Monday, August 14, 2017

Resurrection

USA distance running is back baby.  The latest ten day run of the World Track and Field Championships in London confirmed the success the United States enjoyed last summer at the Olympics in Rio.  American runners are snapping necks and cashing checks.

From 800 meters to the marathon, the United States scored medals.  The highlight of this spectacular success was Friday night's one-two finish in the women's steeplechase where Emma Coburn claimed gold and an American Record while Courtney Frerich grabbed the silver, also dipping under the old AR.  Going into the race Coburn, who won Olympic bronze in Rio, was considered on the outside looking in when it came to a medal.  Frerich wasn't even in the conversation. The one-two finish by these two remarkable runners may well be the biggest upset scored by an American distance runner since Billy Mills took gold at 10,000 meters in Tokyo at the 1964 Olympics.

When you add Evan Jager's steeplechase bronze American runners out medaled Kenya in an event they have traditionally owned.  Jager joined Coburn, Paul Chelimo in the 5,000 and Jenny Simpson in the 1,500 as repeat medal winners from Rio.  Simpson's wonderful dash to silver over the last 100 meters was certainly the second biggest surprise springing from the championships.  Her joyous post-race celebration was awesome.  The medal also stamped Simpson as the greatest championship middle distance runner in American history, man or woman.

Amy Cragg's bronze medal in the marathon was the third biggest surprise in London.  A bevy of Kenyans and Ethiopians were expected to sweep all of the hardware.  But Hastings put in a gut-busting run over the last half mile to snatch her medal from a Kenyan rival.

The other American medal came from Ajee Wilson who took bronze at 800 meters.  Wilson's performance put it just a couple of steps behind the American Record.  And given the controversy surrounding the two women who finished in front of her, Wilson could be a favorite for gold in three years in Tokyo.

The only distance where America was shut out was over 10,000 meters.  But a bigger disappointment was over 1,500 meters where a season of injury and health issues caught up to Rio gold medalist Matt Centrowitz.  His body betrayed him over the last lap of the qualifying heat and he finished dead last.

Those are small blemishes over an otherwise incredible string of races by America.  A seven medal haul in London is one better than the six claimed in Rio.  Overall team USA took 30 track and field medals, a fine performance indeed.


Saturday, August 5, 2017

Justin

They booed him.  I understood why they were booing him but I chose to cheer him.  I've always had a soft spot for Justin Gatlin and now he had dethroned the greatest sprinter in running history, Usain Bolt.  12 years after winning his first World Championship 100 meter title, the ancient one, Justin Gatlin, was again World Champion.

Gatlin had always struck me as a gentle soul.  When he captured 100 meter Gold at the 2004 Olympics, he was the polar opposite of the man considered America's best sprinter, Maurice Greene.  I liked Greene, a native of Kansas City, Kansas.  He often raced at the Kansas Relays and was a fun interview. 
So that explains this picture.  Sorry for the quality but I took it with my phone, as the photo itself hangs on a wall in my house.  If you look closely you can see Maurice Greene far behind Gatlin as they competed in a 4 x 100 relay at the 2006 Kansas Relays.

The photo was taken by my stepson Andrei, as I stood behind him and we watched this incredible piece of running together.  Little did either one of know that shortly after this race, Gatlin would be drug tested.  He was found positive for a steroid and banned from racing for four years.  At age 26 a ban of that length was tantamount to death penalty for his track and field career.

Gatlin claimed that after the race his therapist rubbed a cream containing testosterone into his legs causing the positive.  Now, I believe that a lot of world class track and field athletes use illegal performance enhancing drugs.  But there was always a small part of me that wanted to believe Gatlin's story.

Despite the badge of dishonor, Andrei had taken such a great picture, the Czarina and I agreed to have the print framed and placed on the wall.  We were both fans.  It was a special moment in history that I had witness. 

Nine years later I would be in Eugene at the Prefontaine Classic.  While catching up with some friends at Track Town Pizza, I spied Gatlin enjoying a slice with some friends across the room.  I don't usually approach athletes or any celebrity, especially when they are eating.  But I walked over and introduced myself and told Justin that I was a big fan.

I was struck by how small he is.  Gatlin is not especially tall and while powerfully built, he didn't have the pitbull body of his one time rival, Maurice Greene.  Gatlin was incredibly gracious and kind.  A warm smile floated across his face.  I wanted to tell him that his picture hung in my house and the race it came from but I knew better than to uncover old wounds.

