Saturday, November 10, 2018

Shoulda Coulda Woulda

Another season of high school cross country has come to an end in Florida.  Surveying the landscape of the aftermath the fall left me a little disappointed when it came to the results for Southwest Florida harriers.  Just a little.  The problem is the best cross country runners in the area are both middle distance aces, trying to up their game to 5,000 meters but more on that later.

The surprise of the season came from tiny Southwest Florida Christian Academy which qualified both its boys and girls team for state.  That's a big upgrade for SFCA.  I would include annual powerhouse Fort Myers in the same category.  Coach Yancey Palmer had his hands full handling both the boys and girls squads.  The Green Wave girls survived this season thanks in large part to the surprising junior, Stephanie Ormsby.  A top 20 finish landed her squad in fifth at State, just a spot behind Naples, which had the returning talent to make a run for the podium, but it was not to be.

The Fort Myers boys seemed full of question marks.  It took a steely sophomore Liam Holston hold the squad together.  The tenth place finish at State, just one spot ahead of the always tough Estero Wildcats spoke volumes about the coaching job done by Palmer and even more so for Estero's head honcho Brian Olitsky.  If you had told me that those two teams would race past Gulf Coast at the end of the year I wouldn't have believed you.  Olitsky peaked his squad almost perfectly.

Another trio of Lee County squads made it to State in their respective classes.  The girls of Bishop Verot, Cape Coral and Cantebury made the trip to Tallahassee.  Cape Coral's Cheyenne Young seemed positioned at the beginning of the year to make the most noise at State.  Ongoing health issues kept her outside the expected top ten finish in 15th.

The only top ten finish on the girl's side came from Cantebury super sophomore Jessica Edwards.  Injuries slowed her at the end of the season but she capped off with a nice run at State.  She slipped from her 2017 eighth place finish to 9th but ran 14 seconds faster on the same course.  Edwards is positioned for a great outdoor season of track if she can stay healthy.

That leads us to Estero's Hugh Brittenham.  He established himself as the best cross country runner male or female in Southwest Florida this season.  The state 800 meter champion made it his goal to win it all this year.  He came up short with a fifth place finish, two spots ahead of his 2017 finish.  More importantly Brittenham announced his collegiate commitment to Florida.  The Gators are always in the thick of it when it comes to national titles in track and field.  Brittenham will fit in nicely.

Still this season left me wanting more.  It's not a slight against of the squads or the coaches.  They are doing their best.  But the intensity that used to reside here seems to have faded.  I don't know if it's due to the untimely death of the great Jeff Sommer, who molded Estero into a powerhouse, or if we are just in a down cycle.  But Southwest Florida its share of Footlocker finalists in the past.  I'm sure more are on the way because the coaching is there to see to that.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Marathon Madness

ESPN made a complete mess of the New York City Marathon.  The coverage, production, talent decisions, by and large, were among the worse I've seen in television.  I speak from knowledge.  I worked for 30 years in television.  I am an Emmy nominated sports producer.  ESPN simply was out of its depth.

Before I go into full blast mode I will compliment ESPN for a great primary announcing crew.  Jon Anderson is a big running fan.  He's shown his stripes in the network's track and field coverage.  Tim Hutchings and Carrie Tollefson have the knowledge to add color to any road race or track and field event.  If viewers could have gotten two and a half hours of that trio with a good dose of Paula Radcliffe from the in race vantage point and a true distance runner other than Matt Centrowitz in the men's race we would have had a great crew.

Instead the producers felt the need to start jamming pre-produced pieces offering the human aspect of the race about an hour into the coverage.  We were forced to endure Sage Steele, who interviewing skills leave much to be desired.  She has no insight into the sport, completely lacking in the abilities that Anderson consistently shows when he's handling interview duties at track meets.  ESPN should have put Anderson in Steele's role and left Hutchings and Tollefson to handle the race duties which both are more than capable of doing.

As the real racing unfolded shortly after the halfway point of the women's race, the soft-soap people features began to fill the screen.  The telecast missed the three key breaks in the women's race as Mary Keitany worked her magic on a talented field.  It was infuriating to realize that something significant had happened while we learned about someone's heart rate or some charity runner.

The men's coverage was almost as bad.  Matt Centrowitz offered little insight into the racing and the sound problems plagued his efforts and Radcliffe as well.  ESPN missed much of the early breaks in the men's race because it failed to utilize split screens in its coverage as it focused on Keitany who had already destroyed the women's field. 

