BILL RODGERS: SPEAKING OF ALTITUDE

Moses Mosop wins Xiamen 2015 (Jiang Kehong photo)

Moses Mosop wins Xiamen 2015 (Jiang Kehong photo)

The 2015 marathon year began where 2014 left off with Kenyans and Ethiopians sweeping the top places at the Xiamen Marathon in China. Moses Mosop, the big-engine Kenyan who had such an explosive 2011 campaign — but who had been beset by injury and personal issues in the last few years — returned to form in Xiamen with a course record 2:06:19 win.
2 Tilahun Regassa (ETH) 2:06:54
3 Abrha Milaw (ETH) 2:08:09
4 Robert Kwambai (KEN) 2:08:18
5 Tadese Tola (ETH) 2:10:30

Mare Dibaba goes sub-2:20 in Xiamen (Jiang Dehong photo)

Mare Dibaba goes sub-2:20 in Xiamen (Jiang Kehong photo)

On the women’s side, Ethiopia’s Mare Dibaba continued her success from 2014 when she also began the year with a win in Xiamen before showing third in Boston then placing second in Chicago — though those places will likely move up one notch once the Rita Jeptoo drug positive has been adjudicated. Dibaba went 2:19:52 in Xiamen yesterday to destroy her competition & post the event’s first female sub-2:20.

1 Mare Dibaba (ETH) 2:19:52
2 Meseret Legesse (ETH) 2:27:38
3 Meriem Wangari (KEN) 2:27:53
4 Meseret Godana (ETH) 2:36:11
5 Cao Mojie (CHN) 2:43:06

At the end of 2014 I posted my analysis of the marathoning year.  Yesterday, I received a response from my old friend and oft-time running partner Bill Rodgers, the four-time Boston and New York City Marathon champion from the 1970s. Since I only lived two blocks from Bill’s old running center shop in Boston in those days, I would often tag along on Bill’s second run of the day as we spun the miles of Jamaica Pond beneath us in both foul weather and fair. Often during those runs we would discuss exactly the issues that continue to animate the sport to this day. With Bill’s permission, here is how yesterday’s back-and-forth went.

*

Winning in Boston 1978

1978: Rodgers Thrilling the Crowd On the Way to the second of his four Boston titles

BR: Hi Toni. I read your blog about 2014 marathoning. Interesting story about 95 of top 100 men marathoners being from Kenya and Ethiopia, and about the other marathoners in the top 100 from Qatar and Bahrain who were really born at altitude in Ethiopia and Kenya. You also mentioned Meb and Mo Farah. Wondering if both Meb and Farah were born at altitude? Amby Burfoot (1968 Boston Marathon champion) agrees with me that all winners of major marathons in all countries will be immigrants from high altitude.

Toni, it’s a bit cold here, but no snow. Wonder when USATF will make New England and Midwest national training centers for our distance runners? Happy New Year to you and Toya!

Bill

TR: Belated happy birthday, Bill, and Happy New Year from Toya and me.  67. Wow! We are old dudes now for sure!

(Bill was born 23 December 1947. I followed a little over a week later on January 2, 1948. It was the Baby Boom, don’t you know, and the folks were spitting us out like watermelon seeds on a hot summer’s day.)

I just did the math. Of the top 100 marathon times in history, only Khalid Khannouchi‘s 2:05:42 world record in Chicago in `99 comes from before the year 2000!  And 49 of the fastest 100 have been run in the last three years alone. Of those 100, 62 come from Kenya, 33 from Ethiopia, 4 from Morocco (including the two from Khalid, though his 2:05:38 record in London `02 was as a U.S. citizen). Only Ryan Hall‘s 2:04:58 in Boston 2011 – though disputed due to Boston’s downhill course — breaks into the top 100 from outside those other nations.

Is it all real?  I know it is killing interest in the sport as the public, and even back-of-the-packers, have completely lost interest.  Not sure what the solution may be.  Just glad we were around for the opening thunder of the boom.

BTW, Meb was born in Asmara, Eritrea, which lies at 7600’ (2325m).  Mo hails from Mogadishu, Somalia, which sits on the coast of the Indian Ocean, so truly a sea-level lad.

Hope all is well with you. See you in April if not before.

