History of Cross Country Brought to Life

At colleges and universities across the nation students are settling into dorms, meeting new teammates, and learning routines for the soon to arrive cross country season. It’s an exciting time, and the promise is strong.

“Unlike track and field and road running, which had easy-to-manage lists of top athletes and times (along with historical venues with great traditions); similar attention had not been paid to cross-country,” writes Andrew Hutchinson in his voluminous new work The Complete History of Cross Country Running, From the Nineteenth Century to the Present Day.  Untamed running was a wonderful opportunity for athletes looking to escape the track, but…there was nowhere an athlete could go to learn about the stories, legacies and processes in developing the sport. That had to change.”

Mr. Hutchinson’s book is that attempt. Like Tom Derderian’s magnus opus Boston Marathon, History of the World’s Premier Running Event,  which saw its second edition come out last year along with a corresponding documentary movie, Hutchinson goes for an epic scale that matches his subject. Continue reading

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KIPCHOGE TO ATTEMPT OFFICIAL WORLD MARATHON RECORD IN BERLIN 2017

To nobody’s surprise Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge will make a world record attempt this September 24th at the BMW Berlin Marathon, site of the last six men’s marathon world bests dating back to Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie‘s 2:04:26 in 2007. That Kipchoge would run in Berlin this fall was always one of the probabilities coming out of Nike’s Breaking2  Project from this past May in Monza, Italy where the 2016 Olympic Marathon champion completed the marathon distance in a remarkable 2:00:25 in an unratified attempt to break the two hour barrier for 26.2 miles.

Kipchoge came so close to the sub-two hour barrier in Italy in May using a rotating stream of 30 even-tempo pacers, that a sub-62 first half in Berlin will seem modest by comparison. In essence Breaking2 will have been a speed session for Berlin.  Continue reading

TIME TO GET UP!

People wonder where the next Steve Prefontaine is, that runner who can both race with charismatic elan while simultaneously challenging the status quo to the point where he/she draws a whole new category of fans into the game.

Pre died 42 years ago on Memorial Day weekend, and time has worked its magic, as it always does. Yes, Pre was special, but even Usain Bolt – who’s been exponentially more successful than Steve ever was – hasn’t been able to lift the sport to a realm it never reached in any previous epoch. Guess what?  Ain’t gonna happen. Know why?  Cause running isn’t that kind of sport. Wasn’t then. Isn’t now.

Once you get beyond the mile, running doesn’t pay off close scrutiny unless you are a hard-core practitioner yourself.  Distance running is a nuanced sport that builds dramatic tension, but only when the stakes are high. But since the stakes are almost never high – maybe twice  every four years, or at the Breaking2 Project  – there is no compelling drama in the intervening period unless you’re a die-hard.

The sports that are dramatic are episodic, sh*t happens every thirty seconds, like a pitch, a play, or a shot.  And those mini-dramas eventually lead to a denouement and satisfying dramatic conclusion, i.e. somebody wins the championship, like either the Penguins or Predators in the NHL Stanley Cup Finals ( Pittsburgh up 2-0), or tonight’s opening of the NBA Finals, Cavs v. Warriors.

Running comes to one conclusion each in a hundred different places after many minutes (even hours) of soporific sameness. That was a hard enough sell when the only other sports were horse racing and wife brow-beating, you know, when leisure time was a fantasy.  Today, the competition is stiffer than ever, and running’s presentation is sealed in amber.

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I was at a Target store yesterday, and a crew from the local NBC affiliate came up to me and the wife and said they were doing a story on whether schools should start later than they do. The premise being cause kids are not getting enough sleep they can’t retain what they’re being taught.

I looked it up.  The National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) shows that average start time for the 39,700 public  middle and high schools in America is 8:03 a.m.  In 2014 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urged middle and high schools to modify start times to enable students to get adequate sleep by starting no sooner than 8:30 a.m.

How about go to bed earlier? There, now you got enough sleep.  Problem solved.

When did parents give up being in charge of their kids? I respected my parents, was afraid of them, too, with good reason, teachers, yeah, them too.  Why? There were consequences to non-compliance. That had a tendency to grab your attention. And what is government anyway but forced compliance? Do whatever you want until you get on the wrong side of the law.  Then see how it works out for you.

