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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

Shalane Flanagan has made a huge step up. Three years ago she won an Olympic bronze medal in the 10,000 meters. Today she won a bronze medal at the World Cross Country Championships. How is this a huge step up?

First of all, Flanagan was not in contention for silver at the Beijing Olympics but she had a shot at silver today. From Let's Run:
At the bell with one 2km loop left, the front pack contained four Kenyans in front [Vivian Cheruiyot and Linet Masai]...then two Ethiopians one second back...and definite separation to Flanagan two seconds back in 7th. Flanagan was heading in the wrong direction... Surely her day was over, right?

Think again.

...Cheruiyot and Masai continued to pull away from the field as expected with a gap to [Meselech] Melkamu in third... A bigger gap opened up to the chasers behind Melkamu which all of a sudden was led by Flanagan.

Flanagan was now rolling in the right direction. Could she catch Melkamu? Yes, no problem. Flanagan passed Melkamu going over the log barriers 22 minutes into the race. Would Shalane hold on the final kilometer for the bronze?

Up front Cheruiyot was starting to pull away from Masai... Now however Flanagan was closing on Masai fast. Seemingly out of the medals with a lap to go, could she catch Masai and get silver?

No. There wasn't enough distance left. Cheruiyot crossed the line first with the impressive gold, Masai got a well-deserved but bittersweet silver seven seconds back, and Flanagan, three more seconds back got the bronze.
Impressive running from behind.

More importantly, though, this is a tougher race than any Olympic race. The World Cross Country Championships are sometimes called "The Toughest Race in the World". This doesn't refer to the challenge of running it--there are many races out there which are physically more taxing--but to the difficulty of winning it.

At a Worlds or Olympics, the distance running talent tends to get split between the 5k, 10k and steeplechase. At the World Cross Country, all of them are put into the same race, plus a few top milers and marathoners. Today's winner is the defending Worlds 5k champ, and second was the defending Worlds 10k champ. In winning the bronze medal today, Flanagan beat the following athletes:

*Meselech Melkamu (Ethiopia), 29:53.70 PR
*Wude Alayew (Ethiopia), 30:11.87 PR and 2009 Worlds 10k bronze medalist
*Priscah Cherono (Kenya), 14:35.30 PR
*Pauline Korikwiang (Kenya), 2006 World Junior Championships silver medalist
*Lineth Chepkerui (Kenya), 30:45 road 10k PR
*Genzebe Dibaba (Ethiopia), 4:04.80 PR and 3-time World Junior Champion
*Silvia Kibet (Kenya), 14:31.91/30:47.20 PRs and 2009 Worlds 5k silver medalist

Today Flan beat a bunch of people who were, until today, better than her. The only two she couldn't get have been head and shoulders above the rest of the world for the last two years.

As for the rest of Team USA, they ran very well. 5k AR holder (for now) Molly Huddle ran 17th, Olympic marathoner Magda Lewy-Boulet ran 18th, and veteran jack-of-all-trades Blake Russell was 18th. First-year pro Lisa Koll struggled home in 40th. None of them beat any major players (Kenyans or Ethiopians) but yielded to hardly anyone else, and the team came home with a bronze.

The men for Team USA didn't do so well, coming home in tenth. Those who came up big at the USATF Championships, Brent Vaughn and Andrew Bumbalough, ran especially poorly, but even if they had done well the team probably couldn't have been better than seventh. The Americans brought as close to an "A" team as possible on the women's side, but on the men's side it might be charitable to call this a "B" team.

And that's how it's going to be; it would take a major effort, and a major disruption of their seasons plans, for Team USA's men to even come home with a medal. Besides the 800-pound gorillas of Kenya and Ethiopia, Uganda, Eritrea and South Africa are major players in the men's competition (but not in the women's). South Africa's lead runner, Stephen Mokoka, astoundingly ran both a 3:38 1500 and a 2:08 marathon last year. And he came home in 15th place. That's the kind of athletes the African teams who can't medal bring to this race. The mind boggles.

Galen Rupp just might move to the marathon next year. Today he ran an excellent 60:30 for third place at the New York City Half Marathon. That's fifth on the all-time US list, and third if you discount downhill courses. The New York course isn't the fastest around, either, as a significant portion of the course is in hilly Central Park.

