Thursday, July 21, 2016

What's Old Is New

It sat staring at me for nearly two years.  It was an old book, torn and tattered, part of a little library that's part of my running store.  Mike Pemberton kept more than a couple of dozen books in the store.  Most of them are about training, a few running biographies, including Marty Liquori's "On The Run."  It pains me every time I see that book.  I had a copy of my own, autographed by Liquori back in 1980.  It disappeared a long time ago.  I suspect someone kept it after borrowing it from me.

The sad book that stared at me was one that I would have never considered reading were it not for the fact that Mike had it sitting there and were it not for my boredom stemming from the slow days of summer that mark the running shoe business in Southwest Florida.  The book is called, "My Race Be Won."  It was written by Olympic 400 meter champion Vince Matthews.  Last week I finally gave in and started reading it.

Much to my surprise, it was a great read.  It's one of the better book about being a track and field athlete that I've ever read.  Matthews 40 plus years old autobiography taught me a very sorry lesson.  Little has changed in terms of race relations in the United States of America.

Matthews came of age as a track star when the sport was strictly amateur.  Any money an athlete made during that era was strictly under the table or by being clever when it came to asking for airfare and lodging.  He was a top flight high school quarter miler in the mid-60's but his academics limited his collegiate options.  In fact, it took him an extra semester of high school before he could graduate and enroll in a small, historically black college in North Carolina.

It's hard to think that a world class runner could emerge from a small black college.  But that was the world of track and field in the 1960's and 70's.  Matthews does a great job of dissecting the inherent racism that can cut both ways in society.  Even in a sport like track and field where it appears black athletes would have parity, it simply wasn't the case.  Let's face it, white distance runners get more ink and more shoe company dollars than black sprinters.  It was true in 1968 and it's still true for the most part in 2016.

Matthews' 1972 gold medal in Munich is a compelling a comeback as you can find in the world of track and field.  He jumped fences and barbed wire to train on a track.  He overcame terrible medical issues to compete.  He also overcame an indifferent United States Olympic Committee which refused to pay his way to compete at the 1972 Olympic Trials in Eugene.  They gave a big no to a man who ran on a world record setting 4 x 400 relay that won gold in 1968 at the Mexico City Games.

Matthews is an inspiration.  He is a renaissance man who allows us to go along for the ride.  His descriptions of the trips to Europe, the women, the gambling, the fight for the rights for African-Americans, it's all there.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Destination Rio

The U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials are complete and with the ten day extravaganza in Eugene, Oregon we saw an epic changing of the guard.  Yet, we also saw some crafty veterans doing some amazing things and I honestly think the U.S. is sending one of its strongest contingents of distance runners to Rio in decades.

Molly Huddle stood out on the women's side.  She became the first American to win both the 10000 meter and 5000 meter races at the Trials.  Huddle has a real chance to stand on the podium in Rio if she executes in the 10000.  Huddle just missed the a bronze last summer in Beijing at the World Championships when she eased up allowing another American, Emily Enfield, to sneak past her at the line.  Huddle has learned her lesson.  With the Kenyan and Ethiopian teams facing the shadow of doping allegations it's any one's guess as to how the 5000 and 10000 will play out.

Either Jenny Simpson or Shannon Rowbury could medal in the 1500.  Simpson timed a perfect sprint to win Sunday.  She has the finishing speed off a slow pace needed to win at the championship level.  Plus the fact that doping allegations surround the clear favorite for gold, Genzebe Dibaba, could make it very interesting.  Will the Ethiopian even run in Rio?

Next on the possible medal list is steeplechaser Emma Coburn.  The Colorado grad has the American Record and has shown a willingness to mix it up with the East Africans.  Coburn will need a little luck to land on the podium.  She doesn't have the finishing speed of the Kenyans or the Ethiopians but she makes up for it with amazing strength.

The event once considered the strongest for the U.S.A. was the women's 800.  But the demolition derby last week took two medal contenders, Alisa Montanyo and Brenda Martinez off the team.  Ajee Wilson has shown the ability to race with the world's best but this season something seems to be missing from her form.  And you might as well hand the gold medal to South Africa's Caster Semenya.  She's no longer forced to take estrogen which means the playing field will be uneven.

The men's team has a handful of medal contenders as well.  In the 800, Boris Berian has the kind of aggressive speed that's needed to compete in a race that's sure to be blistering.  Trials champion Clayton Murphy could contend if the pace is slow.

The U.S. has almost no hope for medals in either the 5000 or 10000.  Galen Rupp lacks the sprint finish he had four years ago to compete in the 10K.  Bernard Lagat, who shocked the world at age 41 by winning the 5000, could be a medal contender off of a slow pace.  I doubt the Africans will let the pace dawdle enough to let Lagat use his ferocious finish.

