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Sunday, March 06, 2011

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

US distance running fortunes continue to rise. The Melbourne Track Classic on Thursday kicked off the IAAF's World Challenge series for 2011, and the highlighted events were the men's 800, 1500 and 5000. There were a bunch of Americans down under for this meet, and the goals were 1:45.40, 3:35.00 and 13:20.00 respectively. The USA got one under the mark in the 800 (plus a near-miss by a significant newcomer), somewhat close in the 1500, and four under the mark in the 5k (plus another near-miss).

Why are those times important? They are the IAAF World Championships 'A' standards, and meeting them is a pre-requisite for making Team USA. For the 2011 Worlds the IAAF's window of time for qualifying opened after the 2010 season ended, whereas it usually includes the previous season. Given that trying to get the mark in the summertime (the deadline is August 8) would add distraction to the task at hand--getting ready for September's Worlds--it's useful to get out of the way now for athletes who think they might have a medal shot.



Nick Symmonds got that 'A' standard in the 800, and it's nice. But it wasn't essential. He doesn't have to be anywhere near his best to run that fast when the outdoor season ramps up. Besides, six of the last eight national championships have been won with a time faster than 1:45.40, so it's doable there by itself.  If he's going to struggle to get a 'A' qualifier, he's not doing anything at the Worlds.

What was a significant development, and more or less out of nowhere, is that Tyler Mulder ran 1:45.73. The 2008 NCAA indoor champion for Northern Iowa has been training with the Eugene arm of the Oregon Track Club since graduation in 2009, and progressed from a PR of 1:46.80 in 2009 to 1:46.32 in 2010. So in this one race he improved as much as he did in the previous two years. It being so early in the season, it's not crazy to think he could progress to sub-1:45.00, and those types aren't easy to come by.

In the 5000 meters, the usual suspects got their A-qualifiers: Lagat (winning, as always, on a final-straightaway sprint), Chris Solinsky, Matt Tegenkamp. All have run sub-13:00 in recent years and are considered some of the few non-East Africans who can compete with them. The Aussies now might have another to add to that total in Ben St. Lawrence, who hung with Lagat until the end. He has made a stunning turnaround, as five years ago he was a party animal who had given up on serious running, and on Thursday he took 16 seconds off his PR to run 13:10.

From an American perspective, the surprise was Andrew Bumbalough, who ran 13:16.77 to also get an 'A' qualifier. "Bumbi" was a great talent who always seemed to have something go wrong. He ran 8:49 for two miles as a high school junior, the 5th fastest ever for 11th graders, but was slowed by injury as a senior. He did some good things from time to time in college at Georgetown but got hit with mono during the winter of his senior year (2010) and still managed to get 3rd at the USATF Championships. In the fall he joined up with Jerry Schumacher's arm of the Oregon TC, and the talent is finally beginning to show itself.

Combined with Galen Rupp's indoor 13:11 of a few weeks ago, the USA now has five men under 13:20 and it's only the first week of March. Our high water marks for a whole season are 8 (in 2007) and 7 (in 2005). Tim Nelson was a near-miss in Melbourne, and based on form of the last year or two it's only a matter of time before he hits it. Others who I think are likely to do it as well are Bobby Curtis, Ed Moran, Brent Vaughn, Ben Bruce and (if he returns to the track) Dathan Ritzenhein. And there might be someone else who comes out of the woodwork.

But what about what we don't have? No one yet has the 'A' standard in the 1500 or 10k. Rupp went to Christchurch to run a 10k, and would have almost assuredly made the standard of 27:40.00, but nature intervened and he returned to the USA. This might be a problem (more on that later).

The 1500 is a horse of another color. Asbel Kiprop ran on Thursday and he didn't get the 'A' standard of 3:35.00. It's really tough to do anywhere but in a professionally-rabbitted Diamond League race. Fortunately we have one of those in Eugene on June 4, and the major US players of Andrew Wheating, Lopez Lomong, and Leonel Manzano, all with PRs ranging from 3:30 to 3:32, shouldn't have too much trouble getting it there. Besides, the peaking aspect of running the 1500 is significantly different from that of the 5k or 10k--otherwise one or more of those three would have made the trip down under. Obviously their coaches think getting an early qualifier is not important in the grand scheme of things.

So the USA already has six men with 2011 IAAF 'A' qualifiers. Here's how it has been in the past.

