Tampa, FL. — Certainly, I’ve been a critic over the years of the sport’s de-emphasis on competition in favor of fun-running and charity fund-raising, likening that trend to America’s de-emphasis on education in favor of grade-inflation and child buttering. Jerry Seinfeld did a great bit Tuesday night on Jimmy Fallon’s second night as Tonight Show host on this topic, saying, “when we were young our parents didn’t give a damn about us. They didn’t even know our names!”
But history isn’t linear, and pendulums have a habit of sweeping back in the other direction. Thus, a quick survey of recent moves in the sport lead to a conclusion that competition is once again being noticed, even appreciated, and highlighted.
This weekend I am here in Tampa for the return of the Gasparilla Distance Classic to the ranks of pro racing. It’s the first time Gasparilla has invited a pro field to the streets of Tampa since 1997. And its a welcome return to what traditionally had been the best field of the year during the 1980s and `90s when Gasparilla was the first race of the year and everyone was anxious to get out of the cold and into Florida for a blistering 15K burnout. This year it will be a pro half-marathon with an American based field, which I will break down after talking with the athletes as they assemble.
But Gasparilla is just one of the signs evident in this new sweep. At the governance level, USATF seems finally aware of its mandate to promote the sport, not just measure, insure, and confound it. Its CEO Max Siegel has instituted a for-profit wing, developed its first wholly owned road racing national championship property in Virginia, and via USATF.TV is looking very sharp in its track coverage (though the cross country championships in Boulder last week looked a little short on resources – Man, get a steadicam and professional drivers to cover cross country properly.)
For its part, Running USA has made a promising hire with its new CEO Rich Harshbarger, a business man with a proven track record in the challenging world of print journalism who also turned around the Detroit Free Press Marathon when given that portfolio. Could he be the man who finally consolidates running’s vast network of individual components into a viable national entity? That’s certainly the challenge and opportunity.
Of course, the Competitor Group’s sudden turnaround regarding elite competition, after their just as abrupt pull-out last September, is a most welcome return, as well as a testament to SVP Tracy Sundlun’s persistence,determination, and commitment to the sport. (Note: Bernard Lagat signs up for the Carlsbad 5000)
Yet another promising development is Global Athletics & Marketing’s Rich Kenah’s move to head up the Atlanta Track Club after former ATC executive director Tracey Russell took the top spot at the Los Angeles Marathon LLC last summer. Kenah’s heavy track background, from his days at Georgetown to his bronze medals at the 1997 IAAF World Championships, indoor and out, to his role in putting on major track & field meets and representing pro athletes, points to a promising push in re-emphasizing competition not just participation at one of America’s premier track clubs.
With Brooks and Saucony coming back into the pro athlete game with renewed dedication, New Balance hiring Coach Mark Coogan, the Boston Athletic Association taking on Coach Terrence Mahon to reignite the unicorn logo, and new track clubs like Northern Arizona Elite and Furman Elite budding up across the nation, and the momentum is undeniable.
Could it be because American athletes are once again becoming competitive in the distance events? Could be. There was a lot written this past week about Alan Webb’s retirement to move to triathlon. Webb, along with fellow millenials Dathan Ritzenhein and Ryan Hall gave their entire generation the belief that they could compete against the best in the world, and maybe even make a decent living doing so. This past year the running success of Chris Derrick, Ben True, Mary Cain, Brenda Martinez, and most recently Ryan Hill give testimony to that belief.
Running and track are games of momentum, with one good training session atop another, week in and week out, eventually leading to racing success. It takes time, but it’s also why the payoff carries such satisfaction. All of the above indicates that the accumulation toward a re-emphasis on racing seems to be gaining just that kind of momentum. Let’s see how quickly that pendulum can cut on the downswing.