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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Monday Morning Decathlete (Special Tuesday Edition)

The Boston Marathon's traditional Monday date pushed this week's column back a day.

What did we learn this week?

NBC/Universal has shown its true colors.I planned on starting off this column writing about what happened in the Boston Marathon—and A LOT happened. From the perspective of a fan, though, the biggest news was not about the athletes or what they did.

The biggest news was the tremendous difficulty many of us had in seeing the greatest Boston Marathon of all time. The fact that one of the USA's biggest Olympic-oriented events was so difficult to watch tells us a lot about NBC/Universal, specifically that the corporation is harmful to domestic Olympic sports such as track and field and road running.

The race has, in the past, been on national television. To say that this year's race was on national television is an exercise in semantics. It was on Universal Sports TV, which is not regional, but it most certainly not available everywhere in the country. NBC has not put its full force behind getting the channel wide distribution. The majority of fans simply do not have television as a viewing option for the race.

The only real viewing option for the majority of fans is the companion website,, which can only be described as amateur at best. There is no end to the list of problems the site has at almost any time a track fan wants to watch one of their webcasts. Monday was even worse than usual.

Without going into the gory details, let's just say that only the truly determined could wade through the various bugs, errors, glitches and fuckups the website threw at us. For my $4.95 I got to see maybe 15 minutes of the race. Seriously. To top it all off, the dramatic race finishes were killed by a cutout of the video. is simply not prepared to deal with a large number of people wanting to watch what it has to offer. That's bad business—not just for Universal, but for everyone involved. I wrote to the BAA suggesting strongly that they never again award the national broadcast rights to Universal, as it is not in the best interests of the organization. I sent the same to its major sponsors, John Hancock Financial Services and adidas.

New ownership of NBC/Universal will probably pull the plug on serious bidding for Olympic broadcast rights, leading to another network broadcasting the next few Olympics. This would almost assuredly mean the death of the Universal Sports TV channel and its companion website. It would be fantastic news for track fans.

There would not be a gaping hole in coverage of track and road racing. We already have that, as Universal Sports TV isn't widely available and the website has so many problems. Universal Sports' predecessor, WCSN, is still in existence in Australia, and could come back to life here. Besides, whatever other broadcaster wins the rights to the next Olympics will fill the void. And I ask you, could it be worse than what we have now?

Yes, track and field broadcasts on ESPN suck. But those aren't really ESPN broadcasts, they're time bought by USATF on ESPN. No one who knows that should be surprised by their poor quality. When ABC/ESPN puts its efforts into something, it does not do it halfway. One need look no further than the World Cup to see that they take the job seriously. NBC/Universal is not serious.

When is a record not a record?In track, generally only when it's wind-aided. But can a marathon be wind-aided? You bet.

Earlier in the week, talked of once-in-a-lifetime conditions for fast running, with temperatures hovering around 50 degrees and with a perfectly-aligned tailwind for virtually all of Boston's northeasterly point-to-point course. It turned out pretty much that way; the tailwinds were hovering near 20 miles per hour with gusts into the 30s.

"A near-20 mph tailwind might chop three or four minutes off someone's finishing time," said Mr. Kellogg. "A sub-2:03:59 clocking wouldn't actually shock me. I'll tell you this - if Boston had rabbits and the field that is assembled for the 2011 London marathon was running with a time bonus on the line, I'd actually be a little surprised if someone didn't run the fastest marathon time ever recorded."

Boston doesn't have pacemakers, though. Wouldn't the runners all pack up and take no chances, making the race a sit-and-kick affair? I mean, you can't run fast without pacemakers, right?

Yeah, but...the race had Mr. Unpredictable, Ryan Hall. He led for most of the first ten miles, taking everyone through a fast pace that projected to about 2:03:00. There was your pacemaker. At least ten guys came through halfway in 1:01:58. Records were being broken at every checkpoint.

The sixteenth mile was run in 4:23, and then the Newton Hills came into play. Hall got dropped, the lead group was down to six, and they were still fighting. At 20 miles Emmanuel Mutai took off.

But it wasn't over. Moses Mosop caught him three miles later on the downside of Heartbreak Hill. The two stayed together until Boylston Street, when Mutai kicked hardest for the win. The times: 2:03:02 and 2:03:06.

Hall kept it together and got fourth in 2:04:58, catching NYC champ Gebre Gebremariam at 24 miles. Ten guys ran under 2:07. Nuts.

Regardless of the wind, the point-to-point and net downhill course does not meet requirements for record status and set out either by the IAAF or USATF. The particular structure of Boston's course makes it debatable as to whether or not the elevation drop is advantageous, and the point-to-point part is only important when there's a tailwind. The times are more deserving of an asterisk than Roger Maris' 61 home runs were.

Still, this race was insane.

It was that close... I was particularly infuriated about missing the dramatic finish of the women's race at Monday's Boston Marathon. It was good.

I meet a bunch of guys for breakfast every Monday morning. One of them asked me who was going to win Boston, to which I replied "Kenyans". He said that there was an article in the paper the day before about an American woman (Kara Goucher) who had a chance to win. I said that while there was an American who might win, it wasn't Goucher. I meant Desiree Davila.

