Thursday, March 26, 2009

Red River Shore

"Sometime I think nobody ever saw me here at all, except the girl from the Red River shore."
Bob Dylan

Let's all say a prayer tonight for my friends in Fargo. I spent three years as a television journalist working at the NBC station just a hop skip and a jump from the Red River. Tell anybody that you're from Fargo or lived there and immediately the comeback has something to do with the Coen Brother's classic film "Fargo."

Across the river from Fargo sits Moorhead, Minnesota. Between the two counties you have a little more than 125-thousand people. It seems everybody knows everybody else, sort of like one big high school. While the folks there are very friendly, they have a way of keeping outsiders at an arms length.

There's no crime, no traffic congestion and good schools. But the winters are awful, the land is flat and largely barren. And every few winters they get too much snow and when it melts all it once, it brings nothing but trouble and heartache. It's doubly cruel as the floods come just as you've survived another difficult season of numbing cold and treacherous snow.

The residents of Grand Forks lived through the terror of a rapid melt after record setting snows 12 years ago and the Red River inundated much of the community. Now Fargo-Moorhead faces the same battle. The levees were raised after 1997 because the flood that slammed Grand Forks, which sits about 90 miles to the north, nearly took Fargo. There's a lot of sandbagging going on right now. Some of it not more than a mile and a half from the house I used to own in Moorhead.

I spent a lot of miles running the trails along the Red River. It's not very wide or deep. It's one of three rivers that flow north in the United States. The Red River makes its way into Canada and eventually to Lake Winnepeg which is connected to Hudson Bay.

So I pray tonight for the communities I once called home. I pray too for their native daughter, Roxana Saberi, still languishing behind bars in an Iranian prison.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Track time

Tis' the season when boys and girls run, jump, and throw their way across thousands of outdoor track and field facilities across the United States. The collegiate and high school indoor track and field season is done and it's time for some fun in the sun.

Here in sunny Southwest Florida the outdoor meets have been going for a few weeks now. I'm pondering a trip to Gainesville in a couple of weeks to the Florida Relays. Save for a trip last year to cover the state high school outdoor in Orlando for the local rag, I haven't been to any meets. The local newspapers do bare bones coverage of high school track and field and the website that handles the Florida preps is a pay site.

The best coach in the area lives in my neighborhood and he's got a real stud on his team. Erick Montoya is a junior at Estero High School. Last year he nearly captured the 3200 at state missing out by a step when he ran 9:23. He also finished second last fall in cross country at state. I see him at some of the local road races and I've interviewed him before. He's a smart kid who's just started scratching his potential.

I'm also looking forward to keeping track of my favorite athletes back in my home state of Kansas. I'm really hoping that Lawrence High junior Roy Wedge shows the potential on the track that he's shown the last three years in cross country. I really think Roy could be a sub 9:20 3200 runner. He's another intelligent young man who's never really piled on the miles.

Nationally I'm wanting to see what Jordan Hasay does. I'd love to see her break 9:50 in the 3200 and run 4:32 in the 1600. And who knows, maybe we'll have some surprises from some of the up and coming boy distance runners like Mac Fleet and Elijah Greer. Afterall, it's been eight whole years since a prep has broken four minutes in the mile.

On the collegiate level it should be interesting to see whether Oregon's Galen Rupp can continue his outstanding runner. He really let it rip indoors. It would be nice to see an American born runner take down some collegiate records. And watch out for Colorado's Jenny Barringer, I won't be surprised if she takes down as many as three collegiate marks this spring.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Revenge of the Husband

The tables turned this morning on the streets of Lehigh Acres. The balance of nature restored during a four mile road race. The Old Fat Man took the Czarina down a notch or two.

But first let us return to the scene four months ago to the streets of Cape Coral. It was there that the Czarina demolished the Old Fat Man during a 5K road race. It was a painful experience. The plan had been to let the Czarina hammer it out for the first mile and watch her slowly fade over the next two miles and snatch the race somewhere near the end. This strategy had worked perfectly a month before at a race in Fort Myers where the Fat Man claimed victory about ten seconds.

The difference this time was the course was pancake flat. The Fort Myers layout had featured two massive uphills over a bridge that spans the Caloosahatchee River. Also the Czarina started training at a feverish pitch in preparation for her marathon at Disney. Meanwhile the Fat Man had been suffering through Plantars Fasciatis and had become less than enthusiastic in his training.

Her victory in Cape Coral had been resounding. As the Fat Man had started to reel in his prize just before the mile something astounding happened, the Czarina started to pull away while the Fattie could only wheeze in disbelief. In the end it was a complete thrashing, with the Fat Man some 50 seconds behind at the finish line and the Czarina hoisting yet another trophy.

