Sunday, July 10, 2016

One for the Ages

52.82

Thoughts and reflections on the 9th day of the US Olympic Trials

*It’s a given that the Hayward Field crowd response to an Oregon athlete is amplified by the athlete’s Duckness. I had already made a note to write about the crowd’s roar in Devon Allen’s win in the third semi-final of the men’s 110m high hurdles. Then he won the entire event.

Heard anything like that recently? Well, yes – it was much the same with Ducks Jenna Prandini, Ariana Washington, Deajah Stevens, and Galen Rupp all  Saturday afternoon.

Then 41-year-old Bernard Lagat won the men’s 5,000m.

In defiance of aging, Lagat finished off his astonishing 5,000m victory with a 52.82 final lap. Saturday’s roar joins legendary Hayward Field crowd responses to the men’s 2008 800m - when three runners training in Oregon made the Olympic team - and Alan Webb’s 3:53.3 national high school record in the mile in the 2001 Prefontaine Classic.

Oh, yes - there was quite a response several decades ago. Also the men’s 5,000m.

It may well have been 1972 when we last heard an Olympic Trials roar like this.

Lagat, who did not want to end his Hayward Field career on a down-note, was worried after dropping out of both the Olympic Trials 10,000m and this year’s Prefontaine Classic 5,000m. But he kept perspective about the meaning of Saturday’s win to himself and his family.

He wanted “… to win in front of my kids, who had been telling me we had to go. My daughter tells me, ‘Daddy, I want to go back to the Olympics so I can watch gymnastics.’”

*So much rides on so little:

-         Omar Craddock finished 4th in the triple jump, 2”/5cm behind Chris Bernard.

-         Eric Jenkins missed the Olympic team by .06 in the men’s 5,000m. Try timing six one-hundredths by hand on a stopwatch.

-         Aries Merritt and possibly the greatest story of the Olympics: he missed the team by an agonizing 1/100th in the men’s hurdles. The kidney transplant patient - who won bronze at the 2015 Beijing World Championships 4 days before his transplant - was the picture of grace in post-race interviews.

*Chris Lotsbom of Race Results Weekly asked this trenchant question in a twitter post several nights ago: why do Hayward Field fans clap and cheer for athletes who have failed drug tests? Granted, they have served their time in suspensions, but this does not absolve them of their role in cheating. When a LaShawn Merritt or Justin Gatlin wins, my small protest is that I just don’t clap. Sound ineffective? What if we all didn’t clap and cheer? The silence would be deafening – and eloquent.

*Meanwhile, speaking of clapping, I have a peeve of my own: please, no rhythmic clapping or victory cheers when athletes are in their blocks. Do the best fans in the world really need to be told this?

*Galen Rupp showed up bedecked in aerodynamic tape for Saturday’s 5,000m race. If it does, as he claims, reduce air drag by up to 2%, it begs the question of when the line is crossed between using technology for an ethical advantage and when technology helps too much. Swimming had to address this question when full-body suits (based in more buoyant polyurethane material) were banned in 2010 after a wholesale rewriting of the record book once these suits were introduced.

*Special note to Olympic Trials hurdles champion Devon Allen: 

Dude, it’s time to stop playing football. 

The universe has been telling you this for some time now.  You’re the Olympic Trials champion and in the thick of a worldwide discussion of who the Olympic hurdle medalists will be.

This or 9 catches for 94 yards? 


An Olympic Trials 4th of July

The 4th of July began early at the US Olympic Track and Field Trials.         

Or actually it began late.

Which was early.

It began the night of the 3rd with a fireworks display at Autzen Stadium, one the entire city heard at 10:30 – no one could escape it.

Including athletes trying to sleep the night before their events.

So, not a great start to a great 4th of July in Eugene.

The day itself dawned cool, sunny, spectacular – truly not a cloud in the sky.

Matthew Knight Arena on the 4th of July

One option visitors have is to stay in the dormitories at the University of Oregon. Deal of a lifetime. $99.00 a day - including three meals - when motels across the street are going for $300-500 a night.

