A champion in the land of rumour

"This is a land of rumor," he said with a loose gesture that seemed to include all of East Africa. "I don't know why. We get enough news. But the rumors still fly. Last week everybody ran out of Kampala because rumormongers said there was fighting at Entebbe. There was none. I think you will find Uganda a peaceful country. Just maybe a little nervous." -- Akii-Bua, to Kenny Moore, on the latter's arrival to Uganda in 1972

“‘This is a land of rumor,’ he said with a loose gesture that seemed to include all of East Africa. ‘I don’t know why. We get enough news. But the rumors still fly. Last week everybody ran out of Kampala because rumormongers said there was fighting at Entebbe. There was none. I think you will find Uganda a peaceful country. Just maybe a little nervous.'” — Akii-Bua, to Kenny Moore, on the latter’s arrival to Uganda in 1972

There’s a fairly good documentary available on youtube about John AkiiBua, but since not all of you have that kind of time or will, I’ll write about him.  He definitely earns at least a chapter in the book that should probably be written about the intertwining of running and politics (hmmm…)

AkiiBua was born in the then British colony of Uganda (in 1949), and came of age in the nascent Republic (independence in 1962).  AkiiBua had already had some modicum of success under British-born coach Malcolm Arnold* by the time Idi Amin took control of Uganda in a military coup in 1971.  Few knew what to expect of the new leader, but hopes were high — he was a British-trained bear of a man, having been Uganda’s national lightweight boxing champion; he was replacing the Obote regime, which was itself no great shakes.  AkiiBua focused on his running, with the support of Amin, whose own athletic successes may have played a role in his patronage.

*(Arnold deserves his own piece — he’s coached at 11 different Olympics, and stayed on as coach in Uganda even after Amin took over.  It’s actually pretty surprising that he was allowed to stay, since so many non-Africans were kicked out of the country)

AkiiBua had switched from focusing on the 110 hurdles to the 400 during the 1970 commonwealth games — Arnold had entered him in both events, convinced that AkiiBua lacked the speed to succeed in the shorter event, but had the strength for the latter.  A surprising 4th place in the longer event made up his mind.  The next ~ two years, AkiiBua focused on building the strength and speed for the event.

Now, for those who have never seen it in action, I would argue that the 400M hurdles is the hardest event in track, and certainly one of the most dramatic.  I once held the starter blocks for a friend of mine at Amherst while he ran the event — I’m not sure I’ve seen as dramatic a change in a person, in such a short period of time, as I saw in him, from when he left the starting line in a blaze of speed to when he limped back over it roughly a minute later, completely spent.  There’s a reason it has the nickname “The Mankiller”.  Also, given the hurdles, getting tired has a certain price — people often clip hurdles and slam face first into the track.

So how did AkiiBua train?  Like an absolute animal.  His most common workout (amidst two-a-days) was this:  He set up 5 high hurdles around the track, then ran 4×1500 with the hurdles, all while wearing a 25 lb. weight vest.  Olympic hurdles training was no longer ‘run over a few hurdles without spilling champagne while on your country estate’.  He went to some of the steepest hills in Uganda to train up them.

The night before the Olympic final, Arnold went into AkiiBua‘s room with four bottles of champagne (unclear why four…).  After AkiiBua drank one (!!), Arnold mentioned that he knew the (randomly assigned) lane assignment for the final.  AkiiBua had drawn the inside lane, which, based on mere physics, makes it the most difficult (you’re turning with every step).  In fact, once the race started, nobody else had a chance, including world record holder and 1968 gold medalist David Hemery.  He set the world record, becoming the first runner to break 48 seconds in the process (the previous record was set by Hemery in Mexico City — the altitude being neither a help nor a hindrance for a race of that distance, according to Dr. Tim Noakes, the decreased oxygen levels being roughly offset by the thinness of the air).

AkiiBua returned to a Uganda struggling under the oppressive fist of Amin.  He had just expelled all the Asians from the country (some 60,000 in total), and was already massacring his own innocent peoples, many from the minority Langi tribe, of which AkiiBua was a member.  AkiiBua spent the much of the 1970’s in a tenuous position:  While Amin’s hired security forces rounded up and killed the Langi people (including AkiiBua‘s own brothers), AkiiBua would be trotted out for the domestic and foreign press as proof that the Langi were treated well.  Under such conditions, he trained for the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where he was set for a showdown with an American he had inspired:  Edwin Moses.  Though the two met in Montreal, AkiiBua was not allowed to run, after Amin led the African boycott of the Olympics (New Zealand had not been banned, despite having played a rugby match in apartheid South Africa.  And yes, there is something sort of wrong about Amin refusing to compete because of a tenuous connection to the oppressive South African regime, while he was doing enough terrible oppression at home).  Moses ran against the ghost of AkiiBua, stealing his world record during the gold-medal run (I think my favorite part of the documentary is the interview with Moses, who clearly idolizes AkiiBua, and just seems like a generally swell guy).

When it became clear that Amin’s government was falling, making AkiiBua both a target of the Amin government (for being a Langi) and the incoming government (AkiiBua being a symbol of the Amin government), the runner escaped to a Kenyan refugee camp.  While in the camp, a film crew took footage of him — the condition of the Olympic Gold Medalist shocked the international press, along with his former sponsor at Puma, Armin Dassler (son of Puma founder, and Nazi, Rudolf Dassler).  AkiiBua was given a sinecure at the company’s headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Germany (okay, my 2nd favorite part of the documentary is the story his son tells about the family in Germany — it’s very Fresh Prince / Diff’rent Strokes).  AkiiBua half-heartedly trained for the 1980 Olympics, where he struggled.

AkiiBua was not built for a desk job.  He had no real formal education, and had spent his time in the Ugandan Police Force focused on running.  After a few years in Germany, sitting at a desk doing next to nothing, he returned to Uganda.  He had been promoted well above his pay grade (due to his athletic success), so was confronted by educated, talented underlings who didn’t respect him in the office.  He toyed with the idea of becoming an athletics coach, or of starting a training center.  Ultimately, he became a spokesperson for the Ugandan sports ministry.  All in all, I think, the 1980’s were just an immensely sad time — the former champion had little money, few skills, and a history of anguish.  He died at the age of 47, two years after his wife, their 11 children surviving both of them, still at that point the only Gold Medal winner from the small nation.  In 2012, Uganda got its 2nd gold, when Stephen Kiprotich won the marathon.

AkiiBua‘s winning run: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBt4_j3BlgE



The jug-eared rodent who outran them all



In 1964,  an 18-year-old high schooler from Eastern Washington was chosen to represent the US in the 10,000M in a dual meet against the USSR’s powerful distance men.  For the first 14 laps he hung in the shadows of the larger Soviets (“I thought it was raining until I realized it was drops of sweat off their brows”).  On the 15th(out of 25), his coach yelled at him to take the lead.  He sprinted out to a lap of 63 seconds, and continued to pull away from the Soviets, who must have been astonished to have lost to a 5’5”, 118-pound school boy.  In an interview after the race, the boy-champion explained why he was compelled on to victory: “I knew people would judge our system by this one race.  I couldn’t let America down.  I had to do my best.”  And it’s quite right that Gerry Lindgren holds himself up as a representative of the American way, since his development as a runner and bizarre career and life afterwards is about as good an example as is out there of how the American free market of sports will occasionally produce athletes of such astounding strangeness, but also quality, that no Soviet (or now Chinese, or really even current American) development program could even think of replicating it.

The main issue with trying to write about Gerry Lindgren is that he reached his running peak ever so slightly before Steve Prefontaine and Nike and Frank Shorter became household names and the press started caring about running, so a significant portion of what we know about Lindgren comes from his own stories, which is problematic because (as you’ll see), he was a pathological liar and con man.  That said, he could also run.

A fairly generous description of Lindgren comes from Sports Illustrated, which claims that “He was jug-eared and had rodent teeth” that matched his “near falsetto” voice.  He didn’t run much as a young child in Spokane, but starting right as he hit High School, he decided to start running (cue Forrest Gump music).  I’ll let him explain (remember, take this with a few spoonfulls of salt):  “I decided if I was going to try to lead these guys [HS cross-country teammates], I couldn’t do it with the wimpy body I had. I was going to have to do more work than everybody else. So I started getting up in the morning and running 5 or 6 miles before school. Just to get a little bit of extra mileage in so maybe I could get my body so it could be as good as anybody else. And then I found if I got up at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., I could do 10 miles then go back and sleep until I had to get up in the morning. So I was running three times a day like that during my last two years. By the time I was a senior in high school, my legs didn’t get tired. I could run too fast at the start of a race and still run well, but I could do it because and it didn’t bother me that much because my legs didn’t get that tired.”

