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.


1 comment:

  1. Excellent article John ! and I'm especially touched to see that photograph of local KC greats in the 70s. I was always a big fan of George Mason and used to run on my lunch break in the 80s with Ed Crumm. Those were the days.
    Your hypothesis about soccer is a solid one, as is your assessment of reduced mileage. Seb Coe inspired the world by setting world records with lower mileage, greater intensity and detailed organisation. Not everyone is Seb Coe nor are many coaches and athletes prepared to assume the discipline of finely tuned high intensity training. Kind regards, Mason