STARS LOOK TO REGAIN THEIR GLITTER IN SAN DIEGO

San Diego, CA – With the IAAF World Championships scheduled for October this year in Doha, Qatar, everyone’s schedule has been thrown back a month and you never know who’s going to show up where on any given night in the world of track and field.

Last night at San Diego’s Mesa College, two world-class runners joined tracksters young and old at the 8th Summer Nights Track & Field Series meet as they sought to re-find the form that had previously brought them to the very heights of their sport.

Two-time Olympic 1500-meter medalist Nick Willis and three-time sprint medalist Tori Bowie feel the clock ticking and know it waits on no one.

Willis warming up

Nick is now 36 years old, yet the University of Michigan grad and New Zealand legend is still on the hunt for that elusive fitness that produced a silver medal in Beijing ‘08 and then a bronze in Rio in 2016.

Last night we found Nick at Mesa College testing himself in the 800 meters just one night after running 1500 meters at the Sunset Series up north at Azusa Pacific. There he fashioned a 3:37.8, good for fourth place. Not a usual position for Nick, but better than what 2019 has shown so far.

“I’ve been last in my last two races,” Nick told me after his 1:49.23 win over stubborn Daniel Herrera’s 1:49.27 and Eric Avila‘s 1:50.51. “I ran here because I need to get my confidence back.”

Mac Fleet paced the first 400

You wouldn’t think a two-time Olympic medalist would be short on confidence, but as we all know, foot racing is a humbling game and a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately one, too.

At the bell!

Yes, we’re only as good as our last race, or in Nick’s case, his last two.  And when they don’t go well, even a glittering past doesn’t mean too much or offer much consolation, especially as we grow older.

Into the homestretch (L-R: Daniel Herrera, Nick Willis, Eric Avila

In his last Diamond League outing, Nick barely broke 4:00 at the Bowerman Mile at the Pre Classic at Stanford on June 30 as things just haven’t snapped into place in 2019 like they once did. He finished 14th out of 14 starters.  

“When I was younger my 5 km and cross country strength would automatically transfer to track speed,“ Nick explained. “But my muscles don’t come around so easily anymore. So this is my Tiger Woods’ season to make a comeback. Thing is, I feel healthier than ever but that doesn’t mean the elasticity transfers as quickly as it once did. But tonight I came out and ran 52 seconds for the first 400 (paced by former 2x NCAA 1500m champ for Oregon and local University High School star Mac Fleet) and I think it’s starting to come around.”

Nick will head back home to Ann Arbor, Michigan today before flying back to Europe for a 1500 meters in Heusden in 10 days in the Netherlands. The very next day he will run a mile in London as he looks to find that fugitive form before the World Championships in Doha.

Several hundred people were on hand for last night’s Summer Series meet, now in its 10th season under the guidance of local running guru, Coach Paul Greer. The other world-classer the crowd was fortunate to see testing her fitness before the U.S. Nationals in Des Moines, Iowa (July 25-28) was sprinter Tori Bowie, the three-time Olympic medalist from Rio 2016 (gold in the 4 X 100, silver in the 100m, and bronze in the 200m), then two-time World Champion in 2017 (open 100m & the 4 X 100m.)

2018 ended early for Tori when she tore a quad muscle at the Pre Classic in late May (5th, 11.03). It’s been a year of battling back from injury and off-track issues, as well, including changing home bases and coaches. She hasn’t gone sub-11 since 2017. At the Pre Classic this June 30th, she finished 7th in 11.30.

Last night at Mesa, Tori ran the 100 again in 11.50, which she said “was pathetic.”  But her new coach Craig Poole, former head women’s coach at BYU for 30 years and then director and head coach at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista just south of San Diego said, “she achieved all the goals she was looking for. Time was not the goal here, she was just working on some technical stuff.”

Working back into form is the kind of thing local meets like the Summer Nights Series can offer a top athlete that big-time meets can’t. At the same time, having Olympic athletes perform on the same track inspires the youngsters on hand.

Nick remarked how New Zealand had this kind of local meet all around through their summer months, but he never finds them here in the U. S.

Nick addresses the crowd

Before taking off, Nick addressed the crowd of track enthusiasts on another ideal San Diego summer night.

“Get off the concrete and find some beautiful trails and enjoy your body to the best of your ability.”