Which prompts the question – how much training did  you actually do?  “We never counted miles back then and never did have any idea until Ron Clarke was writing his book. After I met him in San Francisco, he asked me how many miles a day I was running. And it was such an unusual question because I had never thought about that. I tried to add up miles and at some point I got to about 40 miles per day on some days and he said, ‘No, that’s not right, that’s way too many.’ So he went to my coach and asked the same question and, of course, he didn’t know either. I was doing the morning and nighttime workouts on my own. Nobody really knew about them. During that stretch, he figured I was doing all of these extra workouts, so he tried to count them out, too. And he got the same numbers 40 miles per day, too Clarke said that’s impossible, so he wrote 25-35 miles a day in his book.”

Now, some of you are probably thinking “That’s a lot of time to be running, and that means he had no time to do other things”  — the rest of you vastly overestimate the number of things there are to do in Eastern Washington (Zing!  Sorry, eastern side of the state).  But seriously, all of this stuff is pretty unbelievable (like, in the “I think you’re bullshitting” meaning of the word).  But then when he was 17 he went out and ran a US high school 2-mile indoor record in 8:40.  That record stood through Ryun and Prefontaine and Webb and Verzbicas until Edward Cheserek broke it earlier this year.  What’s even cooler about that race is that he didn’t get pulled along to a good time in a stacked race (yep, I’m looking at you Alan Webb) – he was facing the best runner in the world (Ron Clarke) and ran out into the lead, which he hung onto for a while, but ultimately got passed.  That’s the way he always ran – from the front – which I think makes sense in a deeper way (see footnote for my psychoanalysis)*

*Tangent:  It seems to me like there are basically two types of runners – those that run fastest when they are chasing somebody, and those who run better being chased.  Now, oftentimes we say the runner who goes out hardest is the more confident one – he’s challenging the field, “Catch me if you can”.  Think about all the silly inspirational Prefontaine posters you see in the Nike stores.  But if I think about the famous frontrunners (Lindgren, Prefontaine, and really Frank Shorter too, who said (at least through the 1972 olympics) that he’d never lost a race when he had broken away into a lead), they are often the least confident runners.  They see themselves as prey, with the world always out to get them.  They’re the paranoids, driven forward not by any real threat to their winning the race, but by the fear of what might be behind them.  The kickers are the ones with supreme confidence – “no matter who you put out there, I will catch him”.  Well, the victim mentality makes sense for all these runners (side note – I’m about to make a bold an probably offensive assertion as relates to abuse):  Prefontaine was always mocked for not speaking English (his first language was German) and being so small;  Shorter was actually physically abused by his father growing up (yep, there it is…, though worth noting that Lindgren’s father also drank and beat him (beat Lindgren, that is, not Shorter…or himself)); and Lindgren, well, you can tell from the above that he saw himself as being weaker than everybody else (another quote:  “I was filled with all these lemons,” he said. “I was scrawny, weak and dumb. I just wanted to show that even of these I could make lemonade.”)  The victim mentality permeates every interview Lindgren gives (NB: His father also drank and beat him).  Prefontaine started to hide his behind an external confidence, but it was always there.  Anyhow, tangent over for now.

Lindgren continued to improve, and put on a race in the summer of 1965 against Olympic 10,000 meter champion Bill Mills (Look at Mills!  Look at Mills!  Still the most spine-tingling call of a race, for my money).  Unfortunately, Lindgren had injured his ankle in a car accident two weeks before, and didn’t know if he could run.  Well, he ran, and stayed with Mills stride for stride, finishing next to him with a dual world record of 27:11.  Lindgren went off to Washington State for college (he kind of wanted to go to Oregon, but the Oregon coaches thought WSU would be better for him academically), where he had a solid career, highlighted by an incredibly narrow win in the NCAA cross-country championships over Freshman Steve Prefontaine (In the race pictured above).  Lindgren remained competitive, but was always injured during the run-up to the Olympics, so never hit the highest highs that other major runners did.  In the late 1960’s, he was drafted, and was stationed at Fort Lewis with Kenny Moore (whom most of you know by now…).

And that’s when things get a bit weird.

Lindgren spent some time in the early 1970’s working for Glenn Turner’s “Dare to be great”, which was a sort of nutritional/cosmetics pyramid scheme that ultimately earned Turner $44 Million (which he was later forced to repay) and a 7-year prison sentence (which he was permitted to keep).  Lindgren got married and had a kid or two, and then, in January of 1980, he just up and vanished like a fart in the wind.  It should be noted that he had some legal issues at the time, but fairly minor ones – mostly just failure to pay child support for a child he claims wasn’t his (“I never met her!”).

Nobody really knew where he went.  People assumed he was safe because he left a note for his wife saying that she could do what she wanted with their business (a running store called The Stinky Foot).  There were some rumors that he was living in Hawaii under an assumed name.  As it turned out, he probably went to Houston and worked at Burger King (Where he as Manager of the Year!).  After a couple years, Kenny Moore heard from a University of Hawaii runner that Lindgren was selling shoes out of a shopping cart in Hawaii, living under the name Gale Young.  Moore tracked down a phone number and called (following words from Moore’s Sports Illustrated Article):

The voice on the phone dropped into a keening wail of what seemed recognition and then said hesitantly, “No, no, I think…I think you probably have the wrong guy.”

“I knew it was Lindgren. He went on in a rush about how he occasionally was mistaken for that runner, what was his name? Boy, he wished he could run like he heard that guy could run….

And then, suddenly, he was speaking to me in his natural voice. “You just over for the marathon? Things in Eugene the same?” That lasted for a few sentences, then the first, strained tone cut back in. “No, no,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I hope you find the guy you’re looking for but I’m not him.”

But then five years went by, and Moore actually moved to Hawaii and called up a person he thought to be Lindgren (who answered in a “mock-oriental” voice), who claimed he didn’t know Lindgren, but who then immediately called back as Lindgren, and decided to join Moore for dinner.  This was in 1987ish.  Moore actually started talking to him and basically convinced him to return to the real world.  He ran in a legends mile in Oregon in 1987 (along with Jim Ryun).  It’s hard to say he got a hero’s welcome, because, I mean, he abandoned his wife and child and I think still hasn’t spoken with them.  But I guess people were glad to have him back.  Then he basically rejoined normal life.  There is a long 20 part interview with him on youtube that gives you a taste of how strange he can be.  He spent a few years coaching the University of Hawaii women’s track team.  But basically, his bizarre tale ends with a bit of a whimper, which in some ways makes it more bizarre.  He popped up briefly when Verzbicas and Cheserek were chasing his two-mile record, but otherwise seems to be living a somewhat standard under-the-radar life.

So, if you’re keeping track, there were three high-school runners in the 1960’s who remain, probably, the three best American HS runners of all time:  Steve Prefontaine got the Achilles treatment of glory and an early death, Jim Ryun became a six-term US Congressman, and Gerry Lindgren…  became manager of the year at a Houston Burger King while living under an assumed name, having abandoned his wife and child.

Runners are weird.

Extra note that is worth reading, but doesn’t really fit in this post:  I’ve been writing little snippets of this for a few weeks,  but keep turning it over in my head because it’s absolutely bizarre and I feel weird writing about it for the same reason writers never knew how to write about Bobby Fischer, and how some obituaries of David Foster Wallace seemed strange.  Which is to say, how do you treat a subject who is almost for sure a genius (of some kind, and I get that each is a very different kind of genius, with Fischer and Gerry Lindgren being far more similar to each other than either to Wallace), but also almost for sure mentally ill (a big step to say that about Lindgren, less so of the others), and for whom that mental illness / paranoia was almost surely inextricably linked to the genius?  In our fictional stories, this is often what we want – a tragedy is so much more compelling if the trait that leads to success leads also to the downfall, than if the two are separate.  With Wallace you can see in his writing the fact that his brain never stops, and while it can be entertaining to read, you constantly feel that it would be absolute pain to live with a Brain that never rested, and never stopped questioning.  Fischer was smart, but he was also the hardest working chess player of all time, driven by a paranoia.  To win at chess, you have to be constantly assuming that your opponent is out to get you, and that there are threats that you can’t see and have to keep looking for.  It’s not hard (whether correctly or incorrectly) to see the parallels to his later paranoia (when he constantly spouted anti-semitic conspiracy theories about everybody who was out to “get him”)**.  With Lindgren?  I don’t know.