Toni

BR: Should altitude issue be addressed, especially since 99% of world is sea-level born? I categorize runners by sea-level versus sea-level and altitude-born vs altitude-born. I have always thought altitude-born athletes only needed that extra factor to defeat all sea-level born. To take home the money perhaps there has been some significant drug use by altitude-born. Interesting that no significant journalism exploring these issues has come from America as it was Germans who explored Russian and Kenyan cheating.

TR: Interesting suggestion to separate sea-level born from altitude-born.  I recall Sev telling me years ago how bodybuilding distinguishes between drug-free and drug-enhanced competitions using polygraph and urinalysis testing. I have gone over the IAAF lists from the last three years and the all-time list for the marathon.

In 2014 top sea-level born was Kohei Matsumura of Japan at #86 with 2:08:09
In 2013                                          Kazuhiro Maeda of Japan at # 62 with 2:08:00
In 2012                                          Henryk Szost of Poland at # 70 with 2:07:39

On the all-time IAAF list, the Top 10 non- high altitude performances with all-time rank ( ) are:

  1. (#64) – 2:05:27 – Jaouad Gharib  – MAR – 3rd, London `09 (born at 2752’ altitude)
  2. (#68) – 2:05:30 – Abderrahim Goumri – MAR – 3rd, London `08 (born at 148’)
  3. (#75) – 2:05:38 – Khalid Khannouchi  – USA – 1st, London `02 (born at 1837’)
  4. (#83) – 2:05:42 – Khalid Khannouchgi – MAR – 1st, Chicago `99
  5. (#101) – 2:05:56 – Khalid Khannouchi – USA – 1st, Chicago `02
  6. (#107) – 2:06:04 – Abderrahim Goumri – MAR – 2nd, Chicago `09
  7. (#109) – 2:06:05 – Ronaldo Da Costa – BRA – 1st, Berlin `98 (born at 3123’)
  8. ( #136) – 2:06:16 – Toshinari Takaoka – JPN – 3rd, Chicago `03 (born at sea level)
  9. (#180) – 2:06:33 – Gert Thys – RSA – 1st, Tokyo `99 (born at 3054’)
  10. (#186) – 2:06:34 – Marilson Dos Santos – BRA – 4th, Lond `11 (born at 3895’)

Ryan Hall has that 2:04:58 fourth place at Boston 2011, and also ran a 2:06:17 fifth place in London 2008.  But Ryan was born in Big Bear, California at 6,750 feet (2,060 m) altitude, so he should be counted on the altitude-born side.

The all-time Top 10 high altitude-born performances are:

1. 2:02:57 Dennis Kipruto Kimetto 22 JAN 1984 1 Berlin  28 SEP 2014
2. 2:03:13 Emmanuel Kipchirchir Mutai 12 OCT 1984 2 Berlin  28 SEP 2014
3. 2:03:23 Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich 15 MAR 1982 1 Berlin  29 SEP 2013
4. 2:03:38 Patrick Makau Musyoki 2 MAR 1985 1 Berlin  25 SEP 2011
5. 2:03:42 Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich 15 MAR 1982 1 Frankfurt  30 OCT 2011
6. 2:03:45 Dennis Kipruto Kimetto 22 JAN 1984 1 Chicago  13 OCT 2013
7. 2:03:52 Emmanuel Kipchirchir Mutai 12 OCT 1984 2 Chicago  13 OCT 2013
8. 2:03:59 Haile Gebrselassie 18 APR 1973 1 Berlin  28 SEP 2008
9. 2:04:05 Eliud Kipchoge 5 NOV 1984 2 Berlin  29 SEP 2013
10. 2:04:11 Eliud Kipchoge 5 NOV 1984 1 Chicago  12 OCT 2014

As we can see, the Top 10 altitude-born times are essentially all in the 2:03s, while the Top 10 non, or lesser altitude-born times range from 2:05:30 to 2:06:30.  The difference between a 2:06 and a 2:03 is 2.38%.  Represented in distance over the marathon span this would amount to .62 miles, or about one kilometer. The difference between the altitude-born world record and sea-level born is a little less at 2%, but we see the essential difference.

