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.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Jim Ryun Turns 70

It's scrolled across my Facebook feed all day long.  Jim Ryun is 70.  Jim Ryun, more than any individual outside of my mother, is why I am, who I am today.  He made me a runner, he cultivated my love of sport and in an more important way, made me realize my shortcomings as a human.

You see Jim Ryun epitomized what it meant to be dedicated to the pursuit of a singular goal.  He pursued impossible, unbelievable goals, that in the end fell just short of what an entire nation expected of him.  It nearly destroyed his career, yet he had the strength few men had to return and dare to dream the dream every great runner dreams, that of winning Olympic gold.

I was a late bloomer when it came to sports. I didn't really dial into the fact that something remarkable was happening just 60 miles away from where I was growing up in Abilene, Kansas.  At Wichita East High School, Jim Ryun along with coaches, Bob Timmons and J.D. Edmiston were re-writing the rules of what was possible for a high school miler.

By 1967 I was fully aware of who Jim Ryun was and what he was doing.  I can remember watching amazed on television as he destroyed Kenya's Kip Keino in running a world record for 1500 meters at the historic Coliseum in Los Angeles.  I knew that Jim Ryun was destined for Olympic glory. 

The following summer I watched in agony as Kip Keino ran, perhaps the greatest 1500 ever run in the altitude of Mexico City to snatch Olympic gold from my hero.  Looking back at the disappointment of that day, there can be no doubt that in defeat and with his Olympic silver, Ryun had in fact run a tremendous race of his own.

I can remember in the fall of my 8th grade year running in a large vacant lot hoping that I had run approximately a mile to see what I was capable of at the distance of my hero from the University of Kansas.  It wasn't until the spring of 1969 I would travel to Lawrence to see him run in person for the first time.  His world record anchor in the Distance Medley Relay was a sort of last hurrah for what been a very difficult season for him.  His career would appear to end a couple of months later as he stepped off the track in Miami during the AAU National Championships and into retirement.

I was just beginning my track career that spring.  I wanted to be a miler.  In those days, 8th graders couldn't run more than 440 yards.  So I can remember running a mile to see what I had in me.  The coach time me and somehow I ran just under six months, a good two minutes slower than my hero.

What was happening to me was happening all over the country.  Ryun and in no lesser extent, Gerry Lindgren, sparked a distance running revolution across the nation for high school boys.  It changed the face of the sport for more than a decade before running out of steam by the dawn of the 1980's when high school coaches started paying too much attention to the pablum served up by Runner's World and not studying the challenging approach taken by athletes like Ryun and Lindgren.

I saw it in my own neighborhood where high school looming for me, a boy down the street who was a couple of years older than me and who shared a love of all things Ryun took me by the hand and led me into the world of cross country.  My path was set and running became deeply ingrained in my life. Little did a know that four years later I would be following Ryun in workouts at Kansas.  From that, two decades later I would help create the defining documentary that chronicled the great milers career.

I became a runner because of Jim Ryun, that sparked my love of sport and led me to a long career as a journalist.  In the intervening years I coached and eventually came to own a running store.  And to this day, let there be no doubt, that Jim Ryun is the greatest American miler, period.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Money Grab

This picture made me mad.  It looks innocent enough, seven runners celebrating the finish at the 2017 Boston Marathon.  Forget the fact that they blocked a clear path to the finish for four or five other runners.  Forget the fact that they ruined the finish line photo for those runners and likely some others.  I'm mad because this is Boston, not Disney.  It's the holy grail of any runner who dreamt of trying to challenge 26.2 miles.

For 80 years or so, Boston drew a handful of elite athletes and a lot of very good local runners.  The first qualifying time didn't appear until 1970, a mere four hour standard.  The jogging boom eventually brought some serious qualifying standards by the end of the 70's.  I remember having to run a sub 2:50 marathon.  I didn't accomplish that until I was 30 years old.  Even then, I passed on the opportunity to run Boston.

By the time I ran the race in 1994 about ten thousand runners gathered for the mass start in Hopkinton.  A lot of my friends talked about running the 100th in 1996 and my only thought was who would want to deal with 20,000 runners in this cramped area.  I returned to run it again in 2003 with 17,000 other runners.  By this time facilities at the start had been improved and the race went off in two waves.  I ended up not running due to an injury.

I noticed in 2003 the large number of runners given entry thanks to ties to the race sponsors.  Few, if any, had qualified by time. Shortly after that came the deluge of charity runners.  They received invitations to run the prestigious race by raising money for a worthy cause.  That forced organizers to use a third wave at the start.  In the last four years, it started squeezing out runners who had qualified.

That's a big part of my beef.  Yeah, I'm old school and Boston to me should mean something.  Letting charity runners in at the expense of runners who ran a qualifying time is wrong.  It's the tail wagging the dog.  And the picture above is an example of why it's wrong.  I can only imagine having to that gaggle if they ran a large portion of the race together.

Running a Boston qualifier is hard.  It requires a lot of dedication.  Looking back, I took it for granted.  I never really stopped to think how lucky I was.  It's the best race I've ever experienced.   The thrill of running through the scream tunnel at Wellesley will stay with me forever.  Running up Heartbreak Hill was incredible.  The finish, gathering with my friends, sharing their racing adventure, it was heartwarming.  Even watching from the finish line for my wife to finish in 2003 was tremendous.

But money now rules at Boston.  The city still fills the streets to support the runners, even though the drama is now drawn out over more than six hours rather than four.  My words won't change the direction organizers have taken the race, nor should it.  But if you run Boston, respect it and those who are running it with you.


Friday, March 31, 2017

Legends

It is rare in life when one can say they have enjoyed the opportunity to work with a living legend.  I was lucky enough to do it twice.  I worked from 1987 until 1990 with Bill Close.  He was a television icon in Phoenix, Arizona.  He was gruff, opinionated, hard but fair.  He was a great journalist.

The second opportunity happened in 1983 and 84 during my short stint in Paducah, Kentucky as a news director.  Tom Butler was my boss.  He had been at WPSD for more than 20 years at that point.  He was the polar opposite of Bill.  Tom was smooth, warm, and doled out wisdom rather than force feeding you his considerable knowledge.

Tom passed away today after a rough ride health-wise the last few years. It's a big loss for Western Kentucky.  And it brings me back to a time while I dealt with a personal life fraught with turmoil, along side a man who tried to gently guide me through the challenges of being a news manager.

Tom Butler had created a bible for running his newsroom.  It was there in black and white, bound together in a massive book.  While I initially didn't agree with everything in that book, we both shared a love of crisp, sharp, television news writing.

During my tenure I slowly came to realize the deep sense of community that was ingrained in Tom's newsroom bible.  The things that had rubbed me the wrong way now began to make sense.  All the while, Tom offered his sage counsel, only when I sought it.  He never force fed me his beliefs about running a newsroom.

My favorite Tom moment came in the aftermath of a fierce winter storm that had left a thick layer of ice and snow across Paducah.  Tom had called me at sometime before 3 a.m. to warn me of the challenge he was facing getting to work.  I ended up putting on my running clothes and heading over to his house about a mile away to try and help push his huge car out of his driveway.  It wouldn't budge.  He waited at home for a tow truck that would never come while I ran to the station and due to the nature of the day, took his place on the air for the first and only time in my life where I "anchored" the news.

When I left the station a couple of months later, Tom's kindness and encouraging words helped make my departure a little less painful.  He was the gentlest soul that ever graced a newsroom.  I am so grateful that our paths crossed.