Now that I am back home from the USA Championships and back into routine, I am hoping to post some blogs about the meet.
Over the next week you can expect to see a blog or two about the distance runners who qualified for the 2011 World Championships in Daegu and other things that caught my attention and prompted me to come home and do some further research.
You can also look forward to the blog’s first guest blogger. A blogger by the name of Track Widow was also at the USA Championships. You have seen her photos (and she edits all the blogs that I post) but until now she has kept her observations of the meet to herself. Not anymore. While I tend to tell the story about the meet with numbers, statistics, and coach-like observations, the Track Widow will provide a different perceptive that should be just as, if not more, appealing. She isn’t a coach. She got her start by going to track meets so she wouldn’t be left home all alone while her other half went to the meets. Ah? Does the name Track Widow now make some sense? She started as a track & field novice with little knowledge of the sport but now she’s the winner of the 2011 Pamakid USA Championships Prediction Game Contest. I introduce to you the Track Widow. I think you will enjoy her blog entries.
One one hundredth of a second. That’s faster than you can blink. That’s faster than the time it takes to read the word “fast.” That can also mean the difference between qualifying for the USA team for the World Championships in Daegu and staying home.
Ten years ago in 2001, at the end of her junior year, in the middle of a rainstorm at the Adidas Outdoor National Championships, Shannon Rowbury edged out Adrienne Anderson by one one-hundredth of a second to win the 800 meter national championship, 2:12.00 to 2:12.01. That day, just like at the 2011 USA Championships today, I would be cheering on Shannon at the 200 meter to go mark and would be unable to see the finish, relying on the video scoreboard and public address announcer to find out the result.
After battling injuries this past off-season and then running two races that by her own definition were “mediocre,” Shannon arrived at the 2011 USA Championships in a different position than she has been. For the first time in the last three years, she was not one of the favorites for a top three finish.
The USA system for selecting its team for the World Championships is very objective. In a nutshell, the top three finishers in each event get to represent the USA. Having a bad race two weeks before the USA Championships doesn’t matter. You just have to get it together and be in the top three at the USA Championships. Having the fastest time so far this season does not guarantee anything. You still have to be in the top three. Having the fastest lifetime PR does not guarantee anything. You still have to be in the top three. Having the potential to improve over the next two months to be the fastest runner in the country come the week of the World Championships does not matter. It’s what you do at this meet. You have to be in the top three. Two-time USA champion? World Championship bronze medalist? Highest finish by an American woman in the Olympic 1500 meters in history? That looks good on the resume but to stamp your passport to Daegu, you still have to be in the top three.
Those were the circumstances facing Shannon and the third place spot would come down to one one-hundredth of a second.
Christin Wurth-Thomas set a blistering early pace, running 62.1 for the first lap. She built up a lead of up to thirty meters. With 300 meters to go Shannon, Morgan Uceny, and Jennifer Barringer Simpson started to go after Wurth-Thomas. Uceny would take the lead at the top of the final straightaway. Simpson would move into second place with about twenty-five meters to go. Shannon was closing ground on Wurth-Thomas. Wurth-Thomas’s form was really tying up. The question was, would Shannon run out of real estate or would she pass Wurth-Thomas to claim the third and final ticket to Daegu? From my vantage point at the 200 meters to go mark, I had no idea. I could hear the crowd gasp and the announcer say that it was too close to call. It took maybe 1500 one one-hundredths of a second (15 seconds) for the result to flash up on the scoreboard.
4:06.20 to 4:06.21. Third place and a ticket to the World Championships in Daegu….by one one-hundredth of a second. Congratulations, Shannon!
In order to qualify to represent the USA at the IAAF World Championships later this summer in Daegu, South Korea athletes must place in the top three at the upcoming USA Championships (June 23-26) in Eugene. One of the most intriguing events will be the women’s 1500 meters (trials on Thursday, June 23, finals on Saturday, June 25). I have a rooting interest in this event, having been Shannon Rowbury’s high school coach.
The competition in Eugene in the women’s 1500 meters will bring together possibly the best USA field in history. The third, fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth fastest women in US history in the 1500 are all scheduled to compete. The USA Champions from the last six years (2005-2010) will all be there. Team USA’s 1500 meter runners from the 2005, 2007, and 2009 World Championships and 2008 Olympics are all competing for a spot on the 2011 World Championship team.
In alphabetical order here are the leading contenders.
Gabrielle Anderson (PR-4:12.06)
The former University of Minnesota runner has made an amazing comeback from cancer and now runs for Team USA Minnesota. She was seventh at the 2010 USA Championships and ran her PR of 4:12.06 last summer in Europe. In 2011 she has placed third at both the USA Indoor Championships (mile) and at the USA Road Mile Championship.
Erin Donohue (PR-4:05.50)
After graduating from the University of North Carolina in 2005, Donohue has been a presence in the 1500 for the USA. She qualified for the USA team for the 2007 World Championships and the 2008 Olympics. Her PR of 4:05.55 was the fastest time by an American in 2007. She has placed third (2007), second (2008), fourth (2009), and second (2010) at the last four USA Championships. She is currently coached by Frank Gagliano.
Brie Felnagle (PR-4:08.54; 2011 best-4:10.12)
Felnage had a storied high school career at Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, Washington that included eight state championships (two in cross country, six in track & field). In college at the University of North Carolina she excelled in the 1500, winning the 2007 NCAA Championship and setting the school record (4:08.54). After college she has returned to Tacoma and is being coached by her former high school coach, Matt Ellis. She is sponsored by Adidas.
Katie Follett (PR-4:07.44, 2011 best-4:07.44)
Follett graduated from the University of Washington in 2010. During that 2010 season she ran a school record 4:10.66 at Mt Sac. She is now sponsored by Brooks and still coached by Greg Metcalf, her college coach. So far in 2011 she lowered her PR twice, winning two races against strong competition, the Payton Jordan Invitational (4:08.95) and the Oxy High Performance Meet (4:07.44).
