BIG 3 DOWN TO 1

Ritz pulls away from Webb at 2000 Foot Locker XC

Ritz pulls away from Webb at 2000 Foot Locker XC. Ryan Hall in a distant third.

When high school seniors Dathan Ritzenhein, Alan Webb, and Ryan Hall met at the 2000 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships in Orlando, Florida, America’s running fans were all but salivating at the prospect of what lie ahead, not just in Orlando, but in the careers to come.  All three precocious talents had flashed early signs of excellence on a register America hadn’t seen in a generation.  Now, on December 9, 2000 on the Walt Disney World Shades of Green Golf Course, the Big Three from Michigan, Virginia and California would match up head-to-head-to-head for the first time.

Temps were high that day for the boy’s race, humidity, too.  Just the same, talk of a sub-4:30 opening mile and a sub-9:00 deuce buzzed over the internet chat rooms as regional fan bases built cases for their respective heroes.

As undefeated returning champion, Rockford High School senior Dathan Ritzenhein’s game was pressure.  And after an initial 4:46 mile, the whip strong Michigander applied it unsparingly.

Pulling away from a shocked Alan “I’m ready for anything” Webb with a 4:33 second mile, Ritz went on to win that 5K battle and notch a historic second straight Foot Locker national title. His 20 second margin of victory put a hard shine on it, as it was, and remains, the largest gap in Foot Locker history. The Virginia miler held strong for second, while the California cruiser Ryan Hall showed third in the high Florida humidity (Ryan’s future wife Sara Bei went from last to first to win the 2000 girl’s Foot Locker title).

Over the ensuing 15 years the Big Three, as they came to be known, have gone on to author memorable, historic performances as records have been set, Olympic teams made, though none has yet to cop an Olympic medal. But as we enter the spring of 2015, only Dathan Ritzenhein is still exploring the outer limits of his youthful running promise. Continue reading

RACING RULES AT USATF INDOOR CHAMPIONSHIPS

USATF_2015_Indoor_Championship_Logo.jpg.aspxIn our time-conscious athletics world we sometimes forget that a championship — hell, any race – is first and foremost a competition amongst athletes, not simply a time trial.  Thus, with pacers removed from the agenda throughout this past weekend’s USATF Indoor Championships in Boston, athletics fans got to see a myriad of tactical finals that produced some champions who might not have been considered favorites going in, or been winners if the races had been paced.

When a pacer is plugged into a race a number of things happen.  1) the brain is turned off as everyone — athletes and audience — knows exactly what is coming.  The only question to be answered is, ‘can you run that pace or can’t you?’  2) pecking order is an unspoken but powerful inhibitor, meaning the runner with the biggest appearance fee, and for whom the pace is being established, is automatically ushered into the catbird seat behind the pacer.  Another competitor can break that rule if he/she chooses, but in so doing risks losing future invitations. 3) no actual racing takes place until the pacer steps off, erasing a lot of any surprise that might emerge from the proceedings.

As we saw in Boston, however, runners in non-paced races have gears and gas available to constantly reshuffle their positions, both in and out from the rail, as well as up and back in the pack. This is because they haven’t been stretched to the anaerobic edge by a predetermined pace.  Instead the pack generates its own speed and constitution from amidst the roiling effort. As a consequence we got to see how the middle distance races in the USATF Indoor Championships became elastic bands of surge and resettle, then surge again as the packs reshuffled every time another racer or two hit the gas to ensure a better pack position for the final attack. This kind of racing keeps both the athletes and the audience in a state of rapt attention, precisely because they don’t know what is going to happen. Continue reading

DEFLATE-GATE & RUNNING

DeflateGateDeflate-Gate is another example of how out-of-step running is in today’s sporting world. In a classic example of “all publicity is good publicity”, the NFL is going to see the highest rated annual TV show now go through the retractable roof next Sunday in Arizona’s University of Phoenix Stadium for Super Bowl XLIX, all because some footballs had two psi too little air in their bladder last weekend at the AFC Championship game in Foxborough, Mass.  Or maybe running is just too pure for what the world has become.

You see, foot racing is really simple, point A to point B, first one in wins. No style points, no arbitrary ref calls (except for that indoor 3000 last year at the USATF Championship), and pretty much conscientious out-of-competition drug testing.  If you lose, it’s relatively easy to accept, because it’s all on you. It’s not because the coach didn’t put you in, or the guy didn’t throw or kick you the ball.  It’s start to finish, plain and simple. See you there. Obviously, there is cheating, but as we’ve seen with the recent Russian and Kenyan situations, the fight against it is ongoing.

Yet with its DeFlate-Gate kerfuffle the NFL has no one to blame (or congratulate, depending on your level of cynicism) but itself. It wanted it both ways, to seem to have a level playing field, while allowing the foxes to run the hen houses. So Instead of every team playing with the same footballs, like every baseball team plays with the same baseballs — a no-brainer in terms of an even playing field — the NFL caved in to the Dynamic Duo, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. 

In 2006 Brady and Manning lobbied for visiting teams to be allowed to bring 12 broken-in balls of their own to every away game, because God knows it wasn’t enough to strip defenses from playing, you know, defense – for heaven sakes, don’t breath hard on the wide receivers — no, with all those passing records making billionaires out of millionaires and millionaires out of everyone else, and the NFL rising above baseball to become America’s new pastime, a little wink, wink, nod, nod at how the game is played isn’t going to be noticed, is it?  Yeah, and all those home runs crushed by pharmaceuticaly enhanced head-swellers, where was the harm in that?  Continue reading

ATHLETICS: A HOUSE ON FIRE

IMG_440106424Honolulu, Hi. —   It is easy to get lolled into a complacent repose here on the magical isle of Oahu. The rolling surf and easy trade winds loosen even the stiffest resolve, and one can forget, for the moment, the sulfurous zeitgeist wafting over the sport of athletics of late.

From the doping positives and allegations of wide-spread cheating and corruption coming out of the distance Eden of Kenya, to the hardened realpolitik of alleged payoffs to cover failed drug tests in Russia — or to secure championship site selection by the IAAF —  from the overturning of a mandate-level membership vote by a know-better USATF Board of Directors, to the potential loss of root and branch events like the 10,000, shot put, triple jump, and 200 meters on the track at the Olympics, there seems to be a sense of a house on fire on all fronts of athletics.

Maybe this is the entropy toward which any old and failed model eventuates. Maybe this is how the culture of greed and corruption loops back on itself in an ironic twist of Shakespearean delight.   In any regard, it is clear that the sport has completely lost its way.

Those in charge seem less passionate about the game than about the easy rewards that come from positions within extra-national oligarchies that lack adequate oversight and deal in the murky world of international banking.  It is why this sport is so attractive to so many of the wrong people as well as to so many great athletes and well-meaning supporters.

But there has always been the sense that the problem cannot be solved by simply rejiggering the NGB model or by replacing fallen men with more upstanding counterparts.  Though every sport has its difficulties and foibles, other successful sports have long since separated the necessary duties of governance, grass roots development and national team selection from the very different requirements of a truly professional sport.   Continue reading

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