**[Double tangent:  1) As a former amateur chess player, who got just good enough to peer into the abyss of what actually being good at chess meant, I think they are 100% related, and 2) Vladimir Nabokov created this exact scenario in his book “The Defense” (sometimes “The Luzhin Defense”) which was written well before Fischer was born, and in which the lead character is a grandmaster who slowly blurs the line between the chess and real worlds, comes back out of this mental illness briefly, then gets sucked back in to the point that he loses the ability to differentiate between his life and a chess game, and leaps to his death mid-chess-game (and mid life-game) in order to abandon it (and it)].  So anyways, yeah.  Let me know if you’re interested in signing on for a weekly Chess e-mail, too.  Paul Morphy used to eat only food that was prepared by his mother!  How about that!


Stopping in the colonnade


April is a loaded month for Marathons, bringing over the course of the month the Paris, Boston, and London Marathons.  Let’s address a few of the story lines:

Mo Farah is debuting in the marathon.  So is Kenenisa Bekele.  The former is a massive story, while the latter is being, in my mind, very overlooked.  Britain’s distance hero is stepping up to the full distance, and people are extremely excited about it – he did, after all, win the last two major races in both the 5,000M and 10,000M.  I do not believe he will perform well in the London Marathon, for the same reason that I think Bekele will run very well in (and win) the Paris Marathon:  Bekele is a great distance runner, and Farah is not (relatively speaking…).

That may seem unfair, since Farah has beaten him the last few times they’ve raced in the 10,000, and that is often a good sign of Marathon success.  Bekele’s success over 10,000 meters has been consistently world class – he has four of the six fastest 10,000 times ever, including the two fastest.  The next fastest 10,000 runners are Haile Gebreselassie (who has held World Records in both 10,000 and marathon), and Paul Tergat (ditto).  To a large extent, being fast over a full 26.2 miles isn’t all that different from being consistently fast over 10,000 meters.  I expect Bekele (at 31, coming to the marathon a bit later) to be a truly world class marathoner, and to win in Paris with relative ease – setting himself up for a major payday in a fall marathon, or perhaps a WR attempt in Berlin.

Farah, in constrast to Tergat, Bekele, and Haile, is not a fast 10,000 runner.  His PR is 26:46 – a full half-minute slower than Bekele’s, and his most famous victories (London, Moscow) were in 27:30 and 27:21.  Farah’s strength lies in his ability to run 9,500 fairly fast meters, then kick with the speed of a half-miler.  This is an extremely valuable skill, and he should be in the conversation of best long distance track racers, but he’s also benefited from the tactics that tend to occur in non-paced championship races.  Maintaining a threshold pace for 2 hours in a competitive (and paced) marathon is a totally different beast.

If you want  a preview of what might happen, just watch the finish to last year’s Great North Run:  Bekele just slowly turns the screws to build enough of a lead that Farah’s kick at the end doesn’t matter.  That effect of the true distance runner  beating the kicker is likely to be magnified over the course of a Marathon.

That said, Bekele and Farah aren’t racing.  Bekele is running Paris, which I think he’ll win, and Farah is running London, against a tremendously stacked field (see previous post: London Calling).  Who will play the role I ascribe to Bekele?  My personal feeling is that Geoffrey Mutai is still the best Marathoner in the world, and I’ll back him until he loses, especially at the 8/1 odds he’s going off at (Wilson Kipsang, the world record holder, is the favorite at 2/1, with Farah and Tsegaye Kebede following at ~5/1).  If you’re looking for a flyer, I like Feyisa Lelisa at 20/1 odds – he’s had good success in the marathon in the past, but has been running a lot of shorter stuff over the last few years.  He’s been beaten by good competition in his marathons, but has run well, going under an hour at the RAK half-marathon a couple months ago.

The Boston Marathon is happening this year.  It will almost certainly come down to a race between Dennis Kimetto (sometimes Dennis Koech) and Lelisa Desisa (last year’s winner).  I really like Desisa, and will be rooting for him, but Kimetto might just straight up be better.  I’ll punt on a prediction here for now…  For more thoughts on the race, though:

I think the organizers have done a pretty bad job, and have made a lot of decisions that are meant to make it look like they have everyone’s best interests in mind.

1)       They’ve doubled the security presence at the marathon and created rules like “no backpacks along the race route” that are meant to create a ‘more secure race’, but are likely only to create logistical issues.  Marathons are essentially impossible to protect from acts of violence, and the demands the organizers are making prompt exactly the questions that David Foster Wallace brought up in his 2007 piece “Just Asking”, which basically boils down to:  “what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea”, and that we accept that fact, rather than subverting the ideals of freedom that make our society what it is.

2)      A follow-on from the above security decisions, along with the organizers’ decision to increase the number of runners (ostensibly “to make it the best Boston marathon ever”, but also, as to increase their revenue take, to help pay for that extra security), the Marathon will no longer feature marching military groups (FYI for those who don’t know, in the past, military sections have marched the entire length of the course, to great applause).  This absence of a crowd favorite seems to undermine the organizer’s marketing campaign about this being a marathon of celebration etc.

3)      The Boston Marathon is a great race, but, for probably the 2nd time in its modern existence, it badly risks losing relevance.  From 1983-1985, the sport of running began to professionalize, while Boston insisted on staying ‘amateur’.  The top runners stopped coming, and Boston took a bit of a backseat in terms of relevance, reaching a nadir in 1985, when Geoff Smith won in 2:14.  Thankfully, John Hancock stepped in as a sponsor, the money began to flow, Rob de Castella ripped off a 2:07-high in 1986, and Boston returned as a premier race.  Now, they again lack the money of other big international races, and seem to be content to be a high-level-elite marathon, without the strength-in-depth (or at the top) of races like London, Berlin, and arguably even Chicago (and certainly Boston’s date being a week from London doesn’t help.  Nor its being held on a Monday morning).

4)      The 2011 Boston Marathon was a really fun race, with Geoffrey Mutai winning in an unprecedented 2:03:02 and Desiree Davila ripping off a great 2nd place run, but it may have done some lasting damage.  After Mutai’s win, there was a big to-do about how he didn’t set the World Record due to the course’s being net downhill, and point-to-point (I believe not given the world record fairly — that year he was basically running in a wind-tunnel.  I think the general idea of a marathon world record is a bit silly.  If you want to have one, run the race on a track).  When it became clear that Boston was no longer a chance to set a world record – and therefore not an opportunity for a runner to get the financial rewards of being the world record holder – it lost some appeal to the top runners.  Is it likely that there will be a WR in London or Paris this year?  Probably not.  But runners are generally arrogant/confident, so they’ll think they at least have a chance at it in those races, while that incentive is simply not possible in Boston.  Surely that will have something to do with the lack of top level talent in the race.

So, in conclusion, I think Bekele will win in Paris (and become a top 2-3 in the world marathoner), I think Farah will not win in London (and will fizzle a bit as a marathoner), that I’ll probably back Geoffrey Mutai, and I am unsure of what will happen in Boston (I like Desisa a lot, but am probably leaning slightly towards Kimetto for now).

Enjoy the month

We cannot make our sun stand still

Mary Decker Running Towards The Finish Line

The most famous “great young American female runner” was probably “little” Mary Decker, so nick-named because when first burst onto the international stage she was an 85-pound 14 year old setting world records, running 2:02 for the 800 and beating Soviets (see above photo). Nobody really knew how to handle her development as a runner: It was tough to deny her the chance to compete when she was among the world’s best, but a lot of people felt a bit strange at watching somebody so young, and so small, push her body to the limit (not to mention her mind – she once was upset during a relay when she thought a Soviet runner cut in too quickly, so Decker threw the baton at her and started crying). Other athletes were more up front about how much she should be running (quotes from an article that came out when she was 15): Steve Prefontaine: “Her future could go up in smoke if she’s pushed too hard. I couldn’t believe her training schedule. She could become so sick of running that she’ll want to retire at 18.” Hammer thrower George Frenn: “You’re going to burn yourself out. You can only take so much out of the cash register without going bankrupt.” Mary Decker: “I don’t believe people burn out physically, they burn out mentally. Right now, track is 99% of my life. I’ve set myself goals in it. I want to break two minutes in the half mile, and I want to win a gold medal in the 800 meters at the Olympics.”

But here’s the thing, people do burn out physically – among them, Mary Decker. She spent basically her entire college and early professional career in immense amounts of physical pain from running too much. As per my high school coach’s claim that “After [female runners] hit puberty, it’s kind of a toss-up,” Decker herself probably said it best: “I grew from five feet and 90 pounds in late ’73 to 5’6″ and 115 by the beginning of ’75…I didn’t know what to do with all this body I had. I mean in my running. My stride changed. My center of gravity changed. The stresses were different. I was ripe to get hurt.”

Ultimately she had a few surgeries that helped temporarily ease her pain (recommended to her by the fantastically monikered Kiwi, Dick Quax), and did reach some high highs in her ‘later’ career (most impressively in the 1983 world championships, where she won the 1500-3000 double, though she also tested positive for testosterone in 1996, so…). Now, if she’s remembered for anything, it’s either as an early-blooming starlet who burned out too quickly, or as the distraught runner off the track after her collision with Zola Budd in the 1984 3000 meters.* Since Decker’s 1999 retirement, she’s had more than 30 orthopedic procedures in the hopes that she can run normally and naturally again. She can now run every other day.

In the 2008 olympic trials, Jordan Hasay jumped on the scene as a 16-year-old, running a then American HS record in the 1500 meters to qualify for the final. The crowd chanted for her to come to Oregon. She did. She’s run well since she got there, though perhaps hasn’t been the overall worldbeater everybody assumed she would be. She seems to have actually become a fairly mature runner with some interesting insights into the general process of running. The issue of young running phenoms is back in the news now that Mary Cain is starting to lay waste to some of the adult fields in her races.

But then how young is too young? What if there were two fairly good runners who were 12 and 10? When do we know that “Self-motivation” is actually that, and not “Pressure from parents”

It’s a tough question, and there are a lot of complicating factors, namely:

  • Hasay and Decker both first hit it big when they were significantly smaller than the adults they were competing against. Decker tried to continue with high mileage while her body was changing, which was problematic. Hasay still has basically the same body she always has (quite light). Cain looks like an adult. Big difference. Cain can throw elbows to win races if she needs to (and has, see above), whereas the smaller runners can’t. Hasay still gives up time and distance to avoid contact — often running in lane 2 or 3 for a lot of the race.
  • Athletes whose parents are too pushy often think that their reasons for running are their own, but, looking back on it, recognize that they were pushed to do too much too soon by overbearing parents. Decker included (in her case it was also a coach, though).
  • Eating disorders and disordered eating (both, I guess?). This is the giant elephant in the corner. Let’s talk about it, because people usually don’t:
  •              The line between “healthy female athlete” and “unhealthy female athlete” can be precariously thin, and it’s easy to cross. In a sport that is so consistently measurable as running, and in which a few seconds can be a major difference, it’s easy to make the leap from “When I lose a few pounds, I get a little bit better” to “When I lose a lot of pounds, I bet I will get a lot better!”. ESPN did a report on this, and they summed up the next point really well: “Compounding the issue, the draconian, self-imposed discipline required to lose unsafe amounts of weight is something athletes… excel at. While the average person might call it quits when they start feeling weak or unwell, top athletes are trained to push through pain and thrive on challenging their body’s limits. Restricting food intake becomes another way to build mental toughness and show dedication to one’s sport.” Now, it’s possible that the very best young athletes are potentially less at risk, since so much more attention is being paid to them, but… I’m not buying it. I think the biggest issue here is probably the college level. Coaches are paid to coach well – they often lack either the insight to know when their runners aren’t eating properly or the courage to respond when they do know**
  •            Melody Fairchild, the only female two-time winner of the Foot Locker HS Cross-Country championships, has suggested in all seriousness that all female runners should take a year off before training competitively in college. Fairchild didn’t run for her first two years in college due to an eating disorder, and thinks that runners need a year to get used to, basically, being adults: Knowing when and what to eat. Anyways, I know this was a bit of a tangent, but if you were to ask me what I think the biggest issue in women’s distance running is, it would be this, no question about it. And it’s magnified when the runners are still young enough that their bones aren’t fully formed and fused, etc.
  • The one other thing that must be mentioned is the way the US develops its athletes. High School and College are often seen as the 8-year-window for running success. It takes much longer than that to build up a quality runner. If talented runners (and their coaches) have the ability to take a long view and say “If our goal is to be a great runner in 10-15 years, and to have a sustained career, we should develop more slowly and not have weekly meets and race all three seasons, etc.,” a lot of this problem will go away. Some people think it’s troubling that Mary Cain is already being coached by Alberto Salazar – “why is she becoming a professional (basically) so early?” In fact, I think it’s good – she is now in the hands of somebody whose goal is to make the best long-term runner out of her, rather than somebody who wants to squeeze four good years of running out, in the search for, say, a national championship, no matter what the cost. It’s a bit like how some people recognize the best opportunity for saving some natural wonders is to privatize them, so that the incentive is to develop it long term. Alberto Salazar credits his own success to having two coaches (Bill Squires and Bill Dellinger) who recognized that Salazar should be aiming to peak as a runner well into his twenties, and not aiming to win points for Oregon. This is actually one of the reasons Salazar is so eager to start training runners like Cain, even if it seems strange to have them getting professional coaching so young. If you want a cake to be great, you should leave it in the oven and let it rise; most college coaches take it out of the oven every week and cut themselves a small slice, then can’t figure out why there’s nothing left two years after the runner graduates. You want an example? How about Natosha Rogers, who recently decided to stop running after a knee injury, only to have her coach basically throw her under the bus for not helping them win a team title. (Obviously this is a bigger issue in college sports, too).

Anyhow, I think it’s a really hard question. And I know I don’t have the answer. But uh… yeah. Get at me if you have any thoughts.

*Budd got blamed too much for this. She’s an interesting character, Zola Budd – a sort of quiet figure to whom history always seemed to happen. I’ve always liked her (and never liked Decker). If you want to read a great article, stop reading this e-mail and read this article. (Though, and I know I’ve mentioned this previously, it’s always worth bringing up the deeply unfair point that Budd, a white South African, was able to compete during South Africa’s international sports ban because her family was British, while athletes like Sydnee Maree, who was black African, could not. That’s baffling — “You cannot compete in our competition because your government is repressing you”.)
**I think the latter is much more common, and I think the first argument is basically horseshit. You see them for hours a day every day. The team eats its meals together. Even if coaches don’t know, teammates know. If coaches say they don’t know, then it’s probably through some ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ type of thing. Remember, coaches have jobs when their runners do well. They are just as susceptible to the above thinking as runners are. (That said, it’s tough to know what coaches can/should do. Basically it’s a really hard problem, and I am nowhere close to an expert on this.)

To Albury and Wodonga

Cliff Young

In the early 1980’s, the Westfield shopping group in Australia was looking around for ways to better promote their brand. After a bit of searching, the settled on an ultra-marathon, to be run from a shopping mall in Sydney, to another in Melbourne, 544 miles away (As another blog-writer said “It’s like the Boston Marathon, only if the Boston Marathon finished in Richmond, Virginia”*. Ten of the better ultra-runners in Australia gathered at the start-line, along with an out-of-place 61-year-old named Cliff Young, who was wearing overalls and rainboots (Rainboots because, as he says of his hometown “It rains 9 months out of the year. Then winter sets in.” As a Seattle native, that cuts right to my core).

The race began and the younger folk took the lead, with Young shuffling along well behind them. As the first day came to a close, the front-runners got off the road and began to sleep. The tortoise-like young kept moving (Some say he didn’t sleep at all, others say he slept for two hours). He took the lead that night, and never relented. He extended his lead through his slow shuffle and lack of need for sleep. When asked about this strategy, he explained it as a natural consequence of his childhood: “I grew up on a farm where we couldn’t afford horses or four wheel drives… whenever the storms would roll in, I’d have to go out and round up the sheep. We had 2,000 head, and we have 2,000 acres. Sometimes I would have to run those sheep for two or three days. It took a long time, but I’d catch them. I believe I can run this race; it’s only two more days. Five days. I’ve run sheep for three.”

