Monday, June 19, 2017

If You Can't Stand the Heat...

It's been a wild few weeks since the Prefontaine Classic.

Most unexpectedly, an opportunity to go from full-time to part-time teaching was created when a veteran teacher decided he was veteran enough. I blew through that door and will be teaching 3/4 time next year.

If that sounds like a modest change, it is, but the bigger change is with reduced duties, such as no advisory, no overnight camping trips, no lunchroom cleanup. I'm pretty sure I gave up 25% of my income to avoid lunchroom cleanup! I am very excited to have such a clear focus on teaching itself.

Meanwhile, two welcome emails came, one with a media credential for the USATF Outdoor Nationals and the other for credentials to the IAAF World Championships in London.

USATF Nationals begin on Thursday in Sacramento, CA, and the forecast is for 109F on Thursday and 97F for Sunday. Of considerable interest is how meet management will respond, especially with Thursday evening's 10,000m races and Friday evening's 5,000m runs.

London Worlds run from Friday, August 4 through Sunday, August 13. The meet is a sellout and over 1,000,000 tickets have been sold.

I'm off to Sacramento on Wednesday for the USATF press conference at 2:00pm and I'll post any heat-related updates here and on twitter: @trackerati.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

How It's Done

On a night dedicated to Olympic marathon legend and women’s distance running pioneer Joan Benoit Samuelson, the distance runners upheld her tradition with pride.

“I ran my own race and continue to do so to this day,” said the inaugural women’s marathon gold medalist. “I’m a ‘has been’ who still has a passion for the sport.”

She marveled at the athletes around her and their stories.

“It’s all about the story. I hope we don’t lose sight of the storytelling.”

In 1984, she showed the world how it's done.

Ethiopia’s Genzebe Dibaba ran a stellar 14:25.22 5,000m, and while she came short of her announced world record attempt on her sister Tirunesh’s 14:11.15, she gave an impressive display of mental toughness as she ran unheaded most of the way.

Kenya’s Celliphine Chespol upset world record holder Ruth Chebet in the 3,000m steeplechase and ran 8:58.78, the fastest-ever on US soil. Just missing the sub-9:00 mark was compatriot Beatrice Chepkoech in 9:00.70. Chespol lost her shoe on the penultimate water jump, put it back on, and sprinted back over the last 500m to win. She is 18.

Emma Coburn missed her US steeplechase record by .33 seconds with her 9:07.96. “I should have leaned,” she said, “and I would have had the record.”

Teenage sensation Tamari Davis ran 23.21 from lane 2 to upset a distinguished field of high school sprinters.

And what defines teenage?

She is 14.

In 8th grade.

Charlene Lipsey broke 2:00 minutes for the first time in winning the women’s USATF High Performance 800m run, while Brittney Reese jumped 7.01m in the long jump to edge rival Tianna Bartoletta by 18 cm.

Tomorrow is a packed day with some of the deepest fields ever assembled outside the World and Olympic championships. 9 events in this meet have the gold, silver, and bronze medalists from Rio.

Meanwhile, I learned much from two interview experiences.

Tatsiana Khaladovich threw the javelin 66.30 to win by more than a meter over China’s emerging star Shiying Liu.

I had looked forward to interviewing Khaladovich after not having had the opportunity in Rio.

Today it went something like this:

“I don’t speak English, sorry. “

As I’m a little rusty on my Belarussian, that interview went up in smoke.

I’m going to print verbatim what I wrote in the media tent; read on for what happened next.

From the media tent:

China’s Shiying Liu was prepared for the interviews, even though she doesn’t speak a word of English. She had a translator with her (unclear if this was her coach), and she answered every question with aplomb. Her translator was equally gracious and patient, and I left wondering if there were any better ambassadors of their country’s sport in the house this evening – and that’s saying a lot given the plethora of athletes who fit that bill so well.

It was impressive to see the Chinese so well-prepared for the important aspects of the meet beyond the competition venues.

Some mark China’s rise in track and field from the Beijing Olympics; others mark their arrival at the 2015 World Championships.

Either way, this country knows what it’s doing.

And then:

I packed up my tech gear and walked straight into the Chinese translator!

Turns out he is Yujia “Tony” Dou and he is a reporter for the Chinese national team. He is the Founder and Chief Editor of Top Athletics We-Media of China, and he also runs a track and field camp. He travels with the team and supports them especially, he said, when the team sends only a few athletes to a meet.

He handed me his card after I had given him mine, and the exchange reminded me that I am off my card presentation game.

I certainly should have remembered the etiquette from Beijing: thumbs on top, two fingers below, and always - always - presented with a bow.

Together, Liu and Dou showed every delegation how it's done.

Correction: I said on twitter tonight that Chespol was the first under 9:00 in the steeplechase in a US race. Not so. Ruth Jebet ducked under by .03 last year at the Pre Meet. Chespol is indeed now the fastest ever on US soil.

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