This is a throwback for me as I lived in these same dormitories in the early ‘70s when I was an undergraduate here. I lived in Dyment – rhymes with cement – and how many people can claim they lived in a dorm so aptly named for undergraduate life? 

It’s no coincidence that Animal House was filmed on this campus several years later. I’ll move on so as to protect the guilty. 

An interesting aspect of dormitory life this time is that one of the entry gates to Hayward Field is half a block away. I rise every morning to the sight of growing lines of fans waiting to go through security, and with protective fences, concrete blocks, federal marshals, and bomb-sniffing dogs, we are reminded at every turn that track and field heaven is part of the real world.

Security Force with Dog

I look forward to breakfast every morning, a place where new friends are made and old are renewed. We discuss upcoming events and rehash yesterday’s controversies. On this holiday morning I sit with newer friends, ones I’ve gotten to know since returning to writing and starting my blog three years ago. We have an animated discussion about the men’s long jump and the qualifying process for the Olympics; we leave having clarified what we don’t know.

One of the characteristics of an event such as the Trials is what goes on beyond the track. A writer’s life can be pretty constrained during an event like this. In my first three days here, my life took place in a three-block radius: from my dorm to Hayward Field in one direction and to the dining hall in the other. Not a bad radius when you think of it.

The late holiday start times at the track make possible a number of options for visitors, and the Track and Field Writers of America (TAFWA) hosts a morning social at the self-styled unofficial social center of the Trials, the Wild Duck restaurant. First I speak with several of the eminent LetsRun.com crew and finally I meet Steve Soprano, their mysterious “employee 1.1,” who has been so good to me with linking to my articles on their heavily trafficked front page. I sit with Cheryl Treworgy, who as Cheryl Bridges set the world marathon record of 2:49:40 in the 1971 Culver City marathon and became the first woman ever under 2:50.

Treworgy has a very successful photography business called PrettySporty; she is a familiar face at sporting events around the country, including many beyond track and field. She is immensely proud of her two daughters and we speak for some time about daughter Maggie’s service work in Africa. Cheryl and I are teachers, and we have much to discuss about service, purpose, and the magic of reaching a child. We also speak about her daughter, Shalane, who, like her mother, runs a fair marathon, and will in Rio.

Next stop is the Caspian restaurant for lunch with friends. The Caspian is a couple of storefronts down from the Duck Bookstore on the west side of campus. It’s my favorite restaurant in Eugene; there is something for everyone. While it focuses on Mediterranean food, it has an expansive menu that will keep even the most enthusiastic carnivores satisfied. Best of all for writing late, it’s open until 2:25am on weekends and 11:45pm on weeknights. 

It’s here I met Curtis Beach’s parents the night he waved Ashton Eaton home to a world record in 2012. I told them it’s one of the greatest acts of sportsmanship I’ve ever seen.

To the stadium after lunch and a meeting with my longtime friend, Carol Coram, who sits on the Jury of Appeals. I always wish Carol an uneventful day… and then there was the women’s 800m. I tried.

Enough for One Day

John Nunn won the Olympic Trials 20k race in Salem last Thursday; I interviewed him there twice, once one-on-one and the other as part of the group interview after the awards ceremony on the Capitol steps. Later that evening in Eugene, I was at the campus alumni center to pick up my accreditation and was directed to sit in a specific chair.

I look at the man next to me: “Hi, John.”

At the appeals tent today, two men sit down to discuss the appeals process; one is an athlete liaison and advocate.

“Hi, John,” I say once more. “We can’t go on meeting like this.”

We walk out together and agree it’s time for me to do an article about him, the universe having spoken rather clearly on this matter.

Olympian John Nunn with that stalkerish trackerati guy. No, no - Nunn's on the right!

The women’s steeplechase rounds are first up on the track, followed by the men’s. Next are the men’s 5k heats, and this sequence causes me some confusion. After 5 steeplechase heats I keep expecting the 5,000m runners to jump over something.

