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April 22, 2014

In defense of Larry Rawson

Running geeks love to pile on Larry Rawson, verbally rolling their eyes whenever he’s on TV. Some of this is over-familiarity with some of his oft-used metaphors as he makes an effort to communicate the speed of top runners to less-sophisticated viewers; some of it is a perception that, after decades on the air (yesterday was Rawson’s 40th Boston Marathon broadcast) maybe Rawson is a little out of touch.

The obvious defense is that calling a race on live television isn’t easy. You have to be talking not just when you have something to say, like most fans, but all the time. Which means you have to be watching and thinking and talking all the time. Not easy at all. What’s more, the amount of information you actually have while watching races on screens is less than you’d think. I say this as someone who occasionally goes to these big races with the express purpose of getting more information to the people talking on camera.

I think Rawson deserves some credit for a few specific moments in Monday’s Boston Marathon broadcast:

  • As Meb Keflezighi was running through the Newton Hills, Rawson drew the parallel between Boston and the Athens Olympic marathon course, where Meb won a silver medal ten years ago. Not only was there a historic parallel — the Boston course was intended to be an imitation of the Athens route’s profile — but pointing out that Meb got away once before on a hilly course was an nice comfort to those of us sitting on our figurative seat-edges wondering if he would get caught.

  • In Brookline, with Chebet closing the gap on Keflezighi almost inexorably, Rawson went out on a limb and suggested that the pursuers had left their move too late and would need to work too hard to actually catch Meb. And sure enough, Chebet got within six seconds of Meb but found himself too spent to finish the job. It was a risky prediction that panned out; you only do that on television if you have a lot of confidence in your sense of the race.

Now, you could argue that Rawson was also sitting next to one of the best marathon-watchers currently in the business, David Monti, and was therefore somewhat aided in this. But as I’ve noted before, it was Rawson doing the talking live. He still had to decide what to say and what to sit on, which theories he agreed with and which to sit on.

So, maybe let’s go easy on Larry this time?

Posted by pjm at 8:00 AM | Comments (0)

May 16, 2013

Running the 118th Boston Marathon

If you want to run the 2014 Boston Marathon (a.k.a. the 118th), you have a tough road in front of you. I’ve had a few people ask for advice for getting in. Until we hear more from the BAA, it boils down to: first, get a BQ. Second, get the best BQ you can. Third, pay attention.

There is a lot of discussion about the B.A.A. making allowances for the 118th, relaxing the standards or raising the entry cap. I’ll address this later. Until an official announcement is made, we’re playing by the usual rules, except that there are several thousand runners—those who weren’t able to finish the 117th when the finish line shut down—who will be offered automatic entry, thus beginning to fill the field before registration even opens.

If you already have your BQ, that makes things easier. If you don’t have a BQ, you’ll need to chase one (and if you do have one, you may still want a better time; I’ll get to that later too).

Chances to chase standards are pretty sparse right now. The reason is pretty simple: in most of the country, it’s already too hot to run a fast marathon, and if it isn’t, it will be soon. Entry is scheduled to open in September, so there may be a chance to run a BQ in September (the actual opening date hasn’t been announced yet), but October is almost certainly too late.

It sounds like relatively few people are trying to jump in marathons right away, which is sound; it may be possible to finish a marathon on a month’s training, but running a BQ is not that easy for most.

If you can be ready within six or eight weeks and can travel anywhere, some options open up. There’s Grandma’s in Minnesota, if that hasn’t filled; that’s in mid-June. Likewise the Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska. There are plenty of races on the calendar but many of them are e.g. trail marathons, actually known for being challenging due to heat, or otherwie tough qualifiers. (There should be extra points for anyone who gets a BQ at the Johnny Miles Marathon.)

Even if you’ve got a BQ under your belt already, the increased demand for the 118th may pose a challenge. It’s been a few years since a BQ meant your entry was assured; more recently, faster is better. Essentially, the faster your BQ, the earlier you get to register, and the more likely your registration will be successful. Therefore, there are BQs, good BQs (5-10 minutes faster than cutoff) and really good BQs (10+ minutes faster than cutoff).

If you’ve got a really good BQ, you’re probably in. If you’ve got a good one, I wouldn’t make promises, but you’re probably OK. If you don’t have a good BQ, you might want to think about improving it. For that, you’ll want to look deep into the summer, even into early September, with the idea of getting into great shape in the summer and hitting one out of the park as close to the registration opening date as you can. You could do worse than to look at Clarence DeMar for this one. (Someone needs to come up with a circuit of races named for Boston champions.)

Finally, pay attention and be ready to change plans if things come up which help you. I’ve already heard of one pop-up marathon scheduled for late summer expressly to give people a shot at qualifying; odds are there will be more. Look for one with a speedy, certified course (I can’t emphasize this point enough), chip timing, and an early-morning start (or other accommodations for heat). It may even be a good idea to have a Plan A and a Plan B.

Now, about the BAA: One thing they understand is that while they own the Boston Marathon on paper, in practice it’s a sort of public trust. They are going to do whatever they can for the 118th, and I expect they are exploring the option of a one-time raising of the entry cap. (The idea of a lottery, the way they ran it in 1996, has been floated as well, but in my opinion that’s not going to go over well if they can’t first allow in all the BQs who wish to run, so if I wanted to run I would be looking for a BQ before I put my hopes in a lottery.)

The hangup is that the field limit is not set arbitrarily by the BAA; it’s a limit more or less imposed on them by the towns the course passes through, principally Hopkinton, which has to support the starting area. Hopkinton becomes the running community’s public urinal for a few hours every April and bears it with remarkable good grace, but they have much less open space now than they did in 1996. Staging 30,000 or 40,000 runners through that town, if it’s allowed to happen, will take a lot of time and patience.

If the cap is lifted for the 118th, we will all owe the towns, especially Hopkinton, a greater-than-usual debt of gratitude. So watch where you relieve yourself, please, and where you toss that empty gel packet. (I am still finding empty gel packets on the Natick roadsides a month after the race.)

The BAA is still clearing up the mess from the 117th, and they have a half-marathon to think about in October. I would not expect an announcement about the 118th until late June at the earliest, and July or August is more likely. Stay tuned, and if you want to run, start staking out that really good BQ.

Posted by pjm at 7:45 PM | Comments (0)

September 15, 2012

Which do you believe, the map or the GPS?

If you read my last grumpiness regarding Nike+, you probably know that the answer to the above question is, “It depends.”

It turns out Strava has the same problem as Nike+ when it comes to using the GPS in the iPhone to track runs. Simply put, both apps trust that the GPS track from the phone is 100% reliable; once a run has been tracked, there is no option to correct the track or replace it with something generated from a map.

This would be wonderful if the GPS track was, in fact, 100% reliable. But for some reason in the last few weeks, my GPS tracks have been consistently bad. I’ve had seven-mile runs marked as two and a half, two-and-a-half mile runs marked as three… it goes on and on. I don’t know if the problem is the phone hardware, the apps, local topography, local weather, solar weather, or some combination, but it’s pretty consistently bad.

And it highlights the problem with using GPS tracks to get run distance (or much other run data): GPS as a technology is much more precise than it is accurate. Put another way, like email, GPS is a “best effort” technology (much like email). It can be wrong, and if it’s wrong it will not apologize nor necessarily admit the error.

So why don’t either of these logging systems accept an alternative? All they need is an option—it can be on the website, it doesn’t need to be right in the phone app—to indicate for a given run if the GPS track is actually correct. The user could have the option to upload a .gpx file with a better map track if they want to generate one with another app. (It’s hypothetically possible to use the Gmap-pedometer to create a gpx file, and use that to record a new run with Strava, but so far the gpx files I’ve tried uploading to Strava have failed.)

Introducing this option of human oversight is a simple way of accounting for GPS’s lack of accuracy. I’m sure most of the app developers want to avoid that degree of complication, but in doing so, they’re placing more trust in a fallible technology than it really deserves.

ETA: So the issue with my GPS inaccuracy turned out to be the iPhone and not the apps. Still, how do I correct the logs?

Posted by pjm at 1:40 PM | Comments (0)

September 7, 2012

Data portability

For the last year, I’ve been using the Nike+ running iPhone app to log my running. This was somewhat against my better judgement, as I tend to worry about consigning my data to warehouses out on the ‘net without some means to keep a copy in my own control, but I started when the girls were infants, and I needed something shiny to keep me motivated to get out the door on a regular basis. I have also become terrible at keeping up my paper logs (much like this weblog) and something which would automatically record my data sounded like a good idea.

However, a phone app has its pitfalls. I ran into two cases in the last few weeks which led to messy data in the log:

  • During a run, I “paused” the app, but then inadvertently “finished” the run (a different tap). I had to start a new one to track the rest of the run. Not only were my numbers a little goofy, but Nike recorded this as a double workout.

  • More recently, running on Battle Road I had a sketchy GPS signal. As a result, the hour-and-a-quarter run was logged as two and a half miles rather than seven and a half, warping the data quite significantly.

Both of these things should be pretty easy to fix given a little data tweaking, but it turns out Nike doesn’t support such things. What comes from the phone is considered Truth. I contacted tech support asking how I could fix these runs, and their answer was to delete the runs from my activity and email them the details of the actual runs to be re-inserted in my record.

Needless to say, this seems like a cumbersome approach.

So I’m shopping for a better logging solution. At the moment, I’m looking at Strava which comes well-recommended. But first I need to liberate my data from Nike+ (sound familiar?), and it looks like even that is problematic. I wonder if this shouldn’t be a standard part of how people evaluate online services: “How hard will it be to download everything I upload to this site?”

Posted by pjm at 7:00 PM | Comments (0)

March 10, 2011

State by State

There are a lot of things I could be writing about right now. This is warm-up (although the main event may not be published here).

At some point when I was in college, I learned on the Dead Runners’ Society listserv about SEXY-LU points. I don’t remember now what the abbreviation stands for, other than that the S stood for the last name of the person explaining this scoring game to the list. (He shall remain googlenonymous here, but Ed, I do remember.)

A runner would accumulate points for a given span of time, generally a calendar year, although I imagine one could accumulate lifetime points as well. Each state and/or foreign country in which one ran in that time counted for at least one point. The actual score for each depended on how much one ran in those states, basically boiling down to the exponent needed when expressing the number of miles in scientific notation:

  • 1-9 miles: 1 point
  • 10-99 miles: 2 points
  • 100-999 miles: 3 points
  • 1000-9999 miles: 4 points

A serious runner would generally pick up four points for their home state (I doubt anyone has scored five) and one or two for most places they visited. A good year for me when I was doing a lot of track traveling would be in the mid-20s. In 2010 I think I hit 16 or 17, and I may have done as well in 2009. (I don’t recall if different Canadian provinces counted for extra points, but that hasn’t mattered for me since 2001, the only year I visited more than one.) I haven’t tried to calculate my lifetime score, but I started thinking about it when I read this post by Scott Douglas.

The drawback to this program is that a weekend in Japan counts for the same number of points as ten miles in Connecticut, but on the other hand, a quick run in the Denver airport can pick up extra points as well.

Posted by pjm at 8:18 PM | Comments (0)

November 10, 2009

Turn in to the skid

Somewhere there is an old Bill Cosby routine—I think it involves driving while very sleepy—in which he highlights the counter-intuitive nature of recovering from a skid while driving. (Steer in the direction you’re sliding: yeah, that seems like a bad idea, but it’s not.)

So after running the Stockade-athon on Sunday, I’ve decided that it’s time to back off mileage and spend the winter concentrating on strength and general fitness, in the name of avoiding injury interruption in 2010. To this end, A suggested I come over and do the conditioning workout with her team yesterday morning.

Today feels like the day after the first day of swim practice, and among the list of activities which are items like “lifting my arms to the keyboard.” And yet every twinge is reminding me that I need to keep doing this—to turn in the direction of the skid.

Posted by pjm at 7:25 AM | Comments (0)

November 17, 2008

I should sell this

After Sunday’s long run, one of the ultra-runners in our group was asking about speedwork. So far, all she’s done is mile repeats on a treadmill, four at a time, and she’s both bored with it and not sure what else to try. (This is not uncommon for people who didn’t run in high school or college and therefore didn’t build up extensive experience with track work.)

Someone else was suggesting 100m pick-ups on an ordinary roar run, but she didn’t have any idea how to estimate 100m. So I told her about the pick-ups Coach Squires used to assign us: one every five minutes, 1-2-1, 1-2-1, 1-1-1 (and yes, that’s a 45-minute workout; you don’t slack off in between those pick-ups).

Then I described a workout I used to do years ago. I had read in Frank Murphy’s The Silence of Great Distance (which, by the way, is a tremendous book and well worth reading, particularly as Stephanie Herbst-Lucke has been breaking masters’ records in the last year) about the “dynamic runs” that Peter Tegen developed at the University of Wisconsin. I can’t find details in the book now, and I knew I couldn’t hold the complex workouts in my head, so I simplified.

At the time, I had a watch with a multiple-segment countdown timer. This meant you could program one segment to one time, a second to a different time, and so on up to seven segments. The watch would count down each segment, beeping at the end of each one, then starting the next one. I would program quasi-random strings of numbers—phone numbers were a favorite—and start the countdown after about 20 minutes of warm-up. When the watch beeped, I would change pace, picking up or slowing down. Because there were an odd number of segments, when the watch looped around, I’d be running hard on segments which had been recovery on the previous series. And

So from a complicated root, I pulled a simple workout: run phone numbers.

I wonder if I could pull a magazine article out of that. Or get the workout named for me. Probably only if I could explain it more simply.

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Posted by pjm at 10:05 PM | Comments (2)

Performances of the Year Finalists

I guess I got my Performances of the Year vote in just in time. The finalists were announced today. I picked two of the three male finalists (Bolt 9.69 and Gebrselassie 2:03:59; the third was Bolt 19.30) but only one of the female (Dibaba 14:11.15).

I’m disappointed that Wanjiru and Hellebaut did not make the finalist lists, particularly because I’m already getting bored with Yelena Isinbayeva winning everything, but at least I know it wasn’t for lack of trying on my part.

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Posted by pjm at 9:09 AM | Comments (0)

November 16, 2008

Performances of the Year

I feel like polling for Performances of the Year might be new this year. I sent my vote(s) a few minutes ago; to provide a baseline for discussion and spur you to vote yourself, here’s how I picked my ballot.

Men:

  • Bolt, 9.69/100m: Oh, come on. How can I not vote for that. The man absolutely dismantled one of the toughest Olympic 100m fields ever assembled, backed off to celebrate 15m from the finish line, and still broke the World Record by .03s. Not voting for this race is like voting against Harry Potter and Winnie the Pooh. The toughest thing to decide: this one, or the 200m?

  • Gebrselassie, 2:03:59/Marathon: This was one of those “first under 2:0x:00” milestones, which I don’t think should be ignored. I’m a longtime fan of Haile, and I wasn’t thrilled by his priority weighting between Berlin and Beijing this year. This record will get broken, but he will always have been the first. Remember it.

  • Wanjiru, 2:06:32/Marathon: Having said that about Haile, I need to put my oar in as well for Wanjiru, who won the race which should’ve made Haile immortal—if he’d risked enough to run it. Wanjiru took all the accepted wisdom about running marathons in the heat, about running championship marathons, and even in some cases about running marathons at all, and threw it out the window. It’s hard to see the factors which play on who wins a marathon, and so I think it’s hard for most people to appreciate just how astounding that race was. If you consider marathons as a series of card games, Wanjiru put all his chips on the table with every single hand, and he just kept winning. At the end, as you can imagine, he’d won them all.

Women:

This was a lot tougher.

  • Dibaba, 14:11.15/5000m: We sort of thought Dibaba might be done for, with this bizarre side-stitch problem she’d been having during the indoor season. This race ended that discussion and pretty much ended any talk of anyone else in the world running with Tiru this season. With a pair like Dibaba and Defar walking this record down like it was soft, this mark may not stand for long, but it should.

  • Hellebaut, 2.05/High Jump: Not only was this an awesome personal performance for Hellebaut, it was a great demonstration of what a chess game the vertical jumps can be. Blanka Vlasic, who had dominated this event for dozens of competitions, made one little slip, and Hellebaut (and her coach) were canny enough and lucky enough to use the leverage that slip gave them and play it into a gold medal. It was a great competition to watch.

  • Campbell-Brown, 21.74/200m: This is where I started to wonder about my choices. To be completely honest, I barely remember the women’s sprints from Beijing. This was quite a race, and beating Allyson Felix took doing, particularly considering the rough start Campbell-Brown had to her season. But honestly? I don’t even remember the race. So why did I vote for it? Campbell-Brown deserves something, I think. And the races I do remember—Kaniskina in the walk, Samitova-Galkina in the steeplechase—I’m just suspicious enough of, given the Russians’ recent history, to not want to heap laurels on them.

Which performances would you have voted for? (Which did you vote for?)

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Posted by pjm at 6:25 PM | Comments (0)

November 12, 2008

Run for your Life

We rented Run for your Life last weekend. In case you haven’t heard of it already, this is “the Fred Lebow movie,” and if you haven’t heard of Fred Lebow, either you don’t run, or haven’t been running long enough.

Everything’s debatable, but the easiest thing to say is that for over 20 years, Fred was synonymous with the New York City Marathon, and as the race director when the marathon first leapt out of Central Park to become the sprawling five-borough monster it now is, he essentially invented the concept of the modern big-city marathon-as-event.

As a biography, the film begins and ends with the marathon, but as a life, Fred’s was remarkably focused on running. I found the movie interesting because I know so many of the people interviewed, but probably only one of them would know me in a line-up (George Hirsch, then publisher of The Runner and now publisher of La Cucina Italiana, for which CMI built a website). (I guess Allan Steinfeld, Fred’s successor and right-hand man, would recognize me, but he would have to be prompted to know my name.)

The thread of the narrative jumps around a lot in time, following its themes, but a few things jumped out at me. One was that by being the first in so many areas, the NYCM wound up incurring some serious disadvantages—they chased some “advances” which turned out to be dead ends, to mix metaphors, and got caught there while everyone else moved on. I guess leading the marathon pack can be more of a hash than a race, sometimes. (I think this sort of problem has a lot to do with why the World Marathon Majors were created—so the five can share information and avoid development dead ends.)

Another, though, was Fred’s insistence on using all available cash and more on advancement and promotion. One former treasurer told a story of describing how much money the NYRRC had lost in the previous year; Fred stood up immediately afterward and announced, “I hope we can lose even more money next year.”

Particularly if you’re familiar with the NYRR and its operations, the movie sheds a lot of light on the roots of what happens inside that 89th Street brownstone.

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Posted by pjm at 11:03 PM | Comments (0)

November 10, 2008

My vote counted more than yours

I don’t mean to gloat, but of course I’m not referring to that little wait-in-line paper-ballot affair last week. I’m talking about the Athletes of the Year. It happens that I picked four of the six athletes from whom the two Athletes of the Year will be selected.

Sammy Wanjiru was the man I voted for who did not make the final round, and given that it was Dayron Robles, who broke the 110m hurdles World Record, who displaced him, I’m not too bitter. Still, Wanjiru’s Olympic Marathon was nothing short of astounding, whereas Robles was practically mechanical in winning his gold. And Robles memorably screwed up at the World Indoor Championships, assuming a false start would be called and getting left flat-footed in the blocks. Gebrselassie was left behind despite his World Record, but Bekele and Bolt advanced. Frankly, I think this is a lock for Bolt. I have no doubt the bizarrely skewed online vote was responsible for Irving Saladino coming in fourth, however.

On the women’s side, I knew Yelena Isinbayeva (the IAAF insists her names be spelled with “y”s, which is counter-intuitive to me) would be a strong pick, but I argued for Valerie Vili instead. A losing battle, I knew, but I did see Pamela Jelimo and Tirunesh Dibaba advance.

The announced polling was 70% to the “IAAF Family” of 1512 names, meaning each vote was worth about .046296% of the total, and 30% to the online vote, which was 250,361 for the men and 242,992 for the women. This is much more even than last year, but also means an online vote was worth less than ever: about .000120% of the total for men, and .000123% for the women. Roughly speaking, my vote was equal to around 400 online votes, which isn’t a whole lot out of a quarter million, but is plenty if you consider how many track fans you may actually know.

Now I have to vote on Performances of the Year, which looks significantly tougher.

Posted by pjm at 9:50 PM | Comments (0)

Recent publications

Having written here before about chip timing, it’s only fair that I point out a lengthy article on the topic in the current New England Runner. It’s not online, so if you have an interest in transponder timing, (or, as the cover line so sensationally puts it, “The Chip Wars,”) you’ll need to find a paper copy. Anywhere in New England with a decent magazine rack should have them; if you’re south of New York, things may be tougher.

There’s also a feature story about some Kenyan trip or another. I haven’t read the article yet, but the pictures were nice.

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Posted by pjm at 9:27 PM | Comments (1)

November 6, 2008

The right way to fund professional athletes

I’ve written here before about the yawning gap between the life of the NCAA athlete, whose travel, race entries, uniforms, coaching, and (to some extent) shoes are paid for by their athletic department, and that of the professional athlete, where those things are paid for by sponsors. In between is this twilight world of “Olympic hopefuls” trying to find their way from the first to the second, trying to string together rent, health insurance, and training time until that hoped-for breakthrough that brings the sponsors knocking.

I believe anyone who wants to make a big difference in athletics in this country should be focusing their attention right there, in the gap between college athletics and the professional big time, and in fact that’s just where programs like the Hansons-Brooks Olympic Development Program, ZAP Fitness, and the RRCA’s “Roads Scholarship” program have been focused for years. (And those programs are making a difference.)

It’s statistics, really. It’s cool that Deena Kastor broke Joan Samuelson’s record and ran sub-2:20, but when the next-fastest American marathoner, now debutante Kara Goucher, is at 2:25, and the next bunch around 2:30, well, Kastor’s record looks pretty safe. You expect the record-setters and world medalists to be outliers, of course, but the fewer standard deviations they are from the mean, the more often you find world-class outliers.

Put in simpler terms, the more 2:30 marathoners you have, the more 2:28 marathoners you find. The more 2:28s there are, the more likely we are to find several 2:25s. And several 2:25s makes it more likely that someone will pop a 2:22 somewhere… or a 2:19. The same is true for men, with different numbers… and in fact it’s true for every event, and that’s why there’s more depth in the U.S. Olympic Trials than in the Olympics for many sprint and hurdle events.

USATF (or, more specifically, the USA Track & Field Foundation) is going the right direction on this, giving grants to athletes they call “emerging elite” athletes. In recent weeks they’ve announced their Elite Athlete Development Grants and U.S. Distance Project Athlete Grants (targeting the distances as an event group where Americans have been competitive in the past, but aren’t now). They’re a great idea and a step in the right direction. Now if only the USATFF was so well-funded that these grants came close to approximating the state support athletes get in other countries (or at least leveled out the cost of living and training between American and East African athletes).

It’s a low-profile program next to the ones I mentioned above, but it’s already seen some significant success: Stephanie Brown Trafton, who won the first USA athletics gold medal of the 2008 Olympics, in the women’s discus, received Elite Athlete Development grants in 2007 and 2008.

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Posted by pjm at 10:34 PM | Comments (0)

October 19, 2008

Athlete of the Year

There are three weeks left to put in your votes for the IAAF Athlete of the Year.

I sent mine today. The website vote is merged with a poll of “IAAF Athletics Family members”, of which I apparently belong to the subgroup of “Selected International Media.” The split is 30/70 in favor of the Athletics Family; I did some math last year to figure out how many internet votes it took to out-vote me, but I can’t find it. I think it’s more than three.

Regardless, if you follow track and field at all, or even watched some of the Olympics, it’s worth spending a few minutes looking and voting. The current standings on the internet vote place Irving Saladino of Panama ahead of Usain Bolt (!!) which suggests to me that there’s some vote-stacking going on, and explains why the internet vote only represents 30% of the final selection.

You get three votes for men and three for women. If you want some cues, here’s the slate I voted, and why:

  • Usain Bolt. How could you not? He’s probably the best-known name on the list thanks to his heroics this year, with four world records.

The next ones were tougher. Essentially, I had to pick two from these three:

  • Kenenisa Bekele: Won World Cross, plus the Olympic 5,000m/10,000m double which had not been done since Miruts Yifter in 1980.
  • Samuel Wanjiru: Won Olympic Marathon gold in OR time and the most audacious, terrifying and ultimately astounding effort seen in that event in decades.
  • Haile Gebrselassie: Ran two of the three fastest marathons in history in 2008, including the first-ever sub-2:04.

I ended up leaving out Gebrselassie, despite my personal liking for him, because of his (ultimately unfounded) reluctance to run the Olympic marathon, favoring tough or dramatic competition over record times.

For women:

  • Tirunesh Dibaba: Identical wins to Bekele, but with a 5,000m WR early in the European season and the 10,000m Olympic gold coming with the second-fastest time ever for that distance.
  • Pamela Jelimo: “Dominant” is an accurate but inadequate word for Jelimo’s season; she set World Junior Records nearly every time she ran the 800m (including her Olympic victory) but also changed the face of her event in doing it.
  • Valerie Vili: I just have to vote for the shot putter. Vili won World Indoors and then the Olympics in dominant fashion—nobody else was even close—but did so not with arrogance but a sort of disappointed air, as though she wished someone else could raise their level of competition to challenge her.

In other words, I picked Vili over Yelena Isinbayeva purely on attitude, because Isinbayeva won the same titles and also set two World Records in the pole vault.

Arguments and opinions are welcome, but go vote!

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Posted by pjm at 1:01 PM | Comments (0)

October 18, 2008

Showing up is half

Generally you can count on two things at a small, New England road race. One, the order of finish will be pretty much determined by the mile mark; “strategy” and “tactics” are not often part of racing so much as “run as hard as you can from the gun until the end.” Two, “I won” is shorthand for “Of the n people in the area who are much faster than I am, none of them came out to race today.”

One of those was true this morning, and fortunately for me it was the second one. There were two other runners who went out aggressively in the flat first mile of the 5-K in Sunderland, and they were 50m or so in front of me at times. But the second mile included a big hill, and one of the few arrows in my racing quiver right now is that I can climb decently well. I passed them both by the time we reached the top and managed to hang on to that lead to the end.

There were all of thirteen people in the race, so the odds that (m)any of them would be faster than me were starting to tip in my favor before the race even started, but I was pleased to hang on to the win. The payout was a $50 (face value) savings bond; given that it’s not the first time I’ve won such a prize, it looks like my road racing career is going to be paying out little windfalls through my late 50s and early 60s.

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October 15, 2008

USA Championship priorities

Monday, the USATF Women’s 10-K* championships was held as part of the Tufts Health Plan Run for Women in Boston and Cambridge. I got a press release about the winner in my email within a few hours of the end of the race, and she was named Athlete of the Week in another press release on Tuesday.

Last Saturday, the USATF 50 mile road championships was held as part of the Tussey Mountainback 50-miler in State College, PA. A member of our training group also ran that race, his first 50-miler. I knew about his finish by Saturday evening through the group mailing list; it wasn’t until Wednesday morning that I heard (via USATF press release) that it was also the national championships.

The 10-K champion won $10,850 (I think) plus a $2,500 more for taking third in the USARC. The 50-mile champions won $1,000 and $800 (the male winner got a $200 bonus for setting a course record, and both of them won $300 extra for winning the masters division as well as the open—though, Greg Crowther notwithstanding, I can’t understand why there are separate masters divisions in ultras, considering how many “masters” are still at the top of their ultrarunning game).

I’m not going to try to argue that USATF shouldn’t be handling news from the different events with a different sense of urgency. But I think the ultra-runners would have some justification for feeling a bit left out.

*More nit-picky editorial style notes for track writers: If it’s on the road, it’s a 10-K or 10 km, depending on house style. If it’s on the track, it’s a 10,000m. Has to do with imagined levels of precision in measurement, I think, but the fact is that a 10-K and a 10,000m are two very different races.

Now Playing: Chopsticks from Whip-Smart by Liz Phair

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September 26, 2008

My vote is not for sale

I used to see announcements for the Jesse Owens Award and sometimes wonder, “Who votes on these things?”

As of this year, the answer is apparently, “Me, for one.” But I’ve already sent my ballot back, so any lobbying you may wish to do will be ineffective. I may or may not remember to explain who I voted for, and why, when the awards are announced. Or sooner, if I have time.

I maintain that a shrinking population of full-time track writers (or, if I’m feeling cynical, “real” track writers) is the cause of this, but it may be that what little work I do has more to do with it. I suspect that the set of U.S. track writers present at all four of the USATF Indoor Championships, World Indoor Championships, U.S. Olympic Trials and Olympic Games is pretty small.

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September 21, 2008

Speed perspective

In case anyone was too impressed by my 13 mph clocking the other day, I should point out that the second issue of Spikes magazine, which arrived in my mailbox recently, says Usain Bolt topped out over 27 mph in his 100m gold medal run.

Now Playing: I’m A Mountain from I’m a Mountain by Sarah Harmer

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September 19, 2008

Clocked

Everyone’s seen one of those automatic speed-display radar trailers town police departments put out from time to time, right? It’s a little stand with an enclosed radar gun pointing up the road, a sign displaying the speed limit and a marked display showing “your speed” in lights.

Yesterday I was running down the left side of a town road by one of these (on the right) and realized there was an “8” showing on the display. It flickered to “7” and I realized it was showing my speed. I was on the opposite shoulder, though, so who knows how accurate a reading it was getting.

I’ve seen this once before, and that time I threw in a surge and got the sign up to 10. This one was on a downhill. When I realized what was up, I couldn’t resist. I checked traffic, crossed the road and headed back up the hill. When I spotted another break in cars approaching the sign, I turned around and started building to a full stride.

I managed to get the display up to 13 before I backed off. That was pretty close to flat-out, on-my-toes sprinting; 13 MPH is a tick faster than 70-second 400m pace, about a 4:40 mile. (I’ve no idea what the real precision of the radar is. Runners don’t generally talk about pace in those units, though I know one runner who ranks his races by meters per second.) I’ve never run a whole mile at 13 MPH, but I have done 10 miles at a pace that a radar-gun sign would probably round up to 10 MPH.

Now Playing: All Of A Sudden (It’s Too Late) from English Settlement by XTC

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September 2, 2008

Don't forget about Jenny Crain

I got a press release yesterday about a fall cross-country “running initiative … featuring a tribute to cross-country runner Ryan Shay.” Shay, for anyone who has been out of touch with the American running community since last November, was a former national marathon champion and NCAA 10,000m champion who died of an apparent heart attack five miles in to the Olympic Marathon Trials in New York.

Meanwhile, on August 21, an anniversary passed unmentioned: that’s the day last year when Jenny Crain was hit by a car when training in Milwaukee. Crain had been a national-level athlete for as long as I’ve been in the sport, but a year after her accident she’s still on her recovery road.

I met Crain very briefly; she was on my flight back from Fukuoka in 2006. I don’t remember her official role, but she spotted me talking to one of the junior team managers and automatically included me in the friendly group of Americans navigating through our connection in Osaka, even though I wasn’t officially part of their group. I doubt she would remember my name or even necessarily my face, but I appreciated her friend-until-proven-otherwise approach.

Nobody has named a shoe after Jenny Crain. There weren’t any soft-focus up-close-and-personal segments interrupting the women’s 10,000m in Eugene in June (or the women’s marathon Trials in Boston in April) about Crain’s accident, her career, a spouse left behind. No national magazines have sent feature writers to Milwaukee to talk to the Crain family and analyze the accident report.

And frankly, I’m not sure why not. Crain’s about an order of magnitude more photogenic than Shay ever was. The redemption story on the Shay side (widow Alicia returns to inspiring victories somewhere?) is much less of a sure thing than it is on the Crain side (Jenny walks unassisted! Jenny runs again!)

Maybe it’s that Crain was just one runner in the Adidas stable, while Shay was one of the best Saucony sponsored. Maybe it’s that Crain was out on a training run on busy streets, while Shay was in a major televised race with all his peers. Maybe it’s that Shay had titles on his resume, while Crain was something of a journeyman, always in the money but seldom in the front. Maybe (whisper it) it’s that we still take men more seriously than women as professional athletes and heroes.

Maybe it’s because we know that however much or little we do in Ryan Shay’s memory, the outcome is the same: we can’t bring him back. But we’re afraid we can’t do enough for Jenny Crain.

And with medical bills which must verge on the catastrophic themselves, and a story which could just as easily be that of any runner who’s in the right place at the wrong time, it seems to me that Crain deserves to be remembered just as much, if not more, than Ryan Shay.

Now Playing: I Figured You Out by Mary Lou Lord

Update, November 2009: Over a year later, I’m happy to be proven wrong on at least one of the above statements. Runner’s World sent John Brant, possibly the best writer I can imagine for the job, for a feature story which was in this month’s magazine. If you haven’t already, you’ll want to read it.

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August 29, 2008

Who is doping?

I keep saying I think Usain Bolt is clean (actually, I hope he’s clean), but I’m not such a naif that I think track is drug free. Who should we be suspicious of? Two kinds of athletes: Americans, and entire countries which appear to support a national doping program.

Let’s take the first one first. I’m not suggesting all American athletes are doping; what I am suggesting is that America (and, to a lesser extent, Canada) has a unique combination of relatively well-paid athletes and relatively accessible and advanced domestic pharmaceuticals. American athletes are more likely to have the means to obtain the juice, and more likely to be financially rewarded for juiced performances. For that, despite our federation’s admirable dedication to doping controls, they get a special exception from class #2.

That is “entire countries.” Out-of-competition testing is considered the backbone of doping control, because it’s easy to duck competition tests: you train on the juice for months, then stop in advance of competition, flush it out of your system, kick ass and give a clean test. Simple, unless someone shows up un-announced and asks for a test while you’re training. Athletes are required to comply with these requests; there are stacks of stories of otherwise-blameless athletes receiving bans for missing tests or refusing tests.

Ducking out-of-competition tests requires extensive planning and support. IAAF staff tell some chilling off-the-record stories about how it’s done. Imagine, for example, that the athlete gets a call from national customs agents warning them that testers have just arrived at the airport. Alternately, the tester knocks on the athlete’s door, but is arrested by local police before the athlete answers. When the tester is released several hours later (“So sorry, a misunderstanding,”) the athlete(s) are all ready and waiting at a local hotel.

Samples have to be handled carefully for accurate results, and there’s room to skew things there, too. Perhaps the tester is arrested after collecting the samples, and the samples are “accidentally” destroyed. Perhaps there’s a national law against removing blood from the country, so samples need to be smuggled out. (One story involved a testing team making plane reservations to throw the authorities off their track, then leaving town by train.)

None of this can happen without some degree of governmental support from bureaucrats who believe the medal table is more important than drug-free athletics.

What countries are doing this? Not Kenya, for one, and probably not Ethiopia either. There are some African countries viewed with great suspicion, however, even though, like Kenya, some of their stars are now winning medals for other countries.

We saw a corner of the Russian apparatus uncovered in July, and most of the stories I’ve heard involve them; unfortunately, nearly every Russian athlete (there are a few exceptions) has to be viewed with a jaundiced eye in the wake of their scandal just as every American looked suspicious after BALCO. Russia’s neighbors bear watching; Ukraine lost a heptathlon medalist to a positive test during the Games.

Catching dirty athletes is like stopping spam, though; there’s no hard-and-fast rule, but rather a series of factors which make an athlete’s performances suspicious. It just looks like “being from Russia” is one of those factors now.

Now Playing: Leaves And Kings from Josh Ritter by Josh Ritter

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August 28, 2008

Roundup

(Yeah, I’ve been busy.)

In the event that anyone cares, I thought it might be interesting to gather up my full Beijing output, excluding what I posted here. Roughly speaking, that’s three things: The IAAF “Competition Blog,” the Daily Summaries on the IAAF site, and seven or eight event reports for the Running USA Wire. And then there’s the 50km walk report.

50km Walk Event Report

Running USA Wire:

Leaving out the blog, I filed 14,793 words. (Editing probably changed that number.) When you include the blog, that number goes up by about 50,000 words to 64,901, which is about the length of a shortish novel. Given that it was written over about ten days, though, it would probably make for a pretty ugly novel.

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August 22, 2008

Karma

I don’t have a real, rational belief in some kind of supernatural ledger that keeps score on our every move. But I find it easy to believe that when people, in groups or individually, behave well, good things are more likely to come their way (there’s more good around) and when they behave badly, they’re more likely to have bad things happen to them.

So Wednesday night, when the U.S. track federation gave up their protest of Wallace Spearmon’s DQ in the 200m final (Spearmon crossed the line third) but then filed one against the Netherlands Antilles’ Churandy Martina (who crossed the line second) for a similar lane violation, I cringed.

Part of it, selfishly, was just that the Netherlands Antilles is a long country name to type, grammatically awkward, and burdened with an obscure abbreviation (AHO).

But more troubling was that I felt like this protest did us no good. Shawn Crawford, who crossed the line fourth, was getting a medal anyway. DQing Martina got him silver and Walter Dix bronze, medals neither of them seemed to want—at least not by disqualifying runners who’d finished in front of them. The Netherlands Antilles’ tiny federation decried what they saw as big-nation bullying, a fit of pique and minor-medal greed from a nation used to dominating the individual sprint events and having a bad Games. I pretty much agree with them; Team USA has known how to win for decades, but they frequently need lessons in how to lose gracefully. (N.B. Individual athletes, for the most part, have been excellent losers; it’s the coaches and managers who’ve been the worst sports, as exemplified by this protest.)

But karma, at least as far as I can see, has come back on Team USA. Last night was an absolute massacre in the men’s 4x100m relay, with four of the eight teams starting the first heat failing to negotiate the third exchange. Only ten of the sixteen teams that started the heats finished with a legal mark, and eight advanced to the final. It could’ve been pure bad luck that the Americans bobbled the baton, especially given how many times they’ve dropped the stick before. (They’re infamous for it, in fact.)

But then the women dropped their baton in the same way, in the same spot.

It’s gotta be karma. I can’t describe it any other way. And it’s a shame that the athletes are losing out. Tyson Gay hoped for three gold medals like he won in Osaka, but now he’s leaving Beijing empty-handed. Allyson Felix could’ve contended for three or even four; she has a silver (mild disappointment) but now won’t even have one relay to race. Hopefully they’ll be able to get the 4x400m quartet in the final for her.

It’s the coaches, and the agents, and the lack of a sharply defined process for picking a relay squad without politics and forcing them to practice their handoffs until they can swap the stick in their sleep. It’s the officials, in other words. The ones who protested the 200m. The ones who promised too many track medals to the USOC and went scrambling to gain one by protest when the Games were going badly.

Poorly done, gentlemen.

(As I wrapped this up, I got a press release from USATF with a “blog entry” from the new USATF CEO, in which he says the right things:

Ultimately, the athletes on the track are the only ones who can successfully pass the stick around the track. But they need the proper leadership and preparation. These are professional athletes who are the best in their field, and anybody who ever ran a high school relay cringes when that baton hits the track. It reminds me of NBA players who have horrendous free-throw percentages. All it takes is repetition, preparation and focus to make a free throw. The same goes for baton-passing. As an organization, we owe it to our athletes to provide the preparation they need to succeed. We will do everything we can to figure out what went wrong and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Now let’s see what happens in 2009 in Berlin.)

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August 21, 2008

Facts about Usain Bolt

(With a hat tip to chucknorrisfacts.com and Bruce Schneier facts)

  • When Usain Bolt starts from the blocks, he doesn’t push himself forward. He pushes the Earth backward.

  • Usain Bolt never false starts. Sometimes the starter is so amazed by Bolt’s start, he forgets to pull the trigger in time.

  • Usain Bolt has two paces: World Record and Celebrate.

  • Pluto is actually a collection of spikes which were insufficiently tightly laced and kicked into space by Usain Bolt.

  • Usain Bolt doesn’t use performance enhancing drugs because steroids would slow him down.

  • Usain Bolt isn’t too tall to be a sprinter. His presence makes other sprinters shorter.

  • When Usain Bolt falls in the steeplechase pit, he doesn’t get wet. The water gets Usain Bolt.

  • Usain Bolt’s house has no doors, only walls that he walks through.

  • When Usain Bolt was denied chicken nuggets at a McDonalds, he ran through the restaurant so quickly it became a Wendy’s.

  • If Usain Bolt could be contained by a treadmill, his 200m would produce enough energy to power the entire nation of Jamaica for 22 years.

  • The Chinese built the Great Wall to keep out Usain Bolt. Obviously, it did not work.

  • George Bush asked Usain Bolt not to run the 400m because of the potential damage to the U.S. GDP.

  • Usain Bolt has to train on a different track every week due to spike erosion in the lanes.

  • Usain Bolt can watch an entire season of 24, with commercials, in 22 hours.

  • Usain Bolt can slam a revolving door.

  • Usain Bolt is the only person who can text-message a sub-20 200m.

  • If at first you don’t succeed, you’re not Usain Bolt.

  • Usain Bolt tried swimming, but no lane lines exist that can damp the turbulence of his kick.

  • Usain Bolt could have won a medal in archery, but all of his arrows were sub-10.

  • Usain Bolt’s races aren’t timed. HE decides when the clock should stop.

  • There are two types of people in the world: slow people, and Usain Bolt.

  • Usain Bolt feeds Schroedinger’s Cat on his back porch. Without opening the box.

  • Usain Bolt isn’t on the internet. He can’t find a connection fast enough.

  • Usain Bolt’s times in thousandths always round down.

  • There are no unbreakable World Records, just times Usain Bolt hasn’t decided to run yet.

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August 19, 2008

Here's a spoiler

I’ve now heard four… no, make that five takes of… no, six. Six takes of a race call on the women’s 100m hurdles. There are a lot of annoyed noises coming from the other working writers on the tribune. (Seven.) He’s yelling. And it’s all about a hurdler who hit the ninth hurdle and did not medal despite being ranked first all year. Over and over, we hear about how she has lost, how her dream is over.

Not a word about who actually won the race, of course. Even though the gold medalist, too, is an American. Apparently NBC built all their preparation for this race around the hurdler who goofed.

Is it any wonder everyone complains about NBC’s Olympics coverage?

They’re still at it, by the way. Top volume. Amazing. Hey, NBC? You’re doing it wrong.

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Heck of a track meet

I’ve been a lousy tourist. A solid week in Beijing as of this afternoon, and I’ve left the Olympic Green twice, both times to downtown hotels for various dinners. (Hooray for traveling with a jacket and tie.) The schedule, which generally keeps me in the stadium past midnight and requires me to be up around 7 for morning sessions, has had me too tired to concentrate on anything but my work. I hope to change that, but aside from the firewall and the large numbers of Asian spectators, these Olympics might as well be in Spain. (I can’t even blame jet lag; I’m tired in all twenty-four time zones.)

The trade off has been that it’s been an awesome track meet. Three world records might not sound like much after the swimming section of the program, but track, as one of my colleagues sniffed, does not give away World Records like door prizes. Most of these events have been around decades, if not centuries. World Records mean something.

To put it another way, I’ve seen three world records in three days. In my entire career to date, I’d seen three other world records in outdoor track, and for one of those I didn’t actually see it; I was in a press conference when it happened. I’ve seen probably around five more for indoor track, with one of those now likely to be revoked under doping suspicion. And one in the marathon (again, I didn’t see it; I was in the press room). So maybe around ten in twelve years. Now I’ve seen three in three days. And there are at least two more events in which world records are possible this week.

Also, I have to say the Olympic mascots, the fuwa, have to be the best mascots I’ve seen at a major event in ages. They’re actually kind of cute.

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August 18, 2008

Another theory for the U.S. team's collapse

…the Olympics don’t take American Express.

(There’s a Finnish sprinter named Visa in the 200m.)

The horizontal jumps, normally a strength for the USA, has been another meltdown. There are no Americans in the men’s long jump final for the first time in ages, nor are there any in the triple jump.

It gets worse: Terrence Trammell is out. Trammell has been a reliable medalist since Sydney, but he only cleared three hurdles here before cramping. (The heat before Liu Xiang’s withdrawl; Liu was in the same lane of the next heat.)

Posted by pjm at 12:24 AM | Comments (0)

National disaster

Remember the biggest race of the Olympics? It just got a great deal smaller.

Liu’s been nursing a hamstring problem all spring. It’s why he didn’t run in New York in May and (some say deliberately) false started in Eugene in June. He tweaked it coming out of the blocks—ironically a false start—in his heat less than an hour ago. He hadn’t even stopped before stripping off his hip numbers. He limped back to the blocks and then back into the ready room.

After this spring’s earthquake, it feels a bit over dramatic to call this a national disaster. As someone else pointed out about Deena Kastor’s broken foot, it’s not like he had a heart attack and died. But it’s certainly the biggest disappointment of the Games for China.

Posted by pjm at 12:17 AM | Comments (0)

August 17, 2008

I blame Bubba Thornton

Not really, of course; the U.S. Olympic men’s team coach has little to do with the individual performances of the athletes he supposedly coaches. But Thornton appeared at a TAFWA function during the U.S. Olympic Trials and suggested that “the men’s shot put is going to set the tone for Team USA on the first day of competition.”

And it did, I suppose. Adam Nelson failed to make the top eight with his first three puts in the final, thereby missing the chance to take three more attempts. Reese Hoffa could barely get beyond 7th. Christian Cantwell did win silver behind a Pole on a tear, but one silver is severely underperforming from a trio which has dominated every competition since Athens.

So, since then:

  • All three women’s 800m runners wash out in the first round.
  • Tyson Gay can’t make the 100m final.
  • None of the discus throwers, all guys who can throw 68m with their eyes closed, can get beyond 62m to advance to that final.
  • Hyleas Fountain bombs the heptathlon long jump and loses her lead, only saving bronze with a PR 800m run.
  • Magdalena Lewy Boulet and Deena Kastor—the latter the defending Olympic bronze medalist—both suffer minor pre-race injuries before the marathon and drop out before halfway, Kastor not even making it to 5km.

Certainly Shalane Flanagan’s 10,000m bronze in AR time is a bright spot, but a team which projected as many as 27 medals has only four after seven events—none of them gold. Thornton had better find a new tone for the team.

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August 16, 2008

Un-classifiable

I can easily write the bullet points for a classified ad for this job:

  • Track geek
  • Able to write grammatical English sentences correctly employing athletics jargon
  • Able to reliably spell Stuczynski, Isinbayeva, and Gebrselassie

What I can’t come up with is how to write the classified for people who feel how I do this morning. I couldn’t sleep last night—I got one hour between arriving back at the hotel at 1:30 AM and leaving for breakfast at 6:30 AM. Seeing the crowds (seriously, the Bird’s Nest is filling up with excited spectators to watch the marathon on the giant monitors) and the Games volunteers and staff is making me absolutely bubbly—no other word for it—with excitement despite my high level of fatigue.

I’m honestly excited about this race. I’m going to have fun watching it and writing about it. Dig in.

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Self-promotion

More so than ever before, the IAAF has attached my name and face to the “blog” I’m writing for them here. I wish I knew what that means.

I’m so excited about the marathon (or maybe about the 100m last night, the second WR in that event I’ve seen this year and both from the same amazing athlete) that I can’t sleep. It’s quarter to five in the morning here, and I was up past one writing last night, so that’s not a good sign for my Sunday. I think I’ll have fun writing about it, though.

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August 15, 2008

On track meets and information systems

At every World Championships I’ve attended, we generally have spread along the tribunes touch-screen terminals for the “CIS” or Commentator Information System. With this we can not only see the start lists, we see splits as they happen, field events mark by mark, and we can tap through to get athlete bios, years’ best lists, and so on. Tremendously helpful, and they’ve spoiled me to the point where I can barely watch field events without them.

We don’t have them here.

There are video monitors along the tribune (clearly visible on TV, if you see the tribune at all) and by changing the channels we can see certain video feeds, a cycling update of the field events (if you have more than a screen-full of information, they rotate) and the most-recent results… and that’s it. This morning, with the heptathlon high jump going and about 40 women jumping on two pits, the screen alternated at unpredictable intervals between Group A and Group B, and each group had about four screenfuls of data cycling. It was next to impossible to determine who was jumping, who had been passing, and everything else you pretty much need to know to follow the high jump.

My neighbor is calling it “DDR technology”, referring to the former East Germany. But of course, it beats most US meets, where there’s nothing of the sort at all, and we rely on printed results after the fact to work out what happened in the field events—unless we follow them attempt-by-attempt on home-made sheets.

For me, though, trying to deliver minute-by-minute reports, it’s a real challenge to keep up.

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August 14, 2008

My temporary office

Starting tomorrow morning, I’ll be spending many of my waking hours in what may be one of my best seats yet for a major meet. It’s unlikely that you’ll see me on television, because most angles shoot from outside the track, where I am, towards the infield, but if you see a wide shot of the stadium you’ll notice banks of grey desks near the finish line. That’s the press section.

My seat is about even with the last row of hurdles on the homestretch, five rows back from the track. I’m here now; the stadium seating is largely empty, but the infield is crawling with people prepping the venue for the start of competition, now less than 24 hours away.

Although there is some interest in other events (the daily question: “How many is Phelps up to now?”) there’s a general attitude of “Let’s really get the Games underway” among my colleagues.

The torch is quite loud in the otherwise quiet stadium (this may be why they’re frequently blasting Chinese pop music, which is sweet almost beyond tolerating for Westerners). Occasional groups of people go to the infield and take pictures on the medal stand.

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August 13, 2008

Do your research

My roommate here in Beijing is also doing a lot of work for this magazine. I had a copy arrive a few days before I left (it apparently went to Medford first; someone hasn’t updated my address) and it’s worth a look if you’re a track geek… or if you want to know what’s going on when you watch over the next week.

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24 hours in Beijing

I’m in a hotel room in Beijing, watching the Italy-Cameroon soccer game with the sound off (the commentary is in Chinese anyway) and trying to get caught up. The ethernet connection in the room is slow, but free.

I spent a lot of time in the air to get here, right over the Arctic. Might as well take the shortest path, I suppose. I went through the border control at the airport behind the Kenyan Olympic team and Brian Sell.

The sky was almost blue yesterday (before I collapsed and went to sleep) but it’s grey and brown today. Some of that’s increased overcast, but it’s also much smoggier. It hasn’t bothered my breathing much yet and everyone’s continuing to dismiss it (“It’s foggy,” says the IOC president) but yikes.

The Olympic park is crowded with people taking photos of themselves with the Bird’s Nest and the torch in the background, and the fences around the green (the secured area) are also lined with photo takers.

I seem to be doing OK with the time change so far, in the sense that my level of fatigue doesn’t seem to have a direct relationship to either local time or U.S. Eastern time.

The most interesting problem with the so-called “Great Firewall of China” is that Runner’s World has a lot of its coverage on sites hosted by Typepad, and Typepad’s IPs are largely blocked. So it’s easy for them to log in and post stories, but they can’t then check that the stories look right online. I can get their feeds but can’t click through.

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August 10, 2008

Yet another reason to love shot putters

I know, for a distance runner I’ve displayed an inordinate fondness for the steel ball in the past, but this is just priceless.

Adam Nelson pointed out that as respiration isn’t a serious factor in the shot (the only heavy breathing these guys do is on a victory lap), Beijing pollution was not something he was very concerned about. Here’s how Lynn Zinser wrote it up in the Times “Rings” blog:

When someone joked [Nelson] could carry one of the marathoners, he said, “They’re pretty light, but they get slippery in this weather.”

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Posted by pjm at 2:30 PM | Comments (1)

Where to find my work

I’ve been asked a few times in the last week where my work during the Olympics can be found. Here’s the quick summary:

  • The IAAF Olympics site is the place to start. As in Osaka and Valencia, I’ll be writing the “Live Competition Blog” during every competition session. It’s not really a “blog” (it’s timestamped, but there are no comments or permalinks) and there’s no feed for it, but it will be updates on what’s happening in and around the stadium on a disturbingly frequent basis. I’m pretty sure there’s an XML file involved somewhere so I could potentially generate a feed using Pipes, but I don’t have the time to suss out the source URL right now.

  • I’ll also be writing daily summaries of competition which will appear on that page. Those will turn up in this feed; it’s not a full-text feed, so you’ll need to click through, and I don’t think I can filter my stories out with a pipe because the feed doesn’t carry author data.

And, of course, I’ll keep posting here now and then.

For a great visual look at the experience of being a journalist in Beijing, I recommend Seattle Times photographer Rod Mar’s blog, Best Seat in the House.

Now Playing: Hummingbird from Songs for a Hurricane by Kris Delmhorst

Posted by pjm at 11:57 AM | Comments (0)

August 7, 2008

The biggest race of the Olympics

You wouldn’t know it from the hype in the USA, particularly if you aren’t a track fan, but the biggest night of the Beijing Olympics will only involve Americans as bit players.

Liu Xiang is the defending World and Olympic champion in the 110m hurdles. Until earlier this summer, he was the World Record holder in that event at 12.88. Ever since he won the World title in Osaka last summer, track fans have been speaking of the short hurdle final, on Thursday the 21st at 9:45 PM, in hushed tones. There’s only one marquee event with 1.4 billion fans behind a potential winner.

It’s not really possible to describe the weight being placed on this event, though Jere Longman of the NYT makes a good effort. Fans who remember Sydney in 2000 raise, as a reference point, Cathy Freeman in the women’s 400m there. Freeman, the Australian aboriginal who lit the torch in Sydney, made her win look so easy we forget the crushing pressure she was under, and Freeman had neither the championship history of Liu, nor as capricious and difficult an event.

And, of course, Australia is a good deal smaller than China. But still, Sydney’s Olympic stadium will probably never again be as full as it was that evening, with spectators and media from other events cramming the aisles. I’ll be bringing earplugs that night.

2004 World Series Red Sox? Little league. It’s easy enough to imagine the jubilation if Liu wins. It’s hard to guess about the despair if he loses (the phrase “national disaster” leaps to mind), and there will be seven other men on the track pretty determined to take that medal for themselves.

Now Playing: Aphorism by Collin Herring

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August 5, 2008

Another reason to hate writing previews

I spent part of Friday writing a 400-or-so-word preview of the Olympic men’s 50km racewalk. (Never mind why, it’s a long story.) There aren’t many well-known contenders in the walk; I only mentioned four by name. I sent it in yesterday; I think the article was due to go up soon.

This afternoon, I learned that one of them was busted for EPO and won’t be walking in Beijing. (The Russians, I must say, are looking pretty bad nowadays.) I know I’ll need to rewrite at least one paragraph; I may need to restructure half the story.

Now Playing: Splintering from Welcome Back Dear Children by Arizona

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August 3, 2008

Working the connections

I ran Beach to Beacon this weekend. This was the 11th running of the race; I’ve run it at least four times, maybe five. It’s a good course, the race is well run, and despite the crowds I tend to run decently well there.

I’ve also had remarkably good luck working my “connections” here, though never as good as at the first running, when for reasons I’ll never understand I was given an elite athlete number (with all the attendant privileges.) I think I ran about 36 flat that year, so you can understand that I didn’t get the number for my speed.

This year it started when I bought a pair of shoes from the owner of the National Running Center at the Expo. He remembered me from RW and asked for my card so he could ask about their website. I don’t know if that’s going to generate any business (more on that later, if I remember) but business cards are like seeds.

At the end of the race, I heard a familiar voice as I approached the finish line. I called and waved, and as a result I can be picked out in the finish line video because Toni Reavis reminded me over the PA that I didn’t manage to break 40:00.

(My brother and I shortened the race name to “Beach to Bacon” and had decided we would go to the food tent after the race and ask where the bacon was, but apparently we were both too tired to remember this joke post-race.)

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July 31, 2008

And the Olympic doping scandal...

starts now.

Some may remember this little bit of snark I posted two years ago when Russia hosted the World Indoor Championships. Apparently my suspicions (and those of others) were justified. Russia just lost all four of their 1,500m women and two out of three 800m women, plus a pair of throwers. The Russian Federation has time (just) to submit new names, but whether they’ll be allowed to is still unknown.

The fallout from Soboleva’s suspension will be significant, because it calls into question her two WR marks in the 1,500m during the recent indoor season. But more immediately, the outlook for the women’s 1,500m has changed dramatically, with probably two medals which would’ve gone to Russian women up for grabs. There’s an Ethiopian woman (Burika) likely to pick up one of them, but women like Shannon Rowbury are now legitimate medal contenders.

Interesting to see how this plays out.

Posted by pjm at 9:56 AM | Comments (0)

July 24, 2008

Preparing for the conditions

I’m reading a lot now about how various marathoners are preparing for the Olympics. Deena Kastor and Blake Russell have both talked about how they’re training for the heat and humidity of Beijing by overdressing in their relatively cool and dry training locations (Mammoth Lakes and Monterey, CA, respectively), and A reports that Lornah Kiplagat has dragged a stationary bike into the sauna at her training camp in order to do heat-acclimation workouts. (Kiplagat won the 2007 World Cross-Country title in the sweltering conditions in Mombasa, so she must know something about preparing to race in the heat.)

The overdressed Americans reminded me of Buddy Edelen, the winner of the 1964 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. Edelen, who was the World Record holder at the time (his American record stood for another decade) knew that the Trials, which would be held at the Yonkers marathon that year, were likely to be hot and muggy, but unlike nearly all the other contenders, he decided to prepare for it. He was based in England, where he was employed as a teacher and could travel on weekends and holidays to the competitive European racing circuit. To prepare for the Trials, he trained in double and triple layers of clothing, weighing himself like a wrestler after his runs to observe how much fluid he was losing. Bear in mind that in those days, drinking during a race was often seen as a sign of weakness.

Sure enough, Yonkers was hot and humid. Edelen ran 2:24, about ten minutes off his world record. He also won the race by nearly twenty minutes as his closest competitors wilted in the heat.

I’m not going to go so far as to say that heat conditioning assures a medal. (Edelen wound up 6th in Tokyo.) But I think it’s fair to guess that anyone who doesn’t do heat conditioning of some sort will not win a medal.

Now Playing: Polar Bear from Some Friendly by The Charlatans

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Posted by pjm at 10:42 AM | Comments (2)

July 23, 2008

Dorando Pietri, John Hayes, and the Olympic Marathon

The NY Times “Rings” blog has an entry today about the 100th anniversary of the 1908 London Olympic marathon, the one which started at Windsor Castle and established the 26.2-mile standard distance for the marathon. (And you thought it was 26.2 miles from Marathon to Athens.)

I won’t rehash the details of the whole thing, but I will point out that Wayne Baker, mentioned as the advocate for John Hayes at the Dorando Pietri celebrations, may be more familiar to readers of my comments (or of his blog as “Scooter.”)

Now Playing: Trip On Love by Abra Moore

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Posted by pjm at 3:26 PM | Comments (1)

July 22, 2008

1936 on the reading list

I don’t have any illusions about the level of scrutiny the Chinese government is likely to give my visit to Beijing (that is, very little). I’m unlikely to revisit the experience one of my colleagues had, in 1980, of returning to his hotel room to find the KGB searching his suitcase. (He was asked to sit and wait while they finished, if I recall correctly.)

That said, I am trying to figure out what level of care to apply to my laptop, since it seems possible that my hard drive could be scanned, and I’m definitely paying attention to the books I bring. I’ve had some real liberal-thought bombshells suggested to me, but the two paperbacks I know will be in my bag are slightly more subtle; they both deal with the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The parallels between the two Games held by recently-reclusive powers using the Olympics as a coming-out party are not hard to see. (Though apparently the Germans made it more of a party than the Chinese are ready for.) Certainly there are plenty of differences between Germany 1936 and China 2008. But there are plenty of similarities. I’ve picked up Louis Zamperini’s biography (I mentioned him a few days ago) and in Portland the other week, in Powell’s, I picked up a copy of Jeremy Schaap’s book about Jesse Owens, Triumph.

They make a decent case against boycotts, standing together, but they also don’t paint the hosts in a rosy historic light. I’d love to see the PRC make their case for taking them away from me; they’re not directly critical or dangerous to them in any way, only in their oblique implications.

Any similar titles I should be picking up? Note that paperbacks are heavily favored for long plane rides.

Posted by pjm at 8:29 PM | Comments (1)

July 17, 2008

Getting priorities in line

How great is going for a run?

Well, I can leave thinking about proportional reactions to different degrees of crisis, and come back thinking about all the steps I would need to set up an SSH tunnel to an HTTP proxy; in other words, to bypass the Great Firewall of China, if it works.

(I’ll post the steps when I get back… if it works.)

Now Playing: Waiting from Inarticulate Nature Boy by Josh Clayton-Felt

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Posted by pjm at 9:40 AM | Comments (1)

July 15, 2008

Trivia I never got to use

When it looked like Shalane Flanagan might have a shot at winning the 5,000m/10,000m double at the Olympic Trials (and you have to admit not many people would’ve picked Goucher to beat her until it happened—she is the AR holder, after all), I looked up previous winners of the “Woolworth Double” (five and dime—now there’s an obsolete figure of speech.) I never needed to use the research, so why not regurgitate it here?

Women have only been running the 5,000m since 1996, so there have only been four Trials including both distances. (I checked the 3,000m/10,000m doubles, just in case.) No women have done the double.

Only two men have done it: Don Lash in 1936 and Curt Stone in 1952. Lash, who was the world record holder at the time, actually tied in the 5,000m with Louis Zamperini.

Now Playing: Life On the Moon from We Will Become Like Birds by Erin McKeown

Posted by pjm at 3:22 PM | Comments (0)

July 13, 2008

How you use the storage space

At some point in Eugene, I was discussing with a colleague the differing approaches people take to popular culture. (One which came up, since I mentioned Mountains Beyond Mountains, was how Paul Farmer referred to People magazine as the “Journal of Popular Studies”, or JPS.)

At some point I asserted that since I have a head full of professional knowledge for my “real” job, my track-writing sideline occupied all the head space ordinary people filled with pop-culture trivia. I illustrated this by pointing out that I couldn’t name a single American Idol winner, but I could list the last 10 Olympic 10,000m gold medalists.

She then named all the American Idol winners, and I recited:

  • Bekele (Athens)
  • Gebrselassie (Sydney)
  • Gebrselassie (Atlanta)
  • Skah (over Chelimo, disputed) (Barcelona)
  • Ngugi (Seoul)
  • Cova (L.A.)
  • Yifter (Moscow)
  • Viren (Montreal)
  • Viren (Munich)

…and blanked out on Mexico City. But Tokyo ‘64, of course, was Mills; I don’t have Rome or Melbourne, but Helsinki ‘52 and London ‘48, of course, were both Zatopek.

On doing some research, I blew Seoul, because that was Brahim Boutayeb. Ngugi won the 5,000m in Seoul. Mexico City was Naftali Temu of Kenya; Rome was Pyotr Bolotnikov and Melbourne Vladimir Kuts, both Soviets, which probably explains why their heroics were never imprinted on my brain.

(Yes, Now Playing is back—I have my offline editor speaking to my system once again.)

Now Playing: Bob Dylan’s 115th Nightmare by The Gay Blades

Posted by pjm at 10:34 PM | Comments (0)

July 10, 2008

It's all about the backstretch

There was a lot to like about how Eugene hosted the Olympic Trials last week.

Part of it, of course, was the Fan Fest, which was basically a holiday street fair without the carnival rides and with big video screens where people (even, or perhaps especially, people without actual tickets to the stadium) could sit and watch the video feed from the competition. There were plans to give the awards out there, rather than in the stadium, but somehow the logistics of that didn’t work out; the athletes frequently got out there pretty quickly, though. The meet was a sellout, over 20,000 people for each of eight days, but if you were somehow able to count everyone who came in to the Fan Fest, the numbers would be even higher.

What’s more, it gave the meet a different attitude. In Sacramento, when the meet was over, everyone piled into their cars, the lights shut out, and the meet just diffused into the night. In Eugene, when the meet was over, the party was getting started outside the stadium.

Also, I’ve never been to a meet (short of a World Championship) where so many fans stayed to watch every lap of the distance races. Or, for that matter, where the fans watched the discus (qualifying rounds!) and other throwing events so attentively. Eugene has a distance-running aura, and the great U of O teams of the past were built around distance runners, but the fans left no event unloved.

