Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials

The magical, mystery tour also known as the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials will hit the streets of Los Angeles this Saturday at just after 1 p.m. Eastern Time.  You can watch the drama unfold on NBC News.  That's unfortunate.  It means both the men's and women's races will finish just after Noon Los Angeles time.  That means it will be hot.  That means it could wreck havoc on the team selection process.  Warm weather could be the great equalizer.

I am more of a fan than an expert, but I've been following American distance running for almost 50 years so I think I have a few valid insights to offer about these two races.  Let's run down the men's contest which is a lot more wide open than I think the experts would lead the public to believe.

Galen Rupp, the Olympic silver medalist at 10,000 meters, is the favorite to win the shindig.  It makes sense save for one important problem for this great runner.  Saturday will be Rupp's marathon debut.  I think that's a much bigger deal than anyone realizes.  Training for 26.2 miles is one thing.  Racing it is a completely different mess.  I believe this leaves Rupp vulnerable.  Given his immense talent I think he can finish in the top 3, but winning it outright seems unlikely.

I think the warm temperatures expected in L.A. could help 2004 Olympic silver medalist and 2012 4th place finisher Meb Keflezhigi.  Meb be 40, but he's a shrewd tactician and he handled the warm weather of Athens and London without a lot of problems.  Unless age is his undoing, I don't see anyone beating him.

I believe the other two contenders for the podium are Olympic veteran Dathan Ritzenheim and Luke Puskedra.  Ritz says he doesn't like warm weather but he more than held his own in the 2008 Olympic Marathon heatfest in Beijing.  Again, he's experienced and that counts for a lot in a race without pacers.

I like Puskedra because of his showing last fall in Chicago.  I think the handful of marathons that he's run could be the difference between this Duck or the other Oregon grad, Rupp, making the team.

On the women's side it should be a replay of the 2012 Trials held in Houston.  There's Shalane Flanagan, Desi Linden, Kara Goucher and Amy Cragg.  It will take a major meltdown by a couple of these four to allow another American woman to sneak onto the podium.

The only sure bet out of the core four is Shalane Flanagan.  She may be the veteran of the group but her experience and toughness makes her a lock for the team.  Linden has struggled through injuries since the 2012 London Games and she's something of a wild card but returned in 2015 as America's #1 ranked marathoner.  Goucher recently showed good form in a half marathon and given her experience she can't be counted out.

Cragg, a woman who I've had the privilege of tagging along with on a couple of training runs, was the odd woman out in 2012 with her 4th place finish in Houston.  She shocked a lot of folks by making the Olympic Team at 10,000 meters but she's a marathoner at heart.  Her inconsistency is my biggest concern.

A lot of folks want to throw master's runner Deena Kastor into the mix.  I just don't think the 2004 Olympic marathon bronze medalist has the wheels to stay up with this group anymore.  But if the heat does take its toll, Kastor could be the surprise.

The two trials races will make for great television viewing and real, reality drama that even Hollywood can't script!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Training: The Summer of 72 and 73

I was a very lucky high school runner when it came to a training partner.  My the summer  of 71 before my sophomore year I was in sort of a no man's land.  I had moved away from Abilene and my old running partner Greg Morgenson had left as well moving to Lincoln, Nebraska where he would win a state championship in the mile his senior year.

We had one final race together in on the tough cross country course in Kansas City's Swope Park.  Greg was somewhere up in the top 5 while I finished back in the pack.  It was a hot August morning and knew my summer of inconsistent training would leave me really unprepared for the rigors for racing in the top high school class in the state of Kansas.

Fortunately for me at a point mid-summer my path crossed with Kent McDonald.  He had set a school record for 2 miles at Lawrence High running 9:08.9 the year before I entered the school.  The record stands to this day.  His freshman year at Kansas, Kent would win the first of four straight Big 8 steeplechase titles. 

Kent and I started running together at least three times a week in the summer of 72.  He became my running mentor.  Kent would take me into Kansas City for summer races.  As good as he was, he ran with me, he rarely tried to bury me.

Sometime early on in our training regime another former Lawrence High grad joined up with us.  Doug Schreve was a dominating miler who was attending Pittsburg State, where he had run at the small college national championships and set a school record.  Doug's arrival upped the ante.

When you get two alpha male runners together the training runs intensify.  Our runs were normally between 8 and 11 miles.  Doug didn't always run with us but when he did I knew it would take everything I had just to stay up with those two.  I soon realized that if I could engage them in conversation, it would help ease the pace. 

Running with Kent and Doug was like juggling dynamite.  On the flats I could account for myself fairly well but hills and downhills were something.  Apparently Doug's college coach David Suenram preached running the hills hard.  Doug would tear off every uphill leaving Kent and I in his wake.  The only problem is that Kent loved running downhill.  He would easily reel Doug back in while I would be floundering back 50 yards or so working my ass off to catch them on the flat stretches.