By the time Young rolled into Melbourne in record time (by about half a day), he was a celebrity across Australia – owing not only to his astounding victory, but also to his unassuming style and understated wit (both on display in the video here).

He continued running after the race, but gave up on his effort to run around Australia 15 years later (not because, at 76, he was exhausted, mind you, but because his one crew member became severely ill). His marriage to a 23-year-old, which followed his victory, lasted for five years. He’s still a bit of a legend in Australia, which kind of isn’t that surprising. When he died at 81, the first of his six siblings, his sister gave a fitting epitaph: “He was the first of us to go, but then he was always on the go.”

If you’re into simple poetry that rhymes, the below may be of interest to you.


*Wouldn’t this be a fun stage race?
• Boston to Providence – 50 miles
• Providence to New London – 57 miles
• New London to Bridgeport 66 miles
• Bridgeport to NYC – 62 miles
• New York to Trenton 67 miles
• Trenton to Philadelphia 35 miles
• Philadelphia to Wilmington, DE 32 miles
• Wilmington to Baltimore 70 miles
• Baltimore to Washington 42 miles
• Washington to Fredricksburg 52 miles
• Fredricksburg to Richmond, 60 miles

Nine states and one district. At worst it’s a great bike trip. Maybe take two full weeks and give yourself a couple of rest days.

“At a place called Parramatta to the south of Sydney town
Endurance runners gathered, some of world renown
A mighty crowd was there that day, the press and TV too
and many words were spoken before the day was through

Eleven runners toed the line, eleven hearts beat strong
For we all knew what lay ahead and where we could go wrong.
A gun was fired, away we went, each runner to his pace
The back-up crews were on the move, their runners for the race.

The road was thick with traffic, they were there in all their makes
And above the toots and cheering came the squeal of hard pressed brakes.
Through the shouts, the yells and bedlam, the police all acted fine
But all the way to Melbourne our lives were on the line.

The pace was hot through Goulburn, then it was on to Yass
Some runners’ feet were blistered and others had the rash
But still we kept on moving, for we could only try
To run one hundred miles a day when we would rather die.

Our back-up crews did all they could, to keep us running strong
And they all suffered with us, when the day was hard and long.
With Gundagai behind us, there was Holbrook way ahead
How could we keep on running, when we were almost dead?

There were hills all shapes and sizes, some short, some long and steep
And each man had to beat them or fall into a heap.
We ran all day and half the night, to Albury and Wodonga
Though cheering crowds sure eased the pain, we could not stay there longer.

We had to keep on running, through the heat, the wind and rain
When the day was long and weary and the night was filled with pain.
When we passed through Wangaratta, Benalla was a cinch
Though our legs were tired and weary, we made it inch by inch.

Then came the Kelly country, and when we hit Euroa
Some of us were almost gone, but the race was still a goer.
Then onward, ever onward, through a day of wind and rain
We stopped at Violet Town a while, then it was on again.

It wasn’t far past Seymour, when the rain came pelting down.
The wind was blowing strongly, and our faces were one big frown.
But still we kept on running, up a road that seemed like sand
And we would keep on running, while we had the strength to stand.

The people got behind us, in a way we knew they would
It was good to hear them cheering, in the rain without a hood.
Though they were drenched, they cheered us, with emotion running high
And those teardrops rolling down their cheeks, were also in our eyes.

They were there in countless numbers, the women, men and kids
And on this page we thank them all, to them we dip our lids.
The crowds were huge through Melbourne, the cheering loud and strong
And still we kept on running, though we’d nearly had the gong.

And as we breathed the poison fumes, from cars of every make
Oh God, is there a limit to what flesh and blood can take?
Up hills, round bends, up hills once more, Oh God where will it end?
Our heads were spinning badly, and we can’t pick foe from friend.

At last the race has ended, with its noise and cheers
Now is the time to put things straight, and wipe away the tears.
We know the race to Melbourne, was worth it every stride
It has given us renewed hope, and filled us up with pride.

We know full well our point was proved, although we may be nuts
And though we may be short on brains, we made top marks in guts.”

An anecdote from Kenny Moore


In reading up for a future post, I came across this little gem of a story about Dave Wilborn, University of Oregon miler from 1964-1967. It comes from the incomparable Kenny Moore’s book “Bowerman and the Men of Oregon”, which I recommend (along with Moore’s other books, his articles in Sports Illustrated, and most of his film career):

“He once announced to a crowded dorm dining room, ‘From this moment on, drunk or sober, awake or asleep, until I say different, I will always be able to break two minutes for the half mile!’

“This was greeted with jeers of disbelief but no outright dares. A month later, after his declaration seemed forgotten, after he’d run three hours out to [Coach Bill] Bowerman’s and over Mt. Baldy, the crest of the Coburg Hills, and back to campus, after he’d wolfed down two pizzas and drained three pitchers at Pietro’s, [Roscoe] Divine and three-miler Damien Koch appeared in front of Dave’s woozy, reeling face and said but one word: ‘Now.’

“Oh, you fuckers! You fuckers!’

“They drove him to the track. Dave put on his spikes, trotted around for thirty seconds patting his distended belly, and went to the line. He ran 1:54.5. ‘Don’t play poker with me!’ he yelled. ‘Not on this! I don’t bluff on this!’ He didn’t even give them the satisfaction of throwing up.”

The forgotten Adonis

Milt Campbell

Some of you may have followed the world track and field championships in Moscow recently (about which, more never — there are actually fairly dominant athletes in most of the marquee events (100, 200, 5000, 10000), the dominant 800 runner was out, and the 1500 wasn’t all that interesting.  And the marathon is actually fairly interesting, so let’s take that as a footnote*)

*I now can’t find the fairly annoying article I read about this.  Most countries did not send top-level athletes, and most top-level athletes didn’t want to go, since there is no money to be made from the race, except Ethiopia made it mandatory for its top runners.  Needless to say, they did well, winning the women’s race and coming 2-3-4 in the men’s race.  My feeling is:  Runners should follow the money, and if that means that the World Championship marathon means less than other races, fine.  If you care, pay the runners.  The men’s race was actually a great race, and can be found on youtube.  It came down to a small group including Lelisa Desisa (Young Ethiopian who won Boston and has this year’s world’s fastest time), Tsegeye Kebede (London marathon champion, small human, gutsy runner, and perpetual top-finisher in a sport where nobody is perpetually anything), and Stephen Kiprotich (Ugandan, from just across the Kenyan Border, who won the 2012 Olympics) (and another ethiopian guy, actually).  Now, this is interesting because a victory by any of those first three guys gives them a fairly legitimate claim to being the Best Marathoner in the World.  As it happened, Kiprotich just outlasted them all, and kicked home to victory in just sub-2:10, meaning he is now the Olympic and World Champion, but doesn’t have a time close to the world’s bests.  My takeaway is that he is the best warm-weather runner in the world, since championship races are usually run in the heat, which doesn’t produce fast times.  Anyways, that’s all.

But American Ashton Eaton dominated the decathlon, and laid a claim for being the best athlete in the world, but actually I started reading about other decathletes throughout the years, and boy they are just fascinating people.  The “Interesting US decathlete olympic gold medalist” heyday was really the 1950’s and 1960’s, so let’s take a look.

In 1948, the US sent a 17 year old high schooler to compete in the decathlon in London.  Bob Mathias’ youth showed when he did things like “Not know the rules of the shot put”, but he still managed to win.  (Note:  In high school I competed against a bunch of giant Samoans who also didn’t know the rules of the shot put, and who just threw it kind of like a baseball, and while I didn’t like losing to them, I certainly wasn’t going to mention that the giant iron ball the were holding should come directly off their considerable necks and that they should be disqualified).  A few years later Matthias went to Stanford, where he played football (and also set the world record in the decathlon) — in 1952 winning the Rose Bowl and the Olympic Decathlon gold.  After graduating from Stanford, he followed a fairly generic retired-athlete life — he joined the marines, then starred as Theseus in the film “Minotaur, the Wild Beast of Crete” (note, that’s the Spanish dubbed version — go to 24:40ish if you want to see him throw the Javelin), then became a congressman from California, then, after being deposed (re-districting, Watergate), became the first head of the US Olympic training center.

