Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Great Kansas Distance Drought

My blog about Kent McDonald raised a question from one of my regular readers, Mason Duede.  He wondered whether if Kansas could lay claim to being a distance running power in the United States?  It’s funny that he brought that question up because when I was much younger, I would pour through the high school lists ranking not just the distance running prowess of the Sunflower State, but how it ranked in track and field as a whole.

Up until the late 1970’s, the state of Kansas was a track and field juggernaut.  A mythical team of boys featuring the best of Kansas from the 60’s and 70’s would have held its own against the other 49 states.  California, Texas and New York would have been tough to beat in a mythical track and field showdown, but Kansas would have been incredibly competitive thanks in large part to the prowess of Jim Ryun, assuming he would double, 400 IH freak Bob Bornkessel, the outstanding triple jumper Vince Parrette and throwers like Bob Obee and Clint Johnson. 
But back to Mason’s original query about the distance legacy of Kansas preps.  Per capita, I would say that Kansas was a distance power nationally up until the late 1970’s.  A large part of that lies at the feet of Jim Ryun.  But the list doesn’t end there.  By 1980 Kansas had 5 sub 4:10 milers. 

A string of Shawnee Missouri South runners, a school that was a distance powerhouse in the 1970's
I decided to look no further than California.  Distance runners have poured out of the Golden State for years.  The name of great runners seem endless, Tim Danielson, Ralph Serna, Curtis Beck, Eric Hulst to name just a few.  The all-time California list cuts off at 4:09.2 so comparing numbers wasn’t exact.  By 1980 California at 38 runners who had run a mile at 4:09.2 or faster.  California had a population of more than 23 and a half million people.  Kansas had about 2.3 million people.  California crushes Kansas for the number of elite high school milers in terms of population. 

But compare to Kansas to say Oregon and the numbers look a little better.  Oregon and Kansas both had 5 milers under 4:10 by 1980, but Oregon's population was larger so the nod goes to the Sunflower State.  But in the years since Oregon has added four more runners to that list while Kansas hasn't had one boy break 4:10.
It’s sad to think that since Steve Smith from Shawnee Misson South ran 4:07.56 in 1980 no other high school runner from Kansas has broken 4:10.  California now has 67 milers at 4:09.2 or better.  It makes you wonder why the drought?  Perhaps we miss the great prep coaches like Wichita East coaches Bob Timmons, J.D. Edmiston or Shawnee Mission South’s Verlyn Schmidt aren't around anymore willing to push kids to super performances. 

There are undoubtedly some very good high school coaches in Kansas.  Van Rose of Shawnee Mission Northwest is great and belongs in the company of Timmons, Edmiston and Schmidt.  But even Van will admit to only training his kids hard enough to win state championships.  Things like Footlocker and NXN are an afterthought in Van’s book and that’s not meant as a criticism.
I think two things are behind the lack of great times.  My guess is some of the best potential milers end up playing soccer.  The rise of soccer has hurt track and field, especially in a small state like Kansas.  The other is the old “Runner’s World” syndrome that I think inhabits the thought processes of the majority of high school coaches.  They don’t want to burn the kids out.  Thus high mileage of 70 or 80 miles a week is off the table.

 I look at the three great Lawrence High distance runners of the last three decades, David Johnston, Chris Williams and Roy Wedge, all state champions, none ascribed to high mileage.  I doubt that either topped 70 miles a week if that during their high school careers.  They chose to run quality over quantity and unless you have the god given speed of a Sebastian Coe than school records like that of Kent McDonald’s will stand for another 20 years.  And yes, Kent had a hand in coaching both Williams and Wedge.  And yes, it pains him that his record from 1971 is still standing.

1 comment:

  1. A nifty analysis, John, thanks. Your assessment supports the hypothesis that something exceptional was happening in Kansas running back in the seventies (Ryun's inspiration, remarkable coaching); It occurred to me that it was perhaps the comparison between the states of Missouri and Kansas back then which caused KS to seem absolutely grandiose. Some people may recall that even one of Missouri's high school track and cross-country standouts, a certain Tim Jantsch, was actually a Kansan running for Rockhurst ! That being said, I suddenly recall that MO was the the home to the likes of Mark Curp, Brad Hawthorne, Ron Tabb and Bob Busby (not sure the last two are actually from MO). Perhaps it's more like a "running belt" going from KS through IL (Craig Virgin, of course). Kind regards, Mason