All of which makes the logo they chose more significant. The icon of Hayward Field is the East Stand, a big barnlike structure recognizable to anyone who has been to a meet there or seen one on T.V. But though it was originally Hayward’s main stand, the homestretch is now overlooked by the West Stand, a massive thing with a gigantic cantilevered roof held up by the biggest laminated wood beams I’ve ever seen. The east side was the homestretch once upon a time, but all the pictures you’ve seen of Pre finishing races have the West Stand, the house that Bowerman built, in the background.

So the East Stand has a double resonance. First, of course, it’s what you see from the West Stand, with the Hendricks’ Park ridge in the background. (One of the best stadium backgrounds I’ve ever seen, personally.) Second, well, it’s where the serious fans sit. They can’t see the finish line as well, their seats may be a little cheaper, and the horizontal jump runways are clear across the field from them. But they’re the ones who carry the athletes around the rough part of each lap, the ones the athletes reach first on their victory laps. They’ll put up with the not-so-great seats so they can watch a great meet.

Posted by pjm at 8:15 PM | Comments (0)

July 6, 2008

Half-baked stories

Most of the ideas I’ve thought through while I’ve been here, I’ve tried to articulate on the Runner’s World site. (My favorite example, which I’m still convinced is a valid idea even if I seem to be the only one who gets it, is “Gabe Jennings and the ‘More Magic’ Switch”.) But I still have a bunch I haven’t been able to marinate long enough to write in a way that makes sense.

One is the retirees. On Friday, two different athletes (Ann Gaffigan in the women’s steeple and Kyle King in the men’s 1,500m) came through the mixed zone saying some variation of, “Well, that’s pretty much the end of the line for my career.” It’s jarring and saddening to read, particularly from Gaffigan who won this event in 2004, despite the fact that Nike has practically built a marketing campaign around the “top three or go home” idea. When the faces start getting put to the “go home” people, it stops being a philosophy and starts being people’s lives, sometimes people you feel an odd sort of kinship with, and it’s not quite as cute anymore. But I haven’t been able to spell that out in a readable column yet.

Another is another pass at Gabe Jennings. Why am I so fascinated with his reunion tour, this near-Quixotic quest? That’s exactly the question. In eight years, surely he’s changed, just like I have, just like we all do. He’s gone from being on the young side with the world in front of him to being on the old side of things, without many more chances. And yet he’s willing himself to recreate something from his relatively-distant past; to step in the same river twice, as Heraclitus might have it. That feels like the idea, but I haven’t been able to articulate it in more detail.

Posted by pjm at 3:58 PM | Comments (1)

July 2, 2008

In which I give unsolicited career advice

It may be time for Adam Goucher to become a house-husband.

There’s some curiosity about why Adam dropped out of the men’s 5,000m final with two laps to go on Monday night. The party line is that Goucher and his coach, Alberto Salazar, saw that the race was not going to be won in a time faster than the Olympic “A” standard, which meant that even if Goucher won—and it was clear by then that he wouldn’t—he wasn’t going to Beijing. So Salazar waved Goucher off the track to better save his energy for the 10,000m final on Friday evening.

Now, Goucher may actually have a better shot in the 10. I haven’t studied the start lists, but many of the athletes who should be able to beat him are banged up, already have marathon spots, or are otherwise showing their age. But he has two tasks in the 10, just like he did in the 5, and that’s both to make the top 3 (excluding the marathoners, who aren’t likely to go for the 10 the way Dan Browne did in ‘04) and to get the “A” standard. The second task is likely to be harder, no matter what the field, particularly if nobody else forces the pace and Goucher winds up being the mule for the field. (And I can’t imagine, given what Amby posted today, that anyone’s going to try to set up a Goucher-friendly race other than maybe Rupp or Rohatinsky, and they have priorities of their own.)

The fact is—and I hate to admit this, because he’s a few years younger than me—but Adam Goucher may be a bit old for the track. The dominant East Africans tend to be under 25. (Gebrselassie, a year or so older than me, is struggling to make the Ethiopian team in the 10,000m. Bekele is 23 or 24.) He may have a few years left in the marathon if that’s any good for him—conventional wisdom holds that elite marathoners peak around age 35—but the longer he hangs around, the harder it gets for him to find a race that plays to his strengths. He can’t keep entering the big races and hoping the door will open for him.

It may be time for him to admit that it’s his wife’s turn in the spotlight. (This has nothing to do with the fact that she’s better looking than he is.) There are loads of stories about Russian marathoners whose husbands give up competition and take over the support work, letting their wives train full-time; we inevitably hear the story after the wife has had a major breakthrough at a big international race. (Andrew Kastor might be a U.S. example, except that he was never national-class.)

It’s too bad Adam doesn’t do the cooking.

Posted by pjm at 7:09 PM | Comments (0)

June 28, 2008

The crime of the Trials

There’s been, rightly, a lot of attention focused on Amy Yoder Begley and her last-lap heroics to make the Olympic team in the 10,000m last night. Begley ran what may have been the race of her life.

But her story won’t appear in her home state’s newspaper. The reporter for the Indianapolis Star couldn’t convince his editors to send him to the meet, so he took vacation days and came anyway, on his own dime. Because he’s “on vacation,” the Star apparently can’t run anything he sends. (They are letting him blog, because “what you do with your vacation is your decision,” but no ink, apparently.)

I’ve seen a bunch of things here which I found frustrating or silly, but this one, so far, takes the cake. If Begley hadn’t run well, it wouldn’t have been a big loss, so to some degree the Star was making the “safe” decision. But she did, and now it’s glaringly obvious that they actually dropped the ball.

(I suppose if I was serious about this track writing thing, I would’ve asked about their policy on stringers and offered to file the story myself, but that probably wouldn’t have been fair to the folks who are paying me to work for them here.)

Posted by pjm at 11:21 AM | Comments (1)

June 24, 2008

Justin and Butch

In the breathless pause (or a breathy one: the moment when hundreds of pundits inhale before beginning to speak?) leading up to the clumsily-named U.S. Olympic Team Trials—Track and Field begin this Friday in Eugene, the “news” of the sport is being dominated by the worst sort of story: doping. Justin Gatlin, the disgraced former co-World-Record-holder and Athens 2004 gold medalist, is trying to litigate his way in to the Trials despite being under a doping ban. (As the gold medalist, Gatlin does not need a qualifying mark for the Trials, a commendable loophole in most cases.)

The story brings to mind 1992, when the 400m in New Orleans was shadowed by the eligibility (or not) of then World-Record Holder Butch Reynolds, who took the IAAF to the mat disputing an alleged positive test. (The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and because the IAAF was threatening to ban any athlete who competed against Reynolds, the 400m rounds were delayed four days.) Reynolds won his appeals, but failed to make the team.

Despite the surface similarities, Gatlin’s case is nowhere near as sympathetic at Reynolds’. Butch was fighting a doping positive convinced he was clean. Gatlin is no longer contesting the test which led to the ban he’s currently serving; in essence, he’s given up saying he didn’t do it.

What Gatlin is fighting is his first positive test. Back when he was running in the NCAA, Gatlin got busted for an ADD medication he claims he’d been taking since he was a child, and simply neglected to declare on his doping control forms: a costly but understandable error, the doping equivalent of getting pulled over when your driver’s license was sitting at home. That first positive test came back to haunt Gatlin when he was busted again, in 2006, because it meant the anti-doping agencies came down on him like a ton of bricks. Repeat offenders get bigger sentences.

So Gatlin’s argument goes like this: if it wasn’t for the first positive, the (presumably two-year) ban for the second one would be over by now. So let’s make the first positive go away, end the ban, and let him run. He’s arguing (now, seven or so years after the fact) that the first ban was illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that the second ban should therefore be reduced to a first-offender two years.

If Gatlin is expecting to play a Butch Reynolds-like sympathetic character for the Eugene crowd, he needs to return to reality. Reynolds was, at least from one side of the story, fighting the good fight, and even those who disagreed with him had to admit that it wasn’t very hard to see his side of the story. The legal gymnastics needed to get Gatline to the line, however will leave an even more sour taste than the news, two years ago, that yet another star sprinter had been disgraced. If he makes the team (and, in doing so, displaces another top sprinter) because he exploited the ADA—a law which was not exactly intended to protect professional athletes from rapacious doping testers—Gatlin should expect to be a pariah.

And if his grandstand play delays the 100m, and thereby complicates the efforts of Tyson Gay to qualify in both 100m and 200m, he’ll be a bit more than a pariah.

Posted by pjm at 2:42 PM | Comments (0)

June 15, 2008

Trivial sacrifice wasted

I’ve mentioned, I think, that I tend to pick up loose change when I see it lying around.

I have to remind myself not to do this at inappropriate times. During road races, for example. So this morning, I passed up a quarter (I think—it could’ve been a nickel, but I was moving quickly) and a penny in rapid succession.

In hindsight, I sort of wish I’d picked them up, because then I would have had at least some positive result from the race.

Posted by pjm at 9:54 PM | Comments (0)

June 11, 2008

Chicken? Or egg?

Given this story in today’s New York Times, about racing shoes with rice husks in the outsoles, and reports of rice rationing earlier this year, I have to wonder about the current price of rice. Is the cost of rice driving the cost of racing flats? Or is the increased demand for rice for running shoes driving up the price of rice, a la ethanol and corn?

See, the global economy really does touch everything.

Posted by pjm at 9:04 PM | Comments (0)

Wall-clock

I was standing on the front step, clearing the timer on my wristwatch, when the guy walking on the opposite sidewalk called over, “You don’t need that! You’re too quick!”

Off-balance–he was right, there was no real need for me to time that run–I replied, “It’s more of a habit.”

He said, “I need to find a watch first,” and indicated his bare wrist.

“Most of the time,” I observed, “the kitchen clock will do.”

Posted by pjm at 7:41 PM | Comments (1)

June 4, 2008

Why I think Usain Bolt is clean

I know, I know, nobody wants to hear anything more from me about the 100m World Record. Seeing a 1-in-1000 baseball game and a World Record in one month is bad enough, but I have to rub it in.

What I’m warmed up about today, though, is how quickly the track world went from “Wow, World Record!” to “He can’t possibly be clean.” It’s hard not to be suspicious; after all, of the six men to run faster than 9.84 (Donovan Bailey’s World Record from the ‘96 Olympics), three of them (Ben Johnson, Tim Montgomery, and Justin Gatlin) were busted for doping, and a fourth (Maurice Greene) has been implicated, though so far without confirmation or process. Of the six men who received gold medals for the 4x400m relay in Sydney (two ran in the rounds), four have confessed to some level of doping, enough to lead Michael Johnson, who has not been implicated, to return his medal. Most disturbing is that many of these athletes never failed a doping test; they were caught by other investigations.

So why should anyone think Bolt is clean, aside from the fact that he has never tested positive for anything?

Two things come in to play here: profile and limits. The first is easiest to explain, and I mentioned it a few weeks ago. It’s that there are two kinds of athletes who dope: those who have had success as clean athletes, but go on the juice to extend their careers, as Marion Jones supposedly did. Sometimes this makes their performances spike over the baseline they had established from years running clean, as Tim Montgomery’s did. The other type is the nobody who rides the drugs from obscurity; Ben Johnson fit this profile, as did Kelli White, the former World Champion who confessed everything when the BALCO scandal broke. Usain Bolt is neither of these; he’s only 21, and should be reaching the peak of his speed with no need for juice to keep him going. And he’s not emerging from nowhere; he was a silver medalist in the 200m last year in Osaka, and was winning junior world titles at the age of 15. He’s had a steady progression over six years in the longer event; he’s only a newcomer at the 100m.

The second argument against Bolt being dirty is the idea of limits. Let’s assume for a second that Bailey at 9.84 was clean. (This also happens to be Tyson Gay’s PR, which he has run twice.) Assuming anyone who runs faster than that “must be” doping means assuming (a) that Bailey ran a perfect race in Atlanta (which Gay and Canada’s Bruny Surin managed to duplicate on three other, later occasions), and (b) that Bailey, Gay and Surin represent the optimal body type and running style for the 100m, which cannot be improved upon.

These two assertions are absurd on their face. There’s always room for small improvements; nobody has yet run the perfect race over 100m. I haven’t studied Bailey’s Atlanta race, but I’m guessing his start was slightly flawed, maybe he had a stride off early in the race, who knows. Maybe his competition could have pushed him just a bit more, mentally. Any one of those factors could have improved him a little bit. Add that to the startling physical differences between the compact, muscular Bailey and the towering, rangy Bolt, and I have no trouble imagining that physical differences, and the different mechanical approach to the race which those dictate, could account for a difference of twelve hundredths of a second.

Do you know how little twelve hundredths of a second is? Try starting a stopwatch and stopping it again that fast. It’s such a tiny difference, much less than one of Bolt’s long strides. I can’t look at Bailey ‘96 vs. Bolt ‘08 and insist that the only possible reason for that microscopic difference is pharmaceutical.

It’s one of the tragedies of performance-enhancing drugs that it’s impossible to prove someone didn’t take them, only (sometimes) when someone did. For the time being, however, I prefer to assume Bolt didn’t.

Posted by pjm at 7:57 PM | Comments (0)

June 2, 2008

No prophet

I guess I should also add that while I expected Bolt vs. Gay to be a very fast race, I wouldn’t have predicted a world record—nor, for that matter, was I expecting Bolt to win, though in hindsight I should have.

I’m now hoping Gay’s defeat will make him less of a favorite to win in Beijing, opening my way to another 100m pool victory.

Posted by pjm at 1:31 PM | Comments (0)

A few more words about Bolt et al

I was in no condition to be writing when I filed my meet report early on Sunday morning (and the 3+ hour drive home was still waiting for me,) so I’m not terribly pleased with its quality.

I’m a little happier with today’s analysis, written after a few hours of sleep and incorporating quotes from a Thursday pre-meet press conference as well as the post-race face-time. And yet I still didn’t get all the ideas that were raised into print.

One of them, mentioned a few times over the weekend, was Bolt’s height. He’s 6’5”, extraordinarily tall for a sprinter, a fact Jere Longman of the Times noted at the meet (when the field is down in the blocks, Bolt’s legs are so long his butt sticks up significantly higher than anyone else’s, making him easy to pick out from beyond the finish line.) Longman’s article said, “Where shorter runners seem to explode out of the blocks, he seems to unfold.”

This is generally considered a disadvantage among sprinters, but Tyson Gay displayed his own scholarship of his event by saying, “Times change. Back in the day, there were some tall sprinters: [Linford] Christie, Carl [Lewis], they were tall. Then there was the Maurice Greene era, Jon Drummond, they were shorter. Now Bolt’s a lot taller.” Just a cycle, according to Gay, and maybe it has just been a matter, as Bolt’s coach seems to think, of figuring out the best way to get those long legs out of the blocks efficiently.

Posted by pjm at 1:06 PM | Comments (0)

June 1, 2008

All comers

In recent years, as world records have become harder to come by (and American records even harder) there’s been increased interest among the record-promoting community in all-comers records. In as much as I consider records an exciting part of the sport, I like the idea of all-comers records, but I have issues with the way they’re sometimes presented.

The concept is pretty simple, if hard to explain. A world record is the best mark in the world for a given event under a given set of rules. (This is why world records in the javelin had to be rewritten a decade or so ago when the weight of the spear was changed.) There’s a sort of implicit additional idea that the record must be set on Earth, that there might be some superset of interplanetary or universal records. In the other direction, there are continental (or area) records, and national records. (Look at the list of records Roger Bannister set in one race.)

These get complicated because they are tracked two ways, by citizenship or by venue. An American record is a national record; it could be set anywhere in the world, and the criteria is that it is set by a citizen of the USA. A U.S. all-comers record, however, may be set by anyone; the criteria is that it be run within the borders of the country. (There are Area records—Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, etc.—kept the same way.)

The problem I have is that announcers so often wax lyrical about the “fastest time on American soil!” Oh, come on. There’s no soil out there; it’s a few centimeters of synthetic fabric. A media rep I talked to last night agreed, but further noted that only track geeks understand the label, “all-comers record.”

“Why not just say, ‘Fastest time ever run in the US’?” she asked.

I happen to like the evocativeness of the phrase “all comers,” with its expansive implications beyond just the dry word “record,” but when it comes to using a definite phrase, why not?

Posted by pjm at 3:45 PM | Comments (1)

Usain Bolt 9.72

I’m not generally one to get all fired up about sprinters, but in recent years I’ve forced myself to take a professional interest. Which is why I was actually paying attention to witness my first 100m world record.

I asked one longtime track writer (also a former Olympian, as it happens, not that he would tell you) who was in the mixed zone with me when the record had last been set in the U.S. I answered my own question: Donovan Bailey at the ‘96 Olympics in Atlanta. He observed that he’d actually seen the record broken twice previously on that very site: once by Leroy Burrell in 1991, and once (“that might have been 110 yards”) in 1962.

Posted by pjm at 11:48 AM | Comments (0)

May 30, 2008

Sponsorships, prize money, and appearance money

“Appearance fees” are a favorite bete noir of Toni Reavis, a well-known television commentator for road races. Toni’s theory is based on the “athletics would be more popular if the top pros were earning millions” theory I’ve discussed here, and postulates that because appearance fees, which are not public, make up such a large fraction of a top athlete’s income, they hold down (public) prize money, and thereby hold back the marketing of those athletes as high-earning pros.

I tend to agree with Toni on this score, but I think the situation is more complicated than this formula suggests, and for a few minutes I’d like to prick holes in it in the name of strengthening our ideas of what needs to improve in terms of marketing our athletes as professionals.

First, the basics: track athletes have three major income streams. Sponsorship contracts (which generally have a large performance-based component), appearance money (how much event organizers will pay them just to show up), and prize money. Athletes in the big team sports, as I’ve discussed before, also have the sponsorship contracts, though they’re not as large a part of their income; their largest income stream is their team, and that should be compared to the appearance money, because like appearance money, they get it whether they win or lose.

In the team sports, however, both parts of the income stream are relatively public and transparent. Fans know what kind of income the players are getting from the teams, and they don’t know, in general how much more or less the players earn if they win or lose. And the interesting part, to me, because it means that for the team sports, at least, how much the athletes are earning has little or nothing to do with how interested they are in the game.

Is it possible that by focusing on the money, we’re selling short the inherent excitement of the competition, the thing that made us all fall in love with the sport in the first place (assuming, of course, that you’re one of my readers who’s a track fan)?

So here’s my thought experiment. Instead of following Toni’s proposal and doing away with appearance money, let’s do away with prize money. Make it all appearance money, and put it on the table. Maybe a consortium (call them a “circuit”) of five or six races—a marathon and three or four lesser distances—puts together half a million dollars to get a commitment from Catherine Ndereba for all the races. If she runs well, they pony up again next year. Repeat for thirty or forty more pro athletes at all levels of the pay scale to build fields. Maybe you build some performance bonuses into the contract, but it’s not strict race-by-race “prize money.” The fans know they’re seeing expensive pro athletes. The athletes have both a predictable income for up days and down days—but also an incentive to perform to the best of their ability, because those who slack off won’t be invited back.

One advantage to this system is that it’s compatible with the existing system. A few road races could pursue this model while still being able to compete for the best athletes; alternative compensation models already exist in the system, like Wisconsin’s Bellin Run (no appearance money.) It’s not too far from the Japanese corporate model, except that it is postulated on the money coming from the races, not from sponsors.

That leads me to the two drawbacks of the system. One is track meets: too many events, too many athletes, and not all of them merit the same price tag. Certainly football linemen don’t make the same cash as star quarterbacks, but how do you balance discus throwers against hurdlers? Men against women? Making those distinctions public (because they’re already being made in private, in the athletes’ sponsorship contracts) might open a can of inequality worms.

And finally, where does the money come from? Would the current pool of prize money and appearance money be enough to fund an announced-appearance model? Do meets or races have enough revenue to make this work?

But before we follow a path of abolishing appearance money, maybe we should spend a little more time considering the opposite course: putting it on the table and taking away the prize money.

Posted by pjm at 9:35 AM | Comments (0)

May 29, 2008

Speed merchants in New York

I have a preview up today of the weekend’s entertainment. Insert the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth over preview writing; I’ve already discovered one factual inaccuracy (a start-list change which happened after I filed), but it’s relatively minor and my evolving view of how to write these things now understands that by Sunday morning, nobody will care.

And now you know where to find me on Saturday evening: trading elbows with the Jamaican and Chinese press.

Posted by pjm at 8:31 PM | Comments (0)

May 22, 2008

Sprint matchup of the spring

There is a lot of justified anticipation surrounding the Tyson Gay vs. Usain Bolt (plus six other sprinters anxious to pull off an upset) 100m race in New York next week.

However, as of Monday evening I find myself wondering how Jacoby Ellsbury would stack up. Granted, 100m is about three times longer than Ellsbury is used to running without needing to turn a corner, but imagine what starting blocks—and not needing to slide into the finish line—could do for him! Maybe a 60m during the indoor season next spring? Boston Indoor Games?

Jon Drummond, meet Terry Francona. USATF, let’s get on this.

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May 18, 2008

Return on investment

I was trying to imagine a run with a better return than the Rabbit Run, and I wasn’t really coming up with anything, even the prize pie table at the Close to the Coast 10K in Freeport. (That would be the “…and a bat” race.) The first time I ran, the prize bag included a liter bottle (square, and glass) of Quabbin maple syrup. This year, among other pieces, they contained custom mugs from Golden Egg Farm (“poultry and pottery”) with rabbits on them.

I ran faster this year, though not by a whole lot, and placed about where I could reasonably expect to place, so I was generally pleased. But the prize bag is definitely worth more than the entry fee ($20). Also in the bags were pounds of coffee from Dean’s Beans, orange cranberry bread from New Salem Tea Bread, and more bread, jam, and maple syrup from other sponsors without websites.

And with 28 finishers and 11 prize winners (at least one age group prize went unclaimed), the odds of going home with one of those bags were pretty good.

Of course, in order to play those odds, you had to climb a hill, making up most of the fifth mile, fondly known as “Horse Break Hill,” which slowed the winner (who averaged 5:41 per mile) to 7:00 pace. So maybe “cherry picking” isn’t really the word.

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May 15, 2008

The Runners' Cookbook

[Cover Image: The Runner's Cookbook]

I doubt there are more than three people reading this who aren’t already aware that The Runner’s Cookbook was published last weekend. (I’ve placed the apostrophe differently in the title of this post for reasons which will become apparent.)

I’ve been a reluctant and grumpy consultant to this whole process, as A discovered that nine years of working in the publishing industry does not mean that I can provide an intelligent explanation of things like “bleed.” Mostly I tried to stay well out of the way. She’d been looking forward to the publishing date with the idea that once the book was produced and published, the work would be over, but instead the past week has been a whirlwind of email (to be expected when you send email to nearly everyone you know), a few telephone interviews, and all sorts of unanticipated questions. (This is not unlike her discovery that collecting all the recipes, which involved contacting about 250 top-level runners, was not in fact the hard part of the production process.)

How, for example, do you make the book available at running stores, who (a) don’t generally order books through “normal” channels (if everything goes well, the book will be available on Amazon one of these days, but running stores tend not to have accounts with Ingram), (b) want to buy the books at a discount (with the printer taking a fixed amount from every sale, whose share does that discount come from?) and/or (c) even while meaning well, can’t close the gap in knowledge between what A knows and what they know about how this could work?

I told her the other day that like any course you’d take in college, she’s learned some things through the process, but she’s also learned a slew of other things she never knew she didn’t know, and might not have wanted to bother with if she had.

Posted by pjm at 7:34 PM | Comments (0)

April 25, 2008

Packed racing schedule

There are four road races in Amherst over the nine days starting tomorrow. Three of them are fund-raising 5Ks at UMass.

There are maybe two other races in Amherst over the course of the rest of the year. Why can’t they spread them out more? They’d get more runners at all four races, and everyone would raise more money.

On the other hand, this makes finding a race to fit one’s schedule quite easy.

Now Playing: Tristesse from El Momento Descuidado by The Church

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Marathon Trials on TV

The kind of work I do at most running events can’t really be watched in real time. However, my work from this past Sunday morning can probably be picked out decently well in a TV show airing this Sunday at noon.

MSNBC is running a series, every Sunday from now until August, on the Olympic Trials. More specifically, every Sunday at noon, they’re doing a one-hour show on some sport selecting its Olympic team. The first show, this week, will be the women’s marathon trials, with Ed Eyestone and Al Trautwig. The hour is cut down from the nearly-three-hour live webcast they did during the Trials, with the possible exception of some voice-overs added after the fact. During that race, David Monti of Race Results Weekly was sitting in front of Ed and Al, patched in to a conference call with me, and the two of us were feeding them all kinds of data on the race.

So every time you hear a mile split—that came from our team. Every time they discuss the gaps between the leaders—that came from the spotters. Almost every time you see a cyclist with a headset on (if they don’t get cut out), he’s talking to me. (I had the easy job, as you can see.) I didn’t feel like I did any better than in any of the previous years of doing this, but for some reason this year the team clicked more than it ever had before, and I’m really proud of what we contributed.

The race was pretty good, too. I’m concerned about how it will play on one-hour highlights; marathons are really more exciting when you watch the whole thing, gun to tape. But if you didn’t see it last Sunday, spare an hour this Sunday.

Now Playing: Don’t Get Your Back Up from You Were Here by Sarah Harmer

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April 21, 2008

Weekend's work

Minus: Even though the finger generally feels better (a development curiously coinciding almost perfectly with the end of my supply of prescription-grade pain pills) it still hurts to type lots, so I can’t broadcast all the good stuff of this weekend. (I did get one story out yesterday with another coming from today. Pain enforced a somewhat more spare style than usual. I hear that worked for Chekhov, too.)

Plus: Not much time to write, anyway.

Posted by pjm at 9:46 PM | Comments (0)

April 19, 2008

Subject matter problems

I would write more about my finger, but (a) pretty near all the fingers on my right hand (or at least, all but the thumb and the pinky) hurt when I type. The ring finger doesn’t even have a good reason. And (b) I feel like I should have some kind of warning before going in to the gory details. (We took a picture which will probably never go online.)

Plus, I spend all my time either meeting people here for the Marathon (by the way, I’m in Boston along with the rest of the running world) or calling people to arrange to meet them. Tomorrow, actual marathons will be committed, and about time.

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April 18, 2008

Bostonian's guide to the Olympic Marathon Trials

I meant to write a long post for Boston folks about the Olympic Trials marathon on Sunday. But my fingers hurt quite a lot. So here’s the roundup.

  • Two marathons this year. Trials on Sunday. Usual BAA marathon (the crowds) on Monday.
  • Top three in the Trials run for the USA at the Olympics this summer. Everyone else goes home. Simple and easy.
  • Local interest: Kate O’Neill, with a good chance of making the team, is from Milton. Several others are local; look for the blue BAA uniforms, among other local teams.
  • Best places to watch: Memorial Drive in Cambridge (fewer crowds, two or three passes per lap); between Boyleston and Comm Ave in Back Bay (close to the start and finish). (Check the map.)
  • T stops: Kendall for the Memorial Drive spots; Park Street and the Boyleston Green Line stops for the Boston side. Back Bay on the Orange Line is close to the finish as well.
  • Everyone ran faster than 2:47 to qualify, and nearly everyone should finish under 3:20 or so.
  • Watch for Joanie.

Avoiding the race? Avoid Memorial Drive, Mass Ave, and Back Bay. Storrow should be as good as it ever is, whatever that means.

You’re not going to see Olympians decided this close to Boston again soon; the track Trials for ‘08 and ‘12 are in Eugene, Oregon. This is really a big deal. Get out and watch Sunday morning.

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April 17, 2008

I run because I'm lazy

“Is it normal for your pulse to be so low?” asked the ER nurse.

I’m a runner, so of course the answer is “yes,” but I wanted to hear the number, so I said, “Maybe, what is it?”

The answer was 46, which isn’t actually all that low for me. 42 is in the realm of normal; I’ve seen 36 before. (46 is about three beats to four seconds.)

I look at it this way. If you average 60 bpm (not unusual) for a day, that’s 86,400 heartbeats in a day.

If I spend an hour at 140 bpm and the rest of the day at 42, that’s 66,360 heartbeats in a day—over a 20% reduction. I get a day’s worth of spare heartbeats every week. See? I work hard because I’m lazy.

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April 15, 2008

The experts pick Kastor

The “expert picks” article I mentioned a few days ago is out now, and it appears that pretty much everyone agreed that Deena Kastor is the overwhelming favorite (only one out of 31 of us didn’t pick her to win). There was near-unanimity, as well, that Blake Russell, Elva Dryer, and Kate O’Neill were the three strongest contenders for the other two spots. After that, consensus fell off rapidly.

That thirty-first person who picked someone other than Deena for the win isn’t as crazy as they may sound. Our best marathoners in Athens were not the ones who won the Trials; Kastor was 2nd in St. Louis. Weird things happen at the Trials, and there’s seldom such thing as a sure thing in a marathon. That said, picking Deena to win isn’t so much an expression of confidence in her victory as it is a lack of other options: if not Deena, who? And what makes us think she isn’t going to be in good shape?

Now Playing: Trip On Love by Abra Moore

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April 13, 2008

Who dopes, and why

Eddie asked in a comment, why do sprinters and throwers get busted for doping more often than distance runners? Do they dope less, or just get caught less?

I’d say, “both.” First, the payoff from most doping agents is greater in the speed and power events than in the endurance events. This is a fancy way of saying that the limiting factor of how far you can throw a little iron ball is how strong you are, and the limiting factor of how quickly you can cover 100m is how fast you are (both top-end speed and acceleration) and both of those limiting factors can be directly affected by things like anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, and/or testosterone. Distance running is limited by so many different factors, from subtleties in physiology to simple matters of how quickly you can transfer oxygen from the air to your muscles, that doping offers fewer clear payoffs.

Second, because of the complications of doping for endurance, it’s harder to detect the performance-enhancing agents. Most of the ones that address endurance directly simply mimic the effects of being well-trained; some athletes use the strength/power agents (steroids) to allow them to train harder and recover faster, arriving at competitions free of the direct signs of doping but carrying the benefits of pharmaceutically-enhanced training. This is why out-of-competition random testing was created, but it probably makes the potential downside (the odds of getting caught) lesser for distance runners.

(The former East German sports complex supposedly used steroids this way, and 1976-1980 marathon gold medalist Waldemar Cierpinski supposedly appears on their doping records. However, the IOC has been less willing to pursue and redistribute the medals won through the wholesale abuse of the G.D.R. than they have been those won by Marion Jones.)

Most of the performance-enhancing substances used by distance runners, such as EPO (on the rise since the ’90s) and blood doping (favored in the ’70s and ’80s) are essentially taking existing biology and making it more so. EPO, for example, is made to treat cancer patients whose red blood cells have been decimated by chemotherapy; in a healthy athlete, it allows the blood to carry more oxygen. Cycling has been plagued by these agents because, oddly enough, the bicycle itself is a leveling agent, a mechanical means to erase the mechanical differences which would make one runner more efficient than another one with the same oxygen-transfer capabilities. There are new blood tests for EPO, but it’s still tough, and the testing is supposedly still lagging behind the alleged abusers.

But I think the first factor is the more important one, because the fact that doping agents aren’t as direct in distance running means that the general state of competition isn’t as distorted by them even if they are used pervasively as it is in the speed and power events (or cycling).

Which brings us to “why.” The classical profile of a doping athlete goes in two bins: the mediocre performer who suddenly breaks through with fantastic performances (e.g. Tim Montgomery,) or the longtime top performer who uses doping to extend their career (e.g. Maurice Greene, allegedly, or Regina Jacobs.)

Laurel points out a relevant Scientific American article (via 3 Quarks) which applies game theory to doping, mostly in cycling. The premise is that as long as they payoff for doping is high and the penalties relatively low, it will be pervasive, but that federations have the power (with some bold steps) to change the game between dirty and clean such that avoiding performance-enhancing substances is the smart choice. This means making the penalties draconian (which requires bulletproof testing, unfortunately) and making it easier for athletes to believe they can compete without doping. (Read the article for a better explanation of these suggestions.) These are things track (and particularly distance running) is doing much better than cycling, but for all the reasons already discussed, the game theory tips much less in favor of the dirty athlete in endurance events.

Now Playing: The Wake-Up Bomb from New Adventures In Hi-Fi by R.E.M.

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Ryan Hall, London, and Beijing

Before I get too far along on the bad news, some better news.

For those who haven’t already read about this elsewhere, Ryan Hall, who won the men’s Olympic Marathon Trials last fall in New York City, was fifth today in London in a swift 2:06:17. This is (obviously) a PR for Hall, the best American male finish in London in ages (Deena Kastor won there in ‘06) and also happens to be the third-fastest marathon ever run by an American. The two faster marks, a 2:05:38 and 2:05:56, are both from Khalid Khannouchi, and the first, the standing American Record, was also a World Record at the time, and was the London CR until a minute or so before Hall finished.

This is good news, of course. Assuming Hall recovers well from this and is in similar condition come August, we can say something of him which we haven’t been able to say of American Olympic marathoners since the days of Shorter, Salazar, and Rodgers: he’s capable of running whatever pace is necessary to win the gold. Odds are excellent that all three medals will go much slower than 2:06; the Olympic Record is only 2:09:21, and Hall has yet to run that slowly in three marathons. So anyone can say with good reason, “A healthy Ryan Hall is a medal contender in the marathon.” There’s no US partisanship needed.

Saying Hall’s anything more than a medal contender, however, is a little tougher. 2:06:17 won’t scare the Kenyans, or many of the Ethiopians—but it will get their respect. There were four very good marathoners in front of Hall this morning in London, one of them a proven championship runner, and at least two (if not all four) of them will likely be in Beijing. (The question mark is the Kenyan team; the Kenyan federation has provided few signs of how they’ll select their Olympic trio.) Haile is still active, too, if he is convinced to run.

Here’s what Hall has proved, and I hope he and his coach take this approach going in to the Games: he has the wheels to put himself in medal contention. Once he’s there, it doesn’t matter where he finished in London or who holds the world record; it’s a foot race. And as Kara Goucher proved in Osaka, sometimes being there to grab the opportunity when it presents itself is the important part. There’s an element of luck in winning an Olympic medal, but there’s a very large element of hard work and talent in being able to seize that luck when it’s going your way, and that’s what Hall showed in London.

Now Playing: Take You To The Moon from Why The Long Face by Big Country

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April 12, 2008

Suckered again?

Last month, I wrote:

Now that he’s retired, Greene has locked up a position as the fastest guy who’s never been busted, and that means something; the only retired sprinter with comparable credibility is Carl Lewis. Unlike some of his predecessors … Greene didn’t get caught in some bizarre late-career trying-to-hang-on doping. He was never implicated in the BALCO mess. … This doesn’t mean Greene was clean, but unlike many cynics, I’m willing to give him the benefit of belief; I do think people can run that fast without doping, and I don’t have reason to believe that Greene didn’t.

That should teach me. According to today’s NYT:

Among his clients, [the supplier] identified 12 Olympic medalists who had won a combined 26 Olympic medals and 21 world championships. … Eight of the 12 — notably, the sprinter Maurice Greene — have never been previously linked to performance-enhancing drugs.

The Times is careful to note that “The documents … are not definitive proof that any of these athletes took performance-enhancing drugs” but it’s clear that things are going to get uncomfortable for Mr. Greene and several others over the next few months.

And for someone as cynical as I am about so many things (I once told a financial planner to base a retirement plan for me on the assumption that I would receive no Social Security income) it’s becoming harder and harder for me to presume innocence on the part of any modern sprinter. The dealer in question defends himself with the same old canard about how “everyone else is doping, you have to do it to stay at the top,” an idea I’ve been dismissive of in the past. I may need to reconsider my position on that one, too.

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April 10, 2008

Picking the Trials

If you haven’t been reading the running news sites lately, you might not be aware that it’s only ten days until the “2008 Olympic Team Trials—Women’s Marathon”, the stumblingly inelegant name forced on an event most of us just call the Women’s Marathon Trials. Earlier this week, I was asked to come up with my picks for the top five, a similar survey to the one I missed for the men, and it took a bit of thinking.

Like the men’s Trials in November, the women’s Trials will precede by a day a major international marathon, in this case, the venerable and historic Boston. I suspect much of Boston is still unaware of this fact, so here’s the quick summary: there’s another marathon this year, on Sunday the 20th, on a different course downtown, and the first three women will go to the Olympics. So it’s a Big Deal.

Unlike the men’s Trials, where we selected a pretty astounding team even though none of the ‘04 trio—including the Athens silver medalist—made it, the women’s field is not terribly deep. Of the ‘04 team, only Deena Kastor is even running; Jen Rhines has decided, with some justification, that the marathon isn’t for her, and Colleen De Reuck pulled out earlier this week, citing lack of fitness. (At 43, De Reuck can be excused for not bouncing back from having her second child as she did from her first, and after a career like hers, it’s also understandable that she wouldn’t want to race a hard marathon unless she felt she could compete for a spot on the team.)

Even after that, there are missing names. Kate McGregor, one of the top 10,000m runners in recent years, has opted out of the marathon trials, following similar reasoning to Rhines’. Marla Runyan, a U.S. champion in 2006, and an Olympian twice already (at 1,500m in 2000 and 5,000m in 2004) has been plagued by injuries and also won’t compete.

Kastor is still one of the world’s best, but the hole behind her in the U.S. list is yawning.

This is not to say there aren’t good marathoners in there. Elva Dryer and Kate O’Neill have both had credible runs at Majors marathons in 2007, and Blake Russell, who was 4th in ‘04 and essentially made the race that day in St. Louis, is both tough and determined. Magdalena Lewy Boulet, who was 5th in ‘04, is also back.

But none of these women are the kind of reliable international competitor that Kastor (or, for that matter, Ryan Hall and Dathan Ritzenhein, the first two at the men’s Trials) is. There’s still a lot of room for a dedicated outsider, like Jenny Spangler in ‘96 or Christine Clark in ‘00, to show up and steal a spot on the team. This should actually make things more exciting; not only does it promise surprises, it puts pressure on the pros to settle the team spots early, which is extraordinarily difficult to do.

It’s also possible that one of these women will make the Trials their stage to make the step up to international class, the way Hall did last November in Central Park.

It’s also worth noting that Emily LeVan, who could reasonably be expected to get a top-20 finish at the Trials, is still over $7000 away from her goal at twotrials.org. One hopes that marathon hasn’t hit the wall.

More on the Trials next week, no doubt…

Now Playing: Slowly Sinking by Leeroy Stagger

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April 3, 2008

Not in Central Park

Over the last few years I’ve mentioned to several people how great it would be to have the World Cross Country Championships in Central Park in New York City. There’s a sort of knee-jerk reaction among the New York running crowd that hears “cross country” and immediately thinks “Van Cortlandt Park,” but if you’re going to bring the world’s most competitive non-marathon distance race to New York, why stick it out in the Bronx? Put it on center stage!

I’m not sure if Mary Wittenberg is one of the people I’ve nagged with this idea (I can’t imagine that I would’ve missed the chance) but it looks like she’s actually run the numbers on the idea and, for the time being, ruled it out, according to this story by my Osaka press-tribune neighbor, Doug Gillon:

“We’d love to do it ourselves, and have looked at Central Park and Meadowlands Race Course New Jersey, where it was held in 1984 but unlike other New York Marathon events, we don’t own the TV rights or title sponsorship. Without concessions we’d be looking at quite a healthy bill, perhaps more then $3m. So right now we’re not planning to bid…”

So I suppose I’ll have to move that idea from the “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” pile to the “It would be cool if it was possible” pile.

Now Playing: Relative Surplus Value from Reunion Tour by The Weakerthans

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March 29, 2008

A starting point

I have 39:56 on my watch. The official results have me at 40:02. I saw the clock at 39:57 as I finished. I like to think I was under 40, thank you. Maybe, like Beach to Beacon last year, which I ran in almost exactly the same time, it’s a chip-time/gun-time discrepancy.

And now I’ve done the biggest race in Western Massachusetts. It’s not too bad, if you ignore the hundreds of people who have no idea that if you’re going to run 8:00 pace, you have no business being in the first three rows at the start.

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March 19, 2008

I got my entry in

Something reminded me, Saturday evening, to put in my registration for Beach to Beacon, since it had opened registration (online only) that morning. When I registered, they said they had 950 spots left (of 5,500) as of 6 PM, 12 hours after registration opened. By 8 AM on Sunday, apparently, they were full and closed. (N.B. you can still get an entry if you’re willing to raise money for one of several associated race beneficiaries.)

I’ve run B2B four times that I can think of, including the first two (‘98 and ‘99). I’ve generally managed a pretty good start position, appropriate to my pace, and consequently the numbers haven’t bothered me. (In ‘98 I had an elite number, for reasons which were never made entirely clear to me.) I like the course and I think it’s possible to run a good time there if you’re well trained, the conditions are good (not the muggy humidity we had last year) and you’re smart about how you distribute your effort.

I also just filled out entry forms for two nearby races in coming weeks. One of them has a $25 early-entry fee which expires by mail on Friday. Online, it lasts into next week, but online you pay a $3 fee, which to me says, “We don’t really want you to enter online.” The second race costs $10 pre-race, $15 race-day, and has no online entry.

B2B is expensive, but there’s no extra charge for online entry—in fact, it’s online-only for the first time this year, so there’s only one way to enter, in advance and online. The point of having different fees is to steer runners to the route you want them to use. If races want runners to sign up online, they shouldn’t charge extra for the convenience. If they can’t afford the fees charged by services like Active.com, they should use another service… or not offer online registration.

Now Playing: This Dreadful Life from Cherry Marmalade by Kay Hanley

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March 17, 2008

Ever Greene

I implied but never really detailed my hour or so (in two half-hour sessions) with Maurice Greene in Valencia. Greene, who was the dominant 100m sprinter from ‘97 to ‘02 or so (and still won the ‘04 U.S. Olympic Trials and a bronze medal in Athens) announced his retirement earlier this year, and is now part of the IAAF’s “Ambassadors” program.

Greene was always as fast with his mouth as with his feet (among other stunts, he stripped off his spikes within seconds of crossing a finish line in first place, then doused them with a fire extinguisher) and it’s hard to imagine him building a successful career as, say, a rocket scientist.

But I discovered in Valencia something I probably could have figured out if I’d been paying attention: Greene knows and loves his sport, and is capable of communicating that enthusiasm in a relatively articulate manner. And while I won’t count on being invited over to see his gold medals, I thought we got along pretty well for two people of similar ages with practically nothing but this sport in common.

In other words, he’s a great ambassador. I suppose, having met his training partner Ato Boldon in Boston this winter, that I shouldn’t be surprised; Boldon himself, who picked up one of the minor medals in the slipstream of Michael Johnson’s Beamonesque 200m in Atlanta, is among the nicest guys you’d ever want to watch a track meet with.

The more I think about him, though, the more I want to know. Now that he’s retired, Greene has locked up a position as the fastest guy who’s never been busted, and that means something; the only retired sprinter with comparable credibility is Carl Lewis. Unlike some of his predecessors (e.g. Dennis Mitchell or Linford Christie) Greene didn’t get caught in some bizarre late-career trying-to-hang-on doping. He was never implicated in the BALCO mess. And some of his aspiring successors (e.g. Tim Montgomery or Justin Gatlin) went down in flames before they could even reach Greene’s longevity in the sport. This doesn’t mean Greene was clean, but unlike many cynics, I’m willing to give him the benefit of belief; I do think people can run that fast without doping, and I don’t have reason to believe that Greene didn’t.

But what a position he must have been in! People he knew, people he trained with, went down the doping path and got busted. He must have stood in the same position they did, at some point, and made the choice between (let’s be dramatic for a second) the dark side and the light side. He must have looked down that dark path, at least, and seen it from a perspective most of us haven’t. I’d love to hear what he has to say about that, among other things.

Now Playing: Everything Must Go from Left and Leaving by The Weakerthans

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March 10, 2008

A lost opportunity

Someone was leaving a good chunk of cash on the table at the World Indoor Championships. I went out on Sunday to try to find some kind of souvenir concession—t-shirts, hats, whatever. At the big meets I’ve attended in Japan in ‘06 and ‘07, Mizuno (an IAAF sponsor) had at least a tent at the venue with shirts; in Osaka, they had rented an entire store near the stadium which was full of gear. (And I dropped some cash there.)

In Valencia? Nothing. Mizuno had a tent, but it was just Mizuno gear, nothing event-specific. I don’t know if it should’ve been the LOC (which is international athletics jargon for the Local Organizing Committee, the hosts of the event,) the IAAF themselves via the LOC, or Mizuno (or even the Spanish federation,) but somebody could have picked up a few thousand euros selling shirts. The only things I saw with the event logo were the volunteers’ jackets and the backpacks handed out to the press.

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March 5, 2008

Running in the river

This morning I ran in the Jardines de Turia, a long park about 150m-200m wide which runs in a broad arc around the historic center of Valencia. It’s a pretty decent place for a run; I had expected the park to end, eventually, or to be constantly stopping to wait for lights at major road crossings. Instead I found paths which apparently run somewhat more than five miles (I didn’t reach the end) and largely pass under bridges at major roads. In fact, the whole thing was, oddly, ten or twenty feet below the rest of the city. A minor stream ran along the park, but it’s a domesticated thing with pools and, I imagined, pumps somewhere to keep it flowing.

I saw quite a few runners down there, many apparently running with groups. (I also spotted a few Kenyans in town for the meet, so I knew I was in the right place.) It’s mainly concrete paths, but there are some dirt paths of the sort which have been hammered into stone by the tread of however many hundreds opted to avoid the too-hard concrete. (In other words, not much improvement.)

I discovered later that the park was, in fact, the old bed of the River Turia, and that the river had been rerouted to the south of the city after a catastrophic 1957 flood and turned into a massive park, not unlike if Boston drained the Charles from, say, Watertown to the sea and turned it into a park (though narrower, I suspect.)

One of these days I plan to run over to the port where the America’s Cup bases are (with the Swiss winning again last year, the expectation is that the next Cup will be held here as well, so the bases haven’t been dismantled—though the shop at the Alinghi base was running a 60% off sale when I walked there yesterday.) My hotel is as far as they get from the meet venue, but as close to the sea as any of the official meet hotels, so I’m happy to ride a bus back and forth. You can enter the beach there, which also goes for miles, but today the wind was brisk enough that I might have been sandblasted had I tried to run there.

Now Playing: Singing In My Sleep from Feeling Strangely Fine by Semisonic

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March 1, 2008

Supply and demand

There’s a long-standing theory that athletics (aka “track and field”) would be more popular as a spectator sport if its athletes earned the same sort of staggering sums common among international football players (for nearly all varieties of “football”,) basketball players, baseball players, etc.

It’s a theory with some contradictions, particularly given the fascinated disgust with which fans sometimes view the top end of the salary scale for the team-sport pros. The undeniable upside is that we associate high monetary values with importance; if we value these athletes highly, along with their training and performance, people will pay more attention to them.

So why don’t we? I’ve talked about how professional runners get paid here before, and even how small our bonuses are. The problem is in supply and demand.

Let’s assume the supply of athletes is pretty much constant across sports. (It is: you can always go down the talent scale and find enough to meet demand. It’s only when you set specific standards for performance that supply fluctuates, and as the Boston Marathon experience proves, setting minimum standards will create an incentive for many athletes to raise their performance level to meet that standard.) In running, we always talk about supply, though: how many men ran marathons under 2:08 or 2:10 in a given year, how many women ran under 2:30, etc.

That’s because running goes all weird on the other side of the scale: demand. The reason professional team-sports athletes get paid as much as they do is because there is competition between teams for their services. Johnny Damon isn’t getting paid as much as he is because the Yankees are seeing that kind of value from his playing; he’s getting paid as much as he is because the Yankees were willing to offer more than the Red Sox.

There’s no analog to this in athletics. It is true that some top marathoners (Olympic gold medalists, world record setters, previous Majors winners) can benefit from competition among the major marathons, but if anything this situation where demand exceeds limited supply and produces monetary reward for some athletes highlights the problem; if there were more athletes running at that level, demand would not necessarily increase, and the same pot of money would be spread between more athletes.

How do we solve that problem? I can think of two other sports with rich athletes and no teams: golf and tennis. We can probably drop golf, because golf is awash in sponsorship cash from advertisers who want to reach the (presumably affluent) spectators for that sport. (Golf is live on television more consistently than athletics, and yet athletics gets better ratings when it is televised. Golf is on more frequently because there are more advertising dollars to make it profitable for the networks.)

I’m not sure how tennis pays its stars. Sponsorships, sure, but we’re doing that, too. Do tennis players get appearance fees for the big tournaments? Is the prize money comparable to marathons or GP track meets? How many pro tennis players are full-time and how many are juggling part-time jobs to subsidize their pro tennis “career”? I don’t know the answers to that, but finance models from outside athletics are likely to be useful when we’re talking about improving the situations of our professional runners.

Now Playing: Wilderness from Angels of Destruction! by Marah

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February 24, 2008

And in good news...

…no stories about doping so far this year. And the reporter who was writing the “no doping stories this year” article a few years ago did a story about how the U.S. men are getting internationally competitive in distance running, i.e. a positive story. We’ll take ‘em where we get ‘em.

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A bit more about newspapers and track writing

Having hinted that there’s more to say about the state of newspaper coverage of track, it may also be helpful to look back on this little grouch I wrote almost two years ago, because that covers a lot of what’s wrong. (Go ahead, I’ll still be here when you come back.)

The issue I faced, more specifically, last night was that newspapers in general don’t consider athletics worth column inches in most cases. This isn’t universal—the New York Times has Frank Litsky here—but Litsky came up on Amtrak from New York, he didn’t fly from Minneapolis. The other papers present are local.

Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the problem of how newspapers in general plan to stay relevant and, indeed, in business in the internet age. Certainly their available budget is a big motivator for the actions they’re taking, but for right now, we’ll consider the budget a black box and just think of them as geo-located producers of news which have a regional bias determined by their location.

They have decisions to make about which sports they cover and how they cover them. For the most part, they’re opting to hit the widest possible population in their market, which means covering local teams in the major pro sports (baseball, football, basketball, and sometimes hockey,) and local or regional high school sports, generally also focusing on those same team sports but sometimes adding, say, soccer.

There is no room left for Olympic sports unless there’s a doping scandal or an actual Olympics. (There was a discussion in the media tribune this morning about how many major papers now have “doping correspondents”.) In some cases this isn’t a major problem; many papers can run the USATF press release unchanged and do fine. What we’re losing isn’t one more general story about the meet; we’re losing the localized viewpoint those papers bring to the event. The Kansas City Star would devote more column inches to Maurice Greene than anyone else in the country, and in the Internet age, that meant you could go to the Star if you wanted to read more about Greene.

My strikeout with the Twin Cities papers highlights this: Jenelle Deatherage was a runner-up for a national title, and qualified for her first-ever international team, and barely anyone talked to her. Her story from this meet is pretty much unavailable, and that’s a real loss.

The Foot Locker national cross country championships used to do research the local papers for all the athletes who made Nationals, and after the meet they would have all the runners, regardless of place, come in to a media center in shifts. The Foot Locker media staff would call the sports desks of these papers, one by one, and say, “Here’s the athlete, here’s where they placed, want to talk to them?” And they used to get a phenomenal number of local-newspaper stories about their event and about the runners who competed. These athletes’ local areas learned who the local stars were and learned to follow their progress.

It’s not happening like that anymore, at any level. I don’t know if the problem is the sport not spoon-feeding the papers the way Foot Locker did, and making itself easy to cover, or if the problem is that the papers just keep saying “Thanks, but no thanks.” But either situation isn’t helping the sport.

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February 23, 2008

Newspapers don't care about track

At the suggestion of a colleague, I tried to drum up a little extra work for myself tonight. Jenelle Deatherage, who is based in the Twin Cities area in Minnesota, took second in the 1,500m, punching her ticket for the World Indoor Championships. (Which are in Spain in two weeks; perhaps I’ve mentioned them.) “Nobody’s here from the Minnesota papers,” they told me. “Call the Star Tribune and see if they’ll take a story if you get it there before their Sunday deadline. If they don’t bite, try the St. Paul Pioneer Press.”

So I called the switchboard of the Star Tribune, got a voice-directed robot to transfer me to the sports desk, and made my pitch. “Interesting,” they said. “If you’ve got a press release, send it to…” I’m not offering a press release, I said. Well, they replied, we’ll probably just cut it down and run a paragraph in the “briefs” somewhere anyway. I said if that was all they needed, there was probably already a release at the USATF site. Thanks, they said.

So I called the Pioneer Press. One “press three for…” and I got the news desk, who sent me to sports, who sent me back to news, me making my pitch each time. “No,” they said, “we wouldn’t really give a freelance assignment on anything like that.” So I suggested the USATF press release again, and they thanked me for bringing it to their attention.

This, I suspect, is par for the course in newspaper sports desks. Area woman makes her first international team of any sort in years of trying, but area newspaper doesn’t care, even with no football or baseball to write about. (There is hockey there, of course, and probably loads of high school sports at this point.) And I, for once being a little proactive about marketing myself as a writer, instead wound up essentially doing volunteer publicity work for USATF. Not necessarily a bad thing for the sport, but not a terribly effective use of my time.

I have a lot more to say about this—it’s a telling little anecdote—but I have a sort-of press release to write, and this was really just the warm-up.

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February 22, 2008

Spirit of the Marathon

Last night I went to the “encore presentation” of Spirit of the Marathon down in Hadley. I’ve read a lot of rave reviews of the movie, but I came in with a somewhat more skeptical viewpoint.

The positives are many. The characters followed in the movie are fantastic: Deena Kastor displaying her “relentlessly positive” nature, training for Chicago ‘05 through a stress fracture in her foot; Daniel Njenga, twice third and once second in Chicago; graduate student Lori O’Connor, who probably could have convinced theaters-full of spectators to run marathons just on her own; and several other less speedy runners whose marathons went somewhat less smoothly. (One didn’t even start the marathon.) I liked seeing many of my friends and colleagues up on the screen, talking about the things they know best. (I never realized that the founders of the Boston Marathon drew a parallel between the legendary Pheidippides and Paul Revere, the rationale behind the great race’s Patriots’ Day scheduling.) And the movie made Chicago itself look spectacular; it’s like an hour-and-a-half advertisement for the Chicago Marathon and should go a long way towards repairing the damage done by the disastrous 2007 edition.

The filmmakers do a very good job presenting the essence of a big-city marathon: the crowds of otherwise non-athletic people dedicating hours and months to training, the sweep of the thing (there’s a spectacular aerial shot of the race start which just keeps panning up and up, looking farther and farther back in the crowd, and the crowd - just - never - ends.) They capture the scale of the undertaking very, very well, right down to the joke I always make about how the people who run the marathon are swearing never to do another and the people who watch are promising they’ll run next time. And I liked picking out faces in the “crowd,” like the men running around Deena Kastor in the marathon.

My problem with Spirit is with the tag line they use, a direct quote from an interview with Dick Beardsley in the opening minutes. “Once you cross that line, no matter how fast or how slow, your life will change forever.” Maybe so. But I’ve crossed the finish lines of three marathons (and the start lines of five, for what it’s worth) and I think it’s fair to say that none of them have changed my life.

I think the reason for this is that I’m not really the target audience for this film. I don’t need to be sold on the marathon; I bought in a long time ago (and then bought out when I realized that marathons aren’t for me.) I bought in on many of these ideas back in junior high school, when I first started running cross country; they’ve been part of my way of thinking for twenty years. My life was changed forever some time in eighth grade when I realized that the longer the race was, the more likely I was to outrun the other kids my age; there was no change left for the marathon.

I think this is one of the problems with the way the movie has been marketed in the U.S. The pattern has been promotion through running publications, running websites, and the running community; the only non-runners or non-marathoners (the ones who will really be seeing something new to them) who see the movie are ones brought to the showings by runners. Maybe that’s fine, but it seems like the audience the film speaks to and the one which actually turned up in the theater are a bit different.

The theater was about half-full (A said when she went, last month, it was almost completely full) and only six or seven of us sat through the credits for the “extra” features at the end. I can’t say they missed very much, to be honest, although it was fun to see a bit more of the work that went in to making the film at all.

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February 20, 2008

Reminder band

It’s been a few years since everyone in Athens (or who wished they were in Athens) was wearing a $1 yellow rubber wristband with LIVESTRONG printed on it, and the yellow-bracelet fad has pretty much passed. The True Believers are the ones still wearing theirs, and you can get similar bands in nearly any color at the corner convenience store, sometimes as a fundraiser for something, sometimes not.

I’ve come by two in the last six months or so, despite having passed them up for nearly four years. I got an orange one when I registered for the fall foliage walk put on by Amherst’s A Better Chance chapter. (I ran the course in a bit more than two hours.) More recently, I got a purple one from Two Trials which I’ve been wearing nearly every day.

I’m not going to try to explain Two Trials in three sentences or less. Go read the story, and you’ll get the idea. I ran with Emily for a few miles during the 2000 Boston Marathon (that was before she got good, and I figured out that marathons are not for me), and she and her husband have been a real part of the Mid-coast Maine community in recent years. I made my contribution on the first day the site opened, Maddie’s fourth birthday.

The inside of the band has an url from the manufacturer—reminderband.com—and it doesn’t really lend itself to forgetting. It’s loose enough on my wrists that I sometimes wonder if I could get it around both wrists; it doesn’t stuff easily inside the cuffs of my shirts. Having it bumping around in there does remind me periodically to check in and see what kind of progress Emily and Maddie are making. They’re not quite halfway at this point, with two months to the Olympic Trials.

Now Playing: Providence from Acoustic & Intimate by Steve Kilbey

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Posted by pjm at 9:54 AM | Comments (0)

And the other ten percent?

Dave McGillivray, race director of the Boston Marathon and, this year, the Olympic Trials Women’s Marathon, is interviewed today on runnersworld.com. Talking about the Trials course which crosses the Charles on Massachusetts Avenue (the “Smoot bridge”), he says,

…I’ve run over that bridge and on Memorial Drive over 1,000 times. Eighty percent of the time, it’s the most enjoyable run I have all year. And then ten percent of the time, it can be windy.

I guess what Dave’s not saying is that the other ten percent of the time, it’s driving snow in his face.

Now Playing: The Deep Ache Mix from Parallel Universe by The Church

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February 18, 2008

Where are the women's movies?

I got sent a link today about Born to Run, which isn’t surprising given my known interests. However, it would probably be a surprise to the link sender to know that I finished watching the trailer feeling mildly annoyed.

Before I get started: Born to Run, based what I could work out from the trailer, is a film about several top-flight American distance runners training for the Olympic Trials Marathon held last November in New York City. It focuses on their training, their lives, and their backgrounds, tracing them up to the race itself. (It happens that one of their athletes, Ryan Hall, won the race.) The trailer is full of driving music at the interface of hip-hop and rock, lots of funky camera angles and shots out the windows of cars as the athletes go on their punishing training runs. It looks exciting; it looks like something that makes distance running, even marathoning, look kind of cool. So far, so good.

But this is where I apparently lose the plot. First, I had this feeling that I’d seen this film already, and within a minute I came up with not one, but two recent direct-to-DVD productions following the same path with different races: Five Thousand Meters (Nothing Comes Easy), about the men’s 5,000m final at the 2004 Olympic Track Trials (a curiously depressing film, since the athletes on screen spend so much time talking about how hard they work and how little return they see on that work), and last year’s Showdown, about the 2007 USATF cross-country championships.

Both movies followed the same pattern (apparently) that Born to Run appears to follow; I have to wonder if the different event (the marathon) is likely to make a notably different movie in any way. There’s the tantalizing offer of race footage from major races like the 10,000m at USATF Nationals in Indianapolis last June, but I honestly don’t have a whole lot of appetite, at this point in time, for more gaunt young men telling me how hard they’re working for their narrow chance to win an Olympic berth.

Second, and perhaps it’s Showdown that had me thinking of this: where are the women? That’s three movies about the men, from 5,000m to the marathon, and aside from Deena Kastor’s leading role in Spirit of the Marathon (which I have yet to see, incidentally), no focus on women. Showdown was an egregious offender on this score, treating the Boulder cross-country championships as though Goucher vs. Torres vs. Ritzenhein vs. Culpepper was the only race on the card, when the Olympic-medalist Kastor vs. new-American-Record-holder Shalane Flanagan promised to be equally thrilling, if not more. You could be forgiven if, after reading the entire website for Born to Run, you were unaware that there is also an Olympic Trials Marathon for women, and that it will be held in Boston in April.

(If you’d like to brand me as a hypocrite on this score, I had an article published in a recent issue of Running Times in which I called Bernard Lagat’s medal in the 1,500m in Osaka the first won by an American since 1908, or something like that; I should’ve said “by an American male”, of course. I don’t think this gaffe makes my point false, though.)

(It’s not just movies, either: all the good running novels are about men. Is there something about women’s running that makes it incompatible with the form? Or is it that only men are getting running novels published?)

Maybe this makes me a bad running fan, but I’m ready to move on from the interviews-and-races format in running movies. I’d be a lot more excited to see a Bud Greenspan quality film of the Trials race by itself. And I’d like to see it in a boxed set with the women’s Trials race film. And that means I just can’t get that thrilled about Born to Run.

Now Playing: Exit Music from Concert to End Slavery by Mutual Admiration Society

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February 8, 2008

Nouns and verbs

I’m about to teach you something about track and field. Pay attention, and you, too, can be smug and knowledgeable about this next time the Millrose Games is on tape delay.

There is a throwing event called the shot put. This is a noun phrase built out of a noun and a verb, like the pole vault. The noun, the direct object, is the shot. (The athletes in this event sometimes call it “the ball,” because it is nothing but a sixteen-pound metal ball named for its resemblance to a cannon ball.) The action is “to put.” The athletes put the shot. However, there is no object you can point at which is called a “shot put.”

If you are particularly careful about your terms, you are even careful about using the verb by itself. Individual puts can be called “tosses” or “efforts” but there are other terms which are to be avoided; I don’t mention them because I may get them wrong.

There are other things you need to know about track and field. You can take a step or two off the track to the inside if you’re jostled or stumbled, but three consecutive steps outside your lane is beyond acceptable. You’re supposed to have “a full running stride” of lead before cutting in front of a runner you’ve just passed; I suspect this rule is more often honored in the breach.

Millions of people know the standard for American football receivers making a catch inbounds, and there are even a few million who have managed to understand the hideous complication known a soccer’s offsides rule. I suspect there are even a few hundred people who are not hockey referees and yet understand what “icing” is supposed to mean. However, I think I am one of a couple dozen or so people in the U.S. who know that the object which is thrown by Reese Hoffa is not “a shot put,” despite however many millions used to be on the track team in high school or junior high.

And I’d like to thank Mr. Burnham, my junior high school gym teacher and track coach, for explaining all this to our team when I was in 7th grade. Because we might never become star athletes, and many of us were never going to get anything more than a high school education, but we were damn well going to learn what the sport was about if he had anything to say about it. Anything worth doing was worth doing correctly, he figured, even if we didn’t do it particularly well.

So here we are, twenty years later, and I am actually capable of getting a certain limited amount of work based on my ability to tell a shot from a shot put (much like Bill Bryson, who claimed to have convinced the London Times to hire him because “they needed someone on staff who could reliably spell ‘Cincinnati.’”) I have to imagine that this was a wholly unexpected consequence of my two junior high track seasons.

Oh, and you know how “soccer” is called “football” in the rest of the English-speaking world? They also refer to “track and field” as “athletics.” This comes in handy when you’re looking at a British newspaper’s sports section.

Now Playing: Munich by Editors

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January 27, 2008

Records, if not big ones

My thousand-word summary of last night’s activity is posted on iaaf.org. I was reluctant to mention the name of the previous world-best holder, given that she left the sport under a doping-related cloud, and so carefully avoided it in the article and noted that when filing the story. My editor agreed, so at least as far as this more-or-less official article goes, she is beneath notice.

Personal pique, maybe, but whatever. We’re all about the positives in this sport, and that episode was a negative.

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January 24, 2008

One for me, one against

My preview of Saturday’s Boston Indoor Games is posted on IAAF.org this morning. It was probably the easiest time I’ve ever had writing this meet preview (I hate previews but they force me to study a little) and while I did have one gaffe, I made up for it elsewhere.

See, I thought Carolina Klüft won the 2006 World Indoor Championship in the pentathlon; turns out she didn’t even compete in that event, but won back in ‘03 or ‘04. Fortunately my editor caught that one before it went up, and fixed it for me.

