(21 Dec. 2018) Today, in this season to be jolly, we wish a happy 74th birthday to famed Italian Coach Renato Canova, who has prepared many a great runner for what were the athletic performances of their lives.
In the summer of 2012, while sipping tea at the Kerio View Hotel in Iten, Kenya, I asked Coach Canova if he were put in charge of the U.S. distance program what changes he would make to maximize performance against the Kenyan runners who have dominated the sport for so long.
“First thing, the U.S. is better than Europe,” said the white-haired Italian as we looked out over the sweep of the adjoining Rift Valley. “Their 5 and 10-kilometer base is already moving. When you start getting sub-27 minute 10K, and many, many 27:10, 27:20 – 27:20 is enough to run a marathon in 2:05.
“But for many years there was the mentality in Europe and the USA to go for very high quality (training), but to reduce the volume. So we had a pyramid that was very, very high, but the base was very, very narrow. And it could not produce any results. So you need to increase the base while maintaining the same difference in the parameters (top to bottom). Then the pyramid becomes higher because the base has become higher, not because you have made the top higher. (more…)
Late on a soft summer’s evening in June 1985, we arrived in the town of Örebro, Sweden a little over halfway between Oslo and Stockholm as we followed the European track circuit on its Scandinavian swing. As we made our way toward the town square, the full-throated rumble of gas-guzzling twin carbs incongruously came bullying through the centuries-old town like thunder in the drums of the ears.
Muscle cars in the land of the fair and reserved?
Even as the young and elderly with real travel purpose pedaled their bicycles in upright indifference along the swept-clean curbs, down the middle of the road came Swedish Graffiti riding atop Detroit mag wheels. We watched in wonder as raked roofs on deuce coups smacked hard along the cultural cusp.
One block up the squeal of wide-track rubber stabbed the night air as a 1966 396 El Camino breached a traffic signal’s command. Chevys, Plymouths, Pontiacs, and Buicks, all from the 1960s and `70s, roared by, resembling escaped road warriors from a California time capsule.
Glass-packed bellowing blanketed the silence of a hollow ride to nowhere as kids rode relentlessly around the same blocks, changing the same gears, flashing past the same Orebro Castle sitting in the center of its moat since 1200. The circle constricted as their pace increased.
Their future was now. Don’t think, react. Perhaps it was a good lesson for those racing on foot on the track, as well.
Tomorrow we would depart, continuing on to Stockholm for the DN Galan meet staged in the 1912 Olympic track, while the boys of Orebro would fill their tanks and cruise their narrow streets once again, not realizing that theirs would be the last generation of cars from America that would afford them the horsepower which, till now, had been their only escape.
(From a long, long time ago, when travel called and we answered readily, “drinking life to the lees”, as Tennyson would have it.)
Meki, Ethiopia – At the unkind hour of 5:49 a.m., a gentle rap on my door stirred me from a fitful sleep. It was the morning after the wedding in Meki, and we were off to Arsi Province and needed to make an early start of it.
Our driver – a man we took to calling Big Belay to differentiate him from our friend and host, Belay Wolashe, the runner – was evidently suffering from a keening hangover, as we found him passed out in the back of the Range Rover incapable of assuming even an upright posture, much less his driving duties.
“Big Belay, he sick last night,” said friend Belay, master of the obvious, in explaining the incense sticks burning throughout the car.
It soon became clear that the two Belays, cousin Andinet, and his friend had all slept in the car last night, as Mike Long, Rich Jayne, and I had taken the only three remaining single rooms at the tiny Ghion hotel.
Finding this out after the fact made us feel guilty as hell, but we hadn’t realized – nor been told – that there weren’t enough rooms to go around when it was suggested all three faranji (foreigners) bunk together in room # 8 last night. After our protestations, rather than inconvenience their guests, our friends simply acquiesced and slept in the car.
By 6:20 a.m. we were on the road, a mangy collective of mouth-breathers until the warm air could divest the vehicle of Big Belay’s overnight involvements. We soon dropped Andinet and his friend off upon coming to the main road to Addis Ababa. Then we continued on our way toward Asela.
After another hour, the Range Rover began to misfire, until we finally were forced to pull over to the side of the two-lane road. Parked atop a high wind-swept vista overlooking the Awash National Park, we took note as the Range Rover’s starter churned unsuccessfully in its attempt to catch.
No Triple-A to call here, so the two Belays got out and stood peering into the engine compartment searching for clues with a clutch of woefully inadequate tools they found in the boot. We were having another of what our Belay called, “oh, it is no problem” problem.
Conical thatch-roofed mud huts called tukuls, common in the countryside of the Arsi region, sat bunched some 100 meters off the road atop this pearl in the string of surrounding mountains. The valley below spread for miles upon miles, a misty washed-out hew of brown grassland partially covered in scrubby bush and accented by airy-topped Acacia trees.
