MEB: WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Pride, rue, chagrin, the emotions any of us feel about our name can run a wide gamut. For instance, my name is Toni, but as you notice, it ends in an I, rather than a Y. That’s because in Poland, birthplace of my mother, they spell Anthony as Antoni, hence, Toni, not Tony (though I answer to both).

Since I reached my majority, no big deal, but as a young boy growing up in the American Midwest, having what my peers considered a girl’s name often proved challenging. In fact, it’s one reason why I started to run.  It was easier and less painful than fighting every time some chump chided me with my ‘girl’s name’ anomaly.

Which brings us to Meb Keflezighi, the American marathon star who was surprised  by several hundred friends, relatives, and fans Monday night (November 13, 2017) at San Diego’s Liberty Station two weeks after he concluded his remarkable career with an 11th place finish at the TCS New York City Marathon at age 42. The retirement  celebration also raised funds benefiting the MEB Foundation, which promotes health education and fitness programs for youth.

Meb arriving with wife Yordanos (photo by Bob Betancourt)

The evening brought into relief once again just how far the man has come. Not just through the long journey from war-torn Eritrea to Italy and finally America as a 12 year-old boy, or on the many ups and downs of his competitive career, from his days at San Diego High to UCLA all the way to the Mount Rushmore of American distance running. No, I mean simply in terms of culture.

Like the name Meb for instance.  The first time you hear it, sounds more like a distance than a name.

“How far did you run today?”

“I got in about sixteen Mebs, and threw in a couple of Hawis for good measure.”

But no matter the obstacle, be it cultural or sporting, Meb always found a way to surmount it and then triumph, while including many, many others in those triumphs along the way. Continue reading

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RELENTLESS SHALANE WINS IN NEW YORK CITY

Like many a Boston Marathon finisher, Shalane Flanagan walked downstairs with a tender tred after the race. The Marblehead, Massachusetts native had attacked the old course with a willful intention on Patriot’s Day 2014, convinced that an unrelenting pace from the start would discourage her opponents and set her up for victory.  But now, after the savage pace she set on the rolling hills from Hopkinton to Heartbreak Hill in Newton had shredded her quads, the walk downstairs from the VIP room of the House of Blues to the main stage for that night’s award ceremony was proving to be yet another painful journey.

Once on stage, the top ten women were presented to the boisterous crowd. Shalane was number seven. Then, as the champion (now confirmed drug cheat) Rita Jeptoo of Kenya basked in the spotlight and applause gowned up like a beauty pageant contestant, Shalane stood behind her still unrelenting, still feisty and unbowed.

“You’re welcome,” Shalane said tartly from behind as I introduced Jeptoo to the crowd. We heard her.  It was an acknowledgment that Flanagan knew exactly what role she had played in the fastest Boston Marathon in history, her own 2:22:02 time in seventh being the fastest ever by an American in Boston.

Shalane Flanagan leading the charge in Boston 2014

The plan for Boston 2014 had been set months in advance by Shalane and her Bowerman Track Club coach Jerry Schumacher. And to a degree, it had worked, delivering the 33-year-old to the Boylston Street finish line in exactly the time she was trying to achieve. Unfortunately, it was nearly four minutes behind the drug queen, and two minutes off that which Buzunesh Deba of Ethiopia fashioned in second place – 2:19:59.

“When I first heard of Jeptoo (drug bust),” remembered Shalane, “I was angry. But then I was relieved. I could do that two minutes.”

And she nearly did, six months later in Berlin, again gunning for time rather than place. This time it was Deena Kastor‘s American record 2:19:36 from London 2006. Continue reading

NEW WAY TO DEAL WITH PED USE

With Sunday’s running of the TCS New York City Marathon fast approaching, the fields are set, the course is ready, and the viewing parties have all been arranged.  All that’s left is an unsullied journey through the five boroughs with worthy champions awaiting to be crowned.

Only once in 48 years has there been a positive drug test of real consequence at the NYC Marathon, that being Toni Niemzcak of Poland, who finished second in 1986 behind Italy’s Gianni PoliNiemzcak failed a drug test which had discovered a banned steroid in his system.  His position was vacated and prize money not awarded.  There was one other drug positive in 2011, announced in 2012, of Ethiopian Ezkyas Sisay who finished ninth in his 2011 debut and later was found to have utilized the blood booster EPO.   He, too, was DQ’d.