Evan Jager has already staked his claim as the greatest steeplechaser in American history.  A medal in Rio would only cement his place in the event.  His ability to finish off a torrid pace will be the only question mark entering the competition.

Then there's the glory race of middle distance running, the 1500 meters.  Matt Centrowitz, Jr. took down the trials record held by the great Steve Scott with his victory on Sunday.  His finish showed that he has the turnover needed to compete against the world's best.  Kenya's Asbel Kiprop looks unbeatable but Centrowitz should be able to grab a bronze or a silver.

Out of the ten middle distance to distance events on the track gives the U.S.A. a chance for as many as seven medals in Rio.  Anything less than five would be a major disappointment.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Destination Eugene

40 years ago I had an idea.  Pull together as many Kansas radio stations as I possibly could, get credentials from the powers running the 1976 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials and make enough money to pay for a trip to Eugene, Oregon.  For 5 dollars a day the stations would get the lowdown on how all the athletes from the various universities in the state of Kansas did in this top flight competition.  Today it dawned on me all this happened more than 40 years ago.

It's hard to imagine that the University of Kansas, Kansas State and Wichita State had some two dozen athletes competing at the Trials.  K.U. had a sensational number of great athletes at that meet.  In fact, three Jayhawks ended up making the team.

Somehow my 20-year-old self managed to pull together a hand full of stations and got credentials for myself and a friend to the meet.  I also figured out I could save a ton of dough by staying in one of the dormitories on the University of Oregon campus.  So on or about June 15th a 15-year-old who I loved dearly, Jon Blubaugh and I piled into my mothers Ford Galaxie 500 and started an amazing cross country drive to Eugene.

As bad it is driving across Western Kansas and Eastern Colorado nothing compares to the horrors of Eastern Oregon.  Of course, we hit that section of the trip as night fell so we couldn't really admire the desolate isolation.  Then there were the bugs.  So thick that we had to stop twice to wipe down the windshield and headlights so we could find our way in the night.

Landing in Eugene was like landing in track and field heaven.  Jon and I were in awe, seeing athletic stars from across the sporting spectrum like Wilt Chamberlain and O.J. Simpson.  But the meet itself was simply amazing.  Bruce Jenner joking and smiling his way to the decathlon title.  Edwin Moses introducing himself to the world in the 400 meter hurdles.  Heptathlete Jane Fredickson was as beautiful as she was talented.

Jon and I had to keep pinching ourselves.  We had press credentials that put us in the thick of the action.  I stood less than 20 feet away as the great Marty Liquori stepped off the track, injured and crushed that he wouldn't be going to the Olympics.  He stood crying in the arms of his wife. 

I watched an arrogant Dave Roberts break the world record in the pole vault on a pole that he had borrowed from the great Earl Bell.  Roberts had the nerve to bitch to me in a post record interview that Earl's pole was too soft.  What a jerk.  I watched as a chiropractor put K.U.'s Sam Colson's injured back, back together so he could get off one magnificent throw to win the javelin and make the team.

I interviewed the late great Houston McTear.  He was a raw, rural kid from Florida, he spoke his mind and warned the world that the rest of the competitors would have to settle for second in Montreal at the Olympic Games.  And then there was the flowing hair of 1500 meter runner Tom Byers, storming away from the field from the gun, trying to steal the race, a run which went to the great Tom Wohlhuter.

We hustled Kansas 400 meter runner Kent Benson into buying us beer which we snuck back into our dorm room.  As Jon and I enjoyed our suds two high school coaches barged into our room and we somehow managed to stash the illegal brews without them spotting it.  Unfortunately Jon's beer somehow tipped over soaking his mattress.

There were other K.U. athletes we met and hung with.  Sprinter Mark Lutz, who made the team, introduced his to his then wife and fellow Olympian, Francie Larrieu.  I watched in agony as my old training partner Kent McDonald, plagued by injuries, suffered through the 3000 steeplechase heats, just one year after having finished 2nd in the nation.  I was heartbroken for him, but happy to see another Jayhawk, Bill Lundgren, make it into the finals were he ran a respectable race. 

I had two favorite moments from the meet.  It's hard to choose between the two.  I loved Gerry
Bjorklund's brave run in the 10000 meters, much of the last half of it in only one shoe.  He was more than 50 meters down with 800 to go but somehow managed to reel in the great Bill Rodgers to gain the third spot on the team.

The other moment that stands out was meeting high school phenom Bill McChesney, who would later break the American record at 5000 meters.  Jon and I chatted Bill up.  He invited to run a 4 mile race held on the Trials off day which climbed a steep butte near downtown Eugene.  Jon ran great.  I ran like a college junior who liked beer too much.

It was ten days of track and field pleasure.  We rubbed shoulders with America's track and field royalty.  I fell in love with Eugene and have returned more than a half dozen times since.  It is truly a running paradise and is rightfully Track Town U.S.A.