ATHLETICS’ SISYPHEAN TASK

It is perhaps the most Sisyphean of athletics’ challenges, the movement to truly modernize the sport of athletics (track & field). Over the years, the boulder of professionalism has approached its summit on a number of occasions, only to see its fortunes tumble back down to the old status quo time and again.

Sisyphus by Titan

It’s as if the athletes were being punished for their sport’s leaders’ “self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness”, as was Sisyphus.  Yet the primary impediment to change has been the gravity of tradition, the weight of Olympic amateurism that defined the birth of organized sport in Victorian times and the consequent power vested in the federations-based model that grew to dominate the sport cradle-to-grave in the ensuing hundred-plus years. 

Attempts have been made to challenge the old order. In 1972, the International Track Association initiated a circuit of events in the USA and Canada featuring a coterie of well-known though aging stars. But the new association found itself unable to sign the stars coming out of the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games because the “amateurs” could still make more money from under-the-table appearance fees on the federation-led tour than they could as “professionals” in open prize money events on the new ITA circuit.

Then, in the early 1980s when road racing in America was in its first boom stage, the top road racers attempted a breakaway under the auspices of the Association of Road Race Athletes (ARRA). Their attempt at creating an independent circuit for professional road racing was eventually smothered in the cradle after the U.S. federation negotiated a semantic accommodation called TACTRUST which, though allowing the athletes to keep their winnings, retained the veil of amateur eligibility and federation control.

That temporary solution proved sufficient for the athletes of that era, but it left the old system in place and kept the sport from breaking free of its amateur chrysalis and perhaps taking flight as a truly professional sport.

In the meantime, the hallmark of the international system continued to be its inherent paternalism, a system that treated athletes first like serfs in feudal bondage and then as independent contractors without the collective bargaining power to determine their own fate via a more balanced system.

The persistence of financial corruption and self-dealing by past leaders of this federations-based system has been the one through-line that has defined its rule. And now under new leadership, the system’s solution to track’s shrinking viewer base is the elimination of events to reduce the sports’ TV window from two hours to ninety minutes. Continue reading

NEW YORK 2019 PREVIEW – WELL TUNED

The marathon world is in the middle of a technological revolution these days, witnessing a new era of high performance. It will be interesting see if that revolution continues on the streets of New York City on November 3, 2019.

The revolution isn’t just coming from the ground up via the stacked midsole, carbon-plated shoes that have tongues wagging and federations investigating. Another developing change in the marathon world has been in the athletes’ total focus. Many men like world record holder Eliud Kipchoge and second all-time Kenenisa Bekele no longer do a tune up race at all before their marathons, while those that do are running them much faster than their predecessors.

For instance, last year Shura Kitata ran 59:16 in Philadelphia as part of his NYC buildup. That prepped him for a second place finish in NYC in 2:06:01 behind training partner Lelisa Desisa’s 2:05:59 win.

Back in the day it was rare for anyone to even break 61 in their half tune up for fear they would find themselves too sharp for the more conservative pace required in the double distance. Now that theory is another that seems to have been tossed into the dust bin of history. Continue reading

SOLES DISCRETION

First of all, the athletes out-trained the distance years ago. In that sense, the mighty marathon has been brought to heel. No longer a spirit draining test of endurance, today the marathon has been reduced to just another speed event contested over a longish distance. It’s no longer, runner beware. It’s distance be damned!

We saw a reflection of that again this weekend when Ethiopia’s Yomif Kejelcha won the Valencia Half Marathon In 59:05. A generation ago you would never have seen an athlete who set an indoor world record in the mile in March (3:47.01) transfer so fluidly to a sub-60 half-marathon in October of the same year (see list below).

Attitudes about the challenges in distance running have simply changed along with many other factors that continue to make headlines in and out of courtrooms.

These days for the marathon to grow its fangs back requires severe weather. And even then – as we saw in Doha at the World Championships in September – the very top echelon of runners are merely slowed rather than halted.

This coming weekend in New York City, the marathon will once again be finished by 95+% of its 50,000 starters, while up front a handful of contenders will race the entire distance and seem ready for more if the necessity arose.

To all of that, we now add a better mouse trap, the Nike Vaporfly shoes. This past weekend in Frankfurt, we witnessed a final four of identically garbed and footed runners battling into the final kilometer before a champion was decided.

Final four in final sprint in Frankfurt.

1. Fikre Tefera ETH 2:07:08
2. Dawit Wolde ETH 2:07:10
3. Aweke Yimer BRN 2:07:12
4. Martin Kosgey KEN 2:07:20

As long as all wore the same gear, then what ensued was indeed a test to determine who amongst them was the better athlete. But for those employing any other footwear than Vaporflys, the route was not level. The ones wearing the better energy transfer mechanisms were in another class. A different metabolic cost per stride was in play. Continue reading

WHO KNOWS WHAT’S A RECORD ANYMORE?

