Monday, May 22, 2017

Dusk on America

Sunset in Eugene.

He exits the hotel just before me.

He starts to walk across a vast, darkening parking lot.

He is Kenyan.

He is massive.

He is World Champion, as new to the scene as a world champion can be.

He has not competed in Eugene before, or the US.

I wonder which America he knows.

I slow my pace; my odd tempo attracts his attention.

I slow even more; he turns and looks again.

He proceeds towards the shopping center.

I wait several minutes, then drive in his direction, but I’ve lost him.

I cannot rest.

I return to the hotel and wait in the lobby, under the guise of writing.

At last he returns.

He removes his hoodie.

He glances at me; we begin to talk.

I read a story I wrote about him the day he became World Champion.

He is delighted.

As he turns to go to his room we exchange gentle, awkward waves.

I can leave.

He is safe.

For now

-Mark Cullen

(My encounter with Kenya's javelin World Champion and Olympic silver medalist Julius Yego took place at Eugene's Valley River Inn on May 28, 2016, on the evening following that day's Prefontaine Classic, where he finished second in the javelin in his US/Eugene debut.)

Here is the story I was privileged to read to him:

Sunday, May 14, 2017

It's Not Queen Enough!

Queen Harrison Rocks “Say Yes to the Dress”

2008 US 400m hurdles Olympian and 2010 Bowerman Award winner Queen Harrison starred in an episode of the US reality TV hit “Say Yes to the Dress” Saturday evening.

Harrison famously received her marriage proposal from three-time Olympic medalist Will Claye when he bounded into the stands after winning triple jump silver in Rio.

Here’s a clip from the Saturday, May 13, episode:
(The entire segment has not yet been posted on the TLC channel’s website.)

Will Claye’s engaging Rio interview after winning Queen Harrison’s hand in marriage and Olympic triple jump silver on the same day:

Memorably, when Harrison turned down the first dress she tried on she said, “It’s not wedding enough!”

Nor was it Queen enough.

It’s terrific to see a US track and field athlete gain such widespread social media exposure, especially in a setting beyond the track.

Friday, May 5, 2017

No One Will Break 2:05

The attempt to break 2 hours in the men's marathon is on tonight.

Here is the link:

A couple of thoughts:

1. The goal pace is unsustainable. The bonking will begin earlier than most expect; this attempt will be over by 20 miles - 21 on a great day for Kipchoge. No one will break 2:05.

2. I hope this fails.

It pains me to say this, as Eliud Kipchoge is in so many ways one of my favorite runners - one of my favorite people in the sport. I have nothing but admiration for the Olympic champion who was a world champion at age 19 at 5,000m and who reinvented himself after a long downturn in his career as one of the three greatest marathoners in history.

This is a misguided effort. It is using every technical advantage available in terms of equipment and pacer strategy - shoes with a well-advertised 4% advantage as well as pacers jumping in and out, an acknowledged violation of international rules.

What's the point?

If successful in breaking either 2:00:00 or the world record of 2:02:57 it will come with multiple asterisks and will be as unwieldy as a discussion of the women's marathon world record - Paula Radcliffe's male pacer-assisted 2:15:25 or Mary Keitany's 2:17:01 in a women's only race? Which is it?

Do I secretly hope to see a sub-2:00:00? Any barrier is intriguing and clearly this attempt is bringing attention to the sport.

But it's the wrong kind. The very setup acknowledges that going beyond the standards of the sport is the only way breaking 2:00:00 can currently be accomplished.

This dishonors the man in the future who is the first to break this most unlikely of barriers legitimately and according to the rules. Imagine if Roger Bannister had had a different pacer jump in for every 400m.

This attempt is bad for our sport.

(Note: I added the Bannister observation about 35 minutes into the race. It came from an idea that occurred to me during an online conversation with my nephew about the sub-2 attempt and what it meant to have fresh pacers the whole way.)

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Shoe Summit

Jordan Geller
Bowerman Waffle Iron Shoe (l, Cullen Collection)
Mark Covert Moon Shoe (r, Geller Collection)

by Mark Cullen
copyright 2017

"No surface is good enough for these shoes!”

