Archive for the ‘cross country’ Category

Matt McCue’s “An Honorable Run”

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

A few weeks ago, I read Matt McCue’s An Honorable Run, which has had a lot of buzz this fall. McCue’s book is a memoir of his high school career in Iowa, his eventual decision to pass up a spot at Middlebury (where he would have been among the best on a relatively good Division 3 team) to try to walk on at the University of Colorado, and his relationship with both his coaches.

McCue makes no secret of his admiration for Chris Lear’s Running with the Buffaloes, a chronicle of Colorado’s 1998 season (was that really eleven years ago?) and that’s understandable; Buffaloes continues to fascinate and inspire high school and collegiate runners today, and to me its biggest mystery is why nobody has yet followed the path it blazed. (Someone needs to follow a women’s team, for example.) An Honorable Run reverently draws a lot of structure and voice from Lear’s book, but it’s not Running with the Buffaloes II.

For McCue, Colorado’s Mark Wetmore is largely quiet and off-stage, more like the Wizard of Oz than Vince Lombardi. For another thing, unlike the ensemble cast of Lear’s book, McCue’s journey is entirely his own, with the supporting characters literally just that. Only late in the book does a strong secondary character emerge.

It feels like self-absorption, but the reality is that McCue is pulling us along his own maturation process in the book, and the self-centered focus of the book is simply the way a teenaged boy thinks. The supporting characters crop up as McCue himself matures and starts recognizing them himself.

In the process he’s delivering a number of ideas which should be on the exam for kids who read Lear and want to be the next Adam Goucher. McCue underlines a point which should be obvious today, that it takes hardworking kids like Matt McCue to push talented stars like Jorge Torres and Dathan Ritzenhein to their best. (If you want more Meb Keflezghis and Ryan Halls, you need more Brian Sells and Scott Bauhses. If you want more Brian Sells, you need more Nate Jenkinses. And so on.)

In doing this, McCue provides a script for a life which may not lead to an Olympic medal, but still includes a meaningful running component. The idea of “an honorable run” is a direct echo of the idea of “fighting the long defeat” which Tracy Kidder ascribes to Dr. Paul Farmer in Mountains Beyond Mountains.

And in the end, An Honorable Run is to Running with the Buffaloes what Matt McCue is to Jorge Torres: not as fast, not as glamorous, but different and just as worthwhile to read and consider.

Berlin starts tomorrow

Friday, August 14th, 2009

I had dinner with the team last night, and we checked out our positions in the media tribune this morning. The stadium is, of course, gorgeous, an imposing classical temple from the outside, a soaring modern bowl on the inside. The royal blue track surface colors the whole venue.

We will be encouraging readers of the competition blog to submit comments and questions. I’ll promote some to the front page and answer them on the fly if things aren’t too busy; I may also answer questions without posting the question itself. I’m not sure yet how quickly I’ll be able to check Twitter.

Interesting news over the last week:

  • The IAAF Congress passed a false start rule (or, more accurately, a no-false-starts rule.) I understand why the athletes complain–sometimes you just twitch–but there’s nothing that kills the drama of a sprint final like three or four false starts or so.
  • I’m reading now that the World Cross is going to become biennial. This might be pragmatic but I don’t like it.
  • The Jamaicans tried to withdraw four athletes. Then they withdrew the withdrawl, but only because Diack asked them. Honestly, even the Kenyan federation isn’t that pig-headed: when they yank a top athlete off their team, it’s done months in advance and the replacement is nearly as good. Obviously if Team USA wants to continue global domination, the forward-thinking route is for USATF to become more opaque and arbitrary in order to keep up with the Jamaicans and the Kenyans. (I’m joking, of course.)
  • I can understand that an athlete who’s been injured as long as Paula Radcliffe might want a shakedown race before a championship-level marathon. I’m not sure why she chose a half-marathon one week before Berlin, though. A six-hour time change and, well, a half-marathon with only six days of recovery? Kara Goucher’s chances are looking better and better. (Mikitenko pulling out doesn’t hurt, either.)
  • I tried to go to the Usain Bolt press conference yesterday, but I got bad directions online and couldn’t find the venue in time. Finding one’s way around in this city is like navigating by waves on the ocean; even Google’s maps show streets going where the satellite photos clearly show buildings (and buildings where there currently are none).
  • The Local Organizing Committee is using the most underwhelming tag line in marketing history as the motto of the Championships: “Have a Good Time.” Seriously, that’s it. We asked one of their media staffers about it last night (after the beer but before the ouzo–long story) and he refused to offer his own opinion (good man) but did say it was chosen by a market research firm, which should tell us everything we need to know.

I’ve entered the Media Race, which is on Monday. Rumor has it that Wilson Kipketer is running, and saying he wants to run sub-1:50.

Is World Cross on the decline?

Monday, April 6th, 2009

In the wake of last month’s World Cross Country Championships, held this year in Amman, Jordan, I’ve seen several different articles asking the question, “Whatever happened to World Cross?” (And, as usual, I’m late to the party.) Pat Butcher sums up the question best: World Cross used to be (ca. late 1970s, early 1980s) the single best distance-running event on the annual calendar. Now it’s not. Why?

Butcher (and, in a follow-up, Larry Eder) goes on to suggest a number of factors: Increased competition for attention and top athletes from spring marathons. Domination by East Africans (and the East Africans are aware that this is a problem, but like the lobstermen in my home town, they can’t figure out how to save their industry without also cutting off their own livelihood) (see also here and here). The loss of strong individual English-speaking personalities. The overall worldwide decline of the sport. IAAF mismanagement. (The specific form of this mismanagement is not detailed, but in this case simply failing to find the magic solution might count.) There is even a nod to my colleague Steven Downes’ argument that golf-course-like venues (“10,000m with one hill”) have had the unintended consequence of removing some unpredictability from the event’s results.

Despite my age, I have a lot of sympathy for World Cross nostalgia. As a budding track fan, my first brush with international competition was the last World Cross Country Championships held in North America, when Boston’s Franklin Park hosted the event in 1992. Every athletics fan remembers that year, even if, like myself, they weren’t actually there (my older brother was). Lynn Jennings won her third consecutive championship; John Ngugi won his fifth in astoundingly dominating fashion. The junior races included a entrants like Paula Radcliffe (who won her first international title) and Haile Gebrselassie. Runner’s World ran at least four pages of photos afterward. Yes, in print. Professionally, my return to international events was at the 2006 World Cross in Fukuoka, Japan. (It was also my first visit to Asia.)

But I wonder if maybe the nostalgia isn’t making us ask the wrong question. Perhaps the question isn’t, “What happened to World Cross?” but “How has the world changed since World Cross was at its height?” Look, for example, at this year’s venue: Jordan wants to become an international sports destination, and World Cross is a sort of starter event for them. Leave aside what that idea (and the Times) implies about the event’s status and consider the changing global landscape. Of course World Cross isn’t what it used to be; the world isn’t what it used to be, and the athletics landscape no longer centers around Europe. That kind of change is going to create casualties, and World-Cross-as-it-was is one of those casualties.

Looked at this way, one can still blame the IAAF for not finding the magic formula to maintaining at least the appeal and importance of the event, if not the same face of it. But at least they’ve been trying. To see the bin World Cross might otherwise be headed for, look up the history of the International Peace Marathon in Kosice, Slovakia, which once rubbed shoulders with Fukuoka and Boston as one of the preeminent international marathons.

If we stop asking, “How can we make World Cross what it was?” and ask the harder question, “What should World Cross be in today’s athletics world?” we’re going to get a lot closer to a great event.

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.)

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.

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.