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SPIRE Institute, Indoor facility, photos courtesy of SPIRE Institute



State-Of-The-Art Facility Has Lofty Goals

Wouldn't it be great if track & field had an incredible state-of-the art facility which featured not merely the customary outdoor accoutrements, but also a phenomenal indoor setting for running, jumping, and throwing? And what if this center also featured every cross training amenity imaginable, was linked with world class athletes, and sported an experienced and passionate coaching staff dedicated to smartly guide athletes to improved performances? And, oh, what if the facility also offered educational opportunities by virtue of its collaboration with a nearby, respected private residential secondary school? That would be great, wouldn't it? Well, such a multi-discipline, 21st century complex exists. And where, you ask, is this complex? It is in Geneva. Not in the Alps. In Geneva, Ohio.

                 The Spire indoor facility, in use, photo courtesy of Spire Institute



The Spire Institute--borne of the vision of its founder and successful businessman Ron Clutter--is a truly amazing multi-sport training and competition venue that offers opportunities to dedicated athletes in the sports of volleyball, swimming, basketball, and track & field. Showcasing itself as "one of the largest indoor, multi-sport training and competition complexes in the world," Spire has more than 750,000 square feet under roof with acres of surrounding outdoor facilities--all dedicated to Spire's stated mission: "to unlock the full potential of the human spirit via athletics, academics, and service."

The initiatives in track & field at Spire Institute are headed up by Charlie Powell, who came to Geneva about a year ago after a 30 year career at the University of Pennsylvania. With understandable pride, Powell summarizes the Spire's most dominant attraction: its physical plant. "One of the reasons that Spire is considered one of the top national training spots for USA track & field is that it is one-stop shopping. We have unbelievable outdoor facilities and one of the best indoor facilities in the world," Powell notes. "Indoors, we have an 8-lane 300 meter track and a 10-lane straightway. You can vault in two different areas. You can high jump in two different areas. You can run 6 throwing areas at the same time. You can long jump in two different areas. You can have all of this going on and nothing overlaps." And with a smile, Powell adds, "We also have seating for almost 5000."

A knowledgeable and passionate mentor, Powell outlines the basic credo that is the foundation of Spire's philosophy. "We ask of our athletes, 'Do you love the sport? Do you want to work to get better?' We have kids that some through here that want to be the best kid they can be," Powell explains. "They want to win their conference meet; to score at the state championships; or win the state championship; maybe win that college scholarship; or maybe just get into that better school."

But Spire isn't just about fostering the dreams of high school athletes. Established stars of the sport are also beginning to make the pilgrimage to this northeastern Ohio venue to hone their craft. Olympic gold medalists such as Jen Suhr and Jessica Beard and rising stars such as Olympians Bridget Franek and Nate Brennan have traveled to this little community near the shores of Lake Erie to escape the Great Lakes' unforgiving winter weather and to work out in this incomparable facility. And the collegiate forces have also taken note. Later this winter the Spire will be hosting the indoor championship meets for the Big East, the Big Ten, and the NAIA.

Spire's focus is not limited to a sport-specific approach. Reflecting its collaboration with the men's 400 meter world record holder, Spire offers an array of assessment, speed, strength, and conditioning programs under the umbrella of Michael Johnson Performance--all of which is calculated to prepare the athlete for stepped-up performance in the particular event or sport of choice. "How can you not get better when you are training in a facility like this?," asks Powell. "You've got the people, the personnel, the expertise, and the facilities that are second to none. As far as conditioning, weight training, speed and agility training, power development, it is phenomenal."

Ron Clutter, photo courtesy of Spire Institute



In an effort to further flesh out its capability as a full-service one-stop facility, Spire Institute--which is the visible trade name used by the Geneva area Recreational, Educational, Athletic Trust ["GrEAT"], a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation--has recently collaborated with Andrews Osborne Academy--a nearby highly-respected coeducational college preparatory school--to establish an "academic partnership" calculated to offer "rigorous yet flexible prep school courses, allowing student athletes to train and compete at the highest levels so as to ultimately prepare for the ideal collegiate academic/athletic opportunity."