The problem of PED use persists, as New York’s Abbott World Marathon Majors partners in London, Chicago, and Boston have all been repeatedly burned in recent years by Russia’s Lilya Shobukhova and Rita Jeptoo of Kenya.   In 2017, the AWMMs cut their athletic prize for the series title in half from $500,000 to $250,000, while only awarding a portion of that first prize award each year as a hedge against getting hit like they have in the past.  But what else can be done to end this scourge on all sports?  Here’s a tongue-in-cheek suggestion.

 

 

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AMERICAN MASTER MEB SAYS SO LONG

 

Meb after 2009 NYC win

On that bright but chilly (38°F) November morning, I had the catbird seat aboard the NBC lead men’s TV motorcycle as the 2002 New York City Marathon entered its critical stage coming off the Queensboro Bridge at mile 16.  The final pace-setter, the metronomic Joseph Kariuki of Kenya, had just pulled off leaving the pack edgy, crackling with energy as Manhattan’s First Avenue stretched ahead like a provocation with all the history, speed, and power it portended.  Amidst the lead group ran marathon debutant Meb Keflezighi, the U.S. record holder at 10,000 meters (27:13). The day before Meb’s long-time coach Bob Larsen told me Meb would go with the pace until First Avenue then decide what to do.

The resurrection of American distance running had begun to take shape in that fall of 2002. Following successful maiden marathons by Dan Browne at Twin Cities (1st, 2:11:35) then Alan Culpepper in Chicago (6th, 2:09:41, tying Alberto Salazar’s American d­­­­­­ebut record from New York 1980) the anticipation for Meb’s debut in New York City was running sky high.

Sweeping off the bridge first sped Rodgers Rop of Kenya, third in NYC the year before, and reigning Boston Marathon champion.  By 66th Street Rop had a five-second gap, leaving remnants of the pack receding like fading dust motes.  Mile 17 fell in 4:36.

Realizing the danger, Boston runner-up Christopher Cheboiboch, 2:06:33 South African Gert Thys, and Kenyan deb Laban Kipkemboi bridged up to cover Rop’s move. And then Meb came rushing up hard from behind to join the fray.  Decision made!  He was going! The crowd bellowed its approval.  Next, amidst a 4:40 18th mile, Meb surged to the front, not satisfied just to answer, he was anxious to dictate policy.

“I remembered that Salazar had won New York in his debut,” recalled Meb years later.  “And maybe I got too emotional.”

Rodgers Rop went on to win that 2002 race in New York in 2:08:07 to join Bill Rodgers (1978 & `79), Alberto Salazar (1982) and Joseph Chebet (1994) as the only men to win Boston and New York in the same year (in 2011 Geoffrey Mutai would join the club).

Meb took a full 35 minutes and change for his final 10K (5:40/mi. pace).  Chilled to the bone, he arrived in ninth place in 2:12:35. Afterwards, his mother Awetash made him swear he would never do THAT again. Continue reading

WHY RUN MARATHONS? POINT – COUNTERPOINT

Hello, hello, hello, hello.

So we got ourselves another big marathon coming up this weekend in New York City, 50,000 strong going the distance through all five boroughs.

Ok, maybe it is perverse, but through fire comes cleansing.  And the marathon is fire enough for most. Strange as it may sound, bizarre though it may look, through all the discomfort of running 26.2 miles comes a healing that marks the marathon like no other sporting event. Through its winding miles and colorful crowds, the event has proven to be a unifying thread that ties a city together that all too often is famed for its impersonal diversity.

Out in Los Angeles, another of America’s great diverse metropolises, it seems every time the city found itself in a time of need, whether after fire, flood, or civil unrest, the marathon somehow came up, providentially, on the calendar to return hope and lend a sense of unity and goodwill.  And, of course, the Boston Marathon is famous, not just for the horrific finish-line bombing in 2013, but for its miraculous resurrection and embrace of 2014.  This weekend that spirit and purpose are again being called to duty at the TCS New York City Marathon just as it was in 2001.