Is it your belief that we should separate altitude-born from sea-level born into distinct competitions?  Or should we handicap the race in terms of time and/or distance between the altitude-born and the sea-level born?  Would make for an interesting argument.  But at what altitude would we draw the line?  Ronaldo Da Costa was born in Descoberto, Brazil which is listed at 3123 feet altitude. Jaouad Gharib was born in Kherifa, Morocco, which lies at 2752′ (834m). So it starts to get a little squirrely when we try to draw the line that differentiates what constitutes altitude. This is the kind of stuff we used to brainstorm on those laps of J.P.

TR

Winter at Jamaica Pond in Boston

Winter at Jamaica Pond in Boston

BR: I think your latter suggestion is best. We need a Ross Tucker type (Science of Sport), or group of them, to give us their input. What is the EXTRA time EPO gives a sea-level born marathoner and an altitude-born marathoner? Is it a 5% factor? Fun to speculate. I have noticed altitude-born athletes run that much slower at altitude. Was Ryan Hall born at altitude, or raised just raised there? I make a distinction between multiple-generations at altitude versus one generation.

TR: Ryan was born in Washington State and raised in Big Bear, California at over 6700 feet.  But, as you say, multi-generational adaptation – both in terms of cardio- vascular and musculoskeletal development, as well as lifestyle and cultural norms — would logically seem more beneficial than say Shalane Flanagan being born in Boulder, Colorado, but spending the majority of her formative years in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

I did a quick check of the sprinters.  The gaps there are even more pronounced than at the distances. The first man on the 100 meter all-time world list from what we might consider a distance-oriented nation is Aziz Ouhadi of Morocco.  He ran a 10.09 100m in Dakar 2011. That puts him at # 1046 on the all-time world list!

There are no Kenyans or Ethiopians anywhere near world-class at the sprint end of the spectrum. In fact, the Kenyan national 100m record is only 10.26 (Tom Musinde, 18 July 2007 in Algiers), while the Ethiopian record is even softer at 10.61 (Wetere Galcha, 30 April 2008, Addis Ababa).  Also, the first non-Jamaican or USA runner on that list is Trinidad & Tobago’s Richard Thompson at # 52 with a 9.82. The first runner from non-African lineage on the 100m list is France’s Christophe Lemaitre at # 247 at 9.92.

As we can see, the polarization of the sport is now complete. And that is part of what makes track difficult to market world-wide on an individual athlete basis. There just aren’t enough fan-based emotional connections when all the top sprinters are Jamaican and American, while all the great distance runners are Kenyan and Ethiopian.

BR: Maybe soccer is the one global sport where birthplace does not lead to domination; doesn’t matter if you are born at altitude. Maybe the altitude issue within marathoning needs a wider discussion. But perhaps leadership such as race directors of the World Marathon Majors, agents, coaches and doctors should give their thoughts since they control the sport at the top end.

*

And so it goes. The road never ends, the discussion continues. Thanks to Bill for his on-going contributions, and congratulations to Moses Mosop and Mare Dibaba on their Xiamen wins as we remember that altitude, for whatever advantage it may grant, will never substitute for the enormous amount of work that goes into maximizing an athlete’s potential.

END

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33 thoughts on “BILL RODGERS: SPEAKING OF ALTITUDE

  1. Toni, belated Happy New Year and belated Happy Birthday to you.

    Wow! My head is spinning thinking about all of this! I think I’m going to need to digest everything here before commenting further…

  2. Good article but the reasoning is incomplete- If Altitude is king, why aren’t there world beaters coming from the Rocky Mountains or just about any S. American country? Look at the economics, poverty and culture to gain a better cause for mind bending performances. Also, I find the races exciting ( must be the only one)- improvement in coverage, such as using constant graphics to show actual speed and more side views (easier to see real leg speed) and fewer front views.

  3. Picking a nit here, but Khalid Khannouchi was born in Meknes, Morocco which is at 1,800′. This doesn’t change the altitude vs sea level argument, but he should be added to your list of top 10 not born at altitude

  4. When we look at this analysis altitude born v. Sea level born we see the apparent advantages of the altitude born and a contributing reason for this juggernaut of athletes runners from east Africa.

    But…have we not stopped really trying to excel? We have less depth of performance in the US and Europe than we did 30 years ago. In 1984 the Qualifying time for the OT was 2:19 and over 100 runners qualified. If we were progressing as we should that time would now be 2:15 and we would still have over 100 runners qualifying.