As Spire's long term viability is assessed, the obvious question--the elephant in the room--pertains to its economic sustainability. Does Spire Institute have the fiscal strength, the economic sustainability to survive, to thrive, to realize its ambitious dreams?

Spire CFO Jeff Orloff responds with an unequivocal "yes" when asked if Spire is on sound financial footing. "At this point, it [Spire's financial performance] is really not something we discuss openly," explains Orloff. "We are a viable business. As a 501(c), any profits we make go right back into the business to build dorms, to address expenses, or to address anything else that we are doing. We have several different forms of revenue. We have the Academy which is for 9th through 12th grade, plus a post graduate year. And we have those students on site, approximately 40 right now, and we'll continue to double that number each year for the next 3 to 4 years," notes Orloff. "We have major events here--Big 10, Big East track & field championships, Atlantic 10 swimming and diving championships, MAC volleyball championships, and on and on. We also have a lot of tournaments relating to swimming and volleyball."

Lynxx finish line equipment, photo courtesy of Spire Institute

Yet nagging skepticism about the long-range financial viability of Spire Institute can hardly be surprising. Many have difficulty envisioning how the expenses affiliated with operating and maintaining a 750,000 square foot indoor complex could be addressed for any significant period primarily through revenues generated from a nomadic group of athletically-gifted high school and post-graduate students or from collegiate sports leagues seeking venues for championship meets. More likely, something larger, more consistent will be required--perhaps some type of collaboration with a sports-oriented partner who can deliver significant patronage and revenues on a consistent basis. And it appears Spire leadership, aware of this, is making progress in that direction. "We will do a number of different partnerships as they make sense--from a medical player, to different sanctioning bodies, to whatever makes the most sense, relates to what we are doing, helps us grow, and helps the community and the region," notes Orloff. "There are a lot of exciting things that are coming up in the next 6 months, depending upon how they play out, that will help us grow significantly and help us continue to be the kind of unique facility that we feel we are."

Once the overwhelming initial impression of the Spire is overcome, it is easy to appreciate that Spire Institute--as impressive as it is--still has vast, yet-untapped potential. The Spire could serve as an exceptional venue for a high-profile indoor meet of Grand Prix or Diamond League quality. Such a development would represent the Phoenix-like return of the type of top-flight Midwestern indoor track event that would, at long last, make elite track & field viewing once again accessible in the heartland. It is also not inconceivable that the Spire could collaborate with one of the sport's governing bodies or large corporate sports supporters to further develop and advance the Spire into a bona fide national training center. These visions are not lost upon Spire leadership. "He has a three or four prong attack," says Powell as he references Clutter and his long-range vision. "He wants this to be a top-level, high-class events type of place. But he also wants it to be a world leader in education and athletics combined. And there are different avenues we are pursuing to secure those two goals," explains Powell. "Let's put it this way," Powell coyly reveals. "There a lot of things in our plans and the direction we go will depend upon a couple of things that may or may not happen in the next couple of months."

Track & Field in America is long overdue for the type of multi-faceted, comprehensive complex that the Spire Institute currently is. And as magnificent as it is today, Spire clearly has the potential to evolve into an even more impressive and useful sports incubator in the future. Spire's vision to establish itself as a premier multi-sport development and competition venue calculated to advance athletic performance across the board is ambitious, to be sure. And Spire Institute undoubtedly must clearly demonstrate that it has established a viable business model which renders it sustainable in the long run. But Spire's vision is comprised of several components--each of which should be viewed as achievable. And if any combination of those visionary goals can be reached, it would be a wonderful development--an important step forward--for track & field in this country.

Midwestern Talent Is Pioneer In Running And Human Performance

America's insatiable quest for innovation has been a foundation for its continuing advancement. It is a powerful force. But when you find that ambition within the makeup of an otherwise talented and curious athlete, you might find yourself with a truly special and driven person. You might find yourself with someone like Dr. Kenneth E. Sparks.

