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

A SAD STORY HOWEVER IT’S TOLD

Let’s begin with Emma Coburn’s response to the Kenyan team saying before the World Championships that they would bring the women’s steeplechase medals in Doha back to Kenya where they belong after Emma and teammate Courtney Frerichs won gold and silver in London 2017 for Team USA.

“I don’t listen to what other people say,” Coburn told NBC. “I’m focused on what I have to do and will bring my fight to the arena.”

Silver medalist Emma Coburn in the women’s 3000 meter steeplechase final at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Last night in Doha, Coburn’s fight brought her to a 9:02.35 PR to take the silver medal behind Kenyan Beatrice Chepkoech as the Kenyan star literally ran away with the gold medal in a championship record 8:57.94.

It was the third straight PR by Coburn in global event finals. She went from a 9:07.63 bronze medal at the Rio Olympics 2016 to a 9:02.58 gold in the London World Championships 2017, and now a 9:02.35 silver in Doha.

Odds are Colburn will never run the times Chepkoech has. So what are you to do about that?  Accept it graciously and thank your competitors for bringing out the best in you?  Or do you look for another way to get closer?

How does this play into the four-year ban announced yesterday by USADA against Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar and Houston-based endocrinologist Dr. Jeffrey Brown?  Well, Alberto was never like Emma Coburn, he did pay close attention to what others said and did. And he did look for another way.

Nike Oregon Project Coach Alberto Salazar

Continue reading

RELENTLESS SHALANE WINS IN NEW YORK CITY

Like many a Boston Marathon finisher, Shalane Flanagan walked downstairs with a tender tred after the race. The Marblehead, Massachusetts native had attacked the old course with a willful intention on Patriot’s Day 2014, convinced that an unrelenting pace from the start would discourage her opponents and set her up for victory.  But now, after the savage pace she set on the rolling hills from Hopkinton to Heartbreak Hill in Newton had shredded her quads, the walk downstairs from the VIP room of the House of Blues to the main stage for that night’s award ceremony was proving to be yet another painful journey.

Once on stage, the top ten women were presented to the boisterous crowd. Shalane was number seven. Then, as the champion (now confirmed drug cheat) Rita Jeptoo of Kenya basked in the spotlight and applause gowned up like a beauty pageant contestant, Shalane stood behind her still unrelenting, still feisty and unbowed.

“You’re welcome,” Shalane said tartly from behind as I introduced Jeptoo to the crowd. We heard her.  It was an acknowledgment that Flanagan knew exactly what role she had played in the fastest Boston Marathon in history, her own 2:22:02 time in seventh being the fastest ever by an American in Boston.

Shalane Flanagan leading the charge in Boston 2014

The plan for Boston 2014 had been set months in advance by Shalane and her Bowerman Track Club coach Jerry Schumacher. And to a degree, it had worked, delivering the 33-year-old to the Boylston Street finish line in exactly the time she was trying to achieve. Unfortunately, it was nearly four minutes behind the drug queen, and two minutes off that which Buzunesh Deba of Ethiopia fashioned in second place – 2:19:59.

“When I first heard of Jeptoo (drug bust),” remembered Shalane, “I was angry. But then I was relieved. I could do that two minutes.”

And she nearly did, six months later in Berlin, again gunning for time rather than place. This time it was Deena Kastor‘s American record 2:19:36 from London 2006. Continue reading

AMERICAN MASTER MEB SAYS SO LONG

 

Meb after 2009 NYC win

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. Continue reading

CONSIDERING CHICAGO 2017

People have been asking why I hadn’t written anything on the outcome of this year’s Chicago Marathon after the historic win by Galen Rupp in the men’s race, and the third place finish by Jordan Hasay for women, whose 2:20:57 represents the second-fastest marathon time ever by an American woman.  Well, it has taken me a while to write, because A) I wasn’t there to talk with the principals, and B) there are conflicting emotions at play.

On the surface, it’s a wonderful thing; two American runners achieved a truly impressive outcome against world-class competition in one of the major marathons of the world.  Both athletes are likable and humble with careers of excellence going back to their high school days now coming to full flower in their professional years.  Both have loving support systems and are coached by another all-time great American runner, Alberto Salazar of the Nike Oregon Project. Together, these results are worthy of grand celebrations, all things being equal. But, of course, all things are not equal, which is what leads to the conflicting emotions. Continue reading

BERLIN 2017: IS PAST STILL PROLOGUE?

In the past, it was the pure strength men, or those who couldn’t quite finish fast enough on the Olympic track to earn medals, who sought solace in the marathon. Back then the world record was less a goal than an outcome. Names like Derek Clayton, Ron Hill, Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Toshihiko Seko, Alberto Salazar, Rob de Castella, Steve Jones, and Juma Ikangaa are still venerated by old hearts.

Today, with the rewards to be made, young men come into the game totally fearless, all the progeny of the late Sammy Wanjiru, the mercurial Kenyan who announced a new era in marathon running when he attacked the 2008 Beijing Olympic course on a hot summer’s day as if he were on a 10k romp through a dewy meadow on a perfect spring morn. The following spring in London he goaded pacers to a 28:30 first 10k on the way to a 1:01:36 half and a brave, but fading 2:05:10 win.

Wanjiru forever changed the relationship between racers and the distance in those two races, stripping the marathon of much of its mystique, and arming marathoners everywhere with new courage at starting lines around the world.

We saw the full effect of the Wanjiru Era last May in Monza, Italy when former 5000 meter world champion Eliud Kipchoge came within 25 seconds of the two-hour barrier at Nike’s Breaking2 Project exhibition.  And now on September 24th in Berlin, Kipchoge, along with defending champion Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia and 2013 winner and ’16 runner up Wilson Kipsang of Kenya will meet at the 44th BMW Berlin Marathon, hunting for sub-2:02:57, the official marathon world record. It is a glorious matchup between two former track men moving up and one pure marathon man, each a past winner in the German capital.   Continue reading

TWIXT THE SPIRIT AND LETTER

As an athlete Alberto Salazar was willing to delve more deeply into the dark raging corridors within than any athlete I ever encountered.  That do-or-die spirit is what elevated Al to iconic status as a runner, but it also brought him to the edge of the abyss. Twice he ran himself to the precipice of a serious medical crisis, once at the Falmouth Road Race 1978 (hyperthermia), again at the 1982 Boston Marathon (hypothermia).

Now, with the release of a 269-page interim USADA report on the Nike Oregon Project and its coach by Russian hackers, we find Coach Salazar’s intense drive to succeed once again putting him on the edge between fair and foul, not only in the court of sport, but in the court of public opinion.   Continue reading