But when I was checking some other details with the meet’s media coordinator, I mentioned something about Klüft being the “fourth World Champion.” She responded that she didn’t know what I meant by that. Well, there’s four winners from Osaka competing: Reese Hoffa in the shot, Meseret Defar (the 5,000m champion) in the two-mile, Tirunesh Dibaba (10,000m) in the 3,000m, and Klüft (heptathlon) in the long jump. Apparently this point hadn’t even occurred to them at the press office.

I telegraphed this in the preview, but I’ll come right out and predict it here: Defar’s going to take down the world best in the two-mile. (N.B. the IAAF doesn’t maintain “World Records” for that event, so it’s only a “World Best”.) Her 3,000m time is nearly a minute faster, and the two-mile is only a lap and a few strides longer; she’ll “only” need 35s laps to beat the record, so she can run as much as a second per lap slower than her 3,000m best and still take it down.

And given that the “best” is still held by an athlete who left the sport disgraced under a drug cloud, nobody will be sorry to see the name rewritten.

Now Playing: Hollow by Fires Were Shot

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January 17, 2008

Make your own treadmill

Though I have access to the treadmills at the College when I’m in Amherst, I’m less well situated in Somerville. I can wave my (expired) University ID at the guard and get in to the indoor track there, but I haven’t tested the attentiveness of the fitness center attendants, who actually take your ID when you check in to use the treadmills there.

Cold doesn’t bother me nearly as much as poor footing (ice and packed snow) so finding places to run when the sidewalks are bad is a matter of finding low-traffic areas, good sun exposure, and/or responsible sidewalk-shovelers. Cemeteries are often a good bet, but they usually involve multiple repetitions of the same loop.

I found a route I call “the Arlington treadmill” which features slightly more variety and excitement than the indoor kind. After crossing the Alewife Brook Parkway into Arlington on either Massachusetts Avenue or Broadway, there’s a series of one-way streets between the two, starting with (yes) Marathon Street and going west to Palmer Street, nearly in the middle of Arlington. Excepting Bates Street, which is two-way, they alternate direction all the way.

By running against traffic, I can see all oncoming cars well in advance, which means I can choose between the roadway or either sidewalk depending on which offers the least traffic and the best footing. The homeowners on the side streets are pretty good about shoveling their short patches of sidewalk, with a few notable exceptions (mostly on Broadway) and by zig-zagging west, then back east again, I can get in an hour or more of pretty clear road without hitting the same sidewalks more than twice, encountering many cars, or even stopping for major road crossings. It’s not half bad. There’s even a distant view of the Pru on the return leg (heading east on Mass Ave.)

I sort of wonder why more people don’t do this.

Now Playing: Little Mascara from Tim by The Replacements

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January 14, 2008

Don't challenge me, machine

In light of the blanket of snow which arrived last night and this morning, I did most of today’s run on a treadmill at the College. (Run to gym, swap to dry shoes, run on treadmill, swap shoes back, run home.) I had my HRM strap on, so just for kicks I told the treadmill to give me a heart-rate-based workout.

I probably should’ve figured out what the treadmill actually means by that first. I was clipping along slightly slower than 8:00 pace, with my heart rate hovering around 145, when it started demanding that I slow down.

This isn’t a good way of approaching someone as contrary as I am. My HR wasn’t going anywhere, so after a minute or two I started bumping the pace up whenever it asked me to slow down. Before I was halfway through the run, I was comfortably running 7:30s, HR now nicely set at 150 (and still in the green), and I found myself considering taking the pace all the way down to 6:00 and “showing this lump of silicon what ‘out of zone’ means.” Fortunately, sanity prevailed, but I was ready. Next time, you insolent chunk of plastic.

Now Playing: Snowman from Play by The Nields

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5:18 and 10:49

Last year, when I did a little research on my history at 3000m, I discovered that my slowest collegiate time came when I did a 1,500m and an 800m earlier in the meet, and my second slowest when I’d done a mile/3000m double. I should’ve learned something.

Last night I did a mile/3,000m double at the Sugarloaf Mt. AC meet at Smith, and while the mile was OK (5:18, just three seconds off my banked-track time at BU last month,) the 3000 was horrible, a 10:49.

I ran a smart race in the mile, confirming that the first person to lead the race is almost always not the right one (too slow, as it happened) and once we dug in, I made relatively smart strategic and pacing choices. The only difference from last month was that neither I nor the track were as fast last night.

I felt pretty good about the 3000 about half an hour before it started. But everything went bad from there; I seriously mis-timed my warmup, then arrived at the line eight hours past my last meal (little fuel) and with raw feet from the previous spiked race. Entering the last thousand, I realized one foot was blistered and the other was… asleep. My rival from the mile, who stuck a second behind me from when I passed him just before halfway until the finish in that race, beat me by a straightaway in the second race.

Now I’m thinking about which race to do next week, if any. Doubling again is Right Out, but there’s a show at the Iron Horse I’d like to catch, and I could do it if I only ran the mile.

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January 9, 2008

Talking about the weather

Let the record show that I did a workout on the University’s outdoor track in a light rain today, in spikes, with no ice on the track. Or snow, for that matter. And I was wearing shorts and short sleeves. And sweating. I’m pretty sure it’s still January, though.

Now Playing: See You from The Colour And The Shape by Foo Fighters

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January 8, 2008

The thirst for meaningless statistics

As of this writing, Common Running has 98 reviews distributed among some 400+ shoe models. If you’re like me, the very way I phrased that sentence led you to ask, “But how are they distributed?” They can’t possibly be random, right?

Noah borrows a phrase from Wired to describe the impulse to ask that question: Info Porn. We’re not immune, so I spent a few hours last night writing some code to rip the interesting data out of the CR database and slap it in to some Google Charts. The juicy stuff is here, but if you want the summary, Asics is the most-reviewed brand, and it has three of the top four most-reviewed shoe models, including #1, the GT-2120.

I also added some data to the pages which show details on the shoe models themselves. If you check that GT-2120 page, for example, you’ll see the average ratings for each of four areas, and the comments the reviewers made about the shoe.

You’ll also see a quirky little paragraph on some shoe pages which purports to give an average lifetime (in miles or kilometers) for a shoe model. It’s based on numbers reported by some of our reviewers, and I actually went a step beyond that to calculate a “price per mile/km” for such shoes. These numbers are not, at this stage, statistically significant, because there’s just not enough data, but if they were—a few dozen more reviews for each model might do it—they could be a real tool indicating “value” in a pair of running shoes. Imagine if you could compare the price-per-mile of several similar models!

Now Playing: One Kiss Goodnight by Lori McKenna

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January 1, 2008

Loose at the heels

I remarked to A this morning on our run that I probably became more consistent in my winter training after college because I had better equipment. By that I mean running jackets which actually kept me warm, running pants which weren’t tights, and the discovery of shirts which weren’t cotton.

Thinking about it more, though, the first few winters after college were pathetically mild even for Pennsylvania; I think I lived in Pennsylvania two or three years before we got a snowfall I would even consider significant. I spent plenty of time in those years chasing Adam Bean and Mark Will-Weber around the hills that cradle Emmaus to the south and west.

Mark used to wear Sporthill pants with a stirrup, though I remember the strap almost always flapped loose around his Achilles tendon, soaking up slush. (Since I was almost always lagging behind Webbs, I had a lot of time to contemplate his heels.) I got a few pairs of the same pants, wearing them with the straps on. (Having cuffs snug around your socks keeps your ankles warm. You’d be surprised what a difference this makes.)

As I get in better condition and my stride moves up to my forefoot, I find that during the course of a run one or both of these stirrups will make its way back over my heel and pop out the back of my shoe, to dangle like Mark’s used to. I wonder if that’s what happened to him; his natural stride was much closer to his toes than mine is, so maybe he just couldn’t keep them on?

Now Playing: Sands Hotel from Dead Air by Heatmiser

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December 27, 2007

Bookshelf of fame

I noted a few missing ravens a few weeks ago, but Heinrich is still in the news. I got a press release today about his induction into the American Ultrarunning Association hall of fame… and for Christmas I got his latest book.

Heinrich’s a role model of doing many things well. I can’t say that I’d go in for all his interests, but I’m impressed at how well he’s balanced them all.

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December 16, 2007

Milers have more fun

I raced my first indoor track mile in… I don’t know, a dozen years or so, yesterday.

I think the last time I raced an indoor mile was my senior year in college. Since then I’ve learned more than a little about being self-aware during my races, which translates to running smarter races—a good thing, because I don’t have the raw speed I used to. And the track work I have been doing has made me more confident about the speed I do have.

I figured I could run on the close order of 5:20, so that’s what I seeded at. The heats broke at 4:40, 4:50, 5:15, and 5:20, so I got in the fourth heat: eleven of us, I think, who all figured we would run between 5:15 and 5:20. Looking at the results, it looks like seven of us were right, which seems like an unusually high percentage. The good news was that I wouldn’t be running the race on my own, in a gap between people running too fast for me and people who couldn’t keep up. (That would probably have happened in the 3,000, so I picked the right race.)

I opted to go sockless in my spikes again, because I’d blistered when I’d run in them with socks so far, but they’re still gritty inside from cross-country. (This despite me washing them once.) No problems in the end, though.

We actually had a girl (young woman? Very young) leading for the first few laps, and I was hitting decent splits though I had a lot of people in front of me. I knew I had to save a bit, and I knew some of them would come back. After three or four laps I started to feel the pace, and I shifted my focus away from a steady pace and let myself float the corners if I hammered the straights. This helped a lot, because the little rests put me in a good position to eat up the small gap the lead pack had built. They were fading, too; even though my fifth and sixth laps were the slowest of the race, I was back in the thick of it by then, and passing people.

And I knew I could run two laps pretty hard. Everyone seemed to be coming back to me now, and the feeling of passing people buoyed me up. On the last lap, I found myself up at a speed I didn’t know I had; Dan said he clocked me at 35 for the last lap. He also said if I’d found that speed a little earlier (or hadn’t been so slow on the sixth lap) I would’ve been challenging for the heat win. I wasn’t even aware there were only two left in front of me; I just saw the time on my watch (5:15 low; 5:15.65 was the official time) and knew I’d run well.

Now I want to try again. The oddly encouraging thing is this: my PR is 4:48, from college, when I weighed at least ten pounds less than I do now. (It was disappointing at the time, because I ran 4:49, probably for 1,600m, as a sophomore in high school.) Figure the two-seconds-per-pound-per-mile thing, and yesterday’s time suddenly looks pretty decent. (Aside from the obvious question of why I’m carrying those extra ten pounds.) I’m pretty sure I could get under 5:10, given the chance; could I run under 5:00 again? That would really be remarkable.

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December 10, 2007

Tell us about your running shoes

At work, we’re getting close to a working state on our latest project. Simply put, we’re trying to recommend running shoes without having to ask a user a question they don’t know the answer to. Rather than asking things like “How much do you pronate?” or “How high or your arches?” the only thing we hope to ask is, “What shoes have you run in before? How did you like them?”

The hitch is that first, we need a bunch of people (I’m not sure how many, but probably a few hundred will make a good start) to tell us how they like their running shoes. If we can use that as “training data” for our system, we can start making some recommendations.

There’s a slightly more detailed explanation in my announcement and call for reviews on the company blog, if this piques your curiosity, but the short story is this: if you run, I’d love it if you’d drop by Common Running, sign up, and review your running shoes. You should be able to sign in and plug in a few reviews within five minutes. We may not have your shoes listed; I figure we probably have less than half the currently-available models in the system right now. In that case, we’d like to hear about that as well; it will help us find the models we’re missing.

If you have a running blog, I wouldn’t mind it if you asked your readers to drop by, either, of course!

Now Playing: Hotel Womb from Starfish by The Church

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Hey there, steeplechaser

At some point last week I got a little sick of press releases like this one about the USATF Club Nationals making a point of mentioning that steeplechaser and Columbia grad Delilah DiCrescenzo was the “Delilah” of that Plain White Ts song you’ve probably heard a few times if you ever listen to pop radio. For someone trying to be an Olympic Trials contender and a successful athlete, you’d probably prefer that a sappy love song not be the first item on your résumé. For pity’s sake, folks, she’s run a sub-10:00 steeplechase, right?

I think Amby had the same feeling, but the reaction he got from DiCrescenzo after she won Saturday’s race was at right angles to what he was expecting (and what I would’ve expected.) “It was actually awesome to be associated with this song. I just think I was in the right place at the right time. The stars were aligned or something.”

Now, maybe she is getting sick of people greeting her saying “Hey there,” and just doesn’t say so, but I think DiCrescenzo’s positive reaction is actually indicative of a champion’s mind-set. We’ve frequently used a term about Deena Kastor’s attitude, which may even have been hers in the first place: “relentlessly positive.” It’s just not possible to get under Deena’s skin; there’s nothing she can’t turn into a mental advantage, even if it would be an annoyance for someone else. DiCrescenzo’s doing the same thing.

For myself, I don’t really like knowing the real story. Josh Ritter pointed this out in an NPR interview back in October, where he explained that knowing the story behind a song can get in the way of the listener forming their own personal relationship with the song. “They cease to be interesting because they give you everything.”

Now Playing: I Turn My Camera On from Gimme Fiction by Spoon

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December 9, 2007

Fred's medal

Fred's MedalAnyone know why (or how) Fred Lebow’s statue was wearing a medal from a marathon founded long after his death at this year’s NYCM?

Fred’s statue is generally placed near the East Side of the park, near the 90th Street entrance (and therefore close to his workplace, the NYRR offices on East 89th.) During Marathon Weekend, however, the statue is moved over by the finish line, and since the press room operations this year were at Tavern on the Green rather than on Central Park South at the NYRR, I snapped a few shots of the statue, carrying some flowers left by well-wishers, in good morning sunlight before the race.

I finally got around to posting the two shots to Flickr, realizing as I did so that I’d taken the close-up of the medal for a reason: it didn’t really look like an NYCM medal. I zoomed in on it and realized it came from the Mt. Desert Island marathon, which is definitely a post-2000 event if my memory serves correctly; Lebow died in 1994.

Why MDI, I wonder? There are, literally, hundreds of marathons in this country annually which owe some debt to Lebow; he’d be downright encrusted with medals if they all sent one. Was it an official gift, or did someone slip in and hang it on Fred’s neck unofficially?

Now Playing: Nine Acre Dust from The Charlatans UK V. The Chemical Brothers by The Charlatans

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December 5, 2007

The dessert of track work

Coach picked up on an offhand comment I made a few weeks ago, and since we moved indoors, he has been setting me up with shorter and, generally, faster workouts. I’ve had my spikes on and spent the bulk of the repetitions up on my toes. And, as I noted a few weeks ago, I’m having fun with it.

I have a naturally long stride, perhaps a little longer than is really efficient for my leg length. I don’t have the turnover for the long sprints, nor the efficiency to be a really comfortable long-haul runner (marathons, for example, are a bad idea for me.) My natural distance on the road is probably somewhere between the half-marathon and the 10K, but the races that feel best are still the middle distances on the track, where I get to unroll my legs and indulge my urge to go fast.

We’re looking at the three “mini meets” that Boston University hosts, usually the last three Saturdays in December. I figure I may be able to hit the first one, a week from this Saturday, and possibly also the third. We talked tonight about distances, and I said, “Why don’t I just take on the mile?”

“That’s what I was going to suggest,” he said.

“I think I have more fun as a slow miler than as a faster long-distance guy,” I said.

Of course, my results tend to be better in the longer distances. “I figure racing some miles might get you a faster 3,000m,” riposted Coach.

Now Playing: Reunion Tour from Reunion Tour by The Weakerthans

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November 26, 2007

AOY: One for two

Come to think of it, Tyson Gay has been pretty good to me this year, and maybe I should’ve given him a vote for Athlete of the Year. I did vote for Meseret Defar, whose sterling 3,000m performance right here in Boston last January was cited as part of the reason for her award.

About two hours before the awards were made public, I found an announcement (carefully marked “embargoed until 19:00 GMT”) of the names in my email inbox, and I was snickering to myself about it all afternoon. After all, who was I going to tell? I could’ve posted it here, early, and not only would nobody who cared ever know that I’d spilled the secret, but nobody who did know would care.

Now Playing: Pressure and Heat by Patrice Pike

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November 20, 2007

Scheduling the pieces

After the races were over, while the successful athletes were collecting their trophies, a few of us from the media stood in the back and did what we do best: complain. (Writing is second on the list, actually.)

At Nationals, as with every big meet I’ve had experience with, there’s an annual alternation of the race order between men and women. This year, for example, the men’s race was first. However, with live TV this year, the schedule was a little compressed. There was a 50-minute gap between the start of the men’s race and the start of the women’s race, and since the slowest men take about 35 minutes to run 10km, I barely had time after the men’s race to get to the media center and dump photos to A’s laptop before returning to the course to shoot the women’s race.

The meet’s media organization, however, persisted in running post-race interviews with the top three finishers in the men’s race—delayed by the ‘necessity’ of television interviews, of course—immediately after that race, which meant that (a) I and several other reporters missed them entirely, and (b) the women’s race started while the interviews were still underway.

Now it’s hypothetically easy for the athletes to wait through the twenty-plus minutes of the women’s race; they may even prefer the chance for a cool-down. The handicap becomes drug-testing. There’s a time limit between the end of the race and when athletes must report to drug testing, and they need to fit all their media responsibilities in there. For WADA, it’s an hour, but the NCAA drug-testing isn’t run by WADA, and in theory, they could schedule this a bit better.

(N.B. Yes, I’ve been quiet this week. I’ve been too busy to write up the appropriate thoughts when they’ve crossed my mind; I may stay that way for a few weeks, too.)

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November 14, 2007

Just happy to be here

My training, right now, could be best described as irregular. I try to get out six days a week, and I try to do more than an hour when I feel like it, but I don’t if I don’t. I’m plateaued at this particular level, without the time or energy to devote to pushing beyond it; I’m using that energy elsewhere.

The unusual structure comes from the once-a-week training group I’ve been running with for about sixteen months now. I’ve never been a centerpiece here, since I signed up to be A’s rabbit, and lately I’ve been running with either the low-mileage middle-distance women or the 25-year-old with significantly faster PRs. (He’ll spot me eight or ten seconds, then blow by me midway through each repeat.) Most of us are there for the coach, who has a bigger name than any of us and tells some entertaining stories.

Last week, for example, it was just me, the young guy, and Coach. They arrived together—Dan drives Coach, who can’t see well enough to drive after dark—and both of them joined my warmup, which is unusual. He wanted to talk about the Trials the previous weekend, and neither Dan nor I were eager to prod him to start the workout. We wound up running close to an hour with him, more than he’d run in two years, he said, and we didn’t do any workout to speak of.

This weekend, on two of my runs in Amherst, I passed a (relatively) young man who lives in our neighborhood and gets around in a wheelchair. It’s obviously one of these heavy, hard-to-move wheelchairs made by designers who expect people in wheelchairs to be pushed everywhere, but I see him struggling to push himself around the sidewalks while someone else walks beside him. I don’t know what I would say when I go by—is he enjoying the struggle, or is he fighting something? What does he see in me when I go by?—so it’s a good thing nobody really expects me to say anything.

This week, we moved indoors, and I put my spikes back on. Between repeats, I kept tripping as I would catch my feet on the track; it’s a miracle I didn’t go down. Dan and I were both laughing about it by about the third repeat. “Coach,” I said, “I need to get going; I keep tripping over my own feet when I slow down!”

I was grinning when I took off, and I was still grinning halfway around the track. My legs felt good, tired but not burning, I was on my toes and moving pretty well, and I thought, why wouldn’t I be smiling? I’m still able to come out on a Wednesday evening and push myself, apply a little force to the world and get it back through a pair of shoes with teeth. I can run 800m repeats, right on the edge between endurance and speed, even if neither are what they were five years ago. I can move around the world on my own two feet. Why wouldn’t I be happy about that?

Now Playing: The Only One I Know from Some Friendly by The Charlatans

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November 10, 2007

Wearing our hearts on our shirts

According to Mark Remy, someone in the RW.com message boards is wondering if it’s “appropriate” to wear apparel from a presidential campaign in a race.

It occurred to me that I wrote about this almost four years ago, and on that very same site, but all those columns are lost to the internet for some reason I don’t fully understand. There’s still a copy on the Millennium Mile site, however. If you don’t want to read four-year-old geekery about what to wear in a race, here’s the summary: wear what you want, but think about what it means to you and what it says about you.

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Amherst over Williams by 1 point

No, no, I’m not talking about this game. We don’t worry about football in the circles I travel in.

I’m talking about this race. It’s an entirely foreign feeling for me, hearing about it; the year I ran best in that race (and was Amherst’s first finisher) we were the last team with enough runners to compile a team score. A lot has changed since then, both for the College and for New England Division 3 as a whole; there are teams in that listing which didn’t bother to run ten years ago.

Things have changed even more in this race, given that the same year the men finished last, if I recall correctly, we didn’t have five women to score. But those changes have been around for a while, and a fifty-six point victory reflects dominance, not a close match that tipped our direction.

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November 8, 2007

An old shoes home

My former roommate, Warren, posts about delivering shoes to the Shoe4Africa program on Monday, and mentions in passing that “a running shoe can last as long as 1,000 years in a landfill.”

I’m retiring 4-6 pairs of running shoes this year, which is about average for me; in my peak year, 2002, I went through ten pairs. I sent my used shoes to the local Goodwill; whether they judged them worthy of reuse or trashed them, I’m not sure, but I’d rather see their life extended than have them taking up space in a landfill. Warren links the aforementioned Shoe4Africa group as one destination for old shoes, but RW also has a list of organizations which accept and reuse used running shoes.

So don’t bin your old shoes. There’s more use for them elsewhere.

Now Playing: Way Away from Bread and Circus by Toad The Wet Sprocket

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November 7, 2007

Getting the tickets

Nicole linked this BusinessWeek story about Olympic tickets in China.

I clicked the link thinking about the IAAF staff, and how they grumbled about empty seats in the stands during the evening sessions in Osaka, and how the Helsinki fans were so dedicated. And certainly BusinessWeek does a good job with the task at hand, comparing Beijing ticket sales with those in Athens.

But then I drifted back to my first international track meet. Not the ‘99 World Championships, but the 1994 Goodwill Games (remember the Goodwill Games?), which were conveniently held in St. Petersburg, where I happened to be attempting to kick-start my Russian language skills. (I failed, but the trip was still worth it.) I don’t recall what ticket prices were in dollars, nor what they might have cost had I attempted to buy them in the States; I remember that in rubles, they were pretty attainable, at least for those of us who bought our rubles with real dollars.

I went with a small group of fellow students to the Games headquarters on the north side of the Neva to buy tickets. We didn’t have to wait in line very long, but then we filled out forms identifying ourselves and what tickets we wanted. I was the only one interested in track (nearly all of us went to a night of figure skating, a surreal sight in the sweltering summer Piter had that year.) I got two tickets in the “cheap seats,” close to the front but about 20m around the first corner, and took the daughter of the family I was staying with. No problems; the Russians were largely disinterested in the “Games of Good Will” except as a means of attracting tourists, and most of them remained out in the countryside if they possibly could.

When the competition day arrived, we brought cookies and bananas and sandwiches, and saw the women’s 100m and men’s 800m and 10,000m. Maybe there was some pole vaulting going on. Her hero was Irina Privalova, but I think Gail Devers won the 100m. Marc Coogan (I think?) and Ed Eyestone ran the 10,000m for the USA; it was won by a Moroccan, I think, but the Russian was second, and when he came to the finish line I heard the crowd chanting, “Mo - lo - DYETS!” which translates as something close to “Good job!” I hollered “Good job, Ed!” to Eyestone as they walked off the track, and he looked back up at me; some years later, when he was meeting the RW staff and I went on a lunchtime run with him, I reminded him of that, and neither of us were surprised that he remembered the race but not some random guy in the stands who yelled to him afterwards.

A few days later, the women’s 10,000m was on TV, and my host-father and I watched at the kitchen table. I think there was an Ethiopian or Kenyan woman who ran away with the race, but Gwyn Coogan and the Russian entrant dueled to the line for second, and the two of us—who could only barely communicate, given my weak grasp of his language—rose from our seats, yelling at the screen and pounding on the table, and for a few moments we understood each other with perfect clarity.

I think it was probably possible to pick up a few last-minute tickets to the World Championships in Osaka, if you happened to have been in town, but the price probably wouldn’t have been as cheap as those ruble tickets in Petersburg. I wonder if it has ever been possible to get such tickets to the Olympics—at least, in the last twenty or thirty years?

Now Playing: In Between Days from Speed Graphic (EP) by Ben Folds

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November 5, 2007

The shorter AOY short list

The IAAF announced today the finalists for the 2007 Athletes of the Year, and both of my picks (Haile Gebrselassie and Meseret Defar) are on the list, as are the two athletes who led the “internet voting” when I cast my vote (Liu Xiang and Blanka Vlasic). We’ll see who their panel of experts selects as AOY.

I was interested to read their explanation of how the six finalists were chosen:

Weighed at 70% the IAAF Family vote consisted in a list of 1320 recipients including IAAF Council Members, IAAF Member Federations Presidents, IAAF Committee Members, IAAF Meeting Directors, Authorised Athletes’ Representatives, IAAF Staff Members and selected members of the International Press.

So, assuming all 1320 of us voted for both men and women, my vote counted for approximately .05% of the overall selection.

As part of the Online Public Vote which weighed at 30% of the overall standings, the IAAF received a total of 165,616 votes (112,571 for the men and 53,045 for the women).

This is interesting for two reasons. First, more than twice as many votes for men as for women, suggesting that people care more about the men’s events. I suppose this is understandable given that the raw numbers are more exciting (e.g. faster times) but the competition is sometimes more interesting on the women’s side—see the pole vault, for example.

Second, doing the same math as above, an internet vote for the women counted for .0005% of the total (100 internet votes would be roughly equal to one “IAAF Family” vote) and for the men, .0002% (somewhat more than 200 internet votes to equal one “IAAF Family” vote.) Lesson: if you want your vote to make a difference, follow women’s athletics!

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November 4, 2007

The majors may be over

When Gete Wami announced that she’d run in New York, a few months ago, I posted a summary of what Jelena Prokupcuka would have to do to take the World Marathon Majors prize away from Wami. (In summary: Prokupcuka needs to beat Wami, with details.)

But right now, Wami is chasing Paula Radcliffe, who is apparently planning on lowering the course record. (At very least, she’s running very, very hard.) Wami, on five weeks rest, therefore has over two minutes’ lead on Prokupcuka. That’s not an insurmountable lead—when you crash, in a marathon, you can fall back very, very quickly—but it certainly makes life difficult for Prokupcuka.

Complicating Prokupcuka’s chances it the fact that this women’s field is not exceptionally deep. Even if Wami falls back, Prokupcuka needs to finish at least third and have Wami at least two places behind her (unless Radcliffe also fades and Prokupcuka can contend for the win.) There may simply not be enough women running fast enough to finish between the Majors contenders, even if Wami fades into the 2:35 range.

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No words for it

When I first heard, I wanted to say something to someone, but I didn’t know who, or what. We’ve talked a lot, in the last day or so, about odds; how, among the hundreds of thousands of people who run marathons every year, there’s bound to be a fatality or two during the races. We don’t talk about how it’s not usually somebody whose name you know, someone you may have talked to once or twice in the course of his career. For the other finishers, someone they’d trained with, shared coaches with, raced dozens of times. They (we) knew his brother(s), his wife, his coaches.

We all want to say something, but we really don’t know what to say.

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October 27, 2007

No fool like an old fool

I ran NESCACs again today. It was wet, like last year, but not, I think, the kind of wet that leads to nasty rashes.

I also made some poor choices when it comes to uniform (forgot my singlet in Somerville) and footwear (no socks inside the spikes: that would’ve worked if it had been dry, but not so well in today’s wet mud.) The grit of the mud that came in the shoes became sandpaper on the heels, themselves softened from soaking. By three miles, I felt like I was flaying my feet. I took the spikes off immediately after leaving the chute, and there was a bit more blood there than I really like to see after a race.

I am, really, getting too old for this. But it is kind of fun.

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October 16, 2007

Athlete of the Year

Once again, I have a vote in the IAAF’s World Athlete of the Year selection. The first round of selection narrows the pools of eleven men and eleven women to three of each; the Athlete of the Year will be picked by a “special jury” from that short list.

Voting is available online; the “internet vote” will be 30% of the selection for the first round, whereas the vote of the “IAAF Athletics Family” (a component of which is “Selected International Press,” i.e. the likes of me) counts for 70%. I have no idea how many people make up that group; I’m betting more than a hundred, but I suppose I’d be surprised if there were many more than one thousand. So my vote counts somewhat more than it would in the average U.S. general election, but not enough to really sway things.

By the looks of the online poll, Liu Xiang and Blanca Vlasic are leading so far, and they certainly have a lot in their favor, Vlasic in particular. However, I’m sending in my vote for two Ethiopians.

I’m picking Haile Gebrselassie over Xiang, because he set two world records this year, including one in the marathon which I think heralds a change in the event. Xiang ran a stunning World Championship final under tremendous pressure, but otherwise he didn’t make much of a dent in the season.

The women’s side was tougher. Vlasic dominated the season in the high jump, and won all the big meets. I’d vote for her. But Meseret Defar, once again, lowered the world record in her event, and after watching her gut out a very, very fast 3,000m in Boston when she wasn’t 100% (and then get that record later in the season) I thought she could use a vote.

Disagree with me? The poll is right here. I’m not certain, but I’m betting that three of you out-vote one of me.

Now Playing: You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go by Lori McKenna

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October 12, 2007

Jones, juice, and joylessness

A week later, and I haven’t said a word about what nearly everyone else in the sports-journalism world has already weighed in about. Last Saturday I went to pick up my number for the half-marathon and on to the New England open cross-country meet listening to NPR coverage of Marion Jones. I’ve been reading columns about her all week.

I don’t really have much to say, not that anyone is asking. I’m annoyed, to be sure; I come back, in my mind, to the meet where I (and most of the other reporters on hand) missed watching Meseret Defar run a world record in the women’s 5,000m because we were in a press conference listening to first Justin Gatlin and then Jones tell us how clean they were. (N.B. This would be annoying even if Gatlin and Jones were clean.) But that’s nothing; I didn’t write the book on Jones or anything like that. I’ve never lost out on a medal, a national championships, or prize money because I was running against an athlete who was doping.

I’m not shocked; I, too, have been hearing the rumors since Jones burst on the scene ten years ago, coincidentally at the first USATF championship I attended as a reporter. I’m disappointed. I’m resigned. And I’m… tired.

I’m so tired of having to wonder what I’m seeing; of having a great performance clouded by questions about how it was reached. Just the thought sucks the thrill out of a meet like a sudden drop in cabin pressure, leaving us all gasping.

When you come right down to it, I’ve never been entirely sold on the idea that sprinters are really part of my sport. Marion Jones has as little to do with the sport I participate in as Mia Hamm—maybe less. This is willful naivite on my part, because the general public doesn’t see “distance running” as significantly different from the greater sport of “athletics” (track and field, in this country.) Marion Jones, Adam Nelson, Paul Tergat: all on the same team, as far as the general public is concerned. And while I would be shocked and dismayed if either Nelson or Tergat were busted for doping, I’m sure both have been accused by someone, somewhere, simply because they’re so good. (Tergat, of course, would be accused of a different agent entirely; steroids like Jones used are less useful to distance runners than blood-boosting agents like EPO.)

I’m limited, I think, by the way I write about the sport, or more correctly, the way I don’t write about it. I’ve said before that I come to this subsection of journalism as a fan with a notebook, and the writing I do, usually event reports or athlete profiles, necessarily starts with a premise that athletes are clean until proven (or confessed) dirty, and that competition happens only within the constraints described in the official rules. Removing the sport from those borders removes the sport. Also, I tend to assume that my audience knows the sport a bit; they know what covering ten kilometers (or twenty, or forty-two) on foot feels like, etc.

It’s a narrow little window I look at my sport through, and it’s really too small to give me much to say about Jones.

Lauryn Williams, on the other hand. She has something to say, and it’s worth reading. I’ll stop now.

Now Playing: Bang And Blame from Monster by R.E.M.

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October 11, 2007

Almost official

I can speak a bit more confidently now about the “pair of exciting assignments” I’ve been alluding to. I’ve been invited to be part of the IAAF.org team for the Beijing Olympics. According to the tentative plans I’ll be writing the “competition blog” again, and this time also writing more extensive previews and highlights stories for each day of competition. There are some complications and sacrifices to be made on this end, but I’ve never yet been to an Olympics (nor to China, for that matter) and it seemed like too good an offer to pass up—especially considering how notoriously difficult it is to obtain press credentials for the Olympics as a freelancer, or even in some cases as a magazine editor. I’ll be paid slightly less (though this is slippery: I’ve been paid in dollars before, but this offer was in euros) but I won’t need to make my own travel and housing arrangements, which is a big deal.

The icing on the proverbial cake is that the “dress rehearsal” with the systems and processes we’ll use for Beijing will be the “second-biggest event” of 2008, the World Indoor Championships, a biennial event coming up next March in Valencia, Spain and another major international I’ve never been to. (I suppose, when I think about it, that before 2006 the only major internationals I had been to were the 1999 and 2001 World Championships.) Leaving aside the inherent appeal of the event, the idea of going to the Mediterranean coast of Spain right about at the point where we in the Northeast U.S. are thinking winter has overstayed its welcome sounds tremendously appealing.

So, the almost-for-real track-writing career will continue for at least another year. And I’ll need to renew my passport (which will expire after Valencia.)

Now Playing: Sunshine/Nowhere To Run from Tarantula by Ride

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October 7, 2007

Putting prose on a diet

It’s always better to know what you’re writing going in, I think. New England Runner didn’t really give me any guidelines for an Osaka story, so I threw every story I hadn’t told already (and I few I had) into one big, sprawling narrative and sent it in, knowing it was too long but figuring cutting was better than stretching.

Some days later came the apologetic reply: great stuff, but it needs cutting all right. To about a quarter of its original size.

I have it at a bit more than a third, right now, but I still need to cut another third of what remains. I’m toying with the idea of removing every third word and seeing if it still makes sense.

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Lots of teams means lots of teammates

As running goes, I am pretty lucky. Not only that I’m able to do it at all, but in the people I’ve come in contact with simply because of my (relatively) long participation in the sport.

Through today’s half marathon, from arrival before the start to departure, I was running in to people I know professionally, including three different members of the marathon bike spotters team.

A member of one iteration of our Reach the Beach relay team was at the eight-mile water stop. Spotting and recognizing him took my mind off feeling sorry for myself (that was the race’s rough part, for me) for a few minutes, which was great.

And in the finishing chute, I was greeted by a college teammate who had finished around the time I was passing the twelve-mile mark. Another person I was pleased to see.

When I was running PRs and racing to win, I used to wonder what motivation I would have for training and racing when my times were hopelessly slower. I don’t think I’m washed up for good yet—another year or so of consistency may bring a breakthrough that would pull me back to PR territory—but several of my races this fall have given me clues about why I’ll keep at it once I am.

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October 6, 2007

Why own a chip?

I belong to a fairly small subset of runners with a curious quality: we own Champion Chips.

We’re a pretty small percentage of runners here in the USA, but a much larger percentage in Europe. “The Chip” took off there before it came to the USA in 1996, and many races there, I’m told, required their runners to own their chips.

The model in the USA, however, turned out differently. Timing companies bought thousands of chips to go with their mats, and rented them to the races for issue to registered runners. The runners were responsible for returning the chips after the race, either directly to volunteers past the finish line, or by mail.

Before that model was established, however, there was a window of a few years when there was more aggressive marketing of chips to individual runners. I got mine in late 1999, in anticipation of Boston ‘00, and it has the Boston Marathon logo. You can still buy a chip, with logos of various races, but I get the idea they’re not hot sellers.

Why not? Well, they’re not cheap, $35 each. And what’s the point? The only difference between a race-distributed chip and one you own is that you submit your chip number with your race registration, you have to remember and find your chip before the race, and you don’t have to return it afterward. (I suppose this could be a plus if you prefer not to have to mess with your shoelaces immediately after a race.) Many races don’t even allow for you to use your own chip, issuing one of theirs no matter what. Others make you jump through hoops; I had to go to the trouble desk and return a race-issued chip for Beach to Beacon this year and make sure my chip was correctly in the database.

The BAA Half Marathon, which I’m running tomorrow, is better (despite being run by essentially the same race management team, DMSE.) I put my chip number in the entry form, and when I picked up my number today, that was noted on my chip sheet and there was no chip in the bag. I’ve laced the chip onto the shoes I’m racing in tomorrow, and I’m ready to go. But I’m still not sure how it’s any easier than just taking the one the race issues. A has a chip which she never uses; I suspect most people who own chips do the same. I suspect I keep filling in my chip number out of pure obstinacy, because I can’t figure out any other reason.

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October 4, 2007

Down to the wire

It was the best of series, it was the worst of series? We can start with the worst: Robert Cheruiyot (I’m occasionally impressed with myself for being able to spell that without double-checking somewhere) locked up the ‘06-‘07 World Marathon Majors title with his win in Boston last spring; maybe if someone like Martin Lel managed to win both Chicago and New York this fall, with Cheruiyot no better than fifth, they could knock him off, but that’s about as likely as me qualifying for the Olympic Trials.

On the other hand, the women’s ‘06-‘07 series will be decided in New York next month. Gete Wami has the lead after winning Berlin last weekend, but only by ten points, and second place, Jelena Prokopcuka, is running in New York. And so is Wami. The kind of race the five marathons have been hoping for all along.

Therefore, it’s entirely likely, depending on how those two run, that a “minor place” as far back as fifth may win half a million at the NYCM, notably more than the winner.

A tie goes to the victor in head-to-head competition. The two haven’t faced each other so far in this series, so if Prokopcuka gets enough points to tie (i.e. 10 more than Wami) at the NYCM, she wins. Here are the scenarios which would let Prokopcuka overtake or tie Wami to win:

  • Wami 2nd or worse, Prokopcuka 1st
  • Wami 4th or worse, Prokopcuka 2nd or better
  • Wami 6th or worse, Prokopcuka 3rd or better

Prokopcuka may have an advantage in that Wami just ran Berlin and may not have recovered fully, but there’s some history of runners coming back from late-summer marathons (e.g. the Athens Olympics) and running well at the NYCM.

It actually feels a lot like the 1,500m in a decathlon. I expect we’ll see Prokopcuka and Wami eyeing each other until the pack reaches Manhattan and the real racing begins.

Now Playing: Electioneering from OK Computer by Radiohead

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October 3, 2007

It's never just one thing

It’s nice to see Steve Cram praising Kara Goucher, but the ultimate conclusion of his article—which seems to boil down to, “Goucher runs well because of altitude training”—is problematic. The problem is that, like so many other how-they-do-it articles, it grasps at a single element of a larger training program and points at that one thing as the source of success.

Cram’s not inherently wrong, but the conclusion he reaches is faulty. If all it took to run like Goucher was an altitude tent (or training at altitude, etc.) the Universities of Arkansas or Wisconsin would never beat Colorado and BYU at the NCAA cross country championships. Paula Radcliffe spends as much time (or more) at altitude and in her hypoxic tent as Goucher, and yet that didn’t carry her to victory last Sunday.

The desire to reduce a winning program to a single element is understandable, because the fact is that top-level training is complicated. If you want to be world class, not only do you have to have some talent to start with, you need to do it all. You need to train hard, recover well, tend your injuries (and Goucher cites the availability of therapists of all kinds as one reason she and her husband Adam chose Salazar’s program in Portland over the excellent training group in Madison, Wisconsin,) eat right, etc. etc. etc. And Alan Webb’s Osaka experience shows how narrow the margin of error is at that level. Keeping all that stuff up is complicated. It requires good coaching and support. It’s nearly impossible to do it by yourself.

But we hang on to the romantic image of the lone, noble amateur who bases a program on one magic element which allows them to triumph. If you’re sufficiently patient, you can list off some former champions and go one-to-one with their “secret weapon”: Frank Shorter and high mileage. Lasse Viren and “reindeer milk” (or, if you’re more cynical, blood doping.) Prefontaine and his willingness to hurt. Halberg and Snell and their phenomenal aerobic base. Miruts Yifter and his speed. Any number of athletes and their incredible coach, though I actually think that’s closer to the reality of things than the other magic elements, though in not in the direction you’d expect.

But every one of those athletes was as good as they were because they got all the pieces—or at least, as many as were available at the time—right. No silver bullet. If I move to Boulder, I won’t become a Trials qualifier. If I do 120-mile weeks, I won’t run a 1:05 half-marathon. If I quit my job, slept 10-11 hours a day, ran doubles and filled the rest of my time with massage appointments, active release therapy, weight training, yoga, etc. while living above 10,000’ and training below 5,000’… well, maybe I could pop a fast time or two.

Goucher is doing all that. Plus, she’s training as hard as (or, as my coach observed when he visited their training camp this summer, harder than) the very talented men in her training group.

It’s not just altitude. It’s making it a full-time job, and then doing it all right.

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October 1, 2007

A bad day for the Os in athletics

I just went to the IAAF website to check a statistic for a story (which I’m past deadline on) and discovered that Al Oerter died. The USATF release arrived in my inbox minutes later. Oerter probably isn’t a name that’s familiar to younger track fans—including my own generation—but the IAAF is calling him “the greatest athlete ever to compete in the men’s discus throw.” Oerter not only competed in four consecutive Olympics, beginning in Melbourne in 1956, he won four gold medals—setting Olympic records all four times. Twelve years after retiring in 1968, Oerter came back to contest the 1980 and 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials, and threw his best-ever mark in 1980 at age 43.

This morning, I had another press release in my email, noting the passing of Asics chairman Kihachiro Onitsuka. Again, longtime runners will see the resonance of that name: before Asics was created from the merger of several sporting goods firms, Onitsuka founded his own company to encourage Japanese youth in sports following the second World War. Onitsuka had a hand in the birth of two major running shoe companies, since Blue Ribbon Sports, the forerunner of Nike, was founded by Oregon’s Phil Knight to import and market Onitsuka’s Tiger running shoes in the USA.

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September 30, 2007

Gebrselassie 2:04:26

Before I fly off into speculation, let’s start with the bare facts. This morning, in Berlin, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia ran 26.2 miles (a standard marathon) faster than anyone before in recorded history. His time of 2:04:26 was 29 seconds faster than the previous best, 2:04:55, run by the Kenyan Paul Tergat in 2003 over the same course. (Full disclosure: I’ve been a Haile fan for a dozen years or more, and he’s the one on the right in that remarkably young-looking photo of me from 2001.)

From here, notes. First, there’s the obvious continuation of a long-term pattern: Haile breaks Tergat’s world record. In the wake of the Atlanta Olympics, where Haile won the 10,000m gold medal, Salah Hissou, the bronze medalist, took down the WR in that event; Haile reclaimed it the next spring. In ‘97, Tergat, the silver medalist, broke Haile’s record; Haile took it back the next spring. Most of Gebrselassie’s track records are gone to Kenenisa Bekele now (have I mentioned that?) but this marathon record is like a coda (or a rim-shot, if you look at it from one point of view) to that long-standing rivalry.

Another point: Haile has been trying to do this for years. In 2002, the organizers of the London marathon set up what was supposed to be a great duel between Tergat and Gebrselassie; Khalid Khannouchi won instead, in what was then the world record of 2:05:38. It’s taken Haile a long time to re-make himself into a marathoner, and at the longer distance he’s certainly not the sort of dominant athlete he once was on the track.

Which leads me to what I was speculating about this morning on my own run. In the 1960s, the marathon, which had for sixty years been a race of attrition won by athletes who were able to survive the distance, was revolutionized by an Englishman named Jim Peters. Peters was the first man to run under 2:20 for the marathon, and he did it by training himself to run harder than anyone else for the length of the race. Before Peters, the world record stood at 2:25:39; after him, 2:17:39. Peters opened the door to the 10,000m men, like Segey Popov, Buddy Edelen, and (most memorably) Abebe Bikila.

Since the early ’90s, though, the 10,000m itself has changed, and I think that the belated relocation of the Tergat/Gebrselassie rivalry to the marathon distance signals a change in the way that race is run. Certainly many races will still be won the “old way” just as some smaller marathons are still won by the runner best able to survive the distance, the marathon’s own manifestation of “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (heard that from me before?) But I think in the coming decades we’ll see increasing numbers of marathons won by athletes who can cover the entire distance at a terrifyingly fast pace, very close to their anaerobic threshold. The 5,000m in some European meets has already become a long sprint, with the athletes running close to flat out all the way. The 10,000m is headed that way. It will take a long time for that approach to transfer to the marathon, but Haile has now done it, and he won’t be the last.

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September 23, 2007

What I've been doing to pull my weight

This afternoon I found myself standing in an echoing concrete tunnel interviewing a Kenyan (a naturally soft-spoken bunch) with the worst of our three digital recorders while a thousand German pre-teen girls stood at the end of the tunnel chanting “FRANKA!!!” at the top of their high-pitched lungs in an effort to get their new hero to come down and sign her name to anything that would take a mark.

So it’s possible that my headline quote was… a little distorted. (“Even if he didn’t say it, he’d probably thank you for writing it,” said my editor.)

Either way, that’s my first feature story of the weekend. (I have this week to write a story for the IAAF Magazine now, as well.) The rest of my work has largely been along the lines of quick, 150-to-300-word recaps of what just happened (how much can you write about a race that lasts less than 14 seconds?), about midway between the very short form of the IAAF “blog” in Osaka and the longer analyses I did in the RW Osaka blog. With thirty-six events on the weekend, four of us split into two teams; my pair took the women on Saturday and the men on Sunday (which happened to give us ten events each day, but I had a light load outside the reports so I’m not complaining), and did our best to divide those events in a way that let us write and post as soon as possible after the event. So, in the name of recording the links and without at all claiming these as great literature, here’s my output:

I’m still trying to work out the gamesmanship involved in passing heights in the vertical jumps, particularly in the men’s pole vault, but I can understand when I see a bar raised to a world-record height.

Now Playing: Undo from Numbers - EP by The Church

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Another distance switch

It was agreed yesterday in the media tribune that we’d like to see some of the Ethiopian distance runners (Meseret Defar, Tirunesh Dibaba, Kenenisa Bekele) who routinely wow the crowds with scorching last-lap finishes in the 3,000m, 5,000m and even 10,000m, step down and run a proper 1,500m. Dibaba and Defar, in particular, could be competitive with the best in the world; Defar’s 8:24.x 3,000m PR represents, at worst, two consecutive 4:12 1,500m runs, but her closing 1,500m was probably significantly faster.

Now Playing: Dreamer In My Dreams from Being There by Wilco

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Where are the Americans?

I noted a few days ago that the fatigue factor has a pretty big impact on the start lists here for the World Athletics Final, but I hadn’t really appreciated the real degree that reached. For example, there were six starters in the women’s 5,000m yesterday. Six. This means that someone at the IAAF spent a good chunk of last week calling down the 5,000m standings list and still only found seven women (Meseret Defar switched to today’s 3,000m at the last minute) willing to be brought to Stuttgart at the meet’s expense, put up here, and to race with a guaranteed $1,000 payday (and, in a race as small as the 5,000m ended up being, even Russia’s Kseniya Agafonova, who was off the back at halfway and finished sixth, won $4,000.)

Note that six Americans ranked higher than Agafonova in the standings, though some of them didn’t qualify for this meet because scoring in three series meets is required. There are all kinds of reasons why not; some of them are training for fall marathons, some are training for spring marathons (!), some are just tired. So, skip down to the men’s 100m. No fall marathons there; these guys aren’t planning on doing anything until December, when they may start training for the indoor season (or they may start training for Beijing then, but it is an article of faith among distance runners that sprinters don’t really train.)

There wasn’t a single American in the men’s 100m.

This is a little like having no Kenyans in the steeplechase. Or no Fords in a NASCAR race. No Stanford grads at Google.

Not all events are so gutted. The women’s steeplechase featured a decent field, and the new American Record holder, Lisa Galaviz, showed up to race. Galaviz turned out not to be a factor, but it’s easy to picture American steeplechasers getting the call inviting them to Stuttgart and saying, “Sure, I’ll come! I haven’t raced since July, but I don’t get that many chances; bring it on!” (Steve Slattery in the men’s steeple is, with Galaviz and Alan Webb, the third American distance runner here.) Wallace Spearmon is here, the shot putters showed up, the pole vaulters are here. We had two discus throwers here, though the discus guys are probably like the steeplechasers, happy for whatever payday they can get.

It’s also fair to note that for someone like Deena Kastor, a $1,000 payday isn’t worth the disruption of a trip from California to Stuttgart if it wasn’t part of a larger plan; there’s a narrow line between “taking a good opportunity” and “compromising long-term goals chasing small paydays.”

And the Americans aren’t the only ones going missing. Only one Ethiopian in the women’s 5,000m? No Jamaicans in the women’s 200m?

Now Playing: F.M. by Steely Dan

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Not quite empty seats

Pat Butcher has a splendid article in the Financial Times this weekend about athletics’ (track and field’s) declining profile in its traditional audience center, Europe. It makes a lot of the same points made by the Globe article about indoor track earlier this year.

The biggest problem with the article in question, however, is no fault of Butcher’s. In the print edition (I have to read something, and FT is around and in English) they illustrated “performing before empty seats in Osaka” with a shot of a javelin thrower. The background is not empty spectator seats… it’s the press tribune. A vast expanse of white desks which may look like empty seats in the background, even when they’re full.

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September 20, 2007

Your running tour

I was faintly interested last week when this article about running tours of new cities ran in the NYT, but it really hit me this afternoon. (It’s afternoon here, by the way.) Not that I saw The Sights in any directed way.

Instead, I sussed out using Google Maps that to the north and east of here appear to be farmlands, and through those farmlands appear to be roads which are little-trafficked by automobiles. Sounds like a great place for a run, so I headed in the general direction of the village of Untertürkheim. By an appallingly roundabout route I found myself in the fields I’d spotted on the map, and discovered the reason behind the pattern of the roads: the fields are vineyards, with grapes fairly dripping off some of the vines, and the vineyards are, as vineyards often are, on hillsides.

So I did a little climbing.

Thing was, after forty minutes of running I ended up about here, which is a chapel on a hilltop near an area marked “Rotenburg” which has stunning views of Untertürkheim, the Neckar River valley approaching Stuttgart, and the stadium complex. Were it not for similar ridges and other hilltops, you could see the city quite well.

Not a bad tour for a little exercise.

(Update: Of course, it would’ve been even better if I carried my camera on all my runs with me…)

(Update 2: This is the chapel, labeled as one of the nice scenic overlooks in the city. I’d go to the TV tower if I could figure out when I’d have time.)

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September 19, 2007

No, really, this is the Final

I’ve had several people ask what event I’m going to Stuttgart for. (Not “Why?” because the obvious answer is, “Because there’s paying work there.”) With the World Championships last week, and the Golden League $1 million won last Sunday, what’s left?

It’s a little-known feature of the World Athletics Tour (an umbrella name for all IAAF-standard professional track meets, what might more colloquially called “the circuit,”) that event placers win points in their event. The points on offer at each meet vary according to the meet’s standing in the Tour; the six Golden League events earn the most (and I’m not so young that I don’t remember when there was only the Golden Four,) and the point value of a win decreases through Super GP and GP meets, with the lowest being “permit meetings” like the Adidas Grand Prix in Carson, California.

The point of these points, so to speak, is to have a sort of season-ending “playoff” between the top point-getters: The World Athletics Final. The top X athletes in each event (seven or eleven depending on the event, with an eighth or twelfth spot filled by special IAAF invitation) face off in a straight final to end the season.

That’s the idea, at least; as Steve Cram points out, between the Golden League and the World Championships, it’s pretty easy to have “championship fatigue” by now, and the fields are seldom quite as miraculous as one would hope. There was an old system in which prize money was awarded for the places in the WAT point standings, and the winners simply had to show up at the WAF (or similarly-named event; sometimes the WAF was simply part of ISTAF-Berlin, the last Golden League meet) to claim the loot. (The Golden League jackpot winners have to compete at the WAF to collect, as well.)

Cram only hints at another aspect of the WAF, which is the real fatigue of the athletes. Nearly all the Americans I follow have already burned out and caught flights home, even though many are on the bubble for selection to the WAF and almost certainly could run if ready. Matt Tegenkamp, for example, is ranked 11th in the 3,000m, but he’s already called an end to his season.

That said, some athletes—Susanna Kallur comes to mind—are just beginning to approach a peak. There’s likely to be a few interesting races; they just might not be quite the titanic clashes this meet was conceived for.

Now Playing: Cannonball from Last Splash by The Breeders

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Posted by pjm at 9:13 AM | Comments (0)

September 18, 2007

Echoes of Osaka

Osaka World Championships Media RaceThere is a pile of laundry on the bed which is the same load of laundry I’ve been cycling endlessly since mid-August. With the possible addition of a pair of long pants or two and some long-sleeved shirts, I’m packing pretty much the same suitcase for Stuttgart that I did for Osaka.

And this morning I got two emails taking me back to Nagai Stadium for a few minutes. The first was from Ayako Oikawa, a Japanese journalist who speaks more languages than I do and travels to even more track meets; I met her two or three years ago at the New York meet. She had a few photos of me from the media 800m race, which had me thinking how it was worth the ribbing (“Are those spikes legal?”) to have had the chance to race hard in spikes on that track.

Another was from another track writer of my acquaintance, a curmudgeonly sort who has a streak of Olympics attendances going back to Helsinki and World Championships going back to… well, Helsinki the first time, but it’s easier to just say he’s been to all of them. He was going back through Osaka coverage and spotted this article, and wants me to submit that and some other clips as an entry for next year’s Jesse Abramson Award. Which is flattering to hear from him, but when I look at the (incomplete) list of past winners of the award, it’s pretty easy to see why I haven’t bothered to enter before, at least if you’ve been reading about running (and noticing the bylines) for a few years.

The TDK on my bib number in that photo also reminds me of a prize of the trip: these speakers aren’t, so far as I can find, available in the States yet, but thanks to being in the right place at the right time (i.e. when TDK announced that it was renewing its partnership with the IAAF) there’s a pair plugged in to my laptop. They’re USB powered, which means they’ll work with my MintyBoost as well as a USB port, and for their size (not much larger than the iPod, packed,) they’re pretty good.

Now Playing: The Scientist (Live) from Lost In Space by Aimee Mann

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September 16, 2007

My vote for "best team name"

“DON’T DRINK THAT IT’S NOT GATORADE”

Honorable mention, if I get a vote for that too: “Who sat on my sandwich?”

Posted by pjm at 3:16 PM | Comments (0)

September 14, 2007

Step, don't sit, on the barrier

I’m going to be busy for a little while. If you’re looking for reading, Amby’s going to run a steeplechase. If you don’t think this is at all notable, read about what happened after his last one.

Posted by pjm at 8:16 AM | Comments (0)

September 10, 2007

In print

This morning I sent invoices for a terrifying amount of money (I did a little better than “break even” on Osaka, as it happens,) to a number of different publications. That and an unexpected compliment on Saturday about some previous work reminded me that I haven’t done terribly well about keeping up my notes-about-writing-elsewhere here.

  • In the October 2007 Running Times, my roundup of the U.S. track season (May and June, basically) sprawls over seven pages, despite only being about 1,500 words. Look in the “At the Races” section in the back.

  • I’ll have a similar roundup from Osaka in the December ‘07 RT, I believe as part of a larger package, assuming they don’t find what I sent on Friday to be completely unusable.

  • There will be a brief Q&A with Kara Goucher in an upcoming issue of Runner’s World (November? December? I did it in Osaka, on a tight deadline.)

  • I have something in the pipeline for New England Runner, but that will take a little while to surface.

It’s at times like this that I toy with the idea of doing the running-writing thing as a “real job,” but then I remind myself that I have a “real job.” How else would I be able to fax credential applications to Germany?

Update: And then my September/October NER arrives and I am reminded that A and I have the “Scenic Stridings” on page 14. Yes, both of us.

Now Playing: Lousiana from Hologram of Baal by The Church

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September 9, 2007

I guess I won't need that translation after all

Getting back to this month-old question, it looks like the point is moot anyway: while the original story implied that the race was on Sunday during the meet, it looks like the race was really last Tuesday. So, even if I hadn’t been traveling to an entirely different destination, it’s unlikely that I would’ve been around for the race.

I am a little disappointed, though I suppose I’ll have plenty to do that weekend anyway.

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Posted by pjm at 1:45 PM | Comments (0)

An old joke

I suppose now I would know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of schadenfreude, except that I was actually pretty pleased with my race.

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September 7, 2007

Still with a lot to say

I just finished a draft of an Osaka round-up for a magazine. They wanted “about 1,200 words.” My draft weighs in at over 1,900 words.

This is probably good news, since my writing invariably improves when I edit for length, but haven’t I written enough about this meet yet?

Now Playing: Kate from Whatever & Ever Amen by Ben Folds Five

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September 2, 2007

I've always tried to suppress my inner fanboy...

…but Steve Ovett just introduced himself in the elevator. Nice man.

Posted by pjm at 4:57 AM | Comments (0)

August 24, 2007

Overrated

There is a “media race” to be held on Thursday afternoon. 800m, on the competition track. I wouldn’t admit this if the race wasn’t actually happening, but I packed my spikes with just such a thing in mind.

The sign-up form asked for our 800m PR, which I dutifully supplied, but I really doubt I’ll be within fifteen seconds of it. I hope they don’t seed the races that way; the same is probably true of most media people.

Posted by pjm at 1:07 AM | Comments (1)

August 18, 2007

Racing, the good and the bad

Two weeks ago, I ran the Beach to Beacon 10K, up in my home state. This was my fourth time running B2B; I’m relatively familiar with the course now, and I think I can run it pretty well. However, the day turned up humid, and despite my doing more-or-less everything correctly, I suffered for it. My plan was to start conservatively to avoid getting “zapped” early on, then ramp up the pace. I started conservatively enough, maybe too much so, but despite passing people throughout the race, I never really picked up the pace. I was disappointed with the time, almost a minute slower than I’d run on a tougher course on the 4th of July, and with my inability to pick up the pace. My coach agreed that that sounded like a “hot conditions” problem.

Rather than mope about it too much, though, I opted to spend the afternoon swimming off my parents’ boat at their favorite swimming spot in Harpswell, where there’s a rope swing and the water was 74°F.

Two weeks later and with some encouraging training on that nice grass loop behind me, I decided I’d sneak in one more race before disrupting my training completely with travel. The Mug Race is a non-standard distance (5.5 miles) and a pretty challenging course, but the day was perfect today: a bit chilly for warming up in short sleeves, but perfect for the race.

I ran this race in my spectacular 2002 year, the year where I won seven races, and while I challenged for the win that year, I wound up out-kicked for second. I decided to be aggressive this year but didn’t expect to contend for the win. But for some reason, the pace for the front-runners never got away from me today. Throughout the race, there were two to six of us in a rotating cast in the front; I never led, but sometimes I was breathing down the leader’s neck, depending on who it was. Sometimes I was about to get dropped, and I’d look back and see people ready to pounce, and push on; sometimes I would struggle up a hill, then decide at the top that the pace was too slow and it was time for me to surge and see if I could drop anyone. (It seldom worked for long.) We weren’t running together, really; it was just that none of us had the legs to make a move that would drop all the others. One guy held a lead of about ten meters for about four miles, but couldn’t get any more and wound up fourth.

There were five of us in contention with a half mile to go, which is just absurd for this race. (In 2002, the leader ran alone until I caught him at 5 miles.) I think I was the one who had dipped into my reserves the most to stay in contention, because I finished fifth, but by less than half a minute. My average pace per mile was about 6:07, which is my fastest race since the track 5,000m I ran in June, and by placing third in my age group (19-39, a tough bracket) I won my second Mug Race Mug. A has four or five of them.

It was a minute and a half slower than my second-place run in 2002, but it was a whale of a lot of fun. I’d do that again.

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August 17, 2007

What I'm doing in Osaka

For the first time in my career, a significant amount of my work at a major event is going to appear on line more or less unfiltered, as soon as I write it. As far as the internet is concerned, this may be the most thoroughly documented—and observable—“vacation” I’ve ever had.

So here’s how to follow it all:

  • Obviously, subscribe to the feed for this blog. This is where I’ll carp about my lack of sleep, getting locked out of the hotel, and how hard it is to run in the middle of a major metropolitan area.
  • Get the feed for my Flickr photo stream as well. Hopefully my camera will hold up better than it did in Fukuoka and if I get anything good, I’ll upload it to Flickr.
  • My primary job, the IAAF competition blog, doesn’t have a feed, unfortunately. However, my next responsibility, the Runner’s World Osaka 2007 blog, does. The IAAF blog will read like a marathon mile-by-mile; it’s going to be something like the meet announcer, where I describe the races, the progress of the field events, the intricacies of decathlon scoring. I’m given some latitude for commentary and opinion, but this is the IAAF and this is their meet, so I’m on a pretty short leash there. Anything that’s outside that short leash goes into the RW blog, from long jumpers getting struck by stray javelins (I hope not) to my (hypothetical) fascination with Japanese mass transit and any encounters with local flavor. (Den-Den Town is on my list.) That’s my place to be an out-and-out track geek. Subscribe to the RW blog’s feed; check the IAAF daily.
  • I’ll have five to eight reports in the Running USA Wire. Those will be straight run-downs of the distance events with a heavy emphasis on American performances, particularly those of Running USA athletes (e.g. Jen Rhines, Deena Kastor, and Katie McGregor, I think.) No feed for that, I guess.

Anyone talented enough with Yahoo! Pipes to put together a pjm in Osaka feed?

Now Playing: Plea From A Cat Named Virtue from Reconstruction Site by The Weakerthans

Posted by pjm at 10:43 AM | Comments (0)

August 16, 2007

Weekend's work

My work from last Sunday is now online. I’m pleased that so many were usable, but in flipping through I did see a few places where A obviously picked a not-so-great shot because it was the best available in the series. (The others might have been out of focus, or badly framed, or just a bad point in the runner’s stride.) A few runners we know are only represented as slightly out-of-focus backgrounds to other shots. I will not be replacing Victah any time soon.

Now Playing: Forgetting Evelyn by Retrospect

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Posted by pjm at 8:41 AM | Comments (0)

Grass

Football has already begun to take over the track we sometimes use for workouts in Wakefield. Fortunately, our workout group recently discovered that the baseball field is generally unused at the time we meet, and a lap of this particular field is close enough to a quarter mile for workout use. It’s pretty smooth, most of the way around, easy to run on but not as machined-flat as a track. The grass doesn’t give much back, the way a track would, so we have to work a bit harder, but it’s also softer to land on.

The other day, willing myself to stay on the shoulder of my much-faster training partner, I recalled quite vividly the half-mile loop around the lower playing fields at the College where we did most of our cross-country workouts. I don’t often look back on that loop fondly, but I realized that my view was colored by my current circumstances. Then, we did a lot of running on back roads with generous shoulders, or in the woods and hills around town. Now, I’m constrained to pavement and concrete (and, in some quarters of Cambridge, brick), or trails so rocky they may as well be concrete.

Wednesday morning as I ran along the Charles, and thought about what a great frame that river makes for a picture of the city, I also thought: too many people. Too much concrete. This isn’t really my place. I need softer ground.

Now Playing: I’m Running from Big Generator by Yes

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August 12, 2007

Public service announcement for spike-wearers

I forgot to mention this, in all the moving rush.

If you race in spikes (or would like to: cross-country season is coming!) and aren’t tied to one brand of shoes, the Saucony outlet near Inman Square has a slew of spikes on the clearance racks, which means ~$20/pair.

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Posted by pjm at 5:12 PM | Comments (0)

That would be me

On the IAAF Osaka page, there’s a little box in the lower right marked, “Today’s Focus.”

In the box is the following text:

Welcome to our Osaka 2007 blog!
Here during the championships you will be able to read our blogger’s daily personal picks of what action to look out for. Then just click on the banner below to read his LIVE competition blog…

I do believe that’s my assignment. No feed, alas…

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Posted by pjm at 2:46 PM | Comments (0)

August 11, 2007

It's an ill wind...

