Saturday, March 23, 2013

Not Coming to a Local Road Race Near You

Mediocrity rules at most local road races, unless you live in a large metro area.  The days of needing to be able to run 31 minutes for 10K or 15 minutes for 5K to win the big local race are long gone.  You only see those kind of times if money is on the line.  That begs the question, why?

This blog has reconnected me with some old running rivals who by and large collectively kicked my ass during my high school career.  One of them, Jim Scott, had a very solid running career at a small college in Kansas, Pitt State.  And by solid I mean Jim still holds the school records there for the mile and 1500 set almost 40 years ago.

Jim so loved competing he moved out to California and became a road warrior, running and racing just for the love of it.  He ran 2:24 in the marathon and under 30 minutes for 10K.  Jim grew up in Kansas City and was a lot like the really good guys I raced against in the mid-1980's in K.C.  After my Tough Mudder, Spartan rant, Jim pointed out a problem that is pandemic to local road racing.  Guys like him just don't exist anymore.  The hobby joggers have taken over the sport of road racing.  Very, very few runners, train hard, trying to run super fast times. 
Club Midwest 1977
Rex Lane Chuck Copp Ed Crumm Tom Koppes Jim Scott
Marcus Canipe Charlie Gray George Mason
There seems to be a bigger gap between the elite runners that roam the road circuit in the U.S. and the really good local/regional runners.  In Kansas City if you can run a low 32 minute 10K you pretty much rule the roost.  No so 25 years ago.  You'd be really good running those times, but you wouldn't stand a chance of winning.  Heck, if you can run a 32 minute 10K in Southwest Florida, where I live, you would be a local running god.  34 minutes in a 10K or 16:30 in a 5K will win 95 percent of the races around here and by a large margin at that.

Back in the mid-1980's there were easily a dozen or so guys within a three hour drive of Kansas City that could run 31 minutes or faster.  Two guys specifically come to mind, Charlie Gray and Bob Luder, two studs who could run a 10K under 30 minutes on the roads, no easy task.

Charlie raised the competitive level in Kansas City.  Luder wouldn't have been as fast as he was were it not for Charlie.  And Charlie was around a national class road racer who called the Kansas City suburb of Lee's Summit home, Mark Curp.  Curp was so good he rarely raced in Kansas City.  He made his living running races for cash around the U.S.

It created an atmosphere that raised the bar for Kansas City and the region where really good runners like Tim Schmidt, Brian Franke, and Ed Crumm, just too many to name, trained like madmen, not because they held Olympic dreams, but because they wanted to challenge themselves and run fast times.  What had been happening on the high school tracks in the 60's and 70's showed itself on the road racing scene of the 1980's.

I did a search of the all-time road racing records in Kansas and Missouri.  The bulk of the top marks by men and women were set between 1982 and 1992.  By bulk I mean more than half of those marks were run in that special ten year period.  The record setting stopped because guys like Charlie Gray just got too old to set records.

Charlie and the great group of runners came on the heels of Olympic medals by Frank Shorter, the phenomenon that was Steve Prefontaine and the great Bill Rodgers ruling the Boston Marathon.  They set road racing on fire and leading to a American distance running renaissance with guys like Alberto Salazar, Craig Virgin, Curp and a host of others.

I blame the decline that followed the 1984 Olympics on three things.  The 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics, a major change in training philosophy and the rise of high school soccer.  The boycott of Moscow meant we lost a generation of possible heroes to emulate.  Eight years between Montreal and Los Angeles did a lot of damage.

Then add to that, running big mileage went out of vogue.  It especially hit hard at the high school level where the top level athletes of the 1970's regularly logged 70 to 100 miles a week.  Suddenly it was okay to run just 40 to 50 miles a week.  Distance running atrophied. 

The final blow was the rise of high school soccer.  The best runners started opting to play soccer.  And unfortunately most soccer coaches forbade their charges from running cross country or track fearing they would lose their athlete to the sport of running.

American distance running suffered almost 20 years until a resurgence started, in part because of the success of Bob Kennedy, but more likely because of the Internet.  Websites like Dyestat, LetsRun and TrackShark drew runners and coaches together.  It generated a buzz and excitement about running fast again at the high school level.  Running under 4 minutes for the mile at the high school level didn't seem like such an impossibility anymore.

Successful runners like Dathan Ritzenheim, Ryan Hall and Alan Webb at the high school level showed that mileage brings big success.  Then imports like Meb Keflezighi and a whole host of road warriors training in Portland, Oregon, Flagstaff, Arizona and even in Rochester Hills, Michigan started producing results that seemed improbable just a decade ago.  The 1992 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials had four men under 2:15.  2012 saw 21 men beating that same mark.

