Monday, August 24, 2015

Close But No Cigar

It was like watching a train wreck unfold in slow motion.  Molly Huddle seemed to have a bronze medal just for the taking.  A final sprint in over the last 50 meters and she would join an illustrious group of American distance runners to medal at 10000 meters at a major championship.  Behind Huddle, Emily Enfield was charging hard, but surely it was too little too late.  And then it happened, something I had seen countless high school runners and even adult runners doing in races and workouts, Huddle eased up and failed to race to the finish line. 

The Notre Dame grad threw her hands up a step to the finish assuming the bronze was hers as Enfield slipped by.  It was a jaw dropping experience.  Enfield was the third wheel of an amazing duo of Huddle and Olympic bronze medalist Shalane Flanaghan.  Even the pros can screw it up.  And unfortunately, that's the story the media is focusing on.

The bigger story is the fact that three American women, took three of the top six places at the 2015 World Championships.  For those of you keeping track, our American trio kicked some major Ethiopian and Kenyan butt.  If you were scoring this like a cross country meet, the USA came out on top.

Think about this long and hard.  20 years ago American distance running was in disarray.  Bob Kennedy was the lone beacon in a desert of distance running disaster.  The United States is now competitive from the 800 to the 10000, both men and women.  Let me repeat, the USA can deal with the East Africans from the 800 to the 10000. 

Odds are in the remaining distance races, the United States will be fortunate to pick up a couple of more medals.  It should happen in the women's 800, possibly in Tuesday's women's 1500 final and a sliver of hope exists for a medal in the men's 1500 as well.  Emma Coburn could medal in the women's steeplechase and leaves both the men's and women's 5000 where chances for a medal are fairly remote and downright impossible in the women's marathon.

The big story is that American distance running is back.  Enfield, Huddle, Galen Rupp, Evan Jager, Jenny Simpson, Shannon Rowburry, Matt Centrowitz, Brenda Martinez and Leo Manzano are the real deal.  The USA is in the mix and isn't it grand.

Monday, August 17, 2015

No Justice

I've written about this time and again.  Doping is rampant in track and field.  The latest champion to lose Olympic gold is Turkey's Asli Cakir Alpekin.  She won the 1,500 in London in 2012.  It makes me angry.  Everyone knew that Alpekin wasn't legit.  But what really makes my blood boil is silver medalist Gamze Bulut, also from Turkey, hasn't been caught yet.  Bulut was a complete unknown before the Games and hasn't run close what she did in London since.  Did I mention that 4th place finisher Tatyana Tomashova of Russia was just stripped her World Championship medals last week?

In my scorebook that puts Maryam Jamal of Bahrain atop the medal stand along with Ethiopia's Abeba Aregawi and Shannon Rowbury of the United States.  And as an added bonus, the 6th and 8th place finishers in that race have been disqualified already for doping.

It's increasingly clear that the IAAF, track and field's ruling body, is protecting drug taking athletes.  I believe the IOC is just as culpable.  They fear the whole Olympic movement would fall apart if the truth came out.  Doping is rampant in endurance sports and that includes swimming and cycling.  Yet the most doped game in the world, American professional football, gets a free pass. 

Drug testing doesn't work.  The athletes with the best doctors win.  If men and women want to risk their future health by using steroids, EPO and human growth hormones, let them.  The charade has to end. 



Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Timmie

It's Not Dark Yet

"I was born here and I'll die here, against my will."
Bob Dylan

Bob Timmons died Tuesday.  He was one of four men that coached me as a runner.  Everyone that ever knew him or competed for him knew him as "Timmie."  I never got around to having the privilege of competing for him because he never gave me a chance.  For a long time I carried that fact around like a cancer.  I disliked him for it and for some other petty reasons.

I was a better than average high school distance runner.  My senior year in high school was a disaster thanks to a lingering illness.  I decided I would walk on at the University of Kansas in the summer of 1974 and promptly did little of the work required to be part of a top flight college cross country team.

I remember the first time I crawled into the back of his pickup truck with a dozen or so other runners, some of them destined by to All-Americans, including Olympic silver medalist Jim Ryun.  He drove us northwest of Lawrence about 10 miles, unloaded us and told us to run back to Memorial Stadium.  Every workout was a humbling experience.  Many were downright torturous.

The day came about a couple of months into the season when we did repeat 2 miles.  I had been warned by the other runners, never crawl back into the pickup during a workout.  That particular day I had been suffering from stomach problems.  I quit halfway and sought refuge in the truck.