…that blows nobody any good.

A pointed out an interesting bit of news this morning: Adil Kaouch, the Moroccan miler I wrote about in the spring of ‘06 when he medaled at World Cross, has been “provisionally suspended” for doping. (“Provisionally suspended” is a new and interesting term to me. It appears to mean that the IAAF or WADA has probable cause to suspect the athlete of doping, but hasn’t confirmed the test yet.)

As far as Morocco goes, Kaouch was the heir to El Guerrouj, and indeed was his rabbit in two World Championships finals. More to the point, he’s the second-fastest 1,500m runner this year, and unless Kenya’s Daniel Kipchirchir Komen gets his act together in the next two weeks, would be considered the next favorite to Alan Webb (still the fastest in the world this year) at the World Championships in Osaka.

This “provisional” suspension could still be overturned, but if it stands, it removes someone who would be considered a threat to Webb winning a medal in Osaka. I hate to see anyone busted for doping, let alone the polite and reserved Kaouch, but it’s undeniable that if he’s not in Osaka, that helps Webb.

Now Playing: Columbus from Heyday by The Church

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Posted by pjm at 11:17 AM | Comments (0)

August 2, 2007

How good is your German?

I’m trying to figure out how to register for this run. There seems to be online registration, but I can’t tell what to fill in where. Maybe I should just wait until I get there?

Now Playing: Protection from Speed Graphic (EP) by Ben Folds

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Posted by pjm at 11:02 AM | Comments (1)

July 31, 2007

Surprise prize

Upon arrival in Medford, I found waiting an un-ordered package from L.L. Bean. I was surprised to discover that it was a plaque and prize from a race I ran on the 4th of July (it happens that I’m wearing the shirt today.) The official results showed me 6th in the age group, but the plaque is for 3rd, so I assume they must have disallowed double-dipping: 1st was the overall winner, and maybe there were two others with better category wins, like Freeport residents or Bean employees.

A nice surprise, however it came about. I seem to win the best prizes for races which aren’t my best, though.

Now Playing: Michigan from LP by Ambulance Ltd

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July 23, 2007

Why I need to get out of the city

On this morning’s run, I saw two different cars running red lights. This isn’t remarkable in and of itself; after all, around here the unwritten rule is, green means go, red means go a little faster.

It’s that both cars were running red lights across crosswalks where I had a nice, clear “Walk” signal and was about to run across. And when I say, “Running red lights,” I don’t mean treating them as stop signs; I mean treating them as green lights.

So yeah, that’s you, the guy in the dark green Jeep going east on Lawrence at the corner of Governor’s Ave (conveniently close to the hospital) and you, too, the lady woman in the white Toyota turning right off the Alewife Brook Parkway at Winthrop street. You might have been in a hurry, but stopping for the red light (and the pedestrians you’re required by law to yield to) is less likely to make you later than having one of them sprawled across your hood.

Because if I keep running in this city, sooner or later I’m going to wind up as someone’s hood ornament. A’s been clipped once already. I’d rather go back somewhere where venturing out on the roads didn’t mean taking your life in your hands.

Now Playing: The Bell And The Butterfly from Wonderland by The Charlatans

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Posted by pjm at 11:18 AM | Comments (2)

July 21, 2007

Another ghost

Several years ago I wrote a column titled, “No more chasing ghosts,” about a young man named Alan Webb. He had just become the fourth American high schooler to run a standard mile in less than 4:00, and the first in over twenty years. The third, and last until Webb, was Marty Liquori, and I hung the column on the idea that now, we could stop anguishing about “not since Marty Liquori in 1967…” and “Marty’s ghost could stop going to track meets.”

Alan Webb ran 3:46.91 at a tiny meet on a six-lane track in the woods in Belgium this afternoon. This makes him the fastest American ever, no qualifications; Steve Scott’s old record, which was 3:47.69, was twenty-five years old (older than Webb himself). Webb is now in the top 10 all-time for the entire world. I just watched grainy, jumpy internet video of the race, and the over-exuberant announcer (who I envied) kept using the phrase, “The ghost of Steve Scott.”

Now all Webb has to chase is Hicham el Guerrouj, the current world record holder. (And, more literally, Adil Kaouch, who I wrote about when he won a medal at the Fukuoka World Cross.) El G only retired in 2005, but his records date from 1997-1999. I honestly don’t think they qualify as ghosts, but that probably won’t stop someone from dragging the cliché out.

(Update, 7/22: I looked at the archive and discovered that I actually predicted the appearance of Scott’s ghost.)

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Posted by pjm at 9:48 PM | Comments (1)

July 11, 2007

Haile in New York

John mentioned this morning’s article in the NYT about Haile Gebrselassie running in the New York City Half-Marathon next month, and linked to some YouTube video of Haile’s two Olympic gold medals.

I could drag out my obligatory picture-of-pjm-with-famous-runner (wow I look young there), but there’s a quote from Geb in the article, about New York City:

“I’ve been there many times,” he said. “I know the roads in Central Park. I haven’t run in the New York City Marathon, but I was there to watch it three or four years ago. I’m running the Berlin Marathon this year because I won it last year, but maybe New York in the future.”

Hmm, I thought, and looked in my iPhoto. I remember that visit…

Haile in New York, 2003

Now Playing: Money Blues from Ghost Repeater Euro Bonus CD by Jeffrey Foucault

Posted by pjm at 8:02 PM | Comments (0)

July 6, 2007

Help wanted

…but not (yet) at Common Media. One of my former colleagues pinged me with a job description for what my former job has now become. If you like running, grok the web to the point where you can “view source” on a web page and have a clue what you’re looking at, and believe that if something is worth doing it’s worth doing as well as possible, ping me and I’ll send along the link.

Now Playing: What Are You Waiting For? from Back to Me by Kathleen Edwards

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Posted by pjm at 5:49 PM | Comments (0)

Every so often...

…we get an American distance runner who goes out and pops a big one in Europe, and we wonder if we’ve found the Next Great whatever. Nicole Teter, David Krummenacker, and Jen Toomey all had big wins; I think Teter and Krummenacker’s both came in 2002, an “off year.” Krummenacker won a world indoor 800m title, but not much else since he missed the Olympic team in ‘04. Teter and Toomey have been injury-ridden for several years now. But I still get excited when I see it happen.

This just in from Paris:

1500 Metres - Men                                             

1 Webb , Alan                      USA    3:30.54        
2 Baala , Mehdi                    FRA    3:31.01    
3 Boukensa , Tarek                 ALG    3:32.77         
4 Korir , Shadrack                 KEN    3:32.81   
5 Sullivan , Kevin                 CAN    3:34.16      
6 Simotwo , Suleiman Kipses        KEN    3:34.78         
7 Lagat , Bernard                  USA    3:35.09

Baala is the defending European champion, running on his home track. Lagat is Lagat. I had expected to see Daniel Kipchirchir Komen in there, but apparently not. Webb has now beaten Lagat three times this year; it’s probably fair to say he owns Bernard now. Also, with just two races, Webb is now fifth on the GP list for the year; the top four are all Kenyan and (excepting Augustine Choge in 3rd) have four or five races in the series.

Update: USATF notes that this is both a big PR for Webb, and the fastest time in the world this year.

Now Playing: Shake That Thing from In the Land of Salvation and Sin by The Georgia Satellites

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Posted by pjm at 5:21 PM | Comments (0)

July 4, 2007

And sometimes it's not the reporter

As a counterpoint to my new alias, I offer a not-so-stupid reporter story. (Or maybe it is a stupid reporter story.) It came to mind while I was retrieving quotes for a big (for me) story I sent to Running Times a few days ago.

After the women’s 10,000m last week, someone asked Deena Kastor when was the last time she had run a 10,000m on the track. On my recording, Kastor is quite clear, saying, the 2004 Olympic Trials, which she won. I dutifully reported this in my story.

The problem is, it’s not so. Kastor ran in 2005, placing fourth. (Her winning time in Indianapolis, incidentally, was slower than that 4th-place finish in Carson.) A reader noted this, and told my editor, who corrected the posted story.

Did Kastor misunderstand the question, asking when she’d last run? Did I misunderstand the question, and she answered it correctly? Did she forget the race? Or was she deliberately forgetting it? Who knows, but I should’ve checked. (And, silly me, I was at that meet.)

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July 2, 2007

Want me to spell that for you again?

Sometimes I wonder if I’m over-selling myself when I say I’m “good at” track writing. And sometimes I think the standards for calling yourself a “reporter” are so ridiculously low I should be billing myself as “experienced” or “expert” or something like that.

Yesterday I ran the annual 4th-of-July-weekend road race. I improved over last year, running 30:45 for 4th overall, with the top three all being high school kids. (I figure “nobody older than me in front of me” is a valid goal for some of these races.) As I walked through the chute, catching my breath, a guy with a camera and a notebook asked my name.

I told him, and he said, “Mark?” No, I said, and repeated my first name, then spelled it. I should add that my name was clearly and correctly written on the bottom of the bib number I was wearing, and that label was then transferred to a results board which was posted for an hour or so after the race.

In the article in today’s paper, they used “Mark” as my first name, then my correct first name as my last name. I wonder what the real names of the other guys are?

The irony may be that the first two finishers were both wearing shirts with my last name on them.

Now Playing: Demon Rock from Wholesale Meats And Fish by Letters To Cleo

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June 22, 2007

Displaying adaptability

My new running shoes felt great on the two miles back from Marathon Sports to the apartment on Monday. So on Tuesday night, despite only two miles on them, I tossed them in the suitcase in place of a heavier, but more experienced pair.

Wednesday evening, I discovered that they rub in a place I haven’t developed a callus yet. Thursday morning, it blistered pretty thoroughly, despite one of those Band-Aid anti-blister pads. (As soon as I start sweating, those travel.)

Thursday evening, in preparation for an early-Friday-morning run, I drained the blister, put another pad on, then secured it with the best tool I could find.

Duct tape.

Securing the blister pad

It’s not just for ducks anymore!

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Posted by pjm at 2:28 PM | Comments (2)

June 20, 2007

Winning speculation

I didn’t have paying work coming in to this meet, though it would be worthwhile anyway as background material for Osaka. You might say I booked the trip and requested credentials “on spec”.

However, in the last 24 hours I’ve had two unexpected assignments (both on fairly short turnaround, as well,) which are going to make this actually profitable, neither tied directly to my attendance here but both improved by it. I’ll have a track-season roundup for RT and an athlete profile for the IAAF. The athlete profile is both lucky and unlucky: on the good side, she’s West Coast-based, and Indianapolis will probably be the only time we’ll be in the same city before Osaka. On the minus side, the assignment arrived this morning, ten minutes before she held a press conference here and while I was still on a plane.

(Internet access here is only at the track, so I expect to continue my quiet streak here for a while.)

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June 17, 2007

The lion roars

I was pleased to see this article in the South African press announcing that Leonid Shvetsov, a Russian doctor resident in the US, set a new record for the “down” run of the Comrades Marathon. The previous record was 21 years old. (The Comrades Marathon, actually 89.3k and therefore somewhat more than twice the length of a standard marathon, is a point-to-point race between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, and alternates direction. Since Pietermartizburg is higher than Durban, years the race starts in Durban are “up” races; from Pietermaritzburg, like this year, “down” races.)

I met Shvetsov nearly ten years ago, at the 1997 Chicago Marathon. In 1997, the marathon world record was 2:06:50 and very few active marathoners had ever run under 2:08. Leonid was one of the rabbits, and because Chicago’s course winds in and out of downtown he was able to turn up in the press room (almost always the best place to watch a big-city marathon) shortly after leaving the course. Khalid Khannouchi, running his debut marathon, went on to finish in an eye-opening 2:07:10, and throughout the closing miles Leonid was sitting next to me (one of the available empty seats), reading off the splits stored in his watch and commenting on the race. I commented on his choice of sponsor—he was an Asics athlete, so Leo the Lion was running for Tiger. I found him the friendliest and most approachable marathoner I’d ever met, doubly so considering he was working in his second language.

We had some sporadic email contacts while I was working for RW, and I noted his shift from marathons to ultras when he scored a second at Comrades six years ago, but he dropped out of my sight for a while. Now it looks like everything finally came together for him on the right day; it’s no small feat to break a Bruce Fordyce record.

Now Playing: Born Of Frustration from Getting Away With It…Live by James

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18:56

I can’t really describe that race as anything other than hard work.

It was hot when we started, hotter than the 4th of July 5-miler usually is, but fortunately without the swampy July humidity. I decided to stick to my plan, which was essentially to run relatively easily for 400, push for 200, and follow that pattern (though obviously a closing 400m push was needed at the end.) The rest of the men in the race left me behind more or less immediately, and a pack of four women formed around me, but they were also moving faster than I should have so I let them go as well. And then I ran alone, except when someone was lapping me. Four guys, the lead pack, lapped me twice; two or three more got me once. None of the women lapped me, but I lapped one. I won’t be the last name in the results, because one or two other men dropped out. It was, as I said, hot.

I clicked splits at the end of each of my 600m repeats, but didn’t look at them. 2:15s would have taken me to my goal time, but I was (of course) hoping for 2:13 or 2:12. I got 2:09 (fast start), 2:14 (better?), 2:17 (bad pattern), 2:14, 2:19 (ouch), 2:17, 2:19, then 3:02 for the last 800. I had 18:55 on my watch, but I know I didn’t catch the start right so I’m betting the official time is 18:56. I felt OK through at least 3k, the first five 600s, but the last k in particular was pretty rough.

It’s a little disappointing that I’m not running faster at this point (though this was a faster per-mile average than the 5-miler over Memorial Day weekend.) But for running all alone on the track in the heat, I’m pleased to have made it through and stuck to my workout. Also, thanks to having the workout to focus on, this was mentally one of the easiest track 5ks I’ve run.

I decided, reluctantly, to race in road flats (the ruby slippers are pretty enough to get some attention from a toddler on the T) instead of spikes, so I should be able to walk comfortably tomorrow.

The footnote to the meet (for me—I expect it would be the headline for most spectators) was a men’s mile added to the schedule at the request of Ben True and his coach. Five years ago I ran my fastest post-college (road) 5k behind him; today he ran 3:59.99 (!!) for the mile. The time almost slipped away from him, but a Georgetown runner who had been shadowing him most of the race moved out to pass on the homestretch and Ben kicked hard to save both the win and the sub-4—his first, I think. That was pretty cool.

Update: Results are posted but the time they have listed for me is profoundly wrong (by nearly half a lap) and I can’t figure out how.

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June 14, 2007

An evolving sport

Every World Championship year comes with a chance for the IAAF Congress to meet and discuss rule changes for the sport of athletics. The proposed changes for the 2007 Congress were released a few weeks ago to little discussion; I expect most of the press noise will come when and if some of the changes are adopted. I skimmed the list, which is largely boring (there’s some discussion of the visual aids used to mark the line at which athletes can break from lanes, for example, or the exact specifications of the handle of a hammer,) but has some interesting provisions.

  • False start rules will, once again, be discussed. There’s a proposal on the list to move to the NCAA model, which essentially says that any false start means disqualification, period. The IAAF Council recommends that this proposal be defeated, and I suspect the athletes will agree with them.

  • The IAAF Technical Council wants to delete the line which says that transponder timing isn’t valid for world records on the road, and they want it to be valid immediately (i.e. for the Osaka world championships.) This sounds obscure, but since the Champion Chip was used at the 1996 Boston Marathon, “transponder timing” has become the dominant method of timing large road events and even many cross-country meets. The argument against transponder timing is that differences in starting position (not to mention the fact that official timing is supposed to be based on when the torso crosses the line, and transponders are generally on athletes’ shoes) could lead to finish results which differ from the observed order of finish, but in actual fact, this sort of race is seldom close enough for this to matter. And, apparently, the IAAF (or at least the Osaka LOC) can’t afford to hold out any longer for their own marathons.

  • There are three differently-worded proposals (and significant discussion) about allowing mixed-gender competition in field events and/or track races 5,000m or longer. I’m not closely acquainted with the existing rule, but the differences in the proposals seem to be largely just wording, with all of them having the consequence of formally allowing mixed races. It makes a lot of sense: in field events where the equipment is pretty much the same, there’s no point in (say) running two high jumps or long jumps when there aren’t enough competitors to fill both. It allows for meets to be run more quickly, and keeps events on the program which might otherwise be cut. Some of the discussion also notes that the Oceania area has had a “trial exemption” from the existing rule and hasn’t seen any abuse (which would take the form of e.g. male pacemakers for female record attempts, I assume) and, considering that I tend to compete at the level where good women are my most reliable competition, I’m all in favor of this.

  • Perhaps most interesting, there’s a proposed change in the definitions of “Youth” and “Junior” for purposes of international competition. This change, proposed by the Indian federation and opposed by the IAAF Council, would allow athletes to compete as Juniors as long as they are 19 or younger on the last day of the competition; under the current rule, if they’re 19 during the competition but turn 20 before December 31 of that year, they’re ineligible. (In other words, everyone “ages up” on January 1, regardless of when their birthday actually is.) This would give most athletes a few more months of Junior or Youth eligibility, and seems like a good idea. However, I think the IAAF is concerned about age fraud; many African athletes are already vague about their birthdate, sometimes picking a date semi-arbitrarily when they seek a passport, and I suppose they may start picking dates to maximize their Junior eligibility.

Maybe it’s a sign that I’m getting older, but I’m actually a little curious to see how these do.

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June 12, 2007

Race schedule

  • I’m in Beach to Beacon come August. It’s not a fast course, but it’s possible to run fast on it; I’ve done well there before. This will probably be my last race of the summer, since I will be occupied with packing, moving, and being in Japan for most of the rest of August.

  • There is also the annual 4th of July 5-miler, this year being held on the 1st of July due to the 4th being a Wednesday. I ran 34:45 on the course last Sunday, doing a minute-on/minute-off workout, which is faster than I ran either of the last two years. I’d like to get under 30, but I’ll settle for racing well.

  • I’m going to talk to the Coach tomorrow about racing this weekend. There are three certified 5ks in the area, one on Saturday and two on Sunday, or I could put the spikes on and run one on the track at the USATF New England meet, also on Sunday. The track is oddly compelling but psychologically tougher; it’s been over a decade since I’ve run well in a track 5,000m, and I’d definitely be close to the back of the race. Road races are pretty hit-or-miss, though: misplaced mile markers, unpredictable fields around my pace, courses which may add to the time challenge.

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June 6, 2007

Clowns on parade

Tonight’s workout was pretty good for the shape I’ve been in lately. Two “half mile” road loops incorporating a significant hill, a three-mile (plus) hilly loop at about 6:40 pace (based on feel) with four 30-second pick-ups thrown in, then a hard mile on the track, which I did in 5:51.

Then came the clown. I’ve been pretty lucky that in my running career, most of the random heckling I’ve heard has been of the unimaginative “Run! Run!” sort. (I assume these are the same people who moo out their windows at cows beside the road.) Tonight as we were cooling down there was a guy—probably younger than me but evidently of the variety who think “exercise” is some kind of scam—who felt an unrestrainable urge to comment on the length of my shorts.

Now, I wear “real” running shorts, which is to say, I have not followed the recent fashion which calls for runners to wear, say, basketball shorts which come to their knees, or even soccer shorts. My shorts generally have a split leg. I wouldn’t wear them into the grocery store if I could avoid it. They’re for running. So I let him air his ignorance in his off-color way without response from me. Our cool-down loop brought us past him twice; the second time, the woman in his group was obviously embarrassed, which was more gratifying than any come-back from me.

A said to me, “Clearly he’s jealous of something.” I agreed, “Yeah, he’s probably never run sub-6 in his life.”

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June 4, 2007

Just start writing

It’s too easy for me to look at a chunk of work and let the anticipation paralyze me.

Saturday night I knew I didn’t have time to not be working, and for some reason I did all right. I sorted out a rough outline, then just dove in, and it worked. I had about 1,400 words on the page before I realized how much I’d written; I even missed an event.

For the most part, the interesting things happened in the sprints. Tariku “Kenenisa’s brother” Bekele was graceful and diplomatic in answering my question about whether he wished for interviews which didn’t mention his older world-record-holding brother (after I’d eavesdropped on the Ethiopian media grilling him about Kenenisa,) but that was about it for left-out news.

The sprinters, on the other hand… three winners came from a training group whose coach is in federal prison, and the L’Equipe reporter was a bit blunt about asking each of them how that affected their training (but they were each diplomatic and interesting in answering the question.) Liu Xiang told the Chinese media how North American meets were really difficult for him because of the time change, probably unaware that his translator, a Columbia grad student, was standing off to the side feeding me occasional quotes. (The Chinese media in general were… interesting.)

Now Playing: Say Say Something from Wah Wah by James

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June 2, 2007

Can you have it both ways?

Sprinters like warm days. It’s easier for them to get loose, and easier for their muscles to reach maximum energy output.

Distance runners like cool days. Maintaining efficiency over long races is easiest when they can shed the excess energy their muscles are producing without too much sweating, a cooling method which is hard to keep up.

It’s pretty clear, at least to me, that Tiru Dibaba is here hoping for the kind of cool evening that let her rival Meseret Defar run the 5,000m world record here last year. It’s also obvious that there are a slew of sprinters here who are expecting to post up some seriously fast times early in the season.

So far, it looks like Dibaba will be disappointed. We’ll see if the sprinters are. So far, they’re all warming up, just like me.

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June 1, 2007

Track geek cred

Also known as, “beginning to have some self-confidence about my work.”

After all, who else would’ve known that Ming Gu is China’s leading miler? I am still wondering if we saw the first Chinese sub-4 mile from him last year.

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May 27, 2007

The danger of expectations

I probably would’ve been happier about today’s race if I hadn’t picked a time goal for myself. There are any number of reasons, ranging from an unfortunate lack of sleep in the prior three nights to poor race-morning planning, why I would’ve been “off” today, but probably the biggest problem was that I warned myself not to run my fastest mile in the first mile.

Instead, I was 24 seconds off my hoped-for average pace, a challenging but not impossible time debt. I had already started passing more optimistic starters (I continued passing runners throughout the race, and was only passed—twice—by one, who finished ahead of me by virtue of one of those scorching kicks that makes me wonder about the kicker’s pacing abilities.) But despite a conscious effort to push in the second mile, that one was my slowest (in my defense, it did include a serpentine climb about halfway up Beacon Hill.) Now almost a full minute behind, I had to accept that my goal time was out the window and just try to salvage a good race. The remaining three miles were both under my eventual average pace, and the third was pretty much what I’d hoped to do all five in. If I hadn’t been thinking about time, maybe I would’ve been enjoying myself.

The race was, after all, there to be enjoyed. It was a great sunny day, with a breeze and lots of morning shadows to keep it from being too hot. (I worried about sunburn in my singlet.) I raced in a shiny-new pair of road flats, the orthopedic equivalent of a ridiculously dangerous motorcycle, and they felt pretty good, light enough to feel fast but despite my fears not so epehmeral that I felt damaged after five miles in them. (I’ve had road flats which felt like a thin slipper of Tyvek stapled to a thin kitchen sponge. These are much nicer but nearly as light.)

I turned down a finisher’s medal (for a five-miler? What am I going to do with that?) but did take about two liters of “VitaminWater”, which manages the difficult feat of making original-formula Gatorade taste good, and jogged down to watch the half-marathon finish. My speedwork training partner finished a fairly close second, but well off his own time goal. (His per-mile pace was significantly faster than mine.) With five-milers still streaming in, nobody seemed to register the half-marathoners except me, and I got some weird looks yelling at him like a madman.

Anyway, still not there. I’d say, “I need to work harder,” and I probably do, but when am I going to find time for that? I need to sleep first.

Now Playing: Easy Baby from Monday Morning Cold by Erin McKeown

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May 18, 2007

Marathon schedule

If you’ll indulge me for just another minute of Osaka talk:

Looking through the schedules yesterday, I noticed that both marathons are scheduled for 7 AM. This is a good decision for the athletes; early in the day, it’s cooler (word is Osaka will be hot and probably humid in late August) and the pollution is reduced. I remember that the womens’ marathons at both my previous World Championships (Seville ‘99 and Edmonton ‘01) were similarly early.

The tradeoff is that the women then finish in a nearly-empty stadium. A few hundred dedicated fans and a few dozen reporters, plus whoever was out on the streets. At both meets, the men ran in the evening; in Edmonton, the marathon finish was part of the opening ceremonies (and appropriately dramatic) and in Seville, the finish was part of one of the biggest nights at the stadium, and when Abel Antón showed up in the lead things got very loud.

(Antón’s victory party was about four floors directly below my hotel room; not being able to sleep, we crashed it. I remember having more cervecas than I probably should have, considering how tired I was, and watching a man who had won a marathon just a few hours before dance a very good flamenco.)

I expect that the local organizers have a little to say about the schedule, and the women’s marathon (leading the last day) is one of Japan’s best medal hopes. I wonder if they’re so confident in the crowd turnout—both along the course and in the stadium—that they’re ready to make concessions to give the athletes the best possible conditions.

Before anyone asks, both 10,000m finals (no rounds) are late-evening races, starting at nearly 10 PM.

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May 4, 2007

The missing story

Coach Squires told a story Wednesday night (ultimately inconsequential) which made me think about what’s missing from today’s coverage of the major marathons.

We tell the stories of the races now much the way they happen. That is, we start with a few days of press conferences and build up wherein nobody really knows what’s going to happen. Then we describe the races as they’re happening; then, on race day, we write a few wrap-up stories describing how the race went. There may also be some story-of-one-runner stories which go back and trace one athlete’s build-up and race; usually those cover someone who is otherwise out of the main story, such as the top Americans.

The story that’s missing is the one that’s written weeks after the race for a monthly deadline, the chapter in the long book of This Race which describes this installment of the annual showdown. That story has many of the same pieces, but with greater hindsight, the reporter is able to indulge their pseudo-omniscient viewpoint and change the focus. The pre-race build-up can ignore the runners who ultimately played only bit parts, and focus on the ones who turned out to be protagonists. The story of Coach Squires and Robert Cheruiyot is a curiosity before the race, when we would report it nowadays (if at all); after the race, it’s part of the great drama.

You could say this is false drama; after all, if Cheruiyot had lost, Coach Squires would not have behaved differently. (Maybe he wouldn’t have told us the story, I suppose.) Maybe it is. But it’s not inventing anything that wasn’t there; it’s simply selecting the most dramatic, most colorful way to tell the story of the race. And I can’t figure out why, if you’re reading a story about a marathon, you wouldn’t want to read the most entertaining one available, all other things being equal.

Consider, for another example, my colorful little tale about last week’s track meet. It’s probably the case that others at the meet—I can think of three, maybe four coaches, based on stories I heard later—who weren’t quite as swept up as I was, and would certainly tell the story of that last relay differently. I could tell it differently myself, but I deliberately chose the most dramatic possible framing for the story. Team scoring at a twenty-one event track meet is a bit more sophisticated than individual placing in a marathon, of course, but that’s what makes it a useful illustration of the same point. We can choose the way we look at things; we can choose the stories we find and remember.

But by a week after the marathon, the stories we’re telling have moved on to another event. By now, three weeks later, Boston is ancient history. Is anyone writing the history-book story?

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April 30, 2007

31:04

First place in yesterday’s race was long gone pretty early in the process. I kept second place in sight throughout, however, and finished within a minute of him: seventh overall, fifth male. I could easily imagine, in a different place in my athletic arc, sweeping through the field up to second. Working up to seventh from tenth at the first mile will have to satisfy me for now; it was a lot of work.

We attributed some of the times to the course, which includes 230’ of climbing and corresponding descent. The third mile, which is almost entirely uphill, was about thirty seconds slow for nearly everyone I discussed it with.

But, lest I be accused of exaggerating, here’s the numbers. The starting and finishing elevation is, according the the USGS, 160’; the peak of about 391’ happens around a quarter-mile past the three-mile marker.

MileElevationΔ ElevationMy Split
1256’96’6:14
2233’-23’6:01
3357’124’6:38
4282’-75’5:59
5160’-122’6:08

So the tentative conclusions are, (1) there’s a link between elevation change and pace, because sorting the miles by elevation change sorts most of my mile splits pretty well too, but (2) there’s such thing as “too much downhill.”

The profile would be more convincing, except that the scale distorts things a bit.

Elevation profile of the Rafters College Towne Classic

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April 28, 2007

To the last race

This is the way conference meets should always end.

The University’s men’s team has been leading most of the day. W, the college whose hat Roger Fox wears in Fox Trot, has won for the last six or seven years, is now in second, and is overtaking fast.

It is the last relay, the distance medley. W is perennially strong in distance races; they’re favored to win. The University has a four-point lead. If they can score less than four points fewer, they win. More than four, they lose. This is The Race.

W is in the lead most of the way. Going in to the last leg, the only team in reach is B. The University, meanwhile, hands off to a kid I don’t recognize—a first-year, as it happens—in fifth, or sixth, or something like that. This is looking like a tall order.

There are eleven teams in the conference; nine of them, including B’s two rivals, suddenly discover that they are passionate fans of B, a fact of which they had been heretofore unaware. B’s anchor sticks tenaciously to the shoulder of W’s. Meanwhile, our freshman, looking like he might go critical at any moment and collapse in a puddle on the track, is picking off other teams one by one. Hey, maybe one more. Maybe one more.

B, despite having more fans than they’ve had in years, is unable to topple the mighty W, who win and score ten points. Nearly every ambulatory person in the area, and possibly a few cows (it was crowded) have packed on to the homestretch of the track, with only two or three lanes left clear for the runners. The University’s freshman comes into the stretch neck and neck with the anchor from the host college. They’re not going to give him the point just to see W go down, and he has to fight for it, so he does. And he does it; the University finishes third.

Scoring six points.

Tie meet.

And that was it for the scoring.

But seeing the rest of the team—the upperclassmen who’d won the 5,000m, swept the top three spots in the high jump, and scraped for points wherever they could find them all day—huddled around their freshman, forty meters past the finish line, hopping up and down chanting his name, because they had a share of the conference title for the first time that anyone could remember, and W had to share the title for the first time that anyone could remember, well, that’s a memory that will last a while.

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April 16, 2007

Runners are just amazing

I will, of course, always be pulling for the American to win. But once (if) they’re off the back, I will happily (in a quiet, press-room kind of way) be pulling for Jelena Prokopcuka.

This is, after all, a woman who has been second twice in Boston, first twice in New York, and won in the pressure-cooker of Osaka. And, after running a tough marathon, she can come in and handle an entire press conference in English, which, judging from her answers to questions posed in Russian and assuming she speaks Latvian, must be at least her third language.

How can you not be impressed?

In the “cute press conference moments” category, add Madai Perez, who thanked the sponsors as most of the athletes did… but Perez thanked “Juan Hancock”.

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And this led to me figuring out how to text-message an international number

My Boston story is already online. With a six-hour time difference to Monaco, I was rushing to file so I wouldn’t keep my editor up too late.

It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, at least for most people who weren’t Deena Kastor. (And even she didn’t have as rough a time as Uta Pippig did in ‘96.) I ran out past Coolidge Corner and back after I saw my bikers off to Hopkinton, and despite being drenched by the rain I had this feeling that it was all going to be OK, that Kastor was going to dominate the women’s race, that everyone should be watching because this was going to be one of those races that we all talk about for decades.

Well, we’ll probably be talking about the weather, but the races were nothing but slow. A (who is partly responsible for the lack of editorial changes between my article and what ran, since she did a sanity check before I sent it in) observed that maybe my pre-marathon hunches aren’t to be trusted.

And I wasn’t the journalist who started asking Grigoryeva a question in Russian, then trailed off and switched to English. No, I know my limitations. I wonder if she’ll have more successes, or if she’ll become just another marathoner from Cheboksary. Why don’t the Russian men run so well? Surely they’re allowed to live in Cheboksary as well?

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April 15, 2007

A field guide to marathon jackets

The gentleman I was just talking to assumed I was running the marathon, because of the jacket I’m wearing. I didn’t want to take the time to explain that I’m not, but I’m sure someone else will leap to the same conclusion before the weekend is over.

If you see someone in Boston, tonight or tomorrow, wearing a jacket with long stripes from the shoulders to the elbows (the ones for sale to the runners seem to have short stripes like cross-hatches below the elbows) here’s how to know what they’re here for:

  • Black with orange stripes: Media, unless otherwise noted on the back. (Some USATF officials also have black jackets.)
  • Orange with black stripes: Volunteer.
  • White with orange stripes: Medical team.
  • Grey with orange stripes: Organizing committee (i.e. BAA employee.)

I’ve seen red and blue jackets as well, but they’re almost always from previous years; last year’s volunteer jacket, for example, was blue with red stripes, but otherwise indistinguishable from this year’s. The date is right under the seal on the wearer’s left, or on the back.

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Disconnected marathon thoughts

  • Let it not be said, here in the Hub, that we miss our chances to market marathoning. With the Red Sox going Japanese for pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, of course two-time Marathon winner Toshihiko Seko will be throwing out the first pitch at Fenway. Of course, Seko has been rained out today. Maybe Deena Kastor should’ve been rained out; if she wins here, she’ll certainly be welcome back to try again.

  • A pointed out this morning that Joan Benoit Samuelson agrees with my comparison of the Monday forecast with NESCACs last fall.

  • The forecasts right now suggest that today will be pretty bad, but that the rain will be tapering off tomorrow morning. My cyclists are still bracing for the worst, with puddles and wet roads meaning slick brakes and cold legs, but it’s definitely not the full force of the storm. Ironically, had the BAA not moved up the start times two hours this year, they might have escaped the storm entirely, if these forecasts are correct. (Undoubtedly we will all be proved wrong tomorrow.) Meanwhile, it snowed on me during my run this morning.

  • I really hope the weather is good enough to allow the TV helicopters to take off. The cameras on the ground rely on the helicopters to relay the video in to the trailers in town, and if the helicopters aren’t there, our only video is from stationary cameras like those at the start in Hopkinton.

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April 14, 2007

Evolutionary superiority

Thursday night, A and I went down to Harvard in the rain to attend a lecture by Daniel Lieberman, a professor of anthropology. Lieberman’s idea is that running played a role in human beings evolving into the form we now have. He pointed out the ways in which we are superior distance runners in nature—there are faster runners, certainly, and stronger ones, but no other species can claim the ability to run as fast as long as we do, particularly in warm conditions.

Then, he argued that the anatomical features which support this are evidence that natural selection favored those who could run well. It allowed for hunting strategies which brought in enough calories to support our outsized and energy-hungry brains, and in that way, he argues, running made us human.

The logical chain which brings him to this conclusion is hard to argue with, unless you are one of those who considers the world to be six thousand years old and the fossil record to be an elaborate fraud. If natural selection didn’t favor runners, how did we end up with a long, flexible Achilles tendon rather than the short tendons of our closest relatives? How about our springy necks, allowing us to hold our heads largely still (thus maintaining visual focus on our prey) during the bouncy motion of running?

Lieberman is dismissive of sprinters; we’re not very good at that, he says. There’s no man who can outsprint a horse, but there is a Man vs. Horse 22-mile race every year in Wales which is often close, and it’s on hot years that the horses lose.

Lieberman’s presentation was crisp and interesting; I wish all the lectures I’ve sat in could be that entertaining.

Now Playing: Take Me Down to the Hospital from Hootenanny by The Replacements

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Predicting the unpredictable

Previews are unwritable. I can only hope, after laboring for most of the afternoon with this one, that it isn’t unreadable; I’m so sick of it I could barely bear to sanity-check it (did I finish all my sentences?) before I sent it in. The men’s field for this year’s Boston is so hard to pick a favorite from that everyone is fleeing to the women’s race (which is legitimately exciting) rather than try to make guesses.

And speaking of making guesses, I’ve been amusing myself by comparing weather forecasts. As always, the best reading is the National Weather Service’s “Forecast Discussion,” which explains what mix of computer models they used to create the forecast they’re spreading. That’s usually where they’re brutally honest about what they do and don’t know about the upcoming weather. Today’s is almost schizophrenic as they try to figure out what’s going on with this “anomalous” storm which may drench the marathon. The part I liked the best, yesterday?

TEMPERATURES WILL BE CRITICAL FOR THIS FORECAST…WITH A LOT OF MOISTURE TO COME DOWN. PRESENTLY THINKING THIS WILL BE MAINLY IN THE FORM OF RAIN WITH TEMPERATURES ABOVE FREEZING…AT LEAST DURING THE DAYLIGHT HOURS…FOR THE LOWEST 2-3 KFT. AT THIS TIME THINKING MOSTLY RAIN…BUT THE TRACK MAY CHANGE THAT IN FUTURE FORECASTS.

If you read between the lines, that says they have at least considered the possibility that it may snow during the marathon.

Now Playing: The Lone Wolf from Failer by Kathleen Edwards

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April 13, 2007

It could be worse

I’ve heard a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the weather forecast for Monday and the Marathon.

Now, let it not be said that I am unsympathetic. Running 26.2 miles sucks under any circumstances, and rain driven by wind is an unpleasant cherry on top.

But before you start whining to me, let’s consider a little race I ran last fall, in which we had a foot and a half of standing water on part of the course, and over half the athletes who competed contracted a bizarre rash which took nearly two weeks to clear up.

You go to the line without worrying about the things you can’t control, like the course, the weather, or the other runners. You think about the things you can control, like your training, your strategy, and your mindset. If you want a free pass for whining, I want to see scars.

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April 11, 2007

The Marathon is getting out of hand

I can tell that I will spend the majority of my time from now until Monday either preparing for the marathon, working on something marathon-related, or actually at the marathon. I’ll probably spend as much time on the T between now and Tuesday as I do for the rest of the year.

  • Many of my former RW co-workers, including my Pennsylvania roommate, are in town, or will be by the weekend.
  • There are a few dozen media events, starting Friday (for my list, anyway,) and going through the weekend.
  • I need to meet with the bicycle spotters at least once before the race, and that means color-printing the nifty uniforms PDF and making “marathon cards” so they can prepare for on-the-fly runner identification.
  • I’ll have to do some studying. In addition to the media guide, there’s plenty of other details flowing into my inbox—a complete historic breakdown of all head-to-head matchups within the elite field, for example.
  • And, as of today, I got email from the iaaf.org editor expressing some level of desperation: last year’s writer is unavailable, nobody else has responded, can I write a preview for Saturday and a quick report on Monday?

I suppose it’s not news to anyone to say, it’s nice to be wanted, but sometimes it’s exhausting.

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March 18, 2007

It's not always about the time

When I woke up in the night and realized the take-out Chinese I’d picked up on my way home from the pool was coming back for a rematch, I figured today’s 5K was out of the question.

But an hour and a half before race time, I felt shaky but not ill. I figured I could get around the course. And a half-dozen other grad students from my department were running, so I figured at the very least I would go down and say hi.

I wound up running the whole way with Professor Σ’s PhD student. He’s coming back from an injury, and today what we each felt capable of matched pretty well. We took nearly nine minutes for the first mile, in heavy traffic, then were sub-8 pace for the rest of the way. I didn’t lose my breakfast (two slices of toast), and he was pretty happy with his time. I think we both felt a bit better about the race than we would have otherwise.

When I was younger than I am now, and saw my running career as years of ever-faster times stretched out in front of me, I would sometimes wonder what it would be like when I reached an age where I was getting progressively slower every year—where I would regularly find myself saying things like, “I just don’t recover as fast as I used to,” and where being the youngest in the age group was an advantage, not a disadvantage. How will I stay motivated to keep coming out, to keep putting the miles in?

I may or may not be pretty close to that age, but I am getting a good idea of the answer to my question. It stops being about the times; it’s more about the people and the events, like it has been all along.

Now Playing: Falls To Climb from Up by R.E.M.

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March 13, 2007

Terms which have dramatically different meanings depending on which of my interests is involved

“Race conditions.”

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March 12, 2007

Master of none

Since I set my goal in January, I’ve been splitting time between running and swimming. I think the official evaluation is that I’m in decent shape overall, but not terribly good at either sport right now.

I’m running around 30 miles per week, generally off four runs a week. Usually one of those is a long run (10-12 miles is “long” at this point), one is speedwork, and the other two are usually just easy jogs, but last week one included hill repeats.

The other three (or four) days I’m in the pool. I’ve discovered that the day after a long run I don’t have a lot of pop in my kick, and I wonder if my total lack of zero-exercise days might not be wearing me out a bit. I’m scaling back some this week, because Saturday is goal-race day: one thousand yards in the pool. If I don’t have the endurance now, there’s not much I can do about it; I’m just doing fin swims and short sprints and hoping I can sustain a good pace all the way through.

Maybe swimming in my brother’s old Powerskin suit instead of the nylon-mesh drag suit I’ve been training in will give me the same feeling as switching from regular running shoes into spikes? I can always hope.

Now Playing: This Is It (Acoustic Version) by Ryan Adams

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March 11, 2007

I fix on the strangest details

I have been asked to go back to Japan at the end of this summer to work for iaaf.org at the World Championships, to be held in Osaka. I am, needless to say, elated about this, and after checking with my business partner to make sure it won’t cause any major problems, I let them know I was definitely interested. I had been toying with the idea of going on my own dime and trying to scrape up enough work to keep the net cost low, but their offer covers most of the costs and makes the work mostly profit.

The detail which snagged in my mind? The way the offer was phrased implies that I will be paying income tax in Japan for 2007.

(Actually, it implies that the tax will be paid in my name, not that I will actually file.)

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March 6, 2007

Attempted sabotage of World Cross

It’s beautiful. Really, really beautiful. World Cross is making one of its comparatively rare trips outside Europe, to the country which is (arguably) the current center of gravity of the sport, the nation that, in the last decade, won the event so often they established one of the longest championship streaks in any sport, ever.

And the U.S. is warning people away. They think the World Cross might be a terrorism target.

First off, what business is it of theirs? Sure, there’s little question the Mombasa World Cross will be significantly less choreographed and engineered than Fukuoka was last year, but 90% of that can be written off with the recognition that Africa and Asia do things differently. The IAAF was ready for that when they sited World Cross in Kenya. That’s half the point. And this probably means that, if someone wanted to disrupt the event, they’ll have an easier time of it in Mombasa. But it’s not up to the U.S. to stick their oar in; it’s up to the IAAF and Kenya to deal with it.

And second ridiculous thing about this: what do they think this is, the Super Bowl? What kind of attention would terrorists get from attacking World Cross? For one thing, people simply aren’t concentrated at a cross country meet the way they would be at, say, any one of a dozen soccer games held in Kenya in a given year, leaving off any number of other stadium events held on the continent in a given year. Explode a bomb, kill a few dozen people, and the thousands of people who hear about it on the news will say, “There’s a World Cross Country Championships? Really?”

There are homegrown Kenyan radicals who want to use the World Cross to make a statement, mostly Kenya’s discontented Muslim minority. There’s been terrorism in Kenya, most notably the Nairobi embassy bombing in 1998. So these are real issues, and I don’t think anybody’s taking them lightly.

But, as A said, a terrorist attack at World Cross sounds a lot like an attack on Hartford. Why bother, when there are so many more attractive targets?

I’m not a betting person, but if I was, I’d put my money on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi causing more damage to the World Cross in Mombasa with this statement than any terrorists.

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March 5, 2007

The most graceful one in the bunch

Sometimes, when I see USATF’s strategies for getting wider recognition for our star athletes, I don’t know if I should laugh or cry. One that has me laughing (so far) is the poll currently on the USATF website: “Who would you most like to see try out for the TV show ‘Dancing with the Stars’?”

Now, I’m not familiar with this show (I don’t watch much TV) so I don’t know if they’re seriously considering having one of these athletes try out. So I just took it as a thought experiment: who would be most entertaining to see dancing?

It turns out that I voted for the current leader: Christian Cantwell, recently the national indoor champion in the shot put. He’s leading (narrowly) sprinter Wallace Spearmon and (widely) sprinter Lauryn Williams and distance runner Shalane Flanagan. Yes, this guy’s athletic specialty is throwing a sixteen-pound iron ball as far as possible. And, if you’ve ever watched the ensemble of motions putters use to transfer kinetic energy to the shot without stumbling out of the ring, you’d probably guess that he’d make a better dancer than most runners.

Plus, he’s huge. That has to be good for a few points somewhere.

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February 28, 2007

Now I can reclaim that stack space

Two years after I first started wondering, it has finally dawned on me that the reason race directors don’t print their results with a larger typeface and/or bigger line spacing is that they’re all using Meet Manager and that doesn’t offer those options—it just spits out the page. So we can blame Hy-Tek for all the tiny print.

Now, whatever tiny part of my brain has been worrying that problem for the last two years can be devoted to something else…

Now Playing: English Beefcake from Pleased to Meet You by James

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February 26, 2007

How to revive an indoor track circuit

I’ve had critical words to say about the Boston Globe’s coverage of track in the past, but last Friday they ran a story about the changes to the indoor track circuit in the last 20 years which is absolutely stellar and should be read—carefully—by anyone who cares about the sport.

The thesis is, roughly, that in the “old days” when there was a vibrant indoor track circuit in the northeast and the B.A.A. and Knights of Columbus meets were held in Boston Garden, there were dozens of events, many happening at once, and meets lasted ten hours. This is where track got its cherished “three ring circus” reputation, and with the exception of the Millrose Games, all those meets are now gone. But there is once again a successful indoor track circuit, going from Boston to Millrose to Tyson (in Arkansas, of all places, but if you’ve been reading here for a few years you know why that works) and back to Boston for Nationals.

But excepting the two-day Nationals, all the meets are now “showcases,” a very limited slate of events, stage managed to allow the spectators to concentrate on one event at a time. The article quotes, extensively, the team which puts on both the Boston Indoor Games and now Millrose, and they point out, “The spectators only have one set of eyes.”

What’s behind the resurgence? Well-packaged and promoted meets held during a monthlong window in compact buildings, featuring top names in marquee events and points-based bonus cash at the end. “Indoor track has completely changed over the last 12 years,” says Mark Wetmore, president of Global Athletics & Marketing, which created the Reebok meet and now organizes the Millrose Games.

The trend now is “boutique” meets such as the Boston Indoor Games, which offer a fast-paced program built around several events designed to produce world records. “It’s bright-lights-big-city-in-your-face entertainment for three hours,” says Rich Kenah, the former 800-meter world medalist who handles Global’s marketing.

Nationals isn’t like that at all. I was sitting at the track yesterday wondering why I was so unexcited about anything I had seen so far, or anything coming up; I was wondering why the NCAA meet, the other two-day championship meet, is so much more exciting than USATFs. This article provides the answer: it’s because USATFs is a throwback to the old days, before track became truly professional. They’re struggling to figure out how to make track more appealing, but the answer is already there: it’s been done indoors, and it requires steps USATF can’t take. It requires severe constraints on the number of events. It requires competitive fields; I don’t think the five-woman 800m field yesterday really cuts it.

Maybe USATFs will stay unchanged as our “what not to do” example?

Now Playing: A Question Mark from XO by Elliott Smith

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February 20, 2007

When you least expect it

It was lousy running on the roads of Amherst on Friday afternoon. In the two days since the storm, some of the sidewalks were cleared, but others weren’t, and there were still those little patches of loose snow that make you chop your stride and tiptoe through. Not exactly conducive to getting into a groove and feeling the flow of the run, though at least they didn’t have the ice that (still) coats most of Medford’s sidewalks.

And yet for some reason the last two miles or so were some of those miles which, if you could’ve inhabited my skull for that time, would explain perfectly why I’m still dragging my tired old carcass out the door. I wish I had races that felt that way. I felt like I could ask my legs for anything—more speed, more speed, no problem. I was almost afraid to ask for fear I’d find the point where it stopped.

I can’t say I feel quite that good today, but it’s nice to remember.

Now Playing: Cantilever from Forget Yourself by The Church

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February 11, 2007

The one thing wrong

I’m not going to argue with the many newspaper articles pointing out what a great job the Boulder organizing committee did with this year’s cross country championships. I’m certainly not going to argue with the fact that there were more people out for the race than I’ve ever seen at a cross country meet which wasn’t the NCAAs; this made even World Cross look pretty paltry.

The thing they didn’t get right—perhaps the only thing—was that they didn’t make any provisions for having the athletes talk to the media after their races. The runners were whisked up on the stage for awards, and then they returned to a crush of fans where they could more or less evaporate if they wanted. There was no mixed zone and no media working area, nor any provision for post-race press conferences.

These are hard things to do at cross meets, of course, but the NCAA somehow manages to get it done every year, and brings in the top three finishers plus the winning coach as a matter of course, plus others by request. The NYRR did a fair job of getting everyone in to the tiny little press tent in Van Cortlandt last winter. Even the Portland crew had a post-race pen where the athletes and media could mix, and the crowd at Fort Vancouver was probably less than 10% what showed up in Boulder, so there wasn’t a big crush to contend with. What we had yesterday was a mob and a zoo. It was ugly and nearly impossible to deal with if you expected to talk to more than one or two athletes after each race. (After the junior races, nobody had figured this problem out yet, and as a result I haven’t seen (m)any quotes from any of the juniors, anywhere.)

This is whining, considering what a well-run meet this was, and it worked very well for the athletes, officials, and spectators. In essence, we reporters were the only ones with anything to complain about, and that’s a pretty good job. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have anything to complain about.

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February 9, 2007

Talking it up

A and I have remarked that tomorrow’s USA cross-country championships isn’t actually as tough a race as everyone’s talking it up to be. That isn’t to say that it won’t be deep, tough, competitive, etc.—that’s to say that it’s always like that, the more so now that the short course race is gone. What’s different this year is that we’re in Boulder, and the local organizers seem to be raising a lot more media buzz than anyone else has in the past. They’ve been spoon-feeding athletes and stories to a few key outlets for a few weeks now, and as a result, more people are paying attention.

There is an undeniable good to this, of course: the USA XC championships is one of the toughest national championships in this country, barring only perhaps certain Olympic Trials events, and people should be aware of that. But there’s some dissonance in the ears of those of us who’ve been paying attention for years, because, hey, this race has always been tough to win. Remember Lynn Jennings?

In a not-entirely-unrelated anecdote, my watch keeps two times, which is useful for leaving it set to US-Eastern when I travel. This evening I went to switch to “time 2” and was surprised to find it almost all ready—two hours behind. Something made me double-check: Nope, not two hours behind. Fourteen hours ahead.

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February 7, 2007

Machined

At the end of tonight’s track session, the coach deemed it too cold for outdoor cool-down, so we early finishers cooled down on the outside lanes of the track. As we got started, I suggested to the other guy that we go clockwise (i.e. “backwards”). He gave me an amused and disgusted look. “I don’t think I could turn right at this point, anyway.”

Then, after we’d made it a few strides, he continued, “I guess this is just the direction I’m threaded.”

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January 28, 2007

Recording the record

We got another world record last night, which kept me up late hammering out the report. I’m putting the finishing touches on a write-up of the record-setter, and I feel like there are half a dozen more two- or three-paragraph reaction pieces to be written.

A good one that doesn’t really fit anywhere: Craig Mottram, after his race, reporting a typically Australian exchange with his agent shortly before the race. Dibaba’s record had just happened, and Mottram was beginning to warm up.

“Good conditions out there, eh?” he said to his agent.
“No wind,” shot back the agent.

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January 26, 2007

Who will write about track?

At yesterday’s press conference, I was about two enthusiastic sentences away from getting an assignment for Agence France Presse (aka AFP, aka “the other, other wire service.”) The press coordinator was running down her major-outlets list, making sure she had someone credentialed from each one, and AFP was the big absentee. I don’t think I was excited enough about the open doorway, or maybe someone else came up, but if she gave them my name they haven’t contacted me.

She used to cover this beat for the Globe back when I was at RW, and after the press conference ended we grumbled together about the lack of knowledge the assembled reporters have about the sport. There were essentially four people asking questions: the Globe reporter grilling Shalane Flanagan for this article, the press coordinator, the local USATF rep (I’m not sure why he was there,) and me. The Globe reporter is about par for the course: he’s not unintelligent, but he doesn’t know track and he only pays attention to running twice a year (the other time will be in April.)

The Globe has been getting attention lately for cutting its international bureaus, and Boston Sports Media is speculating that all departments are probably under the squeeze. Figure skating was one beat noted as probably “foreign” and you can bet that track, like every other “Olympic” sport, falls in there too. This meet will be getting significantly more local attention than it might from the Globe simply because the Patriots lost, the Celtics (let’s face it) stink, and the only local sports competition will be the Bruins, away in Ottawa. But with x correspondents and y events on every weekend in the fall, particularly when the Sox are in full swing, the ones covering track meets are generally only there because they didn’t get the assignment they wanted (Fenway,) not because they wanted to be out at Franklin Park talking to the winners of the Mayor’s Cup. The upshot is that the only guy asking knowledgeable questions (“Steve Hooker, you changed pole vault coaches after winning the Commonwealth Games; what has that done for your training?”) is the fan with a notebook.

So let’s count out the newspapers. That leaves the web guys, and that means fans with notebooks. (Actually, fans with digital recorders and/or expensive A/V equipment, but some of us are still old school enough to have notebooks, too.) We’re increasingly the ones feeding the wire services, too, and the rest of the money is coming not from free-standing media organizations (like the newspapers or the wires) but from organizations closely connected to the sport: USATF, IAAF, Running USA, the meet organizers. (My nifty Boston Marathon gig is technically at the will of the TV folks, but I have it because I have a good relationship with the BAA.)

I’m saying this like it’s a bad thing, and in many ways it’s not. It means the people covering the sport are the people who care about it. In general, fans of the sport are more likely to write good stories in today’s media environment. We’re more likely to be pulling for particular athletes to run well, but we’re also more likely to know what it means to follow an athlete, what makes them compelling to readers, and what’s a good story.

The problem, the old school track writers will say (and they’ll be right) is that we may be less likely to face the sport and its athletes when they’re wrong. We’re less likely to harry a semi-corrupt NGB head until he resigns, the way Ollan Cassell was harried in the ’90s. (This may have been the U.S. running media’s last great hurrah, and even that was a long and tedious effort eventually completed from inside USATF.) Maybe we’re less likely to ask the questions athletes don’t want to hear: about drug rumors, about ducking other athletes, about other shady dealings—or if we do ask them, they’re less likely to get printed in reputable places where they’ll be believed. I had a photographer chiding me in Fukuoka because I was “working for the man,” suggesting that nothing I printed should be taken seriously for that reason. (Did I mention that my pieces from Fukuoka were eventually reprinted in a nice, glossy magazine, with a byline and everything?)

Also, you used to be able to aspire to a career in this field. You’d want to be the next Marc Bloom or Don Kardong or Kenny Moore, and I think at least Erik Heinonen is trying to do so, but there really isn’t enough money rolling around to follow that career path full-time. You’re more likely to wind up as Matt Taylor, which is cool but not a career (so far).

Sometimes I’ve chided myself for not taking this sideline of mine more seriously. But is it possible that this half-assed weekend-warrior freelancing is actually the most sensible way to be a track writer these days?

Now Playing: Nine Acre Court from The Charlatans by The Charlatans

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January 25, 2007

Freelancing and its ups and downs

I have a preview of this weekend’s Boston Indoor Games out. I am not a fan of writing previews; I spend far too much time fact-checking the credentials of the athletes, looking up rankings and performances, to really get much flow in the paragraphs. This year, I started thinking well in advance, and managed to boil things down to a pretty simple formula: Dibaba, Defar, shot putters, and Australians. Others might be interesting to me (e.g. Nick Symmonds) but it’s better to give several long paragraphs to the top stars than to try to cram in lots of names and times.

Of course, every year I miss someone I should’ve mentioned, for whatever reason. Two years ago it was Dibaba, who ran a world record and didn’t get a mention in my preview. Last year, it was the two-mile record which was, apparently, never in the cards to begin with. This year, I neglected to mention Sarah Jamieson, who is “only” a Commonwealth Games silver medalist (and fifth-ranked in the world in her event,) but would be the fourth in the “Australian invasion” I mentioned in the title. Oops.

Anyway, for the first few years I had this gig, I walked on eggshells with the editor, trying to produce the straightest, most professional reports I could. After all, I reasoned, there were plenty of others who wouldn’t mind this work, so if he didn’t like what I sent, he’d find someone else. Then I met him last spring in Fukuoka, and realized I might be able to get away with a bit more life in my stories. But my idea of “humor” sometimes just comes off as bizarre to others, so it was with some trepidation that I used this as my opening paragraph:

It should be enough to say that both Tirunesh Dibaba and Meseret Defar, Ethiopia’s “Dueling Ds,” will be racing at the Boston Indoor Games on Saturday, although not against each other. But such a brief meet preview would be a disservice to the other top-ranked athletes competing in the first major fixture of the North American indoor season, not to mention raising suspicions of laziness on the part of the reporter.

I thought about providing an “alternate opening,” but didn’t—and he ran this one unchanged.

Now Playing: It’s Good To Be King from Wildflowers by Tom Petty

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January 23, 2007

Milestones and barriers

If you pay little or no attention to the running world, you may have missed that Ryan Hall ran a 59-minute half-marathon in Houston earlier this month. He broke the American Record, which was beyond old enough to drive and getting towards old enough to drink, and in fact ran faster than anyone born outside Africa ever had. There are seven faster people on the books, including names like Moses Tanui, Paul Tergat, and Haile Gebrselassie. So this was a legitimately big deal.

Still, I’m getting a little tired of reading articles talking about breaking “the 1:00 barrier.” This was not a Bannister-esque performance. One hour is the yardstick of a truly world-class half, to be sure, but it’s hardly a physiological obstacle. Four minutes for the mile was a “barrier” because for so long it had seemed like world best times were approaching an asymptote, and four minutes looked like it. There’s a quote about the four minute mile somewhere, saying, “It turned out to be less like Everest and more like the Matterhorn: it looked imposing at first, but I hear now they’ve even had a cow up it.” The four-minute mile needed a Bannister, someone to show it could be done.

Nobody’s doubted the sub-hour half-marathon could be done for fifteen or twenty years, if not longer. (I think Tanui may have been the first, on a course in Milan which turned out to be short; they remeasured, and he went out and did it again the next year on the full-length course.) Nobody set out to run a sub-hour and failed dramatically, time after time. Nobody declared it impossible. It was never a barrier.

It’s a handy round number. That’s all.

Now Playing: Little Buddha from Coil by Toad The Wet Sprocket

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January 22, 2007

The spike ritual

Equipment As I get older and slow down, sometimes how I race becomes more important than how fast. I may have bought my spikes at a dramatic discount at a liquidation sale, but I’ve come to treat the little rituals surrounding them with a reverence all out of proportion to their actual effect on my racing. My racing gear in the morning light on the kitchen table somehow seems more alive than being at the track itself. This is three-quarters of what I’ll wear when I’m racing: socks, spikes, singlet. The missing piece is a pair of black shorts, which I was wearing when I took the photo.

Spike plate My first spikes were cross country spikes, with the sockets and a flexible plate hidden under a full-length rubber outsole. Since then, I’ve had middle-distance spikes like these, with a nominal heel pad and a fully exposed spike plate like this. I don’t remember which of my coaches taught me how to take proper care of a pair of spikes, but I learned that the way to keep the spike elements from fusing—sticking in the sockets forever—was to put a dab of petroleum jelly in the socket before screwing in the elements, and to always take the spikes out after use, rather than leaving them in until circumstances dictated a new set of elements. I’ve followed that practice religiously since wedging two elements in an older pair of spikes.

Spikes The elements, for the most part, are made to be light, not hard; they’re remarkably soft metal, and they’re easy to strip if you’re not careful with the wrench, or if they get cross-threaded. (The fact that they’re soft also drives their frequent replacement, of course; they dull easily.) The two that got wedged were so stripped the spike wrench couldn’t grab them at all. I wound up using a bastard file to create new, flat edges on the elements which I grabbed with vise-grip pliers to remove them.

I keep my used-but-not-used-up spikes in a tin; you can see the half-inchers I use for cross country (I wouldn’t mind some sharper ones, but I need more races to justify that,) and a bag of new quarter-inchers for track. I broke out new ones for Sunday; those are the twelve in the lid of the tin, waiting to be screwed in.

One spike The spike goes in with fingers first, to make sure it’s not cross-threaded. Your fingers feel resistance before the wrench will. Then you use the wrench to give it the last half-turn, to make it truly tight rather than just finger-tight. Six of these in each shoe are teeth on the track, the nails pushing back against the rubber (and pushing me forward) until the last millisecond of my stride, with no slip. It’s a little difference, a few ounces less upper, a bit more grip on the toes, but when they first go on it’s like wings on my feet. If you look closely, you can see red dust from the track on the spike plate, left over from my December race at BU. If you looked over the shoes closely, you’d find mud from the cross country race last fall. Maybe it’s less to do with how much they contribute to my racing, and more to do with how many memories they’re part of.

Now Playing: Bullet Proof from Gotta Get Over Greta by The Nields

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January 21, 2007

.08

That’s how much faster I was today than in December.

I’d say something rueful about never having worked harder for less improvement, but I’m sure there were times in college when I was hammering out the miles week after week and getting slower. And the fact is, my training over those three weeks has been pretty undirected.

But I went in with a much higher degree of planning and consideration today. A ran with me down to the Harvard track (about three miles from us) and gave me a strategy distilled from the strategic mistakes she’d seen runners make at yesterday’s meet. (Essentially, the time to bear down is the closing laps of the second K and the start of the third, because that’s when most people seem to lose the plot.) I’d looked at the heat sheets and knew I’d be running at the back, so I planned to avoid getting out too quickly and set up targets for the second part of the race. Then, with A on the first corner to take splits and yell them to me, I switched off the little accountant in my head that wants to beep a watch and try to run a specific pace, and gave myself permission to relax and just race.

And I did that. I fell to the back, tucked in behind a guy who looked like a wily veteran (he turned out to be 50) and ran a series of really good splits for the first half of the race. I only understood about half of what I heard A yelling to me, but I did hear her say that I’d passed the mile (more or less) in 5:24, which was just about exactly the pace I’d wanted to run, averaging 40.5 per 200m lap. (The laps at Harvard aren’t 200m, of course, more like 201.1, but let’s leave that alone for now.)

Right around then, though, the two of us caught a pair of straggling younger guys (I assumed they were college kids, but looking at the results I think one was actually a prep) and my pacer took his sweet time moving around them. I didn’t want to move past and give up on his near-perfect pacing, so I waited. When he did pass them, he took off hard, and even though I followed him right around, he gapped me then and I found myself adrift. Right about then was when things started to hurt and I started feeling sorry for myself. There wasn’t a whole lot of race left, but I ran a pair of 43-second laps (5:44 pace) before finally delivering a 39 for the last one.

Final time, 10:14.90. In other words, I ran the same time, but smarter. (“You’re getting good at that pace,” commented a training partner who also ran both races.) I wasn’t last (I actually lapped someone), and I hit my seed right on.

On the one hand, I wish I could have done a bit better. But I didn’t have a lot of reason to expect a better time; I’d run pretty close to the edge last time, and I hadn’t done workouts that had made me feel like I was in measurably better shape. And all in all, I’ve had fun with this season. I haven’t run this many short races in ages, and I think I enjoyed them more now than I ever did in college. And if I can do the work to bring the speed up to longer distances, I could run some pretty good races in the spring and summer.

Now Playing: Jump In The River from I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got by Sinéad O’Connor

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Posted by pjm at 8:44 PM | Comments (0)

January 20, 2007

Finale

I have committed to one more track meet for this indoor season. It’s tomorrow, this time on Harvard’s bizarrely non-standard (but reportedly fast) track rather than the springy new one at BU.

Due to the fact that this meet does not run all races as mixed, I am the slowest seed in the men’s 3000m (rather than being in the third quarter of the total mixed list.) I suspect I will not be running alone, but I think my only possible sane strategy is going to be to head straight for the back of the race, then hang on there until I either die or discover that whoever is next-to-last has slowed beyond what would otherwise be my goal pace.

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January 8, 2007

Magazines, (ultra) marathon men, and mania

Laurel pointed me to this commentary on the article on wired.com about Dean Karnazes.

