Archive for December, 2008

In the Shadow of the Trials

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

Those of you with long memories will remember that I once held a spot in a sixteen-writer rotation producing a weekday “Bell Lap” column for the “Daily News” section of the Runner’s World website. (The Daily News has now evolved into an excellent linkblog maintained by the incomparable Peter Gambaccini. The Bell Lap column was launched by Craig Masback in 1996, before he was the CEO of USATF, and lasted almost ten years under various authorial rotations.)

Late in 2003, I filed a column about the scheduling conflict between the men’s Olympic Trials marathon and the 2004 USATF cross country championships. The Bell Lap archives aren’t online any more (unless you do some serious research in the Internet Archive) so, having had my say about this year’s conflict between USATF cross country and the Boston Indoor Games, I thought I’d get an extra kick in by re-posting what I said in 2003. Re-reading it, I can see some changes I’d like to make, but I’ll post it as it ran on Thursday, October 30.

Lost in the Trials Shadow

A colleague of mine recently pointed out a scheduling convergence happening this winter. On February 7, USATF will– standards willing–select its Olympic team members for the men’s marathon in Birmingham, Alabama. On the same day, in Indianapolis, they will select half of their team for the World Cross-Country Championships, including the short-course men, long-course women, and junior girls, with the other half (including the long-course men) being selected the following day.

It is possible that a reasonably psychotic (and fast-recovering) marathoner might hop a flight out of Birmingham on Saturday night and try to make the long-course team on Sunday, but it is probably safe to say that this scheduling oversight has eliminated any marathon hopefuls from our selection pool for World Cross. (It will also erase any hope of American men in the 3,000m at Friday night’s Millrose Games, but let’s stick to areas where we have a hope.)

It’s hard to say how much rescheduling the meets would help. Pushing cross nationals earlier probably wouldn’t help, as few athletes would want to make that peak effort immediately before a marathon. Making cross nationals later might open things up, since a star having a bad marathon could drop out before he did much damage and come back two weeks later to work out his demons in the Indianapolis snowdrifts. (It’s February, folks. Forget the spikes; bring crampons.)

More of an issue is the national press. Admittedly the winter nationals seldom draw the sort of crowd we will see Sunday at the New York City Marathon, but certain organizations with limited human resources, such as this one, will probably send all their bodies to Birmingham.

This seems like a minor problem until you consider how few sources are regularly producing original reporting about our sport, and how many are relying entirely on repackaged press releases, wire stories and links to local newspapers with questionable perspective on the sport. The story from Indianapolis will probably be told almost entirely by USATF press releases. USATF’s media office, while capable, is hardly a completely objective source. Think of it as watching an entire meet with one eye shut.

It is, of course, too late to do anything about this now. The cities of Indianapolis and Birmingham have inked these events on their schedules and moving them would undoubtedly cause snarls back into 2008. Some overachievers already have their plane tickets and hotel reservations.

The point is that someone should have noticed this much earlier. Somebody in the national office could have looked at the dates before they were published and said, hey, this won’t work. There has to be a master calendar going several years into the future somewhere in Indianapolis.

I understand that USATF is a bit preoccupied these days with larger matters. But if anyone in Indianapolis is looking for ways to maximize the profile of our best athletes, making sure our best events don’t eclipse each other might be a good item for the list.

Parker Morse loves cross-country nationals, but Birmingham is just so much warmer than Indianapolis in February.

Unusual winter track schedule

Saturday, December 27th, 2008

The Boston Indoor Games announced their date earlier this month. It will be later than usual: February 7. If that date looks familiar, that’s because it’s also the date of the USATF cross country championships, to be held in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. Adding another line to the unusual spring schedule is the Millrose Games, scheduled for Friday evening, January 30.

I call this “unusual” because normally those three meets are spread over three weeks: first Boston, then Millrose the following weekend (though there have been years, earlier this decade when Millrose was Friday night and the Boston Indoor Games followed on Saturday evening). Cross country would be the third weekend, usually overlapping with the Tyson Invitational indoor meet in Arkansas (though in 2004, cross country overlapped with the men’s Olympic Marathon Trials).

It’s pretty easy to guess at why this happened. USATF scheduled their cross country meet ages ago, and date-wise, they’re not too far from where they usually are; if anything, a week early.

