Month: January 2012

HAVE RUNNERS CHANGED?

     Thirty years ago most avowed distance runners still retained vestiges of the sport’s flinty, outsider’s origins.  We were a congregation of pain seekers bonded by the depth and quality of our gut-wrenched racing performances.  How hard you trained, and fast you ran, were blistered badges of pride held up against society’s more traditional conventions of convenience. Revolutions of the local high school track were regarded with more respect than the arc of one’s career track. Today, those times and that image have long given way to a spirit of tempered inclusion where running serves as a universal bond of health and community involvement.  Or does it?

Running USA staged its annual conference this month in Houston in connection with the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.  As a member of the Running USA board of directors, I had occasion to reach out to members of the running community to voice their observations (anonymously, to avoid recriminations) about the state of the sport.  The following perspective comes from a former race director, club organizer, and current running world vendor.

“Here in our little world I have been involved with our running club for over 20 years, and I’ve seen a marked difference in engagement by the runners over time.  New runners don’t know common etiquette.  It used to be that you could call out for help of any kind and lots of runners would raise their hand and say, ‘I can do that’.  Now it feels like there is much more of a ‘so-who’s-going-to-throw-the-next-great-event-for-me’ type of attitude.  

Likewise, I’ve been involved with a local trails organization, a terrific ‘professional’ non-profit with a true working board and paid staff.  It raises millions of dollars, creates both wooded and urban trails, raises non-motorized transportation issues within the community, grooms cross country ski trails, etc. They seem to have a lot of hands-on support from the biking and hiking communities, but they traditionally don’t get a lot of hands-on support from runners.  

I don’t think our area has a lock on selfish runners (sorry for the negative bent here) as I suspect we are just a microcosm of the national scene. My point here is that runners just don’t seem to be as engaged outside of their next run or when they are out of Gu packets, yet any cyclist always seems to know what Lance had for breakfast yesterday. The numbers (and dollars) are with the numbers of runners at races all over this country (a positive), but I don’t think any solution will be found for running’s ills until we find a way to truly engage the masses.  

It starts with a goal and a direction. There are lots of great ideas out there, but as we consider these great ideas every discussion should include the question, ‘how does it engage the masses?’ 

Just some musings for a Tuesday morning. Have a great day.  

Thanks to today’s guest for the observations.  If you’d like to add yours, either respond below, or contact me at toni.reavis@att.net.

END

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WHY TRACK IS THE BEST TEACHER FOR KIDS

Lee Evans – Catch or No Catch?

    Did Baltimore Raven receiver Lee Evans catch a 19-yard TD pass from QB Joe Flacco with 24-seconds remaining in yesterday’s AFC Championship game against the New England Patriot’s in Foxborough?   Or was the ball stripped by Patriot’s cornerback Sterling Moore?  Obviously, since it is the Patriots headed to Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI to take on the New York Giants in a replay of the 2007 title game, the officials ruled it an incomplete pass.

The call was granted even greater significance when, with the Pats leading 23-20, Raven’s placekicker Billy Cundiff undeniably duck-hooked what would have been the game-tying 32-yard field goal on an ensuing snap, ending the Raven’s season, and ensuring him induction into the NFL’s Hall of Pain alongside Buffalo Bill placekicker Scott Norwood whose missed 47-yard field goal at the end of Super Bowl XXV against the New York Giants led to four consecutive Super Bowl losses for the Bills. At least Norwood’s kick barely missed from a long distance. Cundiff’s malard wasn’t even within quacking distance from all but gimme range for a pro.

But let’s return to the matter of the Lee Evans catch/non-catch.  With slow motion replay now in place, it is possible to autopsy NFL plays to a degree which is both beyond the scope of the human eye to resolve at game speed, and at the same time, to alter almost any call beyond the comfort level of even the most die-hard fan to accept.