The time, though, isn't what's impressive. It's that he was just five seconds behind 2010 NYC Marathon champ Gebre Gebremariam. As is Rupp's habit, he was able to stay with the leaders until the race to the finish began, some 200 meters out.

Earlier this week, a interview with Rupp's coach Alberto Salazar seemed to indicate that today's half-marathon debut was part of a larger plan for Rupp. It sounded as though, if things went well, that Rupp would enter next January's Olympic Trials marathon. And it certainly did go well for Rupp.

The marathon fits Rupp's abilities. Today, he and Gebremariam both got outkicked by Rupp's new teammate, Mo Farah. Rupp has also failed to kick past Farah in 3k and 5k races, so it seems unlikely he could do so in a track 10k. And Farah himself isn't known as a big kicker when compared to the top guys in the world. If there are several people still with Rupp with 400 meters to go, he's not going to beat them. Thus he's got little to no chance to win a Worlds or Olympic medal on the track.

In the marathon, that weakness isn't an issue. If you get beat late in a marathon, it's nearly always for reasons other than a lack pure 100-meter sprint speed. Being a seasoned track racer, as Rupp is now, is a huge advantage in marathoning, especially in unrabbited championship races like the Worlds and Olympics. This is because no midrace surge is fast enough to kill off a guy who's been trying to break 13:00 for the 5k, nor frightening enough to cause him to stupidly shadow it step-for-step.

This also shows us another reason why Houston was the right choice to host the 2012 Olympic Trials marathons instead of New York or Boston: the date. A January Trials race gives track-oriented athletes like Rupp or Flanagan ample time to prepare for and recover from the race without impacting their summer track seasons. Should they blow up at the Trials, they'll still have a second shot at the US team on the track. And if they do run well and finish in the top 3, they can still decline an Olympic spot if they wish. It gives more different athletes, and therefore Team USA, more options to get the best athletes on the team and into their best events.

Speaking of American marathoners... The women are in good shape, and the men are not.

Today, Flanagan looked like someone who could win a big-time marathon, possibly even the Olympics. Kara Goucher continued her post-baby improvement, running a good 1:09:03 for third at the NYC Half, just three seconds behind defending NYC Marathon champ Edna Kiplagat. Over in LA, Amy Hastings moved into the all-time US top ten with a second-place 2:27:03.

We are definitely in need of a new generation of American men's marathoners, though. Ritzenhein just released a blog post about surgery on one Achilles tendon and a neuroma on the opposite foot.

The rest of America's big names raced in New York today and did not do well. Meb Keflezighi was 15th in 1:02:52, and seeing as how most of his greatest moments are some seven or eight years in arrears I don't expect huge things in his future. Abdi Abdirahman, in the same boat but whose peaks have never been as high as Meb's, ran 1:03:12 for 19th.

EDIT: apparently Meb had a run-in with a dog on Thursday and tweaked his knee.

And Ryan Hall put up yet another subpar race, with 1:03:53 for 21st. Since last fall I have given him the benefit of the doubt, thinking that maybe his move to training himself by divine inspiration was being crazy like a fox. But it now I think he's just batshit crazy.

Three was the weekend's number for US-based track.  Shalane Flanagan was third at the World Cross Country Championships, as were the women of Team USA.  Galen Rupp and Kara Goucher were third at the New York City Marathon.  Three men's meet records and three women's meet records were broken at the Oregon Preview.

Notable at that meet was a sixth-place finish in the men's javelin.  Among the Oregon rookies and the rank-and-file small-college athletes entered in Hayward Field's season opener were scattered a few Oregon-based pros.  Sixth hardly seems notable.  But that sixth-place finish was by Ashton Eaton, who has been a terrible thrower.  His old PR in the javelin was 53.70 meters, and yesterday he threw 56.59.  This on only one throw, in wet and windy conditions, and with a short runup of only six steps or so.

This still isn't a good javelin throw, even by decathlete standards.  Eaton is pursuing a decathlon World Championship this summer, but it should be noted that only once has it been won with a javelin mark of less than 60 meters (Torsten Voss in 1987).  He's going to have to keep on getting better.

On the other hand, yesterday's conditions indicated there's a lot more improvement available.  And Eaton is not an ordinary decathlete in the running-oriented events, even by World Champion standards.  If he gets to 60 meters at the Worlds, and shows similar improvement in the other throwing events, I think he wins.