Gatlin's return to the sport after his suspension offered little promise.  He looked lost.  Few meets wanted him.  When Gatlin did race he looked ragged.  Somehow by 2012 he was an Olympian.  He would spent the next five years nipping at the heels of the great Usain Bolt.  Then came August 5, 2017 and the 100 meter final at the World Championships in London.

The smile on Gatlin's face as he hit the finish line summed it all up.  He knew he had won.  Bolt had no inkling that Gatlin had exploded over the final 20 meters to overtake him and Christian Coleman.  Gatlin, not surprisingly, bowed down to Bolt when the great champion turned to congratulate his rival.  And yet the fans booed.  Well let them boo.  It was a hell of a race. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Future Is Hugh

I've written a lot about the plentiful distance talent among the high school girls in Lee County.  Then, Hugh Brittenham wandered into the store Friday to look at cross country spikes.  Now, I could have sworn I had written something up about this outstanding, young distance talent, but alas I had only a few blurbs to Facebook.  The boys are getting short shrift.
Hugh is preparing for his junior season at Estero High School.  He has a chance to be the best male middle distance runner to ever lace on a pair of spikes in Lee County.  I first noticed his name when he was a mere freshman, breaking 10 minutes for the 3200 and 4:40 for the 1600.  Those kind of times will catch my attention.

The wake up call came like a thunder shot in early spring at a meet in March.  Hugh Brittenham clocked a stunning 1:52.84 800 coming out of the slow heat at the Florida State Relays.  Let me repeat this, 1:52.84 in the slow heat.  He was just a sophomore.

I was stunned because I had seen him run a couple of weeks before at the Edison Relays in Fort Myers.  At that meet he ran a respectable triple which included a leg on the 4 x 800, a 4th place in the 1600 in 4:26.69 and a somewhat surprising win in the 800 in 1:59.37.  The 800 should have been a tip off about what was coming.  He disposed rather easily of Fort Myers senior Evan Babitz who had run 1:56 the year before.  What I saw was a lot of strength by a young runner.  I just didn't realize Hugh had the speed to go with it.

An IT band issue kept him away from the track for a couple of weeks before Hugh returned to take both the 1600 and 800 at the county championships.  At state, Brittenham would finish 2nd in the 1600 in a PR 4:17.78 losing to senior Matt Clark by six tenths of a second.  It wouldn't be until the New Balance Outdoor Nationals that Hugh would show that he indeed had the goods.  He clocked a 1:52.88 800 to finish 2nd in the emerging elite segment of the meet. 

Assuming he stays healthy and continues to prosper under the fine coaching of Ben Pignatone, the sky is the limit.  I think Hugh Brittenham could be the first Lee County boy to break 1:50 in the 800 and 4:10 in the 1600.  He's humble, appears hungry and seems realistic about the path to running faster.  Let's he comes back in for those cross country spikes.  I wouldn't mind putting a pair of shoes on a future state champion.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Summer Of 67

50 years ago the nation watched transfixed as a young man from Kansas dominated the mile like no other American runner ever had or has since. Jim Ryun was finishing up his sophomore year at the University of Kansas preparing to defend his national championship in the mile and laying the groundwork for a trip to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Ryun was a wunderkind who had burst upon American middle distance running three years earlier by shocking the world of track and field with the first sub-four minute mile by a high school boy. He topped that by snagging a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. He followed up his break through year at Wichita East High School by winning the 1965 A.A.U. National Championships in an American Record 3:55.3 in the mile and taking down Olympic Gold medalist Peter Snell from New Zealand in the process.

The four years that would follow at Kansas was unbelievable beyond any Greek heroic tragedy. His freshman year he broke the American Record for two miles, followed that up with a world record in the half mile and then added a pressure packed mile world record clocking a 3:51.3 in Berkeley. Ryun ended 1966 named as the nation's top amateur athlete, winning the Sullivan Award.

America and the world was watching for what Ryun would deliver for an encore in 1967. The whispers centered on whether he could be the first man to run under 3:50 in the mile. He would give a hint of things to come at the Kansas Relays in April clocking a 3:54.7 mile. Five weeks later he would run a 3:53.2 in Compton. Two weeks after that Ryun ran a seemingly pedestrian 4:03.5 mile to win the NCAA Championship. The time would be deceptive since it was run at 4,551 feet in Provo, Utah. Shockingly, it was the only outdoor NCAA title he ever won.