Millrose and the Boston Indoor Games, both put on by Mark Wetmore’s Global Athletics and Marketing group, probably had a tougher time. Global likes to dodge the NFL playoffs in order to get the full attention of the Boston sports press, but they also had to schedule Millrose in Madison Square Garden around the Knicks and the Rangers. Friday, February 6th is a Knicks game (hosting the Boston Celtics, of all teams) and Global needs time to set up and break down the Garden’s track. So January 30 it had to be, and the track will be going up in a hurry after a Kings of Leon concert in the Garden on Thursday night. (The Knicks won’t take the floor back until Monday the 2nd.)

That leaves three options for the Boston Indoor Games, none of them terribly good. They could go early, and run on January 24th; they could follow Millrose immediately on Saturday the 31st, and they could conflict with USATF on February 7th.

I’m guessing January 31st was vetoed immediately by the Global staff, considering that the consecutive-weeks schedule has been tough enough for them since Global added Millrose to their portfolio. The Reggie Lewis Center is booked for the MSTCA Relays meet from 9:30 to 3 on the 24th; this nominally leaves the evening for the Boston Indoor Games, which usually starts at 5, but two hours isn’t enough to set up for the meet, so assuming that was previously scheduled, February 7th was the only option left.

The interesting problem is what this means for the fields at the Boston Indoor Games. While the middle-distance and sprint events are unlikely to be affected, the backbone of the BIG in recent years has been record attempts at the 3,000m, 5,000m and two-mile distances by various international (often Ethiopian) stars. These athletes will be available, of course (and Commonwealth stars like Nick Willis and Steve Hooker have already been announced), but the field has generally been filled by Americans hoping to get a quick clocking in the Ethiopian slipstream. (Indeed, Shalane Flanagan’s 2007 3,000m AR was set here, signifying the start of a big year for an athlete who was known to much of the crowd from when she was an in-state high school star.)

With no World Indoor Championships this year, most distance runners will be emphasizing cross country over indoor track, vying for a spot on the U.S. team for World Cross in Amman, Jordan in March. This will probably mean a big hit for the distance fields in Boston–if not in front, then in 3rd through 6th. And possibly in crowd interest.

(For the curious, I’ll be at the Boston Indoor Games for certain, and possibly also the Millrose Games.)

Another income stream for the professional athlete?

Friday, December 12th, 2008

No doubt there’s been a lot of discussion about the runner whose 40th birthday present, featured in the New York Times Thursday, was a run (and lunch) with “world-class runner from Kenya” Richard Kiplagat.

Kiplagat was paid $400 to run with Chambers and have lunch with his family. A driver in a Lincoln Town Car picked him up at dawn at his home in New Milford, N.J., and returned him late in the afternoon.

Kiplagat is an Iona grad, and though he’s been a real competitor in international fields in American road races, he hasn’t been a factor in big international races… yet. He’s based in the States, which is not necessarily the cheapest training option for a Kenyan, so let’s just guess that Kiplagat is not one of the athletes who’s making himself wealthy from the sport. So the possibility of an additional income stream from this sort of “celebrity running partner” income is almost certainly a welcome one for Kiplagat.

It’s one that cuts to the heart of the real mystery of making a career as a professional runner, though. The reason is that like frequent road racing (a practice sometimes disparaged as “dash for cash”), too-frequent work of this sort might compromise a runner’s training. Kiplagat could probably schedule an easy day for his run with Michael Chambers, but there’s only so many recreationally-paced runs a professional can make in a given week. Still, $400 once a week every week, if the scheduling was practical and that “arbitrary figure” turned out to be an actual market rate, could pay the rent and groceries if an athlete was otherwise frugal.

There are a lot of details that aren’t mentioned by the Times, of course. For example, Kiplagat’s fee was probably much closer to $500, with his unnamed agent (Kiplagat is managed by KIMbia) taking anywhere from $40 to $100 off the top of whatever the Chambers paid. Though Kiplagat’s agent isn’t named, however, our friend Sam Grotewold at the NYRR is. (Sam probably didn’t get a cut, but you can bet he’s looking towards the day Kiplagat will be deciding between the Chicago and New York marathons.)

The question is, will this happen again? Have we opened a new market of celebrity training runs? Here’s the problem: like nearly every income stream for professional runners, this one is heavily tied to visibility and personal brand. Ann Gaffigan or Kyle King, for example, aren’t likely to salvage their bottom lines that way; despite being national-class athletes, they’re still just a stride ahead of the best club runners. (I used to run with a sub-15 5,000m runner on a weekly basis, just by being willing to be the workout rabbit.)