Over the next four months much has changed. The Old Fat Man went to the doctor, gotten some anti-inflamatories, and some inserts for his shoes to help with the pain in his foot. Day by day he trained in earnest as did the Czarina. She would confidently pound away the miles while Fattie simply trudged along at first, about a minute a mile slower and then faster little by little, 45, then 30, to now where its about 15 seconds a mile slower than his beloved wife.

The difference maker was the addition of long runs. I hate them. I used to do them with some relish in my 30's, embracing the weariness of 21 miles on a Sunday morning. I knew that slowly increasing my weekend run would help melt the pounds. The Czarina's been handling 13 to 16 milers with regularity, last weekend marked my first 14 miler in about four years.

So the stage was set in Lehigh Acres. The Czarina was confident that she had just enough in the tank to grab one last victory before the Fattie got into serious shape. But it was not to be. The Old Fat Man rolled through the first mile in 7:43, about five seconds behind the beautiful Czarina. Then slowly the distance began to close and at about 1.5 miles the Czarina was heard to exclaim, "Oh my God, it's him!" She struggled valiantly for the next quarter mile to keep pace. The Old Fat Man thought about telling her to save herself knowing that expending such energy could hurt her overall time, but he did not. By two miles he was nine seconds in front and pulling away.

The Old Fat Man crossed the finish line in 30:32, some three minutes slower than the last time he had run this race in 2004. But that was three surgeries and 20 pounds ago. The Czarina trudged home in 31:48, about 20 seconds slower than the Fat Man thought she could run. But in the end the Czarina had the last laugh, hoisting yet another Grand Master's trophy for her victory while the Fattie had to take solace that he was sixth in his age group.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Abandoned Love

"I can see the turning of the key.
I've been deceived by the clown inside of me."
Bob Dylan

I feel deceived. An Iranian official on March 7th said American journalist Roxana Saberi would be released "soon" from prison. We're coming up on a week now. The international community of journalists is finally starting to get worked up about this. Roxana needs to know that she's not been abandoned.

In other news, I got an email from Vera Savko. She works for the American consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia. She was inquiring as to my interest in a return trip. Last year I went for a week to speak to a group of small market Russian television journalists. It was a wonderful experience.

My hotel was directly across from the Hermitage. I did a fair amount of sight-seeing as it seemed that my schedule of "things to do there" for the consulate shrank upon my arrival. I got to tour two of the city's TV stations. One was cramped but modern. It's a private all news channel. The other was housed in this huge Soviet era building with massive studios and a lot of outdated equipment. But it was very professional.

The private channel wants some guidance on managing their operations. The staff is very young and their top manager comes from a print background. It would be a two week adventure. I think I've got a lot of planning to do in a short amount of time. It could be very interesting if I end up doing this.

Ironically the trip could wrap around my plan vacation to Riga, Latvia to visit the Czarina's hometown. I'm already getting tired just thinking about it.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Fire on the Mountain

"Long distance runner, what you standin there for?
Get up, get out, get out of the door."
The Grateful Dead

As a fan of track and field and a devoted distance runner I want to write about something fantastic that's going on in this country. A renaissance is going on from the mile to the marathon. Don't get me wrong, we're not at the level of the Kenyans and Ethiopians but things are beginning to look up.

The United States has never really been a distance power, at least not in my lifetime. 1964 was an exception with the performances of Billy Mills, Bob Schul, and Bill Dellinger in Tokyo.

Jim Ryun showed what was possible at a tender age making the 64 team before his senior year in high school and following that up with American and World records. Frank Shorter and the rivalry that followed with fellow marathoner Bill Rodgers did a lot to promote distance running and was partly responsible for the jogging craze and the rapid growth in road racing. But at a world level with a few notable exceptions like Craig Virgin, Steve Scott, Alberto Salazar, and Bob Kennedy, American distance running was laughable.

Something started to happen in the 90's. A lot of it I believe is due to the Internet which connected high school distance running geeks. And a trio of exceptional young runners appeared at about the same time, Ryan Hall, Dathan Ritzenheim, and Alan Webb. Each of these high school phenoms brought the sport to a whole nother level and laid the groundwork for what has happened over the last decade. A certain respectability has returned to U.S. distance running.

An influx of foreigners who became U.S. citizens didn't hurt either. Men like Bernard Lagat, Meb Keflezighi, Abdi Abdirahman, and Khalid Khannouchi have all help elevate the American prescence on the world stage. Despite a disappointing Olympics in Beijing, we shouldn't overlook the American records set by Hall in the marathon, Webb in the mile, and Lagat's two world championship golds in 2007.

Young runners like Galen Rupp, pictured above with Adam and Kara Goucher, along with German Fernandez, are tearing up the track this indoor season. America running has much to be excited about. Fernandez has a legitimate shot at finishing in the top three at the World Cross Country Championships. Rupp has already taken down the ancient American indoor record for 5,000 meters and may be capable of something really special outdoors at 10,000 this spring.