The silver medalist in 1952 was a high-schooler from New Jersey named Milt Campbell, who then went on to win the gold in Melbourne.  As we’ll see soon, Campbell had the unfortunate position of winning his gold between Mathias and Rafer Johnson, which, he claims, is like “playing a scene with a baby and a dog”.  40-some-odd years after winning the gold, Campbell was still seething that he thinks he didn’t get what he deserved, and after reading about it, I actually kind of agree with him.  (note: the Sports Illustrated article about this has an all-time great turn-of-phrase:  “Some of Campbell’s once considerable musculature has slipped from his shoulders to his stomach”.)

First, let’s talk about race.  He was the first black decathlete champion, and he noticed that while Bob Mathias got a Wheaties box, he got nothing.  In case you’re wondering what America was like around this time, Campbell was told as a senior in high school that he probably couldn’t swim “because all the waters in Africa are infested with crocodiles”.  (He became an all-American swimmer).  In 1957, he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, where he roomed with the team’s other draft pick, Jim Brown.  After his first season, Campbell got married to his girlfriend, Barbara Mount (who was/is white).  Before Campbell’s second season, Browns owner Paul Brown called Campbell into his office, asked him why he got married (Response: “First, the same reason you did, second, I don’t think you want to ask that question”), and cut him from the team.  No other team in the league picked him up (he went to play in Canada).  So, I mean, Campbell kind of has a point.

Another point working against Campbell’s long-term popularity is that the 1956 games were in Melbourne, during football season (November), on the other side of the world, so received significantly less press than any other Olympics around that time.  All told, Campbell was a two-time Olympic medalist, and once held the world-record for the open 110 high hurdles, and you probably hadn’t heard of him, so I think he has a good point.  But let’s move on to Rafer Johnson, who is one of the most Forrest Gump-ian of all humans.

Rafer Johnson grew up in the San Joaquin Valley town of Kingsburg, very close to Bob Mathias’ hometown (and apparently the 16-year-old Johnson watched the 21-year old Mathias break his own world record, and remarked that he (Johnson) thought he could have beaten a lot of the competition).  After a generally remarkable high school athletic career, Johnson went to UCLA, where he would run track, play basketball (for John Wooden, largely considered the greatest basketball coach of all time), and be the student body president.  While competing in the decathlon, he convinced fellow athlete C.K. Yang (from Formosa, or as it’s now known, Taiwan) to try the event(s).  Yang was good, and became one of Johnson’s closest competitors.

In 1958, Johnson went to the USSR to compete against his toughest competition, Valery Kuznetsov.  Johnson beat the Russian, and earned the respect of the 30,000 fans in the stadium, who applauded him in a moment that Sports Illustrated depicts in a way that makes me thing it was the inspiration for the end of Rocky IV.

For the 1960 Olympics, 24-year-old Johnson was elected team captain (if you’re interested in more about this, I couldn’t recommend David Maraniss’ book “Rome 1960” less highly.  Thankfully the stuff about Johnson is at the beginning, so no need to skip to it).  The photo of him solitarily carrying the flag in the opening ceremonies is, to me, iconic — just a beautiful photograph.  Johnson beat Yang and Kuznetsov for the gold — I highly recommend this video if you ever want to explain to somebody what a rivalry (or actually, all sports) should look like — victory, loneliness, defeat, friendship (also, when you see the high jump, you realize why the fosbury flop wasn’t invented earlier — you’d break your neck).

Rafer Johnson

Johnson then turned down a role in the Kirk Douglas film Spartacus (because it would make him a professional), joined the Peace Corps briefly, decided not to play in the NFL (he was drafted by the LA Rams), and became a confidante of the Kennedy family.

In 1968, he was by Robert Kennedy’s side when the latter was assassinated.  Johnson disarmed the shooter (Sirhan Sirhan), and accidentally pocketed the weapon.  Supposedly he was taking off his coat later that night and found it.  He became an early advocate for the special Olympics, and was later the president of that organization.  In 1984, he lit the torch for the start of the LA Olympics.  The day of the opening ceremony, he was traveling with his kids, who were hoping that Michael Jackson would do the honors.

A life well-lived.  (He also named his memoir: “The Best That I Can Be” which I like because it’s so similar to John Cougar Mellencamp’s greatest hits album “The Best That I Could Do” which is really what all greatest hits albums should be called).

So, that was a lot of not very interesting writing about three very interesting people.  The last part I would add, which I think the video of Rome hammers home, is that the decathlon is in many ways the most strategic event in track — knowing one’s strengths, managing the effort over two days, etc. — but is rarely covered in any detail.  Basically I think that’s wrong.  To me, there’s something beautiful in watching great athletes do things that they aren’t necessarily great at — Ashton Eaton putting the shot, or two world class decathletes gutting out a 4:20 1500 — It seems somehow the closest to the amateur aesthetic that the Olympics were supposed to represent.

Running’s talismen


To the non-runner (or even to most runners), the idea of a ‘running coach’ can seem silly — “Just one foot in front of the other” or “Run, Forrest, Run” are the sorts of exhortations one might expect from a coach. There’s often not a ton of strategy in running, nor an immense amount of technique, yet coaches seem to permeate the top ranks, and have for a while. The percepion of coaches is different, though, in running — whereas in sports like Football and Basketball, coaches are valued for their depth of knowledge about the game (x’s and o’s, game film study, etc.), running coaches have always seemed most appreciated for being at their talismanic best. The most famous coaches in football have always been born-and-bred football coaches, while running coaches often are part of some nebulous ‘other’. Examples to follow.

In the early 20th century when amateurism was prized above all, a London-born Arab named Scipio Africanus (“Sam”) Mussabini began coaching top-level olympic athletes. Most famously, he coached Harold Abrahams to victory in Paris in 1924, as reflected in Chariots of Fire. Due to the rules of amateurism, he was never officially recognized as a coach (before the 100 in the film, he mentions in a throwaway line “I’m persona non-grata”), and some of the best scenes in the film reflect on the bizarre and arcane demands of British Amateur athletes. Mussabini was always the outsider — an arab in a world of old-school brits, a coach in a world that prized amateurism above all* (and, in fact, perhaps my favorite scene in the movie reflects the changing of the times:

Cambridge University official 1: It is said that you use a personal coach.

Cambridge University official 2: The university believes that the way of the amateur is the only one to provide satisfactory results….

Harold Abrahams: You know, gentlemen, you yearn for victory, just as I do, but achieved with the apparent effortlessness of gods. Yours are the archaic values of the prep school playground. You deceive no one but yourselves. I believe in the pursuit of excellence, and I’ll carry the future with me.

He did, and he has. But it wasn’t always that way.

*Mussabini actually was a very modern running coach — moreso than almost any other coach until the 1970’s or beyond. He understood the value of good form — e.g., when he got Abrahams to shorten his stride; He recognized the value of starting and finishing (“Drop down at the first stride”); He focused on the right equipment (“I should use the springy old six-spike shoes”); studied film and photographs for form; and did strengthening drills that wouldn’t be out of place today. There’s a reason he coached three 100-meter gold medalists in the four olympics he coached, and 11 medalists overall.

The early 1950’s represented both both an apex of British amateurism and the farewell of the concept almost altogether. Less than a decade previously, the British had defeated (along with some help…) the German war machine — the exact sort of victory that in earlier days would have been credited to “the playing fields of Eton”. In 1953, a British expedition led by the kiwi amateur Edmund Hillary reached the summit of Mt. Everest (again, a ‘victory for amateurism’ that could not have been accomplished without the assistance of professional ‘others’, in this case, the sherpas). Finally, in 1954, Roger Bannister, a British Doctor, ran the first ever four-minute-mile* — a triump for the amateur, over the more professional John Landy of Australia.

*I’ve always loved this quote, from Britain’s head ‘athletics’ coach in the 1970’s, after it became clear that the four-minute-mile was nothing special: “I think it’s bloody silly to put flowers on the grave of the four-minute mile, now isn’t it? It turns out it wasn’t so much like Everest as it was like the Matterhorn; somebody had to climb it first, but I hear now they’ve even got a cow up it.”