I have an idea about how to approach the 4th of July interviews with the athletes; it’s time to have some fun. I ask athletes who have advanced to the next round or who have just made the Olympic team, “So, how’s your 4th of July going so far?”

Bridget Franek, who had just won her steeplechase heat: “Going pretty well so far, I’d say! Came with my nice 4th of July glasses and hat so I was ready to go and then that happened (winning her heat), so it’s a good one!”

Shalaya Kipp, who advanced to the steeplechase finals: “You know, it’s really great! It’s a really good 4th of July.”

Clayton Murphy, who won the 800m with a Wottle-esque kick: “I told Boris: I’d love to be on a boat right now and having hamburgers and grilling out with the family, but running the Olympic Trials on the 4th of July is cool. So I’d say the 4th of July is going pretty well. A boat does sound nice and floating down the river on the 4th of July - but I think this is pretty good, this is better.”

800m Olympian Clayton Murphy

Boris Berian, who made the Olympic team in 2nd behind Murphy: “I’ll save the boat – that is definitely a fun thing to do – I’ll save that for later. I’m just proud to be an Olympian now.”

More smilin' Olympians! Murphy - Berian - Jock

Charles Jock, third member of the 800m squad, turns to Berian and says, “Well, I think you’ve still got some time to go floating down the river!”

800m Olympian Charles Jock

Chrishuna Williams: When I ask the question, the 800m third-placer grabs the microphone and says, “I’ll answer that!”

Williams and Coach Chris Johnson

“As soon as I crossed the line I saw that my name, Chrishuna Williams, had the 3rd position, and just to represent the red, white, and blue and have USA across my chest on the 4th of July – I’m very ecstatic!”

Kate Grace, Ajee Wilson, Chrishuna Williams - US 800m Olympic Team

The fun in this question is that it was unexpected.  When I asked it in both 800m press conferences, the athletes cracked up laughing each time. They are so used to similar questions, race after race, year after year. The grace of Allyson Felix, for example, is how she makes it appear she’s answering each question for the first time.

No one has as much grace as Kate.

I return to the stadium and bid farewell to my press row neighbor, Caitlyn Pilkington, a rising star who is now with Women's Running Magazine. She has covered the first half of the Trials and her publisher will be here for the second. We've made a nice connection and I know this is the first time we'll say farewell but by no means the last. 

Sun sets on a dazzling 4th of July at Hayward Field

I remain in the stadium and write until 9:30 or so. The remarkable facilities crew is raising the hammer throw cage. It’s not hyperbole to say their work is never done. 

Raising of the Hammer Barn

It’s time for dinner and I head for the Wild Duck. Note that I started and ended my day at the Wild Duck. Can the term ‘ubiquitous’ apply to a single business? It seems as if the Wild Duck is everywhere, even though it’s in one place.

I sit with my RunBlogRun editor and publisher, Larry Eder, who is a connector if ever there was one. I have told his son that my goal is to find a single person in track and field Larry does not know. To my left is the gifted writer, Dave Hunter, from whom I learn more about our craft every time I read his work.

I am introduced to the man across from me and in the enthusiastic noise of the late evening I misunderstand his name. He looks very familiar, but the name I hear does not match my memory. I spend a considerable amount of time thinking I’m speaking with a famous writer. It takes a while, but finally I ask him to repeat his last name.

“Ahhhhhh,” I say. “Virgin. You are Craig Virgin.”

The two-time World cross country champion nods.

We’re joined by Bobby Hodge, he of the epic Greater Boston Track Club team of the late ‘70s. Across the street in a motel meeting room I encountered his voluble coach, Billy Squires, the day before the men’s Olympic Trials marathon trials race in 1976. Squires and I hit it off and he coached me by mail; we stayed in touch for a good 15 years. I sought him out in Massachusetts a couple of summers ago, wanting to complete our story.

As I started running in Bill Bowerman’s beginning running class in the fall of ’71, I have long wondered if anyone else has been coached by both.