I’ve ignored Mr. Karnazes as best I can for several years now, because my gut reaction to nearly all of his very-long-distance running “feats” has been that they all smell like publicity stunts. 300 miles non-stop? Running all of a relay like Reach the Beach? 50 marathons in 50 days? Hype. All of it. Don Kardong once said that 26.2 miles (the marathon distance) was where racing ended, and ludicrous extremes began. I tend to take a more conservative view than Don, because I’m not capable of “racing” at the marathon distance. You can imagine that this puts Karnazes, in my mental map, out with the competitive eaters and David Blaine.

And yet he keeps getting the attention he craves, and magazines like Wired keep writing sensational articles.

Yes, sensational. Wired headlines their article with “The Perfect Human” (then provides no support for that claim,) and promises “12 secrets to his success.” There are at least two problems with that five-word sentence. One is that it presumes any strategy Karnazes uses is a “secret,” (because, you know, without such trade secrets, anyone could be doing 300-mile weekends, right?) and two is that it presumes Karnazes’ various circus stunts constitute “success.” (Mr. Karnazes, meet Mr. Bekele. The distance is 10,000m and “success” is defined as a world title. Go.) Even Runner’s World is in on the act, giving extensive publicity to Karnazes’ 50-marathons 50-states 50-days stunt last fall.

Let’s get something straight. Dean Karnazes has less relevance to average runners than a professional football player has to Little League baseball players. I’ll expand the pool of “average runners” to include professional, competitive runners and nearly anyone who has ever run a marathon. He pushes the edges of the bell curve so far out that nearly everyone, from Rosie Ruiz to Paul Tergat falls within one standard deviation of the mean.

And while there are some software applications for finding outliers, most of them are finding the outliers for the purposes of discarding them, which is exactly the sort of reaction we get from John Hawks. Hawks has some good points—a blister is a signal that you need to toughen up, not an engineering problem to be solved with Krazy Glue—but when Karnazes and his bizarre overcompensation stunts presented as some sort of perfect model of distance runner, it’s no surprise that Hawks’ reaction is to dismiss the entire group.

I honestly don’t understand long distance runners—I know they exist, but they seem utterly foreign and strange to me. Some think they are the model for ancient humans. As for me, well…

“Somewhere along the line, we seem to have confused comfort with happiness,” he says.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not confused!

Right, except not. I’ve heard about some studies which suggest that the biomechanical differences which allow us to run long distances are the ones which separate us from our more-simian ancestors, but I’m not going to make such dramatic claims here. I can understand runners seeming “utterly foreign and strange” to someone with no life experience in the area. But I’ve seen plenty of people (including myself) agitated and jittery in a surfeit of comfort. And I’ve seen a lot of pleasure, a lot of satisfaction and even transcendent feeling that comes with the “flow” of a long, difficult, and perfectly-paced effort.

But it’s not for everyone, as Hawks makes clear. Karnazes is probably the worst possible example to show people like Hawks. Not only is he a circus act, but his very attitude suggests that everyone else is inferior for not sharing his insanity. It’s as though he has defined his own sport, crowned himself world champion, and challenged anyone else to a pissing contest using his rules. Personally, I’m not interested, no matter how many magazine articles get written about him.

There are plenty of distance runners—heck, even a few ultramarathoners—who, aside from this single peculiar athletic quality, act like normal people. If you’re looking for someone you can identify with, or even learn from, it’s better not to start by looking at the circus.

Posted by pjm at 10:15 AM | Comments (2)

December 30, 2006

10:14

Yeah, that’s a nice improvement for two weeks. I’d like to claim I’m in that much better shape, but actually, it’s just more aggressive racing.

Last time I wrote that I “fell asleep” a bit in the second kilometer. I was determined not to let that happen this time. My race strategy was to get out well (i.e. stay in contact with a pack that was moving quickly,) hit the second K hard, and then hang on. I lined up on the outside with Emily Raymond, jumped off the line well, and found relatively few people in front of me when we reached the backstretch. A was at the bottom of the backstretch with her camera and one of her runners, and though I didn’t hear her on this lap I did on most others. The pack strung out very quickly, and I was able to settle in right behind one fast-moving woman A had pointed out earlier, a recent Colby grad. (Aside: two weeks ago, all the women were in the third and slowest heat with me. This week, there was a slower heat behind us, and there was a former Irish Olympian, Marie Davenport, in the second heat.)

It turned out that she was on her way to a 9:47, and the laps she dragged me through were some of the fastest I ran. I don’t remember all the splits—the first one was something ungodly like 37—but I do remember hearing A calling, “Settle in, now,” by the third or fourth lap, and I suspected that was coaching shorthand for, “Let go or you will wind up as a little stub of ash in a pool of cooling tallow.” So I let go. I must have done this before the K split, which I reached in 3:19, a whisker under 10:00 pace.

Fortunately, I was caught almost immediately by a GBTC woman (I heard cheering for “Allison” which I assume was her,) so I latched right on, eyes on her ponytail. (If you look at someone’s heels, you fall back; if you look at their head, you keep up. The mental tricks we play!) Ryan was at the top of the backstretch and I could tell from his calls that Christy was close behind me, and hitting just about the splits I wanted, so I focused on keeping her behind me.

Despite this fast start, I stuck to the plan and pushed hard for the second K, mostly staying with this little pack of women. Tom Derderian was on the corner just past the starting line, and each lap he would encourage Allison and Emily (now back up behind me as well,) and after a few laps he started adding me in to the litany. (I wonder what Allison and Emily thought of that.) I hit the second k split right on pace, 3:25 (6:44 total at that point, so I was actually a bit more than five seconds ahead of schedule. I hit my watch at these splits, but I didn’t look at it, so I didn’t know where I was.)

A few things happened in here, and I don’t really remember the order. One, Allison in front of me started to fade, or I got aggressive, and I moved out to pass her. This worked fairly well, but within a lap, Emily overtook me and led Christy and Allison by as well. I tried to hang on to them, but at some point in here I ran my slowest lap of the race—A reported afterward that I hit 43 in here. I heard her warn me that I was slowing down, or maybe she just said I was slow: same thing. So Emily and Christy pretty much dropped me, and I was out on my own. I’d been on my toes for the whole race, and I was feeling a hot spot on the ball of my right foot.

(“On my toes” doesn’t actually mean on tiptoes, like a dancer; it means I first strike with the ball of my foot, on the spike plate, take my full weight by loading my calf and achilles, then push off without touching with my heel. In flats, in training or a road race, I’ll strike with my heel first, rolling to my toes as I load my calf for push-off. Some lucky and gifted runners forefoot-strike all the time; I am not one of them. This hot spot turned out to be a blister about the size and shape of a quarter and a dime laid next to each other.)

Still, the laps-remaining counter was showing encouragingly low numbers, so I managed to dig back in. Two things kept me focused: the big clock running on the backstretch, which showed me that I had a good shot at meeting or beating 10:15, and a few other runners in front of me. One of them was a woman I was lapping, I think one of very few (two?) I lapped in this race. I caught up to a male in the last lap but couldn’t pull up on his shoulder. I don’t think I had much of a kick; I couldn’t increase my turnover, but A says I picked up well in the last laps. I finished the third K in 3:29.9, my slowest and almost enough to erase that five-second lead I’d had at 2k. My watch says 10:14.6, but I’m guessing the official time will be 10:15 low; another runner training with our group (who ran 9:03 or so in the first heat) said that’s what he saw on the clock when I crossed.

Odds are pretty good I’ll do one more 3,000m race this winter, but I’ll explain that later. After the last race, I knew smarter racing would get me a good time gain, and it did today; now, a slightly slower start might get me a faster closing K and chip a few more seconds off, but I doubt there’s another ten seconds in me fitness-wise right now. The pace would earn me a 17:05 5k, which is good for my current fitness but not stellar, and I’d need to run 67% longer for it. Still, I’m in shouting distance of the sort of times I ran in college (at least in slower years) and that’s a good thing for a guy my age. I won’t be able to do that for too many more years.

Update, 7:48: The results are posted, and it looks like not only did I get a 10:14.98, but if I’d not run with the women like I did, I would’ve been in no-man’s land. The next finisher after me ran 10:45.

Now Playing: Do It All The Time from Be A Girl by The Wannadies

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December 28, 2006

Cluck

The Quabbin is spectacular right now. On today’s run I had a few minutes, listening to a small stream rushing down towards the reservoir and looking at the fire road winding through the trees over a background of downed-leaves brown, where I was really happy to be there.

Not much wildlife, though, I was thinking. Then, at the end of the run, I spotted a white chicken crossing the road. (Yes, a chicken crossing the road. No, there is no punch line.)

I scooted back up to the car and grabbed my phone to document this sight. I assumed this was a rooster because of its comb, but my only reference for sexing chickens is Richard Scarry books, so maybe I’m off-base and we’ve got a hen trying to raise a flock of free-range chickens in the reservation. It wouldn’t let me get close enough for a good shot, and while I stalked it, I also listened to a woodpecker working on a nearby dead tree. After a few taps, I picked it out, high on a limb, but there was no point trying to get a photo of it.

Quabbin Rooster photo

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December 16, 2006

10:25

Thinking back, before I started this morning’s race, I thought maybe I’d only run a flat 3,000m once, in 1994, on Williams’ grungy little nine-laps-per-mile track. I’m pretty sure I’ve never raced on a banked track, and it’s been at least ten years since I’ve raced indoors at all.

I didn’t leap to the front of my heat, but I didn’t exactly fall to the back, either. We spread out pretty quickly, and for the first two laps I pretty much just sat on the rail and tried to avoid being spiked while everyone determined to be in the front pack found their way around me. I heard “39” and “41” for the first two splits, but didn’t feel like I was working quite that hard.

Finally I was at the back of a definite pack, and I tried to make an effort to stay there. Around four laps in, that pack started to break up, and found myself trading the rail with someone coming up from behind. We passed the first K in 3:26, a shade faster than I’d expected but nothing I was going to turn down.

I think I fell asleep a bit in the second K. Not literally; I just wasn’t working on picking out targets and pushing myself. The laps were going by tolerably fast, nobody was passing me, and I felt like I could handle things, but in fact I was slowing down. 3:33 for the second K, with enough second fractions that the actual 2K time was 7:00. Time to get on the horse. It also helped that I was now catching and lapping runners who weren’t all that slow; after ten laps, you only need to be four or five seconds per lap slower for me to lap you.

I opened up my stride and started concentrating on form, pushing with my arms and getting a good kick off each stride. I could hear that I was pulling away from the people who had been right behind me for most of the second K, and I could also see that I was really blowing by people I was lapping. I finally got up and sprinted the last lap, covering the last K in 3:24 for a final time of 10:25 (splits don’t add up due to rounding.) It didn’t feel too bad; I think I’d do it again, particularly if I could get myself concentrating in the second K. I think I could probably slice at least ten seconds off that.

Just now I dragged out my old log books to see if I was right about how long it has been. Turns out I ran 3,000m four times, starting with that 9:53 at Williams (which followed a 4:29 1500m; I should have read the signs and figured out that the longer the race got, the better I’d do,) and the only time I was over 10:00 was when I’d run a mile (4:57) and 800m (2:20) first. My PR, only ten years old but 11 in February, was a 9:44 at Brown. I guess some things are better left to memory.

I’m due back at BU, this time at the pool, in a few hours. They didn’t need me for the medley relay, which was mid-meet, but they do want me for the 400m free relay this evening. It turns out the team doesn’t have a mark in the record books for that event for a team with average ages under 30; with my brother and two 25-year-olds, we’re going to set one up. It may be my only chance to set a swimming record…

Update, 12/17: Results are posted. Turns out I only ran 10:26?

Posted by pjm at 2:31 PM | Comments (1)

December 15, 2006

Executive summary

My brain is toast. I have about five posts I want to write, but they’re all too long.

  • Finals: It’s all over but the gradin’. I’ve been neck-deep since Sunday night; I’m short on sleep and haven’t been to the grocery store for so long that scurvy is starting to be a legitimate concern. Today I shaved and got a haircut so I’d look a bit less like a shipwreck survivor.

  • Academics: I am, based on what my professors, an average student at best, and my math background is deficient. (This is not news.) However, I am in great demand as a TA; Professor γ was counting on having me another semester, but apparently while Professor β doesn’t want me in her research group, she does want me as a TA… and the department chair thinks I’ll be most useful with neither of them. (It looks like I will be both TAing and doing a Masters’ project in the spring with yet another professor, who I’ve mentioned before but I will now officially dub Professor Σ for brevity.)

  • Apparently the University has had some small national notoriety in the past few days due to some so-called satire published in the campus conservative rag which some think crossed the racism line. I haven’t read the inflammatory text in question, and I think while there’s nothing wrong with holding the responsible authors and editors up to the ridicule of the University community—or, at the very least, explaining why their biases are wrong rather than simply chastising them for holding them—I also think that multiple public responses from the President’s office both overstates the importance of the publication in question, and lowers the President’s office. The editors in question are in a hole; let ‘em figure out for themselves when to stop digging.

  • Racing: I will be at BU all weekend. Saturday morning I’m running a 3,000m on the track (I need to get out my old college logs and see if I even have a PR at that distance) and apparently that afternoon I’ll be in a relay or two over at the pool. (My team is looking for a good finish at the SCM meet.) Sunday I’m swimming 400m and 200m free, and more relays if I can still stand on the blocks without shaking at that point. Word is there’s wireless in the pool, too!

Now Playing: Boat from Let’s Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later On Tonight by Marah

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Posted by pjm at 4:51 PM | Comments (0)

November 20, 2006

I missed a chance

I didn’t use this Julia Lucas quote in my preview. I hope I can work it into my race report(s):

“It makes it more fun, you know, mud in our teeth at the end of the race. I’m looking forward to it.”

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November 19, 2006

Real cross country

After NC State’s Julia Lucas referred to the (soggy) conditions at the NCAA Nationals course as “real cross country,” I was reminded of this article from World Cross, which I know I’ve linked before, but bears noting in this context—particularly given that another favorite in Lucas’s race, Texas Tech’s Sally Kipyego, represented Kenya as a junior at the 2001 World Cross in Ostende, one of the muddy courses mentioned by Downes. (How muddy? Kipyego’s on the far right in this photo.)

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November 15, 2006

What did he say?

After this year’s NYCM, winner Marilson Gomes dos Santos came to the media center as the champions usually do, and answered questions through an interpreter. Dos Santos was a relative unknown to most of us, and this was reflected by a lot of questions centered on the self-confidence and courage needed to make a breakaway move in a pack of better-known athletes.

Dos Santos’ response, as it appears in the headline of this story, included the sentence, “In the marathon, there’s no joking around.” I think this quote appeared in a few other stories as well.

Meanwhile, I heard “In the marathon, you don’t look around,” and that’s what I included in my story.

In context, both make sense. “Joke” makes for a better sound bite; “look” works better in the context of everything else dos Santos (or at least his agent and translator, Luis Posso, whose English is excellent but not un-accented) said.

But doesn’t it make you wonder how many athlete quotes are actually what they meant to say? (Or maybe most sportswriters are less deaf than I am?)

Now Playing: Blues For Your Baby from Too Close to Heaven by The Waterboys

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Posted by pjm at 10:25 AM | Comments (1)

November 14, 2006

I can't pick 'em all

So neither of the athletes I voted for ended up selected as Athlete of the Year. I think I did a little better in the mid-term political election.

Now Playing: Love Sweet Love from Spirit Touches Ground by Josh Clayton-Felt

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Posted by pjm at 10:20 AM | Comments (0)

Uninterrupted sleep

Last night was the first night in two weeks that I didn’t wake up scratching at some point in the night. It’s been improving steadily since the middle of last week, but this is a sort of milestone, I think. The bumps have gone away, the marks are still there on my legs, easily recognizable to anyone else who suffered through this absurd little plague.

I wouldn’t share this, but it seems this site keeps coming up high on searches for “NESCAC rash.” There’s hope, folks, and apparently for the people with worse cases than mine “hope” is spelled “prednisone.”

Now Playing: Basement Apt. from You Were Here by Sarah Harmer

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Posted by pjm at 9:59 AM | Comments (0)

November 13, 2006

Judging by appearance

When I was at the peak of my competitiveness, it was pretty easy to figure out who my competition would be in any given race: I’d line up, start, and see who was with me. Nowadays, when I’m having a good day if I beat the first women, let alone run with the very front of the race, I’ve found myself picking targets based on their choice of racing attire.

So, if you’re male and wearing any of the following in a race, I will be making an effort to ensure you finish behind me:

  • Shorts that reach your knees (this isn’t a basketball game)
  • Pants (warmup should have been done a while ago)
  • Headphones
  • Any sort of knee brace or other straps

I actually took over a mile, on Sunday, to catch one guy who was wearing three out of four.

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Posted by pjm at 4:19 PM | Comments (1)

November 12, 2006

Nobody ever said it was easy

There are a lot of ingredients that go into being “good with computers.” One, as discussed in a conversation the other day, is the willingness to try a number of different approaches to troubleshooting, and to keep tinkering until something works, rather than persisting in a “right way” that isn’t working.

Another is being willing to pay close attention, to the point of obsession, to the quality of input, because that’s really what controls output.

This morning, as I sat on the floor of the Medford city council chambers waiting for the awards for the race we ran, I saw a reminder of this principle in action. A worried-looking woman said to another runner, “The results and the entry database aren’t lining up right. It’s all messed up. We aren’t going to be able to do the awards.” Eventually they admitted the confusion in a general announcement, recognized the male and female overall winners of the 5k and 10k, and skipped directly to the raffle, promising to mail any other awards.

They have the results posted online now, but it’s plain that they haven’t fixed whatever was wrong. There are six women listed finishing in front of me, but only one did, and she—the one recognized as the winner—is listed as the fourth-place woman. And there’s a five-year-old “male” named Eleanor in front of me; somehow I question that. My bib number, age, gender, etc. are correctly listed, and if I check the place I think I got, it correlates with the time on my watch. It’s hypothetically possible that I placed second in my age group, as listed, but I don’t really trust the listed results because they show the wrong women’s overall winner, and my incorrect time. The 10k results have a woman winning the race overall, and appear to have even less relationship to the reality of that race’s finish than the 5k results do, though again, places appear to match times correctly.

Results of road races and cross-country races tend to work as a three-table database. There’s an entrants table, which has the name, age, gender, etc. of each entrant, along with the assigned bib number. The bib number isn’t usually the primary key (the table may be useful before numbers are assigned), but it can function as a key. At the finish line, two more tables are generated. One is an ordered list of bib numbers, which form a two-column table where the first column is the ordinal number of finish. The last table is a similar ordered list of finish times. In both cases, the ordinal number column is a key, but so is the value column; they’re normalized tables, “The key, the whole key, and nothing but the key, so help me Codd.”

The results printout, therefore, is a join of these three tables: the first and second are joined on bib number (producing an ordered list of entrants) and then the third is joined on finish place, assigning times. The second table, the ordered list of bib numbers, is the glue which assigns times to finishers.

In the case of this race, that table got botched somehow. Maybe the numbers weren’t keyed in the right sequence; maybe somebody shuffled the list somewhere. The bib numbers are hooked to the right runners, and the times are hooked to the right places, so those tables are OK.

Whenever I’ve participated in race scoring, I’ve seen the near-paranoid care taken to preserve correct finishing order. At yesterday’s New England Division III regional, where finish order (which determines team scoring) is paramount, they had four different systems in place in case one failed. On the other hand, I think I recall the organization which handled scoring at today’s race being associated with my last marathon, which still holds a special place in my memory as a race where organization failed in the most basic ways—including the production of accurate results.

Now Playing: Window from Inarticulate Nature Boy by Josh Clayton-Felt

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November 8, 2006

My vote counted

Well, yes, I did cast a vote in yesterday’s mid-term elections, but I’m talking about the IAAF Athlete of the Year selection. The internet vote was a little bizarre, tipped heavily (on the women’s side) in favor of Sherone Simpson of Jamaica, who is in fact on the short list. However, the internet vote and the “IAAF Family” vote—which, to my surprise, includes me—were weighted 30% and 70%, respectively, and my votes for Liu Xiang (there’s nothing like breaking a very old world record) and Meseret Defar (trying to make up for missing her world record) may have played a role in putting those two on the short list as well. I’m hoping the “Special Jury” agrees with me.

The men’s vote is pretty tough; after all, Asafa Powell tied his own World Record twice this year, and Kenenisa Bekele—who was AOY in ‘04 and ‘05—did win the cross-country double for the last time. But Bekele, my sentimental favorite, didn’t really have a good year otherwise, and Powell was uneven as well.

Now Playing: Waiting For Somebody by Paul Westerberg

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Posted by pjm at 10:36 AM | Comments (0)

November 2, 2006

I still itch

I know, nobody wants to read about this, but I’ve been unable to concentrate on anything for more than five minutes since Monday night due to either medication or annoying itching. I’ve also been unable to get more than two or three hours of sleep at a time. Needless to say, this is affecting my ability to get work done.

The initial theory was that it was “swimmmer’s itch” (I think there’s a joke in there, but I haven’t been able to drag it out yet) due to parasites infecting the ducks who nest near the marsh. Now there’s some suggestion that the water was full of bits of jellyfish pulverized by the storm. One college persists in thinking that it’s poison ivy (it’s not) and is warning everyone to thoroughly wash anything they wore during the race, including shoes. (Maybe I should throw out those spikes.)

The antihistamines aren’t having much effect at all, other than making me loopy and inattentive. (It took a while for me to notice this, since it’s not unusual for me to reach that state without medication.) Hydrocortisone cream hasn’t helped much either; I blob it on, then a few minutes later I’m scratching the same spots. Word is that a lot of college health centers are prescribing/dispensing oral steroids (hydrocortisone is a topical steroid) so there are going to be some runners with something to declare on their drug-testing forms at NCAAs (assuming they test there.)

Running hot water—as hot as I can stand—on my legs feels good in a satisfy-the-itch sort of way. Following that up with cold water subdues the itches for a few hours. The best way I’ve found for getting to sleep is with an ice pack to numb my legs.

If I’d known it was going to be this bad, I would’ve been at Health Services first thing Tuesday morning looking for serious treatment, but I keep thinking, “Tomorrow it’s going to be cleared up anyway, so why bother?”

A pointed out that the whole rash episode is serving as a sort of grand finale to the misery of the entire race day—a sort of up-selling of the whole experience. “You got the mud, the rain, and the wind, right? And then you top it off with a plague on all the runners for a week afterward!”

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October 30, 2006

Next comes the plague of frogs

After the knee-deep salt water, I was ready to give this year’s NESCACs the “worst conditions I’ve ever raced in” award. (Close second: 2000 USATF XC in Greensboro.)

Then last night I started itching. Hmm, feels like poison ivy, but I was never in any bushes, was I? Annoying, but I had other things to concentrate on. After my run this afternoon, I cranked the shower up as hot as I could stand it and just pointed the stream at my legs until I realized I would have to get out eventually.

Tonight, before I even had a chance to mention it to A, she said, “Do your legs itch, by any chance?”

Turns out that nearly everyone who ran is itching. They’re calling it “the NESCAC rash,” and attributing it to “the marsh.” There’s even a Facebook group.

I’m treating it with OTC antihistamene tablets. I wonder if Conn College is planning on changing the course before they host New Englands next year?

Now Playing: Cornflake Girl from Under the Pink by Tori Amos

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October 29, 2006

Further proof that I am asymmetrical

The inside (medial) side of my left calf is abraded. It might resemble a rash, but it has a grain; several dozen parallel scores, not unlike what I might produce with coarse sandpaper.

My right calf, however, has only two or three cuts—longer and deeper, to be certain, but only a very few.

Now Playing: Lakini’s Juice from Secret Samadhi by Live

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October 28, 2006

Spiked

While I was injured, I bought myself a pair of new spikes (aka “shoes with teeth”) promising myself that I’d race in them “someday.”

Someday came today, and it may also have been the last time those spikes ever see use. It was the NESCAC championships, and I ran the “open” division.

The “open” race is an addition since my day. Three of my four years, NESCACs were a straight championship race: seven runners per team started, and everyone else watched (if they came at all.) My senior year, they expanded the “varsity” races to include nine runners, though they still scored it as though teams of seven were running. This was a nod to how tough competition was in the conference; in essence, it allowed a team with one runner having a bad day to “sub” someone else in, simply because you all ran and the people who ran best, counted. I was having a hard time senior year, and I came to NESCACS as #8 and used it to race my way onto the top 7 for the regional meet two weeks later. (Where I ran poorly, but never mind.)

Then they added the “open” race, which amounted to combined mens and women’s junior varsity races, as well as an alumni race. (I suppose they had the alumni race my senior year as well, but I barely remember it.) This sounds like a wishy-washy “we’re about participation” move on the part of the conference, and maybe it is, but it’s also a nod to the fact that the NESCAC is one of the deepest and toughest conferences in Division III. A lot of people who would be running full varsity seasons elsewhere in Division III can’t get on the varsity in the NESCAC. And teams are bigger now. We had trouble getting five women on the line; Tufts traveled with thirty-one women. Thirty-one!

Who then raced in soggy, slick mud and horizontal rain. I screwed in half-inch spikes (“You could climb trees with these!”), reminded myself that I am a stupendous badass, and went out to race.

The less said about my own race, the better. I’m listed as a blank line in the results, because while I had a number, they had nothing sufficiently waterproof to record my name and affiliation. There were a lot more people behind me than the results suggest, and it’s unclear exactly how far any of us ran—not everyone ran the same distance, and I suspect there were more distances than just 6k or 8k (if anyone ran the correct course.) At some point, I don’t remember where, it stopped being about beating the other guys on the course and more about beating the course itself.

OK, maybe I do know where: it was the lower “marsh” section of the course, where the tide had come in and we were running through nearly-knee-deep salt water. It was cold, but I came out much cleaner than I went in. Several minutes later, I grunted something encouraging to a Williams runner (normally, I wouldn’t do that, but I was passing him,) and he said, “If this was easy, everyone would be doing it.”

I didn’t check, but I suspect I was the oldest person to race today. Accusations of living in the past and/or similar crimes may be sent care of this site. Tomorrow, I’m back in the pool.

Meanwhile, those new spikes? There was enough mud inside the shoes, post-race, to grow grass. Inside.

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Did I hear someone say, "Not a team sport?"

Colorado runner (and former fellow Bell Lap columnist) Erik Heinonen apparently had his nose broken by an Oklahoma State runner during the Big 12 championships yesterday. The details of the dustup aren’t important; Colorado still won the meet. What’s interesting to me is the protests. Colorado lodged a protest, of course, but so did… Texas.

Because with the other guy disqualified and removed from scoring, Texas moved from a tie for second (with Kansas) to second outright.

What with concussed marathoners and broken noses, you’d think running was hockey.

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October 25, 2006

Intersection of interests

I got an invitation today to a private function before the New York City Marathon, the weekend after next. I won’t be in town that early, unfortunately. Unfortunately because it includes a “special performance” by Josh Ritter. I did a little snooping, and it looks like he will indeed be in town to run the marathon. According to his blog on MySpace, he’s had to do most of his training on treadmills due to his touring schedule.

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October 23, 2006

Majors differentiation

Finally, the World Marathon Majors have some differentiation in the leader board. Until last weekend, both men and women were bound up in three-way ties for first, fourth, seventh, tenth, and thirteenth, as fifteen men and fifteen women scored in Boston, London or Berlin. Chicago saw the first multi-major scorers, as one man (Robert Cheruiyot, now with a commanding lead in the men’s Majors after winning both Boston and Chicago,) and two women (Berhane Adere, with a narrow five-point lead from her fourth in London and Chicago victory, plus Galina Bogomolova, whose fifth in London and second in Chicago boosts her to fifth in the series) accumulated points from a second race.

The worst-case scenario I pointed out in January—eleven different champions for an eleven-way 25-point tie—won’t be happening. As I said,

…the minimum winning score is at least 26, more than could be scored at any one marathon. The odds that none of [the champions] would have, say, a second or even a fifth somewhere else are vanishingly small; an athlete would need at least two scoring races to have even a freak chance of winning it all. The maximum score is a clean sweep: four wins, 100 points.

But there’s a new worst-case scenario. At the announcement press conference, there was a hypothetical 2004-2005 Majors scored out:

The hypothetical ‘04-‘05 season had Evans Rutto (wins in London and Chicago ‘04, plus a 4th in Chicago ‘05) winning by five points over Jaoud Gharib (3rd in London ‘04, 2nd in London ‘05, 1st in Helsinki World Championships.)

Fifty points out of a possible hundred puts Cheruiyot in a very strong position to win it all; he has as many points as anyone save Rutto has scored in the last few years, and needs only a fourth-place finish somewhere in 2007 to match Rutto’s “winning” tally. There’s a very real possibility that nobody else could approach his score in the remaining seven races for this cycle. Let’s throw out a what-if: what if nobody does? What if no other athlete wins two Majors in this cycle? No big deal… except that Cheruiyot slipped on something at the finish line in Chicago and executed a stunning back-flop in the very moment of winning the race. He hit head-first and was taken to the hospital, where they’re apparently treating him for brain hemorrhages; at the very least, he’s pretty concussed. (And we thought that only happened in contact sports!)

Imagine if he’s too hurt to run next year. He needs to run—and finish—at least one of the six 2007 races to be eligible. What if he doesn’t, and the eligible “winner” winds up with fewer points than he’s already scored? That’s the worst-case scenario, and it’s ugly; imagine the possible recriminations over that lost million. What if he runs but can’t score, and gets nipped by a point or two somewhere? Then there’s the question of what he might have scored had he not fallen.

Ordinarily, an unfortunate accident (even one like Cheruiyot’s, which appears to be no one’s fault) would have everyone at the race hoping for his full recovery. But now there are probably representatives of five entire marathons pulling for Cheruiyot to return to top form in 2007, if only so their jackpot can be won on their courses, not lost in a freak accident at one finish line.

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October 12, 2006

Media I/O

If Mark Will-Weber is to be believed, some time in the 70s Duncan MacDonald, a contemporary of Don Kardong at Stanford, was congratulated after a race by a fan who then asked, “I see you on television and I read about you in the papers. How do you do it?”

MacDonald answered, “I don’t watch television and I don’t read the papers.” Whether he meant it in modesty or irritation isn’t clear.

I feel a bit like that about graduate school, except a stellar grad school performance isn’t likely to get me on any television broadcasts. My weakness tends to be the newspapers, although I need to broaden that category to include “any non-academic reading in any format whatever.”

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October 7, 2006

My distance

With as little base as I have nowadays, I find that whatever feelings of strength I have at the start of a race tend to fade away sometime in the fourth mile. The solution to this problem, obviously, is to focus on races with no fourth mile, and to that end I ran a 5k this morning.

This particular race started and finished in Davis Square, so I ran down from home with my completed entry blank in my hand. Davis is barely a respectable warm-up from home, so registered and with my number pinned on my race shirt, I had to add on another loop to even get a twenty-minute warm-up.

I knew the course pretty well, and I knew there would be one hill in the middle of the second mile. Consequently, my plan was to try to run conservatively for the first mile, maintain up the hill, then push hard from there. It almost worked; I passed the first mile in just a few ticks under what would wind up being my average pace, and despite my general lack of hill training since leaving the western hills, I passed a lot of people while climbing.

Coming back down, though, I stretched out my legs a bit, looking for some of the energy I’d been saving. It was there, but there wasn’t much of it, and I blew through it pretty quickly. Still half a mile from home, there was nothing left in the tank. I’d just passed one of my lab students from Comp 11 last spring, and now I suspected he was coming back at me.

He was; he blasted past me as we went back through Davis Square at a pace that would’ve been pretty improbable for me even if I’d been able to kick. He wound up two places ahead of me. My three-mile split hinted that a sub-19:00 run would’ve been possible, but the finish line clock was already showing 19:00 when I could first bring it into focus. I wound up at 19:06, a 6:10 average pace. Given that my last race pace was 6:21, and the one before that was 6:40, I could argue that I’m improving quite well, but I should also admit that those races were four and five miles, respectively, so comparing per-mile paces is pretty sketchy.

Now Playing: The River Runs Low from The Way It Is by Bruce Hornsby and the Range

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September 26, 2006

Another first

I had two photos published in the University newspaper today. (They’re not in the online edition, so no links.) I’m not credited, though; they’re “Courtesy of [A].” This is for the eminently sensible reason that she simply gave them a CD of photos we took at this weekend’s cross-country meet, without distinguishing between photographers. And I happened to be hogging the good spots at that meet.

I should concede that one of the photos might really be hers, but it looks like the spot I was standing. It’s hard to tell in newsprint.

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September 24, 2006

Cough

For someone who identifies as a runner, being betrayed by breathing is particularly bitter. Respiration is half of the “lungs on legs” formulation of the ideal runner. Training is designed to work on both ends of the energy equation, convincing our legs to do the most work with the least fuel on one hand, and convincing our lungs to absorb the most fuel from each breath on the other.

So the idea that a breath any deeper than “shallow” will trigger a convulsion of raspy coughs feels like rank treachery. (Treachery, thy name is trachea? Something like that.) I expected to be sick over the winter, but it usually doesn’t start this soon. (Some might suggest karma, after I wore my purple hat through Saturday’s activities.)

For some reason (probably the inherent humidity), I can still work hard in the pool without hacking and wheezing.

Now Playing: Hey Jealousy from New Miserable Experience by Gin Blossoms

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September 20, 2006

Learning from the data

I’m contemplating a course project based on “knowledge discovery” in marathon chip data. Not published results with 5k splits, but the raw, direct-from-the-mats chip data, the stuff the timing company uses to re-run the previous year’s race as a system test.

Knowledge discovery (usually called “machine learning” at the University, but also sometimes known as “data mining”) is an interesting field, because it’s implies the idea that there are patterns in data which are too subtle for us to see. One of the major tasks is classification, often used in medical applications to distinguish a set of symptoms as ill vs. not ill.

That’s not a simple task for marathon data; what are the classifications? Did the athlete beat their seed time? Did they finish? It might be intriguing simply to see if a program could predict, based only on chip data, the gender of the athlete wearing that chip.

The profusion of data with a high level of variance is a big problem for this hypothetical analysis, but another one is the mentality. We know there’s a huge number of variables in play, and at some point we discard the possibility that we could ever make sense of it all. But one of the strengths of machine learning is that the software decides which variables are actually relevant, and which are just noise.

It’s also approaching the problem of identifying which data are representative and which are outliers; our gut instinct is to suggest that we’re all outliers, but that’s clearly not the case, or there wouldn’t be thousands of runners crossing the line every hour.

So if you stop worrying about whether the answer can actually be found—that’s a question to be answered later—and just think about questions you might ask, what would you look for in marathon data?

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September 18, 2006

Head to tail

Friday and Saturday was my fifth year in the vans for Reach the Beach. It’s entertaining to me to see fifteen or sixteen people clustered around the wreckage of post-race seafood asking how soon they can sign up for next year, considering that we are invariably scrambling for people to fill the roster in the weeks before race date. But there’s something euphoric about the race which I can’t put a finger on.

Some of it’s connected with this team, which includes runners from 10:00+ pace to 5:30 pace. Nobody worries about what others are capable of; we just run what we can to maximize what we’re collectively capable of. We don’t worry about our overall place; we just focus on that one runner in front of us, try to reel them in, and pass them.

This year, we were seeded higher than we usually are, and consequently started later. (The faster you are, the later you start, and vice versa. We wound up finishing 55th out of 300 teams.) As a result of that, we were at many exchange zones closer to their closing times than usual; when we arrived at T18 (also known as “VTA #3” because it’s the third van-to-van handoff,) they were about to close. We took advantage of this: we parked in a far corner of the lot, put in our earplugs, and slept in an empty parking lot with a minimum of slamming doors, engines, shouts, etc. etc. I put my ground pad and sleeping bag on the roof of the van and got two hours of uninterrupted sleep, a luxury.

Being so close to the back of the race reminded me of a New Year’s column I wrote after my third go-around, in 2004. Since it’s no longer on the web (unless you ever-so-carefully search the Wayback Machine) I’ll post it here, after the jump.

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September 17, 2006

Now we know who's winning NCAAs

I’m enough of a track geek that I have to laugh when I see this headline:

John McDonnell says he doesn’t see anyone beating Wisconsin

Defying E.B. White’s aphorism (“Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog; nobody is interested, and the frog dies,”) I’ll point out that John McDonnell is the Arkansas coach, he’s won more NCAA championships in his career than the next two winning-est coaches in Division 1 combined, and he downplays his own team’s prospects so reliably that other coaches sometimes make a press-conference game out of trying to force him into an admission that Arkansas may have a chance.

So if the sandbagging has already begun, it’s probably safe to say McDonnell thinks the Razorbacks have a pretty hot team this year.

Now Playing: Bang from Leisure by Blur

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September 10, 2006

Fastest four

Yesterday’s race had me thinking about my best-ever four-miler. It was the Greenfield Winter Carnival race in 2002, the year I ran all my best races since college. I hunted up my (lengthy) write-up of the race from the day afterward, and discovered that the race was actually on February 2nd: 2/2/02, for 22 miles. I ran just over 22 minutes. And the race started and finished on Route 2A.

The full report, slightly edited as usual, is included after the jump. For perspective, you know.

Now Playing: A Kiss Before I Go from Jacksonville City Nights by Ryan Adams & The Cardinals

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September 9, 2006

Publishable results

I wanted to get a second hard run in this week, so I left the house just after 9:30 to run down to Fresh Pond. I cut my warm-up pretty close; I just had time to sign the waiver before race instructions started.

Whereupon I discovered that not only was there a mob of runners there—more than one high-school cross-country program, I think—but due to construction on the golf-course side of the pond, the short race was now 1.9 miles (or so) and the long race four miles, not five. (I won’t detail the course changes involved… let’s just say there were two U-turns.)

There was plenty of traffic at the start; lots of kids jockeying for position and not paying very close attention to whether they had room to cut in. (Not unlike Boston traffic, I might add.) I settled in twenty or thirty meters back from a big snowball of kids I figured would be stopping after the short race, and started picking off the stragglers. Experience will help these kids; they’ve got energy and enthusiasm, but they don’t have the kind of efficiency that comes from lots of miles (they over-stride with slow turnover) or the craftiness that comes from lots of races (don’t ever look back. Nothing behind you matters, until it’s in front of you; then it matters.)

One of them actually kept going past the short race finish, suggesting he’d go all the way; I was impressed. I ran with another guy, about my age, who said he was training for a 50-miler and was inserting the race in the middle of a long run. I was impressed; I didn’t expect to be able to do more than run home post-race. I pointed out the kid in front of us and noted that he was probably feeling sorry for himself now, but that he’d bolt like a scared rabbit if we pulled up on his shoulder in the last half-mile.

My companion decided that it would therefore be a good idea to put the kid away early, and pulled away from me. As he ran with the kid, they passed one unleashed dog which first challenged him, then bit him. He stopped to berate the owner, but I still didn’t have time to catch them.

He dropped the kid, and I started coming up on him in the last half-mile. As we came down the hill to the finish, I said, “Let’s see some of that finishing speed!” He looked puzzled for a second, but picked up a bit when he saw I was bearing down on him. I knew he could out-kick me, but I wanted to make him work for it. I got up on my toes and tried to pull even, but he held me off and we finished a second apart, then congratulated each other.

I got the #5 popsicle stick, which suggests that I’ll be in tomorrow’s Globe. I ran 25:24 by my watch, 6:21 pace if the course is actually the four miles they say it is. This is a big improvement on my last Fresh Pond result and my per-mile pace from the Peach Festival, but still over three minutes behind my four-mile PR from 2002.

Now Playing: King’s Crossing from From A Basement On The Hill by Elliott Smith

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September 1, 2006

Multiplayer Game Of The Year

I’m a bad geek.

When the Nike+ iPod kit was announced earlier this year, I dismissed it. Another unnecessary gadget in a sport that’s delightfully gadget-free, I thought, not to mention the promotion of running with attention-reducing headphones. I’m generally able to keep myself engaged with just my own rhythm, and if I’m lucky, the chink of small change in the key-pocket of my shorts.

Cabel Sasser, however, does not have my history. While I was running track and cross-country in high school and college, Cabel was learning programming. When I was working for a running magazine, Cabel was launching a company that makes the best Mac FTP client ever. (I promise, the names are totally coincidental.)

And the Nike+ is making Cabel into a runner:

Despite all of this, and all three mighty paragraphs of setup, I recently had a small epiphany. I’ve found myself totally enraptured by a new kind of online gaming experience, one that’s got excitement, thrilling rivalries, stats and achievements, mind-blowing graphics, and seriously perfect music. And sweat. Ridiculous amounts of sweat.

My online game of the year? Jogging on the streets of Portland with the Nike+ iPod kit.

Now, if only there was a similar gadget to make me a better programmer.

Now Playing: Jason And The Argonauts from English Settlement by XTC

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August 29, 2006

Information architecture for athletics events: wild speculation and idealism

If anyone actually read through both of my previous posts on web coverage of major track meets and open data formats for training logs, they may have seen the link between them. On the other hand, that might be evidence that this person thinks enough like me to require professional help of some sort.

I described the team and technical skills I would want to provide good coverage of a track meet, but I didn’t describe much of the technology they might use to make it happen. I raised the question of whether a consultant could make a business out of setting up such coverage for multiple events, but didn’t address the issue of integrating such standardized coverage with a wildly heterogeneous array of event websites. The answer to this, as I hinted in the training logs post, is more information architecture—a service-based architecture.

More similarly dull ideas after the jump…

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August 28, 2006

Good data leads to good science

So the internet blowhard says, a common, open data format for training data would “open the doors to … comparison of training data … [and] free developers from creating end-to-end solutions”.

And the cynic says, “Yeah? Name one example.”

And the internet blowhard blinks, then says, “Imagine if the National Runner’s Health Study didn’t send a paper questionnaire, but a little utility application which extracted the appropriate answers from your log data?”

Imagine if that application could “ask” your training data specific, detailed questions, prompt you for information only if it couldn’t find the data itself, and then “phoned home” the anonymized data?

I think you could even get a grant to write such a utility, if the data formats permitted it.

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August 26, 2006

Open training data formats

While I’m shooting my mouth off about how other people ought to be doing things (and I’m incubating some more detailed and technical thoughts on that particular topic, incidentally,) I’ve had some cause to think about training logs, particularly online ones, in recent days.

I’m skating on pretty thin ice when I talk about online training logs. For one thing, I keep my logs on paper—six or eight of the John Jerome né Jim Fixx logs from Random House, a few more random notebooks, etc. This year’s log is an IAAF pocket appointment calendar, and has the dates of all the major international races in it.

Also, I was partly responsible for one of the uglier and less-functional running logs on the web, back in the day; I’ve blocked most of that experience out of my memory, but in a quick 20/20 hindsight evaluation, we tried to do too much fancy stuff without getting the basics right.

On the other hand, through that experience, I have thought a lot about training logs, and I’ve actually been paid to write a quick review of some PalmOS-based logs. (Remember?)

Here’s one problem with every computer-based log I’ve ever seen: every athlete tracks different data. There is no simple way of describing RDBMS tables to allow for every idiosyncratic log habit. You need to accommodate both the old-school runner whose log is simply a wall calendar where they check off days they ran (or, at most, note the time) and the new-school data hound who is uploading HRM data, has a library of regular routes, and is tracking mileage on three rotating pairs of shoes. (This is a puzzle in itself; you need an entire table for shoes.) I used to track not only weekly mileage but my mileage over a trailing four-week window. Different data is generated by different kinds of runs, ranging from a normal training run to track work to racing. And, if you’re not convinced yet, consider triathlon training.

The other problem is linked to the first: lock-in. Spend a few months using any log, and you have a few months of valuable training data locked up in that software without an easy way of getting it back out, even if the log isn’t doing what you want from it. Most web log developers see this lock-in as a feature, keeping users coming back week after week, but I think it’s a roadblock; users like me are reluctant to try new logs because we’re afraid we’ll be putting our training data in jail, like dropping money into a piggy bank that can’t be reopened. I’ve seen some logs nod to the idea of data export by producing flat pages of data which may be printed out. Printed out! On paper! Talk about regression.

And yet logging is a critical tool for runners of all levels. A log lets you step back from your day-in-day-out training and see what you’ve actually done; it shows your strengths and weaknesses, and it can show you where you screwed up and incurred injury or fatigue. A computer-based log offers the (as yet unrealized, as far as I know) potential to perform more intricate analysis, visualize data in clear and illuminating ways, and share both raw and summarized data with coaches and other advisors. It’s too useful a tool to be discarded simply because it’s difficult, and that’s why people are still trying.

So what we need is a flexible data model which allows a wide variety of data but mandates little, and applications which provide for import and export.

The thing is, I think it’s possible to create that now. Specifically, I think it’s possible to describe such a data model in an XML Schema or DTD. Any application implementation which could read and write XML data conforming to that schema/DTD would then be free to store the data however it chose (potentially competing on performance,) or even to simply leave the data in XML and compete on ease of use. What’s more, by divorcing the data model from the application, it would be hypothetically possible for athletes to maintain their own data store, adding training sessions using whatever application they chose (on whatever platform was convenient!) and viewing and analyzing the data using potentially different applications.

Developers would be freed from creating end-to-end solutions; because they would be working with a standard data model, they could create data input managers customized to specific athletes or training programs, analysis engines, or even coaching bots. They could stop trying to lock in the few early adopters, and compete on features for a potentially much larger market. Also, it would open the doors to apples-to-apples comparison of aggregate training data, which might give a lift to the creative training commons we discussed a few months ago.

This might count as wishful thinking, but I think it stands up. Creating the schema would take a lot of work, and getting developers to buy in would take even more. I think the rewards would be significant, though, and worth the trouble.

Now Playing: It’s All Too Much from A Box Of Birds by The Church

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August 24, 2006

Online coverage of major track meets

In my first post-college job, I was involved in one of the early efforts to provide timely Web coverage of major track meets. In the five years I was there, our approach varied quite a bit due to circumstances, and I’ve learned things since then that have changed the way I look at the problem.

I’ve had an email conversation recently that suggested to me that laying out my ideas on this might be worthwhile, particularly since I’m not likely to have much time to think about this until we’re far enough into 2007 that it’s too late.

I’d like to think that this is interesting to everyone, but it runs pretty long, so I’ve put the meat down in the extended entry.

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August 23, 2006

Long delays

The coach we’ve been running for on Tuesdays has a sufficiently long history in the sport that he has a lot of stories. He seldom remembers the names to go with them, but A and I are pretty good (perhaps better than most) at filling them in.

The problem is that once he’s sidetracked on a story, the digression can really set back the workout. The stories are almost recursive, since he follows a number of sub-stories within whichever story he’s telling; last night, for example, to tell a story about Joe Kleinerman playing a prank on him, we heard about his history with the Boston Marathon, how he lost his “card” to compete as an amateur athlete (ironically, for being paid as a coach,) some details about the AAU and the 1936 Olympic, and a more contemporary agent and his family. It wound up taking half an hour to get from “Joe Kleinerman got me good” to “…cup of coffee!”

As we finally started our warmup, we reflected that one of his saving graces was that no matter how far he digressed, he always managed to get back to where he started.

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August 20, 2006

Working the circuit

This morning we ran the Wilbraham Peach Festival road race. (I took another three minutes off my post-injury five-mile mark; I am now under 6:40 pace. When I’m under 6:00 pace I’ll claim to be officially Back; this will probably happen next year sometime, if ever.)

On the way home, we heard a radio ad for the Tomato Festival in Granby, featuring the Tomato Trot (though judging from last year’s results, their claim to a 5k is dubious at best.) I got to wondering, how hard would it be to put together a full summer’s racing schedule just at various fairs, festivals, etc.? If they follow the pattern of the Peach Festival (pancake breakfast—with peaches—included with race entry,) you’d have quite a tour.

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August 17, 2006

Unexpected kindness

I’ve seen the cabs out here do some scary stuff, like passing on a double-yellow (in front of the CS building!), right on red without stop, etc. etc.

So it took me by surprise this morning when a cabbie stopped on Highland Street in Somerville and waved me across the street on my run. He didn’t even need to; there wasn’t anyone behind him, nor was there anyone coming the other way.

Now Playing: The Unguarded Moment from Hindsight by The Church

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Steel springs

I ran a lot last week. Partly because I didn’t take a zero day during the “week” defined by my current log (an IAAF pocket appointment book, running Mondays to Sundays,) and partly because I had two or three monster days, I ran 6:19 last week (that’s six hours, nineteen minutes, for those who track miles, like I used to.) I figure that’s on the close order of 45 miles, a high for me since 2003.

In some ways, I still have a long way to go. I start out slow and I take a while to get warmed up. When I have a hard day, it takes me a day or two longer to recover than it used to. And the endurance to hold a strong pace through a longer race is still not there.

However, I’ve been going with A to run with a new training group up in Wakefield on Tuesday nights. The coach has quite a resume (several ARs and a few Olympians in his day—I could name some of his athletes, and you’d know them. Yes, you.) I’m not, and never was, of the caliber of athlete he wants to recruit for this group, but A is, and I go essentially to be her personal workout rabbit, like Hicham el Guerrouj is supposed to have had.

He’s a character in a lot of ways, with his sentences piling out so quickly he can’t finish one before he wants to start another. He’s talking as though he’s training us in secret, with his special formula, but everything he’s given us so far has felt like nothing more than plain commonsense training to me. And it’s helping; I do feel like I can pick up the pace now, and run for a little while at a quicker pace than I would if I was just looping around by myself. Despite his semi-lunacy, he has one very important part of coaching down: he gives me confidence in what I’m doing, and lets me see week to week improvement.

So even though I won’t be in shape for any 2002-quality races any time soon, I am planning one or two hard efforts for the fall. And I’m approaching some kind of mental confidence I haven’t had, what I think of as “Gallipoli fitness,” after the scene from that movie:

“What are your legs?”
“Steel springs!”
“What are they going to do?”
“Hurl me down the track!”

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August 13, 2006

It's the race photo that's most important

Spending part of this morning with A’s second-best camera at a good spot approaching the six-mile mark of the Falmouth Road Race got me thinking. There is, after all, only one winner in any given race (two, if you subscribe to the theory that the men and women run separate but concurrent races on the same course,) and everyone else is chasing some kind of watered-down title like “first over-50” or something completely subjective like a personal best performance. Clearly the really important thing is the race photo.

(Can you tell yet that I now have my tongue firmly in cheek?)

Anyone who has ever run a big road race has received in the mail some dreadful photo taken during the race by the official photo service. (I have a small gallery of these postage-stamp-sized proofs. Least likely to be purchased: the ones taken at a marathon I dropped out of.) Obviously, the photographers are trying as best they can, so for the education of the race-running public, I offer these suggestions for achieving a race photo to be proud of:

  • Don’t run with headphones. I won’t even half-push the shutter to auto-focus on you. Seriously, now, you can’t go an hour without your tunes, particularly when you may need to be focused on where the photographers are? (Or whether some oblivious spectator is about to cause a collision by stepping out onto the course right in front of you?) Would you bring your iPod to a magazine cover shoot?

  • Run by yourself. A good fifty meters of space between you and the runner ahead of you should be sufficient. Hanging on to some kind of “pack,” or that silly “drafting” idea, are both sure-fire routes to a lousy photo. Running in front of a pack may be OK, but the other runners in the pack will divide the photographer’s precious attention.

  • Ditch the hat, or at least wear it backwards if you look good that way. A scanned my photos after the race, stopped at one, and said, “That’s a great shot. Too bad you can’t tell who it is.” The hat’s shadow completely obscured the runner’s face.

  • Speaking of identification, wearing your number where it belongs—on the front of your shirt—is a good idea. Some people like to pin theirs on their shorts, presumably so they can wipe sweat off their faces with their shirts. Not only does this make them hard to identify, but who wants a picture of themselves wiping sweat off with their shirt?

  • Particularly since you’ve skipped the hat, sunglasses are good on sunny days: not only do they reduce the amount you squint (with the less-important side effect of allowing you to relax more and therefore run faster,) but they hide any remaining squint.

  • If you tend to grimace when you run—twisted mouth, tongue out, whatever—well, I don’t know what to tell you.

A word or two for the spectators: It’s lovely that your spouse/parent/child/drinking buddy is doing the race. This day is not about you. When you see someone with a professional camera (you’ll know it: it has interchangeable lenses and lacks stickers indicating how many megapixels it captures,) and a lens as long as their forearm, do not set foot on the pavement. I don’t care if the closest Starbucks is on the other side of the race course and you’ve got the shakes from caffeine withdrawal: cross the course somewhere else and pass behind the lenses.

Now Playing: Genius from Dandys Rule OK by The Dandy Warhols

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August 10, 2006

Marathoners Anonymous

In light of Mario’s recent posts about his new girlfriend, I thought it might be worth dragging out a column I did about three years ago. This actually predates my PF problems; the column before it, about my ITBS issues, got a number of positive email responses (I’d forgotten about that,) but I can’t find the column in my own archive, nor in my outbound email… and part of the reason I feel free to re-post these columns here is that RW unapologetically “lost” their archive at some point not long before I stopped writing the column.

As usual, I’ve elided places where I used my real name in the original; pages on this site come up third in searches for my full name (different pages depending on where you search—go figure,) and I’d just as soon it not go higher. Also, despite the assertions I made three years ago, I currently have no intention of running any marathon, anywhere, in the foreseeable future. Nor do I live in Northampton.

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August 7, 2006

Strength and balance

“Which foot was it?”

I had the opportunity to run with Scott this weekend, and in that time after the run where you’re sitting (or standing,) stretching, soaking up Gatorade and feeling the sweat evaporate, he asked about my injury. It was my right foot.

“Because your right calf is more developed than your left.”

Well, he was looking at it, and when I looked down, I could see it too. I wonder if a cloth tape (or a piece of string) around them would show the difference. I can come up with a hypothesis linking the overdeveloped calf and the foot: the calf is, after all, the last muscle to apply force at toe-off, and the plantar fascia (which is what I had injured) is what delivers some of that force to the toes. I may simply have developed a muscle strong enough to strain that bit of connective tissue, which was then very slow to heal (particularly since the calf didn’t get notably less strong.)

We also discussed the theory which Scooter has raised here in comments, and which we both heard quite bluntly and directly from Arthur Lydiard, that if I wore “less shoe” (that is, less supportive, less built-up running shoes,) my feet would get stronger and support themselves. It’s an interesting theory and it seems like common sense to me, but it’s not one I’ve been able to successfully apply at earlier stages in my recovery process. I like less shoe; my favorite shoes ever have always been in the “lightweight trainer” category, the light slipper-like shoes that are just a few ounces from racing flats.

Of course, there’s also those rigid orthotics.

This is where the experiment of one aspect of running is a real liability. If I experiment with light shoes and strengthening my PF, and it goes badly, I could conceivably lose a few more months of running. Would I really want to try such an experiment, or would I rather just keep running? (And I wonder if I can correct the calf imbalance, and if that might help me stay relatively consistent?)

I told Scott I would consider myself 100% injury free when I could run in spikes again.

Now Playing: Come Home from Songs for a Hurricane by Kris Delmhorst

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July 24, 2006

Overcommitting

I raced again Saturday, this time something of an “invitation only” event. Checking the course, which was a single loop of a cute little lake in Vermont, I saw that there would be a single-track bottleneck early in the race, and resolved not to get caught behind anyone and held up there. So I bolted out when the starter called “go,” weaving around a few slower front-line starters and chasing a blue-shirted kid who looked like he was probably way out of my league. I could hear A exclaiming behind me—this has not been my recent race strategy—and I knew she was right, but I figured this was a good race to be aggressive.

This was a team-scored race: Mark’s guests versus Mary’s guests. Blue shirts scored for Mark, yellow for Mary; everyone scored one point, but division places (five-year age groups, plus the “dogs” category and the “on the way” age group for passengers of two expectant mothers,) scored 5-3-2 for first through third. I figured I was going to have to scrap for division points, since both Brad and Mark were in my division, as well as others I didn’t know. So maybe it was team pride that made me chase out; as we came out of the single-track, I was the third yellow shirt. Six guys, including Mark, Brad, Ricardo, and three others I didn’t know, were clearly out of my league today, and they were gone, though I could see them for most of the first two miles.

There were footsteps behind me, and another yellow shirt beside me by the time I reached the mile marker (6:16, my watch says.) I was audibly working harder than he was, though; we ran together for most of the second mile, but he started to move away and I wasn’t in a position to match him. Mile 2, 6:19. Both of these miles were nearly a minute faster than I’d averaged in two five-milers so far in July.

A nice left turn at about two and a quarter gave me a chance to peek over my shoulder and set the scene: two runners behind me, maybe 100m back, one in yellow (one of Mary’s brothers, as it happened,) and one in blue. So, no rest for the foolish; I had to hang on to my pace as long as possible and keep the blue shirt behind me. And the third mile had all the hills.

I remember thinking, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” and consciously holding my head straight and thinking my stride smooth, even as it shortened up the hills. I beeped the watch at 6:35 for the third mile marker (ouch!) and saw 20:00 at the 5k (not normally good news, but in this shape I’ll take it.) I felt a stitch starting but didn’t dare lift my arms to stretch it out. I knew which hill was the last one and threw myself into a controlled fall down to the finish line; if he didn’t get me going up, he wasn’t going to catch me on my way down.

The official results—printed in the wedding program that afternoon, with my last name misspelled—showed me in 23:52, ten seconds ahead of Mark’s best man. I was third in the division (Brad and Mark were first and second,) and he was fourth, so I saved us a point; I’m proud of that, even though we lost in the end. I was nearly 30s ahead of Alison, and we figured that most of that came in the first mile; I was also nearly four minutes behind Brad, who won. I wouldn’t have placed much better had I been in better shape; even in my 2002 condition I would’ve had a hard time with Mark’s clocking.

But mostly I’m glad I committed myself, early on, to a hard effort, and didn’t back down once I was committed. I have a lot of work to do before I can support that kind of commitment over longer races, but it’s nice to see that at least my legs remember how it’s supposed to work.

Impressive footnote: at 97 finishers, this was a pretty big race for a small town—and represented about two thirds of the wedding guests.

Now Playing: Everyday Should Be A Holiday from Come Down by The Dandy Warhols

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July 15, 2006

Progress

I broke a streak today, but it was one of those “get it over with” streak-breaks.

In 2002, my last good racing season, I ran the Fresh Pond race twice, and won it both times. The Fresh Pond race is something like the Northampton Tuesday Night cross-country races: it’s low-key and happens weekly over the same course. The Fresh Pond race is different in that (a) it’s free, and (b) it happens all year, every Saturday morning. Also, the Fresh Pond course allows for two races in one: 2.5 miles (one lap of the pond) or 5 miles (two laps.) The winning times vary greatly according to who shows up (as they do at many races,) and sometimes you’ll see some impressive names there for a workout.

In January ‘02, I showed up because A was taking photos at the Terrier Classic, and Fresh Pond was nearly the only race in Massachusetts that weekend that wasn’t a 5k. I wanted to run a steady effort, but I got excited and ran too hard in the first mile, found myself in the lead, and found myself in a duel that actually lasted into the last mile of the race. I ran in the low 28s, faster than I’d been for many years; the runner-up and I agreed that neither of us had planned on running so hard. Marie Davenport, who’s now a 31-minute 10k runner but was struggling then, was third. A week later I won the Greenfield Winter Carnival 4-miler in a PR for the distance (something of a story itself); two weeks after that I crashed and burned at the USATF XC winter nationals.

In December of ‘02, I was in town for a Friday night dinner with friends. I spent the night with Joe and Julia, then Joe and I ran Fresh Pond. It was a much easier race—I think Joe was second or third—but I had struggled in my PR marathon in October and hadn’t really bounced back. I was feeling the first twinges of the ITBS that would hamper my training early in 2003. But I ran, and won, and bookended the year with wins at Fresh Pond.

Today A and I ran down, about a 23-minute run from our house in Medford, and signed up about five minutes before the race. (Entry is free, but you still have to sign the waiver. “If I’d known it was free,” said A, “I would’ve done it sooner!”) I thought I was being unnecessarily restrained in the first mile, but by the end of the second I knew I was going to have a hard time holding on to the pace. I told myself it was a tempo run, and steady pace from beginning to end was the key. I think it was steady—I even ran the second lap a touch faster than the first—but it was tough. I clocked 35:33, notably faster than the 4th of July on a flatter course. I’d love to credit the shadow of a hill workout I did on Thursday, but I don’t think I’d see the benefits that fast. I took the #7 popsicle stick; A had #6. She was the first woman, so by tradition she’ll be in the Boston Globe tomorrow. (The top three in each race are invariably in the Globe’s agate on Sunday, through a deal the race’s founder wrangled with a long-departed sports editor.)

I should still be able to handle a minute (or more) per mile faster, but I’ll take this for now. A hill workout, even an abbreviated one, and a hard pace run in a week. If I keep this up for a few more weeks, I might get into good enough shape to actually train.

Now Playing: Girl In The War from The Animal Years by Josh Ritter

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July 10, 2006

Datum

Last week, I discovered an intelligence operation possibly more impressive than the NSA: Paul Williams at the National Runner’s Health Study. I think I’ve changed address twice since I last sent data to Williams, as a twenty-something Pennsylvanian, but still he tracked me down in Medford for a follow-up survey.

I had to drag out a small stack of running logs to answer the questions, because I have not been terribly scientific about my own data collection over the last four years. The span of this follow-up survey is from 2002 (when I logged nearly 60 mpw for the whole year and ran nearly all my best times since college,) to now, and my long-term injury problems in ‘03-‘05 really put a dip in those numbers. It’s odd to look at the “best 10k and best marathon” marks next to the questions about my current training regime, about a third that which produced those 2002 times.

I was impressed with how much I did manage to run in 2003, when I looked at that log, and to see that I actually ran a few races even in 2004. It’s more and more obvious, looking back at the whole episode, how much a nagging problem in my foot even warped my mind. There’s more to be fixed than just the foot.

Most amusing part of the survey: it asks for a few data points I don’t usually track, specifically chest/waist/hips measurements. (OK, I had a pretty close guess on waist size because I’ve purchased pants recently.) I don’t have a paper or cloth tape to work with, so I used a small (six-foot) metal tape, and tried to pull it fairly tight. I expect I’ve therefore over-estimated all three numbers.

Now Playing: Play Dead from Whiplash by James

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July 6, 2006

Faster

My hometown (or at least the population center closest to my actual hometown) has a 5-mile road race every Fourth of July. It used to be run by my high school cross-country coach, and in those days it was the big race for the Midcoast region that day; the course was arranged to hit the biggest hills in town, and characters like Eric Nedeau and Sam Wilbur turned up to win it.

At some point, L.L. Bean sponsored a 10k twenty minutes away in Freeport with actual prize money, and our race tapered off a bit. The course changed to a sort-of-out-and-back along the river which was prettier and required less police and volunteer support. The turnout has been flat for the past decade: between forty and eighty, depending on the year. Organization is almost by rote: some years, the miles aren’t even marked, so splits are only available through “local knowledge,” and there’s no marked starting line; we just line up by consensus. Since I won it in 1995, my own attendance has been mixed: some years I missed it due to logistics, other times injury; sometimes I ran decently well (3rd in 2002, I think,) sometimes not. The class of the next year’s high school team still shows up for some bragging rights (they can’t win cash in Freeport anyway,) but the state’s road racing names seldom do.

Last year, I was proud of myself for getting around just under 40 minutes with one of my high school teammates who was similarly undertrained. Within a week, my foot was delivering stabbing pains once again (it was like having a rock in your shoe 24/7,) and I was back in the pool; that was my last run until after the move to Medford.

Tuesday, the same teammate picked my brother and me up within a quarter mile. I asked what kind of shape he was in. “Worse than last year,” he said, but when my brother started to lag after the first mile (7:10, potentially immoderate, but who knows,) he stuck to me.

We ran together through four miles (about 29:00,) picking off a lot of those who were over-bold in the first miles, including several high school kids. (“I love being older and wiser,” I said. “Of course, I placed better when I was young and foolish, didn’t I.”) Finally, with a half mile to go and one more runner in front of us, he said, “Go get ‘im,” and I made the pass on a steep downhill (then got re-passed on the uphill finish—sometimes you have to take these risks when you have no kick.) I figure we finished somewhere in the 36:xx range, but I’ve yet to see any results other than places, so I don’t know my official time.

Why is this better than last year? Aside from the obvious time improvement (I’m now within 10 minutes of my 8k/5M best, 26:59 at UMass Dartmouth in 1993,) I went out for a run this morning and felt good. So not only can I run 7:15 pace for five miles, but I can apparently do it without hurting myself.

