Friday, January 10, 2020

750

As we roll into 2020, I roll into my 50th year as someone who identifies himself as a runner.  Evidence of it exists in the photo above.  I sit in the second row, on the left, the second in with the sweatshirt on because I wasn't good enough to merit a singlet.  I wasn't good enough to run any of the varsity events.  The only one I had a shot at was 440 yards and my 63 seconds was about three seconds too slow.

I went out for track with visions of Jim Ryun dancing in my head.  I had seen him run the previous spring at the Kansas Relays on a world record setting distance medley relay.  I wanted to run the mile, but it didn't exits at that time in the world of eigth grade high track and field.  I had the stubborn determination to be a distance runner.

I would spend my summer running about 200 miles in preparation of joining the Abilene High School cross country team.  I would make the varsity on a team that would eventually place third in the state of Kansas.  Unfortunately, I would transfer to another junior high in Lawrence, Kansas before that trip to State happened.

But I was a runner, probably logging north of 300 miles in 1970.  The total was certainly well less than the 750 miles I logged in 2019.  That total is the lowest I have run since 1971 when I ran my first competitive mile, a school record at South Junior High and a city record for one, very short year.  I would make the Lawrence High varsity cross country team as a sophomore that fall.

2019 marked only the second time since 1971 that I ran less than 1,000 miles in a year.  Having knee surgery at the end of November 2018 didn't help.  A brutal summer of heat didn't help.  Having a grand daughter nearly killed in a car crash didn't help.  And turning 64 didn't help either.

I managed to run only one race in 2019.  A 58 minute 10K in Naples that I thoroughly enjoyed my slowest time ever by four minutes.  It matched my total number of races from 2018, a half marathon in Riga in 2:04 that I thoroughly enjoyed, my slowest time ever by 10 minutes.  I know that if I forced myself to race more, I would train more.  My duties with the Fort Myers Track Club and owning my own running store has actually hurt my ability to race more than it has helped.  But that's a me problem.

The fact is, I am still a runner.  I may have plugged away at a barely sub 40 minute four mile this afternoon but it was a run nevertheless and I rue the day that I might not be able to lace up a pair of running shoes and hit the road.  I kept threatening to stop running and racing throughout my 40's and by the time I turned 50 I began to realize what a gift it is that I can still run and race.  I don't care about my times... much.  I just enjoy the feeling of pushing myself, something that I rarely if ever do in training runs anymore. 

I see it as a gift and one that is not to be taken for granted.  Here's to another 1,000 plus miles in 2020.


Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Race Director

Don't read this as a look at me, I'm great or feel sorry for me or about me at all.  I just want to write about the difficulties involved with organizing a race, any race, but this one, River, Roots and Ruts comes with a unique set of challenges.  Let me start with the thing I hated most as a competitive runner. I hated running on a poorly marked course.  Once it cost me a win, another time it cost me a second place finish.  River, Roots and Ruts is a race begging for a runner to get lost.

Back in 2016, Steve Brookman, the race founder, says he's ready to give up River, Roots and Ruts.  It's a popular trail race in Lee County that offers a difficult course that's kind of dangerous and really beautiful.  The last year Steve was race director the run was held in the middle of a horrendous downpour.  Runners who loved this race were worried that this was the end so I stupidly offered to take over as race director.

In the fall of 2017 I realized I was hopelessly ill-prepared to take over this race.  If it weren't for trail nerd Phil Nissen the race might not have ever happened.  He got me out and made me familiar with the course.  Phil put together a half marathon that on the face of it seemed overly complicated.  There were too many turns and too many parts of the course that needed human bodies to make sure runners didn't get lost.  This is a race that requires a lot of volunteers and unfortunately I didn't do a good enough job of getting boots on the ground or getting them into the spots we needed them.

Even though I warned folks that they could get lost on the course, they did, and though the vast majority of runners took it for what it is.  Those that did complain stuck with me and those that criticized me, well, where were you when I needed help?  Wind had taken out one of the important course markers and that led some runners astray.  So it was back to the drawing board.

2018 came along and so had Hurricane Irma four months before our race.  The damage to the Caloosahatchee Regional Park was so severe the good folks with Lee County Parks told us if we wanted to race we had better push the date back at least two months.  As fate would have it the Hooters Half Marathon was going away so we pushed RRR to the Hooters date at the end of February.