UCLA men's coach Mike Maynard gets it. The Bruins have at times been a traditional powerhouse in men's track, but as of late they're a bit less than that. Fortunately, Maynard realizes that the quality of his team is not his chief worry as head track coach.

His chief worry is that hardly anyone in Los Angeles cares whether or not the Bruins are any good. Whereas the annual USC-UCLA dual meet used to draw up to 15,000 fans (a good number in a city with plenty of other things to do), now it pulls about 4,000. As for the rest of their schedule, the Bruins are like 300+ other college track programs in that they toil in complete anonymity.

Earlier this year I noted that UCLA's men's program is setting some kind of modern-day record, with three outdoor dual meets plus a triangular, all against high-quality competition. It's all part of Maynard's plan.
The 2011 outdoor season is finally here, and this coming season witnesses the prominent return of the scored collegiate dual/triangular meet to the Bruin men's schedule.
The philosophical shift away from an invitational dominated schedule and towards the revival of the premier collegiate scored meet is a key component to the restoration of the UCLA program. This shift also heralds the return of world class track and field to Drake Stadium. The coaching staff understands that competitiveness is a skill that can be taught, and is best gained and practiced, within the framework of the scored meet. In these competitions each and every point, and therefore each event and placing, matters to the final outcome. The Bruin athletes are excited to test their mettle and sharpen their skills against these top programs.

An additional positive aspect to the return to the scored collegiate meet is for the spectator. These scored duals and triangular competitions can be staged and completed on the track in less than three hours. No longer will the track fan be required to devote an entire weekend on multiple days of eight to ten hours to watch a meet. The meets will have a defined start and finish time. In addition, spectators will not have to walk away wondering, or attempt to explain to others, who won. The repackaging of collegiate track and field in this way should offer UCLA an opportunity to re-engage former fans, and begin to address fan attendance by building new spectatorship.
(emphasis added)

Not even considering the needs of the spectators is, and has always been, the source of most of track's problems. By specifically catering to them, here UCLA is playing the role of the alcoholic who has admitted he has a problem, while all the other drunks in the bar are in still in denial. The Bruin staff is taking only the first step of many needed to rebuild a fan base. But, unlike all but a handful of programs around the country, they realize it's a necessity.

Remember, regardless of the sport, the job of a college coach is not to build a winning team. His job is to build a (paying) fan base and a donor base. I have no idea how many college track coaches know this, but there are probably less than a dozen who act like they know it, and Maynard is now one of them.

Mark Block is the track gossip triple-play. A pro trackster I know has said that when pros get together, three topics always eventually come up: who's sleeping with who, who's on the juice, and how much they hate their agents. Block hits on all three.

The first is hardly gossip: he's the husband of Zhanna Pintusevich-Block, the former top Ukranian sprinter. The second is now official: an arbitration panel banned Block from coaching for ten years for his involvement in BALCO, finding that he trafficked in the famous "cream" and "clear" for his wife (which is what Victor Conte had told us a long time ago).

Unfortunately, Block's wife has not yet had her past results nullified, and they may never be. As an American, Block is under the jurisdiction of USADA, and that's exactly who took the issue to arbitration. His wife is likely under the jurisdiction of Ukranian anti-doping authorities and WADA, not USADA.

Mark Block hasn't actively coached for a long time. These days he's an agent to many top athletes, including such notables as Carmelita Jeter, David Payne and Nick Symmonds. Whether or not his agency can be shut down by USADA is another matter entirely, and may not be something they have the authority to do. But a larger question is why these stars are willing to attach themselves to such a negative name.

It's because ethics are not what they hire him for.  The nature of a track agent's job doesn't lend itself to notions of ethics or fairness. They're middlemen. Among other things, they negotiate with sponsors and meet directors and also often arrange travel and lodging. They profit by squeezing the most out of the first and spending the least on the last, so the successful ones screw everybody.

In the eyes of an athlete, a "good" agent is one for which the balance of these things is favorable. For example, if Nick Symmonds' agent can get more out of a meet director than Symmonds deserves, it's not "fair". But Symmonds will happily keep that agent.  Note that the often-lampooned prototype agent, Ari Emanuel, is said to be even more foul-mouthed and forceful than his brother Rahm.  That's no small feat.

1 comment:

pjm said...

Someone, and it may as well be me, should point out that Linet Masai was also the one Flanagan passed to win that Olympic Bronze in Beijing. Masai, of course, got a WJR out of that race.