THE INNER SANCTUM OF PURPOSEFUL EFFORT

War is hell is a cliche as old as conflict itself. Yet counter intuitive as it may seem veterans of war in some ways yearn for the battleground setting. Not because they reveled in the danger or got off by shooting at other people. Instead it was the camaraderie, the brother/sisterhood, the all-in-it-together, none-to-tease-out quality of their service they missed.

Athletics lends itself to that bonding, too. You can see it in the nervous shaking out of muscles as athletes settle into their starting blocks, in the deep anxious breaths before they are called to the set position, and then in the post-race touching of hands as competitors acknowledge the realm from which they have just returned, the inner sanctum of purposeful effort. Continue reading

POP GOES THE BOOM!

1972 Olympic Marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter.

1972 Olympic Marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter.

The running boom is over, and you can blame the millennials.  So says an article in the Wall Street Journal quoting statistics from, among others, Running USA showing a significant slide in running event participation from the peak of 19 million in 2013 to 17 million in 2015. 

With running being one of the few recession-proof industries during the height of the 2008 Great Recession, a headline like this and its supporting statistics might come as a shock to some.  But it was only a matter of time before this bubble burst, too.

 The oldest of the baby boomers are now 70 and beginning the long generational bleed out. Gen Y is still involved, but the Miilenials are off into something else, reflecting the natural rebellion one generation mounts against their elders – “this isn’t music!” But in this case it’s also a consequence of teaching an entire generation not to compete, drilling into their skulls the idea that every one of them is special and a winner, giving them all medals for showing up, and leading them to believe that 60% of them deserve an A for “just being you!” before shoving them out into a decidedly Darwinian world. Oops, I guess we didn’t prepare them very well. 

Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny

What’s particularly amazing about this is America was built on competition. From the hand-over-fist pioneer spirit that drove Manifest Destiny westward (not saying it was a good or moral thing, just noting a hard-charging, can-do national spirit), to the high-risk, big-reward entrepreneurial spirit that created the greatest economic engine in history, America thrived on competition. 

I remember being at a Super Bowl party one year, and explaining to a German friend how USA Today would rank the commercials in tomorrow’s paper, not just not write about the game. Her reply was a tersely Teutonic, “everything with you Americans is competition.” And I had to agree. “That’s how we know we’re American.  Maybe not totally self-aware, but goin’ after it with refreshing vigor.”

But sometime in the 1990s we began leveling not just the playing field, but the results’ page. Now, instead of everyone getting the same opportunity at the start and an outcome determined by individual achievement, we began engineering the same outcome for all.  Nike’s famous slogan “Just Do It” inferred striving, but soon simply doing became the functional equivalent of doing well. 

Everyone is a winnerThese days, everything has to be social and protected and non-competitive until the inevitable softening begins to show.  But rather than do something about it, we began to salute what we had with plus-size models and wider coffins. Finally, competition is viewed as a destructive force.  Only then do we begin to see how a backlash can form, leading to the rise of a very unconventional candidate who trumpets a return to a greatness now gone. 

But these are the sweeps of history at play, the larger changes that only become apparent after they show up as data points. 

For the Baby Boom generation running toward self-fulfillment was in its own way a backlash against the sit-ins and marches they staged during their college days when they thought they could change society at-large. In the wake of their fractured idealism they were shown a new path by Frank Shorter at the ’72 Olympic Marathon in Munich. 

Inspired by Shorter, and informed by new medical studies led by Ken Cooper in Dallas, the Boomers began working on the one thing they had any chance of changing, themselves. But in reducing the fight to an internal one-on-one battle, in their aggregate the generation did in fact help change the world. 

And now the world is changing again as time first begins to march, then trot, then run flat out until it’s away and gone. 

END

MEB NOW ATOP ALL-TIME U.S. DISTANCE RUNNING LIST

 

Meb and family celebrate his 4th OIympic berth

Meb & family celebrate his 4th OIympic berth

After his impressive win at Saturday’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials Marathon in Los Angeles (in his debut at the distance) who knows how far Oregon’s Galen Rupp can take his career in the years to come — or if he will even have a sport left to build a career upon, given all the rot coming out of the IAAF Eyes Wide Shut hall of mirrors in Monaco these days. But let’s say the sport survives its current suicide attempt, just for argument’s sake.

Though the Oregon-based 2012 Olympic 10,000m silver medalist and American record holder is well on his way to a historic CV, and is now talking a probable 10K-marathon double in the Rio Games this August, Galen still has a way to go to match the career resume of his Trial’s runner up Meb Keflezighi.  With Meb’s second-place finish behind Galen at the Trials last Saturday, earning his fourth Olympic berth, you have to say once and for all — though it’s a close call — that Meb has finally climbed to the very top of the U.S. distance running mountain as the best we have ever seen.  Continue reading

THINKING ON YOUR FEET

Down Goes Alysia

Down Goes Alysia

How many times have each of us come together in a working group to brainstorm an idea or try to come up with an idea to more fully develop?  It is a standard practice in most businesses.  Yet studies have shown that the creative process is best assisted not by some peristaltic group session, but rather in the idles between any such serious attempts.  And since much of running is managed by our reptilian lower brain — we don’t have to think, “right foot, left foot, breathe in, breathe out” — through the act itself our higher intellect is offered unfettered freedom to roam the labyrinth of undifferentiated thoughts and feelings marking the territory of our conscious and unconscious selves.

