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

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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

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

FALMOUTH ROAD RACE FOUNDER TOMMY LEONARD TURNS 84

This Sunday the New Balance Falmouth Road Race turns 45.  But today race founder and guiding spirit Tommy Leonard celebrates his 84th birthday.

Back in the Summer of `72 Tommy was tending bar at the Brothers 4 on Falmouth Heights when Frank Shorter ran to the gold medal at the Munich Olympic Marathon.  Inspired by Frank’s win, Tommy dreamed up a local road race to help raise funds for the Falmouth Girl’s Track Club.  45 years later, both the founder and his founding spirit live on.

Tommy Leonard

Though he summered on Cape Cod, T.L. called Boston’s Eliot Lounge home for nearly a quarter century, and it was there that his legend took root.  In honor of his birthday, here is a little verse that recalls the days when a visit to Tommy was on every runner’s wish list. Continue reading

THE INNER SANCTUM OF PURPOSEFUL EFFORT

“War is hell” is a cliche as old as conflict itself. Yet counter-intuitive as it may seem to those who only view it from a distance, many a veteran yearns for that hell once they have returned to the heaven they thought they left back home. Not because they reveled in the danger and adrenaline of the battlefield, or discovered glory in the killing of the enemy. Rather, 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 quality of 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