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

NEW WAY TO DEAL WITH PED USE

With Sunday’s running of the TCS New York City Marathon fast approaching, the fields are set, the course is ready, and the viewing parties have all been arranged.  All that’s left is an unsullied journey through the five boroughs with worthy champions awaiting to be crowned.

Only once in 48 years has there been a positive drug test of real consequence at the NYC Marathon, that being Toni Niemzcak of Poland, who finished second in 1986 behind Italy’s Gianni PoliNiemzcak failed a drug test which had discovered a banned steroid in his system.  His position was vacated and prize money not awarded.  There was one other drug positive in 2011, announced in 2012, of Ethiopian Ezkyas Sisay who finished ninth in his 2011 debut and later was found to have utilized the blood booster EPO.   He, too, was DQ’d.

The problem of PED use persists, as New York’s Abbott World Marathon Majors partners in London, Chicago, and Boston have all been repeatedly burned in recent years by Russia’s Lilya Shobukhova and Rita Jeptoo of Kenya.   In 2017, the AWMMs cut their athletic prize for the series title in half from $500,000 to $250,000, while only awarding a portion of that first prize award each year as a hedge against getting hit like they have in the past.  But what else can be done to end this scourge on all sports?  Here’s a tongue-in-cheek suggestion.

 

 

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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

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!)

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TWO MARATHONS PER YEAR?

Japan’s “Citizen Runner” Yuki Kawauchi is notably famous for his relentless marathon schedule. Since his humble start in February 2009 when he finished 20th at the Beppu-Oita Manichi Marathon in 2:19:26, the now 30 year-old school custodian has run 67 marathons, 22 of which have ended in victory. Twice, 2014 and 2015, he has started 12, and generally his time range has been from 2:09 to 2:18.

Kawauchi, however, is the outlier. The conventional wisdom has long held that at the very highest level professional marathoners optimized at two per year, one in the spring, one in the fall. The original cast of five Abbott World Marathon Majors was built on that assumption.

With a marathon training cycle of roughly 12 weeks, and a proper recovery requiring one month, it was felt that two per year was the way to best schedule a marathon career, with exceptions made for an Olympic or (possibly) a World Championships year, where athletes were willing to compromise their fall effort for a shot at Olympic or WC glory.

Wilson Kipsang breaks from Eliud Kipchoge in 2013 Berlin, the only loss in Kipchoge’s marathon career

The perfect illustration of this is the current world number one marathoner Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya. Since the ’03 5000m world champion began with a win in Hamburg in April of 2013 (2:05:30), he has run two per year like clockwork, one in the spring, one in the fall, winning each and every race except his second career start in Berlin in September 2013 where he took second place (2:04:05) to Wilson Kipsang‘s then world record 2:03:23.

Even last year when Eliud won in London in April in a near-world record 2:03:05, then came back in Rio in August to claim Olympic gold, he didn’t force a fall start, saving himself instead for the mighty effort in Monza, Italy this past May in the Nike Breaking2 Project.

So, too, with rival Wilson Kipsang. His marathon career has stretched from Paris 2010 (3rd, 2:07:13) to Tokyo in late February 2017 (1st, 2:03:58). Only twice in that span has he added a third marathon, 2012 when he took bronze at the London Games, and 2015 when he DNF’d at the Beijing World Championships.

Ethiopia’s Keninisa  Bekele, too, has generally stuck to the two-per-year model since he began in Paris 2014 (1st, 2:05:04). However in 2015 he only made one start, DNF’g in Dubai in January as he worked through an injury.

But as the paydays continued to spread around the world and opportunities began to crop up where the weather was conducive to marathon running in what previously might have been off season, we have begun to see more and more athletes stretch their wings and challenge old assumptions. Continue reading

THE ROADS AS RECONCILIATION

The divisions in this country remain profound as we exit this most contentious election season with a new president-elect. Yet despite those divisions America remains what it has always been, a unique patchwork society quilted of many colors sewn together with a common thread – the rule of law and an originating declaration espousing the equality of all.

Though it is a patchwork that is in constant need of mending, and it’s originating declaration in need of expanding, it has survived for 240 years along an arc of inclusion, which is no mean feat. We can see how difficult this quilting truly is when we look to the European Union’s current attempt.

There, a thousand years of national divisions defined by blood, religion, and wars have hardened hearts and released spasms of revanchist pride (see the Brexit vote in U.K.) It is a difficult history to surmount, much less in a single generation during which tumult and dislocation loosed by ongoing wars in the Middle East is a primary feature.

There is much in the world that is conspiring to separate us, while very few things find universal appeal. Even a mother’s hope for her child is defined differently in different places. And the Olympic Games, an institution born to unite, has been shadowed by corruption, cynicism, and a growing allegiance to fortune rather than fair play.

In any open society elections expose fault lines and divisions as new ideas are offered and debated while old ways are challenged. In that contested environment camps pitch and feelings get hurt.  Yet notwithstanding those divisions, there still exists in most people a desire for empathy and understanding.

One place these universal feelings are being expressed most profoundly are at road races, both in the U. S. and abroad. Continue reading

2016 TCS NEW YORK CITY MARATHON- PHOTO ESSAY

New York, N.Y. – He may or may not actually be the 20 years of age that his passport declares (birth dates are often less precise in some parts of the world). But that didn’t stop Eritrea’s Ghirmay Ghebreslassie from frolicking like a young colt through the five concrete boroughs in the 46th running of the TCS New York City Marathon.

Ghebrslassie entering Central Park on his way to victory

Ghebreslassie galloping in Central Park on his way to  a 2:07:51 victory.

Showing no signs that he was competing in his third big time marathon in seven months time, the long-named strider put an exclamation point on his 2016 campaign, adding the New York City title to fourth place finishes in the London and Rio Olympic Marathons.

Under azure blue skies and clement mid-50s Fahrenheit temps, Ghebreslassie took charge as the lead pack climbed the Pulaski Bridge at halfway in Queens  (1:04:25). His decisive move splintered the 12-man pack and led eventual runner up Lucas Rotich of Kenya and eventual DNF Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia on a clean breakaway. From that point forward the man from Asmara, Eritrea just kept turning the screw tighter and tighter until Desisa then Rotich gave way up the Willis Avenue Bridge at 20 miles.

Thin as a miser’s smile, the 2015 World Marathon champion in Beijing was only 34-seconds off the course record pace at 20 miles. But once free from Rotich, the recently married Gheb cantered home in 31:01 over the final 10K while Mutai had pressed his margin with a 28:36 in 2011 to set the record at 2:05:06.

In the end Ghirmay G. added a shiny Big Apple to his growing display case with a convincing 2:07:51 win, third  fastest winning time in New York history and just five seconds off his PR run this spring finishing fourth in London. Continue reading