Virgin peels off, then Hodge - it’s time to bring this 4th to a close. I realize I didn’t see any fireworks this year, but then I remember the women’s 800m.

I did see fireworks after all.


Good Night, Coach.
Thanks for teaching me how to run.






Saturday, July 9, 2016

Steve

In honor of today's men's 5,000m final at the US Olympic T+F Trials,
I am reposting my story of what happened between
Steve Prefontaine and me the day he won
the 1972 Olympic Trials 5,000m


It’s the last day of the 1972 US Men’s Olympic Track and Field Trials. 

The organizers at Eugene’s legendary Hayward Field were no fools. They scheduled the men’s 5,000m race as the last event of the 8-day program.

It featured Steve Prefontaine, the young man whom Sports Illustrated named, while he was still in high school, “America’s Distance Prodigy,” and George Young, the venerable veteran, the three-time Olympian trying to make his 4th Olympic team.

In an epic race that would see both men break the American Record, Prefontaine and Young went at it, lap by excruciating lap, and the issue was in doubt until the 9th circuit, when Prefontaine edged ahead, inexorably, and led Young to the finish.

Prefontaine (13:22.8) and Young (13:29.4) both broke Pre's American record of 13:29.6.

It would be a cliché to say that the crowd went wild.

But it did.

The sound of that last lap lives with me still. 

The roar was deafening as Prefontaine approached the finish stripe, but the sound when he crossed it is unlike any I have heard before or since.

If there’s one word I associate with that day, it’s “spectacle.”

The spectacle of Gerry Lindgren bounding from the stands with his memorable “Stop Pre” t-shirts, a lasting symbol of the Sparrow’s impish sense of humor.

The spectacle of the race itself, of seeing this prodigy realize the next stage of his potential.

The spectacle of what followed.

A lengthy victory lap, an ovation sustained, an achievement shared. What was so appealing about this young man was his generosity - his willingness to share his joy and, indeed, his triumph.

The celebration continued well into the evening, though it became more personal in nature. It shifted to an area on the east side of Hayward Field, where temporary bleachers had been erected to accommodate the overflow crowds. There a media platform had been built.

On it, young Mr. Prefontaine held court.

The television lights were blinding, the camera bulbs kept flashing, and person after person, kid after kid, asked something of him.

Long after the friends I had watched the race with decided their evening was over, I knew mine wasn’t finished.

For the previous nine months I had embarked upon a running career, such as it was, of my own. I had started running in Bill Bowerman’s beginning jogging class in the fall of 1971, a week after Bowerman had been named head coach of the US Olympic track and field team.

Bowerman’s “Hamburgers” shared the track with Gary Barger, Todd Lathers, Pat Tyson, Arne and Knut Kvalheim, future Olympic discus champion “Multiple” Mac Wilkins, US Olympic decathlete Craig Brigham, and Steve Prefontaine himself.

I was captivated and missed but one meet in five years.

When you run on the track inhabited by the likes of these memorable Ducks, no matter how slowly in comparison, you do get to know them. One of them, Coach Pat Tyson of the Mead and now Gonzaga University cross country programs, remains a friend to this day.

When it came to young Mr. Prefontaine, we saw each other 4 or 5 times a week during the first year I ran. I was from the wilds of Western Massachusetts and knew little of him when I began running. He seemed to like the fact that I never got caught up in the myth of Pre, and that we used each other’s first names was a bond of its own.

That I saw him as a new compatriot, special in terms of his ability but otherwise in many ways like everyone else, created the framework of our passing relationship, and formed the basis of what we Yankees call a 'nodding acquaintance.'

Indeed, the one time, the only time, I asked him for an autograph - not for me but for the 8-year-old son of a friend I had in tow - he grew quite impatient with me. It took me awhile to realize I had violated the boundary. It was the only time in his presence I had bought into the mythic “Pre.”

Fortunately, he forgave me.