For a very short time I used to be a schoolteacher. Back then it was the adults (parents and teachers) in league against the kids, because we knew better. Screw up in school and you’d be in even more trouble at home. Today, it seems like the parents and kids occupy a united front against the educators, because evidently nobody knows better.

We had to go to bed at 8 o’clock when we were kids. Didn’t want to. Wanted to stay up and watch The Untouchables and Sea Hunt. But we went to bed against our will because parents looked at us. Who’s callin’ the shots here?  What lessons are really being taught?

But for some reason when every American adult of certain learning has the stunted attention span of the President of the United States, good effin’ luck with delayed gratification, discomfort, and doing stuff you don’t want to do – like going through with a deal you made with the rest of the world.

That’s why running doesn’t resonate, and never will. It’s the sporting equivalent of going to bed early to be ready for training tomorrow morning.  Think Pre ever told Bill Bowerman to move practice back so he could sleep in after staying up late?

END

GRETE’S PLACE

We learned last week that the apartment building Grete Waitz (nee Anderson) grew up in in Oslo, Norway had been fitted with a plaque recognizing the place as her girlhood home.  The five time IAAF World Cross Country champion, nine time New York City Marathon winner, inaugural IAAF Women’s World Marathon Champion in 1983, and silver medalist the following year in the initial Women’s Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles was commemorated not only as a champion runner, but as a leader in the development of women’s sport.

In May 2011 I flew to Oslo for a service celebrating Grete following her passing the previous month at age 57. She had succumbed to a several years bout with cancer with the same grace she had displayed throughout her public career.  Later, Grete’s husband Jack, a friend not just from the circuit but from our wintertime days in Gainesville, Florida throughout the 1990s, took me to the Keiseirlokka (Kaiser Field) neighborhood where Grete had grown up with her older brothers Jan and Arild.

Grete Waitz girlhood apartment, second story on left

Today, Kaiser Field is a quiet working class neighborhood, but in the post-war years when the Anderson’s lived there it was bustling with children, an idyllic place to grow up. Nearby stood Hasle Lutheran Church where Jack and Grete were married in 1975.

“She was the only girl in the family,” Jack explained. ”And her mother, Reidun, ran a tight ship. Grete was given all the tasks in the house. They made her take piano lessons, and they weren’t too enthusiastic about her running, because it wasn’t considered a girlish thing to do.”

A track star and school teacher before her second career began as a marathon champion in New York in 1978, Grete had to overcome the prevailing girls-staying-in-their-place headwinds that her own running, and that of others in her generation, helped turn around for future generations of girls everywhere.

Today, Grete’s greatest legacy lives on in her Aktiv Against Cancer Foundation, which works to ensure that physical activity will become an integral part of cancer treatment.

helle aanesen & grete waitz Aktiv against cancer co-founders

Helle Aanesen & Grete Waitz Aktiv Against Cancer co-founders

AKTIV Against Cancer was founded by Grete and Helle Aanesen in Norway in 2007. After donating more than $14M and helping to create 15 physical activity centers in cancer treatment facilities throughout Norway, AKTIV Against Cancer established its official 501(c)(3) presence in the United States in 2014.

Today, the work of incorporating physical activity into cancer treatments, and researching the effects continues throughout Norway, and at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City where an AKTIV Against Cancer pledge of $3.3 million helps fund exercise oncology research by Dr. Lee Jones, PhD.  Work in exercise oncology has also been initiated in Ethiopia via Aktiv measures.

Grete’s influence was enormous during her all too brief life, due not just to her athletic excellence, but to her quiet dignity and innate elegance.  She wasn’t one to call the spotlight to herself, in fact, she dodged it whenever possible. But it found its way to her all on its own. Nice to see the beam still glowing around her memory.

END

HEADING BACK TO BEEF STEW?

What is it with money in this game?  While purses and contracts in every other sport have continued to grow well into seven figures, in this fish market the scale has either remained stagnant or just gone down.

For their Series XI, which began in London last weekend, the Abbott World Marathon Majors announced a drop in its top prize from half a mill to a quarter mill, while thumping a new charity component that outstrips the top athletic prize by thirty grand, $280k to $250k. Yet can you blame them?