Jordy Geller was cleaning a display table in a bank vault in Portland, OR.

Don’t mess with Geller when it comes to early Nike running shoes.

Geller is famous in the collecting world as the founder and curator of the “ShoeZeum,” his collection of almost 2500 athletic shoes which first was on display in San Diego and then Las Vegas. An attorney with an MBA, he is the pre-eminent collector in the United States.

Geller was eager to show me his iconic Moon Shoes, so-called because their revolutionary waffle sole made a footprint reminiscent of that of the earliest astronauts on the moon.

Mark Covert’s Moon Shoes became the first Nike Waffles to cross a finish line, in the 1972 U.S. Olympic Trials marathon.

They are the Mona Lisa of the collecting world.

Mona’s nice but she’s just not a Moon Shoe.

For a company for which there is no finish line, the Covert Moon Shoes have become iconic for having crossed a finish line first. 

To be clear, three pairs of Nikes were ahead of Covert's in that same race, but Covert's were the first with the waffle sole that transformed the industry. Well over 40 years later, the runners I coach wear their direct descendants.

Triple Crown

Bowerman Backyard Shoe (Geller), Bowerman Waffle Iron Shoe (Cullen) ,
Mark Covert Moon Shoe (Geller)

Our meeting was a long time coming. Geller had kindly invited me to a public unveiling of the shoes the previous June, but as his event was in Portland the night before the last day of school for this longtime Seattle teacher, alas, for me the unveiling had to wait.

I have never tried to add to a collection of running shoes and memorabilia I amassed while running at the University of Oregon in the early 1970s, and so I am more archivist than collector. My treasures are the archive of a college kid who happened to be in Eugene as Blue Ribbon Sports morphed into Nike.

Talk about being in the right place at the right time: I started running in Bill Bowerman’s beginning running class in September of 1971. While most remember him for inventing the waffle-soled shoe and co-founding Nike, I was awestruck that the man who had just come out of the tunnel at Hayward Field to teach our PE class had been named head coach of the US Olympic track and field team the week before.

When I got to the bank vault, Geller had more than the Covert Moon Shoes on display. He had brought two pairs of Blue Moon shoes, handmade by Bowerman, as well as the white Progressive Moons, also the product of genius.

Geller brought the single shoe found buried on Bowerman’s property with the original waffle iron. I was spellbound by this shoe and found it hard to take my eyes off it. How utterly remarkable that it survived, and in relatively good condition.

Moon Shoes from Geller's Definitive Collection

Backyard Moon Shoe in front
Blue Moon Shoes - back row
Covert Moon Shoes (l) and Progressive White Moon Shoes (r) - middle row

My collection pales in comparison to Geller’s in terms of numbers, yet I do have some gems. I surprised Geller by bringing the three pairs of my shoes which best represent the development of Nike and its transition from Blue Ribbon Sports:

-       Blue Ribbon Sports Onitsuka Tigers resoled with waffle iron material. Declared Phil  Knight upon seeing these at the 2016 Portland World Indoor Championships, “Bill  Bowerman put the soles on these shoes.”

-       Bowerman waffle iron shoes – yes, from wife Barbara’s waffle iron – one of the original  300 handmade pairs.

-        Waffle Trainer prototypes handmade by Dennis Vixie, the podiatrist in Eugene who  doubled as my orthotician and one of the earliest designers for Nike.

Our shoes formed a remarkable display of the earliest Blue Ribbon Sports and Nike shoes. Have there ever been this many Moon Shoes in the same place at the same time? It had been a long time since a merged collection of these iconic shoes had occupied the same space – likely not since they were first made as long as 46 years ago, if then.

Much discussion between us focused on how we can make our treasures more widely available for public viewing. While these discussions are in the early stages, it was terrific to find common intent.

Rarefied Air
When the Moon is in the 7th (and a half) House

Front Row
Bowerman Waffle Iron Shoes(Cullen), Mark Covert Moon Shoes (Geller), Progressive White Moon Shoes (Geller), Dennis Vixie Nike Waffle Trainer prototypes (Cullen)

Back Row
Blue Ribbon Sports Onitsuka Tigers with waffle sole applied by Bill Bowerman (Cullen), Blue Moon Shoes (Geller), Blue Moon Shoes (Geller), Bowerman Backyard Shoe (Geller) 

I also brought several pieces of my memorabilia collection, including Nike’s first product catalogue, Bowerman signatures, and a t-shirt with a logo of Gerry Lindgren’s Stinky Foot, his late, lamented Tacoma running store.