Jordan Hasay (PR-4:10.28; 2011 best-4:10.28)
The sophomore from Oregon drew national attention when as a high school junior she qualified for the 2008 Olympic Trials Final in the 1500. She set a US high school record of 4:14.50 in the semi-finals at those Olympic Trials, which got the crowd at Hayward Field to chant “Come to Oregon! Come to Oregon!” Three years later she did come to Oregon. She’s coming off the NCAA Championships where she placed fourth in the 5000 and eight in the 1500. She set her PR earlier in the 2011 season, running 4:10.28 at the Payton Jordan Invitational at Stanford.
Amy Mortimer (PR-4:06.55)
Mortimer has quietly been the most consistent American woman in the 1500 over the last decade. Although she’s never qualified for the Olympics or World Championships she has placed in the top 10 of the USA Championships 1500 every year since 2003, when she was eighth as a senior from Kansas State. Her highest finish was third in 2005 but she failed to achieve the “A” standard and thus did not compete at the World Championships in Helsinki. Note: Mortimer has scratched from the race.
Treniere (Clement) Moser (PR-4:03.32; 2011 best-4:07.57)
The three-time USA Champion from 2005-2007 (when she went by her maiden name, Treniere Clement), Moser is making a return to the scene after some injury-plagued seasons. She is now coached by John Cook and has run 4:07.57 (1500) this year and ran an 800 best of 2:00.51 to place fourth at the 2010 USA Championships. She represented the USA at the 2005 and 2007 World Championships in the 1500 and her 4:03.32 PR is from the 2006 season.
Anna (Willard) Pierce (PR-3:59.38; 2011 best-4:10.38)
She qualified for the 2008 Olympics in the steeplechase and for a time held the American record in the steeplechase with her 9:27.59 at the 2008 Olympic Trials. In 2009 she started running more 800’s and 1500’s and qualified for the 2009 World Championships in both the steeplechase and the 1500 (she ran the 1500 only and placed sixth). She was the 2010 USA Champion in the 1500 and her PR of 3:59.38 (run in 2009) ranks her as the third fastest American of all-time.
Shannon Rowbury (PR-4:00.33; 2011 best-4:11.67)
Rowbury was the USA Champion in 2008 and 2009. She represented the USA at the 2008 Olympics (where she was seventh) and the 2009 World Championships (where she earned a bronze medal). She was third at the 2010 USA Championships. Her PR of 4:00.33 set in Paris in 2008 makes her the seventh fastest woman in US history. Rowbury is featured in the July/August edition of Running Times, where she discusses missing some training time in the most recent off-season due to injury, and her prospects for the upcoming USA Championships and 2012 London Olympics.
Jenny (Barringer) Simpson (PR-3:59.90; 2011 best-4:09.56)
While still a college runner at Colorado coached by Mark Wetmore, she qualified for the 2008 Olympics and 2009 World Championships in the steeplechase. She’s the current American record holder in that event with a 9:12.50 in placing fifth at the 2009 World Championships. She is now sponsored by New Balance and coached by Julie Henner. She has not run the steeplechase the last two years, instead competing in the 1500 and 5000. Her 3:59.90 in 2009 makes her the fifth fastest American of all-time. She missed most of the 2010 season due to an injury but returned to compete well during the 2011 indoor season.
Moran Uceny (PR-4:02.40; 2011 best-4:06.32)
Uceny was primarily an 800 runner in college at Cornell. She’s placed in the top six at the USA Championships in the 800 the last four years. In 2008, after finishing sixth in the 800 at the Olympic Trials she doubled back and was a surprise fourth place finisher in the 1500. It wasn’t until 2010, however, that she has fully committed to racing the 1500. Coached by Terrence Mahon as part of the Mammoth Track Club she became the tenth fastest American of all-time in 2010 by running a 4:02.40.
Christin Wurth-Thomas (PR-3:59.59; 2011 best-4:03.72)
Wurth-Thomas is the fourth fastest American in history with her 3:59.59 in 2010. She represented the USA at the 2008 Olympics, and the 2007 and 2009 World Championships (fifth in the 1500 final in 2009). She has placed second (2007), third (2008), second (2009), and fourth (2010) at the last four USA Championships. She is the only American 1500 contender to have raced in Europe already in 2011, where she ran a USA season best of 4:03.72 in Rome in May.
Tune in on Saturday, June 25 (live television coverage on NBC) at 2:33 P.M. west coast time and see which three women emerge from this dogfight to represent the USA at the World Championships.
They both attended Canyon High School in Canyon Country (near Magic Mountain) in Southern California and were coached by Dave DeLong. The principal at Canyon just so happens to be Bob Messina, who really got my coaching career started when he allowed me to be the UCLA women’s cross country team manager in 1989. Just last fall both Johnson and Fleshman stopped by their alma mater to visit with one of their high school coaches and the current team.
Johnson and Fleshman both claimed California State championships in track & field while in high school (Johnson: 800 meters, 2:08.97-2004; Fleshman: 3200 meters, 10:18.81-1999).
They both had standout track & field seasons in 2007, earning spots on the USA team for the World Championships in Osaka. Johnson, then only a junior at Cal-Berkeley, captured the 2007 USA Championship in the 800 meters. Fleshman was in her third consecutive year of placing in the top three at the USA Championships.
Thanks to such successful 2007 seasons, both Johnson and Fleshman had to be thinking about making the Olympic team as 2008 began.
Johnson placed third at the NCAA Indoor Championships in March. But, suddenly, Johnson had a sore foot. She was still able to win the Pac-10 and Western Region 800 meter races but had to withdraw from the NCAA 800 meter semi-final due to the pain in her foot.
About one month before the Olympic Trials, Fleshman ran an excellent time of 14:58.48 in the 5000. She seemed primed and peaked for the Olympic Trials. All seemed to be fine at the Trials in the 5000, but a select few in Fleshman’s circle knew that she had rolled her left ankle before the 14:58 race and had subsequently taken two weeks off from running right before the Trials.
Both Johnson and Fleshman had their dreams of running at the 2008 Olympics dashed by broken navicular bones.
At the Olympic Trials, Johnson toed the starting line, but clearly affected by the injury, placed a disappointing ninth in her heat and did not advance to the semi-final, let alone the Olympics. She could barely walk off the track. The injury was later diagnosed as a stress fracture in her navicular bone.
