Archive for January, 2009

Millrose, Hooker scares and Nelson’s MoYo

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

I covered the Millrose Games last night.

Of note: a British journalist of my acquaintance commented on the headline’s use of “scare” with a world record as the subject. (I didn’t write the headline.) I don’t have a problem with the personification (anthropomorphization?) of records, myself; in the past I’ve had them celebrate birthdays and get drivers’ licenses to illustrate age.

Also, for those who didn’t read the USATF release word for word, Adam Nelson announced that next year, when his wife has finished law school, they’re moving back to Athens, Georgia to open a yogurt shop. I guess that’s what you do with an MBA and a law degree. The name of the shop will be “MoYo”, because Nelson’s nickname as a child was “Mo”. But the name works even if you don’t know that, and even if Nelson is pulling our collective legs.

The shot put in context

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

One of the things Adam Nelson talked about in our interview was the relative importance and position of the shot put among the athletics events, particularly in America. It was particularly interesting to hear him tell this, because he has been part of the renaissance of that event in America, starting at the 2000 Olympic Trials.

I included some of his quotes in the article, most notably his observation that to break through as an event in this country, you need to be breaking records constantly (think women’s pole vault) or have “awesome competition” which is what the shot put is currently delivering.

This is a point I think is often missed. The frequency with which Nelson, Christian Cantwell and Reese Hoffa compete with each other is unprecedented, I think, even in this sport. Even an uncharitable observer will put all three of those names among the top five in the world, if not the monopolizing the top three, and they go out and deliver a veritable event summit on a very, very frequent basis. Those three threw against each other more often in 2008 than Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett faced off in their entire careers. It’s as though Asafa Powell, Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay met eight or ten times in one season.

It also doesn’t hurt that it’s the collective that dominates, not one of the three. The men’s 400m was boring when Jeremy Wariner (or Michael Johnson before him) was winning every race he entered. When LaShawn Merritt started beating Wariner, but not on a regular basis, the 400m got a lot more interesting. Which one would win this time? Same with the shot. Cantwell and Hoffa threw long in Europe last week, Cantwell longer than Hoffa, but Hoffa’s the Olympic champion. But Cantwell’s the indoor champion. And Nelson, well, he’s Adam Nelson, he’s been the diameter of a shot away from two Olympic gold medals. Which one’s going to get a grip on a good one tomorrow night?

Did you get a little excited there? Can you see why?

I suggested, and Nelson concurred, that this really sprung from the 2000 Trials. Nelson, John Godina (since retired) and C.J. Hunter (since booted from the sport in disgrace) made the team. Kevin Toth and Andy Bloom could’ve made it. I’m forgetting at least one other name. Six guys with a legitimate chance to make the team. The drama didn’t need to be manufactured, and the crowd in Sacramento recognized that.

Now add on the event itself. The shot is the heaviest of the throwing implements, and the circle it is hurled from allows the least movement of any of the throwing events, not that the spinning used by hammer and discus throwers would help putters much. Nelson describes the event as, “I’m trying to push a 16-pound steel ball as far away from myself as possible,” but that’s the reductio ad absurdum of the shot.

He also says the shot put is the purest strength event outside powerlifting. And yet he works on more than raw strength; he works onĀ  speed, balance, form. He doesn’t advertise himself as the strongest guy, and when you compare him to a giant like Christian Cantwell, he doesn’t look it. He does say, and I’m taking this out of context in a way which makes it sound immodest, “I’m stronger and quicker than most of the people I’ve competed against.” (Emphasis mine.)

And quicker.

It’s tempting to look at the shot put as a sort of sideshow, feats of strength to amuse us while we wait for the World’s Fastest Something-or-Other. It’s harder to look at it as half a dozen or a dozen men performing a precise little dance they have been perfecting for over a decade apiece, and try to determine how the subtleties of each performance affect the precisely measured outcome, but ultimately it’s a richer experience. And while track fans may good-naturedly refer to themselves as “nuts”, it’s the fact that this sport features over a dozen such events, each of which may be observed just as richly, that makes it so fascinating.

Adam Nelson is bigger, stronger, and probably faster than you

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

On Monday, I sat down for an hour with Adam Nelson, the 2005 World Champion in the shot put. The first article from that interview ran this morning on the IAAF website.