Five days later Ryun would find himself in California's central valley. He had traveled to Bakersfield to defend his AAU outdoor title for the third time. He clocked a leisurely 4:07.5 in winning his preliminary on Thursday June 22. 

The following day offered no hints of what was to come. Ryun told me in a 1997 interview that he didn't feel tip top going into the race. He was feeling sluggish, almost on the verge of a cold. When the gun sounded the field let Ryun slip easily into the lead at a very pedestrian pace. Rolling through the first two laps in a leisurely 1:58.6, there was no sense that something magic was about to happen. But as Ryun told me, the race was beginning to feel special.

Leading into the back stretch on the third lap Ryun began to pull away from the field opening up a sizable gap by the next turn. Now in full flight Ryun hit three laps somewhere in 2:57.6 and the only question was whether he could finish in 52 and break the 3:50 mile. With no one in sight to pressure him, Ryun glided to a new world record of 3:51.1, on a chopped up clay track. Back in 7th place Marty Liquori became the third high school athlete to dip under four minutes in the mile.

Ryun told me it was the easiest race of his life and he headed to altitude to begin preparation for his much anticipated showdown with Kenya's Kip Keino. The year before Keino had pushed Ryun to an American Record for two miles in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Ryun says the sessions at altitude left him exhausted, yearning only for sleep in the days leading up to the July 9th battle, again in Los Angeles.

I remember tuning into ABC's Wide World of Sports for the race and listening to the commentators wonder if Ryun could handle Keino, who had run World Records of his own over 3,000 and 5,000 meters. His best in the mile, 3:53.4, which showed the Kenyan had the speed to give Ryun a real match. I remember watching Keino jump into the lead threatening to run away from the field.

Ryun worked patiently to stay on Keino's heels. The duo hit the bell in 2:55.0 and on the back stretch with 300 yards to go Ryun easily sprinted away from his rival. When he hit the finish line the seven year old world record for 1500 meters had been smashed by more than two seconds with Ryun clocking 3:33.1. Ryun's coach, Bob Timmons, had clocked the last three laps in 2:46.6.

Ryun handed Keino another defeat in the mile one month later in London and finished his season in Germany where he blazed a 50.2 final 400 to win the 1500 meters in 3:38.2. Given the wins in Los Angeles and London over his Kenyan challenger, American track and field fans expected nothing less than gold the following year in Mexico City at the Summer Olympics. The experts knew all too well the challenges of Mexico City's altitude would favor Keino.

1968 would prove to be a challenging year, tragic in a sense. A bout with mononucleosis cost Ryun precious weeks of training. It nearly cost him a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. But in the end it was the altitude and an extraordinary run by Kip Keino would leave Ryun satisfied with a Silver medal. 

Ryun's achievement wasn't enough for many American track and field fans. It brought unmerited criticism to the world record holder and it in part, led to an ignominious end to his career the following summer when Ryun would step off the track mid-race at the AAU Championships in Miami leading him into a retirement that would last more than a year. He was over raced and over trained. Yet his legend remains, 50 years on.





Friday, May 19, 2017

A Fool's Race

Fort Myers or shall I say, Southwest Florida, needs a good marathon.  The current edition of the Fort Myers Marathon just doesn't cut it.  Word is a "new" management group has taken control of this race.  Something tells me that not much has changed.

The first problem is the course, it stinks.  Four trips over bridges is disheartening over what should be a pancake flat course. Going hand in hand with that is the course management, which also stinks.  Since this sham of a race was first launched on Fort Myers Beach four years ago, going off course has become a big part of the tradition.  Maybe the new management will solve the ongoing problem of runners running more than 26.2 miles.

The second problem is the weather.  Early November for a marathon in Southwest Florida is an invitation to disaster.  The fact that no one ended up in the hospital in 2015 from heat stroke is beyond belief.  A marathon in this part of the world needs to happen from mid-December to mid-February, otherwise the risk of heat and humidity is always at hand.

The third problem is the lack of support from the Lee County Sports Authority.  With the right amount of TLC, Lee County could host an event that would surpass the Naples Daily News Half Marathon.  There is no reason why the right course, in the right part of Lee County, a quality race could attract five thousand plus runners.  The desire alone to run a Boston qualifying time should draw a ton of runners.