While the elite level is booming, the local/regional racing scene seems moribund.  I think it's largely due to the coaching that is still prevalent at high school level.  Despite the vast improvement in the quality of high school and college distance running, most coaches are still low mileage advocates.  It takes a lot of care and diligence to get kids to run 70 plus miles a week.  It doesn't require much guidance or coaching to get a kid to run 40 miles a week.

I believe very few runners are willing to run 70 to 100 miles a week to be a 31 minute 10K guy or a 2:20 marathoner.  I can understand, because it's hard and there is no real reward in it.  But I can remember the fever that ran through guys in Kansas City and Phoenix that I knew in the 1980's who just wanted to run an Olympic qualifying time in the marathon just to say they had run the Trials.  They had no delusions of grandeur about making the team.  They just wanted to say they had done it. 

Jim Scott was one of those guys.  Jim didn't quite make it, but he sure as hell tried.  I know I don't have any hard proof but there just doesn't seem to be as many guys around like Jim Scott or Charlie Gray anymore.


Monday, March 18, 2013

Mudder, Color, Spartan, it's all BS

First, any activity that involves rigorous physical exercise is a very good thing indeed.  I simply don't understand why someone would want to ruin a perfectly good run.  For example, to me an outside the box run would be competing in an ultra.  That I could understand.  Ever since I read about Western States back in the early 1970's in Sports Illustrated I always considered it, outside of being an Olympian, would be the ultimate accomplishment that any distance runner could aspire too along with qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

I remember while I was in college a journalist I knew, fellow Kansan Steve Clark, talked about competing in something called "The Ironman."  He went to Hawaii to swim, bike and run some ungodly distances.  At the time I remember thinking this triathlon thing was sort of cool, but not my cup of tea.  Why ruin a perfectly good marathon attempt by swimming and biking before it?

Then a couple of years ago some truly bullshit sports started to bubble up.  There was cross-fit, an over glorified exercise-fest that had nothing on the junior high gym torture meted out by our ogre of a physical education teacher, Ralph Wedd.  Then there was something called, Tough Mudder.  Obviously these corporate running blood suckers didn't compete at the 1973 Shawnee Mission East Invitational cross country meet, otherwise they would never had dared labeled their farcical runs with that name.

I dodged plenty of cowpies barbwire and jumped a ditch to win this race in 1972

Least we forget the Spartan Race started a little more than a decade ago before becoming another cash cow for people who must love suffering.  A bunch of Navy Seal wanna-be's get punished with various nasty obstacles over distances ranging from a 5K to a marathon or longer.  Oh, and for those that don't enjoy torture there's the recently arrived "Color Run" series.  It's a run aimed at couch potatoes who enjoy getting blasted with powder colors.

Whatever happened to competing against the clock?  Even at my age I try to challenge myself to run times that I think I should be capable of running even though I'll never run close to my personal bests anymore.  The joy of competing against the clock and competing against the local age groupers is enough of a challenge to keep me training like a madman.

Besides, Tough Mudder, Spartan, and Color Runs all have one thing in common.  The people that came up with these concepts are making a ton of money.  These races are also doing something else.  They're hurting local road races organized by your local shoe store, running club or community organization looking to do something good for the place where you live.

Some folks do these events for charities.  That's all good and well.  But when you support these corporate runs instead of competing in a "local" road race, you're hurting your community.  You're allowing carpetbaggers to come in and take a substantial amount of your cash out of the local economy.  These races aren't cheap.  Think about it this way.  Run a local 5K for $20 and donate the extra $25 you would have paid to been doused with "color" to a charity that supports your community.
To my friends and family members who have indulged in these crazy competitions, don't take offense.  I understanding the need to face new challenges.  I just ask to consider what you're supporting and who you're supporting when you take part in these events.  Besides, whatever happened to the old adage, Run for Fun.  I don't need mud, barb wire or barriers to make me feel like I've done something special.  I've faced those challenges plenty of times in Kansas on a good, old fashioned, training run!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Education of Perry Ellis

When you talk about high school basketball in Kansas, two programs always come to mind for me, Wyandotte and Wichita Heights.  These two schools have produced some of the greatest players to come out of the Sunflower State and some incredible teams.  The best high school basketball player I ever saw came from Heights, Darnell Valentine.  He is the best point guard to come out of any Kansas high school period.  But he's not the best player to ever come out of Heights.

That title would go to Perry Ellis, a sensation for the Falcons since he stepped on the floor as a freshman, leading Heights to four consecutive state championships.  Kansas fans drooled at the prospect of this 6'8" high school legend joining the Jayhawks this season.  But Ellis hasn't quite made the impact that his predecessor at Kansas, Darnell Valentine, did as a freshman.