Fortunately after Keitany hit the finish line we got a chance to watch the three way death match between Ethiopia's Lelisa Desisa, Shura Kitata and Kenya's Geoffrey Kamworor.  Kitata worked tirelessly throughout the race to inject pace and break up the field but Centrowitz seemed completely unaware of the tactic.  In the final three miles Desisa pulled away leaving Kamworor and Kitata for dead.  Yet Kitata summoned the strength that seemed otherworldly to try and chase Desisa to the finish.

The thrill of the men's battle couldn't make up for the flaws of the broadcast.  ESPN needs to take a page from the other world marathon majors.  Show the race.  Use the split screen more and stop trying to put a face on the race by highlighting the hobby runners.  Explain what it takes to be a pro and why these runners are the fittest athletes in the world.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Bob Delivers

You never really know what to expect when you go to a Bob Dylan concert.  Tuesday October 23rd marked the 15th time I've seen the living legend and he delivered.  It was an amazing performance of classic songs that had been re-crafted as Dylan is want to do in unexpectedly brilliant ways.  From the opening number, the Academy Award winning "Things Have Changed," Bob was determined to reinvent himself. 
Dylan performed 18 songs that spanned the 50 plus years of his incredible career.  From "Don't Think Twice It's Alright" to the epic "Like A Rolling Stone," Dylan worked his magic in the reinvention of many classic songs.  Then Bob would deliver a newer gem like "Scarlet Town" just as it sounded on the album.  It's never boring.

There were so many highlights to the performance it's hard to pull up enough superlatives to enshrine the concert.  Dylan sounded great playing a grand piano, whereas before when I had seen him playing an electric piano, the sounded seemed muddled and lost in the mix.  His harmonica playing was sterling.  On the handful of times in the past when I had seen him play it his command of the instrument sounded disinterested.

The centerpiece of the show was the sparkling guitar play of Charlie Sexton.  The handful of times Charlie was let loose, such as on an epic "Love Sick," Sexton's playing crackled.  The last time I had seen Bob 12 years ago Charlie had left the band and his absence was considerable.  Sexton playing alongside Donnie Heron who holds down the pedal steel is reminiscent of the days when the great Larry Campbell played with Bob's band in the late 90's and early 2000's.

The backbone of the band is the steady bass play of Tony Garnier who has played alongside Dylan for nearly 30 years now on his Never Ending Tour.  Garnier was locked in tight with drummer George Receli who delivered a knockout solo during "Thunder on the Mountain."  This may well be Dylan's best ever ensemble since his days with The Band.

I went in the night full of apprehension.  The current recordings you can find on YouTube of this tour don't fully deliver the power of Dylan and his band.  At age 77 he doesn't appear ready to slow down.  The troubadour seems like he's ready to deliver another decade of his remarkable music. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

It's All About The Miles

Time and again I get asked for training advice.  Time and again it comes down to one simple answer.  You've got to run the miles.  Just before my 30th birthday I decided I wanted to run a decent marathon.  When I sat down with Tom Dowling, a private coach with an amazing record of producing great runners, he kept it pretty simple.  He wanted me to do a weekly long run, a couple of medium long runs and at least one up tempo run a week that could be from two to six miles.

I came to him with a marathon PR of 2:57:14.  I told him I wanted to break 2:40.  I figured it could be done on 40 miles a week with a lot of intervals and a hard ten mile run once a week.  I lived in a world of folly.

When I first looked at his calendar that stretched out over six months I laughed in his face.  It had me going from 15 to 20 miles a week up to 50 plus miles a week.  The long run would gradually increase from six to 18 and then as he explained, eventually 21.  Impossible I responded, my life simply won't allow it.    But I looked around at the dozens of other runners Tom coached, many of them married with kids, with jobs far more demanding than mine.  Many of them were running 60 to 80 miles a week.

Starting in December of 1985 I tried to follow the calendar laid out before me as closely as possible.  By May I was cheating and joining the big group in the 21 mile Sunday long run.  It seemed as if overnight  I was running 60 miles a week.  Those 10 mile mid-week runs felt like three.  Intervals were expressly forbidden, although I cheated on occasion and usually paid a price for it. 

By October of 86 I talked Coach Dowling into letting me run a marathon and he said okay, as long as I made it a training run.  For 23 miles it was one of the easiest runs of my life.  The last two were hell but that three hour training run turned into a big PR of 2:49:24 on an extremely hilly course.

2:51 marathon at Grandma's in 1987.  My plans of a 2:45 were short-circuited by food poisoning
It took another four years to get to my goal of a sub-2:40 but I learned a lot of lessons of how not to train and the importance of just putting in the miles.  I ran a lot of what would be called junk miles.  I would guess out of a typical 200 mile month I would do three long runs, four tempo runs, six medium long runs from 10 to 15 miles and a lot of easy three to five mile runs.  About 40 percent of my runs were slower than 7:30 pace.  My long runs were rarely faster than 7:30 pace though the "books" out there with marathon training programs suggest I should have been running under 7 minute pace.

