Boston, Ma. — Had a nice sit down with old friend and Nike Oregon Project coach Al Salazar today after hosting the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix press conference at the Lenox Hotel. Al , who grew up in suburban Wayland, Mass., has Galen Rupp racing the one-mile tomorrow, while Bronxville, N.Y. high school sensation Mary Cain will go in the 1000 meters. Both athletes have already had great success this indoor season with Galen taking down two American records — the 5000m (13:01.26) and the two-mile (8:07.41), both at Boston University in January – and Mary knocking down the world junior record in the 1000m January 17th (2:39.25), then barely missing the world junior mark in the mile January 24th at the B.U. Terrier Invitational by 1/100th of a second in 4:24.11.
Galen had originally planned to take a shot at Hicham El Guerrouj’s indoor world mile record of 3:48.45 at B.U. tomorrow as the NBIGP was being run at the Reggie Lewis Center on the campus of Roxbury Community College, but after the two-mile record and 4 X one-mile workout that followed 45 minutes later (4:20, 4:20, 4:16, 4:01!) they thought better of it.
“It came down to realizing that the travel and effort for these record attempts was taking a toll,” Al said. “And doing another one was too close.”
Thus, Galen will work on his racing tactics instead against a field that includes two Olympic 1500m silver medalists, New Zealand’s Nick Willis (2008) and American Leo Manzano (2012), as all three sharpen for the March 7 -9th IAAF World Indoor Championships in Sopot, Poland.
My first question for Al, was Galen on the cusp of being too sharp after his 5000 and two-mile records?
“There’s an old quote, which I’m paraphrasing, but that says, ‘If you follow conventional wisdom, you’ll become very average.’ I’ve been with Galen for 14 years. In that time he hasn’t averaged one day off per year that hasn’t been planned. I’m counting time on the Alter G as alternative training, too. But even in high school as a freshman and sophomore he had a capacity not to get injured. All that micro-trauma from training he has the capacity to regenerate. Our head physical therapist and strength coach works with a lot of other people, and he says he’s never seen anyone heal as fast. Then you have someone like Dathan (Ritzenhein) and something always seems to derail him. You can look at talent a lot of different ways. Staying uninjured is a talent in itself. You don’t lose chunks of training, so you can improve year to year.”
Two years ago Galen ran 3:34 indoors for 1500 meters, the equivalent of a 3:51 mile. Last year he dipped under 3:51 with a 3:50.92 indoor mile. One year later he’s running records at two miles and 5000 meters.
“We use a two peak per year system,” went on Al. “What we do indoors is the same as what we do outdoors, except we don’t train for the 10,000 meters indoors. But basically the way I look at it, being with Galen 14 years, I’ve had 28 season attempts to refine his program. Others look for a single peak per year. Doing two peaks we continue to build up season upon season, year upon year.”
Asked what 17 year-old Mary Cain’s chief attribute is, Al stayed in the same lane.
“Except for a random illness, she has only missed four days running after U.S. outdoors last year. She strained a thigh in early July. Maybe it was only three days. There have been times when I ‘d have her on the way to the doctor for an MRI, and realized, ‘I’m panicking’. Let’s see how she feels tomorrow and the next day, and she’s always been fine.”
Last year Al made a big deal about Mary’s ungainly running form, MARY CAIN – CHIN UP, SHOULDERS BACK, CAN’T LOSE,– and on the advice of his daughter Maria, who is a horse person, put Mary into a back brace horseback riders use to assist with their posture in the saddle. So how does he assess that work one year later?
“If you look at film and compare her center of gravity, you see that her hips are above her knee and foot strike. She’s not braking anymore. Her left elbow still tends to swing out, so we are working with the Nike lab to make a strap to keep it down.”
With five U.S. junior and seven high school records on her resume, I wondered if Mary was ahead of whatever schedule Al had considered when he first took her on in 2012.
“There really isn’t any strict schedule. It’s more in terms of what we are trying to change on her. No way she is a complete athlete yet.”
“No huge changes with Galen, just constant refinement. We tested him Monday after the two-mile record. We run him on a special treadmill that measures stride length, ground contact time, and foot plant force. We test at the same speed as before, and this time his ground contact time on each foot was exactly the same. His stride length was off from one side to the other by 3%, but that was due to a slight swelling in his right knee after the two-mile and long run that followed the next day. But his overall stride length was 3% greater than it was last year. And his flight time, time in the air, is also less, while his trajectory is more linear, more applied to forward motion. Those three components, stride length, ground contact, and foot plant force, equal velocity. So the same workload is now more efficient, and that’s why he’s faster. Hard workouts work on the engine, but we work on refining the chassis, too.”
This scientific analysis of stride is something I learned about first-hand from Pegasus Sports Performance which took similar measuring technology into the field in Kenya in 2012. Working with then marathon world record holder Patrick Makau, we tested his stride efficiency on a 25 km fartlek session on the Masai Land Road outside Ngong, Kenya. There we discovered a marked asymmetry in Makau’s stride, and since then, he has come down injured and been off his game.
“We need more science,” believes Salazar. “It’s our only chance against the Kenyans, whose strength is in numbers. If you have a great baseball hitter who doesn’t constantly work on his swing, his swing will change, and likely not for the better. The more you do something, the more the body has to adjust.”
Finally, I asked Al about his other star pupil Mo Farah, who is in Iten, Kenya prepping for April’s Virgin London Marathon, his debut at the long distance.
“He’s doing great. He did his longest run ever recently, 27 miles. Mo is a tactical genius. Galen needs to learn that from him. But if both were fresh, I think Galen is actually faster than Mo, slightly. The difference is Mo is stronger than Galen. So I’m glad they are three years apart, because as Mo moves up to the marathon, Galen will be hitting his peak on the track.”
The goals for all three of Alberto’s athletes now isn’t just to run fast, that they can do. Now is the time for winning to take precedence. Mo has that down pat on the track with his double golds at the World and Olympic Games. Can he now translate his winning ways to the marathon?
Galen’s goal last year at the NBIGP was to win, and he got beat in the 3000 by Hagos Gebrhiwet, whose 7:32.87 was a world junior record. Hagos will defend that title tomorrow against another loaded field. In 2013 Mary smashed the U.S. high school two-mile mark by 17 seconds at the Reggie 200m oval, but she took third place behind Ethiopian superstar Tirunesh Dibaba and Canadian Olympian Sheila Reed.
“When I’m in school I’m Academic Mary,” she said during the presser discussing her double life as highs school senior and world class athlete. “When I’m here I’m Athletic Mary. I like only running 5 laps (1000m), because it’s like a long 800 with that one extra lap. When I was a freshman we’d run the 1000 at the indoor state meet, but the mile is still my favorite event.”
It’s a new year, with new goals — Mary said she still might take the Latin AP (Advanced Placement) test — “I don’t know if I’ll get a 5 or a 1” — but for coach Salazar the flame burns just as brightly as ever. Watch the meet tomorrow live on NBC Sports channel beginning at 4:30 p.m. Eastern time. Tune in to USATF.tv before and after (6:00 p.m.) the meet for earlier meet races and a post-meet Cool Down show.