So, as he sat surrounded by worshipping kids and an adoring, and yes, fawning press, I wanted to watch the rest of the spectacle.

I made my way up the temporary bleachers, sat in the corner closest to him, and watched. Watched for over an hour as Steve sat there with the patience of a saint, even though he wasn’t one, and did not claim to be.

Every now and then he’d cock his head, look up at me and wonder what on earth I was doing there.

Come to think of it, for someone known for his strong opinions and sometimes colorful language, “what on earth” were probably not the words he was thinking.

Yet he was curious, inquisitive, clearly wondering.

It got dark.

Fortunately, the scoreboard operator had a sense of the moment and didn’t turn off the lights. The darker it got, the more clearly etched into the evening sky was Prefontaine’s new American Record.

I can see it today, just as clearly, more than half a lifetime later.

Finally, there were only a couple of families left, little kids waiting for their moment of magic. I scurried up the rickety bleachers, down to the track, and waited while he completed his hero’s duties.

He smiled in recognition, still with that quizzical look.

*   *   *   

The kids are gone now, and it’s just the two of us with his drug tester in attendance. We exchange greetings and I offer my congratulations. I’m delighted to sense his receptivity, in spite of how long his day has been.

He actually has a few moments left, for me.

Well, I say, I’ve watched this spectacle unfold this afternoon, and now this evening.

He nods.

I’ve seen many people approach you and ask for many things.

He nods, as if to say this is not news.

An autograph, a photograph, an interview, a moment, even, with you.

Yes.

But Steve, I say, for all these people have asked, and all you’ve given in return - one thing has not been said today.

One thing is missing.

What’s that?

Thank you.

He clutches my forearm with both hands.

He will not let go.

Tears come to his eyes.

We both just stand there, at ease in the moment.

When he can speak, I wish him success in the Olympics, and he wishes me good luck in the summer all-comers meets.

Off he scampers across the track and onto the infield. Before he vanishes into the enveloping darkness, he turns and gives me a huge, full-body wave.

I wave back.

Off he jogs into the underbelly of the now gloomy West Grandstand and to his appointment with destiny in Munich.



copyright 2016 Mark Cullen. All rights reserved.

Mirror Image: Men's Steeplechase

Men’s steeplechase final takes on a familiar look

Apparently the men’s steeplechasers did not wish to be upstaged by Thursday’s dramatic women’s steeplechase final. The men’s race mirrored the women’s: similar tactics, similar pacing, similar last lap sprints – and similar bumps and falls over the crucial last water jump.

Evan Jager was his usual masterful pacing and tactical self. He took the lead earlier than he had planned and tightened the tourniquet on this accomplished field by running the last 4 laps in 64-62-62-62. That’s world class and no one could stay with him. The American record holder finished in 8:22.48, won his fifth consecutive US title, and made his second Olympic team.

NCAA champ Mason Ferlic led the pack through the first kilometer in a slow 2:58.04 – warmup pace for this deep and talented field. Then Jager took over.


Friday, July 8, 2016

Women's Steeplechase

It Helps to Be an NCAA Champion

Emma Coburn and the deepest field in US history gave Hayward Field fans what they came for: a fast, dramatic, and compelling Olympic Trials race. Halfway through it was no surprise that behind Coburn, nine still had a chance to make the Olympic team. 

“I was just trying to stay relaxed, and in a steeplechase especially there’s so much risk and drama with the barriers, so I was just trying to stay relaxed and confident,” said Coburn, who won in 9:17.48 and is now US steeplechase champion for the fifth time.

Behind her, relaxation was hardly the word to describe what unfolded.


Monday, July 4, 2016

Historic Men's Long Jump

Unexpectedly, Men’s Long Jump is One of Greatest in History

Olympic Champion Greg Rutherford has spent a lot of time since the London Olympics defending the long jump, an event which clearly has been in a slump since he struck gold in 2012.