I mean, when was the last time you saw a Stinky Foot logo?

That’s what I thought.

Feast your eyes.

The power of these shoes – their draw – astonishes me every time. At Indoor Worlds I was interviewed by ’96 Olympic decathlon gold medalist Dan O’Brien for USATF’s Cool Down program. The attraction, of course, was my shoes, and this interview drew an audience larger than every other one of the entire global championships. A close second was their interview with Michelle Carter, which makes me one of the very few people on the planet to have notched a win over the Olympic shot put gold medalist in 2016.

During the course of our hour-and-half meeting - very generous on the Gellers’ part as they have a five-month-old daughter at home - our discussion of the early Nike era turned to Steve Prefontaine and Geller noted his friendship with Pre’s sister, Linda.

Came the email the next day: “Linda Prefontaine wants to share your Steve story on Facebook. She asked me to ask you if that’s OK.”

Um, yes.

My story is about about what happened between Prefontaine and me the day he won the 1972 Olympic Trials 5,000m race. When Thomas Byrne of IAAF’s Spikes Magazine approached me before the Prefontaine Classic last year and asked if SpikesMag could post the story, I quickly agreed, and it went viral within the track and field world.

The response to Linda Prefontaine’s post on Facebook was quite similar: the engagement rate was remarkable. Linda and I had some memorable exchanges and we’ve agreed to meet at this year’s Pre Classic.

A longtime Facebook holdout, I figured this was as compelling a time to join as any. Now I find I’m friends with relatives – what a concept! – as well as with most of the East African distance running community.

Who knew? Here I thought that life as we knew it had ended when ‘friend’ became a verb.

I didn’t quite tell Geller what I was up to, and it was not until eight days later that I finally returned the shoes to their safe deposit boxes in Seattle.

It was spring break when I left Portland, and I traveled to Hood River in the Columbia River Gorge, long my favorite Pacific Northwest getaway place. I spent three days there with the shoes in tow.

I am quite sure that Geller is apoplectic at the thought, but I have traveled with my treasures before and follow the advice of a cousin who was in the insurance industry for many years: tape them to your chest. Well, not quite, but when I say that they were never out of my sight, that is quite literally true.

I crossed the high desert of Central Oregon and made my way to Bend, site of this year’s US National Cross Country Championships and high on my list of places to live once I conclude my 40+ year teaching gig.

I dropped by Teague Hatfield’s Footzone running store and had the pleasure of meeting him and the staff, including Barb who, memorably, convinced a very busy Hatfield that he really should come out of his office to meet this guy who just showed up with a bunch of old running shoes.

The fun of this collection is exactly what happened in the store that day: the excitement of the unexpected, the common language, the shared history and context - the not needing to explain.

So it is now with Geller and me. Two peas in a pod are we, new friends who share a common passion. Even more, we share a deep, heartfelt appreciation for what we have in these old shoes. From the intricate stitching to the ‘fat swoosh’ (it was not always so sleek) to the progression of the waffle material in its different iterations, we appreciate the thoughtful decisions evident in every single design element.

We are grateful for the shared, unabashed understanding that these shoes touch our souls.

Two Peas in a Pod

Well, in a bank vault, actually.

Trackerati with Bowerman Waffle Iron Shoe and ShoeZeum with Mark Covert Moon Shoe

Photo credit: perplexed bank guard.

We can't go on meeting like this.
Actually, we can.
And will!

Related links:

ShoeZeum website

ShoeZeum tour with Jordy Geller

Steve Prefontaine 1972 Olympic Trials story

Phil Knight at 2016 World Indoors meets my shoes

USATF Cool Down Interview: Dan O’Brien with Mark Cullen

Footzone Running Store in Bend, OR

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Leaving Rio...

Thanks for the medals and the memories!

