STARS LOOK TO REGAIN THEIR GLITTER IN SAN DIEGO

San Diego, CA – With the IAAF World Championships scheduled for October this year in Doha, Qatar, everyone’s schedule has been thrown back a month and you never know who’s going to show up where on any given night in the world of track and field.

Last night at San Diego’s Mesa College, two world-class runners joined tracksters young and old at the 8th Summer Nights Track & Field Series meet as they sought to re-find the form that had previously brought them to the very heights of their sport.

Two-time Olympic 1500-meter medalist Nick Willis and three-time sprint medalist Tori Bowie feel the clock ticking and know it waits on no one.

Willis warming up

Nick is now 36 years old, yet the University of Michigan grad and New Zealand legend is still on the hunt for that elusive fitness that produced a silver medal in Beijing ‘08 and then a bronze in Rio in 2016.

Last night we found Nick at Mesa College testing himself in the 800 meters just one night after running 1500 meters at the Sunset Series up north at Azusa Pacific. There he fashioned a 3:37.8, good for fourth place. Not a usual position for Nick, but better than what 2019 has shown so far.

“I’ve been last in my last two races,” Nick told me after his 1:49.23 win over stubborn Daniel Herrera’s 1:49.27 and Eric Avila‘s 1:50.51. “I ran here because I need to get my confidence back.”

Mac Fleet paced the first 400

You wouldn’t think a two-time Olympic medalist would be short on confidence, but as we all know, foot racing is a humbling game and a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately one, too.

At the bell!

Yes, we’re only as good as our last race, or in Nick’s case, his last two.  And when they don’t go well, even a glittering past doesn’t mean too much or offer much consolation, especially as we grow older.

Into the homestretch (L-R: Daniel Herrera, Nick Willis, Eric Avila

In his last Diamond League outing, Nick barely broke 4:00 at the Bowerman Mile at the Pre Classic at Stanford on June 30 as things just haven’t snapped into place in 2019 like they once did. He finished 14th out of 14 starters.  

“When I was younger my 5 km and cross country strength would automatically transfer to track speed,“ Nick explained. “But my muscles don’t come around so easily anymore. So this is my Tiger Woods’ season to make a comeback. Thing is, I feel healthier than ever but that doesn’t mean the elasticity transfers as quickly as it once did. But tonight I came out and ran 52 seconds for the first 400 (paced by former 2x NCAA 1500m champ for Oregon and local University High School star Mac Fleet) and I think it’s starting to come around.”

Nick will head back home to Ann Arbor, Michigan today before flying back to Europe for a 1500 meters in Heusden in 10 days in the Netherlands. The very next day he will run a mile in London as he looks to find that fugitive form before the World Championships in Doha.

Several hundred people were on hand for last night’s Summer Series meet, now in its 10th season under the guidance of local running guru, Coach Paul Greer. The other world-classer the crowd was fortunate to see testing her fitness before the U.S. Nationals in Des Moines, Iowa (July 25-28) was sprinter Tori Bowie, the three-time Olympic medalist from Rio 2016 (gold in the 4 X 100, silver in the 100m, and bronze in the 200m), then two-time World Champion in 2017 (open 100m & the 4 X 100m.)

2018 ended early for Tori when she tore a quad muscle at the Pre Classic in late May (5th, 11.03). It’s been a year of battling back from injury and off-track issues, as well, including changing home bases and coaches. She hasn’t gone sub-11 since 2017. At the Pre Classic this June 30th, she finished 7th in 11.30.

Last night at Mesa, Tori ran the 100 again in 11.50, which she said “was pathetic.”  But her new coach Craig Poole, former head women’s coach at BYU for 30 years and then director and head coach at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista just south of San Diego said, “she achieved all the goals she was looking for. Time was not the goal here, she was just working on some technical stuff.”

Working back into form is the kind of thing local meets like the Summer Nights Series can offer a top athlete that big-time meets can’t. At the same time, having Olympic athletes perform on the same track inspires the youngsters on hand.

Nick remarked how New Zealand had this kind of local meet all around through their summer months, but he never finds them here in the U. S.

