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

Advertisements

BEKELE STILL TRYING TO FIND HIS GROOVE

Strange to see Kenenisa Bekele still having issues in his marathons after such a long run of success on the track and cross country.  After being widely recognized as the distance running G.O.A.T.,  you just expect each of his following steps to be equally agile and precise.  But after eight marathon starts in four years, this GOAT seems to be butting his head against a particularly stubborn foe.  To date he has only racked up two wins, one fewer than his total number of drop-outs.

The three time Olympic and five time World track champion has pledged that he will break the marathon world record before he retires, and said his DNF in Berlin September 24th had more to do with the cold and rain than with his  preparation. And he was “dismayed” after his manager Jos Hermens suggested to Letsrun.com that Bekele spent too much time concentrating on his business interests rather than training.

Several years ago I wrote some verse – THE END OF MYTH –  about the demise of the marathon as a truly scary distance for top tier athletes after Ethiopian track man  Markos Geneti ran 2:06 to win his debut at the 2011 Los Angeles Marathon. But every once a while, and notably with someone like Bekele, the old lady can still bare her teeth and say, “Not so fast”. Continue reading

BIG 3 DOWN TO 1

Ritz pulls away from Webb at 2000 Foot Locker XC

Ritz pulls away from Webb at 2000 Foot Locker XC. Ryan Hall in a distant third.

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. Continue reading

STEP BY STEP

     In the classic Three Stooges episode, Slowly I Turned, first Mo – then Larry – smashes, hits, punches, and tears poor Curly’s clothing before knocking him to the ground, all for reminding him of his confrontation with Larry (then vice versa) in Niagra Falls over a woman.   After Curly innocently utters the offending city’s name, triggering the attacks, Mo and Larry’s refrain goes, “Niagra Falls! Slowly I turned, and step by step, inch by Inch…”  (Of course, all men can recite Stooges episodes by heart. Women think they are dumb. Men agree, but then remind them, “stupidity is the point. It’s purposeful stupidity, a whole different animal than the unintentional kind most often voiced by candidates running for President).

Well, Galen Rupp might not wear his hair in a bowler like Mo or a frizzed out ‘fro like Larry, but step by step, inch by inch the 25 year-old from Portland, Oregon is proving the American distance running equivalent the Stooges’ classic set piece.

Yes, I questioned the London 2012 Olympic medal chances of Mr. Rupp upon his seventh place finish in Daegu at the World Championships 5000 meters (RUPP‘S DILEMMA), but today at the final Samsung Diamond League meeting of the year in Brussels Rupp took another stride in his step-by-step, inch-by-inch approach to the London Olympic podium in the 10,000 meters. Continue reading