Year
Sub-1:45.40
Sub-3:35.00
Sub-8:23.10
Sub-13:20.00
Sub-27:40.00

Total
2010
5
5
2
4
4
20
2009
2
3
2
6
4
17
2008
4
1
5
3
2
15
2007
4
3
4
8
2
21
2006
2
2
3
5
4
16
2005
4
3
4
7
1
19
2004
4
2
4
2
4
16
2003
2
0
1
0
0
3
2002
3
1
3
0
1
7
2001
2
2
3
2
2
11
2000
4
1
4
2
0
11
1999
6
2
3
3
2
16
So we've gotten somewhere. And I think we'll be better in 2011 than ever before. But does depth, by itself, mean anything? By itself, no. It has a knock-on effect, though. For one, aging stars eventually need to be replaced. Despite all appearances to the contrary, Lagat cannot hang on forever. For another, it changes the perception of what's "good". Let's not forget that as of 2005, Ryan Hall was a (barely) sub-13:20 runner who had an undistinguished run at the Worlds. He's a household name and face now because he moved to the longer races. Whatever his motivations, it was clear then (as it is now) that a 13:16 runner will not win any national titles on the track, and probably not even make a national team. That was not the case ten years ago.

Everyone is running the New York City Half Marathon. Earlier in the year it was announced that Abdi Abdirahman, Meb Keflezighi and Ryan Hall would all run the March 20 race. Then on Wednesday Galen Rupp threw his hat in the ring. And on Saturday Mo Farah joined the party as well. It's gotten to the point that a couple of smart-alecks asked when I'd announce my entry.

At the same press conference announcing Rupp's entry, we found out a bit more about the breakup of the Oregon Track Club moniker. There are three training groups that have used the name, one in Eugene and two in Portland, and the only thing they really had in common was location and sponsorship. The Eugene group has actual connections to the Oregon Track Club proper, a group somewhat akin to a combination of a civic organization and local running club, but the other two not so much.  From Let's Run:
"The decision was made by Nike in this last few months to half year that Nike really wants to tell the story of different training groups, and authentic training groups and their stories. Jerry's and my group are definitely different. We both train out of the Nike campus, but he could just as well or I could just as well be in another state. They are a totally separate group," said Salazar.


"So truly what it comes down to is Nike wants to promote these different running tribes sort of that are out there. And rather than having everybody have the same name, I think it's much more effective [to have different names]. To me it's always been boring. I've argued with Nike for 30 years over having a race [like] the Pre Classic and having 9 of the 12 guys all running the exact same jersey and they're from nine different countries. I get the idea that they want to sell the Nike brand, but I think if we could do it in a more diverse way would be more interesting. So that is the challenge."
In short: corporate has always believed blanket coverage with Nike uniforms is the goal, but has been convinced that it's too boring and thus counterproductive in the long term.

The other thing we got out of the press conference is very interesting indeed. There will likely be "a very fast 10,000 in Eugene" in conjunction with the Prefontaine Classic, but held the night before. Schumacher's group would likely run in it, but not Rupp.

Which begs the question: when will Rupp get a Worlds 'A' qualifier in the 10k? The obvious choice in domestic competition is at Stanford's Cardinal Invitational on April 30. But that's not fitting the originally-described plan for the year for Rupp, where he'd have a serious February and then stay away from racing until the real outdoor season begins. The NYC Half has eaten away three weeks on one end of that planned racing break, and Stanford would eat away several weeks on the other. Trying to get the 'A' standard at the USATF Championships is not likely either, as sub-27:40 has only been done twice in the entire history of the meet (2004 by Meb Keflezighi, 1979 by Craig Virgin). So the plan must be to go for it post-Nationals. That's not as easy as it sounds, as high-quality invitational track 10ks are truly rare these days.

Hayward Field is likely to undergo some changes. Oregon head coach Vin Lananna is also Oregon's "associate director of athletics for Olympic development and promotions", and that's a big job in Eugene. In an article in today's Register-Guard, the always-ambitious Lananna laid out ambitious plans: chairbacks on the west (homestretch) grandstand, expanded restroom and concessions facilities, and permanent seating on the south (finish line) end of the stadium. In other words, a more professional facility. Upgrading sports facilities is always a tussle between the modern and the traditional, but it looks like they're doing it right here; nothing was said about changing the east (backstretch) stands, the old wood structure whose image is inseparable from Track Town USA.

The other big change Lananna wants is an indoor track facility. It doesn't sound like a behemoth like Arkansas' Tyson Track Center or Texas A&M's Gilliam Indoor Stadium is what they're looking at, as Lananna said "I expect it to be commensurate with facilities that would accommodate a great meet, but it has to serve other purposes and it would have to be embraced by the greater community". The location is planned to be somewhere behind the west grandstand, an area currently housing two artificial turf fields, the student rec center, and several tennis courts.

