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Monday, May 02, 2011

Monday Morning Decathlete: Special Penn Relays Edition

What I learned in my first-ever trip to the Penn Relays, and lessons from its astounding success for the broader world of track and field...

It's a party.
They call it a carnival. Circus might do too.

Both the spectators and the participants take the Penn Relays seriously as a competitive event. They also see it as more than that. It's three days of tremendous fun. Not only is there stuff going in inside the stadium, but outside the stadium in the "festival" area.

The festival area had all kinds of sponsor tents set up with sales and giveaways and promotions. The sales tent set up by Nike included free haircuts and braiding, and the kids lined up and waited an hour or more to get them. Runnerspace was doing live broadcasts. During a storm delay on Thursday, an impromptu break dance competition broke out in the stands.

This is how college football and basketball operates. Tailgating is nothing but partying which is sometimes only nominally associated with a football game. When you go to a college basketball game, part of what you get out of it is the atmosphere: the crazy student section, the band, the cheerleaders, the announcer.

We need to work on keeping track meets fun. We can't sacrifice competitiveness for it, and we need to make sure it's actual fun, not what some fuddy-duddy thinks is fun (like head-splitting music during races). Fun is subjective, and what's appropriate is dependent on many things like place and time. What works at a massive meet like Penn is different than what works at, for example, a college dual meet. But if people start to think going to a track meet is fun, then everything else takes care of itself.

How to pronounce Mvuvure.
It's "voo-vure-ay". The M is silent.

LSU sprinter Gabriel Mvuvure won the collegiate 100 meter race. That's not a huge deal, as most of the big guns at the meet skipped it in favor of relays (although he did beat TCU's Charles Silmon, picked for 7th at the NCAA Championships by Track and Field News).

What's a bigger deal was how well he anchored the winning 4x100 and 4x200 relays for the Tigers. In the former the Tigers ran only 0.06 seconds off the year's leading time, trouncing Florida while Texas A&M dropped the baton. In the latter they again beat the Aggies and Gators. If LSU head coach Dennis Shaver thinks this guy belong on the anchor leg of his sprint relays, he must think a lot of him.

Until this weekend, he was not considered a threat to score points for LSU at the NCAA Championships. That calculation may have changed.

Penn is efficient.
There are few places with more wasted time than your typical track meet. This may be even more true at the levels where we are struggling for attention, the college and professional levels. When I went to this year's Mid-American Conference indoor championships, there were 20 minutes scheduled between every event—even between the 60 meters finals for men and women—and what should have been a two-hour meet stretched out for more than four hours.

The Penn Relays, on the other hand, waste no time at all. Typically there is less than a minute between the end of one race and the start of the next, sometimes less than 30 seconds. The phrase "military efficiency" is not all it's cracked up to be, so I would have to say the gold standard for efficiency is the Penn Relays.

They do some weird things at Penn that people put up with because it's Penn. The prelims of relay events do not use blocks. Yes, even the heats of the 4x100. You wouldn't do that anywhere else, and even if you tried no one would tolerate it. But the point is that athletes are asked to sacrifice a little bit to make things better for spectators.

The phrase "dead time" is important. It will kill off any interest you might be able to generate.

The other way that Penn is unbelievably efficient is through information technology. The Penn Relays website is an easily navigable warehouse of information, with splits for most races (auto-timed when possible) and schedules and results broken down by day and by level and by team and by conference and by state. If you want to find out something about the meet, it won't take you very long.

Penn is participation-oriented.
My two traveling companions and I figured this out on the train from the airport to downtown. We ended up sitting next to a guy who ran in a couple of masters races on Friday. This is how I plan to eventually get into Penn to run.

The Penn Relays is all-inclusive. There are 5th-and 6th-grade relays, middle-school relays, high school and college events, post-collegiate "Olympic Development" (read: club team) events, professional events, corporate events, masters events, Special Olympics events. At each and every one of these levels you have to be good to get into the meet, and the spectators know this. But it really adds to the meet to know that ordinary everyday people can get on the track.

Road racing likes to bill itself as a sport where the Joes run with the pros. But, with the exception of the Boston Marathon, any fatass willing to plunk down an entry fee and suffer through the whole thing can get in. 99% of them don't know or care what the top athletes do. I don't think it's an accident that the Boston Marathon is a major spectator event, and the locals have some degree of understanding of the elite level of marathoning, because they know that everyone in it has to have worked pretty hard to get there.

So if you're going to use participation as a way to connect with spectators, you may want to require some level of achievement from the participants. Maybe not an exceedlingly high one, but some.

How the U.S. soccer team feels.
Whenever the U.S. soccer team plays a home game against another national side, it's almost never really a "home" game. There are more people in the stands cheering for the visiting team than the USA.

This is because immigrant groups from that country virtually always use the game as a gathering point. Families and communities spread out over the whole country will join up at the game, not just to see the match and cheer for their former country but as a way of reconnecting with each other.

The Penn Relays appears to the annual gathering of the northeast's Jamaican-American expatriate community. In addition, there are a significant number of Jamaican-Jamaicans who fly in for this weekend. The end result is that the stadium is blanketed in green and yellow, and the place explodes with sound when Jamaican teams are competing well. Team USA's relays were not the crowd favorites.

There is, however, a significant difference. Soccer fans are known for being rowdy and mean. Track fans are not. The Jamaicans cheer for everybody. For example, when Long Beach Poly's 4x800 team trounced the Jamaican high school teams and ran an amazing time of 7:31, the Jamaicans clapped and yelled for them on their victory lap.