I pointed out back in November that Ellis had some serious holes in his game.  He lacked the strength needed to take contact and finish his shot.  He was a liability defensively, often getting lost out on the floor.  You would see flashes of his brilliance whenever he could launch his soft, feathery jump shot, but December, January and February showed little of the promise that the Jayhawk faithful thought that Ellis could deliver.

But as Kansas basketball rolled in to March, it's as if a light went on in Perry Ellis.  He started taking the ball to the rack with authority.  Ellis started to show that he could finish around the rim.  And most importantly, his quick feet were paying off on the defensive end. 

In defense of Ellis, he is a small forward, trapped in a power forward's body.  His ability to play out on the floor, much like the Morris twins, is going to be beneficial in his remaining years ahead.  But K.U. coach Bill Self wants his post players to be able to play in the post.  It's the key to the two man, high-low game that Kansas loves to play on offense.  Now Ellis is beginning to show the muscle needed to play in the low post.  But you've got to love the 3 point dagger he threw down on Kansas State to help the Jayhawks win the Big 12 Tournament.

The Big 12 Tournament was certainly a coming out party for Perry Ellis.  Kansas is just one of a dozen teams with legitimate shots at going to the Final 4.  But with Perry Ellis starting to show the ability that made him a high school All-American, the Jayhawks odds at making it to Atlanta just got a little better.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

JFK and Ronald Reagan, what went wrong after 1988?

I've been chewing on the nation's political fortunes for the last few days.  I'm not sure why, but I feel overwhelmed by how far right the USA has turned politically.  But then, I really thought about it and decided what I was feeling simply isn't true.  I just think the game has been rigged.  Money drives America's political fortunes and unfortunately, those with deep pockets like to spend on conservative causes.

What got me to the keyboard was a speech that was sent to me by an old running rival.  It was a campaign speech delivered by John F. Kennedy at Shawnee Mission East high school in 1960.  That reminded me of 1983 when I went to Dallas, Texas for the 20th anniversary of JFK's assassination.  The powerhouse station in Dallas, WFAA, was showing all of its footage of the President's Texas visit which included all of the sound from his speeches.  I sat there thinking that I was listening to President Ronald Reagan.

Kennedy was talking about cutting taxes, controlling government spending and stopping the communists.  It was like getting head upside the head with a dead mule.  Except for his liberal stance, that we should integrate our colleges and let black people vote, there wasn't much separating JFK from Reagan.  America really hadn't changed much from 1963 to 1983 save for one thing, Reagan had empowered conservatives. 

Newt Gingrich took it a step further in 1994 with his Contract with America and the Evangelicals were all in.  There was no looking back for the Republican Party.  Country Club Republicans found themselves tied to Christian zealots who wanted prayer back in our schools and abortion banned, period.  They held their noses and proceeded forward.

The crowning coup was the emergence of Rush Limbaugh in the late 1980's and FOX News less than a decade later.  Suddenly conservatives had a voice that could articulate their feelings, even if much of it was based on half truths and ginned up statistics.  Sadder still, Rush and FOX became the lone source of news along with a burgeoning brigade of bloggers.  Nothing on the mainstream newscasts could be trusted and you were going to hell if your read the New York Times.

What happened to peace, love and understanding?  The depression generation that grew up to fight World War II by and large doesn't recognize the current political landscape.  In fact, most of them that I know just hold their nose.  They don't like President Obama and they sure as hell didn't like any of the Republican alternatives.  Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi don't represent what most Americans believe but neither do Mitch McConnell or Eric Cantor.  John Boehner is Speaker of the House in name only, he has no power.

I think by and large the majority of Americans still believe in a woman's right to choose, think that the 2nd Amendment isn't an absolute and politics and religion don't mix.  I think the fact that a majority of Americans could hold their nose and re-elect President Obama proves that point.  But even now the game is rigged.  Big money will do what it can to undo what the Electoral College did in 2012.  It will push state legislatures to change the rules of the electoral game, just as they got Republican controlled legislatures to gerrymander the hell out of Congressional districts to guarantee a GOP majority in the house for at least the next decade. Add to that a Supreme Court that may be prepared to undo the civil rights of million of voters of color and you get the drift.

Just as much as we need to separate religion from our politics, we need to separate money from the process.  We all know neither is going to happen, so division will remain a festering part of the process.  The word compromise has become a four-letter word.  How sad it all is.

But I see a glimmer of hope.  The FCC is taking a hard look at stopping the job killing consolidation of broadcast media.  That's right, that conservative move to deregulate broadcasting has killed, not created thousands of jobs and made a lot of investment bankers very, very rich.  But all of these duopolies and even triopolies that have sprung up in the 200 plus television markets across America are in peril.