If I had been wrong, I never would have written about that discussion. But when I'm right I like to gloat about it. Davila definitely had a chance. Let's Run said she had "zero chance", but they were wrong and I knew it.

The early leader was Kiwi Kim Smith, who went far ahead of the leaders for most of the race, but a calf cramp at 18 miles made all her gutsy front-running for naught. She ended up as a DNF.

Goucher was not with the group that overtook the lead, and neither was Davila. But Davila caught that group, and over the last few mile three runners—her, Sharon Cherop, and eventual winner Caroline Kilel—battled back and forth until the final turns. Cherop was dropped right at the turn onto Hereford Street, and Kilel was able to outrun Davila down the last few blocks before collapsing in a heap after crossing the finish line.

Someone on Let's Run said that while going home on the T, he overheard people saying it was great that Kara Goucher was second. A Rodney Dangerfield moment for Davila for sure ("No respect, no respect at all...")  Goucher was actually was fifth, an amazing feat for someone who had a baby only eight months ago.

Why doesn't Davila get any attention? She was obviously the American to watch going into this race. It's because she runs for Hansons-Brooks, which is located in the decidedly unglamorous Detroit area, and which does not have the massive PR machines of Nike or adidas. She also never did much in college. She never even scored a point at an NCAA Championships. She's kind of like Bill Rodgers, a great runner who didn't fulfill potential until hitting the roads.  But he got famous, and she still isn't, even among the running crowd.

It would have been fitting for Davila to have broken the long US drought in Boston. The last US winner was Lisa Rainsberger in 1985, a Battle Creek native who went on to run at Michigan. The last men's winner was Grand Rapids native Greg Meyer, who also ran for the Wolverines.

Mary Keitany is ready for prime time. The Kenyan runner already owns the world records for the half marathon and 25k, but her first marathon last fall in New York wasn't quite at the same level she had shown in those midrange road races.

On Sunday morning in London she ran her second marathon, and this time she put on a clinic. She ran with the lead pack, led out by pacemakers on a 2:21 pace and hitting 1:10:37 at halfway. A mile later, just past marker 14, she took off to run on her own and that was that, leaving everyone else to fight for second.

Keitany's finishing time of 2:19:19 is a Kenyan record and puts her as the fifth fastest marathoner of all time, with the seventh-fastest race ever run. She ran a notable negative split, covering the second half nearly two minutes faster than the first half. That's almost unheard of in professionally-paced invitational marathons.

How does that second half of 1:08:42 measure up? It's the fifth-fastest of all time, beaten thrice by Paula Radcliffe and once by Catherine Ndereba. This tells us that Keitany isn't quite at the level of those other two yet. But it might not be long.

Potential is sometimes a bigger deal. On the men's side of the race, Emmanuel Mutai set a course record of 2:04:40, the fifth seventh-fastest of all time. Compared to Keitany, his is objectively a better time. It is higher on the world list and closer to the world record.

But Keitany got the headlines. She's the lead story at Athletics Weekly's website, the British publication for which the London race is one of the major happenings of the year. Runner's World's website similarly made her the headline. What gives? Doesn't Mutai deserve the greater amount of attention?

The answer lies in how we imagine the future. Mutai has run a full career's worth of marathons, seven times under 2:10, with five of those under 2:07 (but only two wins to show for it). Keitany, on the other hand, is new to this. Based on the very short life span of top marathoners, I say it's most likely that Mutai never runs this fast again. I would not make that statement about Keitany.

There's also the style in which the race was run. Mutai was the survivor of the typical live-fast-die-young-leave-a-good-looking-corpse race, where a bunch of guys are going really fast until one breaks out late and most of the rest implode. Keitany went out and just plain whupped ass. While Mutai's race was more interesting to watch, if you actually got up at 4 AM and turned on the computer, Keitany's was more interesting to write about.

Timing is everything. I was out of the loop on this one. I didn't even know Grete Waitz was sick. She passed away early Tuesday, at the end of Super Marathon Weekend, after a six-year battle with cancer.

I feel like we've lost Willie Mays, or Magic Johnson, or Gordy Howe. The nine-time New York champion was so loved here in the USA and was at least as popular a figure as any American runner. She was The Legend of marathoning, and was so accessible to the masses. She made no attempt to hide either the joy or the pain of running, those things that bring hundreds of thousands of us out onto the roads.

When I first started following track, the easiest thing to see on TV was the New York City Marathon. It was live back then. It was a big deal, and Waitz always seemed to win.

The last marathon Waitz ever ran was in 1992, when she helped an ailing Fred Lebow through a 5:32 effort in the same NYC Marathon they had together made world-famous.

Garrison Keillor once said that it's no tragedy when an old man dies. Waitz was 57. That's not old, and by marathoner standards it's positively young. This is a tragic loss.

Oregon won't be going to UCLA for another dual meet anytime soon. Not because the Ducks tied the Bruins, which from Oregon's perspective is as good as a loss. It's because the crowd was sparse to say the least. Duck head coach Vin Lananna made it clear that his team's first trip to Westwood for a dual since 1976 was a one-off occurrence unless attendance was good. And it was not. I don't yet have an official number, but it was not good.