There's a stereotype of the happy Jamaican, and of course it can't b universally true. But I didn't run into many this weekend, if any, who weren't happy to be there and take in the whole experience.

When track meet and road race promoters have expatriate communities come out for an event, it's usually by accident. The indoor meet at Boston has had some Ethiopian-Americans come and be vocal. The same thing has to be possible elsewhere, but I'm not aware that it happens. And no matter what nationality the athletes are, there are Americans who share their heritage. We have to be able to make the connection and take advantage of it.

I think this was the idea behind the invention of the USA versus The World series. Having good Jamaican teams in it every year has definitely upped the excitement of the meet, and possibly increased the attendance. If I were the guy bringing in foreign talent to, for example, the Detroit Marathon, I'd make sure I got a Moroccan or two and promoted it in the Dearborn area and maybe arrange a meet-and-greet. And in Chicago or New York, well, you can pull that off for any nationality.

The USA versus The World relays exposed our strengths and weaknesses.
I came out of the weekend with 52 points out of a possible 60 in the USATF Pick N' Win game, which puts me 25th in the standings. When the lineups were announced on Friday night and I finalized my picks, I was pretty confident about five of them. The sixth was a crapshoot.

In the men's 4x100, I thought the Jamaicans had the horses. With the exception of Usain Bolt and maybe one or two others, they had their A team on the track. The USA's lineup was decent, , with our A team for the first two legs, but the last two legs were outclassed. That the Jamaicans won was, from my perspective, completely expected.

The same was true for the women's 4x100, but the national roles were reversed. With Allyson Felix and Carmelita Jeter on the USA Red team, and Jamaica without Veronica Campbell-Brown, it was obvious to me which was the best team on the track. Team USA Red ran a meet record.

What both of these teams have in common is a use of early-season relay meets. The two main Jamaican clubs, MVP and Racers, run some relays at Jamaican invitationals in February and March. Two of the American women, Lauryn Williams and Marshevet Myers, have run a bunch of relays together at April college meets. You run relays with regularity, you do well at relays. It's a pretty simple relationship. Some of the USA men’s sprinters blamed bad handoffs for their loss; I say it shouldn’t have been their first time this year passing a stick.

But the other thing the weekend's pro races reminded us of is that on the men's side, the Jamaicans are deeper in sprinters than the Americans are. Even if we manage to fix the many exchange problems our men's team has had, they're still outgunned.

In both of the 4x400s, Team USA had the depth on the Jamaicans and won. In the women's sprint medley, I picked the Jamaicans based on two observations. One, they had Melaine Walker running the 400 leg, and she's no slouch. Two, Kenia Sinclair was anchoring and every year it seems that about the best she runs all year is at the Penn Relays. True to form, she anchored in 1:57.06—which is much faster than her P.R. of 1:57.88. Pheobe Wright ran well, but against that she had no chance.

The real head-scratcher for me was the men's distance medley. When the lineups were announced, I had no idea what to do. The USA's A team was supposedly the Red team, but it had Russell Brown on the anchor, who I thought was the weakest of all the American milers in the race. He's run a few good races, but Leo Manzano, David Torrence, and of course Bernard Lagat have run a lot more good races and better ones to boot. So I wasn't too confident about the US teams.

I thought Amine Laalou was the best miler in the race, but didn't know if his teammates could keep it close enough. I knew the Kenyans had strong legs in the 800 and 1600, bu didn't recognize the name of the 1200 leg, which made me question them as well. And I didn't really know what to make of the Aussies. In the end I decided you couldn't go too wrong betting on Kenyans in a middle-distance competition. I was wrong, as that 1200 leg I was worried about cratered and destroyed their chances.

Russell Brown got the stick a bit ahead, but didn't have the confidence to push it. I said during the race that if he let either Manzano or Laalou back in the race he would regret it, and I turned out to be right. Besides being a good runner, the anchor of a race like that has to have confidence and tactical acumen; Brown was the worst choice of all the available runners. That race was lost on Friday night, not Saturday afternoon.

It's all about the team.
There are a lot of meets that call themselves "relays", but none are more relay-oriented than Penn. The field events and the individual races are almost an afterthought.

Team competition is what really gets people hyped up. Villanova brought a cheering section for Friday's men's distance medley, and they stood up and stomped and clapped and chanted "No-va! No-va!". The same happened for a local Jersey high school team on Friday, who won their race as well.

The other thing that makes relay races exciting is that the outcome remains in doubt for much longer. In an individual race, the guy who has a big lead is usually going to win. This is not necessarily true in relays. For example, both Arkansas and Indiana had decent-sized leads in the men's 4xmile relay, but Princeton ended up winning. Team USA ran the best split in each of the first three legs of the men's distance medley, but Amine Laalou's excellence erased that deficit.

I really think that team is where it's at. "We" is more fun than "me", and it sure does bring more people into the fold. It's much more stable as well; good athletes come and go, but Villanova's tradition at the Penn Relays will always be there.

Not all college track meets can (or should) be all-relay affairs. There's a feeling that dual meets and other scored meets should be a greater portion of the college schedule, which I certainly agree with. But it’s also important to realize that there's more than one way to emphasize team competition.

What really irks me is college teams that constantly split their squads. Some teams even do this when they have a home meet. I've noticed that both Texas A&M and LSU take relays very seriously, do some scored meets, and never split their squads. This is should be the model for college track programs.

1 comment:

Martin said...

I ran across a UK cricket advertising campaign that was the first I saw to target immigrant groups to come root for their native country. I'd love to see more of that in track: