Thoughts and Comments on the 2009 USA Track & Field Championships, Part 2
I’ll now try to summarize some of the thoughts that ran through my head regarding specific athletes or events.
Thursday – Men’s 1500 1st Round
Fifty-one men competed in the 1500 first round. Compare that to 24 women. That meant there were four heats and the top two men in each heat and the next four fastest times qualified for the final. There’s probably no completely fair way to run one round and cut down from 51 athletes to 12 athletes for a 1500 final. First round races are going to be tactical so qualifying based on time is rather silly. As many predicted, the first three heats were relatively slow (3rd place times were: 3:41.83, 3:46, and 3:42.40). The fourth heat was significantly faster. This was possibly because these athletes knew they could qualify for the final with a 3:40 or possibly because Stephen Pifer decided to be a nice guy and rabbit a 3:40 pace. Regardless of why, all four time qualifiers came from this heat (3:40.95, 3:41.10, 3:41.15, 3:41.60). This just doesn’t seem fair. Getting a lucky draw and being in the fourth heat was a significant factor in getting to the final.
Do I have a solution?
Well, the first issue is why were there so many qualifiers in the men’s 1500? The story I heard is that USATF sets the qualifying standards every year. There’s usually an A standard (guaranteed entry) and a B standard (potentially eligible but a committee will decide how many athletes are to run in the event, so an athletes’ time may or may not make the eventual qualification standard to get in). Apparently, this method had led to a lot of subjective decisions by the committee and plenty of politicking and complaining by the coaches (e.g. “Come on, let my guy in, he’s ready to roll”). John Chaplin, who’s the USATF Sports Committee Chair, decided to avoid this problem (or from what I hear, he more likely took a “F*** you all, I’ll show you” attitude). He eliminated the B standard and made the one qualifying time standard particularly easy, and thus insured that the 1500 race would have a huge field. This happened in a few other events, too – it looked like there would be two sections of the men’s 5000 final but, in the end, they ran one race with 28 people starting. While a mere mortal like me cannot even dream of running a 3:45.00 1500 to qualify for the USA Championships (USAs), there are a lot of fast runners who can. In fact 60 NCAA athletes hit that time or better during the 2009 season. I heard that athletes who did not even qualify for the NCAA Championships (NCAAs) were qualified for the USAs. This seems plain wrong.
USAs is not an all-comers meet. USATF CEO Doug Logan was quoted this week regarding the topic of too many qualifiers for the meet, and he mentioned that it has become an “entitlement meet.” On the other hand, I’m not in favor of only those with legitimate World Championship (World) aspirations (say 3:36.60) getting to compete at USAs. If we did that, there would be no first round and the 6-8 athletes who qualified would go straight to the finals. I like that Joe Schmo Runner can work really hard and have a dream come true by qualifying for USAs. But that doesn’t mean that 3:45 should be the mark. Two reasonable qualifying ideas that I’ve seen are:
- Set a qualifying standard that will get about 32-36 people into the meet. In the first round eliminate down to 12 athletes for the final. This plan has the advantage of only having the athletes race twice during the four-day meet so they are not burned out.
- Set a qualifying standard that will get about 48 people into the meet. But run one extra round. The first round will cut down to 24 athletes for the semi-finals. Then 12 will advance from the semi-finals to the final. This plan has the advantage of simulating the World Championships, which will likely have three rounds.
But back to this year’s races and the problem of running a first round with 51 people and thus needing to eliminate down to 12 athletes for the final. Given this scenario, meet officials could have taken the option of taking the top three in each heat with no qualifiers based on time. Track races are about competing against and beating people. They are about the runners’ finishing place. It is not unreasonable to take no time qualifiers and base all advancing spots on place. That’s how they do it in the semi-finals of the sprint races: there are two heats and the top four in each race advance to the final. But an important part of this system is that you have to come up with a way to equitably split up the competition in the heats so that each heat is the same in terms of competitiveness. In the sprint semi-finals, in which the advancement criteria is based strictly on place, the athletes have already run at least one round to get to this point in the competition. So the heats and lane assignments are based on how the athlete ran previously. Don’t like your lane? Don’t like that you have tougher competition in your heat? Then you should have performed better in the last round. In the current 1500 scenario, the first round heats are based on people’s seed time and these seed times could have occurred any time since January 1, 2008 and they could have even been run indoors or converted from a mile race. So comparing seed times is not exactly comparing apples to apples. It would be hard to insure fair and even heats using the current allowable seed times. Without fair and even heats, basing qualifying to the next round on place only would not be fair.
I’ve used a lot of words so far (over 950) to simply say that it was a tough situation to have a fair competition and that I do not have an ideal solution.
Thursday – Men’s Javelin
Watching a track & field meet in person, especially a high-level one at a venue like Hayward Field, is like being at a five-ring circus. There is the action on the track. But at the same time, there is probably someone jumping, someone throwing, quite possibly someone pole vaulting or high jumping, and there could be an awards ceremony going on or even athletes taking their victory lap. It can be very draining to take everything in. I often fail to see the field events because I am engrossed in something else. That’s why I think it is cool when the announcer keeps you abreast of what is going on, or when you go to watch with friends who might yell, “so and so’s coming down the long jump runway,” or “look at the javelin,” because you have a better chance of seeing all the action.