The next day in the bowels of Memorial Stadium Timmie pulled me aside and bluntly told me I wasn't cutting it.  I pleaded with him.  I had been beating half of his scholarship freshmen in time trials.  I was technically the 10th or 11th man on a 20 plus man squad. I cried like a baby when he told me, "Come back when you get in shape."

It was one of the toughest things I've ever experienced in my life, certainly the toughest at that point at age 18. Looking back now, it was probably even tougher for Coach Timmons.  It's sad to look at the state of KU's distance program because my sorry self of 1974 would be good enough to be a member of their varsity cross country team now.  

During the Timmons era at Kansas, the program prospered until the last few years of his tenure. His predecessor, Bill Easton, had turned Kansas into a national power. Easton lost his job, due in part to Bob Timmons and a high school phenom he had coached at Wichita East, Jim Ryun.

Timmon's former athlete had decided to attend Oregon State. Timmons, who had become Easton's assistant during Ryun's senior year in high school, was handed KU's head job after Easton was fired for some minor transgression. Suddenly Ryun was Kansas bound and the rest is history.

Ryun had a wonderful career at Kansas. The program continued to flourish for the next 15 years with the Jayhawks winning a handful national titles in track and field. They were unbeatable in the old Big 8. But Timmons reign had one glaring weakness. There were no more Jim Ryun's.

By and large distance runners who ran for Kansas never lived up to the potential they had shown in high school. A few did, Kent McDonald, one of my old training partners, was an All-American and finished second at the old AAU nationals one year. Bill Lundberg was another standout who went on to coach. I could name three or four others but the point is, none of his distance runners at Kansas, ever won a national title, or made an Olympic team, except for Ryun.

Timmons had made his name as a great high school swim coach and later on as a track and field coach. He put his swim coach philosophy to use in track and created two legendary high school milers, Ryun and Archie San Romani, Junior. But his workout regiment was brutal. I experienced it first hand. A few runners, like McDonald, learned to coast through some of the workouts, in order to stay fresh and competitive. But very few did and many simply burned out.

For a long time I despised Bob Timmons. I blamed him harshly for KU's fading fortunes in track and field at the start of the 1980's. He had faults, but at heart he was and is a good and caring man. And as I grew older, more sober, I began to realize that my hatred was a waste of time. I began to value the experience that I had with Coach Timmons and became thankful for that eventful day when he kicked me off the team.

I became so grateful in fact that I produced a documentary about Timmons and his prized prodigy Jim Ryun in 1996. Most people probably assumed I did it as a tribute to Ryun, a world record holder in the mile and an Olympic silver medalist. But the real reason I did it was to give Timmons the credit he deserved for putting Jim on the path to greatness. It was my way of making amends to the man, even though he never knew (at least I don't think he knew) that I had harbored such ill will for him for the better part of a decade.

So I was crestfallen when Timmie passed.  He was a great man.  He had was a man with few faults.  He was a man who simply wanted to give those around him the passion and strength to succeed.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

They All Cheat

I read the mind-numbing response by Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar to the scathing series of stories from the BBC and Pro-Publica which questions whether his group of elite distance runners use performance enhancing drugs.  Salazar mounts a decent defense, but it is full of holes and out right lies.  For me, as a fan of the sport, for the last 25 years I've operated under the assumption that they all cheat.  I firmly believe that in one way or another, the vast majority of elite track and field athletes cheat.

Salazar's reputation was pretty hazy even back in the 1980's.  My private coach, Tom Dowling, worked with elite athletes during that era.  Tom told of how Salazar was known for experimenting with a lotion horse trainers used to reduce inflammation in their thoroughbreds.  He was always looking for ways to gain an edge.

Still by and large I believe distance running was relatively clean through the 1980's but by 1988... the Olympics had become a showcase for doping.  Ben Johnson got caught.  Florence Griffith-Joyner did not, but anyone who had truly followed the sport knew that something about Flo-Jo was amiss.  Then came Ma's Army and the string of stunning world records set by Chinese women in 1993.  These ladies were doped to the gills.

Looking across the 1990's my suspicions only grew with the record setting by Morceli, El Guerrouj and Gebresallasie made me question everything.  The world records at 5000 and 10000 meters were further taken down to ridiculous times by Bekele and all I could do is shake my head.

What we really need to take away from the BBC/Pro-Publica stories isn't what may or may not be happening with NOP.  It's the fact that the BBC reporter showed how easy it is to micro-dose banned substance, reap the benefits of those drugs and still beat the drug tests.  That's the real story and that's the real dilemma.

WADA is helpless to stop doping.  The various governing bodies of the so-called Olympic sports that include track and field, cycling and swimming, need to take a very hard look at their drug rules.  My takeaway is that doping is here to stay and the cheats will always be a step ahead of the tests.  I hate to say drop the rules against doping but I see no reason to continue the charade.