Ken Sparks rose from humble beginnings. Raised in the 50's and 60's on a farm in rural Indiana, Sparks was part of a 10-member high school track team. Notwithstanding the unfocused training that was required so those few athletes could compete in 4 and 5 events in each meet, Sparks was talented enough to cap his high school career with a 49 second 440 yard dash time - good enough to make the podium at the state championship meet. Not bad for an athlete whose training was confined to a staked-out quarter-mile grass oval in a farm field.

Sparks went on to Ball State University as a three-sport athlete: track, cross country, and - Indiana's sacred pastime - basketball. It was on the Muncie campus that Sparks first had regular access to proper training facilities and - also for the first time - that he ran the 800 meters. "The first time I ever tried running a half mile was in practice and I ran two minutes flat. And it wasn't very hard," notes Sparks. And with a nod to Alberto Juantorena, he adds "So then I started running both the 400 and the 800."

Sparks persevered at Ball State, making marginal improvement in his middle distance racing, but basically riding the pine during basketball season. But then came a sequence of events which would be the turning point in his life. The start of Sparks' junior year coincided with the Ball State arrival of Dr. David Costill, noted swimmer and budding exercise physiologist. Early that fall, Sparks met the new faculty member and quickly learned of Costill's abiding interest to explore the physiology of elite track and field athletes and the manner by which tailored training could allow them to achieve peak performances. As their nascent acquaintance grew stronger that semester, Costill's intellectual curiosity ignited a similar attitude in Sparks. "He started training me. He trained me based on tests in the lab and on muscle biopsies," explains Sparks. "I would do anything if he could explain why I was doing it." And with a laugh, he adds "I was kind of a problem athlete I guess you would have to say. I wanted to know why I was running certain things and what it was going to do for me."

The growth of a very special relationship was underway. Technically, Costill was not Sparks' coach. But Sparks was surely Costill's guinea pig - a type of human lab rat who allowed Costill to gather important information to advance his scientific exploration while Sparks would be the beneficiary of Costill's growing knowledge of how track & field athletes could reach their true potential.

With Sparks as his subject, Costill went to work to explore the effect of lactic acid and an athlete's ability to tolerate - and ultimately to adapt to - increased levels of lactic acid in the blood stream. "He was really working me," smiles Sparks, who acknowledges that Costill would often use his interval workouts as one giant lab experiment, drawing blood from Sparks after each high-intensity repeat. But Sparks didn't complain. He was riding the coattails of Costill's intellectual curiosity - learning useful information about human athletic performance and making gratifying improvement in the 800.

Having dropped basketball and with Costill using his new-found knowledge to shape Sparks training regimen, Sparks was able to make marked improvement in the 800 - dropping his two-lap time down to 1:50. "I really developed during that time," notes Sparks. "By my senior year, I was an All-American in the 800."

The sizable improvements that Sparks achieved in the 800 under Costill's scientific tutelage did not go unnoticed. Sparks, who two years after his 1967 college graduation joined Costill as a laboratory assistant, began to notice that other notable distance runners - such as Hal Higdon, Amby Burfoot, Ron Dawes, Ted Corbett, and even marathon world record holder Derek Clayton - were making pilgrimages to Costill's lab, seeking to capture their own edge. "We had a lot of good runners that were coming around, kinda talking to him," states Sparks.

The reputation of Costill's Human Performance lab was growing. And Sparks was learning much working at Costill's elbow. "That was where we really got into the nitty gritty of training and performance and different types of training methods," notes Sparks with noticeable passion. "We started doing muscle biopsies. We were looking at lactate stacking - high intensity / short rest type of track repetitions. Really hard 200's and 400's with really short recovery, no real mileage at all. It was a training technique designed to promote the production of lactic acid in the muscles," he explains. "We would see how high we could produce the level of lactic acid. With lactate stacking, you would just keep doing repeat intervals and you could actually produce higher levels of lactic acid than what you could produce in a maximal test." It proved to be an experiment that demonstrated that an athlete's body could adapt to develop increased tolerance of higher levels of lactic acid. "Especially in the 800 and other high intensity exercise - anything that was anaerobic - you could really push it beyond your limits. It was pretty amazing." In no small measure, many of the discoveries regarding lactate threshold training that emerged from Costill's and Sparks' experimentation have aided a whole generation of distance runners and have served to inspire an even broader base of scientific study in this area which is ongoing to this day.

