Ben True is set to make his 2014 racing debut on March 15 at the Gate River Run, and in Episode 21 he discusses the upcoming season, the possibility of running a marathon, and how to run a fast 5,000m. We pepper him on a few USATF controversies and one of last year’s more memorable races. Elsewhere in the episode, Brenn reads a telling passage from Alberto Salazar’s book 14 Minutes and compares AlSal to Steve Jobs, Gregg moans about the weather, and we take aim at our British rivals as the Manchester Marathon approaches.
From one angle, the US Indoor Track & Field Championships was another strong weekend for Nike distance running. Eight of the 12 qualifiers for the World Indoor meet in the 800m, 1500m, and 3000m represent the brand, including five of the six men. Four of the five competing athletes from Alberto Salazar’s elite Nike Oregon Project finished first or second and qualified for World’s. As track goes, Nike prides itself on performance and the NOP is its premiere group. Check, check.
From another angle, never has an indoor track meet been such a public airing of a company’s dirty laundry. Not only did Salazar by numerous media accounts lose his cool, to put it mildly, but he was able to merit a DQ of another Nike coach’s athlete on no evidence, pointing a spotlight not only on the discord between the competing Nike training groups but more so on the inability of the USATF to govern the meet. The USATF is largely funded by Nike. And we haven’t even mentioned the Gabriele Grunewald fiasco that started the whole mess.
The more you look, the uglier it gets. In a statement on Grunewald’s ruling reversal USATF CEO Max Siegel either weakly defended or sold down the river those who made the initial ruling to DQ Grunewald as people who “volunteer their time to serve the sport.” Are we to take this as an explanation for what happened, that those making the initial ruling were unpaid citizens, perhaps with insufficient knowledge of track? That’s not exactly a Nike puppet state, that’s no state at all.
The good news: the off-the-track action was so egregious that the athletes and journalists have gone on record criticizing Salazar and the USATF, which is a touchy business given possible repercussions in terms of access to meets and athletes. Popular ex-Nike athletes Lauren Fleshman and Nick Symmonds had previously called for change in the sport, but when Nike’s current superstars Shalane Flanagan, Will Leer, and Lopez Lomong speak out and when the primary media site for track and field news letsrun.com gets in on the act condemning behavior and demanding answers, it signals the dam has broken. Kara Goucher has signed on to the budding T&F Athletes Association. Expect more to follow. The runners are unifying for change.
Salazar is a remarkable character, seemingly sketched out of a Greek tragedy. Having literally come back from the dead, he has forged a legacy both as athlete and coach transcending running. He’s Vince Lombardi but with MVPs from an actual playing career. It is ironic that what has brought about the public condemnation was Salazar getting his way. His ability to defend his athletes beyond reason and to exert absolute control over the results (initially) was his undoing in Albuquerque.
Salazar is coaching some of America’s (Galen Rupp, Mary Cain, Jordan Hasay) and the world’s (Mo Farah) most precious distance runners. Nike executives may forgive the dark side of his behavior for the sake of winning to a point, but the implosion last weekend is a distraction they (and one would guess, the parents of Mary Cain) may not tolerate again. For Nike, the athletes are the ones selling the brand, not the coach.
It is difficult but not impossible to imagine Salazar offering a public apology and the USATF, having hit rock bottom, changing for the better. The on-the-track distance running action at the Indoor Champs was thrilling, capping a surprisingly robust season for the sport in the U.S. The one race that wasn’t close, the women’s 1500m, was won by rising superstar Cain, only 17. This train wreck should help the sport grow on more stable footing.
If you haven’t yet, watch the tape. There was clearly no foul. The question: Why did Gabriele Grunewald get disqualified? The answer: The force of Alberto Salazar’s will is stronger than the backbone of the USATF, an organization Nike influences with its outsized funding. The ruling embarrasses both Nike and the USATF and violates the integrity of the sport. Things will now change. You may be able to control a race, but you can’t control a movement.
Up until the final turn at the men’s Wanamaker Mile of yesterday’s Millrose Games, the professional distance running events offered thrills galore but nothing unanticipated: the coronation of Mary Cain, the victories by Kim Conley, Bernard Lagat, and Ajee Wilson, even Frenchman Pierre Bosse’s victory in the 1,000m over the record-seeking Americans made sense in light of Bosse’s credentials. Notwithstanding that the ages of victors ranged from 17 to 39, none of the results left one asking: How did that happen?
And then came the move of the meet.
At that final bend, Nick Willis prepared to strike. Lawi Lalang’s arms and legs shot out as he tried to hold off the Olympic silver medalist’s path, and the race seemed to hinge on whether Willis could pass on the inside, a particularly tall order on an indoor track with its tight turn and short straightaway. As the two tussled, fans in the American cathedral of indoor track and field rocked at the recognition that freshly bearded Will Leer was bolting past on the outside for the win.
So precocious is Mary Cain that one might question why, in this her second shot at the Wanamaker Mile, it took her this long to break the tape. Couldn’t she have done it last year, when she was 16? Of course that’s ridiculous, but what are we supposed to do with expectations for the future now that she’s accomplished all she has already? Her race was never as close as it appeared, as she ran from the front and none of the women was likely to match her kick.
Bernard Lagat, 39, was just as sharp at this year’s Millrose Games in breaking the American indoor 2,000m record as he was at last year’s meet in setting the American 2-mile record (since broken by Galen Rupp) and at the meet the year prior in setting the American indoor 5,000m record (since broken by Rupp). Next year, might Rupp try to erase the 2,000m record as well?
Lagat held off a dramatic late challenge from Rupp’s teammate Cam Levins, who had actually outlasted Rupp in one of Nike Oregon Project’s recent post-race workouts. After the meet Levins was left wondering whether he had broken the Canadian record, or whether a Canadian record for an indoor 2,000m run even exists. That Lagat continues to train at a level to make these performances possible is a gift to the sport.
