After a decade long assault, the sport of athletics hit the sweet spot with its dopamine release on 6 May 1954 at Iffley Road track in Oxford, England. It was on that steel gray day that Roger Bannister broke the 4:00 barrier in the mile. Paced by Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, Bannister’s Everestian effort hooked the sport on sweet time, and it has been dependent on its pace suppliers ever since.
At each IAAF Diamond League meeting, every event over 400 meters is a paced affair as time is the primary goal. Yet come the World Championships or Olympics, where pacing is removed and rounds are conducted to earn a place in the medal round, we tend to see wildly imbalanced racing efforts. In part, because the pressure is different. It isn’t can or can’t you, rather what and when you. No just raw horsepower, but tactical control of that power. We all know how to run. But we have to learn how to race.
Today, we learn that the B.A. Chicago Marathon has decided to end its dependence on pacers, joining Boston and New York City among the Abbott World Marathon Majors in the non-paced category.
“The thing with this is we try to set up a world record every year,” said long-time race director Carey Pinkowski, “but we never get close. It (pacing) is like a prop. So get rid of the prop. It’s a race. So if they go out at six minute pace, so what?”
Since Steve Jones broke the marathon world record in Chicago in 1984 at 2:08:05, then just missed the new mark in `85 by one second (2:07:13), Chicago has been known for fast times. Khalid Khannouchi set a world record in Chicago 1999 at 2:05:42, but that was the last men’s mark to fall in Chi-town.
Kenya’s Catherine Ndereba posted her 2:18:47 women’s world best in 2001 in the Second City, and Paula Radcliffe blitzed her own savage 2:17:18 there the following year. But Berlin has dominated the men’s marathon record book in the 21st century, producing the last six marks on the German capital’s two-loop course with its phalanx of pacers leading the way.
So, too, has London been a pace-heavy marathon. Paula Radcliffe’s other-worldy 2:15:25 in 2003 was bracketed by a pair of Kenyan men. And Khannouchi set his final world mark (and standing U.S. record) in London 2002 (2:05:38) in a memorable three man tussle against Kenya’s former record holder Paul Tergat and the debuting Ethiopian track emporer Haile Gebrselassie. Even when Britain’s favorite track son Mo Farah made his marathon debut in London 2014, rather than setting the event up as a pure competition, which would have played to Mo’s strengths as a racer, the London brain trust paced the race, dropping their hometown hero off the back and making him a non-factor. Brilliant.
I made the case against pacers to ex-NYRR prez Mary Wittenberg more than a decade ago after having ridden in the lead vehicle calling the race for TV, often twiddling my thumbs till the real racing began.
“Look what you are telling your audience,” I said. “The general public doesn’t know who these racers are in the first place. They have never heard of them. And now you’re telling the audience, ‘we promise nothing will happen in the first half. So come watch our show.’
There is an old TV adage that says you have to answer the question, ‘why are they watching?’ before you even decide to put anything on air.
“It’s hard enough just getting these things on TV,” confirms Chicago’s Pinkowski.
What that admission translates into is making a series of compromises just to convince the local broadcaster to air your event at all. That, in turn, means the local station will use their own personnel as hosts and reporters along the course, people who don’t follow the sport, understand its nuances, or think of it as exciting. In fact, they look at the actual race as boring. Guess what?
With a bunch of anonymous, interchangeable athletes leading the charge, athletes absolutely nobody in the local community has any knowledge of or interest in, is it any surprise when the coverage does everything to mitigate that endless march for as long as it can?
Instead of meaningful rivalries and compelling stakes, marathon audiences get neighborhood travelogues being shown to people who live in those neighborhoods, or, charity fund-raising features that harken to the smarmy days of the Jerry Lewis Telethon.
And except when the final of the World Marathon Majors fortuitously comes down to a mano a mano battle, as it did in Chicago 2010 when Kenya’s Sammy Wanjiru memorably out-dueled Ethiopia’s Tsegay Kebede for the $500,000 first prize, the stakes are so meager by professional sporting standards, that to mention the money is to underscore how nickel and dime running is. But that, too, is a consequence of every event building its purse from a local economic base.
I had one road race director lament to me this summer, “I need a national sponsor.” To which I said, “Well, you need a national product.”
There are folks who are trying to address racing’s spectator problem. This year Atlanta’s mega AJC Peachtree Road Race on July 4th instituted the Peachtree Cup, a new team-based racing format pitting teams from the USA, Africa, Europe and Asia. It was a good experiment, but got trumped in the public eye when the UK’s Scott Overall came with a final steps rush to overtake the USA’s Ben Payne at the finish of the regular Peachtree 10K – ala Emily Infield over Molly Huddle in World Champs 10,000 for bronze. And it didn’t matter than Overall’s time (29:30) was slower than the Kenya’s Continental Cup champion Daniel Salel’s 28:43. Racing was what captured the public’s imagination with an American to root for being the key element.
This August the venerable New Balance Falmouth Road Race undertook a change in format of its own. They instituted The Countdown, a virtual gender challenge whereby the first place man had to come home under the 10-year average differential between men’s and women’s Falmouth champions’ times. That time differential was 4:28.
After Burundi’s Diane Nukuri established her women’s winning mark (36:47), she and the fans waited for the men to settle their race as the Countdown clock ticked down. Finally, with time bleeding away, Stephen Sambu galloped down the final hill to defend his title, crossing in 32:17, just three seconds ahead of the countdown clock’s 0:00. I’ll tell you, it worked. People were into it. And all it cost was $5000. But now it is a promotion the event can take into the marketplace and try to sell.
Running has been focused on its participants for so long, that it has forgotten about the spectators. Him versus him, good versus evil, light against dark, these are the circumstances that engage fans. Time is what it took, but the race is what it is.
Did anyone care that Usain Bolt’s winning time at the World Championships 100-meters in Beijing was a mere 9.79? No, because the focus was on Bolt’s rivalry with Justin Gatlin, the reigning bad boy of athletics (though that crown has many pretenders these days).
No one is saying running is as consistently exciting as the skill oriented team sports, which are episodic and more easily followed. But if soccer, a notoriously under-achieving sport in America for decades, can build a fan base, there is no excuse for running to be as poorly presented as it currently is.
Let’s see if Chicago’s new formula can produce a high.