Next step: actually training, instead of just running what I feel like each day.

Now Playing: The Ways Of Men from The Essential Waterboys by The Waterboys

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June 11, 2006

Most memorable

A few weeks ago I mentioned my almost-old-enough-to-drive 800m PR. It’s also worth noting that it was my first appearance, in print, in a national magazine—complete with a photo of me in the next year’s state 800m final, where I got a better place (4th) with a slower time (2:04).

I wrote the article twice. The first version was the way I would tell the story if I was out on a run, and was it ever long. It was suggested that I come up with a shorter version. Cutting the first one was out of the question, so I rewrote, and kept it as lean and laconic as possible. It actually weighed in just over 300 words, only about twice the length of this introduction.

The full story is in the extended entry, because unless you have an inordinately weighty collection of old Runner’s Worlds, this is its archive.

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Linky linky

A few important bullets before we return to regularly scheduled banality and overwrought pseudo-thoughtfulness (and self-deprecation, don’t forget that.) (Damn, I can even be sarcastic about being sarcastic. My generation is messed up.)

  • All the writing I’ve been doing this weekend is on www.eliterunning.com. It’s easiest to just grab the “2006 NCAA Outdoor Champs” tag.

  • I am inordinately obsessed with the story of Jack the tabby. Jack, if you haven’t already heard, is a fifteen-pound orange tabby in New Jersey who treed a black bear. Twice. I wonder what Iz could do if he had that yard to patrol! Of course, Jack has a pound or two on Iz, and we keep him indoors because there’s no cat alive who can face down a car. Still, what a story!

  • Tisiwoota has shifted between my two link lists. There is proof. I’m the scruffy-looking one. That is all.

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June 8, 2006

No, you really aren't too slow

I’m going to quote verbatim from another blog now, because he’s articulated something that I’ve noticed a lot while trying to bring other CS grad students out on our weekly runs. (There are two of us who run regularly, and three others who sometimes join us. And plenty more who sort of wish they could join us, but… read on.)

i have the same problem with people going on runs, and it always bother me. it usually goes like this: people mention that they are going for a run sometime in the near future, or that they want to start running soon. so, i mention that i would like to run with them if they would like company. then - almost invariably - whomever i’m talking to says that they’d be too slow for me (remembering that i’m a track and cross country runner). this is where i get frustrated. it’s exactly because i’m an experienced runner that i know exactly how slow and how fast people are, so i know exactly what i’m getting into when i suggest that i join them for a run (that is, if they want to). i know that they’re probably not going to run as fast or as long as i can, and they may not even want to. in fact, if i was intending on a very hard, long, serious run, i probably wouldn’t have offered to run with whomever i’m in a conversation with. but, that’s not what i’m offering; i’m offering to join them on their run. it’s nice to have company. that’s all i’m offering, and there’s no illusion in my mind that i’m intending they run at whatever capacity they think i run at. i’m asking to run with them, and i know exactly what that means.

Of course, he’s using this as an illustration of another concept; this is not limited to running. (My own other example: “I’m not good at math.”)

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June 7, 2006

Tying one on

Anyone who has had a media credential at more than one NCAA event knows they can be counted on to hang the things on the flimsiest loop of slightly elastic string they can find: no custom lanyards here. This is not, on the face of it, a bad thing; after a while, the accumulation of credential lanyards begins to get out of hand, and this does not add to it.

However, while at the event, the silly string is a nuisance. It allows the credential to twist around until the string is trying to strangle the wearer, or blow up into one’s face. At an event like the outdoor championships, where a meet schedule is also hung on the string along with the credential itself, the string is barely capable of holding the mass.

So we improvise. Many people knot the string around a belt loop rather than hanging it from their neck. Others, like myself, anticipate the problem and bring another lanyard.

It needs to be a two-hook lanyard, since these are two-hole credentials. This is one of those situations where we size each other up, much like comparing the quality of race t-shirt on another runner. You bring the highest-powered event lanyard you own. (Or, as A wisely does, bring a plain solid-color one and dodge the comparison.) A major marathon lanyard is good, or an Olympic Trials. I recycle my IAAF lanyard from World Cross; it not only reflects my “sponsor” (though I’m not working for them here,) but also indicates that just because I’m not working for a print newspaper doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m watching.

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June 5, 2006

Not bad for a rush job

I forgot to point out my Reebok Grand Prix article. I think this one sets a new record for quality per hour; I hammered it out while the stadium staff waited impatiently to unplug my power and internet access. I whiffed on the shot (the editor added the closing paragraph for me,) because the winner went directly from the ring to the medical tent to get treated for (we’re told) muscle spasms in his back. Otherwise not bad, but nothing on Brian Cazeneuve’s article, of course. But he’s a pro; I’m a fan with a notebook.

A few things that didn’t make the article: As Brian points out, this was the first record in the track distances set in the USA since Henry Rono’s 1978 steeplechase clocking. (Rono set more than one WR that year; the steeple was merely the last one. Others have mentioned Bill Rodgers’ 1979 clockings for 15,000m, 20,000m, 25,000m, etc., to which I will only reply, when was the last time you saw a 25,000m race on a track?)

One thing which hasn’t been widely reported is that we probably saw the first-ever Chinese sub-4 mile on Saturday. Gu Ming, who is listed as their indoor record holder in 4:02, ran 3:59.75 for 10th. I mentioned it in my report, but on my suggestion my editor cut it, because neither of us had time to hunt down the Chinese NR. Further research today has left me none the wiser. Neither Gu nor the other Chinese runner in the race spoke any English, but I applied the time-honored language of gestures and speaking very slowly to get the idea that they had both previously had 4:0x PRs. Fifty-two years ago, Bannister said, “Apres moi, le déluge.” I wonder if the Chinese even care? They didn’t seem too excited in the mixed zone.

Also in unreported athletics news from Saturday, my nieces ran their first race, a Kids K at the local YMCA. Worries about their ability to cover the distance have been put to rest; what they need now is a finish line photographer with a faster camera.

Now Playing: Runaways from English Settlement by XTC

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June 3, 2006

&$^#%@#!!

I was in a press conference with Justin Gatlin, and I didn’t see any of this: Defar 14:24.53. But I still have to write about it.

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Secret message to race PR coordinators

It is not necessary to send 1.2 MB of photos via email to your entire mailing list.

Simply including the sentence, “High resolution images available on request” should be sufficient.

Posted by pjm at 3:47 PM | Comments (0)

World's biggest blow-dryer

Tremendously early for the Reebok Grand Prix, we find the grounds crew trying to at least minimize the standing water on the track after (relatively) heavy rain all day. There’s one vehicle which looks like a floor-buffer sweeping the runways for the pole vault, but a few minutes ago a golf-cart sized gator pulled out a trailer with what looked like a small jet engine on it. A 90° nozzle on the back directed the output at the ground. They parked this machine over the shot ring, and blasted it dry in under a minute. I wondered why they weren’t doing the whole track with it—at this point, there are still puddles on the backstretch—but on further thought, I suppose the heat could hypothetically damage the track surface.

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May 31, 2006

Renaissance fan

I am a distance-running fan; those are the events where I know the athletes and their abilities, and can revel in the myriad tactics of the races. But sprinters are seductive in their energy and attitude, and I can appreciate a good short race when I see one.

Five years ago, for example, I missed my five-year college reunion because I was at the NCAA championships in Eugene, Oregon. Two interesting things happened at that meet which I didn’t think much of until later.

  • The Flyin’ Frogs of TCU, a sprint-heavy corps, missed their big chance for a national championship when their star false-started in the 200m. In the NCAA, false starts are an instant disqualification with no warnings, so TCU got zero points—had he run, and finished last, he would at least have scored one; Tennessee ended up winning the meet in the relay. The false-starter: 2003 World Champion at 100m, Kim Collins.

  • Collins’ DQ opened the door for a 100m/200m double by a young Tennessee freshman named Justin Gatlin, who won the same double last year at the Helsinki World Championships. Gatlin tied the World Record for 100m a few weeks ago, and he will be running in New York on Saturday… during my ten-year college reunion.

Now Playing: One X One from Listen Like Thieves by INXS

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May 26, 2006

If you write it, they will come

And to top it off, I’ve been approached by the Albany Times Union for some research work on their preview for Freihofer’s. They said they got my name from here, so I wonder if they’ve seen my reaction to last year’s race? (It would seem they intuitively guessed my opinion on pitching freelance work.)

Update: Turns out I was second string for the Times Union job, and the first string came through right after they asked me. Ah, well—that may improve my Comp 170 grade.

Now Playing: Within Your Reach from Hootenanny by The Replacements

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May 7, 2006

Multi-booked

Here are all the things happening in the weekend after Memorial Day, which I might have some interest in attending:

  • The Reebok Grand Prix, in New York City, which I’ve been invited to cover again for iaaf.org.

  • My 10th reunion at the College.

  • The Freihofer’s Run for Women, in Albany.

  • The road race my parents have directed, in Maine, which I have (so far) never attended. My nieces are campaigning to run the Kids K, and the call has gone out for patient escorts willing to make sure they make it around.

If only they were more spread out.

Update, 5/14/06: And,

Now Playing: Hard Way To Fall from Jacksonville City Nights by Ryan Adams & The Cardinals

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May 2, 2006

Landmarks

When I was a high school runner, with no sense of tactics or proper training, I managed to squeak in to the state championship 800m race. I was the 12th and last seed with some silly time like 2:07. (That kind of time wouldn’t make it to States nowadays, but this was in the pre-Webb era.) On a sunny spring Saturday in Bangor, about this time of year, I ran a race I shouldn’t have been capable of and stole 6th, the last scoring place, in 2:02.4, which is still my PR for the distance even though I ran 55 for 400m twice the following year[0]. Mine turned out to be the only point my team scored that year.

When I got home, I had to call my coach (no cell phones, of course, so I couldn’t call from the track,) and tell him how the race had gone. He was the head cross country coach but only an assistant for track, because the head coach didn’t really “get” distance runners. He missed both my regionals race and the state meet because his wife was expecting their first baby “any day now.”

Today, my mother pointed out that his daughter is now a high school freshman. Next year, my 800m PR will be old enough to drive.

Now I feel old and slow.

[0] 55 might have been a competitive time for our in-conference quad meets, but it wasn’t going to get me anywhere state-wide. I went back to the 800 and got a better place (4th) with a slightly slower time; one of the underclassmen who finished in front of me went on to be a 1500m finalist at the ‘96 Olympic Trials. It seems odd that a 55 wouldn’t be competitive, but so few 800m runners were in the sub-2 range; I’m forced to conclude that the 800m was a “soft” event. Most likely the 400m runners didn’t want to run that far, and the field was made up of the few milers willing to hurt that much.

Posted by pjm at 8:41 AM | Comments (3)

April 30, 2006

Track and field trip

We’ve taken my nieces to road races before, and they like seeing their relatives run by, but when they don’t recognize most of the runners, they get bored.

Yesterday, my brother brought them over to the NESCAC championships, where A was working and I was hanging out after discovering that it’s not possible for a visitor to get internet access on this particular campus. (Not quite true: I was online on a common machine in the library. But I can’t very well shell in to the University and hack on a programming project from a shared iMac next to the periodicals desk, can I?)

Now, the girls arrived pretty late in the day, so they only saw the end of the men’s 5,000m and a slew of relays. But here’s what we did show them, exclusive of incidentals like strange dogs and doing somersaults in the air while hanging on to Daddy and Uncle pjm’s hands:

  • All the different teams. The girls currently have family connections to six of eleven schools in the conference, so like me, they just cheer for whoever seems to need it, or whoever’s going by at the moment.

  • Hurdles, the high jump pit (and pole vault pit,) and the javelin sector. None of them active, unfortunately, but it’s true that I spent most of the morning at the meet watching throwers when I wasn’t watching runners. I’m actually beginning to develop an appreciation for the javelin. The lag time between events can be a killer if there are no field events going.

  • Daddy’s coach from his three seasons of collegiate running, who shook hands with the girls and said “Pleased to meet you!” We got to congratulate him on his son—not just for his athletic performance, but for the character he displayed as the focus of attention before and after his event.

  • One of my fellow grad students (with a leftover year of eligibility to use) getting ready to run the DMR for the University; I called him over to show the girls his spikes. “Like slippers with teeth,” I told them.

  • The steeplechase barrier on the backstretch. I went over it once or twice—stepping, not hurdling, since I’m not fast enough to hurdle right now—but they found it easier to go under than over at the men’s height.

When we took them back home, the younger one, at least, was definitely interested in running laps around the driveway as fast as she could. I wonder if she’ll carry that up to junior high; assuming they stay in the same district, the high school program is one of the better ones in the state.

Now Playing: Stereotypes from The Great Escape by Blur

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April 26, 2006

No Knight

A link on A’s new site tells me that Ron Bellamy at the Register-Guard has the (public) explanation for my foreword-less copy of Kenny Moore’s Bowerman and the Men of Oregon. Knight likes the book; it’s Rodale he’s having trouble getting along with.

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April 24, 2006

Missed opportunities

I’ve been reading Bowerman and the Men of Oregon since last week, which should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone. It’s probably also unsurprising that I love it; it’s a rock-solid book balanced between Moore’s own familiarity with the subject and his extensive research, and like the best running books, it’s not just about running.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say when I’m done (I haven’t even reached the Prefontaine era,) but one of the entertaining subplots so far has been the birth and rise of Nike. Maybe it’s not so entertaining to everyone: the book isn’t yet available on Amazon or on Rodale’s own site, and the rumor is that Phil Knight has something to do with this. Moore makes Knight-as-college-student look a bit silly, but in my opinion shows plenty of respect for the company he founded with Bowerman, and how he got it started. In fact, one of the regular jokes has been the impressive list of people who declined to put a few hundred bucks into early Nike stock—Moore included.

Now Playing: Our Retired Explorer (Dines With Michel Foucault In Paris, 1961) from Reconstruction Site by The Weakerthans

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April 23, 2006

Get 'em young

I was hunting up a link (to John Brant’s “A for Effort” article, as it happens,) and was reminded how so many of my “Bell Lap” columns are no longer available in the RW Online archives. One in particular is related to this, a 2003 column featuring my older niece and some other characters. I haven’t edited this extensively—Deena was still Drossin then, not Kastor—so some of the links are broken, and there are other anachronisms, but it’s in the extended entry. I don’t remember if RWOL ran the photo with it or not, but I will.

Now Playing: This Will Be My Year from Feeling Strangely Fine by Semisonic

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April 21, 2006

The road not taken

I had a chance, briefly, to talk to John Brant in the press room on Monday. Improbably, we didn’t need an introduction; if I were in his position, I would have had a short conversation with this person whose face I remembered but name I didn’t. He asked what I was up to nowadays; I told him how much I liked Duel in the Sun. He seemed disappointed when I told him I was studying CS and not journalism. “We need young running writers,” he said, so I self-deprecatingly mentioned some others.

On Sunday, A found another of the track writers I have a lot of respect for signing another Rodale book at the expo: Kenny Moore and his new book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon. I didn’t know the book, a biography of the coach who brought Moore himself to prominence (4th place in the 1972 Olympic marathon, and an American record in Fukuoka in 1970,) was even available due to some interesting permissions issues, but there it was.

She bought me a copy, and it wasn’t until Monday evening that I looked inside the cover and saw it signed.

To a colleague on the road, and sitting terrified before a blank page.
Solidarity,
Kenny Moore

Damn. Of course, A reports that he was initially confusing me with another track writer with whom I have significant name overlap. (Needless to say, I have a signed copy of that book as well.)

I’ve put down the John McPhee I was reading, and I’m three or four chapters deep in Bowerman now. It’s everything I’d hoped for: a true biography, and an interesting one, not just a running book.

Now Playing: Check It Out from Play by The Nields

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April 18, 2006

Three-hour conference call

For the fourth year, I talked with the bike spotters all afternoon. We’ve finally got the communications part down, though moving cell phones are always sketchy. (I’d like to know in what planet cell phone connections are clear and reliable no matter where you are, provider propaganda notwithstanding.) This meant that I spent the race on my feet in the press room, with a land-line phone handset clamped to my ear (they were sore, afterward,) dialed in to a conference call of disembodied voices to whom I provided information, both spontaneously and on request, coming to my group from the bike spotters. I get the idea that I was feeding more than just OLN this year, but I can’t prove that; just that now and then I’d hear a voice I’d never met asking me for data. (“Can you run down the men’s pack? What was the last split for #10?”)

It’s always agitating for the first few miles, but when things start to settle out, it’s gratifying work. For one thing, I never feel like I’m out of touch with the races. The men or the women might be out of sight for a few minutes while TV cuts back and forth, but somehow it seemed to be the case that whichever race we were currently getting spotter info about was the one the TV wasn’t showing.

Apparently when the lead women went by, the Mile 19 pace clock wasn’t working, so nobody got a split—athletes, press room, anyone. I don’t know if or when it came on; we didn’t get a split for the men, either, but that could’ve been the spotter not paying attention.

One of the women’s spotters got highlighted on camera early in the race: the truck shot pulled out a bit, so he was in the frame, and someone circled him on the screen for a minute. I don’t know what that was about; I hope they were pointing out that he was a part of the race organization, not some random meathead who decided to ride with the leaders.

Late in the race, the men’s trail bike got more useful than he’d been early on, giving us regular updates on Alan Culpepper (not so exciting, but we were being asked for the data and we had it, which was satisfying,) and then they started mentioning Brian Sell. He kept moving up, gaining places with nearly every mile, and while I don’t know if any of it made the TV commentary, I could hear the guys on my call saying, “Wow,” with some regularity.

I got tapped for some information which wasn’t really spotter data. Are the leaders really on record pace? (Yes, by some definitions: they didn’t break the ungodly checkpoint records set by Juma Ikangaa in 1990 before he was tracked down and put out of his misery by Gelindo Bordin, but they were ahead of Cosmas Ndeti’s course-record splits at nearly every checkpoint.) On Hereford street, they asked, can Cheruiyot really make the record? (Yes, if he puts the hammer down now, and he did. I guess they wanted to make sure the announcers weren’t waxing hyperbolic.) Later, they wanted to know how Meb’s time stacked up against American performances historically? (Tied with Benji Durden for 8th all-time, best since Bob Kempainen in ‘94.)

Later, I talked with Dave Kuehls, who had my iaaf.org gig for this race. He was brainstorming points for his report and we agreed that the men’s first-half splits had been unreasonable by any measure. 1:02 and change? A pointed out that that can’t have been far from Meb’s half-marathon PR. Nobody, but nobody, can run the second half of the Boston course well after an opening half like that; it’s a minor miracle that Sell didn’t mow down Meb and Maiyo as well, and a credit to them that they could hang on. I slipped in an opinion: “These guys are running absurdly fast.”

Even at that, from 25 miles on it was plain that Cheruiyot was in a world of hurt himself. He looked back several times and his pace was leaden, not the fluid power his coach Moses Tanui used to have in the closing miles. The only reason Maiyo and Meb didn’t catch him was that they were hurting even more. Another opinion: “He did that the hard way.”

When the broadcast shut down, I called my former roommate (already on the road home) with the news. When I made it on the T, there were shuffling zombie-walking runners coming on as well, and I wondered why anyone would want to run a marathon. Ouch.

Posted by pjm at 5:08 PM | Comments (0)

April 17, 2006

Boston

Wow.

More later.

Posted by pjm at 2:35 PM | Comments (0)

Return of the Jackets

This year, they put me in a blue volunteer jacket rather than a black media jacket. Obviously it doesn’t make much difference to me, but it has changed reactions: last night, in the Park Street T station, a runner thanked me for volunteering. I just mumbled politely rather than explain that I’m actually getting paid.

This morning, coming across the Charles River bridge shortly before 7:00 on the Red Line, it’s like an ad for Boston: placid river, skyline, and one rower in a single out on the river. Let’s hope the weather stays this cool past noon.

Posted by pjm at 9:10 AM | Comments (0)

Boston Marathon buildup: Mark Plaatjes

I promised a few months ago that I would post the articles I wrote for the Boston Marathon program. I was pretty busy yesterday and didn’t get a chance to post this one, but I did finally see the finished product, and they didn’t really change much, which is a good sign.

I have no problems talking to a certain group of athletes. Dathan Ritzenhein, Tim Broe, Carrie Tollefson, the Culpeppers, no problem. But the older group, the ones who were active when I was in high school and college, that’s tougher; I got to form the hero complex around them. Todd Williams, Bob Kennedy, Haile Gebrselassie, I might as well just stand and stutter. (My former roommate from PA is now working fairly directly with Kennedy, apparently, through Kennedy’s new consulting gig with Puma.)

Mark Plaatjes, about whom more in the extended entry, is one of that class (though older than Williams and Kennedy.) He won the World Championships marathon in 1993, the summer I was working at a Nike store. But as I said in my comments after his interview, he turned out to be the easiest one to talk to of all. It helped, I suppose, that he was one of the first professional athletes I ran with, at a Runner’s World meeting in 1997. Even then, he took it easy on us.

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April 15, 2006

Marathon flash cards

The Boston marathon’s elite athlete apparatus has been making an effort, this year, to put at least the top athletes in varying uniforms. There was a horrible race some years ago when two major runner-sponsoring companies inadvertently (we hope) chose the same colors for the year’s uniforms, and the entire lead pack were in roughly identical uniforms. This year, the shoe companies and the marathons are cooperating to minimize the number of athletes with the same uniform. (This is an extension of the Marathon Majors program, in that London next weekend is arranging for the top dozen or so runners there to have actually unique uniforms which they will retain through the Majors cycle.)

There was a PDF distributed to the media a week or so ago, which may be making an appearance in the newspapers soon, which lists the male athletes with bib numbers one (defending champion Hailu Negussie) through twelve (Tanzanian journeyman John Yuda) and shows their uniforms. I printed several copies this morning, then as I rode the T into the city I cut them up and taped them to index cards with packing tape to make elite-athlete flash cards for my bike spotters. They don’t really need to know names, but if they can pick out the uniforms and that makes it easier to identify who’s in that big lead pack, so much the better.

I’m really hoping that some form of this PDF is printed for mass consumption, in color, perhaps in the Sunday Globe. In the meantime, if you have a color printer, here it is. I suggest printing two-up if you can. It goes a long way toward dispelling the myth that all East African marathoners are the same.

Posted by pjm at 7:01 PM | Comments (0)

Boston Marathon buildup: American women

I promised a few months ago that I would post the articles I wrote for the Boston Marathon program. I still haven’t seen the finished product, though it’s undoubtedly out there somewhere now, but I’ll post one a day through Sunday. Monday, there will be plenty to read.

These are, of course, the rough versions; they’re a bit long, I think, for the space, and my writing tends to improve from being shortened. Also, what’s appearing in print has probably had the benefit of a professional copy-editor. And there will probably be photos.

The three women who were the top American finishers in 2005 are all back, and all hoping (justifiably, I think) to do better than last year. Justifiably because all three had, I think, sub-par days in the 2005 heat. On the other hand, we didn’t have long-range forecasts for Monday when I talked to them, and while the current forecast is OK, I think there’s still a pretty good chance that it will turn warm for the fourth year in a row.

In the extended entry: Emily LeVan, Caroline Annis, and Carly Graytock. LeVan and Graytock are now BAA members, which means (I think) that the BAA pretty much has a lock on the open women’s team race.

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April 14, 2006

Boston Marathon buildup: Women's team

I promised a few months ago that I would post the articles I wrote for the Boston Marathon program. I still haven’t seen the finished product, though it’s undoubtedly out there somewhere now, but since there are four articles and four days to the marathon, I’ll post one a day from today through Sunday. Monday, there will be plenty to read.

These are, of course, the rough versions; they’re a bit long, I think, for the space, and my writing tends to improve from being shortened. Also, what’s appearing in print has probably had the benefit of a professional copy-editor. And there will probably be photos.

This was one of the toughest to research, because the women involved are busy, and often not in ways that let them check and respond to email so we can arrange interview times. The team-scoring aspect of Boston is under-reported in the media, probably because the athletes involved aren’t professionals, nor are they (usually) world-class. However, it does mean a lot to the athletes participating. The three women here will likely be the slower part of the B.A.A.’s team; two other women on the team will be in tomorrow’s post about the top American women.

I’m looking forward to picking up my credentials etc. tomorrow, so I can lay hands on hard-copy of all this stuff.

Anyway, in the extended entry: Mimi Fallon, Laura Smith, and Carrie Zografos.

Continue reading "Boston Marathon buildup: Women's team"

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April 13, 2006

Boston Marathon buildup: Men's masters team

I promised a few months ago that I would post the articles I wrote for the Boston Marathon program. I still haven’t seen the finished product, though it’s undoubtedly out there somewhere now, but since there are four articles and four days to the marathon, I’ll post one a day from today through Sunday. Monday, there will be plenty to read.

These are, of course, the rough versions; they’re a bit long, I think, for the space, and my writing tends to improve from being shortened. Also, what’s appearing in print has probably had the benefit of a professional copy-editor. And there will probably be photos.

That said, in the extended entry is an article about Paul Hammond and Chris Spinney, who run for the Whirlaway Track Club. A few things that didn’t make it to the article: Hammond and Spinney run for one of the many teams which trains on the University’s indoor track through the winter. The night after I did this interview, I walked over from my office (in a building which adjoins the fieldhouse) and watched part of their track workout. Hammond also won one of the first road races I ever ran, the Portland Boys Club race (a 5-miler on Patriots’ Day,) in 1989 if I remember correctly.

Now Playing: Lustre from Priest = Aura by The Church

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April 10, 2006

Getting the name out

While I was in Japan, I talked with another journalist who is very active in promoting Kenyan athletes. You wouldn’t think they’d need promotion, but what he’s generally focused on is image control: communicating individual personalities (as opposed to a faceless group, “the Kenyans,”) and understanding of the backgrounds from which these stellar athletes emerge—the relative poverty, the farms, the bare-bones training camps.

One of his most recent projects is using athletic ability to get talented students accepted and/or funded at American colleges and universities better known for their academics. More than a few Kenyans have run on athletic scholarship at NCAA Division I universities; this effort is focusing on sending the best Kenyan students to Ivies and some Division III schools, none of which offer athletic scholarships. He talked to me about one of these students, who he was trying to connect with the College, but who had also had interest from M.I.T.

“Prestige is a problem,” he explained. “The only schools they know by name are M.I.T., Harvard, and ‘Ya-lay’.”

Now Playing: Cherub Rock from Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins

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April 3, 2006

Runners in the family

Sitting on a Boston-bound plane scheduled to arrive sometime after midnight on Tuesday, it’s hard to remember where this hyper-extended Monday actually started.

It was, I think, when I joined my relatively illustrious running partners for a last few laps around the 2K tartan track in Fukuoka. (I’m being coy; these are not names you’d know as runners, but certainly at least one you would recognize if you’ve been paying attention to the sport for the last year or so.) I listened with big ears to semi-lurid stories about the post-race parties which I had passed on. (“Passed on,” in this case, means “I was comatose by 9 PM.”) We didn’t make it halfway around the park when one of the many Japanese women also running in the park spotted us, lit up, and did an about-face to join us, exclaiming “Run-u?” It turned out that nobody knew her—but our Japanese-speaker knew of her, since she turned out to be a promising high schooler responsible for breaking several regional records. I don’t know if she knew who she had joined (at first; she was introduced,) or if she just spotted our “USA” hats and wanted to be friendly. She led us back to the hotel by a different route, and I realized that (1) I have no speed, and (2) Japanese runners all seem to train in racing flats.

That had me thinking about an incident on my outbound trip: I was selected for “special security screening” in Logan, which I found simply amusing. I was pulled out of the regular line for a pat-down and a bag search; the TSA officer doing the search spotted the RW logo on my backpack (I think that’s how he made the connection,) and asked if I was a runner. Turns out he ran (thirty or so years ago) for UMass Dartmouth, which was (over ten years ago) where I ran my fastest-ever collegiate cross-country time. I’m not sure how careful my screening was, given the two of us trading stories, but I didn’t have any trouble making my plane.

And then there was the relay of All Nippon Airways employees who literally ran me through Osaka on the outbound leg. If I hadn’t been able to keep up, I suspected they might have tried to carry me.

See? Runners take care of each other, just like I said.

I’ve got 600 words and a lot of “TKs” (bizarre editorial shorthand for “fill this in later when you can check it”) in a file for New England Runner and nearly 700 (but fewer TKs) down for Running Times. With any luck I’ll be able to fill those out easily and wrap up my work for the weekend; with a bit more luck, it won’t be obvious (without checking the byline) that the same hack wrote both stories.

Posted by pjm at 11:15 PM | Comments (0)

April 2, 2006

Early finish

~7:45 PM, Sunday 2 April, Fukuoka

I hadn’t really given much thought to the idea that all of the male winners this weekend could have been named “Bekele” until after the junior press conference was over and Kenenisa’s younger brother Tariku had explained the tactical error which cost him the victory. I had almost finished the delicate task of comparing the two—Kenenisa won the junior race in 2001—when I realized that the elder Bekele’s suggestion, after matching Paul Tergat’s record by winning his fifth consecutive long course race (and becoming the most decorated athlete in World Cross history by winning his eleventh championship,) that he might not run the world cross anymore makes perfect sense. In fact, it matches the thought I had in a column I wrote in 2004.

Unfortunately, that column has been 404 for a while. (Webmasters: Links shouldn’t break!) Fortunately, I have my copy, which I’ve included in the extended entry.

Now Playing: Crawling Back To You from Wildflowers by Tom Petty

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April 1, 2006

And that would have been our good day

~7:30 AM, Sunday 2 April, Fukuoka

The “mixed zone” here in Fukuoka is unlike that at most track meets. There’s no fence separating the athletes from the press; rather, it’s an area open to both, through which the athletes must pass to return to their warmups and their team area. On the plus side for the athletes, the crush of other athletes and media makes it easy to get lost in the crowd and sneak through. On the plus side for the media, if you mark your athlete well, you can actually put yourself between them and their warm clothes and extract quotes before they flee. I spoke to none of the Americans yesterday, and I’m not sure what I missed.

The rest of this isn’t going to make much sense if you haven’t seen the results.

Goucher, obviously, was the highlight, and his sixth was probably the best U.S. finish since Ritz’s medal in Ostend ‘01. The team result was impressive, though not the best we could’ve hoped for; the African teams were exceptionally strong. Aside from Goucher, our guys ran well, just not as well as they needed to, and not a few members of the European media are pointing to their performance as evidence that a non-African team can, in fact, get into a very competitive race (Bekele called it his toughest short course victory,) and perform well—an argument for not giving up, in fact.

The senior women’s long course team, again, was good but not great. Blake Russell ran courageously for eleventh, and would’ve been an asset to the scoring of any team except the Ethiopians. As a marathoner, though, she simply doesn’t have the raw speed possessed by most of the Ethiopians. (Don’t ask me to extend this analogy to Lornah Kiplagat.) Katie McGregor was running well for three laps, but she was invisible on the fourth, which didn’t help us as the Japanese pulled through to an unexpected third-place finish, and those points in the middle where she had been running were the difference between us and the Australians. There were eleven points between the Japanese in third and the U.S. in fifth, and at halfway through the race we had team medal potential. Colleen De Reuck gets extra points for running intelligently, strongly and fearlessly, even if not as fast as she once did.

The junior girls… well, they were just never there. They were buried by the end of the first kilometer, and they didn’t make any big moves in the later stages. From where I was, they looked pained and demoralized. I hope the boys do better today, but I’m not holding my breath. How do we compete with the African seniors when our best runners get so humiliated by them as juniors?

Now Playing: Landed by Ben Folds

Posted by pjm at 5:48 PM | Comments (0)

Sketchy conjecture

~6:40 AM, Sunday, 2 April, Fukuoka

My juniors story is posted, and one of my “wire” reports is also out. I’m in the process of presenting facts and figures to suggest that the short race was indirectly responsible for two of Hicham el Guerrouj’s 1500m World Championships victories. There’s nothing like constructing causation from coincidence…

Update: Here’s the story.

Now Playing: Chaos from Priest = Aura by The Church

Posted by pjm at 4:48 PM | Comments (0)

It could be worse

There are post-race interview sessions which drag on.

And then there are post-race interview sessions where both questions and answers need to be translated twice, into the athlete’s language and into Japanese or English, whichever the question wasn’t originally asked in. Without, this time, the luxury of simultaneous translators.

Posted by pjm at 6:53 AM | Comments (0)

March 31, 2006

Name dropping

~9:25 AM, Saturday, April 1, Fukuoka

The introductions were a little gasped, but I think I ran with Yuko Arimori this morning. I also saw a pack of corporate runners revolving around the 2K park; we got word that they were running 30K there this morning! Fifteen laps of the park.

I never did find the marathoners footprints yesterday. I might have been at the wrong train station. It was pretty overwhelming; I managed to navigate the subway, but the English signage is just enough to lull you into a false sense of security and not quite enough to ever make me feel like I understand what’s going on.

In less than an hour, I’ll be on a shuttle to the course, and I’ll stop thinking about anything beyond the races and work. Anything that spills over, I’ll post here.

Now Playing: Brooklyn from The Fine Art Of Self Destruction by Jesse Malin

Posted by pjm at 7:37 PM | Comments (0)

The Campaign for Real Cross Country

My colleague for the weekend Steven Downes on why non-Africans might do better when the World Cross course is less fast.

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Mombasa '07

~8:45 PM, Friday 31 March, Fukuoka

As of earlier this afternoon, I’d seen more Kenyan culture in Fukuoka than Japanese. (I’ve since corrected this.) I went to a “luncheon” put on by the organizing committee of the ‘07 World Cross, which will be held in Mombasa, Kenya. Despite holding an invitation, I felt a bit like a gate-crasher, probably something to do with the fact that nobody except the food servers appeared to notice me or understand much of what I said to them. (This is not the fault of the Kenyans, of course; just a quirk of my experience.)

We had several speeches from dignitaries including the mayor of Mombasa, all saying what a great thing this was going to be—the phrase, “best cross-country championships ever” got used a few too many times, I thought, for a room so full of Japanese officials intimately involved in the current one, and maybe we “put our hands together” a few too many times to thank various dignitaries. (The MC also frequently used the phrase “please be upstanding for,” which I’d previously only heard in a certain XTC song.)

Along with decent food and a video presentation on Mombasa featuring Paul Tergat praising the course, we observed a demonstration of Kenyan drumming and dancing which was sufficiently loud as to damp most conversation at our table, which included three Japanese (presumably from the local organizers,) myself and two USATF officials, and (if I read his name-tag properly,) Hosea Mwok Macharinyang, who will run the long race for Kenya on Sunday. The Japanese and Hosea decamped at the earliest polite opportunity. One of the USATF officials, whose professional responsibility is the logistics of fielding a U.S. team at events like this, looked dubious about the entire enterprise; another Kenyan-watching journalist declared his opinion that the Mombasa meet would be “…an organizational train-wreck, but a lot of fun anyway.”

Now Playing: We Both Know Why You’re Here from A Quick Smoke At Spot’s by The Church

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It's not a big meet without a press conference

~8:30 PM Friday, 31 March, Fukuoka

…but this is the first press conference I’ve sat in with headsets and simultaneous translators in booths in the back. (By switching channels I could get English, French or Japanese; there are few to no translators available for Amharic, the other language in use, who can do simultaneous translation. Come to think of it, there aren’t many translators available between English and Amharic; I only know two, and they’re both here.)

An edited digest of my notes is in the extended entry, and since this is a weblog, I get to mix in batches of opinion. Starting tomorrow, I don’t get to do that…

Now Playing: Jason And The Argonauts from English Settlement by XTC

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March 30, 2006

Marathon station

~8:30 AM, Fukuoka

I’m allowed to be scattered at this point, right? Google knows where I am, anyway.

I have made contact with other Americans here for the meet—not with the U.S. team, but very involved in the sport. (I don’t want to name-drop, but I could.) A few minutes ago, we ran out (about ten minutes) to a smallish park in the middle of the city, around which there is a meticulously measured 2K loop (with restrooms conveniently located about every half-kilometer.) There’s a walking path, a “jogging” path, and a cycling path; the running path is marked every 100m, and is tartan-surfaced. That’s right, they have a 2K all-weather track laid out around a smallish lake.

I have the U.K. junior women’s team in rooms on either side of me.

Fukuoka has as much running tradition as any other city in Japan, and perhaps more by virtue of their marathon. During the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the Fukuoka International Marathon was one of the three big international marathons at a time when international travel for marathons was difficult even for elite athletes. (The other two were Boston and Kosice, Czechoslovakia; I am, apparently, one of very few people of my generation who knows Kosice still exists.)

Like most Japanese marathons, Fukuoka is an invitational race only; there is no mass entry. (The Honolulu Marathon is, essentially, the only mass-participation Japanese marathon; it’s not surprising, therefore, that JAL is a sponsor. This is changing: there are rumors that there will be a Tokyo Marathon which will be a mass-participation and elite marathon on the lines of the Big Five.) In the 60s and 70s, Fukuoka was the de facto World Championship marathon, and part of Frank Shorter’s claim to fame is that he won in Fukuoka as well as in Munich. You’ll find Fukuoka a few times in the American record progression for the marathon, I think.

Later this morning, I’m planning on going over to the train station, where supposedly the footprints of all the marathon winners are placed in the sidewalk like a walk of fame. I won’t find the footprints of my former boss there, but he ran his PR here: 2:14:29 in 1968, the year he won Boston.

Now Playing: The Phoenix from I’m a Mountain by Sarah Harmer

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March 29, 2006

Fan with a notebook

(I’m writing this in O’Hare, too, but again, it probably won’t be posted until I’m in Japan.)

In The Perfect Distance, Pat Butcher mentions that the worst insult that can be delivered to a track writer is to call them a “fan with a notebook.” The implication is that the subject is not interested in writing an objective report on an event or an athlete, but is simply using a press credential to gain closer access to their heroes (or simply see a meet for free.) The issue is perceived professionalism.

There’s a recent Sports Illustrated article which implies that a greater fraction of sportswriting is being committed not by journalists per se, but by this kind of “fan with a notebook”: bloggers, generally, and message-board mavens on the ‘net. The SI article is at pains to point out how this new coverage, while often dependent on traditional media (DVR’ed video of game telecasts,) is not often tied to journalistic standards like fact-checking, sources, or even being present at the event. There are good sides and bad sides to this, of course; a tightly-focused sports blog can serve an audience and a message without needing to be ever-present. But the message boards and weblogs can start and spread rumors (about dope-testing results, for example,) which can border on libel. (If you’ve spent much time on running websites, you know exactly which board I’m talking about.)

Another aspect of the online-coverage explosion mentioned by the SI article is the increasing amount of coverage sponsored by (and, some might say, spun by,) the teams and leagues themselves. It’s probably fair to say that a lot of my work in the last two or three years has been in this area: I’ve been assigned event-coverage articles by the IAAF and NYRR, and I’ll be working directly for the BAA at next month’s marathon. The fact is, in this sport, that when the individual business units being athletes rather than teams, the event organizers and federations are in the best position to offer continuing, in-depth coverage of their events and sports. As I noted earlier, it’s not coming from the newspapers.

I’ve mentioned before the sort of sideways route I took into track writing. It would be very easy to brand me with the “fan with a notebook” label—I’ve been a fan of the sport much longer than I’ve been paid to write about it, and I will continue when I’m no longer getting assignments. What’s more, there’s precious little market for a full-time track writer, and as a result there will always be work for an interested part-timer like myself.

Could athletics, at least in the USA, benefit from a more professional corps of track writers? Probably, but there would have to be a market for them, and who knows where that’s going to come from.

Beyond that, it’s a bit of a mystery to me, personally, where I should be going with this. I’m reasonably good at it, at least such that I continue to get assignments; when I left RW, they wanted me to go to journalism school rather than CS grad school. Could I make a full-time living out of it? Probably not. So why do I keep getting more work? How long can I keep doing this?

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Track writing

(It’s time to start disregarding the time-stamps on these entries. I’m writing this in the terminal at O’Hare, so I’m already an hour off; it’s possible that I won’t be able to post it until I’m in Japan.)

When I mentioned the pathetic state of athletics journalism (“track writing”) in the U.S., I shouldn’t really be talking about journalism so much as the market for it. There are some excellent writers working in track: Kenny Moore, John Brant, Dick Patrick, John Crumpacker, etc. The problem is where their work appears. Moore and Brant are almost exclusively magazine and book writers; Patrick, though he writes for USA Today, is representative of many newspaper track writers in that he’s increasingly restricted in his available space and his travel budget. As a result, the bulk of the track and field stories in most newspapers are:

  • Focused on a single local athlete, e.g. an Indy Star article on Bob Kennedy’s retirement.
  • Wire stories written by stringers local to the event, who may or may not know the sport and definitely aren’t encouraged to use words on things like “color” or “vivid description.”
  • Only run once a year in connection with some major event, such as one of the major marathons.

This is where the web is supposed to come in and save the day, right? It’s true that it’s now possible to tie together all the stories that fit in the first and third categories, above, and come up with something that looks like comprehensive coverage. But the fact is that you have to work for that; you have to be interested. What the IAAF (and USATF, and most fans of the sport,) would like to see is new fans—they’d like to see stars like Kenenisa Bekele get some regular face-time on ESPN, for example.

ESPN programming, I figure, is driven by two questions: “Will we sell advertising on it?” And, “Will it get good ratings?” The questions come in that order—that’s why highly-rated track programming (track telecasts actually get good ratings for sport events,) loses out to the likes of professional fishing, which apparently sells loads of advertising. (This also explains televised golf.)

It would also help to see a lot of regular track articles appearing in print outlets like the NY Times, Sports Illustrated, and so on. That’s not happening, because those pages and sports sections are filled with wall-to-wall coverage of American football, baseball, basketball. If you launched a Marca or Gazetto dello Sport in the U.S., it would be dominated by the big professional team sports.

The idea of bringing me to Fukuoka is to lower the cost barriers that would otherwise prevent some outlets from covering World Cross. I’m not sure I’m a terribly good investment; I didn’t get assignments from the NYT, Washington Post, or Sports Illustrated. I think most of the outlets I’m writing for would be covering the meet in some way, even if I wasn’t going. I’d like to think I’m improving the quality, but we’ll see.

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March 27, 2006

Out with a bang

It looks like the last short course race at the World Cross is going to be, as my father might put it, a barn-burner, at least on the men’s side.

  • The U.S. team is probably the strongest we’ve ever sent: Goucher, Lincoln, Hall, Torres, Watson, Dobson. Of Americans who have really run well for 5,000m over the last two or three years, the only person I really see missing is Tim Broe. Sad to say, they’re probably running for third.

  • Kenya: “[T]he coaches’ biggest hope is in the senior men’s 4km race.” Choge, Limo, Songok. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the Kenyans have decided it’s better to pick one race and try to overwhelm the Ethiopians there rather than try to sweep both races; more likely it’s a point of pride to win the last team title, since I think only Kenya and Ethiopia have ever won it. What’s more, the coaches have supposedly been concentrating on finishing speed—these guys will run the last quarter-mile at something on the close order of 55 seconds or faster. As Larry Rawson would say, try running just one of those, let alone as the last lap of ten.

  • Ethiopia: Bekele, Sihine, Gebremariam, and Dinkessa are all doubling between the senior races. Bekele has won the last four runnings of this race (‘02-‘05) and was second in ‘01, when he also won the junior race; with his four long-course wins, he is the most-decorated athlete in World Cross history. (More on that later, perhaps.) He is the world record holder at 5,000m and 10,000m, demonstrating his superior ability to sustain a fast pace; he is the Olympic and World champion at those distances, demonstrating his superior ability to outsprint a world-class field in the manner of Yifter and Gebrselassie. Sihine and Gebremariam would be dominant athletes in their own right if not for Bekele, and this will be their first race of the weekend.

  • Anyone missing? Oh, yes, the “other Kenyans,” the Qatari team led by the former Kenyan now known as Saif Saaeed Shaheen. Shaheen, who holds the world steeplechase record, was Bekele’s main challenger in the 3,000m at the World Indoor Championships, tried and failed to steal the short-course race at last year’s World Cross, and will likely try again this year. There may be some North African challengers from Morocco or Algeria, and Eritrea and Tanzania have shown flashes of Rift Valley brilliance. (We’re so used to thinking of Africans under the lump of “Kenyans” that we forget stars like Burundi’s Venuste Niyongabo, who won the 5,000m in Atlanta ten years ago this summer.)

Now Playing: Leave Them All Behind from Going Blank Again by Ride

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On scholarship

By inference through various messages, I’m learning a bit about this funny sort-of “scholarship” I’m on for the World Cross. We’re an interesting group—a Kenyan, a Spaniard, an American-based Ethiopian (at least, I think she’s Ethiopian—she could be an American who’s fluent in Amharic, I’ve never asked,) and someone with a .uk address who could be from anywhere, plus myself and another Brit who will also be working on the “official” web coverage.

It’s interesting to try to extrapolate some purpose behind this selection of people. I suspect the unknown .uk address does not actually belong to a British journalist; UK newspaper coverage of the sport is among the best in the world. Kenyan and Ethiopian publications don’t really have the resources to give their world-beating athletes the kind of coverage they deserve when they’re as far away as Japan; the IAAF actually has a parallel and very public program to subsidize travel for some developing-nation teams who would not otherwise be able to compete.

The Spaniard is a puzzle; it may be that they are coming for the same reason I am. Spain has, in recent years, had some quite good teams, able to catch the odd third-place finish (behind the Kenyans and Ethiopians, who are a class apart team-wise,) and so has the USA. I don’t read Spanish enough to know what kind of coverage they get in their national media, but I remember from my long week in Seville that Spanish papers don’t skimp on the sports section, and like the French L’Equipe and Italian Gazetto dello Sport, they have a sports-only daily—Marca or something like that, if I remember correctly.

Does the Spanish media publish copy proportional to their teams’ international success? Maybe not—and maybe that’s why the IAAF is bringing a Spanish journalist to Fukuoka.

The pathetic state of U.S. track coverage should be self-evident to most track fans, but if I have time (maybe on the plane) I’ll do a rundown of why the IAAF might be trying to subsidize it. It’s worth noting the company we’re in, though: either we should be proud that we’re seen as having teams that rank close to the Kenyans, Ethiopians, Spanish, et al… or we should be embarrassed that we’re giving them third-world coverage.

Now Playing: Pretty Polly from Josh Ritter by Josh Ritter

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March 26, 2006

Rivalries in print

(I wrote this in an airport yesterday…)

I plowed through two books on vacation which turned out to be more alike than I’d expected. Duel in the Sun, by John Brant, tells the story of the 1982 Boston Marathon, when Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley ran “in each others’ pockets” for the last nine miles of the race in a duel so hard-run that Salazar wound up in the hospital and neither ran as well again. The Perfect Distance, by Pat Butcher, is a British book about the early-80s rivalry between Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe which led to numerous world records, three Olympic gold medals and more lesser medals than bear thinking about.

I first discovered Brant when I was working at RW and he was a senior writer there. He also writes fairly regularly for Outdoor Life and Men’s Health, but I remember him for writing the stark and striking articles about the California high school cross-country team built largely from migrant workers’ children, or the explanation of the crisis in public school P.E. and its connection with childhood obesity rates. Duel in the Sun grew out of an RW article, but it doesn’t read like a magazine piece. Brant interweaves narrations of the race day, the race weekend, along with both athletes’ histories and their lives after the marathon. Salazar, who came to Boston as the two-time defending NYCM champion, struggled for the next decade with health problems that curtailed his training; Beardsley, who suffered a career-ending injury within months, slid into an illicit addiction to prescription painkillers after a farm-machinery accident.

Both are still active in the sport, Salazar as a coach (I spoke to him briefly in New York in February about one of his athletes, Adam Goucher,) and Beardsley as a speaker and overwhelmingly nice guy. 2007 will be the 25th anniversary of the “Duel in the Sun,” and you can bet much noise will be made at the marathon; they make a point of bringing back the champions celebrating five-year anniversaries of their wins.

Brant never mentions the actual result, though he mentions the winning margin, two seconds, and quotes both athletes saying, “As far as I’m concerned, there were two winners.” You need to check the cover to see which one is wearing the laurel wreath (Salazar.)

Butcher follows this example in The Perfect Distance, emphasizing the rivalry itself over the results. Unlike the one-day clash between the favored Salazar and the outsider Beardsley, the Ovett/Coe rivalry spread over half a dozen years—though, as Butcher often laments, the pair only raced each other seven times in eight years, and four of those races were Olympic finals. Coe and Ovett ushered in the era of professionalism in track, of rabbited record attempts, and perfected the art of “ducking”—that is, avoiding showdown races which might change them from two Number Ones to a One and a Two.

They also, by Butcher’s account, by themselves managed to hold Western interest in the Moscow Olympics (where Ovett won Coe’s specialty, the 800m, and Coe won Ovett’s, the 1500m,) and launched a golden age of middle-distance running in England. The heyday of the rivalry, between the Moscow and Los Angeles Games, is where the book crackles—Coe’s nine-day tear of three world records, for example, or Ovett’s “backwater” races and week-on-week record trading. Butcher is the track correspondent for the Financial Times, among others, and he’s a resourceful and determined reporter. He includes interviews with significant rivals, and outlines past rivalries between milers, even to the point of interviewing the great Swedes, Arne Andersson and Gunder Hägg, who ran thirty-five match races during the Second World War (Sweden was neutral) and lowered the mile world record from 4:06.4 to 4:01.4.

What’s less easy to follow is Butcher’s bouncing back and forth between Coe and Ovett in the early parts of the story, comparing their development so closely that at times it’s difficult to tell which athlete he’s telling us about. Also unlike Brant, Butcher is unafraid to make himself a character in the story—and, as a correspondent at the time, he was—sometimes simply to disclose his own biases and potential agendas, but sometimes simply waving at us as if to say, “I was there!” Brant is so unobtrusive that when he mentions Salazar meeting a reporter for an interview on the Nike campus, we almost forget that the reporter must have been Brant himself. (Butcher also slips by naming Salazar as the Boston champion in the year of Rosie Ruiz, when that was actually a Bill Rodgers year.)

Duel in the Sun, I think, should be required reading for anyone who follows marathoning. The Perfect Distance (which we got, I think, by ordering it from amazon.co.uk, though it appears to be available through the mothership nowadays,) will make entertaining reading mainly for hardcore track geeks like myself.

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March 16, 2006

A creative training commons

Jeff referred me to a post by Bill, who has a really long weblog title, about “open source fitness.” Here’s the concept:

What I’d like to do, were I tech-savvy with a couple of weeks on my hand, would be to set up a flexible fitness correlary to Wikipedia, a place where we could list the various theories on weight loss or marathon training, for instance, and then tie them back to revelant real-world data. Answer questions like “What works for treating ITB syndrome?”, etc.

I know a little bit about ITBS, and some might say I’m “tech-savvy.” (There has been some dispute on this point in recent months, believe it or not.) But I only have a few minutes on my hand. And I have thought about this sort of thing before.

Here’s the problem: it’s not the tech-savvy that’s stopping anyone from doing this. It’s trivially simple (at least from my point of view) to download MediaWiki or some similar piece of open-source wiki-ware and make a site for this. The 500 people Bill cites for the “RBF” are certainly a broad base of users, which is a plus. Since they’re all already blog-writers, that probably means they’re self-selected from the end of the running population which at least practices descriptive writing on a regular basis.

Because one of the biggest hurdles for a site like that is editorial quality. To put it plainly, if I get a running injury, and Don Kardong gets a running injury, a reader is going to learn about ten times more from Don’s writing about it—and even that might be giving me more credit than I deserve.

Another dinger: on some topics (ITBS,) it’s easy to know what to do. But during the past three years, I saw six or seven different medical professionals about my plantar fasciitis, and not one of them agreed with any of the others. I’ll be damned if I know, to this day, what truly caused the problem; all I know is that I got new orthotics last August, and I haven’t had significant trouble since then. And I think even if you put together the 200 of your 500 running bloggers who’ve suffered with PF, you’re not going to be any closer to knowing what’s going on than if you just talked to me. It’s true that sometimes more data gets you closer to the truth, but not always; if there’s no pattern in the data, it doesn’t matter how much pattern-less data you have, it’s still just noise.

It may be that what I’m really saying is that I’m burned out on running websites, and I have been for quite a while. I’ve been there, done that, and I’ve seen them done well and done poorly. (Beyond that, I’ve seen good sites fail, and lousy ones flourish, so I’m unfortunately cynical about the available rewards for hard work.) I think that the state of the running-site art is still stuck around where it was in 2000, and that there’s a tremendous amount of space for someone to apply new tools and techniques to make something good—the only really new thing I’ve seen is the Google maps pedometer, but that’s really just one tool.

The software is out there. The startup and maintenance costs are pretty low. What it needs is for someone with a clear vision to invest the time, and I have neither.

Now Playing: King Electric from Still Burning by Mike Scott

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March 12, 2006

Runt

If you asked about my size, I would tell you I’m “average,” but if you tried shopping for clothes that fit me, you’d decide that I’m scrawny. It seems that men’s pants come in two sizes: too big for me (around the waist) or too short for me. Clothes makers are of the opinion that anyone with legs as long as mine (which is to say, average) must be bigger around the waist than I am. I tend to wind up with pants that fit, but are short.

The solution: Steve, the captain of the Woburn High School track team, who works at Eddie Bauer and has the same problem, but worse, because he’s a hurdler and has a few inches on me in the legs. Steve saw me scowling at the racks and started pulling out pants that might fit me—going by leg length first, then getting the smallest waist in that length. This method actually produced enough trial pairs that I was able to pick ones that I liked rather than ones which merely fit.

Then he asked about my NYCM jacket and we talked track for a little while. Turns out that he was at the Hartford Invitational I watched a few years ago, though I think he ran hurdles and not the two-mile.

Runners: we take care of each other, we do.

Now Playing: Blackout from Dead Air by Heatmiser

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March 9, 2006

Russian for reporters

It’s just a few hours until the IAAF World Indoor Championships starts in Moscow. Remembering how much Spanish I didn’t learn during the ‘99 WCA in Seville, which was largely spent shuttling between the stadium and the media hotel, I thought it might be useful to dredge up the Russian I still remember.

This is all phonetic, because I don’t want to mess with trying to make Cyrillic work, and besides, it’s probably poor grammar to begin with.

  • Vui govoritsyeh po-anglisky? Do I really need to try speaking Russian?
  • Gu-dye nahoditsyeh stadion? Where is the stadium?
  • Poftoritsyeh, pozhalst’? Say that again?
  • Pravilno? You’re kidding me.
  • Molodyets/Molodtsa! Well done! (Male/Female)
  • Kak vui gotovitsyeh? What’s your training been like?
  • Bozhemoi! Two hundred kilometers a week?
  • K’ chortu! That is most impressive.
  • Ya ni ponimayu potomu-schto Russki muzhi ni begaet kak bistro chem Russki zhensheni. What do you think of the idea that intensely nationalistic countries often see domination of women’s athletics as a way to assert their superiority, sometimes even implementing a systematic institutionalized doping program to make sure nobody misses the point?
  • Pivo, pozhalst’. Beer, please.

Now Playing: Avalanche from Whiplash by James

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March 6, 2006

Easiest interview ever

Mark Plaatjes:

“I have plenty of time,” says Plaatjes. “I have a good partner at the running store, and good employees. My work is fun, it’s not stressful to me. It’s easy when you enjoy what you do. I ask people who come for physical therapy about what they do, and you can tell from the first word if they like what they do. Some people aren’t happy, but they’re scared to move. I love talking to people who enjoy their work.”

I may still clear up some loose ends with my unreachable runner, but Mark was the last of my articles for the marathon program. I talked to eight runners for four articles, and I think I can honestly say I enjoyed talking with all eight of them. I should remind myself of that now and then, because I’m horrible about calling people and I was mentally resisting each call up until I dialed the last digit and heard the ring on the other end.

I’ll probably post the full text of the articles here next month, as we’re closer to the marathon. It will be the rough copy I sent in, not the tight, glossy articles my editor will undoubtedly make from them, but if I’ve done anything like a decent job, they’ll still hold a little spark of the enthusiasm they all had for the race.

Now Playing: True from Concrete Blonde by Concrete Blonde

Posted by pjm at 10:16 PM | Comments (0)

Releasing steam

It’s not quite “official” yet, but it’s more or less agreed. I’ll be covering the 2006 World Cross Country Championships in Fukuoka, Japan on April 1 and 2 for as many of my usual outlets as are interested.

One of my “usual outlets” is actually responsible for the trip; I got email early Saturday from my editor at iaaf.org explaining that they would pay for my flight and hotel if I would make the trip, and also for a few articles. Their explanation makes it sound like a sort of scholarship program: they want to be sure that their events are well-covered, and to that end they’re making sure the media (which is largely freelance, in this sport) can afford to be there. My end of the deal is to essentially sell as many stories about the event as I can reasonably write and file, and I’ve sent out a small fleet of queries (and picked up one assignment already.)

A says that many of the photographers she knows won’t be there, and when I priced out flights I can see why; these will easily be the most expensive (and, at ~22 hours including layovers, longest) flights I take any time soon. It’s distinctly possible that the IAAF is essentially subsidizing coverage of the event, because few outlets are willing to spend the money to send reporters, but even if that’s the case, I’m not going to complain at being the beneficiary; whatever the motivation, it’s a pleasant thought that they picked me out of the pool to do this.

I could probably write a few hundred more words about this, but I have a lot to do—both now, and in the course of the next month—so I’ll fill in some of the blanks later. For now, I just wanted to bubble a little bit.

Now Playing: Hope from Up by R.E.M.

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March 5, 2006

Panic in translation

It appears I’m going to Japan. This will not come under the “boredom” heading—before, during, or after.

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February 20, 2006

So long, short course

…We hardly knew ye.

(I’ve filed three stories on this weekend’s USATF XC championships, and this topic didn’t fit any of them, so here you go.)

Less than ten years ago, the IAAF had the bright idea of expanding the World Cross Country Championships, which was at the time known widely as the single most competitive annual race on the calendar—and where Kenyan teams had been so dominant for so long they actually set records for one of the longest streaks in sports. (Not just running: sports.) The idea was to make the World Cross less of a distance specialty event by bringing in the milers and steeplechasers. Instead of four races on one day (two juniors, two seniors,) the IAAF divided the senior division into “short course” 4K races and “long course” races (8K for women, 12K for men.)

I was not thrilled with this idea when it launched. For one thing, at the time the addition of the “short course” race was a pretty transparent attempt to draw Moroccan mile star Hicham El Guerrouj out for cross country. (In this regard, it failed.) I also thought it was likely to dilute the prestige of the World Cross; at the time, Paul Tergat (now the marathon world record holder) was working on a historic winning streak which gave him immense credibility as a rival to Ethiopian superstar Haile Gebrselassie.

I wasn’t the only one. Adam Goucher, who won the 4K at the USATF meet in ‘99 and ‘00 (then returned to win it again on Saturday) told us that he didn’t think the 4K got much respect at first. The fields weren’t terribly deep, he figured, and certainly the names that turned out to contest the 12K have traditionally been bigger. At the international level, the first few men’s races were won by unheralded and essentially forgettable Kenyans sprinting out of the pack in the closing stages of the race. It’s a merciless race, where the field (usually in excess of 100 at the World Cross) takes off at full stride and does nothing but hammer to the finish, with only seconds separating those who make the team (or medal) and those who don’t, and a poor start, bad corner, or sticky mud-patch can mean the difference between fifth and fifteenth.

The tweak came when Sonia O’Sullivan won first the long-course race in Marrakech, then doubled back the following day to take the short course as well. It was a hint of what was to come. Starting in 2002, when Kenenisa Bekele became the first (and, so far, only) male to win the double, the short course race became a way for the long-course winners to add an exclamation point to their wins, like Emil Zatopek’s marathon in Helsinki, or pretty nearly anything Paavo Nurmi did in Paris. Tirunesh Dibaba doubled last year, then came back for a Zatopek-like five-and-dime double at the Helsinki world championships that even Bekele has yet to manage.

Meanwhile, the US trials have become more competitive at 4K, and there’s a chance that this year’s men’s short-course team might be stronger than the long-course team. Maybe short course will be how we finally manage a team medal for the men? Our women have picked up a few short-course team medals already, as well as one (in 2002, when Deena Kastor and Colleen De Reuck finished 2-3) in the long course.

Lately, the IAAF has decided that perhaps the short course wasn’t such a great idea after all. El Guerrouj never came out, and the short course became “just” another venue for East African dominance, albeit now Ethiopian rather than Kenyan. So this year will be the last year of the short course, may it go out with a bang.

Dropping the second race will have a lot of positive effects. For one thing, it will make the U.S. nationals a one-day meet again, and significantly less expensive to host. It will halve the number of people who can make a Worlds team, hopefully making that a more desirable goal and the long-course into a more competitive race. Cross country and indoor track will be less likely to cannibalize athletes from each others’ national and world championships.

But I may actually miss it a bit.

Now Playing: One More Song The Radio Won’t Like from Failer by Kathleen Edwards

Posted by pjm at 2:26 PM | Comments (0)

February 19, 2006

Shivering

I am forever giving Dathan Ritzenhein hand-warmers after winter cross country meets.

Posted by pjm at 3:17 PM | Comments (0)

February 18, 2006

Irrelevant to the story

The last time Adam Goucher won the 4K at the USATF cross country championships, it was in Greensboro, NC, and I was in the race. Of course, this time, it was his birthday. (No byline on the second story, but they’re both me.)

Now Playing: Begin The Begin from Life’s Rich Pageant by R.E.M.

Posted by pjm at 5:51 PM | Comments (0)

February 16, 2006

Tenuous Olympic connection

Seth Wescott’s father was my brother’s college cross-country coach, and I went to his cross-country camp before my senior year in high school.

Now Playing: St. Robinson In His Cadillac Dreams from This Desert Life by Counting Crows

Posted by pjm at 9:56 PM | Comments (0)

February 14, 2006

How you know you're not running with undergrads

Discussion on this morning’s CS-grad-student run:

“They wanted me to come out to do the relay at the Hyannis marathon, but then they explained that they usually stayed out really late and got plastered the night before they ran, and I said that didn’t really sound like my kind of thing.”

Posted by pjm at 8:03 PM | Comments (0)

February 10, 2006

Not Getting Things Done

The lead TA tried to herd the rest of us together to grade a programming assignment, but made the mistake of saying, “Or we could do it next week after we finish the lab exams.” Nearly every other hand went up in favor of waiting until next week, but of course, at this time next week, I’ll be working. So, yeah, I’m in favor of putting it off, too, if nobody else feels like looking ahead at the consequences of procrastination.

I wonder how much of the storm we’re supposed to get this weekend is going to settle in Van Cortlandt? The National Weather Service seems to think New York will get off lightly.

Now Playing: Fountain Of Youth from Gotta Get Over Greta by The Nields

Posted by pjm at 2:53 PM | Comments (0)

January 29, 2006

Panopticon in Roxbury

I’ve spent a little time flipping through the stories from the Boston Indoor Games, which this year didn’t have a dramatic moment like a world record or Olympic champion upset. It’s interesting to see who leads with which race, and how they described the races. It looks like I did all right myself, since my editor made very few changes to my IAAF report, but the difference in the stories really highlights the range of knowledge in the press area and the time constraints under which the various reporters worked; the Reuters and AP reports are sharp, but have some errors in the details (i.e. Cragg’s history at the meet.)

The Globe’s reporters did well as they usually have lately. The Dibaba story is stellar, and does a good job catching the balance of celebration and disappointment in a very fast win which is only missing that “world record” label. I had a lot of sympathy for both Dibaba and Defar, who dominated their races but could too-easily be seen as failures because they didn’t set records; the Globe story avoided the word “fail” and captured the nearness and the disappointment of it.

Their two-mile report has extensive Mottram quotes, but doesn’t know that Ethiopia wasn’t part of the British Empire and therefore won’t be sending runners to the Commonwealth Games. (Apparently the Helsinki world champion, Benjamin Limo, would prefer not to be in Melbourne either, but you’d need to be reading Kenyan or Australian newspapers to know that.) That story does have my favorite new Mottram quote:

Asked about his anomalous appearance—a 6-foot-2-inch Australian in an event dominated by smaller East and North Africans—Mottram replied: “I’m not one to go with the trend. We’re trying to change it.”