My old Runner’s World friend and long-time chronicler of the sport Peter Gambaccini wrote on my FB page in response to “WHAT A WORLD!” (RECORD) about the first sub-two hour marathon this past weekend in Vienna: “I am much more impressed by the 2:01s Kipchoge and Kenenisa Bekele ran in “real” marathons (in Berlin 2018 and 2019) than I am by what transpired in Vienna (INEOS 1:59 Challenge).

“Marathon racing is supposed to involve decisions, and Kipchoge had very few to make last weekend. I was glad to see Kipchoge finish hard on his own, and I suppose we should be grateful that elite running got more coverage from the general interest media than it had since the days of Bolt.  But there’s no point in any more extravaganzas like Vienna, is there?”

I thought Peter’s question was worth sharing and answering. So here goes. Continue reading

1:59 VIENNA REDUX

Early on Vienna’s Prater Park looked like a scene out of the Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, light fog clinging to the trees half expecting a skirmish line to emerge with percussion cap rifles clattering with bayonets affixed.

Emerging from the mist

Instead, Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge came charging out of that mist tucked neatly into the cockpit of his squadron of low-flying reverse-V pacers following green laser lines projected on the road soft-treading headlong into history.

However he did it – pacers, lasers, drinks, and shoes – he still did it! Eliud Kipchoge ran the marathon distance in 1:59:40.2 in Vienna, Austria at the INEOS 1:59 Challenge to become the first man ever to accomplish the feat of finishing 26.2 miles in under 2:00:00. And the world watched in rapt attention.

From Letsrun.com’s Jonathan Gault, concurrent livestream viewers peaked at 779,000 on Youtube while 4.8 million total views have been seen since. (The Red Bull Stratos space skydive in 2012 holds the concurrent livestream YouTube record at nearly 9 million viewers).

It was a simple goal but a monumental achievement, considering that it took over three years to accomplish when you add up the Nike Breaking2 Project that preceded the INEOS 1:59 Challenge. But in the end, the actual running in Vienna proved to be less of a challenge than it had been in Monza. Continue reading

“WHAT A WORLD!” (RECORD)

I mean, what can you say at this point? There’s no winning here. If you embrace this weekend’s marathon performances in Vienna and Chicago at face value, you have to be wearing pretty tight blinders because of what history has shown us in recent times shenanigans-wise. And if you poo-poo them, then you’re just a cynic and a hater and nobody wants to hear it.

Yesterday in Vienna, the wondrous Eliud Kipchoge became the first person to go sub-two hours over the classic marathon distance in a staged exhibition sponsored by the petro-chemical company INEOS.  In it, organizers shaved every impediment as close to the bone as possible, and then went into the marrow in several others like replacement pacers, so that Kipchoge’s 1:59:40.2 time was ineligible for record purposes. Not that they ever said they were going for a legit record.

Eliud Kipchoge goes sub-2 in Vienna!

Immediately after crossing the line, the Olympic champion celebrated by hugging his wife and friends before sprinting back up the course to high-five fans like he just finished the Carlsbad 5000 (which he actually did in 2010). No problemo.

And today (October 13, 2019) fellow Kenyan Brigid Kosgei tucked in behind her two male pacers at the BofA Chicago Marathon out on the ragged edge of 2:10 pace through 5K heading toward an unwavering 2:14:04 world record, even when one of the oldest adages in the sport says you can easily lose your marathon in the first 15 minutes by making an error in pacing. Evidently that rule no longer applies. Continue reading

Eliud Kipchoge’s INEOS 1:59 Challenge

Here we go –  again.

Marathon Master Eliud Kipchoge (Runner’s World)

 But this time it’s different. This time it’s not only not improbable, it’s likely. 2:00:25 in Monza, Italy in May 2017 tells us that much.  So the awe factor, the mind-numbing conception of a human, in this case, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, running sub-two hours over the marathon distance has been somewhat diminished – perhaps even more after Ethiopian rival Kenenisa Bekele ran 2:01:41 in Berlin just two weeks ago, two meager seconds off Kipchoge’s 2018 official marathon record. Now Kenenisa feels like another legit sub-2 candidate. And whoever thought sub-2:00 might one day be considered prosaic?

On top of which, as much as they might like to present this as such, the first sub-2:00 marathon is not like the first sub-4:00 mile, or the first summit of Everest, much less the moon landing.  All those challenges carried in the public consciousness the possibility of death. This is a second chance marketing exhibition for a plastics manufacturer and springy shoes. Continue reading