Upon completing his three year internship, Sparks fulfilled his pledge to Costill by going on to earn a Master's degree and ultimately a Ph.D. in exercise physiology. All the while, Sparks continued his own focused middle distance training as a post-collegian, employing his new-found knowledge from Costill's lab and hoping for the best. It paid off. Training in Muncie but racing for Ted Hayden's University of Chicago Track Club, Sparks finally achieved that breakthrough race he had been chasing. "I was in the invitational 800 at the Drake Relays in 1972," explains Sparks. "I ended up finishing third and ran in the low 1:47's and qualified for the Olympic Trials. I couldn't believe it. I ran over two seconds faster than I had ever run before. And that's lot in an 800," he notes. Sparks saw right away that his steady diet of high-intensity intervals followed by very short recovery was achieving the desired result of elevating his tolerance for higher levels of lactic acid. "I saw that I could tolerate that faster pace,' he confides. "It was one of those things: Once I did it, it was like 'I can do this now.'"

A USA Track & Field Federation championship in the 800 followed later that season - a perfect stepping stone for the Olympic Trials. But the '72 Olympic Trials proved to be a whole different ball game. Not only did the U.S. have a bumper crop of top flight 800 meter specialists, the pathway then to the Olympic team was a grueling, unrelenting three-day grind. "This was back-to-back-to-back," notes Sparks, pointing out that there was no rest day before the 800 final. "Back then, it was kind of different. Because if you didn't have an Olympic qualifier, you didn't run in the Trials. So all 32 Olympic aspirants in the 800 had met the Olympic standard," Sparks explains. "So it really was anybody's race on a given day." After running within himself to advance out of the first round, Sparks didn't have that "given day" in the next day's semi where his 1:47.6 positioned him as the semi's fastest non-qualifier. The third day saw 800 upstart Dave Wottle win the 800 final in 1:44.3 - matching the American record and serving as a precursor to his electrifying come-from-behind victory in the Munich final.

In the years that followed, Sparks sensed that the end of his career as an elite athlete was approaching. After a final nomadic 1975 season trouping around as a member of the International Track Association - "It was kinda like a traveling circus" - Sparks was facing a change. And he was ready. Well groomed during his apprenticeship as Costill's assistant, Dr. Sparks had the tools and the experience to continue human performance exploration in a laboratory of his own. And that he has done. Today he serves as the Director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Cleveland State University, working with athletes - of course - but also making contributions in the area of cardiovascular disease and research and development. And he still stays in contact with Dave Costill - nurturing a friendship with his mentor that spans over four decades. More recently, Sparks' lab has made contributions in addressing the dangerous issue of hypoxia in F22 fighter pilots - the onset of a crippling dizziness that impairs cognition. "We have collected the data here which has allowed the development of a sensor device that pilots wear on their mask now that can detect the approaching onset of hypoxia 30 seconds before it actually happens," Sparks explains. "We can now predict onset before it happens."

Sparks has even enjoyed an athletic encore as a Master's runner. Employing the type of low mileage / high intensity training techniques he learned during his time with Dr. Costill, Sparks experienced remarkable simultaneous successes both as Master's miler and as a Masters marathoner. At age 46 - working off a training regimen of 60 miles a week and no runs longer than 9 miles - Sparks displayed Dixonian range when he ran a street mile in New York City in 4:13 and then two weeks later ran the Columbus Marathon in 2:28.

Now comfortably easing into his late-60's, Sparks maintains a peaceful balance by relying upon an effective tool that he has employed in the past - adaptability. "I had to learn how to shift gears," Sparks notes. "It was a real challenge to shift from running for competition - something that motivates you to keep going - to just running for your health." And with a laugh he adds, "The competition seems to be a bigger motivator than one's health."