In fact, in the months leading up to the race, Bannister had begun to be coached by the Austrian Franz Stampfl, whose coaching style probably best reflects the image of the ‘talismanic outsider’. After a series of extremely difficult experiences during WWII, which we will here put into a footnote*, Stampfl convinced a few brits to let him coach them. He became fairly influential, and very clearly helped Bannister to reach 4:00 mile form (and, in fact, convinced him to run the race on what was an imperfect day for running — Bannister had wanted to delay the attempt). Bannister, ever aware of the amateur ideal, downplays Stampfl’s role in the record attempt — most consider very unfairly. Stampfl ultimately moved to Australia, where he influenced a new range of athletes and settled into his home (he became a citizen in 1956). His reputation as a coach continued — a 1956 Sports Illustrated article (“The Mysterious Mentor of Melbourne”) refers to him as the “mysterious Austrian coach Franz Stampfl” and, my favorite, a “Svengali-like figure who, more than any other coach alive, seems to be able to inject his charges with the conviction that they have within them the power to win”.

*From Sports Illustrated, November, 1956: ‘He came to England as an art student in 1937, stayed on when Hitler occupied his native land, and was interned when war broke out. In June 1940 he was shipped off to Canada on the Arandora Star, only to be torpedoed in mid-voyage. He drifted in the sea for nine hours before being picked up. Some time later, he was sent off to Australia on a ship which was so drastically overcrowded and under-provisioned that it was later made the subject of a court of inquiry. “If there was ever any wavering doubt in my mind,” Stampfl says, “the war convinced me that the mind, body and soul must be cultivated into one dynamic force to achieve sporting greatness. I discovered that physical hardships could be overcome if there was a burning desire from the mind to produce complete mental control. Also, I saw in myself and others the almost frightening powers which could be released under great provocation and stress. A man strongly roused is driven by a force greater than himself.”‘

Left to right: Brasher, Bannister, Stampfl, Chataway, May 1954

Left to right: Brasher, Bannister, Stampfl, Chataway, May 1954

Stampfl’s greatest rival in the mid-1950’s was a fellow Australian, and another bizarre character to boot. Percy Cerutty was a born and raised Australian who suffered a breakdown during the war years, before dedicating himself to newfound principles of diet and physical activity. He dubbed it the “Stotan” regimen — a combination of Stoic and Spartan. Some of his dietary restrictions were ahead of their time (no cigarettes, very little alcohol), his loathing of interval training (Stampfl’s main technique) was probably behind its time, but there was proof in his athletes. Herb Elliott was his most famous charge — for 5 years in the late 50’s and early 60’s he never lost a race in the mile or 1500.*

*The idea of eccentric coaches getting great results using dubious methods always sort of reminds me of the joke Woody Allen tells at the end of Annie Hall: “A guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says, why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs.” The coach has a bizarre training method that can only be doing damage to our runners, but, hey, we need the gold medals.

I know we are running long here, but the last point is about the modern Kenyan runners — a lot of their success, and particularly for the Kalenjin group of runners who made the towns of Eldoret and Iten famous, is credited to a catholic missionary named Colm O’Connell, who went to Iten in 1977 and, despite little background in athletics, has since then helped develop hundreds of world class athletes, including just about every famous Kenyan runner of the past 20 years. He is considered the Godfather of Kenyan Running*, and his advice is always to be followed.

*Yes, you’re right to point out that it’s classic colonialist nonsense to credit the European for the success of the African runners.  The material for this part is mostly from the book “Running with the Kenyans”, and the author of that book makes it clear that this is the Kenyan perspective on where credit is due.  

Throughout the years, many of the top coaches have been one or two steps removed from the cultures in which they coach. I think the reason for that gets a bit back to what a running coach’s job is — mostly to inspire the runner, to ensure that he sees his workout to the end (note that when Ryan Hall decided to go ‘without a coach’, it was largely because he thought his own faith would be enough to guide and inspire him). Runners are often willing believers — they want to think that there is some secret to being successful. In other words, having a certain ‘other-ness’ is a benefit to coaches, because runners then see their own improvement as almost magical. In other words, it’s basically the same effect as “Michael’s Secret Stuff” from Space Jam.

The last word goes to Franz Stampfl, because I like this quote:

“Men are lifted from their mediocrity by their imagination and the wealth of experience they can portray in their vocation.  I myself can be inspired by listening to music, by looking at great paintings; or be enraptured by superb dancers. I thrill at the fantastic rhythm of their bodies swaying in perfect harmony, and at the sheer magic of seeing them as lonely men dominating a vast audience. Night after night they must pit their skill against all the odds. When I leave the theater I am like a boy wanting to be a dancer and entrance others as they did me. It is not possible, but the inspiration need not be lost.

“I pass on the experience to my athletes and tell them that one day they will enter an Olympic stadium all alone, with thousands of eyes watching. They must prepare thoroughly for this moment. I teach them independence—they must be complete masters of themselves and resist the overwhelming feeling of loneliness which captures them. I try to make their minds so strong that they are blessed with an inward feeling of complete superiority—for there must be no mental breakdown, or all the physical training will be in vain. I try to lift them above themselves—for immortality may be only a few minutes away.”

London calling?

Courtesy of the guardian

From The Guardian

Multiple people sent me the recent announcement from the London Marathon that it had acquired one of the top Marathon fields ever for this spring’s race, even despite 10,000M world champion Kenenisa Bekele opting instead for the Paris Marathon.  Given that this is a ‘pure’ marathon year – no World Championships, no Olympics – I thought it would be valuable to think through how runners decide what races to enter in the fall, focusing on those in the vast London field.  For the most part, we’ll use the Woodward/Bernstein theory of investigation: “Follow the Money”*

*This almost always works, but there is one major exception.  The Ethiopian Federation likes to flex its muscles a bit, so often dictates that its runners must enter certain races if they plan to receive any ongoing support, whether or not it makes financial sense for the individual runner.  The Kenyan Federation does not do this.  The result is a race like last year’s World Championship Marathon, where the top Ethiopians were forced to run in Moscow, where there was limited prize money, as opposed to (or in addition to, in Tsegaye Kebede’s case) a fall marathon that had a large appearance fee on offer.  The top Kenyan’s chose the payday, knowing there would be no repercussions.  For similar reasons, Ethiopians have started to exert their dominance at 5,000 and 10,000 meter track distances – they are encouraged to win championships at those levels, while the similarly talented Kenyans are taking the significantly higher paydays that come with road racing (the difference between road and track paydays is at least an order of magnitude).

If we’re following the money, let’s figure out where it comes from:

  • Race prizes:  This is an easy one – win the race, win the money;  come second, win a bit less money, etc., down the line.  Races play the money aspect close to the vest, but you can often find data around winners money or total purses (i.e., the total amount disbursed in prizes).  There are additional ‘bonuses’ available for special feats, often, as well.  Some examples
    • Los Angeles Marathon:  $110K total prize available for each gender, $25K per winner, $12.5K for second, etc.  They do a special challenge where the men are handicapped and the overall winner receives $50K.  (See that trick?  $110K is available to each gender, but they will only have to pay out $160K total because only one gender’s winner can win the challenge)
    • Chicago Marathon:  $100K for winners, $75K for 2nd, etc.;
      • Prize money for times (men example, but same for women with comparable times) — $75K for course record, $55K for sub 2:05, $25K for sub 2:06, etc.,
      • America!  (ditto previous bullet) — $10K for top American, etc. down to 5th; $2K for Americans under 2:18
      • Illinois!  (Seriously, you get a few thousand dollars for being the top runner from Illinois)
  • Appearance fees:  “We will pay you this much money if you show up” (some require finishing, I imagine, and I would guess some are also dependent on time).  These are extremely hard to find, and vary a lot depending on how well you negotiate.  For the top runners, this will be high-six-figures, and I would be surprised if Mo Farah were receiving less than ‘millions’ to race the London Marathon (including his appearance last year for half the distance).
  • Sponsorships:  I confess I don’t know a lot about sponsorships, but imagine it’s a relatively seedy business.  There’s a clear difference between being sponsored by a company like Nike, and a company like Skechers, but I would guess most of these contracts have a fairly low base-payment, but are highly incentivized.  Nick Symmonds basically said as much in his announcement that he was switching sponsors from Nike to Brooks (from Runner’s World):

“The way that Nike is currently writing their contracts, I think, pretty much strips the athletes of all their rights, their ability to market themselves to potential other sponsors. The reduction clauses that they had were harsh and unnecessary.”