Finally, Big Belay emerged from the raised hood with the carburetor in hand, holding it up for inspection before blowing out the dust that had clogged it. Satisfied with his work, he quickly reassembled and refitted it. Amazing. And off we went. (more…)
Times were lean in 1974. In fact, it had been a rough year all around. In the first months of that annus horribilis, the Arab oil embargo still had gas lines wrapped around the block for hours on end. Then, as we sweltered through August, President Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal, leaving the country in a state of political shock. By year’s end the inflation rate had run up to 11.3%.
For me, a new arrival in Boston from St. Louis, though spirits were high, money in the kitty was low, meaning no trip back home for the holidays. But then a friend called, and said a friend of hers was in charge of seasonal hiring at Filene’s Department store in downtown Boston, and would I like an appointment?
Stepping off the Red Line subway train at Park Street station beneath Boston Common amidst the bustle of the holiday crowd, I could make out the plaintive strains of Harrry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle spilling out of a passerby’s boom-box, as Harry’s hit held down the #1 slot on the Billboard charts that Christmas week. Up the escalator, then two cobblestone blocks later I was in Downtown Crossing at Filene’s flagship store sitting opposite my potential benefactress.
“Most of the Christmas jobs have already been filled,” she informed me as she paged through a sheaf of forms. “But we do have an opening for a second shift Santa in the toy department.”
“Ho, Ho, Ho!,” I boomed in my best broadcaster’s voice, hoping that would offset my very un-Santa-like six-foot, 160-pound frame. Next thing I knew I was being fitted with a pillow-enhanced Santa outfit, and a Lysol-soaked Santa’s beard.
As I sat upon Santa’s throne on my first day on the job, elves at my feet, the store stood resplendent in its holiday dress, the line of children and their parents stretched as far as the eye could see. At first, I found it entertaining to take the little tykes upon my lap, ask them how they’d been that year, and follow on with what they’d like for Christmas. I quickly realized, however, that most children, especially the young ones whose parents most wanted a picture with Santa, were not only timid about coming near, much less touching Santa, many were downright afraid of the oddly-shaped, oddly-clad, oddly-odored Mr. Claus.
Crying, squirming, and outright bawling became the norm as I attempted to quiet their fears and hold them close enough for the photographer to snap the prize-winning $12.95 photo for the family scrapbook. On occasion, a particularly wigged out tot would pee on Santa’s lap. When it all became too much, I’d excuse myself with “Well, time go feed the reindeer up on the roof.”
A solid week of this Santa impersonating went by. I knew I’d reached my limit when instead sugar plums, the smell of Lysol and urine invaded my dreams. Then one day after seeing the line of children awaiting me stretch off into the distance as I awaited my shift in the Santa green room, it came to me while reading Carl Yung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections, my Ah-Hah! moment of clarity.
After spritzing on a last coat of Lysol to protect me from the previous germ-toting Santa, and inserting that morning’s Boston Herald under my Santa pantaloons to protect me from the bladder challenged members among generation Y, I trudged up to my throne. As the first of what would be 100s of tykes took his place upon my lap, I began my newly enhanced line of inquiry.
“Ho, Ho, Ho, and what’s your name, little boy?”
“Well, tell me Charlie, have you been a good boy this year?”
“Yes,” he replied shyly with just a hint of trepidation, like he knew that I knew that he knew that I knew.
“Well, Charlie, you know it is my job to keep track of these things, and I can assure you that you have, indeed, been a very good little boy this year. So, don’t be shy, okay?”
And with that, I gazed out into the sea of expectant faces, both young and old, and declared for all to hear, especially the parents, “And Charlie, because I know you’ve been a very good boy this year, I, as Santa, the one who decides who’s been naughty or nice, can now inform you that you will get everything you want this year for Christmas. Every! Last! Thing!”
I allowed my gaze to linger until the full meaning of my declaration gained purchase with the entire audience, at which time I could see the line begin to evaporate from the rear.
“Honey,” I could hear one parent declare, “I think he looks too thin to be the real Santa. Let’s go over to Jordan Marsh.”
My days as Santa didn’t quite make it through the entire holiday season in 1974. When the college kids who had taken Quaaludes started coming around displaying the lack of skeletal rigidity necessary to remain seated upright on my lap, I threw in my beard.
Fortunately, I had made just enough to buy a plane ticket home to visit the family.
In 1975 I took up the sport of running, and never looked back, nor seriously entertained the idea of reprising the Santa role, nor mounting a serious portrayal of any of the other Holiday icons. But bad Santa or not, I always welcomed the chance to don the robes at least once.
“By the way. What’s that fragrance you’re wearing?” asked the folks when I returned home for that Christmas of `74.
“Oh! that. It’s called Ho! Ho! Lysol and Urine,” I replied. “Got it at Filene’s.”
