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Friday, February 19, 2010

Stunning...not so much

I have an iPhone (which is amongst humanities greatest inventions) and every morning just about the first thing I do is read through my RSS feed of track & running news. So by 6:30 this morning I had read all about the Ras Al Kaimah half marathon.

The headlines trumpeted Elvan Abeylegesse's win, the fastest-ever debut at the half marathon distance. I was less than surprised; an athlete with her abilities would either have won, or blown up. Consdiering that the pace went out slow, it was perfect for her.

Abeylegesse, more than most athletes, exposes why the eastern Africans dominate distance running. Unlike most of the others, she started in middle distances and still competes in them from time to time. Her 1500m best is 3:58.28. How good is that? Better than Anna Willard, last year's #1-ranked half miler, or Shannon Rowbury, last year's Worlds bronze medalist at the distance. And she's now running the half marathon and planning a transition to the marathon.

Yet Abeylegesse moved to the 5000 and 10,000 relatively quickly. Maybe she knew it was unlikely she could compete for a World or Olympic medal in the 1500. More likely, as an Ethiopian she saw the longer distances as the glamour events.

The recent Boston Indoor Games saw Ethiopia's B-level runners outkick Rowbury at 3000 meters. Abeylegesse is faster than they are, and Tiru Dibaba and Meseret Defar are a lot faster than any of them. And by this I mean pure sprint speed; all of them have the speed necessary to compete with the best in the world at the middle distances, yet they choose to run further.

The ability to run long distances fast is, for the most part, highly correlated to the ability to run short distances fast. This is not a new observation. Gordon Pirie said so in the 1950s, as did Arthur Lydiard in the 1960s and 70s. It's not that any decent sprinter can become a great distance runner--the ability to develop endurance must also be present--but there are probably a lot of US quarter-milers flailing about at the wrong things.

I had a high school teammate who ran 48.2 as a junior, but we were pretty deep in the sprints and at the state level he was up against guys like Chris Nelloms and Robert Smith, and our visionary coach moved him to the 800 and 1600. It suited him well, but nothing ever happened at a larger level because he was too much of a knucklehead. But he was more talented at middle-distance running than another guy I ran with, Todd Black (who ran 1:46.00); this guy had the physical talents to be an Olympian and make a difference when he was there.

The problem in the USA is that we believe athletes only take up distances if they can't compete in the sprints, and long distances only if they can't compete in the middle distances. It's not surprising when you realize our developmental levels of middle and high schools and colleges reward scoring a lot of points through multiple events and relays. A coach of a kid who can run 49.0 multiple times in a day plus maybe 4x200 and/or 4x800 legs would have to be nuts to ask him to run only the 1600 and 3200, unless he had the "big points" vision of a state championship meet.

Compare this to the club-type atmosphere in Kenya or Ethiopia. In Kenya, kids wonder why you'd want to run sprints when you can run the middle distances. In Ethiopia, kids wonder why you can run middle distances when you can run long distances.

Our approach isn't a problem as long as people are willing to move up once their school days are over. We're going back to that approach, as we once did in the 1970s, and our results are showing it. But they're being too tentative, and we're not going to have a World or Olympic champion until someone with major-league wheels takes to the long races.

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