In the women’s 5000 meters at the Olympic Trials, Kara Goucher, Shalane Flanagan, Jennifer Rhines, and Fleshman comprised the lead pack. When the lead pack surged with three laps to go, Fleshman could not keep pace. She would place a disappointing fourth, missing the last qualifying spot for the Olympics by one place. In October she would undergo surgery on her foot for her broken navicular bone.
Between the 2008 Olympic Trials and this year, it’s been a slow gradual return to the upper echelon of running for both athletes. Johnson did not start racing again until April 2009. She did not run any PR’s, but at least she was able to compete in the 2009 season. It was a step in the right direction. Fleshman battled back after her surgery but ended up not racing on the track in 2009 when she scratched from the 2009 USA Championships at the last minute. She did show progress when she won the X-Terra Half Marathon Trail National Championship race in September 2009.
Johnson and Fleshman’s patience and perseverance have been rewarded. Both have comeback from their injury not just to be able to compete again, but to compete at a high level. They both claimed 2010 USA championships (Johnson in the 800 meters and Fleshman in the 5000 meters).
Johnson’s 2010 season began with a bronze medal at the World Indoor Championships in Doha in March. Then she won the USA Championship in impressive fashion, leading the race from start to finish. At that point her PR for the 800 was still 1:59.29 from the 2007 season. Three amazing PR races have followed. First a 1:58.84 at the Prefontaine Classic on July 3. Then a 1:57.85 to win a relatively low-key meet in Lignano on July 18. Then came the big one. In Monaco on July 22 Johnson won a Diamond League 800 race with a world leading time for 2010, setting her third PR in less than three weeks (after going without a PR for three years). Her time of 1:57.34 makes her the fifth fastest US woman of all-time!
Fleshman’s 2010 season began in earnest following the trail half marathon win in September 2009. Her next race was a 5K a month later. She didn’t race on the track until a meet in Oregon in April, which she won in 15:42. She
did a tune-up 1500 a month before the USA Championships in 4:12. Then she stepped on the starting line in Des Moines for the 2010 USA Championships. No one knew what to expect. The favorites were Rhines, Molly Huddle, and Jennifer Barringer. Having been away from the track scene for nearly two years, Fleshman was not seen as a race favorite. That may have made what she did all the more special. With five laps to go, Rhines surged and built up a sizeable lead. Fleshman and Huddle ran together and closed the gap on Rhines. With 600 meters to go Fleshman went for the win – attempting to win the USA Championship at 5000 meters like she had four years prior. She ran a 66.9 second last lap to win by two seconds over Huddle and five seconds over Barringer. The comeback was complete. An excited and emotional Lauren Fleshman was national champion.
Johnson and Fleshman should be proud of the accomplishments already achieved in their careers. Their comebacks alone are the stuff of Hollywood movies. Hopefully there is more for the script to come. My lingering question is, will their career paths continue to eerily mirror one another?
The 2010 USA Championships at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa are now over. There were some exciting races and great performances (American records in the women’s javelin and high jump). However, there being no international championship in 2010, this meet lacked much of the drama of the past couple USA Championship meets when berths on the USA team for the Olympics and World Championships were on the line.
However, I still enjoyed the experience in Iowa. A big reason I like to attend meets like this is to interact with other track geeks like me (one of Malinda’s reactions when she first went to a big meet with me was, “My gosh, these guys here are just as geeky as Andy!”) On more than one occasion I have heard people remark that no matter where you are, in your seat at the track or in the sports bar after the meet, you can start talking to the person next to you and discover you have much in common – mainly a love for the sport of track & field. You are bound to be introduced to someone’s friend by a friend of a friend and next thing you know you are giving your opinion on the 800 meter final tactics of Nick Symmonds and exchanging e-mall addresses. So even though there was a little less energy at this meet than there was in Eugene the last two years and even though there was no Villard Street Pub to meet up with people after the meet, I still had some memorable conversations over the weekend.
On the first day Malinda and I sat in our seats in Section V, Row 15, Seats 12 and 13. Sitting next to us in Section V, Row 15, Seats 14 and 15 were a married couple. After some time I could tell they must have a daughter running in the meet. And a bit later I realized that the daughter was in the 1500, just like Shannon Rowbury. “This could be awkward,” was my initial thought. Fortunately Shannon was in heat one and their daughter was in heat two. I figured out from their cheering that their daughter’s name was Lauren – so after consulting my heat sheet, it had to be Mr. and Mrs. Centrowitz or Mr. and Mrs. Hagans sitting to my right. A couple of quick glances at what they were wearing did not solve the mystery but eventually I figured out it was the proud parents of Lauren Hagans sitting next to the proud high school coach (and his wife) of Shannon Rowbury.
On Saturday we got to talking to the Hagans and learned more about Lauren. She graduated from Baylor in 2009 and just recently (in the last couple weeks) moved to Knoxville, Tennessee to be coached by J.J. Clark. But Lauren’s start in the sport is what was really interesting. She was a cheerleader in high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. The high school girls cross country team was so small that they didn’t have a full team. One day the coach asked Lauren, then a sophomore, to run at a meet so they would have five girls. Lauren’s parents were out of town so her grandmother was taking care of her. The grandmother called the parents and asked if it was okay for Lauren to go on, “some overnight track meet.” Lauren’s mom knew that it was the fall so it wasn’t a track meet but figured as long as it was school related it was okay. So began Lauren’s running career. Later that very season she was third at the state meet and the next year she was cross country state champion. She was also a multiple state champion in both indoor and outdoor track. Because the coach that recruited her to run cross country had a contact at Baylor, Lauren got a scholarship to run for Baylor. By her junior and senior year in college she was an All-American, held the school record in the 800, and qualified to run at the 2008 Olympic Trials. And now, less than eight years after trading in her pom poms for running shoes, she lined up at the 2010 USA Championships in position two, between Shalane Flanagan in position one and Shannon Rowbury in position three.
On Saturday night we had dinner with Shannon’s mom, Paula, and Keith Conning. Keith was a long-time Berkeley High School coach and is still heavily involved in Northern California high school running… and he knows a lot of people! On our way out of the Raccoon River Brewing Company, Keith stopped and introduced us to some friends of his. The next thing we know we are talking track with Lloyd (who lives down the 280 from us in Saratoga) and David and Don (who are from Akron, Ohio). I told David that I have always wanted to go to the Akron Marathon to run the marathon relay with a Pamakids team and he promptly handed me his business card.