For whatever reason, one of the few times I saw a full javelin throw was on Chris Hill’s second throw. The college senior from Georgia, who won NCAAs by 20 feet two weeks ago, ran down the runway, launched the javelin, and fell forward. He used his hands to stop his forward momentum, catching himself just before he would have crossed the foul line. It looked like his fingertips were just inches from touching the line which would have made the throw a foul. Instead the throw was given a white flag (good throw), and what a throw it was! The javelin sailed and sailed, landing at 83.87 meters (or 275 feet, 2 inches for us Americans). This throw makes Hill the sixth best Javelin thrower in US history. The knowledgeable Eugene crowd reacted with a big roar and I felt very fortunate that I didn’t miss it.
Thursday – High Jump
I followed the high jump a little more closely than normal because I knew it was a landmark event this year. Amy Acuff, who came to UCLA one year after I graduated, has announced that she will retire after the 2009 season. After a career that started with a national junior championship during high school in Texas (1990-93) and has included 11 national titles, this would be her last competition on US soil. The crowd was very appreciative and she looked like she was holding back tears when they interviewed her after she qualified for Worlds with a 2nd place finish.
Thursday – Women’s 10,000
Pre-race it was widely assumed that Shalane Flanagan (PR-30:22.22, American Record) and Amy Yoder-Begley (PR-31:45, just under the Olympic A standard last year) were the class of the field. Based on previous results, most figured Flanagan would be superior to Yoder-Begley in the end. However, races are won on the track, not based on previous times. Flanagan has had a year of changes: dropping her agent, changing coaches, and moving to Portland, so she’s been a little off her game this year. In 2009, Yoder-Begley has been set PR’s in the 800, 1500, mile, 2000, and 3000 indoors, so her speed may be at her all-time best.
Early on, Flanagan and Yoder-Begley alternated leading, each runner led for about two laps before switching off. This occured for roughly the first 21 laps of the 25 lap race. At 5000 meters (passed in 15:51) the pack included these two plus Katie McGregor and Bay Area runner Magdalena-Lewy. Soon after 5000 meters the pace picked up and Lewy-Boulet fell back. Around 6000 meters, the pace picked up again and McGregor fell out the back. Now it was down to just Flanagan and Yoder-Begley. On the alternating lead change with four laps to go, Yoder-Begley took the lead and pressed the pace enough the she maintained the lead when they hit the bell. With 250 meters to go Flanagan took the lead, probably for what she thought was the final lead change of the race. But Flanagan’s months of drama and Yoder-Begley’s shorter race preparation quickly showed that this was 2009, not 2008. Yoder-Begley did not get gapped. Instead she came back at Flanagan and in a furious final 100 meters won her first US Championship with a :23 PR in 31:22.
A measure of how dominant these two women were compared to the rest of the field, is that out of the 23 runners in the race, they lapped all but seven of them. I was quite happy for Yoder-Begley because most everyone in the stadium, including me, expected Flanagan to beat her.
Thursday – Men’s 10,000
After watching the women alternate leading in the women’s 10,000, I wondered what the men would do. I thought that it would be harder to get the men to agree to work together since the front pack was larger and it wasn’t obvious who should be working with who. In any case, there was no structure to the pace setting. Abdi Abdirahman, Dathan Ritzenheim, James Carney, and Meb Keflezighi all took their turn at the front. Hanging out in the back of the front pack, and never once coming up to take a share of the workload and lead a lap or two, was Galen Rupp.
I later learned from talking to Meb’s coach Bob Larsen, that Meb knew he wasn’t in shape to be a real contender in the race but he hung around the front pack and took his turn leading because Meb and Larsen feel that’s the way it should be done (“we feel an obligation to help the guys out by taking a lap or two when we can,” said Larsen to me at the Villard Street Pub the next night). With an attitude like that, no wonder I love Meb and Larsen so much! I also learned that part of Meb’s contract with Nike required that he either run at the World Championships Marathon in Berlin in August or at the USAs in June. Since they were coming off of an injury-filled 2008 and Meb was able to train and complete the London Marathon, they decided not to push the envelope too hard. They chose to fulfill his contract by running the 10,000 at USAs rather than go to Berlin for the marathon.
Anyway, back to the race. We noticed that Rupp still refused to lead the pack for even a lap. At one point Meb seemed to drop back and say something to him. At another point, Ritz seemed to slow down, pull out to lane two and almost stop in an attempt to get someone else to lead, but no one did. At the pub the next day Larsen took the high road and implied that maybe over time Rupp will come to understand the obligation to share pacing duties the way Meb does. Anyway, Malinda and I didn’t take the high road like Larsen. Ritz was doing all the work with Rupp just hanging out in the pack with Carney and Tim Nelson. With about two miles to go, and Abdi, Meb, Jorge Torres and everyone else who was a legitimate threat to Rupp way off the pace, I got really mad. Rupp knew he could drop the hammer on any of the three in the pack with him and win. He and Ritz are in a different league than Nelson and Carney. Rupp closed the NCAA 5000 with a 4:00 mile and the NCAA 10,000 with a 1:58 800 so he knew he was going to outkick Ritz (who is two months post-London Marathon). In my mind at that point there really was no danger of Rupp not winning the race. I kept wondering, “Why doesn’t he lead for a lap or two now, then drop back into the pack for a few laps, before kicking it home for the win?”
Ritz kept (futilely) trying to drop Rupp. Ritz and Rupp did drop Carney and then Nelson, but then with 500 to go, to the thunderous cheers of the University of Oregon faithful, Rupp took the lead and immediately gapped Ritz to win his last race at Hayward Field in an Oregon uniform (hoo-haw, in my book). Oregon and Nike even had his so-called girlfriend hop the fence and go out and kiss him after the race. BARF! Can you tell that I’m not on the bandwagon?