Yes, do it while you can, kids, cause gravity is not a user-friendly force field and it will exact a toll. Just ask Nick and Tori.

The sun slowly dipped beneath the west grandstands, the light faded as the final events were contested. Then the small crowd dispersed knowing many will meet up again for the 9th Summer Nights meet on July 17th.

It had been a good evening. Pleasantly fatigued was the feeling left behind, which is how famed New Zealand distance coach Arthur Lydiard used to explain the feeling of being in full training mode.

And so it goes.

Full ahead!

 

END

P.S.  Nick Willis was named to the 2019 University of Michigan Hall of Honor the next day. Congrats, Nick. Best of luck ahead.

PEACHTREE 2019 PREVIEW

Atlanta, Ga. – For those too young to remember, the nation was even more divided in 1970 than it is today. 50 years ago an idealistic generation of Baby Boomers were still trying to change the world through sit-ins and political protest, primarily to end the war in Vietnam. That May 4th, the killing of four unarmed students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard mobilized student unrest across the country. 

Yet just two months later, 110 intrepid pioneers (107 men & 3 women) were on their feet in Atlanta running to change nothing more than their own lives. And in so doing, they helped begin a whole new social movement that one person and one step at a time accomplished what sitting-in as a group never could.

Thus was the first AJC Peachtree Road Race born, inaugurating a tradition and cause that now stretches half a century long and 2 million finishers deep.

With such a legacy to serve, the world’s largest 10K has welcomed back not just many of the Original 110 who ran that first Peachtree 10K, but has assembled perhaps the deepest fields of pro talent ever, with bonuses of $50,000 going to any one of the foot racers or wheelchair athletes who can break the very sturdy event records. Continue reading

RWANDA USING SPORT TO REUNIFY WHILE OPENING ITS ARMS TO THE WORLD

Kigali, Rwanda-  25 years ago Rwanda descended into the darkest corner of the human heart, a place devoid of empathy or compassion. It led to a 100-day genocide that eviscerated the nation and left a stain that only time can diminish if not fully erase.

A quarter-century later, however, Rwanda has made remarkable progress in its long cleansing and rebuilding effort.  In a single generation, the country has brought conciliation to its people, and reached out to the world. Signs through Kigali announce “Remember, Unite, Renew”.

Led by its President Paul Kagame, Rwanda has expanded opportunities in all areas of society. In business, it has the second fastest growing economy in all of Africa (7.5% per annum since 2007). Primary school education is now available to 98% of its children. It is the fifth safest country to walk at night worlwide, and it has the largest percentage of women in Parliament in Africa at 61%.

Rwanda also has a goal of becoming the hub of sports for Africa, which is what brought me to Central Africa for the 15th Kigali International Peace Marathon. Continue reading

STEVE JONES AWARDED MBE BY QUEEN ELIZABETH II: REMEMBERING CHICAGO 1984

With the good and proper news that Welshman Steve Jones has been awarded the prestigious Members of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by Queen Elizabeth II, I thought it would be fitting that we go back to the time when Steve first lifted his name into the marathoning spotlight along Lake Michigan with his 2:08:05 world record. 

In those days, the sport was still heavily centered around the Boston – New York City axis.  The London Marathon had only been around for four years, and the Los Angeles Marathon was still two years from its beginning.  Bringing world-class competition beyond its East Coast roots was a major accomplishment for Chicago and an important factor in helping grow interest in the sport.

Jonesy’s stellar run in Chicago `84 also represented another turning point in the game.  It marked the last time the men’s marathon world record would be set without the aid of pacesetters.  Here, then is my contemporaneous race report from Chicago 1984, a day to remember in the annals of marathoning history and jumping off point for one of the great marathon careers of the all-time.  Congratulations, Sir Steve!

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Steve Jones sets World Marathon Record in Chicao 1984

Steve Jones sets World Marathon Record in Chicago 1984

Chicago, IL. — And then there was the weather, forty-four degrees with a wind-driven rain like an icy finger tracing the nape of your neck. Over 10,000 huddled runners jittered anxiously at the dual starting lines on Clark and Dearborn Streets for the 8:45 a.m. signal to begin the 8th America’s Marathon/Chicago (as it was known in those days).