On Sunday night, Malinda and I walked around an almost empty downtown Des Moines. Many restaurants were closed and there weren’t a lot of track & field athletes or fans out and about. We were about to head back to our hotel and start packing for the drive westward when I decided to call David. He was excited to hear from me and we agreed to meet at the Rock River Grill and Tavern in the Marriott Hotel. Again we had a great time telling stories, pausing only to take pictures with the costumed airport auditors across the way and to shake hands with 110 meter hurdle champion (and all-around super nice guy) David Oliver.
My favorite story of the night came from Don. We were on the subject of healthy eating and Malinda explained how we gave up eating ice cream every night. Don made a pained look when she said this and I knew I had a friend. Don, much like me, is a fan of the ice cream. He said he does give up ice cream at the end of his marathon training – which means he is craving ice cream after the marathon so he has a Boston marathon ice cream tradition. Midway between the Boston finish line and his hotel is a Ben and Jerry’s. Twelve years ago he walked into that Ben and Jerry’s the day before the marathon with an envelope. Inside the envelope was a five dollar bill. Written on the envelope was his name, his bib number, and the words “Cherry Garcia.” He handed it to the scoop boy and told him he would be in the next day to get his ice cream. After the race, he walked over to Ben and Jerry’s and his bowl of Cherry Garcia was waiting for him. Twelve years later this has become a ritual. That scoop boy is now a regional manager for multiple Ben and Jerry’s in the Boston area, but he makes sure to be working at the store near the Boston Marathon finish line the weekend of Boston so he can get Don’s envelope on Sunday and serve him his ice cream post-race on Monday.
This last year, Don had some friends with him at the Sunday envelope drop off at Ben and Jerry’s. He brought some extra envelopes and asked if anyone wanted to join in the ritual. Two friends decided to do it. One friend finished a few minutes ahead of Don and headed to Ben and Jerry’s. Don decided to linger at the finish line longer than usual chatting and waiting for his other buddy, so he headed over to Ben and Jerry’s a little later than usual. When he arrived he saw his friend with his ice cream – signing a waiver of release and having his picture taken by a photographer from a major magazine. The photographer saw the marathoner chowing down on ice cream right after the race and thought it would make for a great photo. Isn’t that how it always goes? You have some creative idea and have been doing it for years. Then someone comes along, borrows your idea, and the first time they do it, they get all the recognition! Well, at least Don had a great story to tell us sitting around at the bar talking to his new friends from San Francisco.
Making friends and hearing stories from other track fans from around the country…that’s what makes attending the USA Championships a fun meet for me.
Our summer vacation in 2008 included a trip to Eugene for the Olympic Trials and a trip to Beijing, China for the Olympics. In 2009 we went to Eugene for the USA Championships and to Berlin, Germany for the World Championships. This summer’s trip is a 4,500 mile road trip from San Francisco to Des Moines to Eugene, and then back home to San Francisco. Along the way we will see the 2010 USA Championships in Des Moines and the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene. For Malinda and me, summer vacations like these combine three of our passions: 1) travel, 2) track & field, and 3) cheering for Shannon Rowbury.
Our latest journey began last week. We have stayed in Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, and are now in the heart of the heartland, Iowa! Along the way we have had a great time. In Reno, Nevada we met up with 1984 Olympian Ruth Wysocki and went for a thirty minute run with her (shake out run after a long drive…although Malinda said it was more like a tempo run for her). In Boulder, Colorado we stayed with our friend, and running and triathlon enthusiast, Jim Moriarity. Jim drove us up to 8,300 feet so we could run on the road made famous by the University of Colorado and Chris Lear’s book, Running with the Buffaloes – Magnolia Road. Also in Boulder we met two elite athletes who were staying with Jim, Fiona Docherty (who competed in the 2009 World Championships Marathon) and Alice Mason.
It’s been an exciting week for a sports enthusiast. Before starting our drive on Wednesday we were riveted in front of the television set like many others just hoping the USA could score a goal against Algeria…and Landon Donovan delivered in extra time! I just read about the Wimbledon match that lasted eleven hours and five minutes, spread out over three days. 70-68 in the fifth
set! That is crazy! The final day’s drive to Des Moines brought us through Omaha, Nebraska and it just so happens to be the week of the College World Series. So of course we made a quick stop to see Rosenblatt Stadium, which has hosted the College World Series since 1950. It turns out this is the last
College World Series in the famous stadium as a new downtown stadium will be completed in time for the 2011 event. Perhaps even more memorable than the stadium was the street outside the stadium, jam packed with vendors selling College World Series merchandise.
Anyway, back to track & field. You never know what’s going to happen at a USA Championship in a year like 2010 when there is no international championship later in the summer (like it was in 2007, 2008, and 2009). There is less pressure on the athletes to place in the top three to qualify for the Olympics or the World Championships. Some of the top athletes are not even here; they are skipping this meet in favor of the Prefontaine Classic next week or for meets later this summer in Europe. Some other athletes are competing in their “off” event.
Shannon ran a very controlled race in the 1500 trials on Thursday evening. It was a very slow pace early on (2:22 at the 800 meter mark) and she just stayed with the pack. When the pace picked up (63 for lap three) she smoothly put herself in the top three. In the last lap she looked effortless, covering the lap in 60.8 seconds to win her heat easily and qualify for the final at 2:26 P.M. central time on Saturday.
It’s fun to look back at what I was thinking over the last four years.
Four years ago – 2006
Shannon placed 6th at the 2006 USA Championships in Indianapolis:
1. Treniere Clement, 4:10.44
2. Lindsay Gallo, 4:10.72
3. Sarah Schwald, 4:11.60
4. Carrie Tollefson, 4:12.23
5. Christin Wurth, 4:12.82
6. Shannon Rowbury, 4:12.86
At the time, I remember the feeling was, “she needs to move up three places in the next two years to be an Olympian.” Easier said than done….or was it?!
Three years ago – 2007
Shannon was injured and Malinda and I spent the summer focused on our wedding.