"Now I am a fitness runner and I still enjoy running. Maybe I enjoy it a little bit more now that I am really into it. I am still running 5 days a week. My goal is to run 15-20 miles a week." With a smile he adds, "And that keeps me happy."


The dawning of a new year always seems to be an important pivot point. It is a time for reflection, to look back on the events of the year just concluded. But it is also an opportunity to gaze at the year ahead and to plan and dream about the coming events about to unfurl. As we march into 2013, here are a few New Year's wishes for those surrounding American track & field.



Allyson Felix, London 2012, 200 meters, 

photo by PhotoRun.net


For Allyson Felix: An encore. Felix had a truly magical year in 2012: three Olympic gold medals, which included a leg on the USA's world record-setting 4x100 relay team; and a 21.69 furlong at the Olympic Trials - considered by many to be the pinnacle female performance of the year. Through no fault of her own, she got caught up in the provocative swirl that surrounded her third place tie with Jeneba Tarmoh in the OT 100. She handled the attendant attention with her customary poise and circumspection. How does she top - or even match - last year? Clearly approaching the zenith of her impressive career, Felix might consider what she has never shied away from in the past: to challenge herself. The time will never be better for her to explore her considerable - and not yet fully exploited - potential in the 400. A targeted 200/400 double in Moscow would be the type of ambitious goal that can inspire a great athlete like Felix. And it would be one hell of an encore.



London 2012, US 4 x 100m relay, (Bailey, Gatlin, Gay, Kimmons), silver medal, 

photo by PhotoRun.net


For U.S. Men Sprinters: Inspired Courage. It would understandable if the American men sprint contingent found itself struggling with a nagging sense of discouragement in the wake of Usain Bolt's other-worldly big-stage performances over the past four years. It is a phenomenon not without precedent: an entire generation of long-jumpers was, to some degree, similarly plagued by a sense of hopelessness when Bob Beamon leaped 29' 2½" to extend the then-existing world record by nearly two feet. American sprinters should take stock and take heart in their own potential. There are reasons for guarded optimism. Only a year ago, the sprint relay corps was widely-discredited as lacking focus and cohesion. Yet last year's Drummond-led forces performed admirably, beaten only by Jamaica's world record performance. Justin Gatlin - after an extended period of enforced idleness - found a way to run faster in London than he did in his gold medal performance in the 2004 Olympic Games. Ryan Bailey is the most visible face of a young group of American sprinters poised to take center stage. Bolt's double loss to Yohan Blake in the Jamaican Trials demonstrates that Bolt is mortal after all. Here's hoping that U.S. sprinters can find inspiration and courage in all of that.



Aries Merritt, 2012 Brussels DL, 12.80 WR for 110m hurdles, 

photo by PhotoRun.net

For Aries Merritt: Vision. The newly-minted world record holder in the 110 hurdles is just the type of exuberant and enthusiastic marquee performer American track & field needs. His visionary talks of 200 meter hurdle races and unique hurdle relays are good for the sport. May his upbeat, outside-the-box thinking continue.



Morgan Uceny, London 2012, 1,500m final, 

photo by PhotoRun.net


For Morgan Uceny: A Fair Chance. Uceny's unbelievable tripping misfortune in the 1500 finals at both the 2011 World Championship and the 2012 Olympic Games disproves the maxim that lightning never strikes twice. European-style jostling is to be expected in competitive championship finals, but the sport needs to ensure that the trend toward roller derby-type scuffles is abated. There is a darker issue that is difficult to resolve: When a disabling foul occurs in a final, disqualification of the offender is no meaningful remedy for the athlete left sprawling on the track, denied the opportunity of a lifetime.



