaranteed prize money, which is allotted as follows:

$30,000 for 1st,
$15,000 for 2nd
$10,000 for 3rd
$7,000 for 4th
$5,000 for 5th
$3,000 for 6th
$2,000 for 7th
$1,000 for 8th.

That’s a HUGE increase from a Diamond League meet.”

***

Recall that at last month’s U.S. Open tennis championship in New York, Serena Williams was awarded a check of $3 million for winning her sixth U.S. Open title, and collected an additional $1 million for winning the Emirates Airline U.S. Open Series. Now consider the gulf between the payoffs in these two sports, and the ramifications that develop from it.

As one pundit put it, “Mary (Wittenberg’s) got Caroline Wozniacki (U.S. Open Tennis finalist) running the New York City Marathon. John McEnroe was talking about it during Sunday’s prime time coverage. Now that’s all they’re talking about, not Kipsang, not Mutai, not Edna Kiplagat or Mary Keitany.”

How often have we heard, “well, running isn’t golf or tennis”? As if that alone explains the differences. As if this weekend’s season-ending Fedex Cup prize of $10 million (to one golfer!) was always the way golf was conducted, or that tennis always had a multi-million dollar professional underpinning. Of course they didn’t. Golf and tennis became what they are today by the concerted efforts of many people, including pioneering athletes, event directors, and agents willing to challenge a stagnant status quo. Continue reading

NEGATIVE SPACE, POSITIVE RESULT

Weltklasse logoThere was an embarrassment of athletic riches on display at today’s Weltklasse meet in Zürich’s Letzigrund Stadium, the first of two IAAF Diamond League finals for the 2014 season. Yet, was there too much of a good thing?

Today’s meet showcased 182 athletes in 14 events in the two-hour television window. For the rabid athletics fans this was a bountiful meal, indeed. But for a casual spectator the numbers quickly became so great as to create a glut .  At the beginning of the men’s 5000 meters broadcaster Tim Hutchings said of the 20-man field, ‘it’s too many probably’, before underscoring the class of the field as containing 10 sub-13 minute men, including the top 10 of 2014.

In the world of art negative space is the space around and between the subject(s) of an image.  It is an often unnoticed element in creating a pleasing design or presentation, as it allows the positive space of the composition the room it needs to breathe in order to be properly absorbed by the viewer.  Negative space in music is the silence within a piece that showcases that which is heard, while in comedy, negative space is the well-timed pause that either is the joke, or tees up the punch-line.

If someone as track-savvy as Tim Hutchings can wonder about the need for a 20-man field in a season-long final in the 5000m, and a 10-man traffic jam in the 800, why can’t the Diamond League organizers?  In business they say to mass your assets, then focus people’s attention. Why is it that there is no stepping stone to the finals whereby only the top eight competitors in the laned events, or top 10 in the distance events, qualify for the Diamond League final? Continue reading

FERGUSON, MO. – THE GAP BETWEEN LIVING AND STAYING

Unrest in Ferguson, Mo.

Unrest in Ferguson, Mo.

As civil unrest continues to tear apart my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri in the aftermath of last Saturday’s shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer, I ran across a story I wrote, but never published, in 1996 back before personal blogs were around for just these kind of closely-held thoughts.

(Note:  this is not a running related post, so you may bail out here with that information in hand)

Back in the mid-1990s the country was in the opposing throes of the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson verdicts while trying to digest the meaning and value of the Million Man March.  In the ensuing years many other challenges and difficulties, both domestic and international, have arisen on the track of public consciousness.  But through it all, and here again with the suddenness of a piercing bullet, the issue of race has erupted to remind us how it  remains the central hurdle in America’s path toward the fulfillment of her founding charter.

Continue reading

PRESENTATION MODEL

After last week’s 2014 USATF Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Sacramento, California the sport is again engaged in a dialogue regarding presentation venues.  Eugene versus Sacramento is the current exchange with Indianapolis, Des Moines, and Palo Alto also in the conversation as recent championship host sites.

2008 Olympic Trials at Eugene's Hayward Field

2008 Olympic Trials at Eugene’s Hayward Field

Eugene is Eugene, Tracktown USA.  Say what you will about Big Swoosh, the folks in Oregon understand track and field, and know how to present it.  The 2008 and 2012 Olympic Trials in Eugene felt like a major sporting event.  The stands were full, and a fan festival was erected right outside to entertain and inform the casual fan.

By comparison, despite the attendance figures released –- 32,783 over four days –- Sacramento’s Hornet Stadium on the campus of Sacramento State University looked consistently empty on the backstretch, and only two-thirds to three-quarters filled on the homestretch throughout the four days of competition.  Some of that may be attributed to the heat that bakes Sacramento each summer.  Who but the most rabid fans want to sit out in triple-digit heat for hours on end? (Though it was only in the 80s till the final day).

Others point out that Hornet Stadium is larger than Hayward Field , 21,000 capacity versus 10,500 (though expandable to 21,000).  So while it might seem emptier, there may in fact be more people in attendance than one realizes.  This argument only reminds us of the role perception plays and how important staging and presentation is. Continue reading

PORK STEAKS AND PRO MEETS

Pork Steaks on the grill

Pork Steaks on the grill

Being a native Midwesterner I grew up on backyard summer barbecues where a particular grilling favorite in St. Louis was the delectable pork steak.  But what made the pork steak so good was the corn on the cob, baked beans, and potato salad that went with it. Those side dishes added flavor, spice  and textural contrasts against which to savor the main course.

Well, it is the presentation of compatible athletic tastes and textural delights that has always been one of the track and field’s greatest appeals.   Today, two of the best T&F meets in the world arrive on the calendar, the Exxon Mobil Bislett Games in Oslo, Norway, and the beginning of the 2014 NCAA Outdoor T&F Championships in Eugene, Oregon. Both meets have compelling story lines, but I wonder if my viewing will reflect a recent watching of two other top meets on TiVo?

Last week I re-watched coverage of the SEC Track & Field Championships on ESPNU, then immediately reviewed the Prefontaine Classic from NBC Sports. Surprisingly, what stood out was how much better the SEC presentation was than the Pre coverage. Not in terms of performances, camera angles or announcing. Obviously, the world-class performances in Eugene were superior to the SEC races, just as the fields in Oslo represent the very best track & field talent the world has to offer. No, what stood out was how the narrative thread of team-based competition throughout the SEC program gave coherence and meaning to the coverage that was totally missing in Eugene at Pre.

At the SEC’s in Lexington, Kentucky Dwight Stones and Larry Rawson presented the team element very usefully on ESPNU, while the efforts of Tom Hammond, Ato Boldon, Craig Masback and Dwight Stones for NBC at the Pre meet came in the service of unconnected, stand-alone events.  While every race at the SEC’s had an individual champion and particular story line, the linking element of team competition gave the meet a competitive arc and payoff for viewers to latch onto and follow.

Galen Rupp goes 26:44.36 seconds to break his own American record at 10,000m.

Galen Rupp goes 26:44.36 seconds to break his own American record at 10,000m at Pre Meet.

On the other hand, while the Pre Classic produced a string of world-class performances, led by Galen Rupp’s American record over 10,000 meters, what stood out was the lack of any narrative thread beyond that. It was all a bunch of individual snapshots, not a building drama. Each non-sprint was staged as a series of predetermined paced laps with only the final lap, perhaps two in the case of Rupp, turning into a full out competition. It was hard not to fast forward to the moments of actual engagement as, once again, we were reminded why track and field has lost contact with the casual sports fan.  Continue reading