Monday, August 31, 2015

Beijing Bust

Anyway you slice it, the 2015 World Championships was an unmitigated disaster for United States track and field.  We took six gold medals, the same number that we won in Moscow in 2013, but the overall medal count fell by seven.

What made this so cringe worthy were the lack of medals in events the U.S.A. usually dominates.  No medals in the men's 400 meter hurdles, no medals in the women's 100 meter hurdles, no medals in the men's and women's 200 meters, oh and yes, another botched men's 4 X 100 relay.  Sunday's men's 1500 final summed up the American effort.  Leo Manzano, Robbie Andrews and Matt Centrowitz all made the finals, an amazing feat.  Yet none of them finished anywhere near the top three.  Centrowitz was perfectly position with 300 to go but lacked his usual giddy-up fading to 8th.

Kenya and Jamaica dominated these championships.  The other obvious headline was doping.  Some of the performances screamed performance enhancement.  I'll offer two examples.  In the women's 1500 Ethiopia's Genzebe Dibaba ran the final 800 meters in the race under 1:57.  That was more than a full second faster than the winning time in the open 800.  Then in the women's 5000 another Ethiopian Almaz Anaya cranked the final 3000 meters in a near world record 8:19.

The lone American bright spot was Allyson Felix, who won the women's 400 and ran a stunning 47.7 in the 4 X 400 relay which should have resulted in another gold medal but only ended with silver.  Felix picked up another silver medal in the women's 4 X 100 relay to boot.

My favorite moment came in the women's marathon.  American Serena Burla, a cancer survivor, had allowed herself to be gapped by some 300 meters very early in the race.  Burla worked from about 5K to 15K to close that staggering distance to reunite with the lead pack.  She hung in with the group until the real racing began at 30K and still managed a respectable 10th place finish.

Track and field is in a world of hurt.  The rampant drug abuse is on a scale seen during Lance Armstrong's hey day on the Tour de France.  The IAAF appears as corrupt and ignorant as their soccer counterparts at FIFA.

As for U.S.A. track and field, one can only hope for better days in Rio at next year's 2016 Olympics.  Oh to be in Eugene next summer for the second best track meet in the world, the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Close But No Cigar

It was like watching a train wreck unfold in slow motion.  Molly Huddle seemed to have a bronze medal just for the taking.  A final sprint in over the last 50 meters and she would join an illustrious group of American distance runners to medal at 10000 meters at a major championship.  Behind Huddle, Emily Enfield was charging hard, but surely it was too little too late.  And then it happened, something I had seen countless high school runners and even adult runners doing in races and workouts, Huddle eased up and failed to race to the finish line. 

The Notre Dame grad threw her hands up a step to the finish assuming the bronze was hers as Enfield slipped by.  It was a jaw dropping experience.  Enfield was the third wheel of an amazing duo of Huddle and Olympic bronze medalist Shalane Flanaghan.  Even the pros can screw it up.  And unfortunately, that's the story the media is focusing on.

The bigger story is the fact that three American women, took three of the top six places at the 2015 World Championships.  For those of you keeping track, our American trio kicked some major Ethiopian and Kenyan butt.  If you were scoring this like a cross country meet, the USA came out on top.

Think about this long and hard.  20 years ago American distance running was in disarray.  Bob Kennedy was the lone beacon in a desert of distance running disaster.  The United States is now competitive from the 800 to the 10000, both men and women.  Let me repeat, the USA can deal with the East Africans from the 800 to the 10000. 

Odds are in the remaining distance races, the United States will be fortunate to pick up a couple of more medals.  It should happen in the women's 800, possibly in Tuesday's women's 1500 final and a sliver of hope exists for a medal in the men's 1500 as well.  Emma Coburn could medal in the women's steeplechase and leaves both the men's and women's 5000 where chances for a medal are fairly remote and downright impossible in the women's marathon.

The big story is that American distance running is back.  Enfield, Huddle, Galen Rupp, Evan Jager, Jenny Simpson, Shannon Rowburry, Matt Centrowitz, Brenda Martinez and Leo Manzano are the real deal.  The USA is in the mix and isn't it grand.

Monday, August 17, 2015

No Justice

I've written about this time and again.  Doping is rampant in track and field.  The latest champion to lose Olympic gold is Turkey's Asli Cakir Alpekin.  She won the 1,500 in London in 2012.  It makes me angry.  Everyone knew that Alpekin wasn't legit.  But what really makes my blood boil is silver medalist Gamze Bulut, also from Turkey, hasn't been caught yet.  Bulut was a complete unknown before the Games and hasn't run close what she did in London since.  Did I mention that 4th place finisher Tatyana Tomashova of Russia was just stripped her World Championship medals last week?

