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.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Eugene Bound

Two weeks from today for the first time in 11 years I will hop aboard a jet and fly west to Oregon for one of the best track meets the world has to offer.  The Prefontaine Classic is always a distance running stud-fest.  It's a meet I first attended back in 1985 on a rainy Saturday evening where I watched Mary Slaney take down the American Record for 5,000 meters.
The second time I made it to the meet was in 1994. The star was pole vaulter Sergei Bubka.  I sat right in front of Bubka's family that evening.  Down on the infield NIKE's John Capriotti spotted me sitting with the Bubka's and invited me down on the infield to meet the great vaulter.  I had gotten to know Capriotti when he was the head track and field coach at Kansas State a couple of years before.  It was thrilling to meet the world's greatest pole vaulter.

The third Prefontaine meet, in 2004, featured a fearless mile run by Alan Webb, who dipped just under 3:51 in a solo effort.  That's probably my favorite moment and my favorite year for attending this track and field classic.  I went the meet that year with a good friend, Chris Ronan.  He wanted Webb's autograph, so we made our way down to the media area where Chris stalked his quarry.

This year's meet promises a great men's mile and unbelievably deep fields in the women's and men's 800 meters.  Again I will attend the meet with Chris.  This year I plan to make sure we take plenty of pictures and gather a lot of mementos.

The best part of the meet is Eugene.  The city has a feel to it that is impossible to describe unless you've been there.  The air is fresh and full of pine.  The running routes are numerous and nothing beats heading across the footbridge that spans the beautiful McKenzie River for a quick run along Pre's Trail.

And then there's Hayward Field.  It has changed so much since my first visit in 1976 when I covered the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.  The track back then was rock hard with a sandpaper type substance covering the surface.  A cinder lane circled the inside part of the track and the grandstands were old and weathered.  Just to the west of the newer, bigger grandstands, a cinder track used to sit where the athletes would warm up and where I watched in wonderment a workout one day which featured Alberto Salazar, Rudy Chapa and Bill McChesney.

Now the facilities are fresh and modern.  The track features a state of the art mondo track.  The cinders are long gone and the modern warmup track sits just to the south of Hayward Field itself.  Two more weeks and I get to go to running heaven.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Looking to the Future

The tragic events surrounding this weekend's Florida State Track and Field Championships overshadowed the legacy that lies at the feet of Coach Jeff Sommer.  His shocking death dimmed the incredible performances turned in by a handful of young women who will shape the next few years of high school distance running in Southwest Florida.  Not surprisingly, their achievements are directly and indirectly the result of Sommer and the standards he set for his athletes.

First, there's Sarah Candiano, who graduates from Evangelical Christian added two state titles at 1,600 and 3,200 to go with the championship she won in cross country.  She also anchored a 2nd place finish for her team's 4 x 800 team.  On that squad are two extremely young, but incredibly talented girls.  Sierra Oliveira, a mere 7th grader, finished 2nd in the 1A 800 meter in 2:15.62, a national class time.  Her twin sister Moriah was 2nd in the 400 meter in 57.65 to go along with a 2:18 split on that 4 x 800 relay.

It is impossible to speculate on how good the Oliveira sisters could be, especially given their youth.  This dynamic duo has the potential to re-write all of the records ever set in Lee County.  They could be a twin version of the prep prodigy, Mary Cain.

Estero's cupboard is hardly bare.  Back for another year of high school cross country and track are Daley Cline and Breeana Salcedo.  Those two will team with junior to be Megan Giovanniello to carry on Sommer's legacy.  This trio should help make next fall's cross country battles with Fort Myers High School epic.

That brings us to the Green Wave's Krissy Gear.  How many national class distance runners do you know who scored at their state meet in the pole vault?  Gear is an incredible athlete who has only begun to harness her ability as a distance runner.  She ran a sub-5 1,600 earlier in the season before claiming the 3A title on Saturday.  She followed her that race with her best 800 of the season, finishing 2nd in 2:16.32.

Gear could be the best distance runner in Lee County since Sommer coached Footlocker finalist Bona Jones.  Her ability to run off of a fast pace with a powerful kick could bring some out of this world times, before Krissy graduates from Fort Myers.

Next spring there could be as many as a half dozen Lee County girl's under 2:15 in the 800.  Nationally, most state's don't produce even one girl under 2:15 in a given year.  I don't believe we'd be seeing any of this without years of groundwork done by Jeff Sommer.  Think about it.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Coach

Coach Jeff Sommer
The news came in the form of a phone call from a trusted running friend.  What she told me literally took my breath away.  Jeff Sommer had died at the Florida State High School Track and Field Championships.  My mind went blank and a sinking feeling hit my chest hard.

I always called him coach.  Calling someone coach is the ultimate sign of respect to me.  I met him when I first came to Fort Myers in 2003.  Our paths first crossed at one of the local road races where he routinely whipped my ass.  Then as fate would have it, I moved into his neighborhood, his house just a block over from mine.

Coach Jeff Sommer had spent years building Estero High School into a distance running powerhouse.  I've known a lot of great high school coaches.  Coaches you've probably never heard of, Verlyn Schmidt, Van Rose and Joe Schrag.  They set the standard in the state of Kansas.  But what Coach Sommer did stands out when compared from the trio of greats I mentioned from my home state of Kansas. 

Sommer's had no hills to train his runners on.  He trained his athletes in the humid, pre-dawn hours during the summer to escape the oppressive heat of Southwest Florida.  His 3D approach of discipline, desire and determination, produced some amazing distance runners.  Sommer was cheering on his talented squad of 4 X 800 girls to a championship when he collapsed.

I can't explain why I feel such a sense of loss.  Coach and I spoke to each other less than 2 dozen times in the 12 years that we knew each other.  Our conversations always left me feeling that I was taking to a man in a hurry, a man on a mission, a man touching lives. 

And that's where the hurt comes from for me.  I know that Coach Sommer touched and changed hundreds upon hundreds of lives.  His good work spread across the community and he raised the bar for coaches across Southwest Florida and the entire state of Florida.  He did what my late coach did.

It was almost exactly ago, the coach that changed my life, Tom Dowling, died suddenly from a heart related incident.  Like Coach Sommer, the works of Coach Dowling lifted high school distance running across the Kansas City metro area.  The two men were opposites.  Coach Sommer was an intense, rolling bundle of energy.  Coach Dowling was a zen figure.  But both men trained champions on the track and champions in life.

My heart hurts for Coach Sommer, his family, his athletes, but most of all my heart hurts for our community.

Editors note:  The Fort Myers News-Press asked me to share these links:
http://www.news-press.com/story/sports/2015/05/03/estero-one-run-jeff-sommer/26848729/

http://www.news-press.com/story/news/2015/05/02/athletes-coaches-friends-remember-jeff-sommer/26794079/