Two years ago – 2008
Shannon was the favorite in the 1500 at the 2008 Olympic Trials after her breakthrough 4:01.61 at a meet in May. She would win the Olympic Trials and go on to place seventh at the Olympics, but boy was it nerve-racking at the Olympic Trials.
One year ago – 2009
Suddenly the competition in the women’s 1500 jumped up a level. Jenny Barringer broke four minutes at Prefontaine. Christin Wurth-Thomas and Anna Willard were on top of their game. Running four minutes low in the 1500 was no big feat anymore. With this backdrop Shannon stepped up when it counted, and even though Wurth-Thomas had built up a big lead, Shannon made up a lot of ground on the last lap to win her second straight USA 1500 championship.
Just three weeks ago Shannon was at Kezar posing for a compression sock photo with the Pamakids.
Now it’s the day before the 1500 final and this more or less marks the halfway point between Beijing and London. Shannon will go after her third straight USA championship. Wurth-Thomas, Willard (now Anna Pierce), and others will do everything they can to beat her. What better way to spend your summer vacation!
Out here on the west coast, where the weather in January and February does not prevent you from training outside, indoor track & field seems more like an exhibition sport. But in other parts of the United States and internationally indoor track & field is a full-fledged championship sport.
This weekend is the USA Indoor Championships in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Competition will take place Saturday, February 27 and Sunday, February 28. Of note, Shannon Rowbury is entered in the 3000 meters (Saturday at 7:35 P.M. pacific time) and the 1500 meters (Sunday at 3:25 P.M. pacific time). Television coverage of the meet will be on ESPN2 on Sunday from 4:00-6:00 P.M. pacific time. This is not Shannon’s first time competing at the USA Indoor Championships. In 2008 in Boston she pulled what was then a bit of an upset by winning the 3000 meters.
The top two athletes in each event qualify to represent the USA at the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) World Indoor Championships. Some athletes choose to go and represent the USA and some choose to pass their qualifying spot. You may wonder why an athlete who qualifies would choose not to go to the World Championships. Athletes have to make a lot of tough decisions. Is the travel and consequent disruption in their training routine worth attending an international indoor meet? Some athletes may have very different goals than performing well at indoor meets. Other goals might be: outdoor races, a particular road race, or the upcoming IAAF World Cross Country Championships. In 2008, Shannon chose not to go the Indoor World Championships because she wanted to continue her training plan that was building towards achieving the Olympic “A” standard and preparing for the 2008 Olympic Trials.
The IAAF sanctions a World Indoor Track & Field Championship every even numbered year. The last one was in Valencia, Spain in 2008. The 13th annual championships will be in Doha, Qatar from March 12 to 14, 2010. The international indoor championships include sprints (60 and 400 meters), distance and middle distance (800, 1500 and 3000 meters), hurdles (60 meter hurdles), field events (high jump, long jump, triple jump, shot put and pole vault), relays (4X400 meter relay), and one combined event (heptathlon for men and pentathlon for women).
But back to the USA Championships. You can participate too, by playing the USATF’s Pick-N-Win Fantasy Game. You need to create a log-in but then you’ll have access to play. The deadline is Saturday at 1:55 P.M. The objective is to pick the winner for each event. There are drop down menus for each event with the most current list of entrants so you can easily make picks. You don’t have to be a track geek to do well – at the last meet Track Widow outpointed Chanman’s Irish 122 to 100!
The USA Indoor Championship is the third and final meet of the Visa Championship Series (the two previous meets were the Millrose Games and the Boston Indoor Games). The top American male finisher and top American female finisher in each event at Visa Championship Series meets have their performances assigned a point total based on the IAAF Scoring Tables of Athletics. At the conclusion of the USA Indoor Championships the top three men and top three women earn prize money (1st-$30,000; 2nd-$15,000; 3rd-$5,000). This competition is the Race for the Visa Championship. One caveat is that, although the winning performance can come from any one of the three meets, to be named the Visa Champion you must compete at the USA Indoor Championships. Heading into the final meet, sitting atop the women’s leaderboard is Ms. Rowbury with 1,172 points from her 8:47.14 performance in the 3,000 meters at the Boston Indoor Games.
A brewing controversy is the fact that Albuquerque is at nearly 5,000 feet of elevation, putting the distance runners at a decided disadvantage in terms of achieving a high score on the IAAF scoring tables. This has led to an outcry from many stating that this is unfair. Shannon’s chances of remaining the leader could very much be affected by the elevation. A sprinter or field event athlete, who actually benefits from the thin air, could put up a top mark and pass her in the standings. Even if Shannon wins her event, her mark is likely to score less points on the IAAF table than the sprinter’s or field event athlete’s mark because the altitude will cause her time to be slower than it would have been at sea level. Because of this very real possibility that Shannon could lose out on some prize money due to the altitude, her coach, John Cook, has been leading the charge to get the scoring to include an adjustment for altitude. In an interview with www.LetsRun.com this week Cook said:
“At altitude, you aren’t going to run good times if you are a distance runner – that’s like breathing through a straw. But the sprinters are going to come to altitude and they are going to rock. It’s a huge advantage (to sprint at altitude).“
“Everyone I’ve talked to at USATF agrees with me and says we need to make changes, then they say don’t know how to do (the altitude adjustment). Well there are books out there. There is a green book out there. There is an IAAF book out there. I’m not the smartest guy in the world but I can figure this out. And if I can figure it out, everyone can.”
But on Tuesday, USATF CEO Doug Logan released a statement that said that there will be no altitude adjustment for the distance events.
How many of you don’t follow indoor track & field at all and didn’t even know the USA Championships were this weekend? After reading this, I hope I’ve sparked a little interest and you’ll play the Pick-N-Win game, watch the meet on television or follow it on the internet and look up the Visa Champion on Monday and see if the altitude made a difference.
Saturday and Sunday:
Saturday – Women’s 1500
I was too nervous for Shannon’s upcoming race to really take in and truly enjoy all the action on Saturday. As her 6:11pm race got closer and closer, I noticed I was talking less and less, tuning out Malinda, John, and Asit, and checking the time constantly. Finally it was time for her race.