On the front row stood some of the best marathoners in the world. “It’s the Olympics all over again”, said one punter as champions from every continent pawed the ground, anxious to be off on their heat-generating journey to Lincoln Park. This was no place for the skittish, rather an end-of-the-season, post-Olympic blowout engineered by Beatrice Foods sponsorship money and race director Bob Bright’s orchestration.

“The Games are over. We’ve nothing to lose. So let’s have a go,” was how Welshman Steve Jones prophetically put it the day before. Continue reading

BETWEEN HOPE AND INTENTION

Back home in San Diego now after another memorable Boston Marathon week. I flew back on the same flight as Marathon Grand Marshall and 2014 champion Meb Keflezighi who carried a Gronk-signed New England Patriots football helmet along with the good wishes of dozens of blue-jacket clad marathon finishers.

During the long, cross country trip I chatted with row-mate Elisa Wiggins, a native San Diegan and Brown University grad who was dealing with some dire quads after Monday’s race. 

But I also had a chance to reflect on what we had witnessed in the 123rd running of the world’s most famous long-distance race.

As in all sports, so too, in the marathon, there is a mighty fine line between winning and losing. That margin in Monday’s 123rd Boston Marathon men’s race, the difference between first and second, 2:07:57 for champion Lawrence Cherono and 2:07:59 for runner up Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia,  A difference of 0.0002% over a 128-minute span.

Nobody I’ve talked to saw anything close to a two-second spread.

“They were still shoulder-to-shoulder with 10 meters left,” said Gianni Dimadonna, the manager of decisive women’s winner Worknesh Degefa.

It makes no difference. Time was secondary. Cherono clearly won as Desisa slumped in his final stride, knowing his cause was lost.

So, did Cherono win, or Desisa lose?  Continue reading

THE DAY AFTER BOSTON 2019

Boston, Ma. – The Marathon is such a challenging distance that most athletes have no desire to take it on solo. Instead, they form up in packs, serving as confederates through much of its length, working as one until they come to the final third of the course where the  real racing begins and the winning is generally done.

That’s exactly how the men’s race played out yesterday at the 123rd Boston Marathon with the outcome in doubt til the final 5 meters when Kenya’s Lawrence Cherono prevailed against two-time Ethiopian winner Lelisa Desisa. It was thrilling stuff, indeed.

But as my broadcast partner on WBZ-TV4 Shalane Flanagan said, “the women’s race was the polar opposite.”

In that competition, the short but powerful Worknesh Degefa of Ethiopia gently but convincingly went to the front in Ashland and began to turn the screw after reaching  only the second of eight cities and towns that make up the historic Boston course.

Worknesh Degefa all smiles the day after

“After 4 miles the pace was too slow,“ 28 year-old Degefa said at today’s day-after press conference. “So I decided to take off. I kept going and that made me a winner.”

The last time we saw a move this bold this early in a major race was way back in 1984 when Maine’s Joanie Benoit pulled away from the inaugural Women’s Olympic Marathon field in Los Angeles at 5km and ran alone to win the first women’s Olympic Marathon gold-medal. Her time of 2:24:52 stood as the Olympic record for many cycles. It was only bested as the fastest time west of the Mississippi River this past March at the Los Angeles Marathon.

Yesterday it was with seeming ease that Worknesh Degefa gradually eased away from a pack that included four previous Boston women champions. They knew that this was the fastest woman in the field with her 2:17:41 performance at the January 25th Dubai Marathon. But maybe because it was her first attempt on the technically challenging Boston route with its rolling hills and iconic Heartbreak Hill, that they figured she would come back and they could reel her back in. Continue reading

TIME OF SECONDARY IMPORTANCE IN BOSTON

Boston, MA. – The clock. Yes, the clock. We watch it incessantly as it ticks relentlessly. But just like how three-point shots in basketball are worth noting – like last night when Golden State Warriors guard Steph Curry passed Ray Allen for the most three-pointers made in playoff history – they aren’t the most important numbers. That designation falls into the category of wins and losses, like how the Warriors beat the L.A. Clippers 121 – 104 in game one of their opening round NBA playoff series.

In that sense, time is only of secondary importance in the outcome of a marathon like Boston, a classic race over a difficult course, unpredictable weather, and an absence of pacesetters.

As was proven again in 2018 with wild, wind-driven rain, Boston is primarily a race against other runners with the clock no more than an impassive attendant to the human drama. So while much of the marathon world focuses on the clock, at times slavishly so, Boston concentrates on racers.    Continue reading