Reading between the lines of the article tells us something else. Lananna's contract with Oregon lasts through 2014. The upgraded facilities are planned to be completed by 2014. Eugene wants to host the World Junior Championships in 2014. If Lananna has any plans to leave Oregon, for another job or for retirement, it isn't going to happen any time in the next three years, but after that it's entirely possible.  There have been rumors about Lananna as the next USATF CEO, and the only way I could see him taking it is if he'd had a lobotomy.  The timetable set out here only underscores that.

The USA lost a good one.  Tiffany Ofili, a former Ypsilanti (MI) High School and University of Michigan star, has dual US and UK citizenship, which allowed her the option to switch to representing Great Britain in international competition.  She make that switch last fall, at a time when her PRs were 12.73 (100 hurdles) and 7.94 (60 hurdles).  Yesterday she took that 60H PR all the way down to 7.80, taking silver at the European Indoor Championships and just centimeters away from gold.  This suggests she may be able to break 12.60 when the outdoor season comes along, which would be maybe top ten in the world.  Her improvement at the Euros is amazing, as her old indoor PR stood from 2008.

Until this weekend I didn't think Ofili stood much of a chance of helping Team USA at a Worlds or Olympics.  I still don't think she's a medal threat, but if she keeps improving she might prove me wrong.  I presumed she made the switch because she'd be a shoo-in for a spot on any British team, whereas getting on a US team would be much more difficult.  But in an interview this week when asked why she made the switch, she said "It was really apparent the support athletes get from the coaches and staff here. I found that very attractive and appealing and wanted to be part of it." If that's even mostly true, it's pretty damning. USATF President Stephanie Hightower said in her annual State of the Sport address that "the athletes are why we are here". Maybe, maybe not.

Yelena Isinbayeva has company.  Until last year, Isi was one of only three vaulters to ever go over 4.85 meters, the others being Jen Suhr and Svetlana Feofanova.  Feofanova hasn't done it since 2004, though, and Suhr has had some significant injury problems.  But now Suhr appears to have that ironed out, hitting 4.86 this winter, and last summer Fabiana Murer also got up to 4.85.  And then today at the European Indoor Championships, Poland's Anna Rogowska joined the club.  Isi missed the meet with the flu, and there's no way to tell how she would have done.  But if she doesn't get back up into 5-meter form, she could be beaten.

Teddy Tamgho is the next big thing.  Today at the Euros, the Frenchman broke the indoor triple jump world record with 17.92 meters.  The old record?  17.91, by Tamgho, this year.  Before that? 17.90, by Tamgho, last year.  How about outdoors?  Jonathan Edwards' 18.29 is still a long way off, but Tamgho did hit 17.98 in New York last year.  Edwards' mark, considered almost Beamon-like at the time it was set, might be in play at some point.  Tamgho has beaten 17.90 four times now, to Edwards' six.  Kenny Harrison is the only other man to have done it more than once.  Consider this: when Edwards had his breakout year in 1995, he was 29 years old.  Harrison's first trip past 17.90 happened when he was 25.  Tamgho is only 21.  Yikes.

Track is missing out on the hate.  Yesterday Joe Posnanski wrote an excellent column titled The Joy of Rooting Against Lebron and how really disliking King James has made him love the NBA again.  In it he details the idea of "Clemenating", meaning "to hate an athlete (or a team) in an entirely healthy, fun sports way (rather than hating them in a crazed, stalking, loaded gun, insane sort of way)". Bill Simmons calls it sports hate.

We all have this. As a Detroit Pistons fan, it is my solemn duty to Clemenate the Bulls. Coming from the blue-collar Rust Belt, it's pretty much the same for the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees. I remember Clemenating Ivan Lendl back in the day, and the Miami Hurricanes, and I know lots of people who just despise Sidney Crosby (for me: in Pittsburgh jersey yes, in Canada jersey no).  NASCAR pretty much runs on Clemenation, where it's more important to see the driver you despise have a bad race than to see your guy have a good one.

I became really motivated in cross country when I got to high school because of Clemenating other teams. My junior high team was in an all-public school league and we dominated. Boring. But my high school was in an unusual league which combines public and private schools, and private schools (which I imagined being filled with nothing but wealthy kids who looked down on us, and in truth there were more than one or two) ruled the league in distance running. That really chapped my ass.

As a track fan, I used to Clemenate some athletes. All the Soviets, every one. Ben Johnson. The 1996 USA men's 4x100 relay team. I didn't care so much for Mary Decker/Slaney/Tabb/whatever. But my greatest vile was reserved for Said Aouita. I don't even remember how it started, but I thought he was an arrogant prick. When I saw him run at the Cleveland K of C indoor meet, my seats were looking straight down onto the track and I thought "I could spit on him right here". I really had to hold back from doing it.