Nick addresses the crowd

Before taking off, Nick addressed the crowd of track enthusiasts on another ideal San Diego summer night.

“Get off the concrete and find some beautiful trails and enjoy your body to the best of your ability.”

Yes, do it while you can, kids, cause gravity is not a user-friendly force field and it will exact a toll. Just ask Nick and Tori.

The sun slowly dipped beneath the west grandstands, the light faded as the final events were contested. Then the small crowd dispersed knowing many will meet up again for the 9th Summer Nights meet on July 17th.

It had been a good evening. Pleasantly fatigued was the feeling left behind, which is how famed New Zealand distance coach Arthur Lydiard used to explain the feeling of being in full training mode.

And so it goes.

Full ahead!

 

END

P.S.  Nick Willis was named to the 2019 University of Michigan Hall of Honor the next day. Congrats, Nick. Best of luck ahead.

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PURPOSE IN THE PROCESS

Let’s just consider running shoes for a second, shall we?  I mean, the name itself, not just their brands or models. “Running shoes”, as opposed to shoes that we wear while running. But doesn’t it seem like we are getting closer to the reality of that literal description with each passing marketing season?

The way modern running shoes are being designed it won’t be too long before some built-in flinging device will be inserted to take the nasty little requirement of generating our own power out of the equation.

Soon we will begin to hear about the first sub-1 hour marathon before Eliud Kipchoge has a chance to fully recover from his first sub-2. And everyone will applaud but like the proliferation of home runs in Major League Baseball this year, the performances in one era will be impossible to compare against another and something fundamental will be lost. (more…)

PEACHTREE 2019 PREVIEW

Atlanta, Ga. – For those too young to remember, the nation was even more divided in 1970 than it is today. 50 years ago an idealistic generation of Baby Boomers were still trying to change the world through sit-ins and political protest, primarily to end the war in Vietnam. That May 4th, the killing of four unarmed students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard mobilized student unrest across the country. 

Yet just two months later, 110 intrepid pioneers (107 men & 3 women) were on their feet in Atlanta running to change nothing more than their own lives. And in so doing, they helped begin a whole new social movement that one person and one step at a time accomplished what sitting-in as a group never could.

Thus was the first AJC Peachtree Road Race born, inaugurating a tradition and cause that now stretches half a century long and 2 million finishers deep.

With such a legacy to serve, the world’s largest 10K has welcomed back not just many of the Original 110 who ran that first Peachtree 10K, but has assembled perhaps the deepest fields of pro talent ever, with bonuses of $50,000 going to any one of the foot racers or wheelchair athletes who can break the very sturdy event records. (more…)

RWANDA USING SPORT TO REUNIFY WHILE OPENING ITS ARMS TO THE WORLD

Kigali, Rwanda-  25 years ago Rwanda descended into the darkest corner of the human heart, a place devoid of empathy or compassion. It led to a 100-day genocide that eviscerated the nation and left a stain that only time can diminish if not fully erase.

A quarter-century later, however, Rwanda has made remarkable progress in its long cleansing and rebuilding effort.  In a single generation, the country has brought conciliation to its people, and reached out to the world. Signs through Kigali announce “Remember, Unite, Renew”.

Led by its President Paul Kagame, Rwanda has expanded opportunities in all areas of society. In business, it has the second fastest growing economy in all of Africa (7.5% per annum since 2007). Primary school education is now available to 98% of its children. It is the fifth safest country to walk at night worlwide, and it has the largest percentage of women in Parliament in Africa at 61%.

Rwanda also has a goal of becoming the hub of sports for Africa, which is what brought me to Central Africa for the 15th Kigali International Peace Marathon. (more…)

R.I.P. GABE

Pulitzer Prize winning historian Jon Meacham has written a new book with country singer Tim McGraw called Songs of America. In promoting his latest work, Meacham often says of America, “We are at our best when we live up to the words of Jefferson, ‘all men are created equal’.”

But within that founding sentiment we rarely ask how is it that all men are truly created equal. What is it that binds us all in this human family?

