Category: Commentary

CAN’T HIDE YOUR LYIN’ EYES

Pre-race interviews are tricky things. Though regularly scheduled at most road races and track meets, I’ve always found them to be of limited use.  Maybe I’m just a poor interrogator, but I’ve always likened the experience to a trip to the dentist, with me being the dentist and the athletes in the role of reluctant patients as I try to pull teeth, or in their case information out.  Inevitably, nobody says jack to give their condition away, which is totally understandable, though on rare occasions you can elicit a telling story to share with readers or a TV audience.

In general, however, a pre-race interview is a ritual with both sides accepting the other as readily as two eighth-graders at a fortnightly dance.  And yet it remains one of the only means of reading an athlete’s tea-leaves to determine their readiness and frame of mind beyond traveling to their training camp and observing their workouts first hand.

But in the not too distant future, the pre-race TV interview may come to be one of the most important tools in the sport, the means of screening for drug cheats.  (more…)

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TAKING A GAMBLE ON THE FUTURE

While the sport of athletics may be irrepressible, it is just as fair to say it is hardly flourishing.  For decades, the sport has been caught in a netherworld between its amateur past and a never-quite-professional present, all the while fighting a losing PR battle in the war against performance-enhancing drug use and the corruptions in governance that accompany such a vast extra-national aggregation of players, agencies, events, and federations.  To the general public, PED use has spread like an acrid stain over actual performance as the defining characteristic of the athletics’ game, though it may be no less prevalent than in many other sports.

Within the industry itself, there have been innumerable symposia searching for a solution to the sport’s public image problem.  And though strides have been made in the short rein under Sebastian Coe’s leadership of the IAAF, a lasting resolution still remains down the track. Today, however, the U.S. Supreme Court may have offered a saving, though not ideal, grace.

As reported by AP, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 today to strike down the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), a law barring state-authorized sports gambling. The court’s decision came in a case brought by the state of New Jersey, which had fought for years to legalize gambling on sports at casinos and racetracks in the Garden State. Nevada was the lone state grandfathered in at the time of the 1992 law where a person could wager on the results of a single sporting contest.

“The legalization of sports gambling requires an important policy choice, but the choice is not ours to make,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito for the court. “Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each state is free to act on its own. Our job is to interpret the law Congress has enacted and decide whether it is consistent with the Constitution. PASPA is not.”

With this ruling in hand, New Jersey is set to take bets within a matter of a few weeks at their casinos and race tracks.  It has been estimated that as many as 32 other states would likely offer sports betting within a five-year span. (more…)

RUPP REBOUNDS IN PRAGUE

       Galen Rupp wins in Prague

This morning the Galen Rupp we saw at the Prague International Marathon (1st, 2:06:07 PB) was the Galen Rupp we expected to see in Boston 20 days ago before the conditions blew everyone into Dante’s second circle of Hell. Leading into Boston Rupp fashioned a perfect build-up after his win in Chicago last fall, tuned up with an excellent half-marathon in Rome, and spoke not a whisper of the plantar fascia niggle that compromised him a smidge in Boston 2017 in his duel with eventual champ Geoffrey Kirui – another casualty of the 2018 Boston nor’easter (casualty in the sense that he finished second after building a 90-second lead).

This morning in the Czech Republic, though, a retooled Rupp rode along on a solid, but not over-cooked 1:03:00 first half pace, then kept the momentum rolling when the rabbit dropped away and had gas enough left in the tank to put away 2:04-man Sisay Lemma of Ethiopia in the final two miles (9:26) on an ok, but not ideal marathon day.

The beauty of racing is that it is a given-day situation, this field on this day on that course in these conditions, have at it, see ya at the finish.  And though great respect goes to 2018 Boston champion Yuki Kawauchi – because on that day, in those conditions, he made all the right decisions – is there any doubt that we would have likely witnessed another Geoffrey Kirui vs. Galen Rupp duel if the conditions had been anywhere near normal, before the frigid, wind-driven rain knocked Rupp out at 19 and then locked Kirui up tighter than a mute with lockjaw over the final 5k? (more…)

LONDON 2018: PACING OR RACING?

Watching the races in London last Sunday I couldn’t help contrast forms, because in the marathon more so than the track (until you get to the kick at the end) the question of form is also the matter of fuel management, especially on the quivering edge of world record pace. As Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba wrote on her Facebook account afterward:  “Even though my training went very well, I misjudged the pace, and did not have the strength to finish.”

She didn’t misjudge the pace, she misjudged the conditions for the pace.  Maybe if the day had dawned overcast at 43F (6C) with calm winds, talk of a world record would have been very much in order. But it was 59F (15C) at the start!  And rising, going on to become the hottest day in London Marathon history.

Paula Radcliffe‘s 2003 world record 2:15:25 stood some 2:31 faster than Tirunesh had ever run (2:17:56 finishing second to Mary Keitany’s 2:17:01 last year, the second-fastest time in history). What did she think the odds were going out significantly faster than Paula Radcliffe had in 2003 in those conditions?  I know that modern runners have out-trained the distance, at least on a benign day, but can they be so dismissive of the distance and the records that they think basic physiological norms no longer apply?

You could see right away that Mary Keitainy had a tighter, more efficient form than Tirunesh, both above and below the waist. She also showed less core rotation per stride.  That difference in per-stride energy expenditure adds up. The fact that Mary staggered home at all in fifth place in 2:24:27 after falling off world record pace before 30K was a testament to her fitness and form. The fact that Tirunesh didn’t get past 30K after falling off Mary’s pace at 15K makes its own point. (more…)

ENDURANCE OR SPEED: THE MARATHON STILL SERVES UP A LITTLE OF EACH

The Marathon along with its half distance cousin is the only footrace that has a name rather than a distance as it’s calling card.  And in that name there lies multitudes because for more than a century that name has represented the great endurance challenge of the modern age, at times even a life-threatening one.  And why wouldn’t it? After all, it was born in the mists of myth and legend, then resurrected two and a half millennia later as an Olympic challenge.