This year with a ton of help from JeAnne Hertel and the Fort Myers Track Club we put together a half marathon course that we felt would a much better and easier to navigate.  Boy were we wrong.  After spending six hours on a Saturday carefully laying out tape, road markings a signs, a few idiots removed some of the key signs in the expansive Sun Meadows and again runners got lost.  A handful of runners bitched about it.  Why weren't we checking the course before the race.  The answer to that we would have to be out on the course at 4 a.m. covering the entire course on foot with a flashlight before the 8 a.m. start.

I was ready to give up the race.  I hated the stress.  I hated letting runners down.  Yet, JeAnne encouraged me to stick with it and I made the decision to dumb the race down.  I figured if we eliminated the troublesome Sun Meadows we would keep runners from getting lost.  The changes worked, except for a terrible stretch of the course which took runners through a horse trail with ankle high grass.  Plus we shortened it to 10 miles helping the race go fairly smoothly.

My problem was with the pre-race organization.  Lee County had tightened its application rules.  I suddenly was confronted by a mountain of paperwork.  I had to get more than a half dozen departmental approvals.  This goes hand in hand with trying to find sponsors which I am terrible at and getting the tremendous support of the Lee County Sports Authority, without those folks, there would be no River, Roots and Ruts.

The stress of dealing with the paperwork just about did me in.  But once again the folks at Lee County Parks were the reassuring voice in my ear.  Their support and organizational skills, especially from James Eash helped me get through this nerve wracking experience.  JeAnne Hertel deserves a lot of credit as well.

Now I would like to point out that it takes at least two to three hours to take the course down.  That's on top of the five to seven hours of setup to get it going.  Plus there is the endless help of the Mudcutters.  The course is the course on the north side thanks in large part to all of their help.

This brings us to 2020.  I was ready for the paperwork and I was ready to make the trail run even better by getting rid of the section of the course through the horse pasture.  We kept the runners on the challenging single track trail.  But I had built in a course issue for the uninitiated.  If you weren't paying close attention, you could end up doubling back on the trail and I failed to put a human being in a spot where runners needed to be directed back to the finish.  Once again, 20 or so people got
lost.  We guy went off on one of our teenage volunteers making an ass out of himself.

You see I spend the 90 minutes running around like a madman making sure water tables, volunteers and parts of the course get their finishing touches.  We can't mark the entire course the day before because part of the trail is open to bicyclists the day before and they take down and remove anything we put up that may interfere with their ride.

Once again, I had warned the 200 plus runners that they could get lost.  It's part of the hazards.  Just like the parts of the marked trail that had been monkeyed with by a group of uncaring bicyclists that were riding on the south part of the park which is forbidden by county rules.  We knew they could cause mischief and the industrious Addie Jenkinson repaired their damage after we had spent three hours on Saturday making the course idiot proof.

This year I was only nervous about the whole affair in the last week leading up to the race because we didn't get our medals until two days before the event.  The medals were not as good as I would have liked.  I will fix this for the 2021 event.  Just as I will fix the course mistake by making sure we have volunteers in the right spots so the event is a success.

This is a great trail race.  It is a challenging piece of real estate with incredible scenery.  The morning of the race this year I saw deer, a bounding bobcat and a family of wild hogs.  We will do better.  This race is going into its 18th year.  We've got a great sponsor in Hooters and the Lee County Sports Authority.  And remember this, I don't make a cent doing all of this work. Every dime made in this race goes to charity or to non-profit groups that work in support of the race.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Lee County's Decade

I must be honest.  When I first moved to Fort Myers 17 years ago I didn't pay close attention to the high school distance running scene.  Outside of Estero's Bona Jones, a Footlocker finalists, there just wasn't the quality of depth that you would see in the Midwest where I had lived much of my life.

Running in Southwest Florida isn't an easy task.  The lack of hills, the heat, and what I suspected, right or wrong, a lack of mileage being asked of the high school athletes in our area made for average results.  Estero's Jeff Sommer was starting to kick things into gear with his DDD program around the time I moved here.  It was focused on quality overquantity and his program was by far and away the most consistent in terms of success in Lee County.

It seemed from my limited perspective that a light switch started to come on by the end of the 2000's  largely due to DDD.  Suddenly Fort Myers was starting to compete with Estero in terms of consistently producing state caliber runners.  By 2010 Estero's Erick Montoya and Kacy Smith made it clear that Lee County was ready to start producing a steady stream of state caliber distance runners.

So the purpose of this blog is to name the top boy and girl distance runners over the past decade along with the top coach.  Looking over the decade we saw a dozen or so runners from the 800 to 3200 that made their names known across the state of Florida.  Fort Myers High produced the first and only boy's Footlocker Finalist from Lee County in Tyler Bennett.  His teammate Emily Edwards enjoyed stellar results.  Emily's sister Jessica who runs for Canterbury has more history to write as she put herself in the the conversation as the best 800 runner to come out of the area after running 2:08.  She has two more seasons to make history.