All photos by Andy Kiss. See our full gallery of photos from the 2014 Millrose Games.
The marquee event at the Millrose Games – the one that follows the national anthem – has traditionally been the men’s Wanamaker Mile. Since the meet moved from MSG to the Armory in 2012, it has featured a more balanced menu of professional distance events, including the newly formed women‘s Wanamaker mile and whatever event Bernard Lagat is targeting for an American record (5,000m in 2012, 2-mile in 2013, 2,000m this year).
While vets Lagat and Nick Willis will lead the charge for the men, on the women’s side this year the meet is all about youth – and not just Mary Cain. The “Road to Rio” 800m race is loaded with teenage talent, even without Cain who has shifted to the mile, which is hers to lose, which seems so unfair, as she’s only 17.
Women’s 3000m 3:29 p.m.
Two of the headliners in this race were involved in the classic 2012 Olympic Trials 5000m race: Kim Conley and Abby D’Agostino. Conley’s gutsy run – she pushed the pace to get it below the 15:20 qualifying standard, then came-from-behind to pass the cratering Julia Lucas at the line – got her 3rd place and an Olympic slot. Abbey D’Agostino finished on the other side of Lucas, two tenths of a second later. Now it’s Rio in the distance, not London, and these two will likely be competing head to head to get to Brazil. Conley has been on a tear this indoor season, with a 4:24 mile time to D’Agostino’s 4:28.
Men’s Paavo Nurmi 2000m 3:56 p.m.
Evan Jager, Andrew Bumbalough, and Cam Levins have been cast members in Bernard Lagat’s indoor record-setting 2-mile run (since bested by Galen Rupp) at the Armory last year. This year they’ll be looking to beat the old man of the track. Lagat likely still possesses the best kick, though David Torrence, if he could hang on, may threaten with his track speed. The American indoor record of 4:58.6, set by Steve Scott in 1981, serves as an unoffical pacer to this race.
Women’s Wanamaker Mile 4:18 p.m.
Without the New Balance middle-distance stars in the race (Jenny Simpson, Brenda Martinez, Kim Conley), Mary Cain is the clear favorite. Olympic steepler Emma Coburn was fourth in the mile last year. She and Morgan Uceny were both throttled by Conley in the 2,000m at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston, and Conley has been running on par with Cain, so it would be a surprise if either of them competed up front. In good form are high schooler Alexa Efraimson, who came in 4th at the University of Washington Invitational in 9:00 in the 3,000m, and Oiselle’s Amanda Winslow, who won that race in 8:56. One of Cain’s advantages though is that she’s got home-track advantage, having competed and trained at the Armory on numerous occasions. Cain’s NOP teammate Treniere Moser will be in the mix, but was two seconds back of Cain in a 1,000m on Feb. 8.
Mel Sheppard 1000m 4:32 p.m.
This event is among those on Nick Symmonds’ record-breaking list in 2014, but to win he’ll need to beat a few guys who ran quite a bit faster than him indoors last weekend, Erik Sowinski and Mike Rutt. In the Mel Sheppard 600m run last year, the unheralded Sowinski handled these guys, running 1:15.61 to Symmonds’ 1:16.89 and Rutt’s 1:17.68. The extra 400m takes it out of everybody’s comfort zone. Who would have thought before that race that Sowinski would represent Nike and Symmonds Brooks for the next go-round? We like Symmonds outdoors and in championship races, but we think Sowinski’s the better off-season and indoor runner. Watch out for France’s Pierre Ambrose Bosse, who could play the spoiler.
Women’s Road to Rio 800m 4:38 p.m.
Teenagers from the U.S., Iceland, and Canada face top competition from Jamaica in an international field of 800m prodigies. Iceland’s 18-year-old Anita Hinriksdottir, who resembles a jet when she runs with her forward lean and outstretched arms, has drawn numerous comparisons to Cain, who originally was slated to run this event. She ran 2:01.81 indoors Jan. 19 in Reykjavik. Jenna Westaway, 19, a first-year student at the University of Calgary, ran a 2:02.57 at the Boston Valentine Invitational, and Jamaica’s Natoya Goule, 22, last year went under two outdoors. Ajee Wilson, 19, has the best 800 PR with a 1:58.21, though she struggled last week in the 1,000m. The event should be highly entertaining.
Men’s Wanamaker Mile 4:48 p.m.
Can anybody compete with Nick Willis? Wouldn’t it be fun to see Galen Rupp try, but that attempt was interrupted by a balky cuboid bone last week. Chris O’Hare of Scotland ran the race of his life at the Wanamaker Mile last year, finishing 4th in 3:52.98. Lawi Lalang was 5th in 3:54.56. Those two guys are the best bets to push Willis towards the Wanamaker Mile record of 3:51.21, set last year by Lopez Lomong.
With a 2:25 personal best, Lisa Stublic has quietly become one of the fastest ever U.S.-born marathoners. In Episode 20, we hear the story of the Columbia grad’s move to Croatia, her breakthrough performances, her scientific approach to training, and her plans for 2014. Elsewhere in the episode, Gregg reads from a book of essays on running at night, and Brenn pines for Rupp versus Willis at their best.
It’s dueling podcasts as in Episode 19, we welcome Martin Yelling and Tom Williams from the excellent British show Marathon Talk. Yelling and Williams discuss marathoning on the other side of the pond, describe the genesis of Marathon Talk, and share personal anecdotes of breaking three and competing at the top end. It will be us against them in the Race for the Golden Toad at the Manchester Marathon on April 6. Elsewhere in the episode, Brenn frets about falling further into the abyss of social media with his initiation into the worlds of Garmin and Strava.