These days there are athletes and coaches for whom I have some desire to see...well, maybe not failure, but not living up to the hype. We would be wise to build rivalries. Jamaica already has one, MVP versus Racers. Maybe the two Portland-based arms of the Oregon Track Club. College track really should have some Clemenating, and there is some if you hang out online in the wrong places. But the programs themselves don't build up rivalries like they should, as in football and basketball. I mean, think about what kind of fan base even a juggernaut like Ohio State football would be without its hate for Michigan.

The magic ingredient isn't doping, it isn't illegal, and anyone can get it.  The Florida Gators have it.  A week ago they put it to use at the SEC Championships.  The Arkansas Razorbacks threw everything they had at the Gators, running a fantastic meet top to bottom.  But every single time, the Gators came back with the best they had, and ended up winning the meet.  Sprinter Terrell Wilks had the secret to their success.
Having fun?

Senior Florida sprinter Terrell Wilks (New Haven, Conn.) wants to make sure that you are.
...
Wilks, who in many ways serves as the emotional leader of the UF track and field team, knows that the Gators are stocked with talent, but is also aware that talent alone won’t get the job done. In addition to hard work, a love of sport is also essential to being the best at one’s respective event.
...
“A year ago, me and Christian Taylor talked, and he was having a hard time with the long jump,” Wilks said. “He had fouled on a lot of jumps and I said to him, ‘Are you having fun doing this?’
...
“I told him the day you stop having fun in the sport, it’s time to hang it up. And he’s definitely not one to hang anything up. I told him, just go out and have fun and don’t think about anything.”

Shortly after that conversation, at the 2010 SEC Indoor Championships, Taylor placed third at the conference meet in the long jump with a season-best leap of 7.79m/25-6.75, which qualified him for the NCAA Indoor Championships.

“Ever since then, it’s just been something between me and him,” Wilks said. “The past couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about it with the team – making sure we’ve been having fun. We got the shirts made with the smiley face on them – you can’t go wrong with the smiley face.

“On the back, it says ‘Having Fun?’ Because if you have to question that, you need to tighten up.”

Minutes after Florida had won the 2011 SEC Indoor Championship – its first at that event since 2004 – the team came on the track to accept the team trophy with many of its members wearing the new shirts.

Asked at that point, if he had fun competing at the SEC Indoor Championships, Wilks’ response was no surprise.

“I had a great time.”
I have more and more come to believe that enjoying what you do is the key. It is nearly impossible for most people to keep high levels of motivation going for years and years without it. You either need a competitive drive that borders on psychosis (example A: Michael Jordan), which is exceedingly rare, or you must, on some level, really enjoy what you do.

Winning is fun. Success is fun. Great workouts and accolades are fun. But those don't last forever. There will be down times for everyone, and unless you're like Jordan or Paavo Nurmi and thrive on hating the world, only fun will keep the pressure off.

The flip side of this lesson came out this week in the story of Josh McDougal, who a few years ago was one of America's most promising young runners. He was one of those self-motivated hard-working guys who drove himself into being the best. But those tough times did come, and his story in Running Times indicates he's pretty much done with running competitively. His running was always about achievement and when that went away for a long time, it was over.

Coaches aren't very good at promoting fun. Coaches are notorious for being control freaks, possibly even having a God complex, and anyway building that kind of fun into every day isn't what people expect from an authority figure. I've been no different as an athlete or a coach. I busted my tail like nobody's business for five years straight, but when I was done with it I was done.

So whatever you do, take the right attitude.  Last night we had another snowstorm.  But I went out in it, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts and flip-flops, to a "beach party" with margeritas and Jimmy Buffet music.  Better to light a lamp then curse the darkness.

2 comments:

Benjamin said...

http://www.iaaf.org/statistics/standards/newsid=59045.html

This document indicates that the qualification window for the 10,000m opened nine months prior to the window for most other events - meaning that anyone who ran under 27:40 in the calendar year 2010 has their Daegu standard in hand already. Or am I missing something?

The Track & Field Superfan said...

You are correct, sir. I read 1 January 2010 for the 10,000m, Marathon, Combined Events, Race Walks and Relays and forgot what year it is...duh.

Thus the USA has four eligible for the Worlds, plus anyone else who breaks 27:40 this year. New rules allow for a 'B' qualifier to add on to one or two 'A' qualifiers -- but strangely enough we don't have any of those (yet).