ECS has produced the Oliveira twins, but Sierra is the only middle distance specialist having clocked 2:11.04 with another year to join Jessica Edwards in the sub 2:10 club with the as yet unmentioned Krissy Gear from Fort Myers. Estero's Montoya and Smith brought were followed by more quality runners like Ayre Beck, Katy Slater, Daley Cline and Alyana Goll.  Riverdale's Chelsey Oliver and Kayla Easterly from North Fort Myers made their marks as well.

Lee County Girl Distance Runner of the Decade
The best of the best among the girls is the aforementioned Gear.  Soccer's loss was a massive gain for the sport of running.  The only chink in her armor was cross country.  Gear was very good, but not great on the turf.  She excelled on the track breaking 2:10, 4:50 and running close to 10:40 flat across the 800, 1600 and 3200 putting her in a league of her own.  Not only is she the best distance runner of the decade but she is clearly the greatest distance runner produced in Lee County, male or female.

Gear's influence on the Fort Myer's High School program wasn't only on the track.  It showed the young women that followed her what can be accomplished if you put your heart and soul into the sport.  Just look at Stephy Ormsby cross country season this past fall and that says it all.

Lee County Boy Distance Runner of the Decade
Estero's Hugh Brittenham caught my eye when he was a mere freshman, but I would have never guessed he would accomplish what he ended up doing in re-writing his school's record books.  The bomb dropped at the FSU Relays with a Friday night coming out party his junior year with a stunning 1:51.92 was stunning.  He left no doubt that he was the real deal following it up with a 4:12 1600 the next day.

Hugh became the first Lee County runner to break 4:10 in the 1600.  He capped his career with the difficult 1600/800 double gold at State and landed a scholarship to Florida.  He did it under the tutelage of three different coaches which is in and of itself even more remarkable.  Hugh may well be the best male high school runner in Lee County history although some would argue Cliff Betts who ran for Fort Myers in the mid-70's is in the conversation.  I plan to research his career to learn more about this three time state champion.

Lee County Coach of the Decade
Estero's Jeff Sommer is the only choice, not just for the runner's who he coached, but for his undeniable impact he add on other coaches across Lee County.  He forced coaches to up their game.  Just ask Rob Strong who coached at Cypress Lake and Fort Myers.  Rob will tell you that Sommer was the gold standard.   Sommer died doing what he loved best, coaching his girl's 4 X 800 team to a State Championship in 2015.  But his DDD program helped propel high school distance running across Lee County to it highest highs.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Sir Peter

This has been a tough week.  News today of the death of Sir Peter Snell was the capper.  He was the greatest athlete to ever come out of New Zealand.  His life story is one of perseverance and dedication.  I was lucky enough to meet him and spend some precious time with him.

The story of my encounters with this three time Olympic gold medalist goes back to my incredible coach, Tom Dowling.  Tom had met and talked to all of Arthur Lydiard's great runners, except for Snell.  Because I was a journalist and knew my way around a video camera I was invited to go to Dallas with Tom for a sit down Snell.

As much as I loved track and field I knew very little about Peter Snell except that he was a rival of Jim Ryun.  I had no clue as to the incredible record Snell had compiled from 1960 to 1965.  This rube from Kansas was in for an eye-opening encounter.

On June 8, 1986 Tom and I boarded a plane to Dallas.  Since Tom wasn't trusted with a credit card I suddenly found myself renting the vehicle we would use to drive to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center where Dr. Snell had been working for the last three years studying physiology on elite athletes.  The tour that Peter gave us was a bit overwhelming.  It was a world class set up for the study of world class athletes.

After about an hour Tom and I headed to Peter's home where we met his wife Miki.  I gazed dumbfounded at Peter's trophy case which held his Olympic gold medals, world record certificates, Commonwealth Game medals and all sorts of other awards.  I was now beginning to wonder how the hell did I know so little about this amazing runner.

Snell had been a natural athlete.  He was built like a human spark plug.  He turned the world on its head by training like a marathoner, giving him the strength to carry his speed through 800 meters unlike any other runner that had come before him.  Snell shocked the world with that combination of strength and speed when he won Olympic gold at 800 meters at the 1960 Rome games.  He followed that up with a string of world records culminating in two more gold medals at 800 and 1,500 at the Tokyo Olympics.

