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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

NPR and Marathoning

Serious competitive marathoning was on NPR at length today. The second half of On Point with Tom Ashbrook was titled "US Runners and Marathon Challenges".

The guests were Jennifer Kahn, who authored the recent New Yorker piece on Alberto Salazar's new fanaticism with running form; Scott Douglas, senior editor at Running Times; Jeremy Rasmussen, Illinois women's cross country coach; and Bill Rodgers.

The program is interesting and worth listening to. I would argue with lots of little points made by Kahn (who was more or less speaking for Salazar); for one, the idea that American distance runners have never looked carefully after running form, as it makes up the bulk of training manuals published prior to 1960 or so.

Between the two guests knowledgable about running (Rasmussen and Douglas), they as gently as possible pooh-poohed the idea that technique is a significant factor in distance racing.  Douglas referred to Salazar as "your weird uncle". A stronger attitude was expressed as an online comment:
Expecting that changing a runner’s form would cause a great improvement in racing is wishful thinking like hoping to find an island of flightless birds just waiting for a coach to teach them how to fly.
This comes from Tom Derderian, head coach of the Greater Boston Track Club and the man who literally wrote the book on the Boston Marathon. His opinion should not be taken lightly.

But here's the basic point I take away from the New Yorker piece.  Salazar points to Kenenisa Bekele and says he runs fast because he has a high back-kick.  Is it not equally possible that Bekele has a high back kick because he runs fast?  This is not a rhetorical question.  Which side you take tells a lot about how you approach the issue of running technique.

Another Salazar story, an interview with Sports Illustrated's David Epstein published just before the NYC Marathon, gave me pause.  Salazar here is speaking about why he should rework the form of an experienced and accomplished runner.
There are certain ways to swing a baseball bat. If you take a guy out of college, he could be the best hitter in the NCAA World Series in Omaha and have a .450 average, and he may have a particular swing. Does anybody think that when a major league team drafts him, if he doesn't have a swing the way they want it that they're going to say, 'well, we're not going to change it because he was already hitting .450?' No, they know that with that swing he's not going to be able to get around fast enough on a fastball, or to get to a curveball, and they change it ...
Anyone with much knowledge of baseball knows this is bullshit.

Getting back to the radio show, a caller asked about whether genetics and race are such a large factor that Americans and other (white) people are destined to lag behind the Africans.  This is a typically American attitude, that people are pre-sorted into groups and this groups is blessed and that group is damned.  It's how we do things in this country.  It's also been applied to running before, back when the Finns dominated running and genetic explanations abounded.  No one believes Finns are genetically superior now, because Finnish are decidedly average these days, and 100 years from now the same might be true for east African runners.  It's a mistake of basic logic to assume that the way things are now is the natural and unchangable order of things.

Ashbrook at one point pressed Rodgers about whether high-tech gadgets like Alter-G treadmills and cryosaunas are the answer.  This is the real problem with the American outlook.  We think wealth is an advantage.  If wealth were an advantage, Kenya and Ethiopia would not be at the top.  There are a thousand ways in which our wealth makes us worse at running, from pavement (which is at the heart of the difference in running styles) to obesity to pollution to cost of living (which makes us look at most road race prize money as modest month's income rather than a good year's wages).  It may be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to take the tape in a marathon.

I have my own theories about why Kenya and Ethiopia dominate running.  Mostly it comes down to that a few prominent national heroes, namely Keino and Bikila, made them the only nations on earth where distance running is the second most-popular sport; that their high elevation combined with equitorial location makes for year-round temperate weather well suited for running; and that they have (usually) escaped the all-too-common African malnourishment that precludes high-level training.  Note that during its Communist/famine period, Ethiopian running basically produced no new runners of note.

Bill Rodgers, to his great credit, said the solutions are simple.  We need a ton of people running seriously, we need talented ones, and we need people training in groups like the Kenyans and Ethiopians do now and (not coincidentally) like Americans did in the 70s and early 80s.  And we need time.  The Africans have been doing this for 40 years, and we've been doing (again) it for maybe five.  Nothing happens quickly in distance running.

1 comment:

Martin said...

I couldn't agree more with your comments. In fact, I always felt it was a bit racist to assume Kenya and Ethiopians dominated the distance events because of their race, as most people assume. As you point out, the dominance is likely due to a number of other factors. Yet rather than admit they may train better than us and have a culture that cultivates elite distance runners (rather than casual runners), most Americans just take the easy way out basically say the only reason they have success is because of their race, not their hard work or anything else. The same is said of Jamaicans in the sprints.

If you look at other events or sports that are dominated by other white athletes (or non-Black athletes), these arguments are not made. Most people think countries like Hungary are better hammer throwers because they start younger and have better coaching. The Finns are good at javelin and Brazilians good at soccer because it is in their culture. No one claims would dare say "Oh, that Brazilian is only good because it's in his blood."