The point of all this is if you want to run a marathon and not suffer in complete agony you've got to put in miles and most of all you have to do a LOT of long runs.  I ran eight marathons while Tom was still alive, most following my own calendar while adhering to his tenants.  Even in races were I encountered tough issues like heat or being short on overall mileage, those long runs saved my ass.  I was so toughened that I could adjust and still run a reasonable marathon.

So when you come into my store and complain about how hard it is to run 30 miles a week I will shake my head.  Yes, it's hot in Southwest Florida.  But I point out that Ron Tabb ran 120 plus miles a week training in Houston, Texas in weather that is just as awful.  Heck, when I first moved to Fort Myers I was running 40 to 50 miles a week and I was in my mid-40's.  With discipline and dedication you can find the time to get the miles in.  You can build your long run into something that will truly benefit you.

Three month training programs that have to building a long run from six miles to 20 in that amount of time is pure folly.  If you want to tackle the marathon, take your time, give yourself six or seven months of serious training with a long, gradual buildup in miles.  Before Dowling I had run a 3:11 marathon in May of 1985 on 20 miles a week.  Ten months after meeting Tom I had 22 minutes faster and it hurt a hell of a lot less.  It's all about the miles with a long run front and center.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Teacher

38 years ago my career in television news was at a crossroads.  I had a "dream" job that was more like a nightmare in a top 20 market.  I was being offered a chance to move from the news side of the station into the sports department which would have had me doing back flips not more than 18 months earlier.  WTCN, the new NBC affiliate in Minneapolis/St. Paul was a hot mess with no ratings.

I had learned a lot about writing and organization from the 10 p.m. producer Paul Adelmann.  I was just something short of a disaster as a weekend producer.  I had been pushed and bullied by the coke head who anchored the weekend news, Stan Bohrman.  He was steamrolling his way to the main anchor job and I was just a casualty in his quest. 

So here I was, Brink Chipman was giving me a choice to head back to producing weekends or become the lacky of sports tyrant Tom Ryther.  Yeah, this newsroom was full of assholes, Brink and Paul being notable exceptions.  But then came a phone call from the man who had lost his bid for the news director's job to Chipman in a well executed man to man showdown to dethrone Gil Amundson who was in over his head when the affiliate switch came.

The call from John Hudgens offered a new job in Little Rock, Arkansas at the NBC station, KARK.  Hudgens had fled Minneapolis and returned to Little Rock as the Managing Editor.  He had convinced Gary Long I was the right guy to produce their 10 p.m. weekday news.

Long hired me sight unseen in March 1980 and off to Arkansas I drove.  The first month was a breeze.  Long was at the horse track almost every day and I was left to my own devices to learn the ropes from Hudgens, the 6 p.m./Executive Producer Leo Greene and a lot of other salty journalists including current WPSD news director Perry Boxx.

Once the horse racing season ended my hell had begun.  Every day I would be invited into Gary's office and be told in no uncertain terms why my newscast sucked.  Gary Long was the Michelangelo of news directors.  He chipped, chided and molded me.  I hated every minute of it. 

By the summer it just got hotter.  In fact it was one of the hottest summers on record.  I can remember my daily drive into work, passing a massive electronic bank clock where the temperature never dipped below triple digits.  By the end of August I was ready to bail.  The CBS station in Little Rock had approached me about a job.  Then came offers from Tulsa and a possible job in Wichita.  It slowly dawned on me that I needed to hold on and learn.  It was a good decision.

By October of 1980 WDAF in Kansas City came calling with a job.  And that would be my home for the next seven years.  Gary tried to convince me to stay even offering to match Kansas City's money.  Three years later Gary would try to hire me again in Oklahoma City where he ran a station alongside Perry Boxx.  I had to say no.  Gary was just too tough.

Yet he taught me more in those short seven months than I would learn during any other period of my career in television news.  Gary Long made me a journalist.  He had bullied and berated me into being a pretty good producer.  I never got to tell him, thank you.

I found out tonight that Gary passed away back in March.  Apparently, his death had almost gone unnoticed by the many, many lives he had touched because he had become a recluse over the last decade or so.  Gary lived hard, he worked hard and he demanded the same of those who worked for him.  I could never measure up.  But I'm okay with that because he gave me the tools I needed to succeed.  Thank you.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Rethinking Cross Country

I've had the good fortune to have run, coached and written about high school cross country.  Back in the stone age when I competed we raced over two mile courses.  The weather in Kansas when racing started, usually the first weekend in September could be unpredictable.  It was generally cool and rarely was it hot.  Once the state championship was held, your season was over

A lot has changed in the last 45 plus years.  The vast majority of races are competed over 5,000 meters.  It's stinking hot in Kansas in September and brutally hot and humid in Florida where I live now.  And the season seems to have moved up a week or two in some instances making it even more likely that the weather is going to be brutal.  And the number of post season races after state have multiplied considerably.

