MONEYBALL FOR THE MARATHON?

Lahaina, Maui – In 2003 Michael Lewis published Moneyball, a book about how the Oakland Athletics baseball team implemented a more efficient and cost-effective way to evaluate players and strategize game situations based solely on data analysis. Its approach led the Athletics to  player acquisitions  that other teams had overlooked or disregarded, but more importantly, led to success on the diamond.

When the book came out, many a baseball expert was dismissive. But at some point they couldn’t argue with the success the A’s were having using their new methodology.

In the ensuing years, people in many other fields have taken the Moneyball example to reevaluate their businesses, positing that if the old ways of analyzing baseball were in error, couldn’t other suppositions be open to reexamination, as well? Continue reading

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MEB: WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Pride, rue, chagrin, the emotions any of us feel about our name can run a wide gamut. For instance, my name is Toni, but as you notice, it ends in an I, rather than a Y. That’s because in Poland, birthplace of my mother, they spell Anthony as Antoni, hence, Toni, not Tony (though I answer to both).

Since I reached my majority, no big deal, but as a young boy growing up in the American Midwest, having what my peers considered a girl’s name often proved challenging. In fact, it’s one reason why I started to run.  It was easier and less painful than fighting every time some chump chided me with my ‘girl’s name’ anomaly.

Which brings us to Meb Keflezighi, the American marathon star who was surprised  by several hundred friends, relatives, and fans Monday night (November 13, 2017) at San Diego’s Liberty Station two weeks after he concluded his remarkable career with an 11th place finish at the TCS New York City Marathon at age 42. The retirement  celebration also raised funds benefiting the MEB Foundation, which promotes health education and fitness programs for youth.

Meb arriving with wife Yordanos (photo by Bob Betancourt)

The evening brought into relief once again just how far the man has come. Not just through the long journey from war-torn Eritrea to Italy and finally America as a 12 year-old boy, or on the many ups and downs of his competitive career, from his days at San Diego High to UCLA all the way to the Mount Rushmore of American distance running. No, I mean simply in terms of culture.

Like the name Meb for instance.  The first time you hear it, sounds more like a distance than a name.

“How far did you run today?”

“I got in about sixteen Mebs, and threw in a couple of Hawis for good measure.”

But no matter the obstacle, be it cultural or sporting, Meb always found a way to surmount it and then triumph, while including many, many others in those triumphs along the way. 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

WHY RUN MARATHONS? POINT – COUNTERPOINT

Hello, hello, hello, hello.

So we got ourselves another big marathon coming up this weekend in New York City, 50,000 strong going the distance through all five boroughs.

Ok, maybe it is perverse, but through fire comes cleansing.  And the marathon is fire enough for most. Strange as it may sound, bizarre though it may look, through all the discomfort of running 26.2 miles comes a healing that marks the marathon like no other sporting event. Through its winding miles and colorful crowds, the event has proven to be a unifying thread that ties a city together that all too often is famed for its impersonal diversity.

Out in Los Angeles, another of America’s great diverse metropolises, it seems every time the city found itself in a time of need, whether after fire, flood, or civil unrest, the marathon somehow came up, providentially, on the calendar to return hope and lend a sense of unity and goodwill.  And, of course, the Boston Marathon is famous, not just for the horrific finish-line bombing in 2013, but for its miraculous resurrection and embrace of 2014.  This weekend that spirit and purpose are again being called to duty at the TCS New York City Marathon just as it was in 2001.

TCS New York City Marathon crowds

Time and time again, the simple act of stripping thousands of people down to a pair of shorts and a singlet, pinning a race number on their chest, and channeling them 26.2 miles from point A to point B has simultaneously stripped away all the biases and differences that heretofore had come to define them. Amidst the rollicking throngs that annually meet to run through the most diverse marathon course in America, neither a Democrat nor Republican could you identify, Christian or Jew, Muslim or heathen.

Instead the marathon in New York, like every major city marathon before it, has discovered that by challenging people with a task at the far end of their capability, yet still within their grasp, it could help them transcend the hard lines of religion, politics, and economic station that differentiate them on every other day, and in so doing, set the once-vaunted American melting pot back to boil.

That is quite a trick to pull off in today’s world of identity politics and hardline Us-versus-Them encampments. But the very simple act of running has proven capable of this assimilation, while the city and its people have responded enthusiastically as if in answer to a call from their own better angels.

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COUNTERPOINT

Let me ask you a question: Tell me why? That’s right, why do people still run marathons?

People, if a salesman knocked on your door and offered to sell you something that would make your toenails fall off and your nipples bleed for $375, what would you do?  You’d kick him in the ass with your good toenails, that’s what!

“Get outta here! What are you, nuts?”

But somehow if folks put up an expo and fill it full of running crap, close city streets and hand you water, all of a sudden people turn into masochists with disposable incomes.

“Is this where I go to pay $375 so I can run till I deplete all my bodily fluids, and make the skin fall off my feet?  Here?  Cool. I can’t wait.”

How did this begin?  Where did this catch on?  The first guy who tried it in 492 B.C. died! It made the news!  Became kinda legendary.  Most sensible people took it as a warning. And that worked for about 2400 years.  But somehow they decided to try it again at the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, and it became a thing.

Weren’t you people punished enough as kids?

It’s one of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated! Let me see, I exhaust myself, I am blistered, I’m experiencing a full body cramp, I’m on the verge of being worthy of a guest-shot on the Jerry Springer Show – “how much is that gonna cost me?”

Jesus, people, isn’t life tough enough? This is what you do for fun?!  Honest.  Have you been to a finish line lately?  It’s like an open casting call for a remake of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and you people are trying out for the role of zombies. I’m not kidding. Do you see what’s left after 26.2 miles?  It’s a horror show.

Might I suggest a laxative?  You need to pass some stuff, cause you’re evidently all clenched up. I’m just sayin’.

(But if you are going to do it anyway, good luck, and have a blast!)

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

2017 LONDON MARATHON: A VIEWER’S PERSPECTIVE

Kenya’s Mary Keitany is all smiles at London Marathon 2017

This is a strange game, isn’t it?  Here we see the great Mary Keitany winning her third Virgin Money London Marathon in 2:17:01, and for the rest of the morning we try to figure out where her performance stands in the list of best-ever women’s marathons.

Now, forgetting all this mixed-gender, women’s-only, point-to-point, downhill  or loop course qualifiers, Mary’s 2:17:01 is the second fastest women’s finishing time ever posted behind Paula Radcliffe’s 2:15:25, London 2003.  But on the coverage shown in the USA by NBCSN her time was referred to as the fastest time ever in a women’s-only race, bettering Paula’s 2:17:42 from London 2005.  But even that 2005 London time ranks behind Paula’s 2:17:18 from Chicago 2002. Confused?

When reading through the chattering class on LetsRun.com, and referring to my own 2002 journal when I covered the women’s race for NBC5 in Chicago, we remember LetsRun co-founder Weldon Johnson served  as Paula’s “escort”, if not rabbit per se.  But when Paula smashed that Chicago mark in London the following spring with her magical 2:15:25, she was also “escorted” by two Kenyan guys the entire way. 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