Closing Ceremonies Weather Concerns

After days of hacking away with the cough that has plagued our tour the past week, I woke up this morning with the full-fledged chest cold that has been its inevitable destination.

I had planned on visiting the Christ the Redeemer statue early this Sunday morning, but it was pouring, I didn't feel well, and most of all, the men's marathon was up - event #47 of 47. I saw a few brief minutes of it out on the course and returned to my hotel to watch the finish. Galen Rupp earned himself a worldwide audience for the medal ceremony during Closing Ceremonies tonight with his third-place bronze.

Later in the afternoon, after a restorative nap, I decided to give the trip to the statue another try, and this time they did everything but tell me they had closed down the gondola. A windstorm had come up, and my guess is that gusts in my neighborhood exceeded 40 mph. As I was walking back to the hotel, I heard corrugated metal ripping from a roof. Just across the street, a palm tree shed its fruit with a small but startling explosion all its own. The television in my room has gone on and off of its own accord twice, and a neighboring back door light gave its own show.

Now we are minutes from the start of Closing Ceremonies. I can only hope they will not be disrupted by the storm outside. Maracana Stadium is open in the center and so the performers likely will be affected, but I fear those in attendance will have stood in the usual long lines to get in, and this time in the rain and wind.

As for me, I'm going to head for the same place I watched Opening Ceremonies, the Catete Grill, and see how the neighbors view the end of their big event.

With some luck we'll get the real deal this time: Hela Pinto, the true inspiration for "The Girl from Ipanema," and not that same imposter we had during Opening Ceremonies.

Day 10: Men's Marathon Fearless Picks and Predictions

Sunday, August 21

UPDATE: It's pouring rain 15 minutes before the start of the race at 09:30 Rio time.

M Marathon
A World champion at 5,000m as a 19-year-old in 2003, 32-year old Eliud Kipchoge has been running at the highest levels for 13 years. He has made the transition from track to the roads far more successfully than some of his more famous counterparts, and now his fame rivals theirs.

Starting with wins at the Rotterdam and Chicago Marathons in 2014, Kipchoge won marathon majors London and Berlin in 2015, and added the London title in 2016 in 2:03:05, just 8 seconds off Dennis Kimetto’s (Ken) world record. Kipchoge is everyone’s favorite, including mine.

I had thought that two-time (’13 and ’15) Boston winner Lelisa Desisa would be on Ethiopia’s team, but instead it’s this year’s Boston winner, Lemi Berhanu (Eth) who will run in Rio. He was called a surprise winner in Boston, just as he was 15 months earlier when he really was an unknown when he won the Dubai Marathon. A medal for him will not be a surprise.

Tesfaye Abere Dibaba caught the attention of many when the then-unknown ran away from the field and won the Dubai marathon on a hot early morning this January in a fast-for-the conditions 2:04:24. There may well be very similar conditions here in Rio.

When it comes to looking for medalists who might not win, Kenya’s Stanley Biwott, 2nd at London this year in 2:03:51, has a remarkable record in the last four years (including half-marathons): 4 -1sts, 3 - 2nds, and a 4th and a 5th. His London race is especially impressive, to hang on so well when 1st is long lost.

It’s hard to know what to make of the top three in last year’s World Championship race, held in a sauna in Beijing. The only one I think is likely to make an impact here is the winner, Ghirmay Ghebreslassie of Eritrea, who showed himself to be a master (and confident) tactician under some of the most challenging conditions ever encountered in a major championship.

Galen Rupp of the United States is intriguing; the slower the pace the better his chances, and he ran a particularly impressive marathon debut in winning the US Trials with relative ease – and on a hot day. He has not helped himself by running the 10,000m first.

Speaking of London, Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich was the unexpected winner of London ’12 Olympic gold. But that is usually how it turns out in these marathons – the favorites aren’t as favorite as we thought, magic takes place on the roads, and someone’s life is changed forever.

As for Kipchoge, the fact that during the dip in his career between track and roads he followed me on twitter without any prompting from me only adds to his luster.

Well, for some of us. OK, for one, but I’m doing the picking here.

1. Eliud Kipchoge, Ken
2. Tesfaye Abere Dibaba, Eth
3. Stanley Biwott, Ken