Indeed, going into Sunday’s US Olympic Trials finals, it seemed as if the entire track and field universe was focused on the day’s other finals, especially the men’s and women’s 100m dashes. If not those, then Ashton Eaton in the decathlon. If not Mr. Eaton, then Allyson Felix and LaShawn Merritt in the 400m. If not the veterans, how about teenage sensation Vashti Cunningham – the World Indoor champion – in the high jump?

While pre-meet anticipation of those events was justly rewarded, no event was more compelling – or deeper – or more riveting - than the overlooked men’s long jump.

“Today's men's long jump competition was the greatest all-conditions (including wind-aided marks) in history with seven men over 27 feet,” said USATF. That ought to knock this event out of its doldrums. Nine men jumped over 8 meters (26’3”) and two over 28 ft.

Jeffery Henderson won the jump-fest at 28’ 2 ¼”, a scant half inch ahead of Olympic teammate Jarrion Lawson. “I put it all out there on the first jump and hit the board,” said Lawson. “I’m really happy to get the 28-foot barrier with a legal wind.”

Henderson was jumping in his sprint spikes as he left his jumping spikes at home. “I left my spikes at home by accident,” he said. “It worked out – I still made the team and I got first. I’m glad that I won and got a good mark out there.”

Will Claye and Marquis Dendy both jumped 27’ 7 ½” to tie for third, with Claye having the tie-breaking longer second jump.

So why does Dendy go to the Olympics but Claye does not?

Most unfortunately for Claye, all of his marks were wind-aided on a blustery day in Eugene, and since he didn’t have a legal qualifying jump in any other competitions coming into the meet, he will not make the trip to Rio in the long jump. He missed Rio by a centimeter, as his legal best of 8.14m just missed the 8.15 (26’9”) Olympic standard.

The triple may well be another matter. “This has made me more hungry,” said Claye. “I went out here and gave it my all but I didn’t have the “A” standard, so this has given me motivation for the triple jump.”

Meanwhile, Dendy, who had a legal qualifying mark in the 3rd round, becomes the third member of the Olympic Team. However, a re-injuring of his pesky ankle on his subsequent jump puts his status for Rio in considerable jeopardy.

Meanwhile, Sunday’s Ironman award goes not to Ashton Eaton but to Jarrion Lawson, the NCAA triple champion at 100m/200m/long jump. Lawson started his afternoon by sprinting the 100m semi-final in 10.01 and earning a spot in the final. Then he took four jumps until he was satisfied that his fourth-round 28’ 1 ¾” would stand up for landing him on the Olympic team, which it did. (Not incidentally, as it was not wind-aided, this jump is the longest legal jump in the world this year.) No sooner was the long jump over than Lawson found himself in the starting blocks of the 100m final, where he would finish 7th in 10.07.

Ashton, step aside.

“I’m ecstatic,” said Lawson. “This is what I’ve been working for since 8th grade.”

In what is surely the understatement of the day, Henderson concluded by saying, “The competition was stacked.”

And as for Rutherford?

“I know he’ll be surprised to see the results. This competition will probably go down in history.”

It already has.



Saturday, July 2, 2016

Follow the Leader

US Olympic Trials
Women’s 10,000m

Molly Huddle took the lead on the opening step of the women’s Olympic Trials 10,000m race and never relinquished it - not even an inch.

“You don’t want to risk anything at the Olympic Trials by trying to run a fast time,” said Huddle,  “so I just tried to keep it as relaxed as I could until the last mile and still stay out of trouble.”

Instead, Huddle was trouble for everyone else.

An Olympic Trials schedule which models that of the Olympic Games - today’s race started at 11:04am - gave the contestants challenging conditions in heat which is sure to be worse in Rio.

Huddle ran to burn off the competition and remarkable negative splits of 16:09/15:33 more than accomplished that mission. Her final time was 31:41.62, with Beijing 10k bronze medalist Emily Infeld second in 31:46.09 and Nike’s Marielle Hall third in 31:54.77.

Kellyn Taylor was a distant 4th in 32:11.30, and with 1200m to go, Olympic team membership was never really in doubt. The only question was the order.