There is an underlying assumption that because our Creator is deemed good, and we have been made in His likeness and image, that there is dignity and value in all men and women, and it is that understanding that makes us all alike. But history and experience tells us something quite different. (more…)

STEVE JONES AWARDED MBE BY QUEEN ELIZABETH II: REMEMBERING CHICAGO 1984

With the good and proper news that Welshman Steve Jones has been awarded the prestigious Members of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by Queen Elizabeth II, I thought it would be fitting that we go back to the time when Steve first lifted his name into the marathoning spotlight along Lake Michigan with his 2:08:05 world record. 

In those days, the sport was still heavily centered around the Boston – New York City axis.  The London Marathon had only been around for four years, and the Los Angeles Marathon was still two years from its beginning.  Bringing world-class competition beyond its East Coast roots was a major accomplishment for Chicago and an important factor in helping grow interest in the sport.

Jonesy’s stellar run in Chicago `84 also represented another turning point in the game.  It marked the last time the men’s marathon world record would be set without the aid of pacesetters.  Here, then is my contemporaneous race report from Chicago 1984, a day to remember in the annals of marathoning history and jumping off point for one of the great marathon careers of the all-time.  Congratulations, Sir Steve!

***

Steve Jones sets World Marathon Record in Chicao 1984
Steve Jones sets World Marathon Record in Chicago 1984

Chicago, IL. — And then there was the weather, forty-four degrees with a wind-driven rain like an icy finger tracing the nape of your neck. Over 10,000 huddled runners jittered anxiously at the dual starting lines on Clark and Dearborn Streets for the 8:45 a.m. signal to begin the 8th America’s Marathon/Chicago (as it was known in those days).

On the front row stood some of the best marathoners in the world. “It’s the Olympics all over again”, said one punter as champions from every continent pawed the ground, anxious to be off on their heat-generating journey to Lincoln Park. This was no place for the skittish, rather an end-of-the-season, post-Olympic blowout engineered by Beatrice Foods sponsorship money and race director Bob Bright’s orchestration.

“The Games are over. We’ve nothing to lose. So let’s have a go,” was how Welshman Steve Jones prophetically put it the day before. (more…)

CELEBRATING GLOBAL RUNNING DAY ON FRED LEBOW’S BIRTHDAY

This Wednesday, June 5th is Global Running Day, and there will be celebrations and recognitions throughout the world. But perhaps Global Running Day should be recognized two days earlier on June 3rd instead. Why? Because June 3 is Fred Lebow’s birthday. 

While Frank Shorter is recognized as the Alan Shepard of the Running Boom with his victory in the Munich Olympic Marathon in 1972 igniting the sport’s growth in America, Fred Lebow was the man, perhaps as much as any other, who launched the sport of road running across the world from his offices at 9 E. 89th Street, headquarters of New York Road Runners Club just off 5th Avenue and Central Park.

In 2019, Fred would have been celebrating his 87th birthday. Sadly, he died of cancer in October 1994 at the age of 62.

Running Ringmaster Fred Lebow

Fred was not a great runner himself, finishing the inaugural New York City Marathon in 1970 in 4:12:09, placing 45th out of 55 finishers.  But he was a great running impresario at a time when the sport required intrepid pioneers willing to make something out of essentially nothing.

Back in the early days when running was making inroads into more and more people’s lives, it was Fred, bullhorn in hand and true belief in his heart, who became the sport’s primary front man and tub-thumper, the man who engineered the first five-borough New York City Marathon in 1976, taking what had been a quirky event making four-laps of Central Park and turning it into an international phenomenon.

Always looking to expand the sport, both domestically and internationally, Fred was a willing interviewee as well as a self-confessed “borrower” of ideas he discovered during his far-flung travels to see how others were staging races elsewhere.

On July 21, 1980, I sat down with Fred in his office for one of our many interviews for my Runner’s Digest radio show in Boston.  In this interview, we discussed the future of running as a professional sport. It’s fascinating to go back nearly 40 years and see where Fred saw the sport’s future heading.  I can only wonder what he would have thought of today’s running world. (more…)