    From that group we would have a dozen under 2:10 and a number under 2:08, 2:07 etc.

    We may never match the east African altitude born but we should have 25 of the top 100 best performers.

    • Hodgey,

      I think part of the problem is that without the hope of being #1, fewer potential talents go into the sport or stay in it in the first place. Throughout the 1970s Shorter and Rodgers dominated the world marathon rankings. That motivated an entire generation, cause Frank and Billy showed what was possible.

      I recall Alberto saying how he and Rudy Chapa used to wake up every morning in Eugene ready to train to be the best in the world. And even though they were competing against guys like Henry Rono and Suleiman Nyambui, there wasn’t the enormous depth of East African talent involved then as there is today. Do any American distance runners outside Galen Rupp wake up thinking they can be world No. 1? The lack of role models has a debilitating effect on the culture of running.

      Look how neither of Alberto’s boys went into running. Also, Bruce Bickford’s son chose soccer over running, even though dad was the last U.S. runner to be ranked No. 1 in the world for 10,000m in 1985 (before Galen Rupp this year).

      Success breeds success, but the obverse is also true.

      TR

  5. No hope of being numero uno? Hope springs eternal Toni! We can put ourselves in a much better position. It is sad that we have for the most part, stopped trying, we can do much better.

    • Hodgey,

      If the brass ring is perceived as being beyond one’s reach, it is difficult to muster the resources necessary to go after it. I think we have seen evidence of this world-wide over the last decade.

  6. Toni,
    Long time reader and listener of your commentaries, and surely appreciate your contribution – it has always been so cool to have a knowledgeable person doing the live “play-by-play” on a major marathon broadcast. Have to agree with Bob Hodge: Where have they all gone? Look at the sub-2:30 marathoners in the early ’80s – especially Boston. It’s downright eerie. I still have old copies of RW and Running Times, and there you see the articles and letters addressing training protocols – far different from today. I’m on my third read of Bill’s Marathon Man; who trains like that today? …w/out the technology but immersed in the mileage and committed to the goal – precluding agents and money incentives? Bob H. has Bill’s logs on his site. Incredible reading, especially considering it’s in addition to a 40 hour week as a teacher. Is there a Kenyan who works 40+ hours a week? …while training 100+ miles? I guess I’m trying to say altitude didn’t contribute to Bill’s success, or Carlos Lopes, or Dick Beardsley, or Greg Meyer, etc. And most of these guys worked full-time alongside training. What could Bill have done if he was financially and medically supported? As a 63 year old has-been, I can say that back in the 70s, I was psyched and motivated by these guys of the GBTC and their like. They trained and raced like animals. Totally admirable and cool. (And by the way, Ryan Hall was born at altitude, too – Big Bear Lake is around 7K+ feet.)
    Again, thanks so much for your writings and commentaries over the decades.

    • Ken,

      Appreciate the reply. Bill and Frank, et al, trained hard in part because they could project being number one. Without that motivation would they have dedicated themselves to that same level if they were in the sport today?

  7. Toni, I’ve been enjoying your thoughts and excitement for a long time- it is much needed for the sport. Being a little younger than you and Bill, yet I’ve been running since 1967, I follow the sport almost like I used to follow Maris, Mantle, Berra , Ted Williams, Warren Spann, Mays and Mc Covey. The problem seems to be not with where we are all born but if running is on par with cycling ! As much as I hate to even think it, I’m leaning more and more with Frank Shorter on all of it. Why spend a second wanting to watch cycling, especially the Tour ! I get real excited with all of the great times that are being produced but it seems to be getting out of control. Would Bill or Meyer or Ron Tabb have run that much faster in a race with these guys in the field today, if they were in their prime today? Meaning, would their 2:09’s translate into 2:07’s or faster? I’d like to hear your thoughts on that. And by the way— totally enjoyed your play by play of Sammy’s last win at Chicago, the Ali – Fraizer one ! Thanks !

    • John,
      Thanks for the reply. I think the top guys of yesteryear would see a two-minute or so improvement in their times if they were racing today. Frank Shorter never ran the marathon time his talent suggested, because it wasn’t needed. With today’s training and competition those top guys would have produced much faster times, but would they even be in the sport, given how far ahead the East Africans would still be?