When dissected in super slo-mo, Evans can be seen cradling Flacco’s back-shoulder pass as he lands on his right foot, but just as his left foot is contacting the ground, the Patriot’s savior, Sterling Moore, chops the pigskin from his grasp, sending it harmlessly to the ground.  According to the NFL rule, “If a player controls the ball while in the end zone, both feet, or any part of his body other than his hands, must be completely on the ground before losing control, or the pass is incomplete.” By that reading, the replay can be whatever you want it to be.  What does “completely” mean in that context?  At what point is completely complete? And that’s the problem. Even definitive replay isn’t definitive. And don’t get me started on holding calls or pass interference, much less New England’s original gift, the Tuck Rule from the Raider’s game ten years ago which made what looked like an obvious fumble by Tom Brady somehow become an incomplete pass leading to Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning, snow-blinded 45-yard field goal which sent the Pats off to their first of three Super Bowl titles. (more…)

‘BRING BACK THE MILE’ LAUNCHES CAMPAIGN

    
     Bring Back the Mile Launches National campaign to elevate and celebrate the iconic distance.
The Mile holds a special place in Track & Field and beyond. No running distance, or field event for that matter, has the history, the appeal, the “magic” of the Mile. The first sub-4 minute mile by Great Britain’s Roger Bannister in 1954 is regarded as the greatest individual athletic achievement of the 20th century, and no other event has produced an equivalent of the sub-4 minute mile standard in the sport, in the media and in the public’s mind. Unfortunately, the Mile has lost some of its luster over the past decade, especially at the High School level where the 1600 meters is run, 9 meters short of a Mile. Today, the ‘Bring Back the Mile’ campaign is being introduced at: www.bringbackthemile.com.
Our Bring Back the Mile mission is simple: To return the Mile to prominence on the American sports and cultural landscape by elevating and celebrating the Mile to create a national movement. Visit www.bringbackthemile.com and let’s Bring Back the Mile! Thank you.
The Bring Back the Mile Support Team media@bringbackthemile.com

BLAZING FITNESS

Shellie Pfohl

Houston, Texas – Shellie Pfohl, executive director of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition addressed the attendees of the Running USA Ashworth Youth Awards Luncheon yesterday.  A dynamic speaker, Ms. Pfohl gave an impassioned presentation illustrating the vital importance of getting and keeping America’s youth active.  She acknowlegded the need for assistance in returning physical education to the nation’s schools.  Her message was clear and concise as she preached to what was essentially the choir.  Later, I met Ms. Pfohl in the lobby of the hotel, and asked about the flight of societal hurdles facing today’s children which I’d measured in a previous post WHAT DIRECTION RUNNING USA?

I concluded, “The President’s Council has been around for nearly 60 years, through 11 presidents and spent billions of dollars.  So how would you assess the overall impact of your agency in terms of the nation’s current health status?”

“I agree with everything you are saying,” she began. “But you see, that’s what everyone thinks, that we spend billions of dollars.  Do you know what our annual budget is?  $1.2 million!”

“You’re kidding? That’s it?”

No, in fact, she wasn’t kidding.  The President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, which began in 1953 under Dwight Eisenhower as a cabinet-level position, is as substantial as the Hollywood back lot western town Mel Brooks used for Blazing Saddles. It’s a facade.  Just for comparison sake, Corn Subsidies in the United States totaled $77.1 billion from 1995-2010.

Then on this morning’s USA TODAY front page I see this featured story: We Must ‘find a cure’ to Save Memories, U.S. launches war to beat Alzheimer’s by 2025”.  Yet to the left of that story, along the Newsline is the blurb, “Skip drive-thru, Burger King tries out home delivery”.

If it weren’t so tragic, I guess it would be funny.  Here we are proposing to spend a real $billion or more to combat Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia that causes progressive loss of intellectual and social skills, while at the same time we publicize home delivery of Burger King. We’ve become so busy/lazy as a society that we won’t even go out to the car and drive to the fast-food restaurant anymore?  Are they going to pre-chew that Whopper for us, too?  I’d say it’s a blessing we get Alzheimer’s; it makes us forget to just shoot ourselves.

Thousands of miles away old friend Jack Waitz is in Iten, Kenya witnessing first-hand the factory like manner in which the Kenyans from the Central Highlands continue to churn out world-class distance runners.