There’s not too much to say here about the race since I’ve probably talked about it to death already. But here goes. It was an amazing race. Christin Wurth-Thomas took off with over two laps to go and built a sizeable lead. This was totally expected by all. Shannon waited patiently in the pack until there was one lap to go. Many (me included?) thought she may have waited too long to make her move. But, I’ve seen Shannon pull off some miracles in the last lap of a race before so there was still hope. She closed the gap, and honestly, with 150 meters to go, I felt fairly confident that Shannon would catch Wurth-Thomas. But, I was also worried about Anna Willard back in 3rd place mounting a big kick (I’ve seen her do that, too). In front of 10,000 screaming fans, especially her parents and the Pamakids in Section C, Shannon pulled off the victory. I must add here, that Wurth-Thomas dropping a 62 lap in the middle of the 1500, was a pretty good strategy for her. Making a bold move in the middle of the race was her only chance of winning the race. As suicidal as it may have seemed, she did not cost herself a spot on the team to Berlin and she almost pulled off the upset win. Hats off to her.
Back to Shannon, what a difference three weeks makes. Her disappointment from the Prefontaine Meet was vanquished as she pumped her fists as she crossed the finish line. In the overall picture, she may look back at getting her butt kicked at Prefontaine as the best thing that could have happened. For the last three weeks, she’s been focused and training with a bit of a chip on her shoulder. It paid off.
I am e-mail buddies with 1984 Olympian Ruth Wysocki. Ruth has constantly said that to win international races Shannon needs to be able to run the last 400 in 60 and to break 2:00 in the 800. On Saturday she did #1. I know a major goal of Shannon’s is to get under 2:00 in the 800 and she’ll get her shot at that in some races in Europe in July. I think Ruth is right. Having seen Shannon stay patient and then unleash that big kick makes me feel that she is a step ahead of where she was last year in terms of being ready for international competition. Can’t wait for Berlin!
Sunday – Women’s Pole Vault
Like Thursday during the High Jump, there was a sentimental reason to follow the Women’s Pole Vault on Sunday. Stacy Dragila, a pioneer in women’s pole vaulting (first Olympic Champion, first World champion, 17-time USA champion both indoors and outdoors, and American and World Record holder) has been vague about whether this would be her last year of competition. She placed 3rd to qualify for Berlin. When asked afterwards if this would be her last meet on US soil she was again vague but then thanked a whole bunch of doctors and therapists who helped her with her various ailments. I couldn’t help but think that it’s probably time for her to retire.
Sunday – Women’s 800
I’ve known who Maggie Vessey is since she ran the 400 in 54 for Soquel High School. I remember seeing her come off the track in tears at the 2000 State Meet after what I guess was an awful race (she was 7th). I told Shannon that no matter what happened, she needed to come off the track with her head up because she should be proud of herself for competing at the State Meet. I followed Vessey’s career as she moved up to the 800 at Cal Poly SLO and has had some success as a post-collegiate athlete. The “world” learned who Maggie Vessey is when, with the slowest PR in the field, she came from the back of the pack in the last 200 meters to win the Prefontaine Classic (Pre) 800 three weeks ago. The non-descript uniform she was wearing (i.e. no sponsor) and shocked look on her face told half the story.
Fast forward to this week’s competition. Vessey is now sporting a New Balance uniform so her victory at Pre did net her a sponsor. In both the first round and the semi-finals, Vessey went to the back of the pack for the first lap and then kicked it into gear in the last half lap to qualify. She looked smooth and fast in the last 200 both times and although it was probably nerve-wracking for her camp to watch, she seemed to be doing exactly what she wanted to do.
At the final, she employed the same strategy. After 200 meters, everyone was bunched together around 29 seconds and she was 10 meters back at 30. Then she slowed down even more and came through the 400 in 62 something, now 15 meters back. This strategy of staying in the back to run the shortest distance on the rail and not get boxed in worked well at Pre when the first 200 was an almost suicidal 26. It also works well when you are superior to everyone in the field (a la Yuri Borsakovski from Russia, but even for him this strategy sometimes blows up in his face). It also is an effective strategy in the qualifying rounds because you are running against some inferior competition and you are trying to conserve energy and qualify. But I didn’t understand the strategy for the final. The pace by the front pack was very moderate. She could have been in last place but still in contact with the group. There was no reason to conserve energy for the next day…This was THE DAY! In my opinion, since she doesn’t even have the A standard yet, she shouldn’t have been acting like she was the far superior runner in the field.
She was so far back that I almost stopped watching her. She closed with a fast 28 last 200 and moved up to 4th, but she couldn’t quite get by Phoebe Wright for 3rd place. It doesn’t matter that she had a nice kick. It doesn’t matter that she passed four people in the final straightaway. The goal was to be top three and she didn’t do it. I think her race tactics were the reason.
In Vessey’s defense, this meet was like no other in her career. The expectations and pressure had to be enormous, coming off the win at Pre, now having a sponsor, and being one of the favorites to make the team for Berlin. It is no wonder that she was quoted in the newspaper the next day saying that she only got an hour sleep the night before the race and that, “ I was in a different position than what I’ve been in, and I let the pressure get to me a little bit.”
Another Shannon connection who was in the 800 final was Alysia Johnson, who placed 7th. Johnson, who ran at Cal, was the 2007 USA Champion in the 800 meters and has run under 2:00. She’s known for wearing a flower in her hair. Malinda and I got to talk to her as we walked to lunch the day after the meet ended. She seemed to be limping so she might have been injured. There is a picture on Shannon’s website of Shannon and Alysia at the beach together in San Diego on an off-day from training, so they must have gotten to know each other. Back in 2001, Shannon was a junior and the favorite to win the California State Meet 800. Johnson, only a freshmen, was in the race. Out of the eight competitors Shannon had in that race, Johnson worried me the most. On that June day back in 2001, Shannon won her first high school state championship and Johnson placed 8th. Who knew then that their paths would keep crossing in the world of track & field?
Sunday – Men’s 800
The main story of the Men’s 800 was hometown hero Nick Symmonds taking 1st and the other hometown hero Christian Smith being unable to dive at the finish line to get 3rd like he did last year at the Olympic Trials.