TCS New York City Marathon crowds

Time and time again, the simple act of stripping thousands of people down to a pair of shorts and a singlet, pinning a race number on their chest, and channeling them 26.2 miles from point A to point B has simultaneously stripped away all the biases and differences that heretofore had come to define them. Amidst the rollicking throngs that annually meet to run through the most diverse marathon course in America, neither a Democrat nor Republican could you identify, Christian or Jew, Muslim or heathen.

Instead the marathon in New York, like every major city marathon before it, has discovered that by challenging people with a task at the far end of their capability, yet still within their grasp, it could help them transcend the hard lines of religion, politics, and economic station that differentiate them on every other day, and in so doing, set the once-vaunted American melting pot back to boil.

That is quite a trick to pull off in today’s world of identity politics and hardline Us-versus-Them encampments. But the very simple act of running has proven capable of this assimilation, while the city and its people have responded enthusiastically as if in answer to a call from their own better angels.

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COUNTERPOINT

Let me ask you a question: Tell me why? That’s right, why do people still run marathons?

People, if a salesman knocked on your door and offered to sell you something that would make your toenails fall off and your nipples bleed for $375, what would you do?  You’d kick him in the ass with your good toenails, that’s what!

“Get outta here! What are you, nuts?”

But somehow if folks put up an expo and fill it full of running crap, close city streets and hand you water, all of a sudden people turn into masochists with disposable incomes.

“Is this where I go to pay $375 so I can run till I deplete all my bodily fluids, and make the skin fall off my feet?  Here?  Cool. I can’t wait.”

How did this begin?  Where did this catch on?  The first guy who tried it in 492 B.C. died! It made the news!  Became kinda legendary.  Most sensible people took it as a warning. And that worked for about 2400 years.  But somehow they decided to try it again at the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, and it became a thing.

Weren’t you people punished enough as kids?

It’s one of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated! Let me see, I exhaust myself, I am blistered, I’m experiencing a full body cramp, I’m on the verge of being worthy of a guest-shot on the Jerry Springer Show – “how much is that gonna cost me?”

Jesus, people, isn’t life tough enough? This is what you do for fun?!  Honest.  Have you been to a finish line lately?  It’s like an open casting call for a remake of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and you people are trying out for the role of zombies. I’m not kidding. Do you see what’s left after 26.2 miles?  It’s a horror show.

Might I suggest a laxative?  You need to pass some stuff, cause you’re evidently all clenched up. I’m just sayin’.

(But if you are going to do it anyway, good luck, and have a blast!)

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CONSIDERING CHICAGO 2017

People have been asking why I hadn’t written anything on the outcome of this year’s Chicago Marathon after the historic win by Galen Rupp in the men’s race, and the third place finish by Jordan Hasay for women, whose 2:20:57 represents the second-fastest marathon time ever by an American woman.  Well, it has taken me a while to write, because A) I wasn’t there to talk with the principals, and B) there are conflicting emotions at play.

On the surface, it’s a wonderful thing; two American runners achieved a truly impressive outcome against world-class competition in one of the major marathons of the world.  Both athletes are likable and humble with careers of excellence going back to their high school days now coming to full flower in their professional years.  Both have loving support systems and are coached by another all-time great American runner, Alberto Salazar of the Nike Oregon Project. Together, these results are worthy of grand celebrations, all things being equal. But, of course, all things are not equal, which is what leads to the conflicting emotions. Continue reading

LEAD PACK: FINDING THE CATBIRD SEAT

Do top marathoners ever watch tape on their opponents?  You know, like American football teams do, studying film from one game to prep for the next?  They always say what makes Tom Brady (quarterback for the New England Patriots American football team) arguably the best-ever to play the position is his commitment to the work, his preparation, including endlessly watching film.  So does anybody, or any management team in running do opposition research in the marathon game?  Should they? Or is it all about getting yourself as fit as you can, then just run the race, and the opposition will come along with the territory?

They say you can’t play defense in running, but is there nothing else you can do to prepare for your opponents except training your fanny off?

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We all know that every race has an Alpha, that one person every other runner pays special mind to.  Though there was a Big 3 in Berlin, I bet even Wilson Kipsang and Kenenisa Bekele kept a close eye on Eliud Kipchoge.  But I wonder whether if you deconstructed enough marathons you could learn anything by watching where the eventual champion took up his/her position in the lead pack? Is there an unrealized “catbird seat” that somehow gives one person an advantage in the critical later stages? Continue reading