When high school seniors Dathan Ritzenhein, Alan Webb, and Ryan Hall met at the 2000 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships in Orlando, Florida, America’s running fans were all but salivating at the prospect of what lie ahead, not just in Orlando, but in the careers to come. All three precocious talents had flashed early signs of excellence on a register America hadn’t seen in a generation. Now, on December 9, 2000 on the Walt Disney World Shades of Green Golf Course, the Big Three from Michigan, Virginia and California would match up head-to-head-to-head for the first time.
Temps were high that day for the boy’s race, humidity, too. Just the same, talk of a sub-4:30 opening mile and a sub-9:00 deuce buzzed over the internet chat rooms as regional fan bases built cases for their respective heroes.
As undefeated returning champion, Rockford High School senior Dathan Ritzenhein’s game was pressure. And after an initial 4:46 mile, the whip strong Michigander applied it unsparingly.
Pulling away from a shocked Alan “I’m ready for anything” Webb with a 4:33 second mile, Ritz went on to win that 5K battle and notch a historic second straight Foot Locker national title. His 20 second margin of victory put a hard shine on it, as it was, and remains, the largest gap in Foot Locker history. The Virginia miler held strong for second, while the California cruiser Ryan Hall showed third in the high Florida humidity (Ryan’s future wife Sara Bei went from last to first to win the 2000 girl’s Foot Locker title).
Over the ensuing 15 years the Big Three, as they came to be known, have gone on to author memorable, historic performances as records have been set, Olympic teams made, though none has yet to cop an Olympic medal. But as we enter the spring of 2015, only Dathan Ritzenhein is still exploring the outer limits of his youthful running promise. (more…)
Even as California Chrome‘s bid for horse racing’s first Triple Crown in 36 years came to a thudding halt in yesterday’s 146th Belmont Stakes, the outdoor track season swept into full summer swing last Thursday from sea to shining sea with plenty of action on the enameled plain in between.
In San Diego, Eric Avila and A.J. Acosta, two former area high school stars who have been beset by bad fortune in recent years, returned to top form to cap off the Jim Ryun Festival of Miles at the San Diego High School track. Avila blasted a near 10-second PR 3:56.89 to edge out Acosta’s 3:57.07 in front of a small but enthusiastic gathering that came to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jim Ryun’s first high school sub-4 minute mile, a crowd that included many of track’s former stars from SoCal.
Back east In Concord, Massachusetts Eric Finan of Team USA Minnesota joined Avila in the sub-4 club, his 3:58.73 leading three other men sub-4 at the 6thAdrian Martinez Classic. New sponsor Hoka One One brought in Olympic 1500m silver medalist Leo Manzano as the star attraction, but Leo could only manage fourth place (3:59.31) in the tightly contested race.
J Mac captures his second FOM title in St. Louis in record time
And in St. Louis, Missouri Jordan McNamara of Nike OTC Elite posted a 3:54.27 clocking to take down Leo Manzano’s 2009 event record (3:55.29) in the seventh edition of the Nike Festival of Miles. It was JMac’s second win on the St. Louis University High School track. He captured his first FOM title in 2011.
In all there were 10 men under 4:00 on the same night, two in San Diego, four each in Concord and St. Louis. And while all three events showcased excellent competition, giving fans much to appreciate and applaud, what also stands out is the parochial nature of it all. Even the name Festival of Miles shows how blinkered and uncoordinated the sport continues to be.
“The Jim Ryun event looks fun, though I was a little disappointed in the name choice,” wrote Ben Rosario, impresario behind the seven-year old Nike Festival of Miles in St. Louis. “But it is what it is.”
Tampa, FL. — Certainly, I’ve been a critic over the years of the sport’s de-emphasis on competition in favor of fun-running and charity fund-raising, likening that trend to America’s de-emphasis on education in favor of grade-inflation and child buttering. Jerry Seinfeld did a great bit Tuesday night on Jimmy Fallon’s second night as Tonight Show host on this topic, saying, “when we were young our parents didn’t give a damn about us. They didn’t even know our names!”
But history isn’t linear, and pendulums have a habit of sweeping back in the other direction. Thus, a quick survey of recent moves in the sport lead to a conclusion that competition is once again being noticed, even appreciated, and highlighted.
This weekend I am here in Tampa for the return of the Gasparilla Distance Classic to the ranks of pro racing. It’s the first time Gasparilla has invited a pro field to the streets of Tampa since 1997. And its a welcome return to what traditionally had been the best field of the year during the 1980s and `90s when Gasparilla was the first race of the year and everyone was anxious to get out of the cold and into Florida for a blistering 15K burnout. This year it will be a pro half-marathon with an American based field, which I will break down after talking with the athletes as they assemble. (more…)
The award ceremony for yesterday’s San Diego Super Run 10Km was about to start in South Shores Park (just east of Sea World), but the men’s winner couldn’t wait any longer. As his fellow finishers came up to congratulate him, or waited in line for post-race snacks, Lukas Verzbicas was anxious to get on with the 20 km cycling time trial around nearby Fiesta Island, even as a swim session loomed later up in La Jolla. Awards would have to wait.
A thoroughly calculating young man, Lukas has his priorities as he ramps up for his first full season of top competition since his terrible cycling accident in Colorado Springs in July 2012. Perhaps his choice of triathlon as a profession might suggest such a trait, but it seems like a personal tendency just the same.