There were some discussions at the meet about the strange case of two-mile pacemaker Geoffrey Rono, who took off at 1:55 800m pace to open a 17-second gap on the rest of the field—that is, the people he was supposed to be setting the pace for. He eventually dropped out after a 4:10 mile, having (a) done nobody any good, and (b) looking silly for dropping out of the race with a nearly half-lap lead. I was pulling for him to keep running and see how long he could stay in front, but sometimes rabbits have contracts that forbid such race-stealing.

Now Playing: Pearls from Mercurotones by The Buck Pets

Posted by pjm at 10:52 AM | Comments (0)

January 28, 2006

Nobody's perfect

It could actually be reassuring to me to see that other track writers can blow stories, too, but since the AP’s longtime track writer retired a few years ago, I’ve seldom felt like their guys knew more about the sport than I do. This story correctly observes that Daniel Lincoln, Alistair Cragg’s training partner, is probably a stronger contender than either of the Americans who showed up at yesterday’s press conference, but whiffs on Cragg’s record in Boston: his win over Ngeny came in 2003. Neither Cragg nor Ngeny ran in Boston in ‘04.

This may, on the other hand, be an improvement over the Boston Herald, which (under a fairly bizarre headline about Tirunesh Dibaba) refers to the Reggie Lewis Center track as “super-slick.” I’m not sure “slick” is considered a compliment when you’re talking about a banked indoor track; after all, if athletes wanted slick, why would they wear spikes?

Now Playing: Stupid from Dulcinea by Toad The Wet Sprocket

Posted by pjm at 10:27 AM | Comments (0)

Buster the motorman

I spent a chunk of Friday afternoon downtown in a boutique hotel conference room, asking questions of a small collection of really fast people.

I’m ready to adopt Craig “Buster” Mottram as a new hero. First, he throws the typical distance-runner body type out the window; sitting at the head table, he’s so tall his feet stick out under the table’s skirt. Second, he’s not afraid to talk; unlike Sileshi Sihine and Gebre Gebremariam, who looked a little like the quiet kids hoping the teacher wouldn’t call on them, Mottram was practically grabbing the mike to answer questions not originally directed at him. Someone tried to get him to comment on the weather, coming from the height of an Australian summer, and he was even positive about that—too hot to sleep at home, he said, so he’s come here “to find some ice and bring it home.”

Beyond that, he’s refreshingly positive about competitive racing, as opposed to time trials in pursuit of a record. Why spend a week away from altitude training in Australia to fly to Boston and run an odd distance against a fast field, including one of the guys who beat him in Helsinki? Because he can’t find people that fast in Australia, he says. In a championship race, he points out, the character of the race is different, and paced races in Europe don’t teach you how to race that way.

Nonetheless, the world record was announced for our notebooks: 8:04.69 by Haile Gebrselassie. That’s two consecutive 4:02 miles, if the bald figure means nothing to you—or, more likely in this situation, a 4:10 followed immediately by a 3:54. I can imagine it happening; I think at least three guys in the field think themselves capable of it. Will the race take shape in a way that makes it possible? Less than twelve hours to find out. (The women’s 3,000m mark seems more likely.)

Now Playing: Life Is Beautiful from Cold Roses by Ryan Adams & The Cardinals

Posted by pjm at 10:08 AM | Comments (0)

January 25, 2006

Preview the magnificent

I just finished and sent off my preview of Saturday’s meet, (Update: it’s posted) an event which includes a typographically annoying sponsor (Reebok’s recent insistence on being “Rbk” is even more confounding than Adidas’ insistence on an initial lowercase letter.) I like having the work—my freelance income is a big reason I don’t need to complain about my paltry graduate-student income—but previews are just too intense. I stare at entry lists and press releases, trying to pick out the legitimate stars from the press-release hype intended to make the races look more competitive than they are. I comb through old results and rankings, looking for credentials. (This early in the season, nobody has an up-to-date Annual in print, though TAFWA’s Indoor book is useful.) I might as well put it all in an envelope I hold to my forehead.

Last year, I whiffed on this preview, failing to even mention the entry of a woman who proceeded to run an unexpected world record. I guess it’s possible for that to happen this time, but it’s not as apparent to me yet. Maybe tomorrow morning I’ll realize who I left out.

Anyway, world records and world champions aside, here’s a tip for Bostonians: the men’s 2-mile. Organizers are billing it (with capital letters) as “The greatest 2-mile field ever assembled in this country,” and it may be, once you get past the fact that 2-mile races are pretty rare. Anyway, first: Craig Mottram, winner of the Fifth Avenue Mile and the first non-African 5,000m world championships medalist since “Jaysus Christ, Eamonn” won it in 1983. Four Ethiopians, with a slew of silver medals in all the big internationals, most of which would’ve been gold if it wasn’t for Kenenisa Bekele.

And, before we make it just a five-way race, throw in many-times NCAA champion Alistair Cragg, European indoor champ at 5,000m last year, and an athlete who has made a reputation for beating gold medalists (Bekele, Noah Ngeny) in this very meet.

This may be more fun than any world records which may be run (and there’s at least one strong possibility for one of those.)

Now Playing: Where Is My Mind? from Surfer Rosa by the Pixies

Posted by pjm at 9:50 PM | Comments (0)

January 23, 2006

Losing, but winning anyway

(If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I spent part of this morning at the press conference announcing the World Marathon Majors, which will kick off in Boston in April. My story is on a few different sites by now, more tomorrow. But as usual, there’s more going on than fits in a 500-600-word report.)

I’ve been bouncing emails around answering questions, because everyone has one. So, a rundown of sidelights. (Hmm, there’s an unfortunate figure of speech.)

There’s some confusion about who’s eligible. The trick is to distinguish between “qualifying” races and “scoring” races. A “qualifying” race is one of the five majors, or the Olympic or World Championship marathons. Anyone who runs three of those in a two-year period (with at least one in each of the two years—not all three in one of the two years) is eligible. Even me, in the unlikely event that I was able to finish, say, Boston, New York, and Boston again, without winding up in a wheelchair.

The trick is the scoring. You need to finish in the top five to score. The only restriction is that a maximum of four scores will be counted; Catherine Ndereba, for example, had five scoring races in the hypothetical 2004-2005 season used for illustration, but only four counted. There’s no minimum in theory, but in practice, the worst-case scenario is eleven or twelve different marathon winners over a given two-year scoring period if there are no two-time winners. So the minimum winning score is at least 26, more than could be scored at any one marathon. The odds that none of them would have, say, a second or even a fifth somewhere else are vanishingly small; an athlete would need at least two scoring races to have even a freak chance of winning it all. The maximum score is a clean sweep: four wins, 100 points. I am having a hard time thinking of anyone who has been that dominant in recent years. Plenty of three-race winners, but the only one I can think of who may have done it would be Bill Rodgers while he was on his four-win streak at NYCM, and even Boston Billy was not unbeatable enough to hold down both majors (at the time there was just the two) even for two years.

The hypothetical ‘04-‘05 season had Evans Rutto (wins in London and Chicago ‘04, plus a 4th in Chicago ‘05) winning by five points over Jaoud Gharib (3rd in London ‘04, 2nd in London ‘05, 1st in Helsinki World Championships.) This five-point win shows that late-in-the-term marathons can be much like decathlon 1500m races: there’s stuff happening back in the field (Rutto’s 4th gives him the Majors lead!) which is almost as interesting as what’s happening in front (and possibly more lucrative.)

So why go for a fast time, or even a win, at NYC if the really important thing is to finish 4th?

It’s true that the system is set up so that placing is important, not fast times. This may lead to some gamesmanship among the athletes trying to figure out which races they’d have the best chance of winning, but as Meb pointed out, he was ranked in the 30s going in to Athens: you might think you’re avoiding a head-to-head with Tergat by going to Boston instead of London, but you wind up getting whumped by someone like Meb who just hit their form that day. It’s not worth worrying too much about who’ll be there who might beat you. Pinkowski also pointed out that some of the fastest times in Chicago came in contested races: the last three world records were set in races that weren’t decided until the last mile, if that soon.

As for “why go for the win” if the important thing is to finish 4th… the short answer is that ING gives you a much larger check for winning. Pinkowski’s exact words included, “This just isn’t part of their culture.” If someone capable of winning this title was in a race at all, it would be because they expected to contend for the win; otherwise, they wouldn’t have shown up. The top-heavy scoring means it’s nearly impossible to win this title without winning at least one, if not two, of the Majors, which means we’re talking about a Tergat or a Ndereba, not someone who might be satisfied to make the podium at all.

Anyway, who says 4th place in NYC isn’t going to take a fast time?

The fact that I think of all this stuff, let alone feel the need to share, makes me feel like an utter marathon wonk. But come on: how many millions of people do exactly the same thing every fall, figuring out which Bowl game their college football team is headed for? Or, for that matter, baseball standings? (Half games? What’s a half game?) Anyone ever try to figure out how tennis players are ranked? The only really odd thing here is that I’ve chosen a different sport than most.

In fact, the real point of this, right down to the prize purse (One Million Dollars, no fractions needed, hallelujah!) is to get more people paying attention. It raises the idea that what happens in New York in November has some bearing on what happened (and will happen) in London in April, and vice versa. And maybe it will bring some attention while people watch to see who will win the million dollars: maybe the winner of the Marathon Majors will get a fraction of the attention of the winner of one or two golf Majors. It will undoubtedly get attention in April in Boston and London. The question is: will it get attention next November in New York? How about in New York in 2007? If it does… maybe it will work.

Final note: Taking the T downtown on a snowy day == good idea. Riding a bike to the T station on slushy roads == bad idea.

Now Playing: One Of Many Rescuers from Still Burning by Mike Scott

Posted by pjm at 9:30 PM | Comments (0)

Majors

I just sent in a story to RRW on the World Marathon Majors press conference, but there are a few dozen quotes and points I didn’t get to use due to length issues.

Mary Wittenberg on why the series is scored over two years:

This is not a sprint. Our sport rewards durability, consistency, and pacing. The marathon is as compelling as it is because it is as grueling as it is. It’s very unlikely that a marathoner will perform well against competition more than three times a year.

Nick Bitel (of the London Marathon) on adding other races to the series:

Never is a long time.

Dave Bedford, RD of London, on the same topic:

What brings us together as a group is that fact that we are mass-participation races. We have significant mens and women’s fields. We have many spectators on the course and in the TV audience; between us we have 150,000 athletes and 300 million spectators. We’d be seeking people who see life like we do: major cities with major races which have major press interest.

(Japanese marathons like Osaka and Fukuoka were mentioned, hence the “mass participation” qualifier, but I would think Rotterdam would also be a candidate.)

Bedford on the appeal of the circuit:

At the moment, we are viewed as major city marathons, but there is no understanding of how these things fit together. They happen in our own marketplaces. For the first time, there is a view that the results, what happens in London, has a bearing on what happens in the fall in New York.

Wittenberg:

The more recognition our athletes get, the better. This gives them the opportunity to strive to be the world’s greatest marathoner, by winning this series. We hope that the fans and the media are watching our leader board, and that they get to know the names of our athletes.

Guy Morse of the BAA, on what other cooperation is expected:

We’re looking at logistics which are common to all of us, like timing and scoring, medical care and feeding of our athletes. We’re also working on helping not just athletes like Meb and Paul, but our next generation of athletes.

And, just to repeat the quote from Wittenberg that I led the RRW story with:

There’s a million dollars in our sport today which wasn’t there yesterday.

Posted by pjm at 2:38 PM | Comments (0)

January 21, 2006

An idea whose time has come

Aren’t there enough people running a mega-marathon (or, in the case of Boston, otherwise prevented from watching it on TV,) that it would be worthwhile to press a run of DVDs of the telecast?

I suppose the answer is “licensing”—the marathon organization licenses only broadcast rights to the television people, who then justifiably consider the output theirs (and thereby out of the mitts of the marathon organization.) It seems like it would benefit both to find some way to make that video available later—particularly considering the time (and sometimes expense) some fans of the sport put in to collecting copies of copies of tapes. We’ve got nearly every other variety of formerly-ephemeral television available on DVD now; why not mega-marathons?

Now Playing: True from Winter Pays For Summer by Glen Phillips

Posted by pjm at 4:16 PM | Comments (1)

Low-mud

Towards the end of this morning’s run, I dropped by the University track, where they’re having (yet another) meet today. I bumped in to the coach from the College. “Leaving, or coming back?” he asked. “There’s no mud on you.”

I observed that, until my runs are long enough to reach the Fells, the only way to get muddy on a run around here is to cross the Mystic at low tide.

Now Playing: Get On With It from Aurora Gory Alice by Letters To Cleo

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January 15, 2006

What I never had

On Saturday’s run, I stopped off at the University track to watch a few of A’s former high school runners running the 3,000m at the weekend’s meet. Whenever I watch a meet, it’s very easy for me to mentally place myself on the track and in the race. I imagine myself out there, spotting people to chase, plotting my strategy, feeling the energy of the race in my legs.

The funny part about this is that I can’t remember ever having a good race indoors. In fact, when I think about it, I don’t think I had a good collegiate race on the track. And yet, mentally, I can put myself in there as a positive experience. I don’t know if that’s optimism, or imagination.

Posted by pjm at 8:15 PM | Comments (0)

January 13, 2006

Spare some change for a world record?

It looks like the Tyson Invitational at least took my advice about the name of their meet (they dropped the ridiculous “Powered by,”) but they’ve found a new way to look silly.

Well, not entirely silly. Just silly for a professional athletic event. According to a press release earlier this week, Tyson is putting up a $25,000 bonus for a world record set at the meet. No, I did not forget any zeroes: twenty-five thousand. You know, just about enough for four years of in-state tuition at the University of Arkansas, with a bit left over for spikes and groceries. Or, to follow my idea from last year, .025 million dollars.

It seems likely that the record will come, which is probably why the bonus is so small. See, they have some World Championships medalists in a 300m race, which is sufficiently odd that nearly every serious journalist covering the meet has added the preface, “rarely run” to “300m.”

I know that meet directors think that “World Record” is a magic phrase that will bring in fans, but I think the fans are bright enough to see this Potemkin distance and laughable bonus and smell a put-up job somewhere on the line.

Posted by pjm at 10:41 PM | Comments (1)

January 12, 2006

We have it all

Another good reason to come to Boston for the USATF Indoor Track championships: Sarah Harmer is playing at the Paradise on Friday night.

Now Playing: I Know What I’m Here For from Millionaires by James

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January 10, 2006

Already looking forward to April

BOSTON, MA—January 10, 2006—In its 21st year as the major sponsor of the Boston Marathon, John Hancock Financial Services announced the entry of two-time American Olympian and U.S. 10,000 meter record holder Mebrahtom “Meb” Keflezighi for the 110th running of the race.

That’s the opening graph of the press release I just got, about an hour old. Links are mine.

This is good news, as good (or better) than Alan Culpepper’s entry last year. For years (decades!) the really good American marathoners didn’t come to Boston. Sometimes this was to be expected (Boston would, for example, come too close to the Olympic Trials marathon,) but more often it was the stated policy of John Hancock head (and Olympic sponsor and critic) David D’Alessandro to fund the best athletes—with the pointed observation that American marathoners didn’t make the cut. For a long time, that meant Kenyans: some stars like Moses Tanui (or Cosmas Ndeti, who ran phenomenally quickly in Boston but bombed everywhere else,) and some lesser-known names like Lameck Aguta or Timothy Cherigat. Lately, there have also been the Ethiopians, starting with Fatuma Roba and including Hailu Negussie.

Things have been changing in the last few years. Meb, for example, won a silver medal in Athens, and followed it up with a second-place finish in the NYCM. Culpepper was 10th in Athens—which would’ve been the best American performance in twenty years, had Meb not been there—then ran fourth in Boston last spring, with Ryan Shay 10th. It’s clear, now, that there are American men who can compete with the best in the world.

What’s missing is the win. Deena Kastor’s win in Chicago last fall broke a long drought, but it has been a very long time since an American male won the Boston marathon. (This sentence started as “…major marathon,” but there’s the curious case of Moroccan-born and raised Khalid Khannouchi and Chicago.) I wrote a column about a dinner last fall where Greg Meyer stood up and told a gathering of coaches, “Find somebody who can win the Boston Marathon. I don’t want them wheeling me out until I die, saying, ‘There he is again, the last American man to win the Boston Marathon.’”

Culpepper took a pretty good swing at it, placing higher than anyone since Bob Kempainen’s 3rd in ‘94 (the “Year of the Tailwind.”) Now what’s happening is world-class American marathoners without a major-marathon win are meeting major American marathons without American winners. Maybe Meb will be the one, rolling down out of the Newton hills with the Kenyan bus and crushing them on Comm Ave with his 10,000m speed. Imagine the noise from the post-game Red Sox crowd in Kenmore Square if Meb was in the lead with a mile remaining.

Now Playing: Maria from Failer by Kathleen Edwards

Posted by pjm at 9:18 AM | Comments (4)

January 6, 2006

Cross-trained

There’s a picture of me in the current newsletter of my swim team. The online version is much clearer than the photocopy I got in the mail. The photo is from last month’s meet, and the part I find amusing is that both of us in the photo are wearing shirts from marathons. (Mine is from the NYCM; his is a bit more obvious.)

Posted by pjm at 11:40 AM | Comments (0)

November 30, 2005

The NCAA is not a big deal

A lot of the more rabid running fans in the U.S. make a big deal of NCAA championships. You just have to look at the crowds tearing around the course at the cross-country nationals to get a feeling for it, but the non-stop braying on several message boards provides some quantifiable evidence.

The thing is, many of the contenders for individual NCAA titles aren’t even North American. Saskatchewan native Simon Bairu gave us some good quotes after winning the men’s title, but Simon was also pumped up for the victory of his team. On the other hand, very few reports from nationals have run quotes from the women’s winner, Johanna Nilsson, a Swede running for Northern Arizona. This was Nilsson’s second individual title (she won the indoor mile in 2002,) and her older sister, Ida, won a steeplechase title in 2004, but it was pretty clear that while Johanna liked winning, she didn’t take the title itself terribly seriously. Here’s a quote from the Terre Haute Tribune Star, the only ones I’ve found to mention this:

“I’m not going to sit here and say cross [country] is not important,” she said with an embarrassed smile at one point during her post-race news conference, but it was obvious she’d enjoyed her track success—including being national indoor mile champion in 2003 and national runner-up at 1,500 meters last spring—a lot more.
 “To win is always fun,” she concluded, still seemingly embarrassed by the attention. “I just don’t know if it means that much.”

But the Tribune Star implies that it’s just cross-country that Nilsson isn’t impressed by, not NCAA competition in general. So, here’s a quote from a conversation I had with New Zealander Nick Willis after he won the indoor mile title last February:

“It was nice to win an NCAA title, but I don’t think I would’ve lost any sleep if I’d retired never having won an NCAA title. It is a big deal to be over here, but coming from another country, you’re not brought up with the whole national championship idea. It’s always the big-scale things.”

All of which leads me to wonder, why do so many fans make such a big deal out of NCAA titles when even many of the champions don’t appear to take them that seriously? Shouldn’t we be looking beyond the NCAA, like the New Zealanders, and focusing our athletes on World Championships and Olympics?

Now Playing: Fell from School Of Fish by School Of Fish

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November 7, 2005

Quick New York wrapup

I wound up making a quick hack to my PHP forms to email a copy of every new update to my editor. I’d push it to the database, then start on the next one; once she’d read it, she’d either email an edited version back to me (seldom) or tell me which changes to make (more common.) Most of the changes were on the level of when numbers are spelled out and when numerals are used, terminal commas, and things like that, but once in a while we’d have a more interesting puzzle (“Is it appropriate to describe someone as a casualty? Is there a good metaphor for describing the way the men’s pack is spread across two lanes of road?”)

Other technical details were annoying but not crippling. My wonderful hyperlinked bios turned out to scramble the front page of the site, so I ended up going back after the race and filling them in rather than using them while the race was in progress. I also had issues with updates which included line breaks; it turned out I needed to do some addslashes() and stripslashes() work to make PHP and MySQL play well together again. This sort of thing always gets me in trouble, because somehow I end up with multiple-escaped apostrophes (\\’) and I wind up just replacing them with ’ to make them work.

The wireless network in the press room was sketchy for the first half hour or so, then once it was stabilized we had no troubles with it. (Others reported continuing issues through the race, but I didn’t experience that.)

By going to the NYRR to help out for a few hours after the race, I got to leave NYC after the course had been re-opened to traffic, which made it simpler to get out of town. Traffic was heavier than I had expected, but I made it back to Medford in just under four hours, which must be some kind of record, to the glee of one lonely kitty.

Now Playing: 10:15 Saturday Night by The Cure

Posted by pjm at 10:06 AM | Comments (3)

November 5, 2005

Keeping up with the Kenyans

I don’t know how busy I’ll be tomorrow, so I’ll post this now. I’ll be working on this page.

Posted by pjm at 6:07 PM | Comments (0)

November 3, 2005

Off-balance

If I’m such a geek, why are five out of six messages currently in my inbox related to upcoming races?

Posted by pjm at 5:43 PM | Comments (1)

November 2, 2005

Newton's first law of athletics

“For every healing injury, there is an equal and opposite new injury.”

My foot has been feeling fine lately, despite several longer-than-planned runs. However, I seem to be having ITBS problems again. Figures. It would be pretty tough if I had to blame the bike, but it may be a factor.

And, to top it off, last night I popped my left shoulder moving Iz off my desk. (He also popped the “S” key off my laptop in the course of resisting that move, but that snapped back on, unlike my shoulder.) This morning in the pool, I found I could pull through, but the recovery part of my stroke (swinging my arm forward to pull again) was hampered somewhat. I opted for a workout full of drills (lots of sculling and underwater dolphin-kicking) and by the end it was loose enough for 50y of fly. So I won’t lose everything at once.

Now Playing: Best Black Dress from Gotta Get Over Greta by The Nields

Posted by pjm at 11:06 AM | Comments (0)

November 1, 2005

More studying

The Algorithms mid-term ended a bit more than an hour ago, and my head still hurts. I have to hand it to the professor, though, he knows how to time an exam: very few people finished early, and I suspect I was one of many who finished within two minutes of when he called “time.” This unlike the midterm I heard about in a class I’m not taking, which turned out to actually be a three-hour exam crammed into a seventy-five-minute class block.

I need to get back to book studying soon, though. Yesterday, FedEx delivered my textbook for Sunday’s exam. It’s a media guide for the NYCM, where I will once again be writing the “mile by mile” updates on the race website. This exam will take approximately three hours, and while others might finish early, I probably won’t.

Now Playing: Too Late from Songs for a Hurricane by Kris Delmhorst

Posted by pjm at 2:34 PM | Comments (1)

October 30, 2005

Wearing the colors

This is one of those things that’s going to seem so trivial you’ll wonder that it’s worth writing about. It is, because it gets the thoughts out of my head and makes room for others.

I don’t think many people picking uniforms for cross-country teams are thinking about it much. Why would you, though? Not very important, right?

Well, pick a white uniform, and they will be showing mud after the first season. Yet so many teams do it; I remember a year when nine out of eleven teams in our conference had white singlets and solid-color shorts.

This leads to the next issue: uniforms are about teams, and one of the positive functions of uniforms is to help teammates find each other in the pack. If a runner is looking up at a pack of runners and just seeing plain white singlets and shorts which are shades of black and mud, they might as well be alone in there. Colby has often decorated the backs of their singlets with a big blue C, which is very useful in this regard. Trinity, on the other hand, has gone recently to navy blue shorts and white singlets with “Bantams” in masthead-type on the front, which makes them difficult to pick out on a starting line.

Admittedly, it’s not easy. You could go with a solid-color scheme and discover that another team in the conference with similar colors looks too much like you. (I remember the year in which both Nike and Adidas independently decided to outfit their athletes in blue singlets and black shorts, leading to at least one race in which sponsorship was quite indistinct.) More often, I think, these decisions are made in basement equipment rooms, a long way from the colorful fields of the fall.

Posted by pjm at 3:33 PM | Comments (3)

October 29, 2005

Divided loyalties

Today was the NESCAC cross-country championships at Wesleyan University, down the road a ways from us. The championship meet rotates on an eleven-year cycle between the conference members, and starting with Bowdoin a few years ago we’ve returned to the point where the cycle was around my time in college. Wesleyan hosted in my junior year. (A and I overlapped for some years, and disagree about whether this cycle’s order—Middlebury, Colby, Wesleyan—matches the last cycle; she says Wesleyan hosted before Colby last time, and I say Colby hosted before Wesleyan.)

I had, as I told a few people I met there, quite a few horses in the race. My current university runs in this conference, and A is helping with their women’s team. Also, the fifth runner on their men’s team, which won, is in one of my labs. So that’s two. Now add in…

  • The “family college” attended by my brother, two aunts, and a cousin, where I attended cross-country camp in high school and have run a few times with the current coach. (The former coach, from my time at their camp, was also in attendance today.)

  • A’s college.

  • Various graduates of the Amherst high school cross-country program, scattered around the conference. (Three more teams that I can think of.)

The only thing I could really settle on was what team not to cheer for, which turned out to be pretty easy.

Since about the time of my senior year, they’ve run an “open” race for JV and such alumni who care to show up. I’ve run once or twice, and considered running this year, but A pointed out that I tend to have problems enforcing a moderate pace in such situations, and therefore I might be better off skipping that. (I should add that running in spikes would probably do me in for several months.) Instead, we took a forty-minute loop around Amherst this morning, which was enough for me for the day.

Posted by pjm at 9:14 PM | Comments (0)

October 27, 2005

Further proof that buzz is stronger than common sense

Runner’s World, which less than a year ago couldn’t tell you what RSS was or why their updated-daily website might want a web feed, is doing a New York City Marathon podcast, press releases and all.

Meanwhile, their languishing Daily News, in which I occasionally have a column, like yesterday’s, has no feed. Why? Because “podcast” is a much sexier buzzword than “web feed,” and you get a lot more attention for jumping on the podcasting bandwagon than you do for implementing useful technologies that you’re two years behind on.

Now Playing: Good Times from The Lost Boys OST by INXS/Jimmy Barnes

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October 19, 2005

I'm back, but I'm not BACK

While I’m on the subject, because I know these vignettes and asides do a poor job of carrying a narrative (a novel this ain’t): Yes, I ran this morning. Thirty-one minutes, no walking. Sunday, I ran thirty-six with my father, at something like 9:40 pace.

I could run a lot faster, but my sense is that patience is more important than anything else right now. My legs feel (relatively) strong, and I finish the runs feeling like I could go longer, but that’s not the point; muscle is the most incredibly shapeable thing about our bodies. We can do anything with the “pieces of rubber” that drive us forward, or the elastic pump in our ribs; they are there for the changing.

The catch is the frame, the sticks and baling wire and duct tape that those ever-strengthening muscles are pulling around. We can strengthen that (bones thicken in response to load,) but it’s so much slower than the muscle and the blood. It’s trivially easy to make oneself fit enough to do damage; ask any new runner who enthusiastically trains into tendonitis or a stress fracture.

Whatever my problem is, it’s there in the frame. So I have to be ever so careful about this build-up. Every so often someone asks if I’m “running again yet,” and I’m not quite sure how to answer. Yeah, I’m running again, but I’m not really training; I’m carefully performing a thorough set of trials on the current state of my foot. Half-hour runs with no walking was one of my milestones, and I’ll settle here for a week or two; the next milestone is consecutive-day runs.

So what’s the end state? I don’t really think I’ll know. It’s one thing to be out shuffling around for the sake of being outside and moving; it’s quite another to be running carelessly. I’m a long way from that long middle-distance stride I used to have.

Now Playing: Good Advices from Fables Of The Reconstruction by R.E.M.

Posted by pjm at 9:52 PM | Comments (1)

Unreliable source

I ran a loop this morning which I’ve done two or three times before, north of campus, down to Teele Square, then up Broadway towards home. Sometimes I go down to Davis Square and home by a different route.

The first time I came down Broadway, before I reached Powderhouse Circle I was stopped by a driver looking for Holland Street. That’s the connector between Davis Square and Teele Square, so I was able to send him down that way. This morning the driver who stopped me asked about Weston Street. I had no idea, of course.

A runner would appear to know where they were and would make an attractive person to ask for directions. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way. Odds are pretty good that the runner has covered some distance from the streets they know well. When I used to run out in the Hilltowns west of Northampton, the only roads I knew the names of were the ones I ran on, at least until I’d done the loop enough times to have explored several alternatives and peered at the map a few times. When I lived in Pennsylvania, and the towns were small, I used to consider it a poor run if it could be contained in one town. Sometimes I didn’t even know what town I was in, let alone how to get somewhere else.

Google Maps shows a Watson Street beyond Teele Square. He was headed that way; maybe that’s what he was looking for.

Now Playing: No Fear from Everything Changed by Abra Moore

Posted by pjm at 9:27 PM | Comments (1)

October 7, 2005

Tripleheader

It’s a big running weekend in Boston. New England Intercollegiates on Saturday, BAA Half on Sunday, Tufts 10K on Monday. So, I hung a column on it, and that ran today.

And the forecast for the weekend?

Rain, Rain, Rain

Now Playing: Good Things from Back to Me by Kathleen Edwards

Posted by pjm at 8:14 PM | Comments (0)

September 25, 2005

That could make a new nickname

My spell-check insists that “Mottram” is my mis-spelling of “Motorman.”

Maybe it’s on to something? (And my editor didn’t change a thing.)

Posted by pjm at 7:58 AM | Comments (0)

September 13, 2005

Pick the right venue

I’m a fan of the scale where my brother swims. It reported me, before we headed up Katahdin, as less than one cat over marathon weight. I think that’s probably optimistic, but not wildly inaccurate.

The scale in the fieldhouse, however, says I’m nearly half a cat under weight, which strikes me as flat-out absurd. Sure, I’ve been eating erratically lately (every now and then a schedule is too tight to allow lunch,) and probably less, overall, than before. But not that much.

Posted by pjm at 8:59 AM | Comments (2)

August 24, 2005

Like running, but not

I realized today (eight, nine, turn) that the reason swimming is so different for me than running (ten, eleven, turn) is that it’s not really like running at all—it’s like steeplechasing (eight, nine, turn.) You hit a consistent number of strokes/strides, then perform a quick gymnastic maneuver before getting back into your stroke/stride as efficiently as possible. The pool I’ve been in introduces another quirk—a current which makes “down” and “back” a different number of strokes. Still, it’s pretty fun to watch the wall going by when you can do 25m in eight strokes.

I’ve also re-discovered that one of the growth phases in any racing sport is finding a distinction between “hard” and “easy.” The distinction eventually gets refined into various stages of “hard,” including one which focuses on the balance point between “pleasantly difficult” and “painful,” but that first step of “hard” and “easy” is the fundamental one. I did a workout this afternoon with only three reps: 600m, 400m, and 200m. They broke up, though, into hard/easy sections; the 600m, for example, went 50m hard, 50m easy, 100m hard, 100m easy, 150m hard, 150m easy. It’s an accomplishment, for me, just to do the workout; to have a “hard” pace which is different from “just get down the pool,” and an “easy” pace which is actually relaxed enough to allow recovery. It’s the same step I made, coming up to high school cross-country, when I started running variable-pace workouts and intervals, and learned about stress and recovery.

I doubt I’ll be in that pool more than once or twice more, due to their closing next Wednesday and my varied schedule before then. No tragedy, that. It’s been very convenient to have a pool so close to us (it’s barely a five-minute walk) and the fee for the pass is very reasonable, but there’s no dedicated lap-swim time and unless the pool is largely empty, I’m constantly having to steer around someone else (i.e. a clump of frolicking kids during “Adult Only” hours, or, on at least one occasion, the “lifeguards” goofing off.) And there’s the nonsensical “clear the pool every 50 minutes” rule/law/silliness. Maybe if they plopped in some lane lines (the hooks are there, in the wall,) it would be more usable, but the fact is they aren’t set up for lap swimmers, the same way my night school wasn’t set up to prepare students for graduate programs.

Now Playing: Girl by The Blueskins

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August 19, 2005

Oh yeah, that

I’ve been a bit distracted lately, as you can imagine. So I forgot that I had a column running last week.

Now Playing: Pendulums from All of Our Names by Sarah Harmer

Posted by pjm at 2:09 PM | Comments (1)

August 14, 2005

Casualty

I was standing near the 6-mile mark, waiting to meet up and head for home. I was idly watching the runners stream by.

One of them bobbled. Wavered. Weaved. Started for the pavement. The man behind her caught her, held her up. The spectators to my right stepped out and grabbed her arms. I hurried to unfold my chair, and they dropped her in it.

We poured water on her and fetched a policeman from the corner. He radioed for medical staff. He asked her her name (which she knew) and the date (which she didn’t.) She got progressively less lucid as we watered her and waited for aid. We couldn’t let her drink, because if she was hyponatremic we could make her worse. One of the samaritans was a lifeguard.

The medical staff arrived, and I decided to abandon the chair. As I looked back, I saw that she was cramping, or something, moving convulsively. As we headed to the car, the ambulance was coming.

I don’t know the end of the story. I hope it’s good.

Posted by pjm at 1:45 PM | Comments (0)

July 24, 2005

Deep in the brainstem

As my father pinned his number on his shirt, I could taste the race in my mouth like tea I had not yet set to my lips.

I could feel still muscles in my legs twitching with nervous energy on the starting line, electrical pulses racing up and down the nerves like messengers before a battle. I could feel the satisfying beginnings of deep, grinding exhaustion, charging into a hill shoulder-to-shoulder with a rival I hadn’t introduced myself to yet, both of us willing the other to be weaker. I felt the crackle of energy delivered through a tongue of connective tissue to the tip of my toes as I took flight, briefly, again. I remembered every finish-line emotional wash, from the second I knew him broken to the last step over the line. I remembered being broken.

I remembered the doctor, on Friday, telling me how he thought that tongue of connective tissue will never, ever, be the same; how my gait has stretched the inelastic fascia like a dried-up rubber band, changing everything from how my foot rolls at the start of each step to the energy I can deliver with each toe-off. That the best he and I can do is take the load off it and compensate. He thinks he can do it; new inserts, and I can run again. But not the same, he didn’t say. I am a different machine, now. The hardware does not work the same way. One strand of gristle goes Pop, said the fictional Olympian, and presto, you’re a pedestrian.

The nerves, however, are the same, and the memories are stored somewhere much simpler and more primal than where I remember my phone number or my cat’s face.

I could taste them.

Posted by pjm at 9:53 PM | Comments (2)

July 15, 2005

The setback

Today is the one-week mark from my last run. I was feeling abnormally footsore after runs last week, and on Friday at the office I started getting the old feeling of tearing in my arch. By Friday night I was feeling symptoms of “classic PF” (as opposed to the bizarre PF-like issues I had last year) which included the sensation described by Ned as “like someone was driving a nail into my heel.”

So I stopped running. I went on a long ride in the Quabbin Sunday, carrying Gatorade for A’s run, and on Monday I paid my dues to use the town’s outdoor pools this summer. I’ve been in the pool three days now, and the other two days I’ve cranked to work on the bike. The pain in my heel is gone, but the arch is still sore. As long as it hurts, I’m not running.

Needless to say, this is frustrating; I thought I was on the way back, and I’d even run the annual July 4th road race in my hometown. Ten years earlier, I’d won it (mainly by running my competition literally into the ground on a hot day,) but this year I jogged it with a former high-school teammate who was short on training miles. I don’t think the race set me back; I don’t know what it was. And I still don’t know what’s wrong with the foot; everyone I ask tells me something different. I just know that it hurts, and running makes it worse.

On the up side, I’m encouraged by how easy it has been to get back into swimming. I thought I would have lost a lot of fitness, but I did 2,000y workouts both Wednesday and today. I’d do more, but the lap-swim time block is small, and I need to get there earlier to put in more yards. I’m hoping to work in some lifting, too.

This isn’t a long-term solution, though. The drawback to all these alternate exercise methods (swimming/lifting/biking) is that they require preparation and, in some cases, access to facilities. If I can run, all I need are my shoes and some time; I can do it any time in the day, from nearly anywhere. To swim, for example, I need to plan to be at the pool during lap swim hours (and, hopefully, not the “lap/open” block, which means dozens of kids who don’t understand lane etiquette.) I need to have suits, goggles, a towel, etc., much of which needs to be collected from various drying racks. And I need to drive to the pool.

And in August, when we move, any habits I can develop now will be disrupted.

Now Playing: Seasons Changed from My Friends and I by Patiokings

Posted by pjm at 11:10 AM | Comments (4)

July 7, 2005

Deja speech

I hate to admit that I’m still finishing up transcribing all my stuff from the USATF meet (oh, yeah: new column today,) but I am on the last one.

A few minutes ago, in my headphones, Khadevis Robinson launched into a soliloquy on taking risks in races, and I thought to myself, I’ve heard this somewhere before.

Posted by pjm at 9:41 PM | Comments (0)

June 22, 2005

Apprehensive

Nearly every year for much of the last decade, I’ve gone to work at least one major, multi-day track meet. (I think 1998 was the last year I missed, but seriously, what happened in 1998?)

What I always forget, usually until the day before I leave for the next one, is how every year I promise myself not to do it again.

Posted by pjm at 11:09 AM | Comments (0)

June 11, 2005

Three and done

Third one’s away. I can’t figure out if my editor is six hours ahead or five. Either way, it will probably go up while I’m sleeping, which I should be doing soon.

Somewhat more than 2,200 words, by my count.

Update: It was posted four or five hours after I sent it. Kind words and very few changes from the editor; I think I’m finally figuring out the right tone for that site.

Posted by pjm at 11:21 PM | Comments (0)

One down, two to go

That was the easy part.

Posted by pjm at 1:35 PM | Comments (0)

June 10, 2005

I got it

The unnamed assignment is to file the Reuters report from the track meet. And I got it.

This is not a particularly glamorous job. It’s a short article (300-350 words) and needs to be filed quickly, within an hour after the event. There’s no room for color or much creativity; it’s all about simple, declarative sentences. Main idea, supporting detail, supporting detail, supporting detail.

But the report (sans byline) will probably appear in twice as many outlets than I’ve been published in over my entire reporting “career,” buried deep in the sports sections of dozens of Sunday newspapers.

Now Playing: Falling Down from Whirlpool by Chapterhouse

Posted by pjm at 11:33 AM | Comments (0)

June 9, 2005

Small bites

I need to learn: small bites. Not big mouthfuls.

I am waiting to hear about the possibility of an assignment from a second outlet for Saturday’s meet. It’s not certain yet so I won’t name it, but it would be, for me, pretty huge.

And it would mean a Saturday schedule involving a road race, a track meet, and (at least) three stories probably totaling around two thousand words. (Not getting this assignment, which appears to depend on factors other than my qualifications or availability, would mean only two stories.)

So, yeah, I’ll be in New York this weekend… but I’ll have my mouth full.

Posted by pjm at 9:31 PM | Comments (0)

June 5, 2005

Turnover and spin

The race was over by the mile mark. Leghzaoui, the one returning from the doping ban, stomped on the gas just after the kilometer mark and was substantially clear of the field by the mile mark. As a simplification, let’s say she runs like a boy; by that, I mean that she has a long stride, not the chopped shuffle that many women run with. With her tiny build and relatively long legs, that makes her a middle-distance oxygen-burning machine; it’s no surprise she’s got speed, or that she rolls on the downhills like a runaway kickball. Her husband was there, running sometimes along the sidewalk shouting encouragement while the USATF officials scowled from the the truck beside me. She broke the course record.

I watched, I took a slew of photos, some of which may actually be usable. I got sunburned. I didn’t push through the mob of TV cameras and reporters at the finish to get quotes, translated by her husband. I did talk to the masters winner.

There was an interesting article in the Washington Post earlier this week about Leghzaoui, a much more balanced story than the one in Runner’s World on Monday. It reversed the spin, and made the athletes who withdrew look like whiners. Leghzaoui came out looking like, well, an innocent who made a mistake. True enough, but I can’t honestly believe she didn’t know she was doing something wrong when the needle went in.

So it’s spin on both sides, and what’s missing is that doping rules in the sport, so far, are largely about trust. You aren’t required to pass a doping test to enter a race; you pass it afterward, because the race organizer is trusting you to pass it. I’ve noticed that the races Legzhaoui is running are not the races she ran a few years ago. The races that trusted her aren’t the ones she’s running this year. Their trust was bruised. It’s that simple.

Update, 6/6: The Albany Times Union gets it too. Their column includes this analysis: “…Yet we don’t know what we saw. Did we see greatness or a great swindle?”

Posted by pjm at 3:04 PM | Comments (0)

June 2, 2005

How to succeed in track writing (without really trying)

For reasons I won’t get in to here, I thought it might be a good idea to trace the steps that got me to my current level of writer-hood.

(I will leave aside, for now, the many more-refined words to describe what I do, and their differences; let’s say that I provide words in an easily-readable order which describe an event, a person, or a group of people, based on notes and interviews gathered at the scene or over the phone. I also sometimes provide words, also in an easily-readable order, designed to present an argument or opinion surrounding an issue. The common shorthand for this is “track writer.”)

I started out running a website for a magazine. I wanted to write for the magazine, of course, but so do 75% of the other people who’ve ever read it and have constructed a complete English sentence in their lifetime. The stories look like so much fun (or, at least, they did when I used to read them. I don’t read (m)any magazines nowadays.) It turned out that the writers tended to be well-established wordsmiths with a history of previously-published articles behind them and, usually, a contract with the magazine to provide X articles of Y length in a given year. Not early-twenties web geeks with a feeble grip on the magazine’s audience.

Eventually I did have a short piece published in the magazine, alongside several other of my co-workers. It was a personal-experience bit about two hundred words long, not the usual “service journalism” we published. Still, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

I started out with one event. The Maine Distance Festival ran annually on the weekend of the 4th of July, from 1994 or so until 2003, at the Bowdoin College track. (They say someday it will happen again, but two years is quite a hiatus in the track world, especially when one of them is an Olympic year.) I was going to be there anyway, so I offered to file a report for the website. I got myself a media credential, borrowed a tape recorder, and followed the real reporters around until I got the drift of how it worked. I produced a meet report and an interview, now sadly lost when the site’s archives went offline a few years ago.

I did this annually for a few years, often enough that I stopped being excessively nervous when talking with the athletes. I also stopped being excessively nervous about my writing, once I realized that it was barely being edited. I even put two more personal-experience articles up, one about my first USATF cross-country meet and one about the Boston marathon (before I DNFed there; I still haven’t finished it. The race, not the article.) I started going to more events, with A, with the understanding that if I paid my own expenses and wrote an article, I wouldn’t be charged vacation days for my time out of the office.

When I left, it seemed pretty natural for me to keep freelancing with reporting for the site. Over the intervening years, they started paying less for articles, then eventually stopped almost entirely, but since then I’ve moved on. It certainly didn’t hurt that I was writing regularly for two other sites right away.

The thing was, the work I’d done on the site had made me an “established” writer. The pros were used to seeing me in the press box, the media coordinators knew who I was and where to look for my stories. They knew I wasn’t just a fanboy with a digital point-and-shoot and a voice recorder. And when they were contacted by editors looking for freelancers, they’d drop my name. I got a few more print publications in other magazines mostly on the strength of the reputation I’d built. It didn’t hurt to be able to supply links to my other articles, allowing editors to check out the quality of my work before hiring me.

I could probably work more than I do. Right now, it’s primarily an excuse for being at events and seeing them first-hand. I like doing a good job, and I like working with the others I see at the events, but over the course of a year I probably break even at best, with travel expenses eating up my paychecks. If I was determined, I could send out a few more query letters, do a few more interviews and non-event work, but I lack the motivation to do so.

Now, if you’ll notice, there are two very large strokes of luck here that make it unlikely that anyone else will follow this path into the field: First, I landed an editorial (if somewhat technical) job with a magazine and website which ran the kind of writing I wanted to do. Second, I had an event nearby which was both low-key enough that they had few other reporters there, yet important enough that we’d want a first-hand story.

Now Playing: Paint Your Picture from Josh Ritter by Josh Ritter

Posted by pjm at 5:00 PM | Comments (1)

May 31, 2005

Speaking for myself alone

Have you ever seen an event go sour before it even happens?

The Freihofer’s Run for Women, an all-female 5K in Albany, has been the USA championship for that distance for several years, and consequently invited only American elite athletes. This year, the championship is elsewhere, and Freihofer’s started assembling an international field. I lined up some work for myself and made plans to be in attendance.

It started looking pretty hot, after several announcements, and last week we started seeing names of athletes like Lornah Kiplagat, who has covered the distance faster than any other woman alive. (For some inexplicable reason, she’s not credited with the world record, but that’s a discussion which will have your brain gnawing its way out, so I’ll leave it for another time.)

One hitch: one of the athletes prominently mentioned was former 10K world record holder Asmae Legzhaoui (say “Leg-ZOW-ie”; like fellow Moroccan Said Aouita, she scores big on the vowels-to-consonants scale, with extra points for using all five unambiguous vowels.)

Legzhaoui was busted for doping (with EPO, specifically) in 2002, and hit with a two-year ban, but now, on her return, that hasn’t been mentioned very much. In fact, the press materials from Albany haven’t mentioned it at all; her agent is calling it a “maternity break.” (While it’s true that Legzhaoui had a child during the period of the ban, she wouldn’t have been competing even if she hadn’t.)

This made me pretty uncomfortable. I write for outlets that cater to fans of the sport, and I do best when I can write something dramatic about an athlete who did something dramatic. I can’t be anything but tepid about an athlete who’s been busted for doping. I was hoping to myself that she wouldn’t win, and I could do my work pretending she wasn’t there.

Over the weekend, Kiplagat withdrew from the race, saying she would not participate in a race where Legzhaoui was an invited guest. (Presumably she would race Legzhaoui if the latter paid her own entry fee and travel expenses.) Another Kenyan woman also represented by Kiplagat’s agent/husband also withdrew, and word is that Benita Johnson, an Australian who won the 2004 World Cross Country championships, is out as well (though that hasn’t been officially confirmed.)

Here’s where I start saying things I can’t say when I’m speaking for anyone but myself. There was a very long and rambling article about the “scandal” on runnersworld.com today, “reported” by the sometimes-incoherent Toby Tanser. It’s very heavy reading, running very long and apparently unedited except for a quick pass through a spell-check. (If I was trying to project a professional atmosphere, I would’ve cut it by half, removing the sentences which don’t make sense, imposed some organization on the arguments, and attempted to feign impartiality.) Tanser is very close to Kiplagat’s camp, and the story is slanted heavily against Legzhaoui. He mentioned, disapprovingly, one Moroccan agent who said…

He has no problem with people like Asmae running races because they were suspended and can’t be punished the rest of their life. However, he said they should not treat them like heroes because they don’t deserve this.

I’m really, really worried about this now, because the athletes who are withdrawing are the ones who stood a good chance of beating Legzhaoui. There are others who still might, but as more withdraw, we may be left with the pariah as the favorite, much like the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton (my second, and last, Worlds) where the Russian Olga Yegorova was cleared for competition despite failing an EPO test earlier in the summer.

I tend to agree with the agent: once the athlete has served the ban, they should have the chance to compete again. But a lot of the image of drug-free athletics is built around trust, and once we’ve been burned by an athlete, it’s hard to trust them again. I continue to hope someone other than Legzhaoui wins on Saturday in Albany; I do not want to write about her as if she’s a hero; nor do I want to read others attempting to gloss over her ugly past.

Now Playing: Daniel Lee from by Sarah Borges

Posted by pjm at 1:51 PM | Comments (2)

May 27, 2005

Ceci n'est pas un running blog

I am periodically amused whenever I look at the Bloglines subscriptions of people subscribed to my feed(s) who have their own subscriptions public. (Not that there are many of you.) The thing that amuses me is that when the feeds are organized in folders, this feed is nearly always in the “running” folder (if there is one) and not in the “geeky stuff” folder—even if the person in question has both kinds of folders. (Sometimes it’s just in the “people” folder, which is fine.) This is amusing to me because I write so little about running here, and when I do, it’s more likely to be about the sport in general rather than my own running (which has been rather sparse in the last two years.)

I thought about this as I realized how many feeds I read which belong to people I know through running, and thought about making my own little “running” folder. But in fact, I don’t read the feeds because they’re about running; I read them because they’re about people who I know through running. That sounds like a quibble, but it’s an important distinction to me.

I don’t read much about training theory, nutrition, or injury prevention, online or in print. I burned out on that stuff five years ago, and I no longer care very much. (This stuff is not an exception, but the resolution of that paradox is outside the scope of this post.) I have a few feeds which I have dropped into my “news” folder which are about the sport, not the activity. (I’ll unpack that distinction some other time, if anyone cares.) I’d rather read about people, and for the most part I write the sort of posts I’d like to read.

I imagine more people would read here if this was a Running Blog, or a Technology Blog, or even an Education Blog. But I’m not (just) any of those things, so neither is this site.

But if you wish to think of it with any of the above tags, feel free; apparently all the people who’ve bookmarked this site in del.icio.us have merely tagged it “blog.”

Now Playing: This Bouquet from Not A Pretty Girl by Ani DiFranco

Posted by pjm at 11:44 AM | Comments (3)

May 19, 2005

Looking backward

There was a rabbit on the rail-trail today, keeping an eye on me as I rounded the corner, and more cyclists than usual, possibly headed to the breakfast in Hadley.

My run led me around a field south of the College and its “bird sanctuary,” where a boarded-up farmhouse looks out over an impressive view toward the Pelham hills. I was able to pick out the Mt. Orient overlook, and realized I was seeing the reciprocal view to this photo. I wished, a little, for a camera that I could carry while running; the only one which seems portable enough, actually, is a phone-quality camera in one of the toys I got on loan last week.

Now Playing: Best Imitation Of Myself from Ben Folds Five by Ben Folds Five

Posted by pjm at 10:29 AM | Comments (1)

May 6, 2005

Not done yet

I think freelance writing is an addiction. Every time I talk about quitting, I come crawling back.

I figured I was done for a while after NCAA Indoors, with very few events left on my schedule. I did a one-day job for a road race, and Boston, of course, but I started to wonder what I’d be able to do as a student. Will I be able to travel to as many events? I won’t be using my vacation days, but I will be more interested in covering my expenses on a tighter budget. How much time will I have? I might want to turn any free time into income, but I might not have any time to do the research and the writing, let alone pitching, though that turns out to be all too easy.

So, while I’m thinking about that, two small assignments with nice paychecks attached drop in my lap.

And then when this new event is announced today, which happens to share a city and date with another event I’ve covered before, I figure, hey, I’m still working, maybe I can pull in a little more.

Next thing I know, I’m sending email to my favorite outlet, asking if they’d like me to send reports. I am so pathetic. Someday, they’ll find me sleeping under my desk, huddled up to my laptop with a blanket of magazines and a pillow of statistics books, fifteen press passes dangling from my neck as I compulsively send pitches and invoices, maybe transcribe an interview here or there in a desperate attempt to quit.

Update, 5/7: I got the assignment. Reports for both events, plus a preview of the new one, so three articles in total. Time to request press credentials.

Now Playing: Kid On The Train from Spirit Touches Ground by Josh Clayton-Felt

Posted by pjm at 4:40 PM | Comments (1)

May 4, 2005

There's always someone geekier than you

I have been a self-confessed track geek for a dozen or so years. I suppose you could even say I’m a professional track geek, (“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro,” as the man said,) and for a few years I even managed to support myself with a job for which one of my major qualifications was being a track geek.

That said, I’ve always fallen silent when I’ve shown up at meets and seen the cabal of T&FN guys with their stopwatches and binders. I just can’t measure up, there; I love seeing someone run fast, but when you come right down to it, I like to see a good race, not a good statistic.

So, though my fellow “Bell Lap” contributors are sometimes as uneven as I am, I think Marc Bloom nailed it today.

Now Playing: Left Of The Dial from Tim by The Replacements

Posted by pjm at 4:51 PM | Comments (0)

May 3, 2005

Confuse as many readers as possible

Another in my continuing series relating complex ideas to the running world, my “Schrödinger’s Marathon” column ran today in RW Online. There’s a distinct possibility that nobody but me will get it.

Now Playing: Bridge and Tunnel by The Honorary Title

Posted by pjm at 1:16 PM | Comments (1)

April 25, 2005

The authority fallacy

I spent a chunk of Saturday afternoon at the track at The College, helping out with the Little Three track meet. Despite a forecast of showers, not long after I arrived, it started pouring, enough to lead officials to cancel the pole vault. Only the steeplechasers, who are generally wet anyway, appeared unfazed. While I was turning the lap counter for the 5,000m races, we heard thunder, which made me happy I wasn’t standing in the aluminum bleachers.

The hardware used for automatic timing is relatively weatherproof, but the technician had to tune it some. The CCD involved is very narrow, and timing is somewhat finer than hundredths of a second, so it needed to be adjusted so that falling raindrops would not trip the timer. One of my functions, however, was to participate in the scolding of athletes not currently competing, in an effort to keep them from crossing the line while the cameras were running. This is more of an inconvenience than a crisis; there are a lot of ways to deal with an extra body in the finish photo. But the technician took apparent pleasure in barking at the kids and threatening them with various competitive penalties for crossing the line. I imagine he developed the habit when the auto timing was done with actual film, and an extra image could be much more of a problem.

Once the racing was done, I retreated to the press box, where we were entertained by the spectacle of a crew of recent grads from one of the other schools running a 4x800m relay against themselves. As they took their “victory” lap on the now-empty track, someone hollered from the press box that ratification of their time could only be completed with a skinny-dip in the steeplechase pit… which they immediately performed. They were rewarded with twelve-ounce silver trophies.

At a few points in the afternoon, I thought about getting out my camera, but I expect nobody is terribly disappointed that I didn’t. Aside from being thoroughly damp, I left with the half-feeling that nobody was really in charge over there—that things just happened because they were supposed to, and nobody bothered to question them.

Now Playing: Soon Enough from Inarticulate Nature Boy by Josh Clayton-Felt

Posted by pjm at 2:32 PM | Comments (0)

April 21, 2005

In the closet

There’s this little problem I have with the Boston Marathon. It’s those jackets.

Every year, Adidas dumps a few thousand jackets in the Boston area, via the B.A.A. The most common are volunteer jackets, usually in a fairly vivid color (this year, they’re blue, as is the volunteer jacket I have from 1996, but bright yellow and orange have happened.) The volunteer jackets are why the B.A.A. is never short on volunteers for this race. There are also media jackets (usually black) and the relatively rare medical staff jackets (red this year) and B.A.A. employee jackets (grey this year.) And there’s always a slightly different pattern available for sale to the runners.

This was my eleventh year in Boston, and my ninth in some sort of jacket-qualified position. (I ran, or tried to, in ‘00, and in ‘95 I was just a spectator.) I’ve had a few in my closet. I still have my volunteer jacket from ‘96 (my first) and my media jacket from ‘01, which is quite usefully heavy and also represented my last year with RW. And I have other, similar jackets from other contexts. In other words, I don’t need any more jackets, no matter how nice they may be.

I’ve given a few away. One, once, to a cousin who housed us in Cambridge the year I didn’t have an employer who booked hotel rooms. Others to anyone who would take them. I’ve tried to give one to my father, but as a runner himself he doesn’t want to wear the implied message, (“I ran the marathon,”) when he didn’t. Some years I’ve simply turned the jacket down at the source and let the B.A.A. worry about the extras, but I’ve realized since then that having it and wearing it on race day, particularly in a team-centered effort like mine, has a psychological effect, not just on myself but on the other jacketed volunteers I work with.

So I took this year’s jacket, and now I don’t know what to do with it. Selling it, by whatever means, would feel Just Wrong. I need to find someone who would appreciate it as a gift, but not take it so seriously that they’d prefer to earn their own. Unfortunately, my nieces are too small.

Now Playing: Bent Out Of Shape from All Shook Down by The Replacements

Posted by pjm at 3:26 PM | Comments (6)

April 20, 2005

Getting the timing down

Reading this critique of Monday’s telecast, which includes the line, “The announcers managed to stay quiet as the winners’ national anthems were played,” I was reminded of a favorite moment from Monday’s work. That would be when the request came back to the press room from the TV truck, as the men’s winner became apparent:

“Does anyone over there know how long the Ethiopian national anthem is?”

Now Playing: It’s No Reason from Hindsight (Disc 2) by The Church

Posted by pjm at 11:20 AM | Comments (3)

April 19, 2005

Another corner of the marathon

I snapped a few shots on Monday morning when I met my bikers (well, not really mine, but yes, mine) before they left for Hopkinton. The two cycle crews—my spotters and the “passing crew” which helps get the lead vehicles for the later starts around the trailing athletes from the earlier starts—ride out on MBTA busses with the wheelchair athletes, and help load their hardware in and out at each end. This is the best of the batch; there are a few more in my Flickr photo stream.

Loaded up

I was hoping for more photos, but got caught up in doing. I’ve spent a fun few minutes here, now, looking through other photos tagged “bostonmarathon”.

Posted by pjm at 9:41 PM | Comments (0)

April 18, 2005

Waiting period

There’s a tongue-in-cheek maxim in the running community that after you run a marathon, you can’t be held to anything you say regarding future marathons for about two weeks afterward. The classic example is Grete Waitz, who told her husband Jack after winning the New York City Marathon, “I’m never running one of these again.” She went on to win the NYCM eight more times and a silver medal in the ‘84 Olympic marathon. Once the two weeks was past, she was able to think more clearly about it.

I think we need to extend this to spectators, too. Nearly every time I’ve gone to a marathon, the runners have come away swearing they’ll never do anything that silly again, and the spectators come away saying, “Maybe I can get in shape to do that next year!” (The notable exception being the one who told me, “I’m very proud of you, but don’t ever make me watch you do that to yourself again.” Yes, I remember the exact words. Please note that I’ve not named names. Wish I’d listened, a bit.)

For me, the waiting period should probably be about a year. You’d think after two DNFs and two wrecked-for-months finishes, I’d have figured it out. But I had to go for the fifth. I don’t know if I can blame the marathon, but I haven’t had five months of running since. But it certainly looks like this is a distance that’s not for me. I tested this on the podiatrist a few weeks ago. “So, marathoning’s probably not a good idea, huh?” “Not on those feet,” he smiled.

After watching the third consecutive too-warm-for-comfort Boston, I have to say I’m feeling satisfied with that decision, despite statements I may have made earlier. Maybe, I suggested to A., we can come back when we’re 50 or 60 and can just jog the course and enjoy it without feeling like we need to race.

Meanwhile, the press room is comfortable, and I think I’ll be welcome there for a few more years at least. We watched some early leaders pushing away from the packs before they were far out of Hopkinton, and shook our heads knowingly. “Bad idea.” Even the spotters were calling in on the women’s race: “The winner’s going to come from the second pack.” (She did.) Maybe the elite athletes need a waiting period, too.

As for those of you who just ran: Go ahead. Say whatever you want. We won’t hold you to it, once you’ve returned to your senses.

Posted by pjm at 7:20 PM | Comments (3)

Who's covering your hotel bill?

I wrote an entry on the blog of an outlet I often write for, breaking (I think) the news that a former U.S. champion had entered the Boston Marathon at the last minute. So far as I know, the news isn’t widely known elsewhere, because of the way the athlete entered the race.

Due to some poor management in the mid-80s, the Boston Marathon doesn’t take direct control of their own elite field. The elite athletes in Boston are signed and presented by marathon sponsor John Hancock; the B.A.A. is not involved with them, even to publicize the field, until very late in the process. I get my press releases from someone who isn’t the B.A.A.’s media coordinator. But when this athlete was taken on late, his hotel room is being covered by the B.A.A., not John Hancock. As a result, even though he would be part of the John Hancock program under ordinary circumstances, he’s “below the radar.” He’s not included in the “late additions” pages, nor is there biographical information readily available (though that might be due to the late nature of his entry—I actually wrote one of the more recent interviews with him.)

This is just an anomaly, but it highlights an interesting quirk about the marathon. And it’s a quirk that could become a problem under the right circumstances. John Hancock does not necessarily have the same interests in mind as the B.A.A. They’re not likely to be in conflict, but they may also not be doing the best possible job for the marathon.

This becomes interesting when you consider that John Hancock was bought out by a Canadian company last year, and recent rumblings have suggested that they may be asked to pull back some of their sports sponsorship commitments. One wonders how the Boston Marathon might change its position among the upper echelon of major marathons (currently defined, roughly, as Boston, New York, Chicago, and London, plus possibly Rotterdam, not necessarily in that order.)

Posted by pjm at 10:11 AM | Comments (5)

April 16, 2005

Job description: What's going to happen?

I realized, as they described my job for this year’s Boston Marathon, that this was pretty close to the perfect job for me.

Previously, I’ve been the one talking to the bike spotters. I’ve had to maintain, essentially, eight separate conversations—or, more accurately, two conversations with distinct groups of four people each.

This year, we’ve got one volunteer talking to each spotter. We’ve told the spotters to use their own intuition about what’s interesting, and feed the volunteers. I’m talking to the volunteers, and handing the data on to the press room announcer and the TV producers.

When I was in the press room as a reporter, watching the TV feed, I was endlessly frustrated by what I couldn’t see: what was happening in the women’s race while the men were on screen, and vice versa. I always worried that the camera wouldn’t be on the big move. Now, in this position, I’ve essentially been given the power to know what’s going on in the race that’s not on camera. My job is to tell the TV producer if I think something’s happening that they should know about. If it works, it not only makes the TV broadcast slightly better, but it also helps the coverage of every reporter in the press room.

Not only have I been given the power to scratch the itch I had as a reporter, I get to scratch it for everyone.

Though perhaps I should rephrase that: I’m the one who tries to scratch everyone’s itch. Something tells me I won’t get them all.

Still, I have a good feeling about it. It means that not only have they liked how I’ve done in the past, but they trust me to know what’s important when it happens. Or, actually, before it happens.

Posted by pjm at 9:08 PM | Comments (0)

April 13, 2005

Mailbag

Dear pjm,

We’re happy to hear of your attempts to involve us more in your exercise efforts. That little run on Tuesday morning was quite refreshing, and the new shoes are quite nice to us.

That said, we’re more than a little sore today. We appreciate the swimming workout this morning, but alleviating soreness through more work is not, shall we say, the most logical route. You may want to get off your little anti-pill-enabled-exercise high horse and try some Vitamin I. You can make as many jokes as you please about being “still a teenager in hex,” but you are getting older.

What’s more, the swimming might be more effective if you kicked the low-grade cold and trained the new blood some more.

Perhaps you should consider riding to work rather than running tomorrow. Think of it as friendly advice, but think of it, OK?

Sincerely,
Your legs

P.S. Could you have a talk with your back? It won’t stop whining. It’s annoying.

Now Playing: Columbus from Heyday by The Church

Posted by pjm at 3:46 PM | Comments (0)

April 12, 2005

Optimists and meteorologists

I think that NOAA can’t really predict the weather for Boston ten days away. I think they just put good forecasts out at the end of the forecast, then adjust them as time passes and the outlook becomes more apparent.

Because if Dave McGillivray was putting in his order for Monday’s weather, this is what it would be:

Monday…Partly cloudy. Highs in the lower 60s. Lows in the lower 40s.

Now Playing: Copied Keys from Back to Me by Kathleen Edwards

Posted by pjm at 8:09 PM | Comments (1)

April 5, 2005

Not PF?

Running in Arkansas took me off my recovery path. I don’t know if I did too much, or didn’t recover enough between runs, or what, but I was sore all week, afterward. I didn’t run, and finally I made an appointment to go back to the podiatrist who made my orthotics.

He agreed with me that the current symptoms aren’t of PF at all. He thinks the problem is the muscle which flexes my big toe—the hallucis longus—and that link leads to some scary stuff, incidentally, not visually but diagnostically, if that makes sense.

Meanwhile, he recommended a few specific shoe models (which I’ve been unable to find locally, of course,) PT to strengthen the muscle, and if that doesn’t work, we try adjusting the orthotics some more.

The complication is this: there are all kinds of technologies, from shoes to inserts, to correct the way your feet hit the ground, and the first part of their procession through to toe-off. My problem is at the end of that process, right before my toes (toe) do (does) the final fling forward. There’s no technology for that.