If you think this is a bad thing I ask you to Google a company called Sinclair Broadcasting.  It's owners are all about making a buck on the backs of its employees, pushing a thinly veiled political agenda as news, and running news operations into the ground.  They own more than 60 television stations.  When I started in this business you could only own 7, then it went to 12 and then Katie bar the door.   I'm not holding my breath, but if the FCC puts a stop to this nonsense, then there is reason to hope.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Heading South

Along the way this blog, which passed the 4 year mark several weeks ago, has chronicled my rather lengthy journey through the land of television news.  When I last wrote about my career I posted about Fargo and my three years at KVLY.  I went to Fargo with the idea that it would be a stepping stone job.  Looking back that was a big mistake.  I should have been satisfied with where I was and what I was doing. 

But nothing lasts forever and by the end of that third year the Czarina was itching to go somewhere a lot warmer.  I had said no to a news directors job in Eugene, Oregon.  I had lost out on two other jobs back in Kansas.  All the Czarina cared about was getting away from the miserable winters.  Her two words to me as I started my job search in earnest were warm and water.

On a whim I applied for the executive producer position at WINK TV in Fort Myers, Florida.  I had a hard time of getting past my thinking of Fort Myers as a backwater stop because when I started in the business, it ranked somewhere below 130 out of the 200 plus Nielson television markets.  I always flash back to an eager Craig Sager sending film of the Kansas City Royals going through the paces at spring training back in 1978 hoping that it would land him a job at KMBC.  I think Mr. Sager did okay for himself.

I was shocked when I got a call from Rick Gevers, a respected TV agent and former news director, telling me that WINK news director John Emmert wanted to hire me.  I think my jaw hit the floor and more or less didn't take it very seriously.  Rick launched into a persuasive pitch on why I should hop on a jet and visit Mr. Emmert and the warmer climbs that beckoned in Southwest Florida sounded pretty good when I got the phone call in late November.

The Czarina and I had a marathon planned in Tucson in early December so I put off the visit until the second week of that month.  I flew down and met John and WINK's consultant, Frank Graham.  I surprised Frank when I reminded him that he didn't hire me for an EP job in Baltimore when he was news director there 15 years prior.  Mr. Emmert launched into a pretty hard pitch but what sold me was the staff, specifically 2 former Jayhawks.
KU grads Molly Dallen and Jeannie McCarragher both pulled me aside and made the case why WINK was a worthwhile gig.  Their enthusiasm and the surprising quality of the news product won me over.  Plus, Mr. Emmert didn't throttle me when I told him what I thought was wrong with the product.  Money was a major issue, but the general manager Gary Gardner assured me the cash would come if the station could reclaim its old position as the top station in the market.  WINK had lost its grasp atop the ratings heap after being a powerhouse for 40 years.

Fort Myers was at market 67 with a bullet when I joined in January 2003.  The economy in Southwest Florida was on fire.  They couldn't build houses and strip malls fast enough.  Despite the attractiveness of the area, we couldn't keep staff to save our lives.  Turnover was rampant, at a pace that paled to what I experienced in Fargo.  I was constantly on the prowl for producers and associate producers.

Within a few months on the job I was very comfortable in my role of running the day to day operations of the newsroom.  John Emmert and I formed a good bond.  It was all going pretty smoothly for that first year until my diverticulitis flared up in the late spring.  It was just the opening round of what would be a trying summer.

The Czarina and I were supposed to make a trip in late August to Riga but first Hurricane Charley came along on August 13, 2004.  That storm was followed by Frances and Jeannie.  That ended any trip to Riga and WINK stiffed on the ticket I ate.  By the end of September my health was a wreck.  Mr. Emmert's wasn't much better as his heart landed him in the hospital.  My stomach was giving out.

By December I was recovering from one surgery later and another looming on the horizon I was back in the newsroom in January of 2005 slowly on the road to recovery.  My contract had expired in January and WINK was back on top of the ratings.  The money promised didn't materialize.  So unhappily I agreed to another 2 year deal with a big fat news director out. 

Looking back I should have been happy with the measly raise I had received given I would miss more than a month of work due to my surgeries.  However, I felt slighted and unappreciated.  Plus, I dreaded going through another hurricane season.  Covering Charley and the storms that followed was the most exhausting experience of my career in journalism. 

I decided to cast about for another news directors job.  It didn't take long for a new job to come my way, one Mr. Emmert would warn me to walk away from, advice I wish I had taken.  It was hard to pass up a chance to return to Kansas and build something from scratch, but more on that in another blog.

I took much more away from WINK than I ever gave.  I learned a whole new way to look at what's required to work in this business from John Emmert.  I learned how to cover a hurricane.  We did big "J" journalism and didn't chase car wrecks, fires and crime like our main competitor.  I got to work with a talented staff of anchors, reporters, producers and yes, even a few good photographers.  WINK under John Emmert's guidance was the way television news should be.