  8. Please forgive my lack of brevity. I had mixed feelings, but after chewing on this topic for a couple of days, they’ve finally coalesced. While my thoughts are somewhat disparate, I hope that anyone reading can put them together to get my overall gist.

    While I initially agreed with Bill’s suggestion that the altitude issue might need to be looked into, after reading some of the other comments, I’ve pulled away from that position.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Ken’s comments, particularly when speculating about what our running legends from 30 years ago could potentially do nowadays given modern training methods, financial support, and today’s competition, not to mention subtracting a 40 hour work week.

    Most of all, though, I have to agree with Bob Hodge’s comments and feelings.

    Just as I had commented on one of your previous posts (citing results from the 2014 Falmouth Road Race), the overall quality of fields is so much lower these days.

    Remember when you had to break 2:50 to qualify for Boston? I do, and I (and thousands of others) did it every year without asking the organizers to make it “easier.” Just imagine if they re-implemented that standard for 2015!

    I truly agree with Bob in that a lot of people have stopped trying. This ties together so many of our previous conversations and blog posts, not the least of which is the “completing” versus “competing” mentality. Additionally, should sea level born just “give up?”

    Please let me cite one (admittedly non-marathon) example of what I’m talking about, specifically in regard to Bill’s thoughts about sea level versus altitude born.

    Alberto Salazar (born in Cuba, raised in Massachusetts) won the Falmouth Road race in 1981 in a course record time of 31:55. He followed up that victory in 1982 with a new course record of 31:53.

    No one else broke 32:00 until Kenyan Benson Masya (10 years later, in 1992). In the 32 races that have been run since Salazar’s second victory, the winning time has fluctuated between the course record of 31:08 (set by Kenyan Gilbert Okari in 2004) and 32:30. Either one of Salazar’s winning times would have won 22 of those 32 races contested since 1982.

    Of the ten races that Alberto’s times wouldn’t have won outright, eight were faster, and two were equal to his 31:53. So in 32 years, only eight performances have topped his; six by Kenyans, one by an Ethiopian, and one by Khalid Khannouchi (still a citizen of Morocco) in 1998.

    Has there been improvement in the course record over the three-plus decades? Yes. Has it been by an amount insurmountable by sea level born? I think not!

    One might say, “Well, this is a 7 mile race, and not a marathon, which is the distance this conversation started with.”

    To which I would reply, “If we do commence with handicapping or having separate divisions for altitude born and sea level born, then at what distance do they start?” (Not too dissimilar from your question; “But at what altitude would we draw the line?”) It would also raise the question of if we should then handicap or have separate divisions for sprinters.

    If my diatribe were to cause someone to then say, “Distance doesn’t matter.”, then I would say, “Checkmate!”

    • Brian, thanks for the well considered reply. I don’t think Bill is serious about separating altitude-born from sea-level born, cause where would you draw the line? But it is hard to take an outlier like Alberto Salazar and make a generalization based on his performances. We could say the same thing for guys like Galen Rupp and Ben True today.

      What we see is very few sub-2:07 marathons ever run by athletes not born at altitude. So the question is, what do we glean from that evidence? One thing we can see is that fewer and fewer people from countries that previously developed distance talent (Italy, Portugal, Mexico, England, Ireland, Norway, Finland, Russia, etc.) are now even playing the game anymore. The talent might still be there, but the chances for success they perceive based on the rewards available and the level of competition they would have to beat has halted their attempts to enter. Look how IAAF killed cross country when fewer and fewer nations sent athletes after Kenya and Ethiopia dominated for 20+ years.

  9. Two corrections Tony:

    1. Ryan Hall was born in Kirkland, Washington, at sea level.
    2. In 2012 the fastest “non-altitude” performer was Patrick Tambwe (2:07:30), a Congo-born Frenchman.

    Great article!

  10. You know, back in the day I had little hope of beating Billy, or Greg, or Alberto in a marathon or Henry Rono in a 10K. But…I had a good try at it and it was quite a good running life when I was young. There are some very good young American runners Ben True being one and I believe they can inspire others. That is our best hope to rejuvenate our athletics in this country.