This understanding is well-travelled ground for any avid runner.  The very act itself is like a meditation, an auto-pilot physicality that releases the right-side brain to wander and jog at its whim through the millions of latent potentialities that exist among the billions of neurons firing in the furnace of the brain.  As such, fitness can become our emancipator, often reordering heretofore unconnected patterns and henids into crystalline ideas or decisions. So, too, does this exist in the realm of racing. Continue reading

CELEBRATING COACH SQUIRES AT 80

Talking Points with Coach Bill Squires

This Saturday, November 24, 2012 friends of Coach Bill Squires will gather at Boston College from noon till 3 pm for an 80th birthday celebration. From far out on the California coast, a toast and fond salute to the coach who famously led Boston State College and the Greater Boston Track Club during a career that carried many a runner and team to national and international titles, all with no budget or home track, while revolutionizing marathon training with athletes like Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, Greg Meyer, Bob Hodge and Dick Beardsley.

But it wasn’t the Xs and Os of his training programs that made Coach Squires a New England running legend, or that earned him the Bill Bowerman Award from the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in 2002. It was much more than what he said.

How to best explain it?

Well, I guess I could go back to the early `80s and take you on the drive with the coach and New Zealand Olympian Kevin Ryan as we headed from Boston to New York for the Millrose Games, the drive that got the coach talking about his “date” with Hollywood starlet Natalie Wood – or as coach called her, “Natley”, in his clipped Arlington, Mass. born accent.

As the coach told it, the date had been arranged by Photo Play, or some such Hollywood magazine.  Squires was a miler at Notre Dame at the time, and he and another athlete in L.A. for the NCAA Championships were to escort Ms. Wood and Annette Funicello, the ex-Mousketeer, on a date for publicity purposes.

I could go on and tell you about Coach’s reaction after Kevin Ryan caustically remarked from behind the wheel, “Huh. No way a beautiful woman like that would go out with an ugly prick like you,” said as he downed another Foster’s while zooming at 80+ down I-84, and yet uncannily knowing when to slow down for a soon passing state trooper.

“ME-E?!! ” exclaimed the coach riding shotgun, his voice rising two octaves, accent straining in startled indignation. “I was handsome : six feet tall, 160 pounds, blawnnd crew cut hayuh (sic), 100 push ups a day – I had definition in my bawdy!  Are you kiddin’ me!!???”

I was left in a puddle of hysterics in the backseat.

Or, I could regale you with Coach’s story (again indignantly told on the same drive) about how he used to pee in his college dorm room sink in the dead of night, because he didn’t want to pad down the hall to the communal men’s room.  And how after his roommate complained to the good fathers of Notre Dame about the coach’s indecorous behavior, how the coach proceeded to present a paper at his disciplinary hearing detailing the disinfectant properties of urine as utilized by soldiers in the Boer War as a weapon’s cleaner.  And yet, notwithstanding this uncontested testimony, how the coach was firmly instructed never again to use his sink for anything beyond hands and face washing and tooth brushing, and that included no weapon’s cleaning.

Sure, I could do that, but why go back that far? Continue reading

The Value of a Hero

    

     We were broadcasting the National Scholastic Indoor Track & Field Championships for ESPN from the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y.  It was Sunday, March 11, 1990.  Though we had known one another for many years as reporter – athlete, the 1990 National Scholastic meet was the first time I found myself working alongside Olympic Marathon gold medal winner Frank Shorter professionally.  

    During one of the breaks in our coverage we began to discus the news of the day, primarily how the Lithuanian parliament was poised to secede from the Soviet Union, which would mark the first break from Moscow by a Baltic state forcibly annexed in 1940, and be the first independence vote of any kind in the 68 year history of the Soviet state.  The questions we, and many others, had was how far would the 1989 revolution extend, how would America play it, and what shape would the world eventually take?

Continue reading

MEMORIES OF GRETE

    April 18, 2011 will forever be remembered as one of the most bittersweet in running history.  After a magical morning when the running gods blessed us with a once-in-a-generation Boston Marathon, they took back much more with the passing of Grete Waitz, a once-in-a-lifetime hero.  The great Norwegian track, cross country, and marathon champion succumbed to cancer late Monday night at her home in Oslo, Norway, ending a courageous six-year battle and a life of 57 too short years.  Grete died as she had lived, with dignity, grace, and the love of her family and friends.

Those of us fortunate enough to call her a friend knew of the improbability of her prognosis when cancer was first discovered in 2005.  Yet this most private of people who won the hearts of the most public of cities, New York City, maintained the incomparable grace that made her much more than a championship runner.

Sport is a meritocracy.  Thus each game must be fortunate in its champions.  In the late 1970s, the growing sport of marathoning could not have chosen a more perfect candidate to flower than the 27 year-old school teacher from Oslo.  At the time, Grete was on the cusp of retirement, figuring she had run out the string on what had already been a remarkable career.

After five world cross country titles and two track Olympics – but no distance beyond 3000 meters available – Grete only reluctantly accepted race director Fred Lebow’s invitation to the 1978 New York City Marathon because husband/coach Jack convinced her it would make for a nice second honeymoon.

I was fortunate enough to be the finish line announcer that fall day in the Big Apple.  As the women’s race entered its final stages word was relayed to me from the lead vehicle that bib #1173 was winning by a wide margin. I paged through my entry list, but found no such number.

“Well, I don’t know who bib number 1173 is,” I informed the Central Park crowd, “but she’s gonna break the world record!”

When Grete crossed the finish line in her Norwegian national colors in 2:32:30, she not only lowered Germany’s Christa Vahlensieck’s world record by 2:18, she unknowingly lit the fuse on what would soon become the women’s Running Boom.  Running had already crowned its king in the person of Bill Rodgers, whose boy-next-door wins in the Boston and New York City Marathons through the late 1970s brought marathoning to the next level after Frank Shorter’s Olympic glory in 1972 & 1976.  What the sport had yet to find was a fitting queen.  Continue reading