Until the 1960 Olympics in Rome, however, the name Marathon stood for endurance alone, not speed. Only with the arrival of Ethiopia’s Abeba Bikila did the event give way to a runner who could attack the distance rather than simply survive its length. Still, until the first running boom of the 1970s, it was either-or, either you were a marathon runner or you competed at the shorter road, track, and cross country distances. Today, top runners move back and forth more fluidly, taking the opportunities as they present themselves.

Look at this year’s Standard Charter Dubai Marathon, always the bellwether of the coming year. Winner Mosinet Geremew of Ethiopia was 25 when he ran 2:04:00 this January. His PBs include 13:17, 27:18 and 59:11 over 5000, 10,000, and the half-marathon distances, hardly the makings of a pure endurance athlete.  Dubai runner-up Leule Gebrselassie, also Ethiopian, also 25, carried a 13:13, 27:19, 59:18 resume. And third-placer  Tamirat Tola, again of Ethiopia, a year older at 26, had 26:57 and 59:37 credentials.  

In the past, the best runners avoided the marathon until evidence of their inevitable slowing on the track forced them to transfer allegiance to the roads.  For many, and still to a few like Kenenisa Bekele, Galen Rupp, and Mo Farah, the Marathon was the last stop on the career arc from shorter races to the more strength oriented 42k.  (more…)

DANGEROUS DISTANCE

As we enter Boston Marathon week 2018, let us remember that people once used to believe that running a marathon wasn’t just a challenge, but a risk.

Bobbi Gibb, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1966, had a father who thought the event was downright dangerous and was angry at his daughter for even thinking about running it – “he thought I was mentally ill, but he didn’t know I had been training.”

Bobbi Gibb, Boston Marathon 1966

When Gibb hid in the bushes near the start line in Hopkinton, Massachusetts in April 1966 (because women weren’t allowed to run the marathon back then), her sole aim was to run the distance because that is what she had trained to do. And since she had already run as far as 30 miles on training, it never dawned on her that the marathon was beyond her capability. Only male officials were of that opinion. 52 years later women’s competitions in major Marathons stand on par, and at times higher, than the men’s race. That is certainly the case in these next two weeks in Boston and London.

But let’s also recall that it wasn’t all that long ago when there was a school of thought that believed that trying to run the mile in under four minutes was as physically dangerous as trying to break the sound barrier in flight, another thought-to-be-impossible endeavor. That frisson of danger was a big part of why people were intrigued by long distance racing. Tragedy, after all, could happen, and you could be witness to it. (more…)

HALF-MARATHON PERFORMANCE LIST: NURTURE OR NATURE?

After Galen Rupp’s 59:47 win at the Huawei Rome Ostia Half Marathon last Sunday, 11 March 2018, I combed through the IAAF.org all-time half-marathon performance list to see what I could see.

To date, there have been 317 “official” sub-60:00 half marathon performances dating from Moses Tanui‘s 59:47 win in Milan in April 1993 (366 when we add what are/were considered the *aided courses like Lisbon ‘98).  Rupp’s own 59:47, though ineligible for record purposes due to Rome’s net downhill, point-to-point course, nevertheless was an excellent prep for next month’s Boston Marathon, as Rome mirrored the p-t-p, downhill Boston layout.

Historically, his 59:47 half-marathon PR places Rupp equal 211th best all-time (258th on all courses), but equal-fourth with New Zealand’s Zane Robertson on the all-time non-African related breakdown. (Again, noting Mo Farah, GBR, has a 59:22, 59:32, and 59:59 to his credit)

  • 1 Marilson Gomes Dos Santos – BRA – 59:33 – 7th, Udine, Italy `07 –  equal 137th best performance ever
  • 2 Antonio Pinto – POR – 59:43 – 1st, Lisbon `98 = = 226th best (all courses)
  • 3 Ryan Hall – USA –  59:43 – 1st, Houston `07-  =185th  best ever
  • 4 Zane Robertson – NZL – 59:47 – 2nd, Marugame `15 – =211th best
  • 4 Galen Rupp – USA – 59:47 – 1st, Rome-Ostia `18 – =211th best
  • 6 Sondre Nordstad Moen – NOR – 59:48 – 4th, Valencia `17 – = 221st  best
  • 7 Fabian Roncero– ESP – 59:52 – 1st, Berlin ‘01
  • 8 Dathan Ritzenhein – USA – 60:00 – 3rd, Birmingham `09 – =318th best
  • 8 Callum Hawkins – GBR – 60:00 – 1st, Marugame `17 – =318th best
  • 10 Jake Robertson – NZL – 60:01  – 1st, Lisbon `17 – =326th best
    (This January Jake Robertson won the Aramco Houston Half Marathon in 60:01 against a loaded international field to equal his 2017 PR).

The half-marathon world record has stood since 21 March 2010 when Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadese won the Lisbon Half Marathon in 58:23, breaking his own previous mark by eight seconds set the year before on the same course (which had been slightly altered to comply with record standards  from the layout that Pinto ran his sub-60 on in ‘98).

To show the rapid improvement in – and scheduling of – half-marathon races, it is interesting to note that only six of the 317 (366) sub-60 half marathon performances to date were set in the 20th century: (more…)