Monday, May 30, 2016

Prefontaine Classic 2016

I arrive in Eugene on Friday having flown from Seattle. My carefully planned schedule works like a charm in spite of the Memorial Day weekend travel challenges thrown its way. I park at my motel a few blessed blocks from Hayward Field, open my car door, and find myself looking directly at Alberto Salazar, who is standing no more than five feet away.

You’ve gotta love Eugene - they’ve got the welcoming committee bit nailed.

There was some danger in having the wind go out of the sails of this year’s Classic. The star power was diminished considerably with the withdrawals of Genzebe Dibaba, Allyson Felix, Galen Rupp and Matt Centrowitz. Each of their races was memorable nonetheless, but one can only wonder what having someone to run with so deep into the women’s 5,000m would have meant to Dibaba’s final time. And Centrowitz vs Kiprop? Rupp vs Farah? Felix vs Richards-Ross? Seems a little was left on the table in this Olympic year.

This did not in any way diminish the on-the-track performances, where two American records were set and two world records barely survived. Emma Coburn had previously set the steeplechase AR, only to have it invalidated when she was not drug-tested after her performance. Her 9:10.76 will stick this time, however, in a race which featured the #2 and #3 performances of all-time: Ruth Jebet (BRN, 8:59.97) and Hyvin Kiyeng (KEN, 9:00.01).

Similarly, Harrison set the 100m hurdles AR in 12.24, smashing the previous record of Brianna Rollins (12.26) and scaring Yordanka Donkova’s (Bul) world record of 12.21.

The Bowerman Mile was won in 3:51.54; the international mile in 3:52.64. It’s just not the Bowerman Mile anymore if it’s not sub-3:50. Guys, would you get with the program?

It strikes me that the international mile must be the greatest developmental event in the world – for men. Am wondering why there is not an equivalent event for women. Doesn't have to be the mile - how about the 100m hurdles, likely the deepest event for women right now.

Coolest moment every year: announcement at 1:00pm that the international television feed is joining us. Suddenly, millions of like-minded appreciators of the sport have joined the athletics festival unfolding before of us. 

Welcome one and all.

Memorable moment: Kenyan Julius Yego appears in the hotel lobby. We make a connection and I indicate I’ve written about him – on the day he won the World javelin title, becoming the first man from Africa to do so. It’s a short piece and I read it to him. 

He bows in gratitude.

In the local color department, a man near me in a restaurant was devouring rather enthusiastically his root beer float. Then his enormous dinner arrived. 

I could learn from him.

That’s it from Eugene where the trees are green, the grass is greener as well as for sale, and greenest of all are the false start cards.

The Yego article:

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


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.


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.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Shot Put Diva Michelle Carter - IAAF

IAAF, the governing body of international track and field, published my article about World Indoor shot put gold medalist Michelle Carter (US) on their website today:


Ian Walters/Getty Images for IAAF photo

Michelle Carter in her moment of triumph in Portland.
Note the crowd in the background - going wild!

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Soles' Souls: USATF.TV Cool Down Interview with Dan O'Brien

Blue Ribbon Sports Waffle Soled Shoes
Adam Schmenk photo/USATF
The interview that preceded my meeting Nike's Phil Knight at the World Indoor Championships in Portland is now featured on the USATF.TV Cool Down program.

Arranged by producer Adam Schmenk with interviewer Dan O'Brien, 1996 Olympic decathlon gold medalist - special thanks to both.

Click here to watch the interview:

Be sure to read the next post about what happened as soon as the interview was over!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Meeting Nike's Phil Knight at World Indoors

Phil Knight: "Bill Bowerman Put the Soles on These Shoes!"

"Bill Bowerman put the soles on these shoes!"
Karl Eagleman photo
"You won't believe what I have in this bag!"

"Try me!" said Phil Knight

I brought the highlights of my early Nike running shoe and memorabilia collection with me to the World Indoor Athletics Championships in Portland.

At USATFs the week before, I introduced myself to Adam Schmenck, producer of USATF's "The Cool Down," and offered to bring key parts of my collection to Worlds.