The reduction clauses Symmonds refers to are the inverse of bonus incentives. Athletes can have payouts reduced if they don’t meet specified goals, such as making an Olympic team. While he was constrained from discussing his situation, Symmonds says, “All the Nike deals that I have heard of from agents have reduction clauses and most other companies write reduction clauses into their contracts.”

  • National federations:  Totally dependent on the country – some countries (e.g., Australia) are more centralized and give their top athletes a living stipend etc., to make sure they are doing okay for money, but I think most top runners are from countries in which they are left to their own devices.
  • Brand improvement:  Not actually an income source, but vital for understanding why runners enter specific races.  Per the above, appearance fees, sponsorships, and prize money are the three most important income sources, with appearance fees being a pretty clear number one.  When runners are weighing their racing options, they must constantly consider how the result will affect their future market-ability.  One of the reasons that British mid-distance runners (Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram) rarely raced each other in the early 1980’s is that it made no financial sense:  As long as they entered separate races, always won, and occasionally broke world records, the paydays would keep coming in.  As soon as one of them beat the other, the loser would be significantly less marketable, while the winner wouldn’t be all that much more marketable.  This may be easier to understand from examples.


Now that that’s laid out, let’s look at specific examples from this year’s races:


  • Mo Farah:  Pretty clear – There was significantly more money to be made in marathons than in winning, say, the diamond league 10,000 meter championship, and London offered him a massive appearance fee to make his debut there.  He’ll win whether or not he wins.
  • Stephen Kiprotich:  The reigning Olympic and World champion isn’t all that fast, but has those two titles.  Besides maybe a national hero (Farah, Ryan Hall), the most marketable titles for getting appearance fees are, in rough order,  “World Record Holder”*,  “Olympic Champion”, “World Champion”, “Defending Champion”, “Course Record Holder”, and “Former Champion”.  As with the New York Marathon last fall, the Olympic Champion probably in London primarily to pick up his appearance fee, and everything else is gravy.
  • Tsegaye Kebede – Defending Champion:  See above.  This guy is just an animal, and has a habit of always running well and placing.  Good appearance money, I imagine, and probably another $20-100K in prize money.  Because he is able to run so frequently (just a physiological quirk), the opportunity cost of entering a race is lower.
  • Wilson Kipsang:  World record holder and Former London Champion (2012):  See above.  Furthermore, a win in London would give him a very strong claim to being “The World’s Best Marathoner”.
  • Geoffrey Mutai:  Probably the London runner whose motivations I understand the least.  He has a ton of credentials, having won Boston and New York (twice), and run 2:03:04 in Boston (though not an official world record).  He is, to me, the world’s best marathoner.  He didn’t make Kenya’s 2012 Olympic Team, so perhaps doesn’t get the respect he deserves.  I would guess his motivations for entering London are the following:  1)  Big-time appearance fee – Boston is famous for low-balling appearance fees, so he may be getting paid more in London appearance money than he would make for winning Boston, 2)  Thinks he’s the world’s best, and wants to beat direct competitors.  Yes, non-monetary motivation (but probably improves his brand).
  • Emmanual Mutai:  Course record holder:  Payday, probably – came 2nd in Chicago in the fall, so may see prize money too.  Again, London probably the highest bidder.
  • Spike Wells: They say great marathoners need to have an inner source of strength;  what greater chip on one’s shoulder than to be nearly the last of Britain’s 2nd sons who falls victim to the archaic tradition of primogeniture.  Beyond that, his shock of red hair puts him squarely in one of the few minority groups that Brits still openly disdain: the gingers.  As with any athlete months away from turning 30, he must feel time’s winged chariot hurrying at his back, as those younger than him leap ahead of him.  His military training will work to his benefit, his tequila habit to his detriment.
  • Kenenisa Bekele:  The 5,000 and 10,000 meter man was thought to be debating making his debut in London, but will instead run Paris.  This makes sense.  He’ll get a nice payday for his marathon debut, against a somewhat weaker field.  It’s a chance to get a first major road payday, without sacrificing much of his future earnings potential.  A win in Paris would make a potential showdown against the London winner (especially if it’s Farah) a big event.  If he had entered the stacked London field, a respectable 4th or 5th place finish might have dented his future paydays.
  • The Boston Marathon:  “Woah, none of these guys is entering Boston?!”  Hold your horses, America.  Because Boston is weighted more towards prize money (vs. appearance fee), it tends to get its elites to sign up much closer to race day (after they see their best offers for appearance fees – e.g., Rotterdam may sway some people away from Boston).  Also, Boston doesn’t really need elites this year – usually they are used as a pull for the race itself (to get viewers and advertisers), but that’s less necessary now, given the more ‘community/rebound’ theme of this year’s race.  Lastly, I have no idea how last year’s bombing affected the BAA’s finances – cutting out the cost of attracting elite runners will drop more revenue straight to the bottom line.**  Some high-level runners will decide to run Boston, because they know a win will increase future appearance fees (and there will be a not-terrible prize for winning the race itself), but there’s no reason to commit this early.
  • The other Londoners:  This is the group I’m most surprised to see in the race – 2011’s 10,000M world champion is debut-ing in London, while a spate of sub-2:05 guys who have had some modicum of success (Stanley Biwott, Feyisa Lilesa) are also entered.  I’m a bit surprised that a guy like Biwott prefers London to a weakened Boston field (it’s possible he’s going to get paid to rabbit it;  also possible he will switch away from London to either Boston or Rotterdam later on).  Call this idea old-fashioned, but it’s possible that these guys think that they, and not Farah or Mutai or Kiprotich, are the baddest dudes out there, and that they can win the thing.

*Though races often offer prize money for winning a world record, the real prize comes in increased appearance fees – sort of like how the cost of a traffic ticket is less the actual cost, and more the increase in insurance money.

**This is the same reason Competitor stopped paying for elite athletes for its races.  It has minimal effect on the revenue for most races whether or not elites run, but it is a significant cost center.  


RIP OBE David Coleman


This past week, Track & Field (or Athletics, as it would be known to the deceased) lost its premier voice for almost four decades.  David Coleman, who provided commentary from the 1950’s through the early 2000’s passed away.  Most race clips from that time period are accompanied by Coleman’s dulcet Irish tones, so it’s worth looking over a few favorites:

1974 Commonwealth 1500:  I’ve covered this race previously, but Coleman’s call sets the race up perfectly — Bayi, “the tiny Tanzanian”, being reeled in by the “black shadows” of the two New Zealanders.  He covers the history of great milers early on in this call, uses the metonymous “black vest” of New Zealand to make it seem as if Bayi is running against the country’s entire history, and lifts his voice to match the suspense of the race.

 Moscow 800 and 1500 races (Coe vs. Ovett):  The early 1980’s were a golden era for British middle-distance running, as Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, and Steve Cram were coming of age.  Youtube has a lot of the Coe and Ovett races (mostly separate, they rarely raced one another, preferring to focus on world records), and Coleman is the announcer in nearly all the clips.  These are just a sampling, but I think he does a good job with them.

1981 Oslo — the rabbit gets away:  In this race, the American Rabbit, Tom Byers, does his job, but none of the ‘real’ racers go with him.  Coleman catches on fairly early that Byers might just run away with the race, and does a great job of announcing the race while showing the right amount of disdain for the ‘real’ racers

1971 10,000 World Championship:  There’s great context, too, for this race (in the video, but basically the Finns had lost their distance dominance — this was the beginning of a second resurgence, led in 1972 and 1976 by Lasse Viren).  The absolute mayhem around the track as Väätäinen makes his break down the back stretch.  “Beaten for speed”, and the way Coleman says it, delights.  (Honorable mention for the fantastic facial hair shown by Bedford and Väätäinen — who seems to have drawn inspiration from civil war generals)

I’m sure you’ll run into Mr. Coleman more if you are watching any running clips from the back half of the 20th century.  Races are more enjoyable when he’s announcing, in my mind, so thought I’d post.

One other quick thought:

Running Times ran has run one good and one great piece recently.  The first was about Abiba Bekele and Buddy Edelen — both fascinating, but the piece (available here) splits the difference and tries to tell two different stories in the same article, so ends up being not quite what it could have been.  The second is not available online, but is worth the price of the magazine — it’s about the Hungarian coach Mihaly Igloi and his effect on American running when he was coaching at the LA Track Club.