Ken Goe, for The Oregonian:
The meet would have drawn a minimum of 5,000 fans to Hayward. There weren't 500 on a beautiful day at UCLA. In fact, there might not have been 50.

For all the clamor among track fans for more scored meets, the hard reality is that outside of a few select venues, there doesn't seem to be the interest.

It's true that 5,000 would have come out to Hayward (5,209 did for this meet last year). But 5,000+ people will come out to see any track meet at Hayward Field. You'd get four figures for a Ducks JV intrasquad meet.

I don't think the problem with the attendance at UCLA on Sunday is due to a lack of interest in dual meets. The problem is a lack of interest in college track meets of any kind, anywhere, any time, period. Outside of relay carnivals and meets at Hayward Field, nobody comes to see regular-season track meets. Duals, invitationals, it doesn' matter. It wouldn't make a difference if there was a stripper pole on the infield with a traveling Playboy Mansion. When I say nobody comes to track meets, I really mean nobody.

In terms of outdoor regular-season track meets that are mainly collegiate in nature, this is what I found for the 2010 season. My data is incomplete, but I think it conveys the idea.

Oregon Twilight
Eugene, OR
May 8
Oregon Preview
Eugene, OR
March 21
Jesse Owens Classic
Columbus, OH
May 1
Pepsi Team Challenge
Eugene, OR
April 10
Men of Oregon v. UCLA
Eugene, OR
April 17
Westwood, CA
May 1
Michigan at Ohio State
Columbus, OH
April 3
The Big Meet
Berkeley, CA
April 10
Brutus Hamilton Invitational
Berkeley, CA
April 24
Sea Ray Relays (final day)
Knoxville, TN
April 10
Nebraska at Texas Tech
Lubbock, TX
May 1

USC versus UCLA gets good numbers because it draws fans from two relatively nearby institutions, and hated rivals at that. Ditto for Cal-Stanford. Ohio State manages to get good attendance (or they're good at making stuff up, because both meets were estimated numbers). These are the exceptions.

There might have been five hundred people in the stands at UCLA on Sunday. Unless a meet has high school kids, or is a championship, or is in Eugene, that's a good number. As a general rule, attendance at college track meets is more or less parents, girlfriends/boyfriends, and maybe a homeless guy or a stray dog. People who are either socially obligated to be there or who don't have anything better to do.

It's really, really hard to get people to go to college track meets. This is because they have been so god-damn boring for so long. It's going to take a lot of work over a very long period of time to change this perception. There are also a significant number of college coaches out there who still don't give a rat's ass if no one comes to see.

As for the meet itself, it was interesting. Both this one and the previous days' Cal at Stanford dual were webcast by, and they're getting better and better on the technology end. For example, the team scores were always on screen (something pioneered in other sports some seventeen years ago). There was at least a nominal attempt to cover field events, albeit one that can get better.

The Ducks were short-handed, with a bunch of injuries (Sam Crouser, Mac Fleet, Travis Thompson) and a few concentrating their season's efforts on other things (David Klech, Luke Puskedra). But UCLA didn't just get the tie handed to them. They got the breaks and Oregon didn't, and earned what basically amounts to a victory for them.

Paul Merca likes my line. The Seattle-based writer, blogger and announcer asked the rhetorical question "what did we learn from Monday's Boston Marathon?"

It's not actually my line; it's a melding of a few lines commonly used by a few of Sports Illustrated's online writers. I like that Paul is using it. I also like his analysis
When I saw the quote from Davila reposted on Twitter by Hanson's/Brooks Distance Project teammate and reader of the blog Jenny Scherer, I replied, "as much of a wack job as Charlie Sheen's been, I applaud Desi's mentality- #winning. More USA runners need to have (that) mindset (of winning)"

To follow up on my statement, I've always felt that the perceived inferiority complex that seemed to permeate elite American distance runners had to change if they were ever to compete against the world's best.
This is something I have written several times in regards to Alan Webb, that his mental state has always been one that gets in the way of his prodigious talents.  He castigates himself for not winning, but he doesn't believe in his heart of hearts that he can.

I think one thing that is changing, and something that Merca touched on, is that domestic competition in distance running is getting better and better. It's not just the medals won at Worlds and Olympics since 2004, it's the depth. Now there are fewer spots available for Team USA in several distance events than there are top-level runners fighting for them. That fundamentally changes the thinking among American runners. If you're good enough to get a Diamond League or World Marathon Majors invite but might not make the US team, then it's not just Kenyans and Ethiopians you have to treat with respect. It's Americans too. Mentally, that balances the scales a little bit.

1 comment:

Mike said...

House of run touched on one problem with track meets: they are too expensive. I went to Mt. SAC with my wife and it cost me $29 for the Friday session. I would say the stands were 10% full. That was too much money for me to go back for the Saturday session (plus the schedule on Saturday was too spread out--I didn't have 6 hours to sit in the sun). House of Run made it sound like the Oregon/Ucla meet was in the $7 range, which is better but still more than I've paid for college baseball or lacrosse.