I have a lot of thoughts about this that would make for better racing and better conditioned athletes.  It boils down to two simple approaches; shorten the season and thus limit the number of races.  Starting the cross country season at the end of September would certainly make for more favorable weather for racing, especially in states like Florida in the Southeast and across the South and Southwest.  It would also make for runners who are actually in shape for racing.  Let me explain.

A handful of committed high school coaches work with their athletes over the course of the summer.  Many even take their kids away to camps just before the start of school.  This does not happen at the vast majority of schools.  The kids are on their own and "training" for most of these runners doesn't start until usually a week before the start of school.  Many athletes compete in their first race of the season with two or three weeks of training under their belts.

The number of races is a big issue.  Smart coaches hold out their top athletes out of two or more meets over the course of the season that can feature as many as eight or nine meets before qualifying begins for a chance to run at the state championships.  Plus, there is a big difference between running two miles over 5,000 meters.  Don't kid yourself, a 5K puts considerably more wear and tear on the body especially in the hot months of August and September.

Most kids race every weekend from the last weekend of August until the end of October or the first weekend of November.  Some athletes race as many as 12 times leading up the the state championships.  That's a lot of 5K's.  Then if you go to Footlocker or the Nike post season meet, the number goes up from there.  I really think less is more when it comes to distance running.  These young athletes don't need to run more than six or seven regular season meets.

If you question my thinking then look at the collegiate system.  Yes, the athletes there are competing at longer distances.  But most schools race their top runners no more than six or seven times over the entire three months of their season.  That includes the NCAA Championship if you make it that far.  And we are talking about older athletes who are certainly in better shape.

I honestly believe less is more when it comes to racing, even for younger athletes.  Far too many high school coaches actually know how to properly condition their runners that giving these teenagers a chance to get at least a month of running under their belt before racing would make for a more positive experience.  I've grown weary of watching heat exhausted kids fall across the finish line at far too many races.  It's time for a change.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Comes A Time

Formal practice for high school cross country is just around the corner.  The teams that will dominate  have already put in a summer's worth of work in June and July.  Then there are the coaches that know how to coach and whip kids into shape who are short on miles that manage miracles year after year.  But unfortunately the majority of schools employ coaches who can't make the time commitments to ride herd on their athletes through the summer and allow their teams to become fodder for those who put in the miles.

Since I've lived in Southwest Florida, Estero High School has been the dominant school when it comes to boys and girls cross country.  The late, great Jeff Sommers believed in working hard and working early though the hot, humid months, that dominate the weather here.  His athletes were up well before dawn putting in the kind of miles that leads to success.  That recipe has stayed in place under the current regime at Estero led by Brian Olitsky.

Over the last half decade the only area school to consistently challenge Estero's dominance has been Fort Myers High School.  This year both the boys and girls team will be shepherded by Yancey Palmer.  Since Palmer's arrival the Green Wave have proven to be a major rival to Estero.  This season should be no different.

Looking first at the boys side the bright spots are Estero track star Hugh Brittenham and proven cross country challenger Kyle Skinner from Fort Myers.  Brittenham wants to put a stamp on his historic career by showing that he can bring to cross country what he's brought to the 800 and 1600 where he's stamped himself as the greatest distance runner in Lee County history.  Skinner, entering his junior campaign, will prove to be a gritty rival and seems better suited for the rugged toughness that cross country running demands.

Among the Lee County girls only one seems to stand out.  Jessica Edwards, a super 800 runner, appears poised to elbow her way into the conversation when it comes to all time cross country runners in Southwest Florida.  As good as Krissy Gear was as an all round distance runner, in the last decade Estero's Bona Jones and Community School's Kathryn Fluehr remain the gold standard in girls cross country.

The strongest team boys or girls appears to be the ladies competing for Naples High School.  They finished 7th at state each of the last two years.  Given the extra year of experience for the slew of freshman and sophomore that make up the Naples roster they could make a charge for the podium.

The wild card as we head into this season is the amazing building program led by Jorge Fleitas at Bishop Verot High School.  The Vikings could be the surprise team in Southwest Florida.  I say this based solely on the number of athletes from his store coming into my store buying shoes.  I've never seen such a procession of runners coming from Verot committed to putting in the miles over the summer.

Stay tuned, the first meet is just two weeks away.