Tom talked with Snell for about two hours going into the Lydiard training method.  Snell was frank about where he and Arthur disagreed in training and you could tell that Tom and Peter were quickly becoming fast friends.  After we all headed out for dinner, Snell announced that Tom and I would be spending the night at their house, not the hotel that we had booked.  I was in a state of shock.

After a night on the couch Tom and I awoke to Peter ready to take us out on his four mile run course around White Rock Lake.  Tom was in good shape.  I was in good shape.  The 47-year-old Snell took off at a gallop leaving Tom and I looking at each other in wonderment.  We rushed to keep up with Snell to take in all of the stories that he was telling on our 30 minute run.

We left the Snell's and headed to Cooper Fitness where Tom wanted to hear from Kenneth Cooper about the physiology of runners.  That was another three hours of blur but I learned that Cooper had tested just about every elite distance runner to have put on a pair of spikes over the previous 20 years to see what made them tick.

Outside of making a tape copy of a documentary for Peter in 1988 and asking him for help with my 1997 documentary about Jim Ryun, I didn't have contact with him.  I got to meet him again, largely because I wanted to show off and impress my new bride.  Tatyana and I were going to Dallas to pick up her son who was returning from a trip to Latvia.  I reached out to Peter to see if I could bring Tatyana by for a short visit and Peter was welcoming. 

Tatyana stood in stunned amazement as I had a decade earlier looking at Peter's gold medals.  Then Peter took out a documentary he wanted to show me about Lydiard which featured marathon great Jack Foster.  As we chatted away the morning when there was a knock at the door.  Two long haired, young fans were at the door wondering if Peter could be bothered for an autograph.  Peter welcomed them and that was the chance for Tatyana and I had to gracefully exit the Snell household so these running fans could enjoy their time with the Olympic great.

Peter Snell is one of the nicest men I have ever met.  His wife Miki was just as friendly.  I did my homework after meeting him.  If you want to read a great book about running read his autobiography, "No Bugles, No Drums."  You also need to go YouTube and watch Snell's 1964 victory in the Olympic 1,500.  It's as dominating a win as you will ever see in a world class race.  Plus you can find plenty of great videos documenting his career.



Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Eating Crow

The high school cross country season involving Southwest Florida runners officially came to an end last weekend in North Carolina where a handful of runners participated in the Footlocker South Regional qualifier.  If you had told me four months ago that Stephy Ormsby would have stood alone as the best runner from Lee County, boy or girl, it would have left me dumbfounded.  Well, I'm dumbfounded.

Ormsby proved what hard work, eating right, sleeping right and purposeful cross training can do for an athlete.  Last spring Ormsby was a top flight 800 meter runner who certainly stood a chance at being a very good cross country runner.  But all that work over the summer made her a great cross country runner, certainly among dozen best in Lee County history.  It resulted in a surprising third place finish at State and leading her injury riddled team to a surprising fifth place finish.

What's even more amazing is her run at Footlocker.  Ormsby got off to a horrible start going through the first mile back in 85th place.  She worked her way up to the field and managed a very respectable finish in 26th place.  A better start and Stephy could have been knocking on the door for a trip to nationals which is reserved for those who finish in the top ten.

The Fort Myers senior surprised me by running much better than my preseason number one, Canterbury junior Jessica Edwards.  Coming off a stellar track season, Edwards appeared poised to have an outstanding cross country season.  Don't get me wrong, Edwards ran great for most of the season finishing sixth at State and leading her team to the championships.  But Edwards appeared to hit a wall early in the season and while consistent throughout the year, didn't enjoy a big improvement one would expect as an athlete peaks at the end of the season.

The boys season played out about as I expected.  Fort Myers junior Liam Holston was clearly the best runner in the county until a late season illness threw his season into turmoil.  Liam's misfortune opened the door to sophomore teammate Colsen Palmer to shine.  Colsen's 11th place finish at State puts him in position to join Holston next year as a couple of contenders for top five finishes.  A healthy Holston at State could have put the Fort Myers boys in the top five, a couple of notches better than the sterling seventh place finish the Green Wave managed.

The surprise on the boy's side came from Ida Baker, as a team and with senior Franklin Caceres leading the Bulldogs.  Caceres raced fearlessly from the front all season.  His front running tactics caught up to him at State where he finished a disappointing 22nd but he laid the ground work for what could be a superb track season.

The shock on the boys side came from Estero.  By seasons end they were step for step right with Fort Myers.  Academic issues buried what should have been an amazing season of running by the Wildcats.  Estero will have some scores to settle this spring which promises some outstanding distance performances from a slew of athletes across the county.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

I Don't Know What to Think

I have usually spelled out my feelings about the latest edition of Kansas Jayhawk basketball well before Thanksgiving.  But ESPN's shakedown for viewers with ESPN+ has limited my viewing of K.U. thus keeping me from making any real assessment about this team.  Now I can share a few thoughts.