“Eye-opening, isn’t it, Jack,” I wrote on his Facebook page.

“For sure, there are mornings with 250!”  Meaning 250 runners gathering to train.

“It’s a numbers/talent/economic/cultural equation that seems beyond the capacity of any other nation,” I replied. “Kenya builds distance runners the way the U.S. builds diabetics.”

And, evidently, Alzheimer’s patients – though Alzheimer’s is only the sixth leading cause of death in America behind such traditional gravediggers as heart disease, cancer, and chronic lower respiratory diseases.  Good thing we have that $1.2 million from the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition working for us. That ought to help make that Alzheimer’s initiative that much more effective.

END

RACING FOR THE PODIUM IN LONDON

2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Team

Houston, Texas – The U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials are over, and the focus now turns to the Games in London in August.  The American marathon team is strong and experienced – men and women both – as good as any in recent cycles.  And while the road in London will be long and fraught, and by no means a betting probability for the Americans, the self-selected six from Houston, especially the runners-up Ryan Hall and Desi Davila, raced as if Houston was no more than a stepping stone, with the next step up the Olympic podium itself.

The legacy left by reigning Olympic Marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya, the sadly departed spiritual leader of the recent Kenyan marathon boom “I AM SAMMY WANJIRU!”, was first seen in Sammy’s seemingly reckless, but gold-medal-winning attack of the Olympic Marathon course on a warm, sunny day in Beijing 2008.  His from-the-gun blitz changed the perception of how a marathon could be run and won, just as Tanzanian Filbert Bayi’s gold medal and world record (3:32.16) at the 1500 meters in 1974 at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand still quickens the heart as the turning point in that event’s tactical evolution away from a purely sit-and-kick to an early-race surge methodology.

And so while Meb Keflezighi may have won the U.S. men’s Trials race on Saturday in a new PR 2:09:08, Ryan Hall (2nd, 2:09:30) deserves the extra star on his collar for dictating a race tactic that he knows he, Meb, and Abdi Abdirahman (3rd, 2:09:47) will most likely have to answer in London on August 12th.  Ryan predicted it would take a sub-2:10 to earn a place on the London team despite all historic evidence to the contrary – the fastest previous third place finish in an Olympic Trials Marathon was 2:10:55 by Texan Kyle Heffner in 1980.  What we didn’t know at the time was that Hall was going to lay down a 2:06-paced charge through the first 20K (60:02, 4:50/mile), instantly separating the real contenders from the hopefuls, and even putting his top echelon rivals outside their comfort zone.  Only Hall and Abdi Abdirahman had sub-2:09 personal bests coming in – and Abdi’s (2:08:56) was over three years old at that.  So while the last miles slowed as the wind and fatigue rose (31:36 final 10k, 5:03/mile), the early pacing had long since defined the outcome. (more…)

WHAT DIRECTION RUNNING USA?

Following this weekend’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston, Texas will be the annual Running USA conference set for January 15-17 at the Hyatt Regency Houston. This year’s conference theme is Passing the Torch: Running Toward the Future. The special guest speaker at Monday’s Ashworth Youth Awards Luncheon will be Shellie Pfohl – Executive Director of President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.

As Running USA is currently fashioning its own Youth Initiative, it might be instructive to look back at the history of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition as it relates to Running USA’s  Running Toward the Future efforts.

After a report raised concerns about the physical fitness of America’s children relative to their European counterparts in the early 1950s, it was President Dwight Eisenhower (not JFK as many believe) who created the President’s Council on Youth Fitness, and confirmed it via cabinet-level status. The Executive Order specified “one” objective as the first Council identified itself as a “catalytic agent” concentrating on creating public awareness. And guess who was the first chairman of the Council? None other than Vice President Richard M. Nixon! Certainly not the man anyone would think of first when fitness comes to mind.