It was torture but it was fun.  I was like a kid in a candy shop devouring tidbits from these two great runners.  They were vastly superior runners but they never intentionally tried to bury me.  Many times they would ease off the tempo to allow me to catch up.  But there were times were it was every man for himself and I would find myself running the last couple of miles of a 10 miler by myself.

It toughened me up and made me a better cross country runner.  The sad part is my winter training was never even as remotely good as what I would do with Kent and Doug.  If it had been I would have been a much, much better runner in high school.

The summer of 73 was pretty much a replay of 72, although Doug was a less frequent partner out on the roads.  Kent whipped me into shape.  I was in the best shape of my life going into my senior season of cross country and were it not for a long lingering lung infection I picked up before the first meet that season I think my senior year would have been stellar.

Kent would try to help me salvage my running career the following fall after I was kicked off the University of Kansas cross country team.  He had warned me about trying to run for coach Bob Timmons.  Kent told me about the ongoing head butting he had endured with Timmie. 

Kent had broken his foot before what would have been his final year at K.U., my freshman.  So after my dismissal Kent and I started running together as he was red-shirting saving a year of eligibility.  It was a last gasp on my part to toughen up for the rigors of college running but it wasn't meant to be.  By the first week of December strep throat would knock me out and looking at my first semester grades, I decided that focusing on my academics would serve me better than running.

Kent McDonald #172 at the 1976 Olympic Trials
Kent never looked back.  His senior year at Kansas was epic.  He earned his 2nd All-American honor at the NCAA championships in the steeple and then finished 2nd at the U.S. National Championships running a still standing school record, 8:28.8.  When he ran that time it ranked as one of the 10 best in U.S. history.  He would run in the 1976 and 1980 Olympic Trials.

Training with Kent and Doug was pivotal in my development as a runner.  I realized I had the talent to be a collegiate runner.  What I lacked was the self-discipline and maturity to battle back from adversity and tap the talent I had.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Training: The Summer of 70

I wanted to write about training and five different periods of my life when it was a joy to get out and run on a near daily basis.  Training can become a grind.  Burnout is always lurking around the corner.  The one constant, the one binding part of my favorite times to run, was the assortment of good company I've enjoyed out on the roads and even on the track.  Some of this is old ground covered in previous blogs.  But I think it's important to remind myself about why I run and the joy I find in it.

It all started when I decided that I could be like Jim Ryun.  I was too skinny for football, simply not athletic enough for basketball, but stubborn enough to embrace the pain that comes with long distance running.  Unfortunately 8th grade junior high track in small town Kansas in 1970 didn't offer anything longer than 440 yards for a Jim Ryun wanna-be.  The closest I could come to sniffing a shot at running in an actual track meet was a 3rd place finish in a 440 yard time trial where the first two runners would get to run for the team.

Fortunately I had a neighbor who was running track and cross country for the Abilene Cowboys.  I gravitated to Greg Morgenson like a mouth to an open flame.  He was 2 years older than me and drove a beautiful old early 50's Ford pickup truck.

Greg was planning on running his way through the summer and he allowed me to tag along as company on the surprisingly short training runs.  That summer Greg and I ran together five days a week.  It was generally the same 2 mile out and back course.  Believe it not we would stop after a mile for a quick break.

By the end of the summer I think we may have covered as far as 5 miles in a single run but it's probably just my imagination.  Greg indoctrinated me in all things distance running.  He had me read a book given to him by our high school cross country coach, Robert Chatham.  It was called "The Long Green Line."  It was written by the now legendary Joe Newton who still coaches at York High School outside of Chicago.

Looking back I realize I missed the overriding message that Newton, Greg and Coach Chatham talked about when it came to cross country.  Cross country is a team sport.  It's one of the great pains of my life that this lesson didn't sink into my head until I was an adult.

But back to the running.  What a summer I had.  Every other week Greg and I would test ourselves against the watch running close to what we thought was a mile.  I tried mightily to break 6 minutes, Greg focused on getting under 5.  Greg gave endless encouragement.  He even suggested that the hard work might pay off with a spot on the varsity.  I probably logged all of 120 to 150 miles that summer.  The miles, as few as it seems now, held me in good stead when practice start in mid-August.

I made the varsity on a team that would go on to finish 3rd in at the state cross country championships.  Unfortunately I wasn't around by the end of the season to share in that celebration.  My family had moved back to Lawrence where I landed back in junior high.  I would go to state to watch Abilene's fine run and state along with an eye on my future teammates at Lawrence High and a future training partner, Kent McDonald.