Kansas will be a formidable team as long as Doke Azubuike is healthy.  Doke is a double/double on paper every night.  Kansas is as deep in the interior as it has been since the Final 4 championship team of 2008, so deep in fact Bill Self opted to redshirt seasoned veteran Mitch Lightfoot.  Besides Azubuike, David McCormack is a load.  He has a soft jumper that's money from 15 feet in and all that's needed is for Silvio De Sousa to blow off the rust that accumulated from last year's suspension. 

The back court is a three headed threat of Devon Dotson, Ochai Agbaji and Marcus Garrett.  This will probably be Dotson's last year at Kansas.  He quite simply could be the best guard to have ever played at Kansas.  His speed, his ability to finish, his outside shot and his defense is all top notch.  He's every bit the player of Sherron Collins and Frank Mason.  He's as complete as JoJo White.

Ochai Agbaji runs hot and cold.  He is incredibly athletic and plays hard on the defensive end.  Kansas is unbeatable when Agbaji plays well.

Marcus Garrett is the lock down defender.  He can cover four spots on the floor.  He's more than adequate ball handler now and is fearless driving to the hoop.  If he had an outside shot he would be going to the NBA.

If transfer Isaiah Moss had played for Kansas last year the Jayhawks would have won their 15th straight conference title.  He was the extra outside shooter that the Jayhawks desperately needed to help spread the floor.  I have a feeling he will be streaky but he's a weapon that the Kansas offense sorely needs.

The two freshman, Tristan Enaruna and Christian Braun won't see much in the way of minutes by the time this team hits conference play.  Both players can shoot from the outside and Enaruna shows signs of being a first rate defender.  The great unknown among the freshman is forward Jalen Wilson.  Once he comes back from injury in January it will be interesting to see how he fits into the rotation but if the reports are true about his ability in early season practices, he will be a contributor.

That brings us back to the bigs.  Bill Self desperately wants to play the hi-low with Doke, Silvio and McCormack.  The trio has struggled when they've shared the floor.  I think Self will continue to experiment through the pre-season but will ultimately go with just one big once conference play hits.

I don't know how Self keeps reloading.  He doesn't get all the top recruits but he does an amazing job of recruiting kids that fit together.  His athletes buy into the system and appear to believe in the approach to hard nose defense and an offense that demands the ball go into the interior.

Is this is Final 4 team.  Yes.  Will they make it to the first weekend in April, the odds say no.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Slow Death of Track and Field

Track and field has been dying a slow death for the last 40 years.  As shamerturism gave way to professional track and the spike of performance enhancing drugs, the public seemed to lose interest in the sport.  So the latest fix by the sports ruling body seems appear foolish and wrong headed.

The IAAF rebranded itself World Athletics today.  Just yesterday they decided to ax two field events, the discus and triple jump, plus two running events, the 200 and steeplechase from the Diamond League.  It is beyond head scratching.  Consider this, without the 200 meter dash, we may never have seen the likes of Usain Bolt.  That's right, no Bolt.

The Jamaican sprint made his name as a 200 meter runner.  The first time I became aware of him was when he started running stupendous times as a 17-year-old in the 200.  His fame as the world's fastest human wouldn't come for another five years.

Without the steeplechase we wouldn't have had the incredible 2017 magic of Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs turning the world on its head with their dramatic one-two finish at World Championships.  The steeplechase was where the great Jenny Simpson first made her name before turning to the 1,500.  It is one of the most entertaining track races alone simply because of the hazards of the water jump.

World Athletics banished the 5,000 meter this past Diamond League season and 10,000 meter races have gone almost extinct at major track meets around the world.  World Athletics says it is taking its lead from social media.  So let me get this straight, a handful of idiots on Twitter are determining what events are worth watching at major track meets.  Think about this, only 22 percent of Americans even use Twitter and that number mirrors use of the social media platform around the world.

Two of my greatest track and field memories are watching discus thrower Mac Wilkins blasting massive throws at Hayward Field forcing officials to add extra turf to the end of the throwing zone to handle his efforts.  The other was watching Willie Banks imploring the crowd to join him in clapping him down the runway to a massive triple jump.  The athletes need to band together and put a stop to this nonsense.  They have the power if they work together, otherwise their event may be next.

Track and field is at death's door and only its athletes can save it.