Lost in the sentiment of “this race can never live up to last year’s Olympic Trials 800,” was the early leader, Karjuan Williams. I noticed Williams’ name earlier in the meet but had to wait until I got home to confirm that he was who I thought he was. Williams was a high-level junior athlete from New Orleans. At one junior meet he crossed paths with track fan Nick Sparks who ran on some fast relay teams for Bella Vista High School (Sacramento area) in the early 1980’s. Sparks, who ran at Notre Dame University collegiately, has gone on to fame as an author (five best-selling books, including “The Notebook”) and he is still active in the track & field scene in his hometown of New Bern, North Carolina (he has donated a lot of money to help track over the years). When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Sparks and his family wanted to do something to help. They wanted to do more than send money or food and blankets. Sparks remembered that this kid Williams was a great 800 runner (1:50) and that he lived in New Orleans, so he started searching for him. Williams, his mom and two sisters had re-located to Arkansas. Things were tight with money for them and despite some initial hesitation, they eventually accepted Sparks’ offer to move to New Bern and live with the Sparks family. A full re-cap of the story behind the man leading the men’s 800 for the first lap can be found here: http://www.dyestatcal.com/news/xc2005New/November/09KWilliams.html
Williams was running unattached so I don’t know if he went to college or what has happened to him since the move to New Bern. Williams faded to 7th, but it was a real treat to see someone that I had read about in a track human interest story four years ago competing at USA Nationals.
Sunday – Men’s 1500
Now that the drama to cut down from 51 athletes in the first round to 12 in the final was over, we could settle in and just enjoy the men’s 1500 final. Despite all the qualifying procedure complaints, there really wasn’t anyone missing from the field of 12 that I felt would have been a factor to medal in Berlin. The big guns were 2008 Olympians Leo Manzano and Lopez Lomong, and if they were there, in my mind, the US’s best were there. Leo trains with Shannon so naturally I root for him. Before the Prefontaine Classic I met him at a group dinner and I really enjoyed talking to him. Lopez, if you recall, was the US flag bearer at the Olympic Opening Ceremonies last year in Beijing (I said to him, “nice job carrying the flag,” when Malinda took a photo of me and Lopez together outside the Bird’s Nest). Lopez is also somewhat famous for being one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. ESPN has a great article about the Lost Boys of Sudan at: http://sports.espn.go.com/oly/trackandfield/columns/story?id=3468567. I felt that no matter who won, it was likely that a “good guy” would win the race.
The Pamakids Pick The Winner Game became the new drama. It all came down to this event. I had Leo and I was leading with 46 points. Tomas was 2nd with 44 points and he had Lopez. Tomas would win the game if Lopez won the 1500. Any other result meant that I would win. Such drama!
The wind was pretty strong and I knew I was in trouble when Leo led for much of the first three laps. In a race that was going to be close, Lopez was gaining too much of an advantage by sitting on Leo’s shoulder while Leo took the wind. Sure enough, with 200 to go, Lopez surged to the lead and despite a valiant effort, Leo could not answer back. Lopez-1st, Leo-2nd: Tomas-49, Andy-48.
Maybe the biggest news from this race was the absence of Alan Webb. Webb, who had to kick furiously during the first round to pass Cal’s David Torrence to just barely qualify, apparently injured his calf and decided not to race. In terms of the final result, I don’t think it mattered. Something has happened to Webb over the last two years and he is just not at the same caliber that he once was (it was only two years ago in July 2007 that he set the American Record in the mile). After the 2007 World Championships, this is what I had to say about him and championship racing:
In my opinion, fast times are nice but a runner’s place in American distance running history is really determined by how well you can race at a championship meet like the Olympics or World Championships (that’s why you may or may not know who Steve Holman is). It’s about racing not time trialing. When Webb left the University of Michigan after his freshman year of college to turn pro and go back to his high school coach, I was often asked if it was a good idea or not. My answer then was, we won’t know until 2007 in Osaka or 2008 in Beijing or maybe even 2012. Clearly that is what Webb was focused on and he was willing to sacrifice short term college glory to obtain his goal of “championship success.” At the 2005 World Championships, his tactics were questioned because he surged to a big lead with 700 meters to go and then faded to 9th. This past week at the 2007 World Championships, Webb came into the meet as the world leader for the year. He appeared confident and based on his American record in the mile, a couple decisive victories over Bernard Lagat, and some fast times in the 800 & 1500, he was considered one of the favorites. He seemed intent on being up front to force an honest (decently fast) pace. Watching the race, I don’t think he went out too fast. And when 18 year old Kiprop of Kenya took the lead on the 3rd lap, things seemed perfect for Webb. But when it came time to drop the hammer, time to throw tactics aside and run all out for a medal, Webb did not have the same gear to go to as the others in the race. He didn’t fall off badly. But at the world class level, you have to be able to put it into a certain gear to be successful. Whether it was peaking at the wrong time, over-confidence, poor tactics, the prelims tiring his legs out (you must run two qualifying races and then the final in five days), or still his youth, the fact of the matter is he was a disappointing 8th. Lagat, who earlier this year lost to Webb twice, became America’s first 1500 World Champion since 1908. And the jury still remains out on Webb. Can he develop into a championship racer to go along with his fast times?
Unfortunately, he’s done nothing to prove himself as a championship racer since then. And now his time trialing ability seems also to have disappeared, leaving Webb as just an also-ran at the USA Championships. Someone who isn’t even missed when he scratches from the final. It is really sad because his previous fast times suggest he has talent. Will we see a return of Alan Webb to championship level and American record setting times? Or will the answer to the question, “Was it a good idea or bad idea to leave Michigan after freshman year?” become: a bad idea.
More thoughts…from Friday.
Friday – Women’s 5000
The competition in this event is certainly down in the US right now. Shalane Flanagan chose to focus on the 10,000. Shannon Rowbury and Jennifer Barringer have both run fast times in the 5000 but their focus is on the 1500 and Steeplechase. Kara Goucher was in the race but she announced beforehand that she would be running the race to work on her kick and that she would not be running the 5000 at the World Championships (Worlds) in Berlin (she is running the marathon instead). That left Jen Rhines as the only athlete with an A standard.