    • Yes, but you were already involved in the sport with Bill, Greg, Alberto and Henry. So you were towed to better performances. Ben True is a real talent, as is Molly Huddle. The top echelon will always have its representatives. What’s missing are the former hordes of 2:13 – 2:18 guys out of which came the depth. In Kenya and Ethiopia it remains a numbers game. The more ore you pour into the hopper, the better chances for gold nuggets out the back end.

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  12. Brian Baker’s comment about the long past 2:50 standard for Boston(3:10 for everyone over forty) reminds me of experiences that showed how the pool of serious weekend warriors has waned in the last thirty years, a reflection of the vanishing inspiration that was provided by the stars in the Rodgers running boom era.

    There may be more marathon participants but race results show that more people view the experience as a bucket list item.

    In the early eighties, I completed a marathon in 3:03 at a fairly large marathon in the midwest which was good for 450th place overall.

    I ran the same race 25 years later near fifty years of age in approx. the same time and finished fortieth overall in a field of similar size. Where have all the younger runners gone?

    Colleges are axing running teams(Title IX), natural runners are playing soccer, electronic toys are not very compatible with youngsters training hard and consistently, and the snacking at the screen doesn’t help. Even Dave Wottle’s college was planning on cutting track and cross country.

    • A telling stat, to be sure. At the 1983 Boston Marathon, Tommy Ratcliffe (now a well-regarded athlete agent and manager) ran his debut in 2:19:50s, and came in 87th (I think). And 83 of those ahead of him were Americans, too. Last year I counted 61 American performances (not performers) at 2:18:00 or better. And that was at all marathons, not one. Now, Boston `83 was a special year, no doubt, but your point about depth is quite apparent across the board. People don’t push themselves as they once did.
      TR

  13. Could it be that in the “old days”, nobody ran for time? They ran to win. No pacers, no specialized courses with prize money for records (think Berlin or London) and the glory came from the victory not the time. Now it seems that the perfect day (e.g. weather, wind, temp) is just as much needed for fast times as the science of training. The athletes today are not necessarily “better”, but rather have a much different mindset in their approach. Everyone knew NYC wasn’t a record breaking day, but was also arguably the most exciting finish of the year.

    • Steve,

      There was a definite run for time mentality back in the day. When the winner broke free he would usually cruise in the rest of the way. Today’s marathoners are defined by their PRs, so that’s what they try for each time out. Thanks for reading.

  14. Would anyone like to include thoughts on Paula Radcliffe in this discussion? As an Englishman I can assure we have nowhere at altitude!

    • Martin,

      Thanks for replying. There are often some values among a sampling set that appear not closely compatible with the rest, i.e. Paula’s marathon record. This is what we might call an extreme value or simply an outlier.

      Paula’s 2:15:25 (London `03) is 2.5% better than the next best legitimate performer on the IAAF all-time women’s marathon list (Mary Keitany – 2:18:37, London 2012. I am not counting Shobukhova’s 2:18:20 from Chicago `11 due to her PED ban).

      Dealing with outliers in data analysis has always presented a challenge. There are several approaches used to solve the problem. One is to move the outlier to a separated set, another is replace it with nearest values from non-outlier set.

      Since we have no reason to doubt the veracity of Paula’s performances, I would suggest the presence of a single outlier proves the validity of the rule rather than negates it. When we add the variables of weather and pacing (even though Paula has always claimed the Kenyan guys with her that day played no role in her race) we can still attribute some of Paula’s separation to the variability of the conditions on that particular day. Marathoning isn’t staged in a lab setting.

      We see the scoring of Olympic diving take outliers into account by removing the high and low scores from the judging panel before averaging those remaining to create the score for the dive.

      The fact that it is an English woman who exists as the marathon outlier is strong evidence that she is the true outlier. Paula has seven times faster than GBR’s second fastest woman marathoner,
      Mara Yamauchi who ran 2:23:12 in London 26 APR 2009.

      In any case, thanks for reading.

      Toni

      • Also found out that Paula has big-time Max VO2 by women’s standard, and despite her head-bobbing, she has very efficient running form. Taken together, she’s atop the heap by a fair margin.

  15. Altitude or not, none of these guys will ever play in the NFL or NBA. Self selection isn’t always determined by enjoyment of the sport. Let’s celebrate accomplished athletes that don’t cheat their way to the top, look for ways to best them and celebrate the times we do! Or we can all move our families to the Rift Valley and wait a few generations. Just kidding Wayne.

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