Notwithstanding, a plan of action was developed at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1957, and the first nationwide pilot study of 8,500 boys and girls ages 5 thru 12 resulted in the first national testing program which many of us who are old enough remember quite well. (more…)

WOMEN’S TEAM COULD YIELD MEDAL THREATS

In an age where every reality has been reduced to another manufactured or processed product, where the words and actions of our elected leaders are marbled with hidden agendas and corrosive half-truths, sport seems the last vestige through which to experience an Ivory-Soap version of truth as a by-product of pure effort.

Here we are less than a week out from the 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston, Texas.  In a few short days all the hard work, all the sacrifice of the last year, or more, will be born to the starting line by men and women hoping for the stars to align with fate in an expression of human performance. It is on just such occasions that magic can happen – ask Ryan Hall – which is why sport continues to hold us unyieldingly in its thrall.

*****

Kiplagat led Kenyan sweep in Daegu

Though Kenyan women swept the podium at the IAAF World Championships Marathon last summer in Daegu, South Korea, at least one, if not more, of the U.S. women who emerge from next weekend’s Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston must still be considered a medal contender in London 2012. Which is why the women’s race may hold even greater significance in the big picture than the men’s race. There will be a fine field toeing the men’s line in Houston, but the chances of one of them standing on the Olympic podium in August is significantly less probable than their female counterparts. Here’s why.

First, the Kenyan women, though excellent, are nowhere near as dominant as their men. This, too, may change in the future, but at present the opportunities for girls to explore their individual talents in Kenya trail that of boys significantly due to still-standing cultural norms. This leaves the door ajar for women from many other nations to be in contention for Olympic Marathon medals.

Secondly, among the contenders in Houston, Deena Kastor, Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher are already proven internationalists with Olympic and World Championship hardware to prove their bona fides. Though Deena may be past her prime, the 2004 Olympic Marathon bronze medalist and American record holder has experience too vast to dismiss. She isn’t being touted to make the team, and so is playing with house money. The pressure falls on everyone else, and Kastor can race easy of mind, a big advantage in the hothouse atmosphere of a Trials. She knows how to win, how to push, how to hurt. It’s a matter of having enough training beneath her after the birth of daughter Piper Bloom last February and the fragility of her body 11 years after her debut in New York way back in 2001. Since breaking a bone in her foot 5K into the 2008 Olympic Marathon, she hasn’t been the same runner she was before. She has had a good build up, but no one has yet managed three-straight Olympic Marathon teams, nor has anyway whose career debut was eleven years-old has made an Olympic team in U.S. history.

Shalane Flanagan’s 2008 Olympic 10,000 meter bronze and her matching World Cross Country bronze from 2011 are still shiny and polished. If anyone should be considered the favorite, it’s the woman from Portland, Oregon out of Marblehead, Massachusetts and the University of North Carolina. She has the pedigree, as Dad Steve was a member of the Colorado Track Club in their 1970s glory years with Frank Shorter, and Mom Cheryl once held the women’s marathon world record. And since joining Jerry Schumacher’s  group in Portland, Oregon 2 1/2 years ago, Flanagan has rebuilt herself into more of an all-around distance runner rather than the track and cross country star she arrived as. Add on a solid second place debut in the 2010 ING New York City Marathon, and you have the recipe of a Trials favorite.

In between Kastor and Flanagan stands Flanagan’s new teammate with the Oregon Track Club, Kara Goucher. That long-time rivals would decide to join forces is a testament to the world-class goals of both women. Rather than maintain their independent fiefdoms, Goucher and Flanagan both knew they, along with training partner Lisa Uhl (nee Koll), could lift one another to the higher realms necessary to continue mining international medals.

True, Kara’s World Championships 10,000-meter bronze from Osaka 2007 carries a little more dust than Flanagan’s hardware, but her close friendship with marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe of England is a settling and inspiring influence on an athlete who brings as fierce a competitive drive to Houston as any athlete, male or female. That husband Adam announced his own retirement in recent months after chronic injuries kept him from achieving what would have been a career on par with Meb Keflizighi and any of his contemporaries, only fuels his wife’s ambitions for the family that much more.