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Ron

When I started my life as a runner, I drew inspiration from Jim Ryun.  It was easy.  He was a Kansan who went to high school in Wichita, a mere 60 miles from where I was growing up in Abilene.  As I began to read about Ryun's exploits, my eyes were opened to other distance running greats.  There were Olympic legends like Finland's Paavo Nurmi and Czechoslovakia's Emil Zatopek and the man with a multitude of world records, Ron Clarke.

The Australian legend died Tuesday at age 78.  He is in my estimation, the greatest distance runner who never won Olympic gold.  The best he ever managed was a bronze medal at the 1964 Tokyo Games in the 10000.  He was undone by American Billy Mills and Tunisia's Mohammed Gammoudi.

The following year Clarke went on a record setting spree, the likes the world has never seen.  During a 44 day tour of Europe he set 12 world records, nine in just 21 days.  The bulk of his records came at 5000 and 10000 meters.  He was the odds on favorite to win gold in 1968 except for the fact that the race was run in the high altitude of Mexico City.  Clarke ran courageously, collapsing in 6th place.  Doctors would later learn that the run had permanently damaged the great Aussie's heart.

The story that endears me to Clarke is one I first read about 30 years ago in Sports Illustrated.  Clarke made a pilgrimage to then communist controlled Czechoslovakia to meet Zatopek following the disastrous Mexico City games.  The meeting between the two great runners went splendidly.  As the two men parted company Zatopek handed Clarke a piece of tissue with something wrapped in it, saying he deserved this.

Later Clarke went into a restroom to unwrap the mystery object and found that Zatopek had given him his 1952 Olympic gold medal he had won at 10000 meters.  Clarked admitted that he wept.  Zatopek wanted to acknowledge how much Ron Clarke had changed the sport.

Ron Clarke's name belongs in the pantheon of distance greats like Nurmi, Zatopek, Haile Gebresalassie, Kenesia Bekele.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Prefontaine Classic

The day started as a gloomy, chilly with the threat of rain as I headed out the door of my Eugene hotel for a 5 mile run along the famous trails that run along the Willamette River.  As I enjoyed my morning run I spotted a few of the participants from the previous nights 10000 meter race and hoped this day would produce as many stellar performances.

We made our way over to Hayward Field, Fenway Park of American track and field.  The fans are great, the emotion they can lift from the competing athletes cannot be underestimated.  Those fans helped make for great performances that were standard fare for the meets namesake, the late Steve Prefontaine.

The field events began shortly after 12:15 p.m. and by then the clouds had given way to brilliant sunshine.  You knew it was going to be something special when in the warm up mile race, a gathering of "non-elites," if you will, took the track at 12:32 p.m.  Ben Blankenship rolled through a 3:55 mile dragging 8 other competitors under the magical 4 minute barrier with him.  Just to my left the women triple jumpers were going crazy, two bounding out to 49 feet, incredible world class jumping.

Across the infield, Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie was setting a meet mark in the pole vault scaling nearly 20 feet while taking a couple decent cracks at his own world record.  In front of me in the shot put circle American Joe Kovacs was dominating a who's who of the world's best shot putters hurling the 16 pound ball more than 72 feet.

Then the fireworks on the track got going.  English Gardner flew to a world's best 100 meter of 10.84 only to be bested by Shelly Frasier-Price a few minutes later flashed down the track in 10.82 to take down Gardner's mark.  The sprinting was otherworldly with Justin Gatlin clocking a world leading 19.68 in the 200 and Kirani James gliding around the oval in 43.95.

The distance fireworks were even brighter.  On the women's side American Ajee Wilson battled Kenyan Eunice Sum to the tape losing by .05 in an 1:57.82 800.  Ethiopia's Genzebe Dibaba ran an epic solo 5000 meters in the recording the 6th fastest time in history hitting the tape in 14:19.76.  World Champion Jenny Simpson rescued the American cause nearly breaking 4 minutes to win a deep women's 1500 that saw 18-year-old Alexa Efraimson take down Mary Cain's American Junior Record running 4:03.39.

The men's mile that followed was anti-climatic.  The elite field refused to follow the pacemakers instead gunning a final 800 in 1:51 in which Djibouti's Ayanleh Souleiman edged Matt Centrowitz with his 3:51.1. All told 13 men had broken 4 minutes in that race bringing the day's total to 21.  No other track meet can claim as many sub-4 minute milers as the Prefontaine Classic.