So here's my advice, if you're looking to run a marathon, stir clear of the Fort Myers Marathon.  If you want to run the half or one of their shorter offerings be my guest.  But Fort Myers deserves better when it comes to 26.2 miles.  
 

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Lee County's GOAT, Krissy Gear

I've been lucky to have been around countless outstanding high school distance runners over the last 40 plus years.  I've been lucky enough to have witnessed, trained with, even coached, young men and women who eventually made national teams including the United States Olympic Team.  Given my background as a coach and journalist I think I can accurately assess runners and their accomplishments.

Krissy Gear has established herself as the greatest distance runner in Lee County history.  Middle distance is defined as the 800/1600/3200.  Friday she swept to a remarkable distance double at the Florida State High School Track and Field Championships.  She captured gold in the 800 in 2:10.29, a school record and the fastest time in Lee County history.  About three hours later she hit the track and made up a stagger gap over the last 800 meters to capture the 3200 meter title in a school record and lifetime best of 10:40.5.  That also stands as one of the fastest times in county history.

On a windy Saturday and with a 800 meter relay leg in her legs, Gear finished up an incredible triple capturing the 1600 meter gold in an outstanding time of 4:56.04.  She ends her high school career at Fort Myers High School with six state championship golds.  She won three titles at 1600 meters.  In the span of those same three years she was 2nd, 5th and 1st in the 800 and captured back to back titles in the 3200.  Oh, and don't forget she scored in the pole vault as a sophomore.

It is fair to mention Gear with other great prep distance runners in Florida High School history, Betty Jo Springs, Ashley Brasovan, Nicole Tully and Jenny Simpson, world champion and Olympic medalist.  And soon Gear will add to her honors representing the U.S.A. in a international competition upcoming in Cuba.

Gear has one final prize she would like before she puts a cap on her outstanding prep career and heads to Furman.  She will travel to North Carolina in June with Coach Rob Strong looking to add run a fast mile.  The goal is a sub 4:45 which would rank her among the best five in the nation.  I suspect deep down inside she would like to take a crack at running the fastest mile by a Florida girl, ever.  With her 800 meter speed it's not beyond her grasp.  Regardless, Gear can stake her claim as Lee County's GOAT.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Crap Fest That's Called Tegna

Once upon a time Gannett had a sterling reputation as a television news operator.  Most of their stations were among the best of the best.  Then the Internet came along destroying their newspapers while the 2008 recession blew up TV station budgets everywhere.  Gannett got cheap.  And to compound things instead of splitting up its television and newspaper operations 10 years ago it bled its TV operations to support its dying newspaper chain.

The split finally came two years ago and a company called Tegna was created.  It has quickly sunk the lowest depths of television news that would rival renowned TV bottom feeders, Sinclair and Nexstar.  A handful of their stations, in Denver and Minneapolis, are still producing amazing work.  But many high profile names have been chased out of their jobs even at those stations, in order to save money.

How bad is the cutting?  Look at News10 in Sacramento.  I worked there for one year from 2010 to 2011.  It was a very rough environment, manned by incredible people.  Tonight news surfaced that the two main anchors that I worked with, Dale Schornack and Cristina Mendonsa, are being let go.  That means that of all the on-air people I worked with in 2011, save one, is left.  And I'm betting meteorologist Monica Wood will be gone when her contract is up.

The station has shipped off or chased off more than two dozen very experienced and very talented anchors, reporters and photojournalists.  The station, despite limited support and resources, when compared to market powerhouse KCRA, did a very good job of holding its own.  But money matters and losing 200 plus years of experience in the newsroom just doesn't appear to matter.

And it just wasn't the faces on air that have been chased off.  As best as I can tell, every single producer that I managed is gone.  My replacement, who was eventually named assistant news director is gone.  All of the web people I worked with are gone.  And only one soldier from the assignment desk remains.  Oh... and the station is on its third news director since 2011... not exactly a sign of great station stability.

Sacramento isn't some backwater small market station where massive turnover is the norm.  Experienced is valued in top 20 markets.  The NBC and CBS stations in that market have very, very experienced staffs.  But it appears Tegna has turned its back on great story telling and great journalism.  It's a disservice to the public that the company pledges to serve by broadcasting over the public airwaves.  Shame on Tegna and mark my words, the bloodletting at their stations is far from over.