Adam arranged for me to be interviewed by Dan O'Brien, 1996 Olympic and three-time World decathlon champion, in the final segment of the World Championships "Cool Down" shows. (see interview, above)

I had long hoped to meet Phil Knight and to read him the story of what happened between Steve Prefontaine and me on the day Pre won the Olympic Trials 5,000m in 1972. And naturally, I wanted to show Knight my shoe and memorabilia collection.

Giving the inventory lists of my Nike shoes
and memorabilia collection to Phil Knight.
USATF's Karl Eagleman is at left.
Adam Schmenk photo
Shortly after filming the interview with O'Brien, I ran into Knight as he entered the arena. Remarkably, after wanting to meet him for 45 years, when I finally did I was carrying a bag with the 5 rarest shoes in my right hand and a clipboard with inventory lists for the entire collection in my left.

I showed him two pairs, the Bowerman waffle iron shoes (which I'm holding on the right of the first photo), and an unusual pair of Blue Ribbon Sports (Knight's company that morphed into Nike) shoes that has the original BRS soles replaced with waffle material.

"Bill Bowerman put the soles on these shoes!" exclaimed Knight.

I pulled the inventory lists off my clipboard and handed them to Knight, along with my card.

I turned to the Prefontaine story and let Knight know how much I had always hoped for the opportunity to read it to him.

Beaming, he said, "Well, we can make that happen."


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Epic Day in Portland

With gold in the 4x400m men's and women's relays, gold by Matthew Centrowitz in the 1500m, gold by high schooler Vashti Cunningham in the high jump, gold by Marquis Dendy in the long jump, silver by Ryan Hill in the 3,000m, silver by Ajee Wilson in the 800m, and bronze by Shannon Rowbury in the 3,000m, the United States gave a definitive performance at the World Championships in Portland today. This will serve as a springboard into an Olympic year and will alter the perception left from a lackluster team performance at the Bejing World Championships last summer.

Certainly there were non-US highlights today, most especially Genzebe Dibaba's 7+ second win over Ethiopian teammate Meseret Defar in the women's 3,000m. But the story of these championships is of a deep and resurgent US team.

I will continue writing about this meet; there are many stories to tell.

Special note of thanks to Kyle and Carol.

World Indoors Day 3

It's very simple, really, this sport of ours. Boris Berian, Curtis Beach, and Michelle Carter demonstrated just how simple - and challenging - it can be on the third day of the World Indoor Championships in Portland, OR, on Saturday.

Last week Berian seemed to have fulfilled his enormous potential by winning his first US title at 800m. Try topping that with a World title. He sprinted to the lead of this remarkably deep field, never relinquished it, and burned off the kicks of even the world's greatest kickers like World outdoor champion, Mohammed Aman (ETH), with his gutsy, assertive - and brave - wire to wire run to a World title. That he pulled along teammate Chris Solinksky to a bronze topped a first-ever1-3 for the US in this event.

Curtis Beach sat in 6th place with the 1000m run to go in the men's heptathlon. A former US national high school record holder in the decathlon (with both JR and SR implements), Beach needed to leapfrog his way to 3rd to put himself on the world scene once again after 3 years of fighting injury. He negative split the first four of five laps: 29.93, 29.84, 29.41, 29.36, and he came home in 30.50. Germany's Mathias Brugger meanwhile ran the 1000m over four seconds faster than he ever had before and nipped Beach for bronze by only 8 points, 6126-6118.

Meanwhile, Michelle Carter (US), a multiple US champion in the shot put who had been a steady presence on the international scene until her bronze at the World Championships in Beijing last summer, pulled out a classic last-throw win with a new US record of 66' 3 3/4". This breaks the previous record by 1' 1/2", a truly massive improvement.

Run faster, yes; throw farther, yes. It usually works, but not when 6 other events come into play, as they did for Beach in the heptathlon. A stumble in the hurdles likely cost him bronze. "I'd rather get 4th with that effort than anything higher with a mediocre effort," said Beach.

"I'm just happy to be in my mid-20s and compete in track and field. A lot of my friends have awesome jobs, but if they had the chance they would probably be doing track! I'm just happy to wake up every day and go out and train and that's the truth. I'm already ahead of the game and I'm loving it."