Lahaina, Maui – Walking along Wahikuli Wayside Park, water to my right, the island of Lanai rising like a whale’s hump off the coast. Not too different, really, than running down off Memorial Drive along the Charles River looking over to the Boston skyline where the gold dome of the Statehouse sits framed by the towers of downtown. Same sort of feel to the traffic, too, streaming on my left along Honoapi’ilani Road.
“Come on, lads, put your back into,” comes to mind, Starbuck’s exhortation to his crew in the whaling boats out chasing Moby Dick.
After only 25 minutes I come to the end of the sidewalk before the turnaround. A rain squall hits, blowing down off the West Maui Mountain ridge. We have to stop. Toya is doing repeat 400s. With the wind against, I’m going to do one mile plus out and a mile plus back.
Along the walk back, I begin considering some of the results from the fall marathon season. Among the realizations is that there has to be intentionality in the marathon. Every other race, too, but especially so in the marathon.
For instance, stomach problems in Berlin September 24th stopped 2013 champion Wilson Kipsang in his tracks at 30K as Eliud Kipchoge drove on to victory in 2:03:32, the fastest official time of 2017.
Kipsang returned home to Kenya where he retooled for New York City in early November. There he came in a close second behind Geoffrey Kamworor. But that little extra that he had when he managed to put away Lelisa Desisa in NYC in 2014 was missing in ’17, still in Berlin recovering, I’d say. His intention this fall was Berlin, not New York, and in the end it mattered. (more…)
On that bright but chilly (38°F) November morning, I had the catbird seat aboard the NBC lead men’s TV motorcycle as the 2002 New York City Marathon entered its critical stage coming off the Queensboro Bridge at mile 16. The final pace-setter, the metronomic Joseph Kariuki of Kenya, had just pulled off leaving the pack edgy, crackling with energy as Manhattan’s First Avenue stretched ahead like a provocation with all the history, speed, and power it portended. Amidst the lead group ran marathon debutant Meb Keflezighi, the U.S. record holder at 10,000 meters (27:13). The day before Meb’s long-time coach Bob Larsen told me Meb would go with the pace until First Avenue then decide what to do.
The resurrection of American distance running had begun to take shape in that fall of 2002. Following successful maiden marathons by Dan Browne at Twin Cities (1st, 2:11:35) then Alan Culpepper in Chicago (6th, 2:09:41, tying Alberto Salazar’s American debut record from New York 1980) the anticipation for Meb’s debut in New York City was running sky high.
Sweeping off the bridge first sped Rodgers Rop of Kenya, third in NYC the year before, and reigning Boston Marathon champion. By 66th Street Rop had a five-second gap, leaving remnants of the pack receding like fading dust motes. Mile 17 fell in 4:36.
Realizing the danger, Boston runner-up Christopher Cheboiboch, 2:06:33 South African Gert Thys, and Kenyan deb Laban Kipkemboi bridged up to cover Rop’s move. And then Meb came rushing up hard from behind to join the fray. Decision made! He was going! The crowd bellowed its approval. Next, amidst a 4:40 18th mile, Meb surged to the front, not satisfied just to answer, he was anxious to dictate policy.
“I remembered that Salazar had won New York in his debut,” recalled Meb years later. “And maybe I got too emotional.”
Rodgers Rop went on to win that 2002 race in New York in 2:08:07 to join Bill Rodgers (1978 & `79), Alberto Salazar (1982) and Joseph Chebet (1994) as the only men to win Boston and New York in the same year (in 2011 Geoffrey Mutai would join the club).
Meb took a full 35 minutes and change for his final 10K (5:40/mi. pace). Chilled to the bone, he arrived in ninth place in 2:12:35. Afterwards, his mother Awetash made him swear he would never do THAT again. (more…)
Davenport, IA. – I am in the Quad Cities this weekend for the 43rd QC Times Bix 7 Road Race, this year doubling as the USATF 7 Mile Road Championship. I’ll have a preview later after today’s presser.
But as this sport of life and vigor looks ahead excitedly to the Bix 7 and the IAAF World Track & Field Championships in London next week, it also remembers once again a difficult anniversary week.
It was ten years ago that we lost the incomparable Mike Long, the former elite athlete coordinator for Elite Racing, founders of the Carlsbad 5000 and Rock ‘n’ Roll Series of marathons and half-marathons. Mike passed in his sleep at age 65 July 18, 2007 at his home in South Mission Beach San Diego.
Then, just two years ago on July 25th the sport was stunned to hear that long-time athlete manager Zane Branson had succumbed to a heart attack while attending some of his athletes in Iten, Kenya.
Both Mike and Zane represented the best this sport had to offer, passionate commitment in the service of others and an abiding love of the game of running. Former New York Road Runners president Mary Wittenberg (now CEO of Virgin Sports) flew to San Diego for Mike’s memorial service ten years ago, and jokingly encapsulated proof of Mike’s status as the most beloved man in the sport.
“We (NYRR) think we are pretty nice people,” she said, “but we have to pay $50,000 for an athlete Mike would get for free.”