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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

The UCLA-Oregon dual meet will continue. Vin Lanana was quoted as saying "On our end, we would like to have this meet. But we want to have it here, and I don’t know if that’s fair to ask a team to come up here year in and year out...I don’t think we have an interest in going down to L.A." But then later in the same story he indicated the Ducks would travel if UCLA's women agreed to compete. "Maybe if that’s what we’re doing in L.A., I would rethink that." Also notable (at least to me) was that UCLA gets a financial guarantee for the meet, something probably only Oregon can do. As for the meet itself, it was expected to be a tossup but Oregon ended up winning easily.

Texas' men's team is improved. They spanked SEC indoor champions Arkansas 122-76.

USATF has earned some respect. In two different stories, the organization has been shown in a positive light. The Mary Wittenberg whinefest published at Universal Sports earlier in the week basically came down to the NYRRC expecting special treatment from USATF in its Olympic Trials bid whereas they got equal treatment (which is why they lost). And in a Philadelphia Enquirer article about Usain Bolt's appearance at the Penn Relays, meet director Dave Johnson said "USA Track and Field and Nike deserve an awful lot of credit for pulling this together and handling the logistics." Even-handed and competent, both in the same week. Change you can believe in!

The Kansas Relays secret isn't anything special. One of the few success stories of the last decade in domestic track meets is the Kansas Relays. In the 90s it was basically irrelevant and the attendance was minimal. Now it's risen from the ashes and attracts crowds only exceeded by the Jim Ryun years. The secret? They promote the hell out of it. They created headlines with their Bill Veeck-like Vaulting For Dollars competition. Just like every other sports team in the country does once a year, the Jayhawks wore special pink breast-cancer-awareness uniforms at the Relays. And while other weekend meets achieved more world-leading times and arguably had better lineups, the Kansas Relays was the only one that got an Associated Press writeup--which means it was distributed to hundreds of local newspapers and the ESPN and Sports Illustrated websites. These guys hustle, and it shows.

Tyson Gay could make the sprints even more interesting. He opened up his season at the Tom Jones Memorial Classic with a huge 400m PR of 44.89, leaving Renny Quow, last year's Worlds 400m bronze medalist, 0.45 seconds in arrears. Last year he started up at the same meet about a second and a half slower and had one of the great sprint seasons of all time, albeit almost unnoticed in the shadow of Usain Bolt.

Now that Gay appears to be fully recovered from his injuries of the last two years, could he actually be a threat to Bolt? If so, I can say without hyperbole that it would be the best thing to happen to track & field in the USA since 1962 if not longer.

Maybe Ryan Hall actually has a chance tomorrow. His recent racing leaves me underwhelmed, and his coach Terrence Mahon can piss on my leg all he wants but I'll still know it's not raining. But there's one tiny glimmer of hope: he's spent the last month living and training in Boston.

Now here's the thing about Boston: the course is tricky. The type of hills and their locations are almost perfectly suited for leading astray the best laid plans. In distance running you don' have to know what you're doing if just plain better than everyone else, but if the competitive level is close then you have to have some kind of advantage. The reason no American man has won in Boston since 1983 is because since then all the top US runners have abandoned their inherent advantage of being able to train on the Boston Marathon course.

Pretty much ever since WWII ended there have been a lot of foreign elites coming to Boston. As there were more foreign elites than domestic ones, and they tended to be on average better runners, they won more often, with American men winning only ten of the last 64 races. With a few notable exceptions, those US winners had a huge advantage over their foreign counterparts in that they trained extensively on the Boston course.

The last US male champion, Greg Meyer, was a member of the Greater Boston Track Club at the time and did nearly all of his long runs on the course. The previous year's champion, Alberto Salazar, was based on the west coast but had trained with the GBTC on the course as a teenager and also fit into the "just plain better than anyone else" category. But he nearly got beaten by in the famous Duel in the Sun by a less-talented but better-prepared Dick Beardsley, who lived and trained in Boston at the time. Going back further, "Boston Billy" Rodgers won four times in his adopted hometown and knew every inch of the course forwards and backwards, and Johnny Kelley similarly lived and trained in Boston in the years leading up to his victory. Amby Burfoot lived in Connecticut but had trained on the course some before his win. The only two exceptions to the rule were Jon Anderson in '73 and Jack Fultz in '76. The latter can be discounted because all the normal rules went out the window in the '76 100-degree "Run for the Hoses", and the former could be placed into the "just plain better than everyone else" category.

But look at how things have changed in the openly professional era. No pro distance runner is going to choose to live and train in Boston for the whole winter, as the unpredictable weather can seriously impact training (which is the runner's very livelihood). And so every year most of our elites go to other better-paying races, leaving only one or two of our best to line up against a dozen Kenyans and Ethiopians. Many of those foreigners may run foolishly and blow up, but a few are going to run the hills just well enough to beat all the Americans. Last year was the best example of this, in both the men's and women's races.

If an American makes it his (or her) lone goal to win Boston and become someone who will be remembered for generations, he can. But he must commit to it fully, and live in Boston from Halloween to Patriot's Day for several years in a row. Tell me when you see a top pro doing that, and I'll call up the bookie and wager my retirement savings. Until then, it's going to be an uphill battle.

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