With the swim season now over, and spring in full swing, you can imagine I’m not all that thrilled about not running.

Now Playing: Niagara from Beast Inside by Inspiral Carpets

Posted by pjm at 5:23 PM | Comments (0)

March 22, 2005

Best-laid plans

I’m transcribing the last of my recordings from the NCAA meet, and listening to my questions I’m reminded of the idea I had wanted to write about. I’m fascinated, I suppose, by the way we create athletic heroes, and I was looking for my interviewee to do something spectacular. He was primed to, winning his first of two races, but then stepped off the track halfway through his second. I can hear in my questions an attempt to salvage my first idea, fishing for explanations of ambition, dreams, or both. Meanwhile, he’s oozing disappointment and frustration.

It’s another one of those moments where I hate listening to myself as I inflict this interview on a patient athlete at the worst possible time, but fortunately I am not utterly clueless throughout.

Anyway, I got something else which was just as usable (and some small buzz as a result) but I didn’t realize it until afterward. I’m still curious about my original thesis, though.

Now Playing: Turn off the stars from SXSW 2005 Showcasing Artist by Wayne Sutton

Posted by pjm at 8:07 PM | Comments (0)

March 17, 2005

A different kind of star

I have a column up today about Nick Willis, who won the mile at the NCAAs last weekend, then dropped out of the 3,000m. I’ve got quite a bit more conversation with him in iTunes waiting to be transcribed.

Talking to Willis, who I like immensely, made me think about the intersection of religion and athletics. There are some athletes who won’t finish an interview without telling us how grateful they are to God for the victory, or simply the ability to run. Some of them are more graceful than others at slipping this in; others (I’m thinking of Olympic silver medalist Catherine Ndereba here) can’t complete a sentence without testifying, and have become nearly un-interviewable as a result. Even the single most famous movie about running, Chariots of Fire, is really a movie about religion.

I grew up in a New England tradition which regards one’s relationship with God as somewhat more private than that with one’s spouse. Dour Puritans that we are, we regard PDR and PDA in about the same way, but we’ve also learned to shrug and move on in reaction to both. But I have learned a new sort of respect for someone who prefers to make themselves an example rather than an advertisement.

I didn’t notice until after the 3,000m what was written on Willis’s hands. Athletes often have marks on the backs of their hands; it could be target splits, it could be the names of their teammates, or in the case of BYU’s women one year, it could be smiley faces. Anything to catch the runner’s attention and remind them of something during the race. Willis had a cross—it looked more like a big “X”—on one hand, and “For Him” on the other.

They were notes to himself, not to us. He talked about his teammates and team, his coach, and his country. He talked about where running fit in his life. He’d spent the evening in an emotional parabola, from pre-race jitters, to the race, to winning, to another set of jitters, to a DNF and all the disappointment and self-recrimination that comes with that. Never once did he talk about his faith. Or, perhaps that was all he talked about?

This was the quote I closed the column with, which I think sums up why I like him so much: “If I’m to keep on doing this for 15 years, which I would like to do, I’d better be a good person to be around.”

Now Playing: Capsized from You Were Here by Sarah Harmer

Posted by pjm at 1:21 PM | Comments (0)

March 16, 2005

If not educable, employable

Well, someone wants me: the TV people confirmed that I will be working Boston for them again next month. Next step: getting a hotel room from them. I vary between wishing I could pull in more income from this sort of work, and not asking for enough when they’re looking for a quote.

(I am adding false drama to the “rejection” aspects of the application process. I am old enough to distinguish between an admission’s committee’s judgment of my application and their judgment of me, though my family apparently doesn’t think so.)

Now Playing: It’s No Reason from Hindsight (Disc 2) by The Church

Posted by pjm at 12:09 PM | Comments (0)

March 15, 2005

Unexpected compliments

Though, I should add, only of the polite sort. I got a big packet today from the IAAF containing their latest “World Rankings Yearbook.” The accompanying letter, from the General Secretary of that organization, referred to me as “a reputable media representative of our sport.”

Heh. I’m “reputable.”

Now Playing: Best Imitation Of Myself from Ben Folds Live by Ben Folds

Posted by pjm at 11:09 AM | Comments (1)

March 12, 2005

Notes from the underground

What a stereotype: I like my roller-ball pens, but I have a habit of forgetting the cap is off. By halfway through any session, I am usually ink-smeared in some way. I suppose this would be a reliable way of distinguishing reporters from other spectators, if it wasn’t for the media credentials.

Need a dolly for that? The NCAA is apparently trying to cut down on the size of football and basketball media guides, since they were supposedly becoming big, glossy recruiting catalogs. Track guides are sometimes spiral-bound and rarely run to as many pages as your average T&FN (though they use much heavier paper.) Still, I saw the director of one large east-coast relay carnival with a stack of media guides which was easily a foot and a half high.

Our little slice of the meet: The press box is stuffed, but the “independent” reporters like myself (writing either for the running media or various newspapers) are outnumbered by the various “SIDs” (Sports Information Directors) producing program-specific press releases for athletic-department websites. So while the meet media apparatus is kept quite busy, the number of reporters actually attempting to cover the whole meet is fairly small.

Multi-tasking: The availability of a press box and the occasional down-time between events lets me stream my interviews in to my computer right at the venue, which puts me ahead of the game. Sometimes I can start writing my stories before the day is even over.

Name-withholding: Sometimes I feel a bit fake acting familiar with the great athletes at a meet like this, but I did get a warm glow when I was greeted first by one of the coaches, a two-time Olympic marathoner. I won’t drop the name, but he recognizes me because I ran with him once or twice at my former job, where he writes a monthly column for the print magazine.

Fast: Since I had more than one affiliation on my credential request, they apparently just picked one. Therefore, my credentials (and the label on my seat in the press box) identified me with “fast-women.com.” (Only at a track meet would that raise no eyebrows.) At least one volunteer handing out results checked to see if I wanted results from the men, too.

Posted by pjm at 3:53 PM | Comments (0)

March 8, 2005

Beat your age

I was talking with one of the other competitors at the meet this weekend. He’d turned 70 in January and was looking forward to being top dog in a new age group. (This is how you can recognize successful masters athletes: they look forward to birthdays.) He told me about one of his training partners and his goal for the 100 free: swim faster than his age.

Coincidentally, the previous weekend I had a short discussion with another reporter about masters sprinters who could “beat their age” over 400m. I think the hundred-yard swimming equivalent is probably reached by more athletes, but at my age either one is flat-out impossible. Even world-class athletes have to be well past 40 to start thinking about that sort of standard.

Look at it this way: to have beaten my age on Sunday, I would have to be 68 or older (more than twice my current age.) To beat my age in a track 400m, I’ll have to wait until I’m at least 55, and even at that age I’ll have to run times I haven’t seen since high school. These guys are really good.

Which made me consider that most of what I’ve done, both running and swimming, has been more the result of good conditioning and well-directed training than that sort of extraordinary talent.

Now Playing: Sit Down from Getting Away With It…Live (Disc 2) by James

Posted by pjm at 10:18 AM | Comments (0)

March 6, 2005

The language of achievement

Runners and swimmers use different language to describe their races. Specifically, the past perfective verb used to describe times. Runners will use the specific verb of their event: Paul Tergat ran a sub-2:05 marathon. John Godina threw the best mark of the indoor season. Swimmers, however, just use forms of “go.” So I would say, “I went 6:40 for the 500 free.”

I noticed my brother using this form a long time ago, but now I find myself saying it too, because “swam” sounds uncomfortable in the mouth. Maybe the root of the idiom is uncertainty about the past perfect form of “to swim,” which is one of those old, old verbs which declines by changing its vowel rather than with a suffix. Modern verbs (“to google,” “to blog,”) don’t do that. Swim, swam, swum. Sounds weird, doesn’t it?

Now Playing: I Send A Message from The Swing by INXS

Posted by pjm at 9:42 PM | Comments (0)

February 28, 2005

Missed opportunity

This is the sort of nugget that won’t fit neatly in anyone’s reporting about last weekend’s Indoor Nationals.

There are all kinds of perfectly good reasons why a professional athlete would have skipped that meet. They’re focused on a summer season which starts in May and goes through August, and there’s no point in tapering and peaking for roller-derby in Boston. Many distance runners are sharpening (or should be) for the World Cross.

But another track writer pointed out to me that shoe-company bonuses apply to national championships no matter who else shows up. Maybe you don’t need a peak race; just show up and run the race you’re ready for.

This is almost an agent’s point of view, not that of a coach, of course. But it’s interesting nonetheless.

Now Playing: Hotel Chelsea Nights from Love Is Hell by Ryan Adams

Posted by pjm at 8:17 PM | Comments (0)

My voice is tired

I volunteered at another 10-miler yesterday, this one right in Amherst. I’ve run this race three or four times and volunteered nearly as many, now. I wound up talking a lot.

My first job was to watch the start, then tear over to the mile mark and call the split to the runners as they passed. There was a minor snag when I remembered that my watch, despite having a perfectly good stopwatch, isn’t responding to any of the buttons, so I can’t reach the stopwatch. Fortunately, Julia was passing by, and I traded watches with her. (I didn’t reflect on this until later, but this was the perfect thing to do, because with anyone else, Murphy’s Law would have dictated that I not see them again for a month or so. I’m not sure why this is never the case with Julia.)

Calling splits is both very intense and very boring. The trick is getting to the split before the runners do; I figured I had five minutes after the start, and made it by using a head start, a shortcut, and a car. When you find the marker (both a temporary roadside sign and a faint red mark on the road surface,) then stand there acting as an audible clock, reciting times as they flick over the face of the watch. “Six oh one… two… three… four… six oh five… six… seven…” etc. up to about thirteen minutes.

I stood there until the watch was at about 15:00 (the last runner went by at thirteen minutes and change,) then returned my car to the race headquarters and hiked over to the finish area, where I sought out someone who looked responsible, and said, “I’m here to help, where do you need me?” I wound up filling a lot of cups at the water table, then adjourning to the finish area as traffic control. The finish for this race is unusual in that runners enter a school parking lot, but must do a lap of the lot before they’re actually done. My job was to yell these instructions (concisely, of course) so no runner would mistakenly stop too early. We got all but one or two. Like the last race, I felt like a parrot squawking the same thing over and over, but this task didn’t leave much room for improvisation. Every now and then I would try to anticipate other finish area problems, for example, warning people with zipped-up jackets that their number should be showing as they approached the finish line.

One thing that puzzled me a bit was the number of people with headphones on. I know I need music to keep me on a treadmill for more than twenty minutes or so, but outdoors is a different matter, and this is a pretty scenic and ever-changing course, not one you’d be bored by. More importantly, I wasn’t sure if these people could hear my instructions, or anyone else’s for that matter, which strikes me as a poor choice in a road race.

I wound up staying at the finish until the last runner came in, about 2:30 after the start, and helping break down the chutes, flags, tables, etc. When I returned to the race HQ, barely anyone was left there, which was fine; at one point or another, I’d talked to pretty much everyone who ran.

Now Playing: Dreams Burn Down from Nowhere by Ride

Posted by pjm at 5:08 PM | Comments (0)

The real drug problem

There was an article in the sports section of the Sunday Globe: “Healthy outlook has the sport up and running again”. Never mind the awful cliché in the headline. The whole premise of this article is flawed.

A year ago this weekend inside the Reggie Lewis Center, you would have been excused if you thought you’d wandered into a pharmacological convention. The questions were all about designer steroids then, about human growth hormones and Modafinil, about EPO and insulin and who was using them and who wasn’t.

Hogwash, sir. Were you actually there last year? I was and I don’t recall hearing a single question about designer steroids, HGH or Modafinil. Maybe that’s because I was talking to the distance runners? He’s got some decent quotes in here from seriously drug-impaired events, like the shot putters, where Saturday’s winner John Godina said, “In my event, it’s always been all about the drugs,” and third-placer Adam Nelson, whose shirt says “Space for rent” on the front, has his website, throwclean.com, on the back. (Look at those pictures. How can you not love this guy?)

But I stood next to this reporter on Saturday while he badgered Jen Toomey and Shayne Culpepper for quotes for this column. Toomey gave him a good one, which he used, and it’s true that the drug scandals did clear out an athlete who was one of the biggest figures in her event. But Culpepper didn’t really have anything to say; aside from that one individual, drugs have seldom been at the top of any distance runner’s agenda in this country.

As another track writer and I rolled our eyes at each other, this guy asked, “Is it nice that nobody’s asking about drugs this year?” And I thought, furiously, “Yeah, nobody except you…”

Now Playing: Supernatural Radio from She’s The One by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Posted by pjm at 10:58 AM | Comments (0)

February 27, 2005

Print your results bigger!

I can’t believe no race director has thought of this yet.

At the end of every race of any size, they post results. And there’s always a cramped crush of runners peering at single-spaced, twelve-point type trying to find their place and time. I’ve seen it happen at small races and I’ve seen it happen at national championships. The only places I haven’t seen it happen are the mega-races where they don’t bother trying to do results at the race; they just send you a postcard (or post the results online, which should be happening for all races anyway.)

How hard would it be to print fewer listings to a page, in bigger type, with wider line spacing?

And if you can’t do that, at least don’t feel you need to post up all the results in one space, with the sheets butted up against each other. Find a big long wall and put one sheet every ten feet or so. Then you’ve still got the type size issue, but at least it’s not the whole race in one place; it’s just the fifty-odd runners listed on each sheet. Instead of one big crush, it’s six or ten little crushes.

Now Playing: Hallelujah from Demolition by Ryan Adams

Posted by pjm at 5:24 PM | Comments (1)

February 24, 2005

Records and racing

The column which grew out of this post ran today.

Now Playing: Kerosene from Human Cannonball by School Of Fish

Posted by pjm at 2:45 PM | Comments (0)

February 23, 2005

Dreadmill

I’m told I haven’t mentioned my foot for a while. I think I’m being cautious. But since it seems like everyone else is running (even beyond the usual suspects) maybe I should spill.

I wanted to wait until I’d been pain-free without running for a week or so. I had some bad days in December, but sometime in January I found myself lifting in the morning and looking longingly at the treadmills. I should have taken this as a sign of lunacy—nobody in their right mind likes a treadmill—but instead I got on.

I’m following something like a beginner’s schedule, specifically, running half-hour blocks where I alternate walking and running. I started walking two minutes and running one, and since then I’ve been reducing the walking time and increasing the running time. (I’ve managed a sub-30 5K this way, which would be more of a landmark if I hadn’t run sub-17 in 2002, my last good running year.) When I’m up to eight or nine minutes of running at a stretch, I’ll head outside.

The treadmill is a good place to start because not only is it a regular surface, if things start hurting, I can stop immediately and not have to walk home. I’m starting to feel like a pet rodent, though, which at least says good things about my sanity.

I sometimes feel aches in my foot, still. Sometimes during a run, sometimes afterward. So far, they haven’t stuck around. I figure some soreness is normal, coming back after a layoff this long. If soreness persists through a day or two, then we’ve got a problem.

Anyway, at one or two runs a week, I’m not really loading it yet. As long as I keep swimming three or four days a week, I can’t ramp up too quickly, which is probably good.

Now Playing: Litttle Man Big Man from Coil by Toad The Wet Sprocket

Posted by pjm at 5:38 PM | Comments (1)

February 20, 2005

Life of the party

We spent most of yesterday afternoon at the New England Division III women’s track meet over at Smith. (The men’s meet was held at Tufts, which is considerably less convenient.) For me one of the best parts was watching Amherst runners win, something I saw little enough of when I was on the team and saw plenty of yesterday. (Two women won four events while we were there, and we placed second in two relays as well.)

The other thing that stuck me was the sheer number of people who spotted us in the bleachers (in a high traffic area, to be sure) and stopped by to say high. Most of them were associated with the Amherst program in one way or another, but A.’s parents were also there, and Mary came by to talk with us a few times as well. I felt like we’d plugged in to the whole network for the few hours we were there.

Now Playing: Orange Crush from Green by R.E.M.

Posted by pjm at 4:32 PM | Comments (0)

February 18, 2005

Posted

Can’t I say, “in print?” It’s not on paper, but it is print… just not printed. How about “published”? Anyway, it’s a post-race interview with Missy Buttry, part of my post-meet transcribing.

Note to RW Online: His name is Kenenisa Bekele. The “Kenny G./Kenny B.” joke might have been funny once, but now it’s getting annoying.

Now Playing: Harrisburg from Golden Age of Radio by Josh Ritter

Posted by pjm at 1:36 PM | Comments (0)

February 17, 2005

Making the race

(Once again, blowing a good column idea when I’ll have one due soon.)

There’s a certain amount of angst in track circles about “record mania.” The complaint is that many fans can see a “good race” and yet go away disappointed because there was no record. On the other hand, in a lot of record-setting races, the record is the only thing that makes them exciting: the fact that nobody has ever run faster.

I’ve seen a few records in my day, even a few world records. Some were thrilling, some weren’t. I’ve seen a lot more exciting races where the time wasn’t really important.

I wonder if the problem isn’t the fans in the stadium, but the fans out of the stadium. Anyone can recognize an exciting race when it’s in front of their nose. It’s a lot harder to convey that excitement to someone who wasn’t there; it’s even hard to explain why it was exciting. Even on television it’s not easy to see it.

So the global audience falls back on what it can get from an event: the results, in times and distances. The numbers are the only things speaking for the event, and the missing record is more of a let-down there.

We can certainly share some blame out to the meet promoters looking for the quick hit of a world record, and the fans who show up hoping to see someone do something that’s never been done before. But maybe some blame should go with the way we report and share these events with those who aren’t there watching? Numbers are not drama, not without context.

Now Playing: Alleluia from The Honesty Room by Dar Williams

Posted by pjm at 2:36 PM | Comments (0)

February 10, 2005

On spec

So, I’ll be in the Portland area this weekend, only Nicole won’t. That doesn’t seem right somehow.

I like these races. I guess you could say I love them, since I ran them three times. Running gave me an excuse to be there, though; this weekend I’m working “on spec,” speculating that I can get (and sell) enough material to cover my (relatively small) expenses. I’m ahead (on paper) for the year, thanks to a high profit margin in Boston, but this will likely knock me back to break-even.

Now Playing: Injustica from Building 55 by Kathleen Edwards

Posted by pjm at 3:54 PM | Comments (1)

February 8, 2005

Powered by

You would think that the marketing dross of the dot-com boom days would have washed away with the stock prices. But there’s one little buzzword which is working away on my head now like my ski boots on my feet.

“Powered by.” There’s a relatively rational, if bothersome, use of it on this front page, in the default text by which I admit that I’m using Movable Type to manage this site. It’s relatively accurate in the sense that the site relies on MT to function; however, if I want to be pedantic, I should point out that the real motive forces are myself and you, the readers; without us, MT just sits there and waits to be called. And, if we were really crediting software for driving the site, we should also nod to Apache and MySQL, which are equally as integral.

Anyway, you see that little tagline all over, even when it’s not strictly true. What’s really abrading me now is the weekend’s upcoming track meet, the Powered By Tyson Invitational.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, a track meet with an adjectival phrase as the title sponsor.

I’ll admit that Tyson, factory-farm producers of more chicken, pork and beef than anyone else in the USA, might have a better claim on “powering” the meet than most software makers can claim. Forgive me if I don’t find that an excuse for such a clunky meet name. Any time you need to use an article (as above) the sentence structure goes beyond un-lovely and reaches silly. It also does nothing to correct anyone’s stereotypical image of Fayetteville, Arkansas.

The other day we were discussing how any internet business name should be able to become a verb (i.e. Google, Netflix.) Now I’m thinking it should also make an elegant title sponsorship. When my startup hits it big, I will sponsor this meet. It will be called the “Grammatically Correct Title Sponsor Invitational.”

Maybe it’s the cold medicine making me loopy. (Or, maybe I’m just using the medicine as an excuse?)

Now Playing: Black Boys On Mopeds from Bob On The Ceiling by The Nields

Posted by pjm at 2:14 PM | Comments (1)

February 6, 2005

Pitching in

I spent a big chunk of this morning standing on the Shore Road in Cape Elizabeth handing cups of Gatorade to people who looked a lot warmer than I felt. A. was running the Mid Winter Classic and I volunteered to help out in order to feel like I was doing something productive.

Putting out cups and filling them, the first half hour to forty minutes, is mindless work that is best done with more people. It’s when the runners start coming by that things get interesting, because they all look different. Some are happy to see a drink; others wave you off. They listen to their headphones or they chatter with us.

Chatter. Lots of that. We all talked at the stop while we were setting up, but when the runners arrived it was just advertising. We had Gatorade on our first table and water on the next, so we spent a lot of effort making sure people got what they were after, calling out what we had in our hands, letting them know there would be water after the Gatorade, making sure they didn’t do what my brother once did (chug a cup of water and dump some kind of energy drink on his head.)

After a few minutes of chirping “Gatorade! Gatorade!” I started feeling like I’d burned out any circuits in my mouth to say anything different. (A runner took a cup and said, “Thank you.” I replied, “Gatorade!”) I figured we must be driving each other batty. So I started trying to change things up.

First there was the parrot. “Gatorade! Gatorade! Aawwk! Gatorade!”

There was the stadium huckster. “GAtorade, HERE!”

Then there was the gas station. “Last Gatorade for two and a half miles!”

There were several variations on the bar. “Gatorade shots, water chaser!” (One runner asked for a double.) “Set up a Gatorade for the lady in blue!”

And the discount store. “You can’t beat this offer on a cup of Gatorade! You won’t see a better price until the finish line! Everything must go!”

By this time I’m certain my fellow volunteers would have carried me over to Crescent Beach and pitched me in the ocean if they hadn’t needed my hands, but the runners, at least, weren’t hearing the same jokes over and over. I got to try each one on a fresh audience.

Sometimes when I’m in good shape and racing regularly, it’s hard for me to convince myself to show up and help make the races happen. If there’s anything that’s good about not being in racing shape, it’s that I can get out a few times a year and make a contribution, give back a little where I’ve taken so much.

Posted by pjm at 5:34 PM | Comments (1)

February 3, 2005

Like kudzu

The reuse of articles subject (from yesterday) reminded me of another odd appearance in print. I was contacted by the local club about reuse of my “Keystone Species” column in their newsletter. I think they saw it as something of a memorial for Steve. I referred them on to RW, and I assume they got permission because RW regularly allows such things.

This, outside of my own involvement, is where the mayhem started. First, this note in the minutes of the club’s October board meeting:

There was discussion about an apology to be sent (but not published in the [newsletter]) to [name] of the [other general-athletics store], regarding a small piece about the demise of the [old running store]. It was a late, “fill entry” reprinted from Runenrsworld online write by [me]. All agreed that while we didn’t want to offend a generous supporter of the club, no offence was intended.

(All sic, of course, though I’ve removed proper names, including my own, to avoid Googleism.)

In other words, the board didn’t really get what the column was about, but the other store did, and was disappointed. (Face facts, though, folks: you don’t fill the gap, and the column explains why.)

The next twist came from New England Runner, which actually lists me as a contributing writer on their masthead. (I wrote a feature story for them once, yes.) NER has a monthly column, “Club Notes,” with a rundown of what’s going on in the many running clubs around New England. The writer works mostly from club newsletters. Can you guess where this is going?

Yep, after the board got finished apologizing for my article, NER led off the “Club Notes” column with it, and quoted it extensively (including citing me as the author.) Fortunately, the NER columnist actually understood what I was trying to say, and didn’t see it through the lens of local retail and sponsorship.

Just as a kicker, this last publication is probably the only place my father would have seen it.

Now Playing: You Don’t Know How It Feels from Wildflowers by Tom Petty

Posted by pjm at 1:24 PM | Comments (0)

February 2, 2005

By permission

I neglected to post a link to my fourth article about the Boston Indoor Games, which I probably should have bylined “Alistair Cragg (as told to pjm).” Now it turns out that it’s getting picked up by other running sites which is either flattering or disturbing—did they get permission? As a site editor, I always asked people reusing our articles to include “used by permission” for just that reason. But it’s not really my problem, this time—it’s a “work for hire” and the assigning site is free to grant permission for reuse.

While I’m linking to myself elsewhere, I should note that the column I mentioned, uh, yesterday, has been published.

Now Playing: Secret Handshake from Green Eggs And Crack by Too Much Joy

Posted by pjm at 3:09 PM | Comments (0)

February 1, 2005

Cut for length

This came out of the column I just sent in. I was considering when, if ever, I’d heard a crowd roar the way they did in Boston for Tirunesh Dibaba’s last kilometer.

The only thing I could think of was at the 1999 World Championships in Seville, when Abel Anton arrived in the stadium at the end of the marathon.

His victory party was three or four floors below my hotel room, and not only did I get smashed (not difficult, considering how fatigued I was by then) but I saw the best flamenco I’ve ever seen danced by a man who had run a marathon less than six hours before. And Anton was not young, even by marathon standards.

Now Playing: Already Yesterday from Heyday by The Church

Posted by pjm at 12:50 AM | Comments (1)

January 31, 2005

Still reeling

Something about the pitch of effort that went in to covering the meet has me still burned out. I can’t make my mind stick to one idea or project for more than three or four minutes. There’s still another article in the publishing queue and one more left to write. And I have eBay sales to ship.

And it turns out that my PC here at work (as opposed to my Mac) is too old to boot from a USB device, so while I can do a Live CD, I can’t boot from my new 512 MB flash drive. I’m not sure if I should be disappointed by this or not. I may still make the drive bootable, just in case another subversive opportunity comes up.

Moral of the story: there are security advantages to obsolescence!

Now Playing: Mr. Right Now from If You Lived Here You’d Be Home Now by The Nields

Posted by pjm at 5:06 PM | Comments (0)

January 30, 2005

Flare

I’m crashing big-time.

Yesterday was very intense. The meet, in particular, opened up with a world record and continued with nearly every twist and turn you can imagine when plotting races with very good competitors. After some waffling about where I would be able to work, I ended up staying at the venue and filing by dial-up as they broke down the press risers around me. (In this day and age, I can’t figure out why venues haven’t started providing wireless access points for the press.) My preview oversight turned out to be a big one: the athlete I hadn’t mentioned was the one who set the world record.

We only got lost once on our way to my cousin’s in Southie, though it took a while to find a parking spot. No problems this morning getting A. to her run and me to a Starbucks, where I discovered that I now actually have more work to do today; my editor in Monaco responding, “Yes, this is great, fantastic meet, send anything else you have.” (Hmm, how about me? I could do with some Monaco right now.)

Now I’m crashing. I’ve probably got two thousand words yet to write today, all in my head or on the recorder, which means I either need to transcribe, which I hate, or simply stare at a blank document on the screen until drops of blood form on my forehead. I’d rather stare at Bloglines until my eyes slip out of focus.

And I’m supposedly good at this?

Posted by pjm at 3:40 PM | Comments (0)

January 27, 2005

It's individual

(I have a column to file on Sunday, and depending on how Saturday goes, I might have to mine this for ideas, but here it is…)

Talk about any aspect of training with more than two runners, and it’s almost dead certain you’ll hear one of two phrases: “It’s an individual thing,” or “This works for me.” (The commercial-disclaimer variant, “Your mileage may vary,” abbreviated to YMMV is another favorite.)

Length of longest training run? Your mileage may vary. Best cross-training while injured? It’s an individual thing. What to eat the night before? This works for me.

This isn’t just evasiveness; there are a lot of reasons why most of this does vary between individuals, and I’ve mentioned this before. And it’s not really what I’m thinking about.

I’m thinking about how there’s such a tremendous advantage to training with a team, or even with one training partner. A good team can become more than just the sum of its members, through the shared effort and reward.

And I’m thinking, considering how many things about optimizing training vary between individuals, about how incredibly powerful (and astoundingly difficult) it must be to put together the kind of team where all those individual quirks can fit together. It must be amazingly rare, yet the Kenyans (and, more recently, the Ethiopians) seem to do it annually for the World Cross-Country meet.

Of course, the Kenyan method is rather like sculpture; you start with a big block of runners, and cut away anything that doesn’t look like a winning team. But it’s so much more successful that the American method, which is to put together a group of strong individuals and tell them they’re a team.

Now Playing: MPLS from Dead Man Shake by Grandpaboy

Posted by pjm at 1:26 PM | Comments (0)

Love that byline...

“[pjm] for the IAAF.”

(I admit, getting a check from Monaco is pretty cool, too. I pretend it’s prize money when I deposit it.)

It ran with only light edits, too. I was startled to realize that I was putting World Indoor champions in blow-off paragraphs at the end because there were so many Olympic medalists competing. And I completely whiffed on Tirunesh and Ejegayehu Dibaba in the women’s 5,000m; apparently Tirunesh is on a tear this season. I should pay closer attention to the European cross-country circuit.

Now Playing: Occupation H. Monster from Songs From The Other Side by The Charlatans

Posted by pjm at 9:37 AM | Comments (0)

January 25, 2005

The mind reels

This bit was in a press release today:

…New York’s finest track and running scribes.

Do the purveyors of purple prose have a reflex which inserts the word “finest” after any use of the possessive “New York’s”?

If they’re really making a distinction (between the finest track and running scribes, and cheap hacks like myself, I assume,) who’s making it? And what makes one a “fine” track writer? Circulation numbers? Membership in TAFWA? The ability to tell colorful stories about how you got to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics?

This is the danger of cliché: it becomes textual noise that distracts from the actual message.

Now Playing: Caroline from Bloodletting by Concrete Blonde

Posted by pjm at 12:04 PM | Comments (1)

January 21, 2005

"Professional" runners

Megan asked, in a comment down below, about the “average salary for runners who land a shoe contract,” and whether there’s a significant difference between sprinters and distance runners.

This is an article I’ve wanted to write for years, but can’t, and some limited discussion with other track writers suggests to me that the sources I’d need to talk to are not interested in talking. Sadly, there are several dozen talented athletes every year asking the same question: I just finished a successful NCAA career. Now what?

Some people (Dathan Ritzenhein, Alan Webb, Shalane Flanagan, etc.) have enough success and following that they can land a pretty decent contract right away, but let’s leave out the freakishly talented right now and consider someone who’s going to battle their way up from the bottom. (This is going to go long, so I’ll move to the extended entry now.)

Continue reading ""Professional" runners"

Posted by pjm at 4:36 PM | Comments (5)

January 20, 2005

Doers and watchers

Part of a press release I got today prompted me to look in to the stakes for USATF’s new Visa Championship Series.

The male and female Visa Champion will share a $50,000 jackpot, and each will receive a trip for two to a premiere Visa-sponsored event of their choice, including the Super Bowl, Pro Bowl, Kentucky Derby, Pebble Beach Weekend or Tony Awards.

Sweet. So, as an award for “the top overall performance” in a four-meet series, an achievement which could very well mean outperforming the very lengthy history of the sport (with an American record or even world record,) we will reward these supposedly-professional athletes, who have trained full-time for several years, with something less than the starting salary of an Alabama schoolteacher, and the chance to to be just another spectator for some true professionals (in the “really overpaid” sense of the word,) who earn more than that on a daily basis, in a gaudy spectacle watched by a few hundred times as many people as watched this “top overall performance.”

I’m a long way from the first to point out how pathetic this is, of course. And I realize that USATF and the sport as a whole don’t have the cash to support a truly impressive award. But I really wish they’d stop pretending it was something spectacular.

Maybe it would help if we announced all sports prize money or salary figures in millions. This one, for example, is .025 million dollars. Compare, please, with the average salary in the NFL. There’s actually a figure to the left of the decimal point.

Now Playing: 9 - 9 from Murmur by R.E.M.

Posted by pjm at 12:40 PM | Comments (2)

January 18, 2005

While I'm name dropping

One of my former coaches won the Houston Marathon last weekend, and with a pretty damn fast time.

She was still a student at UMass when she spent a red-shirt season (injury, I think) as an assistant coach at the College. Then the head coach’s father died, and he had to go back to Africa for most of the indoor season, so Kelly was our coach for the season, and she assisted for a few more. We thought that was pretty cool, particularly when she was an All-American in the 10,000m for UMass (one of the last All-Americans UMass has had on the track, I think.) I’ve seen her at the last two Olympic Marathon Trials.

I’m still using a lifting program she gave us. I did one of the circuits this morning.

Now Playing: Pretty Mary K from Figure 8 by Elliott Smith

Posted by pjm at 11:02 AM | Comments (0)

January 11, 2005

Incumbent

It’s nice when you complete an assignment and the assigning editor likes it enough to call you back for the next year.

Now Playing: Rainslicker from Hello Starling by Josh Ritter

Posted by pjm at 1:32 PM | Comments (0)

January 10, 2005

Irish coffee

How’s this for a wake-up?

I honestly don’t think there’s a way to overstate it.

Now Playing: Back On Line from Welcome To Wherever You Are by INXS

Posted by pjm at 2:22 PM | Comments (2)

January 5, 2005

Throwing weight around

How often do you get to say you were there when something broke through?

Admittedly, in the track and field world, “breakthrough” is not saying much. But in the last four or five years, there has definitely been more attention paid to the shot put than there was, say, a decade ago. There’s buzz around John Godina, two-time Olympic silver medalist Adam Nelson, etc. Witness, after all, the Titan Games, which I mentioned a few months ago. They’re throwing at the Boston Indoor Games for the first time, this month.

I think I can trace it all back to one moment in Sacramento, four and a half years ago. It was the final round of the shot at the 2000 Olympic Trials, with four throwers in contention. I was in the stands at that end of the track, because that’s where I had access to the press area. As each throw topped the next, and the Olympic team started to take shape, they started to celebrate.

Yeah, celebrate. Remember, these are very big boys, and they’ve trained hours to fling a sixteen-pound ball as far as possible. There’s a tremendous amount of grace involved in getting the most energy behind the shot within the tight circle they throw from. (Finicky note: “Shot put” is the name of an event, and just as in “high jump” and “long jump” the second word is a verb. You put a shot. You do not throw a shot put.) When they let it go, they scream like they’d just dropped it on their foot. And when they see it land beyond the qualifying mark, and the white flag goes up… well, yeah, they do mid-air chest-bumps with their buddies. It’s like watching elephants samba.

The TV cameras were there, and they made national highlights broadcasts. When Nelson went on to win silver in Sydney, that kept the momentum going. Now there’s the Titan Games, the shot final at Olympia last summer… and a featured spot in Boston, which will inevitably be a standing-room-only affair.

So, yeah, I was there.

Now Playing: Magical Spring from Carnival Of Light by Ride

Posted by pjm at 10:41 AM | Comments (2)

January 3, 2005

Step carefully

The results for the Millennium Mile are listing the second-place finisher as coming from Palo Alto, California. Not so, or at least not now.

Back in the mists of prehistory, I used to race Derek. Really. Somewhere I have a picture of the 1992 Maine State Class A 800m in which the two of us are in the same frame, even before the podium shot. He used to have an Accu-Track finish photo from the Black Bear Relays where I anchored the 4x800 for a school I didn’t attend (long story) and successfully held off his closing charge for Old Town. It was truly a photo finish, and at first I thought I had lost, because in black and white his uniform looked more like that of my real team. It wasn’t until I spotted the athletic tape he had over his new earring that I realized the mistake.

I’ve been bumping in to him for years, one of the few I ever see from my high school running days. In 1996, not quite a senior at the University of Maine but already twice a conference champion, he made the Olympic Trials final for the 1500m. After a few seasons training with Ned and one of my college teammates in Amherst, he went out to California to run for the Farm Team.

Yesterday, he was complaining about how cold it was. Since it was probably hovering around freezing in Londonderry, definitely a few ticks on the good side for January, I laughed at him and called him a Californian. Actually, he said, he’s in New York now. Specifically, he’s coaching at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York.

Now, just for fun:

  • In 1999, I ran a pretty decent 10k on a very hilly course in Oneonta, on my way to my first Boston qualifier in Columbus. (I note that Oneonta is called “The City of the Hills.”)
  • The following summer, I hired an intern from Hartwick College, who I saw a few years ago at Reach the Beach (since she’s now out on Cape Ann somewhere.)

All very sketchy coincidences, but definitely enough to impress me with how small the world can be and how large at the same time.

Now Playing: Seen It Coming from After Everything Now This by The Church

Posted by pjm at 2:40 PM | Comments (0)

January 2, 2005

Road hazard

So there I was, crouched down behind a barrel which marked one side of the finishing chip-mat at the Millennium Mile with A.’s second-best camera, playing backup photographer and waiting for Deena Kastor to reach the finish.

Even with the second-best lens (26-to-80 zoom, if I understand correctly) my field of vision starts a good five meters beyond my nose, so it took me completely by surprise when I was clipped by a baby jogger and knocked sprawling into the spectators crowded behind the chute. I was so unfocused that I don’t even recall if the jogger had a passenger. (For those unfamiliar with modern pedestrianism, a “baby jogger” is a sort of tricycle stroller with eight-inch tires which provides a relatively smooth ride for underage passengers when powered by a parent.)

No damage done, apparently, and I didn’t miss my shot (at least, I didn’t miss it because of the collision.) I assured everyone that I wasn’t bleeding and couldn’t feel any broken bones, so the penalty was declined and I got back to work.

But still, what kind of thinking are you not doing to push a baby jogger in a road mile? Large races around the country specifically disallow the things on their entry forms for safety reasons, and the MM6 apparently hit 700 this year, all crossing the finish line in the space of about eight minutes. There’s no room for something that can’t turn on a toe.

And besides, if you were far enough to the side to hit me, there are decent odds that your chip shoe missed the primary reader mat. I have karmic protection.

Posted by pjm at 10:39 PM | Comments (2)

December 28, 2004

He's come undone

I wouldn’t believe this if I hadn’t seen it: a site dedicated to tying shoelaces.

Now Playing: We’re Coming Out from Let It Be by The Replacements

Posted by pjm at 2:18 PM | Comments (1)

December 12, 2004

Uncoached

The word ran through the running community online this morning: Arthur Lydiard died last night in Dallas, at the age of 87. He was almost through with his lecture tour in the United States.

I think I suspected, when I saw him in New York last month, that this would be his last tour, but I don’t think any of us suspected it would come so soon.

Posted by pjm at 2:22 PM | Comments (0)

December 10, 2004

Pool running

Now, having said I answer questions, I need to answer Julie’s question about pool running.

Pool running is, well, it’s running in a pool. There’s a pretty good explanation (and a photo!) in this article:

For the uninitiated, pool running is simply running in the deep end of a swimming pool. No, not across the bottom of the pool. Instead, you wear a specially designed foam belt that allows you to float in an upright, running position. Once you’re floating, you begin to run-—like a cartoon character—-with your legs turning, but your body not going anywhere.

They’re a little off, because I do tend to go places; I do a 50y “lap” of the College pool in about four and a half minutes. And, I know people who prefer not to use the belt. One hitch is that it takes some concentration (at first) to stay upright and not lean forward and paddle with your hands; at that point, you’re not pool-running, you’re swimming. It helps a lot to have a lot of deep-water space; the College pool is made for water polo, so it’s at least eight feet deep at its “shallow” end; I can go end to end without touching down, which I can’t do in pools with a stand-up end. (I love the pools with separate diving wells; I’ll do laps in the diving well instead of in a lane.)

The College also has a tiny little “warm-up” pool, only four feet deep, which runs across one end of the main pool, behind the starting blocks. On more than one occasion, the coach would put eight or ten runners in there and have us properly running (on the bottom of the pool, that is, not floating) around the outside until you could see a bit of a whirlpool starting (a vortex in the middle of the pool, etc.)

Then he’d start picking people out, one by one, and tell them to reverse direction and run against the current we’d made, until we’d reversed it. When I think about it, it was a pretty good way of doing strength drills without a hill.

Now Playing: Mary Jane’s Last Dance from Greatest Hits by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Posted by pjm at 10:30 AM | Comments (1)

December 9, 2004

Getting girled

I got girled last night. This will take some explaining.

The phrase comes from A.’s girls, who apparently picked it up from the boys’ team. The boys got “girled” if one of the girls passed them on a run; this was, for them, something to be avoided. The girls picked up the phrase and rendered it ridiculous by applying it to nearly anything, including pedestrians of all varieties, pets, and slow-moving traffic.

When I got in the pool last night, one of Ned’s women was already pool-running. Within two or three turns, she looked likely to overtake me and pass me, but one of her teammates joined her and the two of them weren’t moving as quickly. They were joined by Dave, so that made four of us. Eventually, this threesome did pass me, so I suppose I was “girled” twice.

I’m not taking this too seriously. After all, the speed at which one moves in the pool, particularly when “running,” doesn’t have much relation to how hard you’re working, right?

Pool running is infinitely less interesting than swimming an actual workout. (Given how boring I find workouts compared to running, I might as well park my brain in my locker.) I have memorized the three relay teams with which my freshman-year roommate is still on the record boards. Soon, I’ll have the times down as well.

Now Playing: Mr. Right Now from If You Lived Here You’d Be Home Now by The Nields

Posted by pjm at 1:40 PM | Comments (2)

My bad reputation

Yesterday my e-mail included a press release announcing that Kenenisa Bekele would be running at the Boston Indoor Games.

The media coordinator for the event is an acquaintance from my RW days, but I’m not sure what I did to earn the preface to the email:

Is this good enough for you?

Now Playing: Aurora from There Is Nothing Left To Lose by Foo Fighters

Posted by pjm at 11:51 AM | Comments (1)

December 8, 2004

The darkness is receding

The email came today. I think it was the best thing that happened all day, aside from occasional re-plays of my new favorite video clip. It’s Sunset Day.

Every year, a member of a running list I’m on sends the message out about Sunset Day. Essentially, today is the earliest sunset of the year. For those who actually see the sunset, from here on in, you’re getting more light in your day. I know the shortest day is yet to come; what’s happening, actually, is that we’re losing daylight in the morning faster than we’re getting it back in the evening, at least until the 22nd. The latest sunrise doesn’t come until early January.

When I was in Pennsylvania, running at lunch, this wasn’t an issue. I walked to work in the dark (or dawn,) worked away from windows except for my hour (or so) outside, and walked home in the dark. Between November and March, I got most of my daylight on weekends. Moving here and running in the mornings, I became acutely aware of sunrise time; in my first winter back, there was quite a while when I started my run carrying a flashlight, and could watch the sun come up as I finished.

I haven’t run outdoors for months. I have an office with a window. I want those sunset hours back, now, and I’m happy they’re on their way.

Posted by pjm at 9:52 PM | Comments (0)

December 4, 2004

Busted, too

You know, I when I titled the original shoulder injury entry “Busted,” I didn’t know quite how appropriate it was.

I tried swimming last Monday. I made it through the warm-up, and figured out that it only hurt if I kept my elbow locked at the catch; if my elbow was bent as I pulled through, no pain. The evaluation from Thursday’s massage: it’s (probably) a pectoral.

I should note, for the record, that runners don’t have pectorals. They come from swimming or from sports which reward, say, lifting. Quoth the therapist, “Maybe you should try moderation.”

“Well, I have tried a new sport each time I get injured…”

I’m pool-running now. And biking; tomorrow I’m riding with the illustrator. This might hurt.

Posted by pjm at 8:24 PM | Comments (0)

November 30, 2004

The open-source Lydiard?

If you haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about for the rest of this post, you may want to read my previous posts about Arthur Lydiard, the seminar of his that I went to at the beginning of this month, and my understanding of his training program. This post should make sense without them, but it’s useful to have all the links here in one place.

Saturday evening, I had a lengthy discussion with a local runner, B., who is also a strong believer in the Lydiard method, and tried to sort out some of the ideas I’d had about the seminars. One of the things that frustrates me is that this all seems startlingly obvious to me, perhaps because I’ve been trained along roughly similar lines for my whole athletic career; however, plenty of runners, and even many coaches, don’t really understand the basic principles, or are simply unaware that there are basic principles which make sense even if you have your own feelings about how to translate them to actual training. I hinted at this in my column about the seminar.

The presentation we saw at the seminar was the clearest and most understandable explanation of any training program I’ve ever seen. B. agreed that some of the most useful training books he had read were the ones he had to read several times to figure out; it seems that many great coaches are not similarly gifted in one-to-many communication. B. highlighted this by pointing out a book he was able to grasp and put to use immediately: Pete Pfitzinger’s Advanced Marathoning, which is good because Pfitzinger had a co-author, Scott Douglas, who is talented at communicating this sort of thing clearly.

In Lydiard’s case, the communicator was “Nobby” Hashizume of Five Circles, an organization to “promot[e] health, fitness and personal well-being through running.” Hashizume calls the tour “Project Lydiard 21,” preserving Lydiard’s legacy for the 21st century. I didn’t press him for details of how he planned to do it, but I’m a computer geek, and some ideas came to mind.

See, in the computer world we’ve got the example of the open-source movement. The highest-profile example of Open Source Software (OSS) nowadays is Mozilla, which you’re already aware of if you’ve been reading here for long. Mozilla’s model is built around a small core of professionals and a legacy of source code, but the real power of the organization is the massed attention of thousands of volunteers (many of them hackers) around the world, all contributing features, bug-fixes, bug-finding, and even promotion through simple things like links on weblogs.

There are other open-source models; one in particular is the Free Software Foundation (see Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar for more on OSS development.) The FSF is responsible for a number of tools and system libraries (the “GNU” in GNU/Linux) which don’t have the massed attention of Mozilla, but are nonetheless free, with the source code readily available for perusal.

I wonder if a parallel could be found somewhere between Mozilla and GNU for Project Lydiard 21—a sort of open-source training reference, if you will. There’s a small core of editors and organizers who keep things together, and a much larger group of volunteers who make the contributions necessary to keep this legacy alive: spreading it, evangelizing it, building the websites, finding bugs, and even “compiling” the system into specific, individual training programs. The “source code” would be maintained by the foundation, but it would be freely available to anyone who wanted to use it and incorporate it in their own work (like the GNU libraries.)

That “freely-available” part is important to me. There are a lot of coaches out there who don’t really know why they do what they do; they just do the workouts the way they always do, put them together haphazardly, and make do. They’re unlikely to go for a certification; USATF Level 1 certification (the most basic) requires a two-and-a-half day seminar costing $150, and if you’ve ever tried to get $150 plus expenses out of a high school (or considered paying it out of your own pocket for the high school’s benefit) you’ll know why so few high-school level coaches will ever be certified. And a book is something some people might understand, but others might be confused by, as my conversation with B. underlined. I really think a free resource would be most useful.

Could enough volunteers hold a foundation like that together? Could a founding “endowment” like the one Mozilla got from AOL (and others) be part of the program? Is there a place for it in the world? I don’t have answers to those questions, and since I don’t know what Nobby has planned anyway, it may be irrelevant. But it seems like a lot of us making small contributions might be able to go farther than a small group hoping to cover the whole distance on their own. And it seems like the open-source model could have applications beyond simply software. Why not mindware?

Now Playing: Everything Means Nothing to Me from Figure 8 by Elliott Smith

Posted by pjm at 10:19 PM | Comments (0)

November 25, 2004

Lydiard 5: Sharpening, tapering, peaking, and recovering

(If you missed them, and are curious: Parts one, two, three and four.)

I don’t have much to add to this section, since I was having a Far Side moment as we got to this part of the seminar. (“Can I be excused? My brain is full.”) And without my notes, I’ve forgotten quite a lot in the last few weeks.

The last week or two of the training period is the toughest, because the coach and athlete have to balance so many competing priorities. First, the athlete has to arrive at the race rested and psychologically prepared. Second, they have to maintain some speed training; one of the traps of anaerobic training is that it is very much “use it or lose it,” and it fades quickly without regular sharpening. Finally, they need to at least nod to their aerobic base. And this all has to happen as they back off their overall volume and intensity.

The details of managing this are very particular to the athlete, but understanding the goals is important to managing it well. I’ve found that it’s tempting for me to race too much in the last phases before a peak race, but those detract from my goal race. Also, the athlete frequently feels sluggish, slow, or just irritable during this phase; in a way, it involves withdrawal from something they had become quite addicted to: heavy training. One of the favorite traps for athletes to fall in to is “just one more hard workout,” or, alternately, “I’m losing all my fitness! I have to work harder!”

There are a lot of theories about post race recovery, but they all agree on one point: you need some, before starting another cycle. Not only does the body need some time to recover, but it’s a good time to evaluate performance, and see if there are lessons to be applied for the next cycle.

I haven’t mentioned the scheduling yet. An entire program should be structured (at least in terms of laying out the blocks for each phase of the cycle) based on the date of a single target race. Lydiard’s athletes performed at their best when they had been focusing on a single race or block of races; training to race, say, an entire cross-country season while racing hard weekly does not fit with the Lydiard system. However, “training through” most of those races while peaking for a single championship race is more manageable. This is called “periodized training,” and it’s a hugely important concept. Simply put, you can’t be in your best shape all the time, so you pick your moments, and get in “peak condition” for those moments; the rest of the time, you get ready for those peak moments.

Anyway, one picks a single race, a marathon or another target race with significance to the athlete. Preferably, the race is four to six months in the future. Then the calendar can be built by working backwards from the race day, starting with tapering time, then adding speed work, bounding, hills, and giving over all the remaining time (up to ten weeks or more for a marathon) to building base. The time spent in each phase can be adjusted depending on the results of previous cycles; Lydiard’s books give more specific advice about how to start out.

Beyond that, improvements on this program can be cumulative over several cycles. Improvements in the aerobic system aren’t lost from one cycle to the next; in fact, from one successful cycle an athlete can start the base phase for the next cycle while retaining almost all their base from the previous cycle. Lydiard stressed that it can take three to five years to reach the full benefit of the program; it is not for the impatient.

That’s the size of things for now; I have some wrap-up thoughts which I will try to post before much longer.

Posted by pjm at 10:45 PM | Comments (0)

Lydiard 4: Speed and anaerobic training

(If you missed them, and are curious: Parts one, two and three.)

Speed training for endurance athletes has, since the middle of the last century, focused on intervals, which can be roughly explained as running fast for a while, recovering, running fast again. There are then a few zillion ways to refine the details: how long are the efforts? How fast? How many? How long are the recovery periods? Does the athlete continue running at an easy pace during the recoveries, or walk, or stand, wheeze, and look vaguely at their watch? The answers vary according to the athlete, the coach, the target race, and how much the coach has read about physiology. (The variance has led one of my running circle to drop a “w” and refer to this as “speedork.”)

The time was that intervals were the exclusive method of training for distance runners. (For swimmers, even distance swimmers, they still are.) Roger Bannister trained almost exclusively on intervals, as did many of his contemporaries. However, when Lydiard-coached Murray Halberg was planning his 5,000m race at the Rome Olympics in 1960, Lydiard pointed out that the interval-trained runners tended to run hard for a certain amount of time, then invariably backed off, because they weren’t used to sustaining their effort over the full distance of the race. Accordingly, Halberg worked his way from the back of the race until he was fourth or fifth, then when he detected a slight slackening of the pace with several laps remaining, he pushed hard and opened an unbeatable lead. Halberg had been training with regular time-trials over the race distance, and he knew what he could do and when he could do it.

(It’s interesting to note that Bob Schul, the American athlete who won the same race in 1964 in Tokyo, was trained by Mihaly Igloi, a Hungarian coach who trained world-class athletes almost entirely on intervals.)

The use of time trials to gauge the state of training is one of Lydiard’s additions to speed training, but while he’s dismissive of total reliance on intervals, his athletes did use them. The biggest difference was that they built up to them, building a base, then adding hills, then drills before finally reaching real speed work. Even then, Lydiard favors avoiding tracks; he much prefers a long loop laid out on trails or around playing fields.

One reason for this arms-length handling of speed is that an excessive reliance on anaerobic training can actually cut in to an athlete’s aerobic base. If the speed phase is too long, the aerobic benefits of the base phase wither away, and it is nearly impossible to train for both while properly recovering from each training run. So there’s a penalty to starting speedwork too soon. This goes along with the idea that the anaerobic system has a hard limit to how far it can be trained; once you hit that limit, you’re ready to race, and you’d best not be too far away from your target race.

This was not a primary focus of the seminar, because speed training has been very thoroughly explored by many different coaches, and the innovations Lydiard made in training methods did not, for the most part, come in this area.

(One more to go: sharpening and laying out a training program.)

Posted by pjm at 10:09 PM | Comments (0)

November 24, 2004

Fully extended

Josphat Boit and Simon Bairu at the 2004 NCAA Cross-Country Championships When I wrote about hill training, I mentioned how the form goal is to have one’s leg fully extended at the toe-off. A. got a pretty good example photo of Arkansas’ Josphat Boit this weekend. Notice how he’s pushing off his left leg; if this was a full side view, you could probably measure the angle at 45°.

Now Playing: Friction from A Box Of Birds by The Church

Posted by pjm at 12:51 PM | Comments (0)

November 23, 2004

Weekend's end

I know it’s a bit odd to have your weekend over on Tuesday night, but the last of the four stories I did this weekend was finished and posted tonight. I could probably transcribe some interviews, but… no. I’d rather be done, right now.

For the insatiably curious, or those who want to compare with last year’s, here’s before and after (men) and before and after (women.)

Posted by pjm at 10:16 PM | Comments (0)

Get moving

On an unrelated web search, I found this article, which was pretty moving the first time I read it and still packs a punch. (I have a lot of respect for John Brant as a magazine feature writer.) I remember reading it and saying, “I understand why this is important, now.”

To a potentially catastrophic degree, our kids have stopped moving. One quarter of Americans under age 19 are overweight. Worse, approximately 5.3 million kids, or 12 percent of all youths aged 6 to 17, are seriously overweight. What’s more, the percentage of overweight young people has more than doubled in the past 30 years, with most of the increase coming since the late ’70s. Coronary artery disease, already the nation’s number-one killer, will likely skyrocket over the coming decades. As will diabetes, high blood pressure, and other serious “lifestyle” diseases that are associated with being overweight. The bitter fruit of today’s inactivity will almost certainly come to harvest.

“This is an epidemic in the U.S., the likes of which we have not had before in chronic disease,” warns William Dietz, director of nutrition at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Bruce Leonard, a veteran fitness advocate recently retired from the CDC, states the case even more bluntly: “In a few decades, we’re going to learn that for the first time in American history, our children lived shorter and less healthful lives than their parents.”

Posted by pjm at 2:35 PM | Comments (0)

November 20, 2004

Lydiard 3: Drills, springing, bounding, etc.

In my discussion of Arthur Lydiard’s hill training phase, I mentioned the several ways running hills improves a runner’s form, specifically full extension of the foot and toes of the driving leg—essentially, loading more and more work further forward on the foot. This is putting a terrific amount of stress on the arch of the foot, the calf muscles and achilles tendon, the plantar fascia and toe-pointing muscles… in other words, most of the places runners get injured. In the base phase, in addition to developing the aerobic system, we developed some toughness in the connective tissue and muscles. In the hill phase, we built more specific strength around the feet, ankles and knees. (Running myth dissolved, by the way: “running is bad for your knees.” If running is damaging your knees, you have a biomechanical issue which needs to be dealt with; a properly trained runner actually has better knees than a sedentary person, and I’m told there are scientific studies proving it.)

The next phase, which is the one most often left out of a Lydiard-esque training program, is a program of exaggerated drills performed on short hills. We called them “bounding,” Lydiard calls it “springing,” and the core of the drills is something like a high-knees drill performed on a very steep hill. You really have to see it demonstrated to understand what’s going on; no text description will ever do it justice.

We did three basic drills. The first and toughest was the springing drill. We would push off one leg and leap up, pushing hard off the lifting leg and lifting the knee of the lead leg high, as though we were hopping up on a steeplechase barrier or jumping on to a wall or tall step. Coming down, we landed on the lead leg, bent it slightly to absorb the landing, then launched again off that leg. Each stride was like crossing a small stream, but instead of trying to cover ground, we were leaping for altitude; the pace at which we advanced up the hill was actually slower than walking. The emphasis was on fully extending the trail leg and getting a good push off the toes, lifting the lead knee as high as possible. Your legs start burning very early on in this drill; it’s the hardest part of the circuit and it controls how long you keep up the workout. (When you can’t do another one, you don’t.)

It also looks hysterical, especially if it’s a small group of grown men. When our coach showed us the drills, on a strikingly low-traffic road outside Emmaus, he observed that not only did the road have the right hills in the right places for the workout, but it was also off where few people would see us. “The first time I did this,” he said, “I heard a car coming up behind me. When I heard it slowing down, I knew they were rolling down the window, and I expected they would throw something or shout at me.” (One of my training partners was actually beaned by a Gideon Bible thrown from a car window in this area.) “Instead,” he reported, “I heard them singing inside the car: ‘Here comes Peter Cottontail, hopping down the bunny trail…’”

We would bound to the top of a fairly steep hill, and at the top, switch to skipping. This is just what it sounds like, except that here on flat ground, we maintained the emphasis on driving up into the air. Skipping is the same as bounding, except that instead of landing and leaping in one continual motion, we would land on a foot and take a little shuffling bounce on that foot to set up the take-off. For some reason, this made the motion much easier; the temptation, while bounding, was always to shift into a skip.

After skipping for a little while, we shifted into a slow jog which set up a series of three short sprints separated by easy jogs, the first of which was on flat ground, the second down the hill we had just bounded up, and the third down a different, more gradual incline to the base of the hill where we resumed bounding up. We would start with two or three of these circuits, each somewhere on the order of a mile in total, feeling completely trashed at the end, and continue working on them once a week or so (often while still running hills on another day of the week) until four or five started feeling easy. At that point we were strong enough to move on to “true” speed work.

The drills explained at the seminar (happily accompanied by video clips) were similar, but included some others which may be familiar to soccer players and sprinters: high knees drills (running while concentrating on lifting the knee of the lead leg,) high kick drills (where the back-kick after toe-off carries the heel right up to one’s butt,) and others which I don’t remember, all performed largely on a hill.

A lot of coaches, observing the differences between the fastest runners and slower ones, note that faster runners are more likely to spend time on their forefoot than on their heels; many seldom touch their heels to the ground at all, which is why track spikes have minimal cushioning in the heels, and in the forefoot, spike plates designed to maximize the application of force to the track. Unfortunately, plenty of coaches draw the wrong conclusion here, and assume that to run faster, their athletes need to practice running on their toes, not their heels. This is putting the cart before the horse. An athlete with a proper aerobic base, moving through the hill phase and into these drills, is going to naturally move off their heels and more towards their forefoot simply because it’s more efficient, and their body is seeking efficiency. (Our bodies are, for the most part, lazy. If we give them a lot of work to do, and properly structure the work, they will naturally favor the way which gets the work done with the least possible effort. It’s worth noting that the race winner, because they finish first, actually spends the least amount of time running; you might argue that rather than being obsessively dedicated, they are the most successful application of laziness.) In other words, if you train a runner to run faster, they’ll eventually move to a forefoot foot-strike all on their own. I’ve certainly noticed that tendency in myself.

Still on the plane. More to come.

Posted by pjm at 8:11 PM | Comments (3)

Lydiard 2: The Hill Phase

It’s been a little while since I put up the first section of this, covering base training, which is essentially spending a lot of time running at whatever pace is comfortable. The problem with base training (or LSD, as it is sometimes called: Long, Slow Distance,) is that, as one coach put it, “Long, slow distance leads to long, slow runners.” You can get faster just by running a lot, but ultimately the only way to run fast—to “maximize your potential,” as they say now as a concession to the fact that “fast” is relative—is to run fast.

You can’t just jump in from base work, though. Speed training stresses the body differently than distance training. So Lydiard’s system builds in stages of transition, each one building on the stage before. The idea of stages is slightly deceptive; in a way, they blend in to each other. When I was in Pennsylvania, my coach started incorporating hills very early on simply by sending us out on loops designed to hit every climb he could find; the twenty-two mile loop which was the staple of the marathon training season included at least four climbs nearly a mile in length, and over a dozen long enough and steep enough to force a change in pace. That course is a monster, incorporating all of the Phone, tougher even than my twenty-four mile loop into the hilltowns from Northampton.

The thing is, when you run hills a lot, you start getting used to them. The ones that were tough enough that we knew their names, the ones which would drag experienced runners to a walk, became just another boundary to push back after we’d attacked them half-a-dozen times. That was when we got to hill sets.

We ran hill sets the way high school kids do: pick a steep hill, sprint up as hard as possible, jog back down, repeat until your head spins. We would do four to six sets of “short hills” which were thirty-second sprints up a steep hill, then three or four “long hills,” a more involved circuit involving a four-minute charge up a less steep but much longer hill, cresting the hill and continuing on the flat ground, jogging back along the flat ground and sprinting down. (Doing this on a cross-country course was preferred, but low-traffic roads were acceptable in the winter.) This was followed by another set of short hills, then we staggered home.

Lydiard’s hills, as demonstrated in the seminar, are nowhere near as violent; the runner isn’t even trying to run fast, but instead runs fairly easily up a very steep hill, concentrating on lifting their knees well. The incline, in addition to providing increased resistance (the runner is lifting their own weight, as well as pushing it forward) also forces the runner into a different stride: they put more weight on the front of their foot earlier in their stride, and the heel drops more (being lower on the hill) which stretches (and strengthens) the calves and achilles tendon. The runner is also more likely to fully straighten their leg as they push off, which generates a tremendous amount of speed. (Check any photo of a world-class track runner in the middle and long distances in full flight at the end of a race; they’ll have their take-off leg fully extended behind them, to the point where they appear to be balancing on their toes. This is the part of my running stride which plantar fasciitis has taken away from me, and unfortunately I was quite good at it.)

(Much more on form in the next installment.)

Hills are intimidating. They’re hard, when you’re starting out, and there’s a natural inclination to avoid them when you can. I avoided them well into my college years, because I would be feeling tired and beat up some days, and wouldn’t want to take on the extra effort. Eventually, I learned that the hills were, in fact, making me stronger; now, unless I really feel like I need the rest, I will seek out hills wherever I can find them. I mentioned this in my “about the author” tag in my column about the Lydiard seminar, and in response I was sent a draft of a column about hills which is going to appear in the February RW. (If I told you any more about it, I’d have to kill you.) The theme, however, was this: if you make a habit of running up hills wherever you find them, you’ll find yourself getting faster. And, eventually, getting ready for the third phase of drills, which are really hills carried to their logical extreme.

Now playing: The roar of aircraft engines, in flight from Hartford to Chicago. I’ll post this when I have time to check the links.

Posted by pjm at 7:29 PM | Comments (0)

November 19, 2004

This little journalist

(Vague early-90s pop music reference in the title…)

  • The NCAA cross-country preview I mentioned earlier is in today’s RW Daily News. It’s OK, but this meet has the chronic problem that it’s really four races in two, and trying to do that in (roughly) 500 words means you really can’t do it justice. When I read it over at lunch, I was saying to myself, “Yeah, but you left out Matt Gonzales, you didn’t say anything about the Colorado men who could win with a miracle, you never used Dathan Ritzenhein’s full name, you short-changed Chris Solinsky…” On the other hand, last night when I was fact-checking, I pulled up my best two stories from that meet last year, and thought, hey, for me, these aren’t bad. It’s nice when something stands up well a year later.

  • My Lydiard-seminar column ran today as well. I’ve already had a nice e-mail from the tour organizer, who has offered to (eventually) send a printout the presentation he used in the seminar. (Apparently the presentation file is some absurd size, on the order of 20 MB, so it’s not easily hosted on the Web. You’d think someone could figure that out… but, I have more thoughts on that for a later post. Actually, I have at least five more posts mapped out on this topic.) It’s worth quoting my penultimate paragraph here:

If you’re a coach, or if you’ve ever found yourself following a training program without understanding how the pieces fit together, or if you’ve ever written off a training program because it looks like too much work, you owe it to yourself to go to the Five Circles website, click on “Upcoming Events,” and see if any of the remaining seminars is near you. I might add that “in the neighboring state” should count as “near you,” in this case.

  • Earlier this week, in ecto, I put six titles in new post drafts, five of them, hopefully, wrapping up the Lydiard stuff. I hope I can get all the thoughts out in text. With luck, I’ll be able to write some of them up on the plane to Indiana. So I may have things to post, even if I can’t find the time (or connectivity) to actually post them. (Yes, this is relevant to the theme of the post… why do you think I’ll be in Indiana, after all?)

Now Playing: (You’re The Only One) Can Make Me Cry from Concrete Blonde by Concrete Blonde