“Yes, he likes everything just so,” agreed Cathy Holl, who met Lukas serving as the ITU Pro Homestay coordinator for San Diego last year, and has since, with husband Steve, become something of a surrogate parent for the young man who grew up in Lithuania before emigrating to Orland Park, Illinois outside Chicago at age 9. “He’s like a Maserati, finely tuned, but very sweet.”
It was hard to miss the former sub-4:00 high school miler and 2011 ITU World Junior Triathlon champion at this morning’s annual Super Bowl weekend road race. Strikingly sleek, with the endless legs of a thoroughbred, Lukas was making his 2014 racing debut at this decades-old local standby out to Crown Point and back along the bay.
“This was just something to do,” Lukas told me after his 32:05 win. “Joaquim (Cruz) wanted me to do a tempo run, and this was a race he always used to have (two-time 800m Olympian) Alice Schmidt run when she lived here.”
“I’m leaving for Arizona this week for the USAT (USA Triathlon) training camp for the national team,” he said, outlining his coming schedule. “Just one week there, then I’ll return for the Endurance Live Awards. I have a race March 1st in Cleremont, Florida, the Sprint Pan Am Cup (750m swim; 20 km bike; 5 km run). I’ve done it before; going for the win there. I like the Olympic distance better (1,500m swim; 40 km bike; 10 km run), but this is just to break the ice.”
BACK IN THE SADDLE
It was nice to speak with the 21 year-old (his birthday was January 6th) without the first question being about the serious cycling accident that left him hospitalized for five weeks and partially paralyzed. It has taken more than a year and a half for Lukas to overcome that setback, but he seems ready to assume his spot at or near the top of his profession.
“I’m pretty much healthy now, not thinking about it anymore,” he maintained. “My main goal this season is to compete for a podium position at the ITU World Triathlon Series race in Chicago June 29th. Go up against the Olympic gold medalist, and the best in the world. I’m in a hard training block now. Training has been going very good.”
Lukas didn’t have any competition in today’s race; second place finished some 2:41 behind. But he’s excited to reengage with his peers. Those ranks grew last week with the intriguing announcement that Alan Webb, another of the Fab 5 high school boys to go sub-4:00 in the mile — and indeed the American record holder in the mile — was retiring from track to enter the world of triathlon at age 31.
“He came down here last October, and we trained together a little,” Lukas said. “He had a swimming background in high school. He’s been hurt a lot (in running). Swimming is the main thing he has to improve upon. It’s so much form rather than just effort. Effort can translate to the bike, but running off the bike is different than just running, too. So he can’t expect to come into triathlon and compete right away at the highest level. It will take a little time.”
If Alan should ever need advice about patience, he’ll have find no better mentor than Lukas V.
Oh, he’s rooting for the Broncos in the Super Bowl.
San Diego’s Balboa Stadium formed a classic horseshoe design in 1965 when it was home to the AFL San Diego Chargers. Today the place has shrunk in size and import as home to the San Diego High School Cavers.
Back in 1965 Balboa Stadium also hosted the AAU Track & Field Championships, the highlight of which was the one mile run, featuring New Zealand’s Peter Snell and Czechoslovakia’s Josef Odložil, the Olympic gold and silver medalists from Tokyo 1964. Joining them in the field was the newly-minted American mile record holder, Jim Grelle, a product of Bill Bowerman’s University of Oregon program, and one other notable worth mentioning, a gangly high school senior out of Wichita East High School in Kansas, one Jim Ryun.
Last night an only slightly less gangly Jim Ryun stepped back into Balboa Stadium for the first time in 48 years to address members of the San Diego Track Club just before their weekly workout. After his remarks and the surge of autographs and photos had slowed, Jim stood and recalled the night in 1965 that still stands as the most legendary that any U.S. high school athlete in track ever created.
“In 1965 I had just turned 18, and the day before the meet there had been a press conference, and I was not invited because I was a high school kid — which didn’t bother me. But my coach, J.D. Edmundson, went, and he came back and said, ‘They asked Peter Snell what he thought about the kid from Wichita East. And he said, “Well, one day he may be a factor in a race, and I’m sure he’ll have a great career”. Well, J.D. was telling me that hoping it was going to fire me up. But I was already fired up. I didn’t need that.”
Ryun remembers an electric crowd of around 20,000 that night in a stadium which held 34,000. ABC’s Wide World of Sports covered the meet live with Bill Fleming and Jim Beatty on the call. (more…)
A year and a half after conducting a Town Hall meeting at their 2010 industry conference focused on the obesity epidemic, Running USA has yet to put in place a children’s initiative that would either compliment or coordinate with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move, NFL’s Play 60, or NBA’s Get Fit initiatives. Though a memorandum of understanding (MOU) has been floated to create a joint RUSA, USATF Foundation, RRCA initiative, to date, no consensus has been reached on implementing that, or any other such program.
It is classic running world paralysis, underscoring the deep divisions inherent in this most individual and turf-oriented of sports. As RUSA President Virginia Brophy Achman of Minnesota has said, “While it is great that we all have thoughts and opinions, and I do embrace diverse perspectives, at some point we have to build consensus and move forward. “
She is absolutely right. Yet the passions in the sport run strong. And while that is a good thing, the existential division between road running and its default national governing body, USATF – which, given the state of that organization, shows no signs of changing – has led to a deeply rooted local event orientation, which in turn has made cross-event promotion and consensus an elusive target.
This coming Tuesday another teleconference among RUSA board members will again broach the subject in an attempt to kick start a process which is quickly moving away from a sport whose mission and structure, at least on the surface, is perhaps best suited to address the growing national problem. (more…)