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Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Great Idea

A recent topic of discussion at Let's Run and on Twitter is the lack of US depth in the (men's) marathon.  Back in 1983, 267 American men ran under 2:20:00 for the distance, but by 2000 there were only 27.  The numbers have rebounded a bit, with 42 last year.  But it remains obvious that depth is sorely lacking.

This has big knock-on effects.  Take last Sunday's New York City marathon.  The east African entries which garnered the most attention--Haile Gebrselassie, James Kwambai and Abel Kirui--didn't do so well.  But the race was still dominated by east Africans because of their superior depth.  It's like the "next man up" mentality of the NFL in that no one has to be the #1 guy in order to get a chance.  They just have to be ready when the opening comes.

In contrast, the USA really only had two contenders, Meb Keflezighi and Dathan Ritzenhein.  The odds of neither of two athletes having one of the best days of their career is very high, and that's exactly what happened.  Last year we had two contenders and one (Meb) did have a career-defining day.  It's simply not going to happen very often, and we should not count on it.

It's clear to me that developing great depth in distance running, both at the marathon distance and shorter, is one part of the path back to the top.  We in America tend to take care of the elites very well and throw the rest to the dogs (and not just in sports, either).  We need a large "minor league" system of road running.

In this month's Running Times, Jonathan Beverly described one way to achieve this while simultaneously building a broad-bassed fan following.  "A League of Their Own: A Modest Proposal for a Meaningful Road Circuit" expounded on one of noted announcer Toni Reavis' ideas.  He suggests a summertime league of actual road running teams, barnstorming the US road circuit from Memorial Day to Labor Day.  It would be a series of eight or so established races, with team standings leading to a championship.

The structure of the league would more or less preclude any stars joining up.  Athletes would have to commit to running all of the races and to putting the team first over their own ambitions.  For a top-level runner, this is a non-starter.  Their years are based around the Diamond League and/or World Marathon Majors, and try to peak for the USATF Championships (to try to make the national team) or Worlds/Olympics (to try to win a medal).  But in any given year, there are maybe two dozen American men and women who fit this description.  And we need a whole lot more than that.

This road-running league would be for the sub-elite, the kind of runner who is just trying to make enough money to stay in the sport long enough to see if he can make the jump (or, knowing that he can't, just wanting to keep running at a high level for as long as he can).  In Kenya, there are literally a thousand runners doing this.  Here we might have fifty men and even fewer women.  By giving a significant number of US runners a guaranteed salary (even if it's tiny) and a lot of racing experience, our depth would explode. 

The teams in this league could be based around existing training groups, like the Bay Area Track Club or Hanson's ODP or the various Team USA squads.  But it wouldn't have to.  If some enterprising group started up and found sufficient sponsorship to survive the season, they could join the league.  Here in Toledo (which is a great place for running), we're already exploring creating a Hansons-type group through our local running shop.

Beverly notes that the road-running circuit goes to second-tier "minor league" markets.  Boulder.  Utica.  Flint.  These are the kinds of places where minor league sports flourish, because there's not a lot of local competition for sport fans' attention.  Benefits could also accrue from basing the teams in minor-league-type cities.  It might even make finding sponsors easier.  For example, a mid-Michigan based team could be sponsored by Michigan Tourism, which would then get its message out to its target market, as runners are generally active outdoorsy-types with disposable income.

So what about the off-season?  We here in Toledo already have an idea.  There are three Kenyan runners who live in our city, all sub-14:00 types, and two of them work at the running shop.  The plans for our racing team, as I currently understand them, would be part Kenyan and part American, training together and learning from each other.  During our harsh winter, the whole group would pack up and go to Kenya for a few months.  There, the Americans would really get their eyes opened.  There's no reason a whole league of American runners couldn't do the same; expenses in Kenya are very low, and the learning and training would be incredible.  You want to be the best?  Don't try to beat the Kenyans--join them!

I've not yet addressed my original topic of marathon depth.  If the road-racing season ended on Labor Day, the runners on these teams could also commit to running a fall marathon.  I don't think going to Chicago or New York would be a good idea.  These "minor league" runners would get lost in the shuffle, and they'd have little to offer the organizers anyway.  Instead, each team might commit to a local regional-level marathon.  Our theoretical mid-Michigan team would run the Detroit International Marathon.  Both the team and the race would benefit from the localized publicity.  Another significant benefit for everyone would be that  locally-known runners would challenge what the press sees as a nameless, faceless parade of Kenyan winners.

Is a summer of road-racing the ideal way to  prepare for a fall marathon?  The conventional wisdom is no.  But that's exactly what both NYC champions did this year, and it's what most Americans did back in the early 80s.

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