Boiling an hour interview down to 1,200 words means things shrink a lot, so there’s a lot more to add which is not in that article. I’ll let you digest the story first, then start in with my notes.

One of the most successful nations in Boston Marathon history

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

That would be Canada.

My Reach the Beach Relay teammate Neil informs me that David Blaikie’s Boston: The Canadian Story, one of those hard-to-find history books mentioned in reverent tones among serious track geeks (or just Boston geeks), is available online, at Blaikie’s website.

Rewind 10 months

Monday, January 5th, 2009

If you’re one of the lucky folks who gets the IAAF Magazine (no, not Spikes) you should have the 2008 Yearbook by now. If you’re paying careful attention, inside you will find a few pages in which I torture a fireworks metaphor while describing last March’s World Indoor Championships. They love their gunpowder in Valencia, I have to say.

The minimum standard for a running series

Monday, January 5th, 2009

An emailed press release today informed me that the PRRO circuit was “easing its bonus purse eligibility.”

I’m proud of them, I suppose, but I needed to read the whole release to figure out what the original bonus purse eligibility had been.

One of the common themes when carping about distance running’s relatively low profile in the American sports landscape is that Running Needs a Circuit. Or a league, or a tour, or something to compare with NASCAR or the PGA Tour or the NBA. All kinds of formats get proposed, but none of them ever happen, mostly because road races are independent organizations with no real national governance, and none of the formats offer the races much to make up for the degree of autonomy they would have to give up. Beyond that, distance running puts strains on athletes not found in car racing or golf; few runners are capable of racing at a high level for several weekends in a row.

The other reason they never happen is because two road racing circuits already exist, and very few people care.

When I was working at Runner’s World, there was a reader survey done which revealed that more Runner’s World readers claimed to read Running Times as well than Running Times claimed to have readers. This was probably due to sampling error (or, by now, my faulty memory) but it suggested to us that RW and RT had close to total audience duplication. The question was asked, “Should we just buy them and absorb them?” That idea was rejected, finally, because as long as RT existed, but remained relatively small, it was a disincentive for others to enter the running magazine business. After all, RT was trying to compete with RW already; surely there wasn’t much room left in the market, right? (Of course, RW did buy RT less than ten years later, but under different leadership with different ideas.)

This thinking was pretty attractive, but it relies on a leap of logic – that RT not winning significant market share from RW meant that competing in the running-magazine market would be an uphill fight – which isn’t necessarily true. RT’s existence only proved that there was limited room to compete with RW in the way RT was trying to compete. The question to ask of new running magazines was not, “Why do you think there’s a market for a new running magazine,” but “What are you doing which will give you a greater share of the market than RT has?”

So I’m not inclined to dismiss new running circuit ideas out of hand. But I do suggest that reasonable skepticism be applied, specifically this question: Why is this circuit going to be a greater success than the PRRO and USARC put together?

Neither of these circuits is a failure; if they were, they wouldn’t have survived as long as they have. However, they both have limited definitions of success. USARC is run by USATF and is essentially a circuit of national championship road races. As such, it focuses exclusively on American athletes. There is a point system for placing at series races, double points are awarded for the marathon championship, and the athlete with the most points at the end of the circuit wins an extra check, $6,000 in 2008. There are lesser checks for second and third. I’d be surprised to learn that any athlete earned more from the USARC itself than from prize money in the races necessary to win the USARC check, but it’s also worth noting that the athlete’s sponsorship contract may match all these winnings.

The PRRO may have been the incentive for the USARC. If you can think of a big road race, probably in the spring or summer, with a large field and about ten Kenyans in the lead, it’s probably a PRRO race. Boilermaker, Peachtree, Cherry Blossom, and Bloomsday, plus the World’s Best 10K in Puerto Rico, were the PRRO races in 2008. The PRRO offers a “bonus purse” (eligibility for which is the subject of the press release mentioned above) of $35,000, significantly higher than the USARC. However, the PRRO bonus has been won by runners from East Africa so consistently in the last two decades that relatively few people in the USA (probably fewer than a thousand) know or care who won last year. Aside from the size of the prize purse, the major division between the PRRO and USARC is that the former is all-comers, and the latter is for Americans only.

Now that I’ve laid out the pitfalls of the existing systems (which, I should add, work just fine for their own purposes,) we need to ask those who propose new circuits or schemes for team competition: why is this going to be more exciting and more involving than USARC and PRRO?