There are other youngsters like Dorian Ulrey, Matt Centrowitz, and Luke Pudskedra who hold a lot of promise. We may not have the quality of depth of the Africans but we're beginning to produce runners capable of competing with them at the top levels.

The women have been just as sharp. Shalane Flanaghan has an Olympic medal and a handful of American records. Kara Goucher ran a great debut marathon in New York City and should run well in Boston is her indoor track season is any indication. Jennifer Barringer, a steeple specialist just took down the American collegiate indoor record for the mile. And God knows what Jordan Hassay will do this spring... a whole lot of high school girls distance records could go by the wayside.

For me it's exciting stuff. Spring is at hand and so is outdoor track. Time to go for a run.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Free Roxana

A glimmer of hope in the case of Roxana Saberi, the American journalist thrown into prison by Iran may be coming home. The Minneapolis Star Tribune is reporting that the Iranian government claims to have wrapped up its investigation opening the way for her release. The initial reports this morning came from Reuters.

The Iranians snatched Saberi more than a month ago for "buying wine." Roxana worked as a reporter at the Fargo NBC station where I was news director. Her case has the full attention of North Dakota's Congressional delegation and yesterday Secretary of State Clinton called for her immediate release. Let's keep our fingers crossed.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


It's been a tough start to the year for a lot of people I know. Whether it's health issues, ice storms, or economic insecurity, 2009 has pretty much sucked so far. But I can't imagine the terror, horror, and unrelenting fear that Roxana Saberi is enduring right now. The diplomatic wheels are beginning to slowly turn. We now know that Roxana is being held in one of Iran's more notorious political prisons. Whatever is going on goes way beyond the purchase of a bottle of wine.

For the few of you out there that read this blog, please call or email your Senators or Congressman. I've already done it. I've made it known that I want the government to do everything it can to ensure Roxana's safe return. I've even emailed the Iranian ambassador to the U.N.

In case you don't understand my concern, people die in this prison. A Canadian journalist died in Iranian custody six years ago. This is a matter of great urgency.

As I've stated in the prior blog, Roxana is an extraordinary person. Here's the last email we shared just two months ago.
Hi, John:
It was great to get news from you. I don't check my hotmail account much anymore. I use this g-mail one instead...
So you have left the news world, at least for now... PR sounds like a much more stable and predictable (and less stressful?) job. I can see the appeal. So how is Tatyana? Is she running as much as she used to? How about you? You mentioned a while that you have diverticulitis. How are you feeling these days? I hope everything is going all right.
I had a slight incident with my knee when playing soccer a few months ago. (A big German guy who works as a guard at the German embassy banged into me. No pity, it seems, for the only girl on the field!) So I'm taking it easy.
Do you enjoy Fort Myers? It seems like it. You've been there the same amount of time I've been in Iran, but I'm ready to move on... maybe in the spring. I still don't have a press pass. The authorities pulled it in 2006. Did I tell you that? They never gave me a reason, and I haven't pursued it because I figured it's no use. Anyway, it's time to get going, but I have no idea to where or to what.
Is Stacey still in FL, by the way? Are you in touch with her? I get back to Fargo once in a while and see Dave Grant and Mel. They still do their Tuesday-night get-togethers at Paradiso's. It's great to catch up with them when I'm back. Dave's enjoying his 4-day a week work schedule.

I hope you had an excellent holiday and that you'll have a wonderful 2009! I don't think I'll be getting to FL anytime soon, but I hope our paths will cross sometime again in the near future. Say hi to Tatyana for me, and keep in touch!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Bad Karma

I saw something this morning that has left me shattered. A friend of mine is being held in an Iranian prison. Roxana Saberi has been living in Iran for the last six years working as a journalist. She apparently purchased some wine, a violation of the law in this Islamic state. Her parents have not talked to her for almost three weeks.

I've spent time in the Saberi home. Reza her father and Akiko her mother are remarkable people. Their daughter is even more so. I first met Roxana in the summer of 2000. She had just finished her second masters degree and my boss was insisting that we hire her as a reporter at KVLY TV, the NBC affiliate in Fargo, North Dakota. We were lucky enough to convince Roxana to join us.

She was smart, too smart for television. She was beautiful. I used to tease her about it. We were together at a convention for journalists and time after time the old fuddy duddy news directors would stop slack jawed in their tracks to meet her. Her beauty was unique and understandable given her heritage, a Japanese mother and Iranian father.

But beyond her smarts and looks Roxana is just a great person. She makes friends easily, has a great sense of humor and has compassion. She always had this huge adventurous streak in her and that led Roxana to Iran.

My heart is aching for her family right now. I fear for her safety in the prisons of Tehran. She doesn't deserve this and our government needs to get off its backside and raise hell with the Iranians.