In my scorebook that puts Maryam Jamal of Bahrain atop the medal stand along with Ethiopia's Abeba Aregawi and Shannon Rowbury of the United States.  And as an added bonus, the 6th and 8th place finishers in that race have been disqualified already for doping.

It's increasingly clear that the IAAF, track and field's ruling body, is protecting drug taking athletes.  I believe the IOC is just as culpable.  They fear the whole Olympic movement would fall apart if the truth came out.  Doping is rampant in endurance sports and that includes swimming and cycling.  Yet the most doped game in the world, American professional football, gets a free pass. 

Drug testing doesn't work.  The athletes with the best doctors win.  If men and women want to risk their future health by using steroids, EPO and human growth hormones, let them.  The charade has to end. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


It's Not Dark Yet

"I was born here and I'll die here, against my will."
Bob Dylan

Bob Timmons died Tuesday.  He was one of four men that coached me as a runner.  Everyone that ever knew him or competed for him knew him as "Timmie."  I never got around to having the privilege of competing for him because he never gave me a chance.  For a long time I carried that fact around like a cancer.  I disliked him for it and for some other petty reasons.

I was a better than average high school distance runner.  My senior year in high school was a disaster thanks to a lingering illness.  I decided I would walk on at the University of Kansas in the summer of 1974 and promptly did little of the work required to be part of a top flight college cross country team.

I remember the first time I crawled into the back of his pickup truck with a dozen or so other runners, some of them destined by to All-Americans, including Olympic silver medalist Jim Ryun.  He drove us northwest of Lawrence about 10 miles, unloaded us and told us to run back to Memorial Stadium.  Every workout was a humbling experience.  Many were downright torturous.

The day came about a couple of months into the season when we did repeat 2 miles.  I had been warned by the other runners, never crawl back into the pickup during a workout.  That particular day I had been suffering from stomach problems.  I quit halfway and sought refuge in the truck.

The next day in the bowels of Memorial Stadium Timmie pulled me aside and bluntly told me I wasn't cutting it.  I pleaded with him.  I had been beating half of his scholarship freshmen in time trials.  I was technically the 10th or 11th man on a 20 plus man squad. I cried like a baby when he told me, "Come back when you get in shape."

It was one of the toughest things I've ever experienced in my life, certainly the toughest at that point at age 18. Looking back now, it was probably even tougher for Coach Timmons.  It's sad to look at the state of KU's distance program because my sorry self of 1974 would be good enough to be a member of their varsity cross country team now.  

During the Timmons era at Kansas, the program prospered until the last few years of his tenure. His predecessor, Bill Easton, had turned Kansas into a national power. Easton lost his job, due in part to Bob Timmons and a high school phenom he had coached at Wichita East, Jim Ryun.

Timmon's former athlete had decided to attend Oregon State. Timmons, who had become Easton's assistant during Ryun's senior year in high school, was handed KU's head job after Easton was fired for some minor transgression. Suddenly Ryun was Kansas bound and the rest is history.

Ryun had a wonderful career at Kansas. The program continued to flourish for the next 15 years with the Jayhawks winning a handful national titles in track and field. They were unbeatable in the old Big 8. But Timmons reign had one glaring weakness. There were no more Jim Ryun's.

By and large distance runners who ran for Kansas never lived up to the potential they had shown in high school. A few did, Kent McDonald, one of my old training partners, was an All-American and finished second at the old AAU nationals one year. Bill Lundberg was another standout who went on to coach. I could name three or four others but the point is, none of his distance runners at Kansas, ever won a national title, or made an Olympic team, except for Ryun.

Timmons had made his name as a great high school swim coach and later on as a track and field coach. He put his swim coach philosophy to use in track and created two legendary high school milers, Ryun and Archie San Romani, Junior. But his workout regiment was brutal. I experienced it first hand. A few runners, like McDonald, learned to coast through some of the workouts, in order to stay fresh and competitive. But very few did and many simply burned out.

For a long time I despised Bob Timmons. I blamed him harshly for KU's fading fortunes in track and field at the start of the 1980's. He had faults, but at heart he was and is a good and caring man. And as I grew older, more sober, I began to realize that my hatred was a waste of time. I began to value the experience that I had with Coach Timmons and became thankful for that eventful day when he kicked me off the team.

I became so grateful in fact that I produced a documentary about Timmons and his prized prodigy Jim Ryun in 1996. Most people probably assumed I did it as a tribute to Ryun, a world record holder in the mile and an Olympic silver medalist. But the real reason I did it was to give Timmons the credit he deserved for putting Jim on the path to greatness. It was my way of making amends to the man, even though he never knew (at least I don't think he knew) that I had harbored such ill will for him for the better part of a decade.

So I was crestfallen when Timmie passed.  He was a great man.  He had was a man with few faults.  He was a man who simply wanted to give those around him the passion and strength to succeed.