What would you do if international diversity completely disappeared from the top end of your sport, or if half your women’s series champions turned up doped – then didn’t give the money back, so you had to pay out twice?  Not to mention all the negative PR that comes with the news. Not quite the idea you had in mind a decade ago when you began the series, then, is it?

And just today we read that the Abbott World Marathon Majors has announced a ten-year strategic partnership deal with Wanda Group in China to develop marathoning in Asia (outside Japan) and Africa with the emphasis on participation, charity fundraising, and economic impact.

“The World Marathon Majors Series was founded in 2006 to advance the sport of marathon running and to honor the world’s best male and female runners and wheelchair athletes,” read the press release. “Now, every year, more than 250,000 runners participate in the AbbottWMM races worldwide, raising nearly $150 million annually for good causes, and the Series celebrates its Six Star finishers, runners who have successfully completed all six races in the Series. Additionally, Abbott WMM is a world leader in anti-doping initiatives, financing the biggest private-funded drug testing program in sport.”

Notice the order of focus and intention. Sport is still involved, yes, but now it is last in line and focused on doping, no longer the centerpiece of the enterprise.

But that aside, why is the money in this sport still organized the way it is in the first place? Because for some odd reason we can’t shuck our amateur past where the illusion fostered was that there was no money at all, while the reality was there was no ‘visible’ money? Continue reading

TOM FLEMING (1951 – 2017)

Tom Fleming winning 1981 Jordache Marathon (Mike Plant photo)

Tom Fleming was always a hard charger, a larger than life presence whether on the road in competition or at the post-race party where stories flew as fast as the miles had just hours before.  With his black Prince John beard and 6’1” frame drawn down by mega 150-mile training weeks, T. Fleming toed the staring line with his fitness visible beneath the barest of singlets, frame in relief, energy up, engagement pending.

There was something chivalric about TF, who left us yesterday at age 65, much, much too soon, his mighty heart beating its last as he collapsed while coaching his Montclair Kimberley Academy team at a track meet in Verona, N. J.  The running pack will not find another in its midst like him again anytime soon. Continue reading

GEEKING ON KENENISA’S NUMBERS

2014 Paris Marathon champion Kenenisa Bekele

2016 Berlin Marathon champion Kenenisa Bekele

On January 20th Ethiopia’s triple Olympic track gold medalist Kenenisa Bekele will start the sixth marathon of his career at the Standard Charter Dubai Marathon.  Coming off a near-world record 2:03:03 win in Berlin last fall in his last start there are indications that the great Ethiopian track and cross country runner may have his sights set on the current marathon world record of 2:02:57, set by Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto in Berlin 2014.

Now I am one of those journalists who has consistently lobbied for a greater concentration on competition over time, but since this is what is on offer, I thought I would take a deeper dive into the probabilities of a new world record, using the past as prologue.

Though I have heard some faint murmurs from Addis Ababa that the political climate in Ethiopia is affecting some people’s ability to train freely – the troubles are in line with Olympic silver medalist Feyisa Lelisa’s anti-government protest at the Rio Olympics and his subsequent move to the U.S to seek asylum  –  let us assume for this study that all is well with Bekele’s preparations, and that he will arrive in Dubai in top form.

On April 6, 2014 Kenenisa Bekele ran his marathon debut in Paris, France.  Against a less than competitive field the 31 year-old won by over 2 ½ minutes, stopped the timer at 2:05:03, which was a course record, sixth fastest debut in history, and fastest first-time marathon ever by a man over 30.

At the time I thought it would be interesting to look ahead by looking back (NUMBERING UP BEKELE’S MARATHON DEBUT).  After all, record performances are the links that allow fans to compare and contrast athletes of different eras in much the same way baseball fans compare stats across time (at least until the steroid era kind of ruined that –  Oops, do we have more in common with baseball than we realize?)

Anyway, I decided the best way to compare Kenenisa’s potential in the marathon would be to judge his marathon debut and projected career personal best (PB) against other former track record holders who subsequently moved up to great success in the marathon. Accordingly, I saw Kenya’s Paul Tergat and Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie, as the canaries in this very high quality coal mine, as both pre-dated Bekele as world record holders at 5000 & 10,000 meters on the track before adding the marathon record to their resumes.

After Bekele’s near-world record 2:03:03 win in Berlin in September 2016, I thought it might be fun to see how those projections from 2014 have played out so far. Continue reading