Kiplagat himself got the job largely because of what I’ll call “the Brand of Kenya,” the image of “The Kenyan” as a great runner. The Ethiopians, despite remarkable results in recent years, don’t have the brand power of the Kenyans yet. An American runner would need to be an Olympian to match that kind of brand–and American runners at that level don’t need to compromise their training for a day for a $400 run. (There is one exception to this: ZAP Fitness in North Carolina operates as a running camp as well, with one of the draws of the camp being that the staff are largely national-class athletes.) In effect, this kind of income is only available to Kenyans.

More power to Kiplagat, of course, but I wouldn’t count on celebrity training runs financing anyone’s training for next year’s World Championships.

Imagine if they went for more creative uniforms

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

It continues to amuse me that the Fluffy Bunny Track Club not only exists, but is expected to contend for a team title in one of the masters categories at the USATF Club Nationals this coming weekend.

It turns out that amusement is pretty much the point.

Did Nothing Stupid

Saturday, December 6th, 2008

With a few minor exceptions, for the last dozen years or so I’ve used the Random House Complete Runner’s Day-By-Day Log and Calendar as my running log. This is nothing short of compulsive, given that any reasonably well laid out week-by-week organizer would suit my needs nowadays, but the last time I was running really, really well I charted over a dozen variables daily (or weekly, or bi-weekly, or on a four-week sliding window).

I stopped reading the monthly essays when John Jerome stopped being the credited author (R.I.P.) and was replaced by his son Marty, though a quick glance suggests Marty may be growing in to the job. (He did suggest in this year’s August essay that Abebe Bikila “won two consecutive Olympic marathons unshod” when any half-aware student of the sport knows Bikila wore shoes in Tokyo.)

The elder Jerome, of course, took over the franchise from an ink-stained wretch by the name of Jim Fixx. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.

What I do still read are the quotes which appear at the head of each week. This week’s is a corker from the memorably named Jack Daniels, who labors in Runner’s World under the dubious label “World’s Best Coach“: “Most mistakes in a race are made in the first two minutes, perhaps in the very first minute.”

I’ve had this idea explained to me before, and it’s a good one. Road racers often don’t get objective feedback (in the form of a split) until the first mile, and a lot has happened between the gun and that data point. Most runners start too fast, for example, and Daniels’ theory is that the “too fast” segment is usually the first quarter mile, sometimes as much as a half mile. By the mile marker, the runner has already slowed naturally, but they compound their error by getting a too-fast first mile split and reacting to it by slowing still more. Then they wonder why their second mile is so slow, but the real error happened, as Daniels suggests, in the first minute.

Hold on to that thought, I’m coming back to it.

I love to race. It’s most fun when I’m in good shape, of course, but I’ve even had a lot of fun running races when I’m not at my best. I haven’t run a race for a few months now, I felt like I was in pretty good shape earlier this month, and so I picked out a 5K in Northampton for my next outing. I was pretty excited about it; the course goes through the downtown of a city I once lived in, on roads I used to run. Instead of Yet Another T-Shirt, runners get mugs with a logo by one of my favorite cartoonists – a local, like John Jerome was.

Thing is, earlier this week I came down with this cold. I use the guideline that as long as the symptoms are above the neck (stuffy nose, headaches, etc.) I can and probably should run; once the symptoms go below (cough) running may need to get cut back.

I was feeling pretty good on Friday morning. But by Friday evening I was starting to produce some good phlegmy coughs. This morning I was still coughing, and I could feel the tickly resistance when I took a deep breath.

So I pulled the plug on the race. I turned off the alarm and slept a half hour beyond the race’s start time.

Sure, I could’ve gone over and jogged it, covered the course and got the mug, but the point was that it was a race, and with this cough I wasn’t going to be really racing.

I also could’ve gone over to Northampton, put the hammer down for three miles, and spent the next week hacking my lungs out. I think we can agree now that that would have been stupid, but if you’re like me you know there was a voice in the back of my head all of Friday evening saying, “Hey, maybe you could still run if…”

If I had listened, Dr. Daniels would have the last laugh. (He gets that pretty often.) “Most mistakes in a race are made in the first two minutes, perhaps in the very first minute.” How about in the first step?