Archive for November, 2008

Super fans

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

NCAA Division III is often maligned as less competitive, less serious, and less interesting than its Division I cousin. The first two might be true. The third? Never.

Leaving aside the Division III athletes who’ve made a go at professional athletics (and it’s worth mentioning that Joan Benoit Samuelson won her first Boston Marathon in the singlet of her Division III college) there’s a lot more energy around the Division III cross country nationals than Division I. If you’ve seen the crowds at Division I nationals, you know that’s saying a lot.

Division III crowds know how to make a few hundred fans seem like a few thousand. Division III teams are far more likely to have a few dozen non-varsity teammates, friends, and other peers road-trip several hundred miles to watch their team run. Those boosters are far more likely to strip down to summer running clothes in late November, and then fill in the gaps with body paint.

As a bit of introduction, Williams College has this stuffed bear. Before every race, they toss the bear, then they run. With that in mind, consider what we’ve agreed was my best shot from Saturday.

Seeing NCAAs from overseas

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

The basics of what I have to say about the NCAA Division I cross country championships are now online.

There are a few interesting things about this story which aren’t evident when you take it at face value. The first is the audience it’s written for. If I was writing for a predominately U.S. audience, I would be featuring the team victories. I would be quoting coaches Vin Lananna and Greg Metcalf extensively. And I would have described in greater detail the team strategies and moves within the race which brought both teams to victory. Outside the USA, however, the majority of athletics fans don’t care about this. A minority of them have team allegiances or even know which teams are which, and a majority of top-ranked internationalists now arrive at the big events without first going through the NCAA mill.

The second interesting thing is that the report has been linked, visually, with the World Cross Country Championships in the IAAF’s system. This might have happened anyway, but Alison wisely suggested to me that I mention the performance of a few runners who may make the USA Junior team for World Cross, and I did so. In the view of a European observer of the sport, that may be one of the most interesting parts of the story.

Ryan Hall, appearance money, and estimating

Friday, November 21st, 2008

There was a lot of discussion this week about the John Hancock announcement that Ryan Hall would be running the B.A.A. Boston Marathon in 2009.

Hopefully not lost in the shuffle was a short but very interesting piece Amby Burfoot put together for Runner’s World. Amby knew neither John Hancock nor Hall’s agent, Ray Flynn, would tell him what Ryan was getting as an “appearance fee” to run in Boston. Instead, he contacted a dozen or so people with knowledge of the market and asked them to guess.

By getting educated (or perhaps “experienced”) guesses about the figure, Amby was able to home in on a real number. He didn’t talk to scattershot observers of the sport like myself; the list of people he asked is populated with agents, elite athlete coordinators (the people who put together professional fields for the big races), and a few athletes of Hall’s stature. In other words, people with recent and relevant experience in the market. The composite of their replies suggests with a pretty high degree of certainty that Hall is earning more than $100,000, but less than $200,000, to run Boston in 2009.

There’s a lot to be written about why Hall should get that much merely for showing up, whether he’s worth it, and why Flynn, Hancock, and Hall can’t or won’t discuss the figure. With any luck I’ll get to that someday soon.

The interesting thing about that price tag isn’t even whether it’s precisely accurate (especially considering that Flynn will take a cut as well). Nobody really cares about the exact figure, unless they’re Hall, Flynn, or someone hoping to get Hall to run their marathon. Different runners would command different figures, based on their PRs, their championship history, and (let’s face it) their appearance. What’s interesting is that because Amby’s sources were in such close agreement, there’s confidence behind the guess. Now we know with some certainty that in today’s market, blond mid-twenties California kids can ask between $0.1 and $0.2 million to run Boston if they have a sub-2:07 PR. It sounds silly when I write it like that, but even that degree of knowledge is missing from current public awareness of professional running.

Jesse Owens Award

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

USATF announced the winners of the Jesse Owens Award today. Because this is the first year I’ve been eligible to vote, I was particularly interested in the winners. I voted for one, but not the other.