I figured the race would be won by Goucher, with Rhines second and a good battle for 3rd and 4th place, which, with Goucher dropping the 5000, was actually 2nd and 3rd place. Some relative unknowns were going to have a shot at Berlin. Goucher’s comment about her coach Alberto Salazar wanting her to work on her kick reminded me of Salazar’s other big name athlete, Galen Rupp, and his finishes at the NCAA Championships (NCAAs) in the 5000 (4:00 last 1600 – 64.9, 60.9, 57.1, 57.3) and in the 10,000 (1:58 last 800). I figured Goucher would be looking to do something similar. She did. For much of the last two miles Goucher and Rhines were running around 76-77 pace. But with four laps to go, Goucher started to pick it up with a 73. Rhines was not able to keep up. Goucher then dropped it some more, closing with 68, 69, and 65 for a 4:36 last mile and 2:14 last 800. I assume that’s exactly what her coach was looking for.
Rhines hung on to get 2nd place easily. She may be the only American in the women’s 5000 in Berlin. With 600 meters to go, there were still five people battling for the final spots: Julie Culley, Rebecca Donaghue, Angela Bizzarri, Rachael Marchand, and Nicole Blood. Something in my gut told me that Bizzarri, the reigning NCAA Champion from Illinois was going to pull it out (that whole theory about college athletes being peaked now), and sure enough she did. Bizzarri got 3rd with Culley 4th. Neither one has the A (15:10) or B (15:25) standard so they will need to chase some marks in Europe before July 31 if they want to compete in Berlin. I’ve heard talk that who the USA sends to Worlds could be interesting if neither one gets the B standard, because people much farther down the results list may get to go.
On a sad note, two people I’ve followed for quite a few years ran disappointing races in the 5000. Sara Slattery was 11th in 15:54 and Sara Hall (wife of Ryan) was last in 16:54. It was painful to watch Hall running her final laps. Slattery is the person that may qualify for Worlds if Bizzarri and Culley do not get a B standard, because Slattery was the highest finisher with the B standard. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad day for her after all?
Friday – Men’s 5000
As this race unfolded, the first thing you couldn’t help but notice was the large presence of the bright green uniform of the Oregon Track Club (OTC). Most of these guys are transplants from Wisconsin, having moved to Portland when their coach Jerry Schumacher left the University of Wisconsin to coach Nike elite athletes in Portland. There was Matt Tegenkamp (Teg), Chris Solinsky, Jonathan Riley, Ryan Bak, and the kid Evan Jager (in a somewhat controversial move, the 20 year old left Wisconsin after one year and followed Schumacher to Portland to train). Also in the 5000 mix was Anthony Famiglietti, an Olympian in the steeplechase who also had the fourth fastest seed time in the 10,000 but decided to put all his eggs in one basket and run just the 5000 at the USA Championships (USAs). That’s Fam for you…he keeps it interesting (read a blog entry from Fam from after this race, in which he pushed the pace early but faded and did not make the team for Berlin: http://www.flotrack.org/blogs/blogger/anthonyfamiglietti/7819-win-win). From Northern California there was former McAteer High School and Cal runner Bolota Asmeron, and doubling back from the 10,000 the night before (although he was a DNF in the 10,000) was former Chico State runner, Scott Bauhs. The last main player in the mix was the young phenom, German Fernandez, who just completed his freshman year at Oklahoma State. The rumor was that Fernandez had his sights set on the American Junior Record set just over a month ago by his rival Chris Derrick of Stanford (13:29.98). As expected, Bernard Lagat, with a free pass to the 5000 in Berlin as defending World Champion, and Galen Rupp, already qualified in the 10,000, were scratches.
With the men running 63-64 seconds per lap, the race unfolded fast. Before you knew it, it was less than a mile to go and with a sea of OTC uniforms. It dawned on me that it would be annoying to hear the Oregon crowd go nuts for an OTC sweep so we started cheering for Bolota (plus we know and like Bolota). It was a pack of eight still together with two laps to go. Malinda asked me who had the best kick and I thought that it might be Bolota or Tegenkamp but I wasn’t sure. Bolota surged hard with 500 to go and we screamed for him as he hit the bell lap with the lead (there were still seven runners within one second of each other at this point). But with 300 to go, Teg and Solinsky went past him. “Oh no,” was all I could think. Teg and Solinsky had a nice battle all the way to the finish line with Teg narrowing winning out over his teammate. With about 150 to go, Jager passed Bolota and the OTC sweep became a reality. The crowd wasn’t as obnoxious about it as I thought they would be. Teg (53.5 last lap) and Solinsky (53.9 last lap) were clearly happy for their younger teammate, Jager (54.9 last lap), and you had to be happy for him. Malinda commented to me how sad Bolota (57.2 last lap)looked and that made me sad, too. He was so close and last year he was 4th at the Olympic Trials, too. At these meets 4th place is really the worst place, so close but still so far from qualifying! Back in 5th place, almost unnoticed in all the commotion, was Fernandez who came across the line and collapsed. His time of 13:25.46 set a new American Junior Record.
There’s an interesting side bar about Teg and Solinsky from last year’s Olympic Trials. The two teammates were in the 5000 last year and both were considered contenders to make the Olympic team. They made tentative plans for Solinsky to lead from 1200 to 800 to go and then for Teg to take over and lead from 800 to 400 to go. Then it would be every man for himself. They and Coach Schumacher thought this would give both of them the best chance to make the team. Solinsky took the lead when he was supposed to and ran a 58 lap. But Teg didn’t come to the front to take over and Solinsky was forced to keep the lead, which he did with a 59. But with 200 meters to go, Solinsky was too tired to respond when Bernard Lagat went by. Teg, who said he had to abandon the plan because he was really hurting – he did nearly fall with 400 to go – also sprinted by Solinsky as did Ian Dobson. Solinsky ended up a pretty upset guy and a non-Olympic qualifying 5th place. Fast forward one year to this race and I guess that Solinsky and Teg must have patched up any hurt feelings or lost friendship over that incident.
We stuck around after the race to get Teg to sign our runners’ cookbook. Then, as we sat around at Track Town Plaza, I got a text message from Tomas, commenting on a great men’s 5000 and the fact that German ran great. I had to text back to Tomas that German was sitting at the table next to us with his coach, some family and teammates trying to recover enough to go do a cool-down. That’s Eugene for you. The very same people you see on the track, can be standing right next to you minutes later.
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?