Just before 3 p.m. Pacific time I sat and wondered at the spectacle that I had witnessed over the last two hours.  I knew I had just seen the greatest track and field meet in my life.  And outside of the Olympics, which I only witnessed first hand in 1984, the stats backed my guts up.  The geeks who track the numbers say the two days of running, jumping and throwing were the greatest in history.  I was just lucky enough to be there and see it.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Distance Night

The trip to Eugene proved a bit challenging.  Delta did its best to keep me from getting there.  Instead of landing in Portland on Thursday, I hit the ground Friday at Noon, just in time for my partner in crime Chris, to pick me up at the airport for the drive to Eugene.

The Prefontaine Classic, a world class track and field extravaganza, has been serving up appetizers the last half dozen years with a handful of races on Friday night.  Along with a couple of hot high school miles and a world class women's long jump field, U.S. distance god Galen Rupp was running the 5000 meters and his British training partner, Mo Farah, was going for his country's record in the 10000 meter.  It promised to be a night to remember.

Chris had lured me with 2nd row, finish line tickets, for Saturday's main event.  He also thoughtfully booked a hotel room within walking distance of historic Hayward Field.  When we arrived in Eugene, the first thing he wanted to do was visit Pre's Rock.  It's the rock face where 40 years before, Steve Prefontaine, flipped his MG and died.  We had made the same pilgrimage 11 years before when we attended the 2004 meet together.

I knew it was up a major hill, which didn't bode well for the run, but I had managed it then and I figured I could manage it now.  My 59 year old legs said otherwise.  I made it about 200 yards up the half mile climb to the spot and told Chris I had to walk.  I felt like I had sprinted a 400 as hard as I could.  I managed another short jog before finally walking to the crash site, were five other people had gathered.  I was a sophomore to be in college when Pre died.  I remember that day just as I remember the assassination of JFK. 

We managed to finish the climb off of Skyline Drive and meandered very slowly over to Hayward Field.  The place was decked out and swarming with people, even four hours before the start of that evening's festivities.  This massive NIKE poster greeted us as we made our way back to our hotel.  It was on the side of the three story student-athlete study facility that didn't exist the last time I was in Eugene.  In fact, the number of new buildings at the University of Oregon that have gone up in the last 11 years caught me off guard.

We made it back to the track about 45 minutes before the start of Distance Night.  In an incredibly classy gesture we were handed a special program, free, and a special race bib with the number 40, also free.  It then dawned on us that this very night marked the last time Steve Prefontaine had raced at Hayward Field 40 years ago.  It came with a touching video tribute on the big board that overlooks the track.

The competition was incredible.  Both the boys and girls high school miles were special.  All 10 girls in the mile raced step for step the entire race.  Ryen Frazier managed to nip Danielle Jones by 4/10ths of a second running 4:39.84.  The boys race was even better as Carlos Villareal flew over the last 150 meters to run down Mikey Brannigan with a 4:05.25.  Villareal made up at least 30 meters over that last 150 with an amazing kick.

Tianna Bartoletta, in the midst of the on track mayhem, powered to a 23' 4" long jump, which isn't bad for a woman known more for her 100 meter dash abilities.  In a matter of moments, the crowd favorite, Galen Rupp appeared and the stage was set for what was supposed to be a super fast 50el00 meters.  Unfortunately, the stellar field of distance aces couldn't deliver.

The group of world class runners refused to follow the pace setters, which meant it was going to come down to a kickers race.  That's bad news for Rupp, who has great wheels, but not as good as a handful of Africans.  Rupp charged to the front with 600 meters to go but it wasn't enough to Kenyan and an Ethiopian who went on to win the race.  Rupp settled for 3rd, but the real story was the man in 4th, Bernard Lagat.  The 40-year-old wonder set a master's world record in 13:14.97.

With the crowd still buzzing Mo Farah and a host of more super African distance runners took to the track for the 10000.  Again the pacing was suspect, leaving Farah and Paul Tanui from Kenya to trade surge and counter surge.  The real story developed far back in the track.  Canada's great distance hope Cam Levins, had let the main pack go due to the super fast racing going on from the get go.  Levins found himself trapped in the 2nd pack some 80 meters done. 

Levins started slowly pulling away from that group with about 12 laps to go, slowly picking off those destroyed by the early, punishing pace.  He managed to go from 12th place to 4th place with a lap to go to run a Canadian record in 27:07.51.  Farah showed his amazing kick to win the shootout in 26:50.97, falling short of the British record.  It's still the fastest 10000 I've ever seen in person by a good 15 seconds.

It had been amazing evening and we hadn't even gotten into the good stuff promised for Saturday.