Stephanie Brown-Trafton was the women’s winner, and I thought when I voted for her that she was unlikely to win. It would’ve been much easier to pick, for example, Shalane Flanagan, who won the first U.S. medal in the distances since 1992 and set an American Record in the process. Brown-Trafton won the first U.S. gold of the Beijing Olympics in the discus after never having won any major championships ever, including the USATF championships. (In other words, Brown-Trafton didn’t even win the U.S. Trials.)

Sure, the competition in Beijing was sub-par; Brown-Trafton’s first attempt turned out to be the winning mark, and most of what I remember from the competition was the growing disbelief in the press box that nobody else, net even Brown-Trafton herself, had managed to fling the disc out beyond that starting throw. But if I had to pick someone for that first win, she was a great one.

In Eugene, before the Trials began, she showed up at a TAFWA lunch and answered questions for twenty minutes about how she trained, and more particularly, how she managed to train and compete at an Olympic level while holding down a part-time job. That’s right, the Olympic gold medalist is not a full-time athlete. I can’t name any female throwers in this country who are; there may not be any. Brown-Trafton’s story is a great one, and more people should know it. Apparently several others of the voters agreed with me. (Given that many of the voters may have been TAFWA members, it’s possible that Brown-Trafton’s appearance at that informal lunch meeting was what tipped her over the other contenders for the award. But that’s pure speculation on my part.)

Bryan Clay was the men’s winner, and I voted for LaShawn Merritt. Walter Dix and Angelo Taylor were the other nominees. This was a tough choice and I’m not at all disappointed to see Clay win; after all, he did win the decathlon in Beijing, and he put up an awesome score at the Trials in Eugene.

Taylor would also have been a strong contender; he tried to make the team in both the 400m and 400m hurdles, and might have done so if not for a schedule in Eugene which didn’t allow him enough recovery between the hurdles final and the first round of the flat 400m. Instead, he ran a dominating hurdle race in Beijing, becoming the first man to recapture that title after missing an Olympics (a long story) and then coming back to participate in the gold-medal-winning 4×400m relay.

Merritt was on that relay as well, and like Taylor a double gold medalist in Beijing. More importantly, Merritt won his gold by upsetting the man who has ruled the flat 400m since 2004, Jeremy Wariner, and by a large margin to boot. Wariner’s approach to 2008 was questionable at best; Merritt proved to him, I think, that you can’t start letting things go and expect to stay on top.

Clay had an awesome 2008 from start to finish, and the only reason I didn’t vote for him is actually a little pique I’m not terribly proud of. I hate watching decathletes blow off the 1,500m. It’s a silly thing for me to say, because even at my best I would have a hard time hanging on to Bryan Clay over 1,500m, but the fact is that there are world-class decathletes who are capable of competing with Clay in other events who also run the tenth one as though their life depended on it. Clay appears content to jog at the back, and even though he’s earned it (and usually is going to win anyway) it bugs me, and it bugged me enough that I didn’t vote for him.

Still, he had a great year, and he’s earned this award. Congratulations Bryan and Stephanie.

Getting started

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

The world doesn’t need another running blog, now, does it?

No. But I do. As some of you may be aware, I have another blog, which I’ve kept since early 2004. After five years, though, I’ve realized that scattershot writing about whatever crosses my mind may be useful and entertaining (to me), but that a lot of the good stuff, the interesting stuff, is about running.

So unlike Flashes of Panic, this site is intended to be much more specific. Here, I plan to write about running. I won’t necessarily be writing about my own running, but I won’t always be punditizing about professional athletics, either. I may post occasional short notes, but I hope to post something like a column-length essay on a biweekly basis, and I plan to hold those pieces to a slightly higher standard than I usually hold for blog posts. (That is, rather than just hoping for correct spelling and recognizable grammar, I will be attempting to coherently and concisely develop actual thoughts. Several years ago, Amby told me that “good writing is about good thinking,” and I’ll aspire to both.) Put another way, I’m hoping to take a professional approach to this weblog.

So, enough about goals. Let’s talk about running.