Ashton Eaton, London 2012, 

photo by PhotoRun.net


For Ashton Eaton: Expanded Opportunities To Showcase His Talents. All fans of track & field relish the opportunity to witness performances by the incredibly-gifted and finely-honed decathletes. Yet even the most resilient multi athletes can compete in full decathlons only a couple of times a year. But for Eaton - who, like all Olympic decathlon gold medalists, wears the crown as The World's Greatest Athlete - there may be another pathway to perform. Eaton - who PR'd in 8 of the 10 decathlon events last year - is highly competitive in several individual events - especially the long jump where he was ranked #3 in the country. Here's hoping he can fit in a few more individual event appearances in his 2013 build-up to Moscow.



Julia Lucas, 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, 5,000 meters, 

photo by PhotoRun.net


For Julia Lucas: Redemption. Julia Lucas was one of the most heart-wrenching stories of 2012. Trapped in the perfect storm of her own creation, Lucas unwittingly sealed her own doom as her long three-lap drive to the finish in the 5000 OT final not only left her spent and unable to respond to the desperate finishing sprint of Kim Conley, but also elevated the race pace just enough to allow Conley to achieve the "A" standard time she lacked - by mere tenths. Following the pathway to redemption followed by Dathan Ritzenhein and Amy Hastings, Lucas needs get back on that pony and prepare herself for this year's 5000 battles. As Ritzenhein and Hastings would tell her, all track & field fans will be cheering for her.


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Jenn Suhr, 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, pole vault, 

photo by PhotoRun.net


For Jen Suhr: Good Health. Jen Suhr somehow found a way to navigate through a season-long mine field of nagging injuries to capture pole vault gold in London - besting Russian vault legend Yelena Isinbaeva. Suhr will need to be in the pink of health in August to help her overcome Isi and her home court advantage when this duo does battle in Moscow.



Bernard Lagat, 2012 USA Indoor, 

photo by PhotoRun.net


For Bernard Lagat: Wisdom. The effervescent Lagat has done it all: Olympic medals; multiple world championships; Millrose icon; the list goes on and on. Now in the gloaming of an exceptional middle-distance career, Lagat is at an important crossroads. He will be benefitted by wisdom in several critical areas: the wisdom to develop a racing approach that fits this mature stage of his career; the wisdom to know when his time as a world class athlete is drawing to a conclusion; and the wisdom to find a post-career niche in the sport that needs his knowledge and beloved personality.


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Galen Rupp, 2012 Nike Pre, 5,000 meters, 

photo by PhotoRun.net



For Galen Rupp: Growing Confidence And Unbridled Expectations. Rupp's patience has been rewarded. A believer in and an adherent to the carefully-crafted roadmap of distance progression assembled for him by Alberto Salazar, Rupp should now, more than ever, clearly see that he can compete with anyone. Anyone in the world. Period. Toughened by a steady diet of under-distance racing as prescribed by Salazar, Rupp has now developed the type of finishing kick which is absolutely essential for medal-winning performances on the world's big stages. A healthy, stronger, and more confident Rupp could provide some stunning performances in the coming year.


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Alberto Salazar, 2012 Nike Pre Classic, 

photo by PhotoRun.net




Jon Drummond, Penn Relays, 2004, 

photo by PhotoRun.net


For John Drummond And Alberto Salazar: Well Deserved Respect. The doubters began to whisper when Drummond undertook the task of rehabilitating the USA's sprint relay squad - a troupe that was disorganized and unfocused. Similar fringe skepticism surrounded Salazar's initial tutelage of Rupp. It was a skepticism that grew when Rupp's early progression proved to be measured, but not unduly remarkable. Last year's Olympic medals should change all of that. The U.S.A.'s silver medal performance in the 4x100 and the medal winning perfomances of Rupp and Mo Farah in the Olympic distance races should accord to both men the respect they have richly earned.


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Vin Lananna, 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, photo by PhotoRun.net


For Vin Lananna: Continued Creative Contributions. Lananna has been a creative contributor to the sport of track & field for many decades. Over that period, he has re-invented himself several times. Initially respected as a top flight coach with an eye for talent and the skill set to develop it, Lananna moved on to develop a larger vision of the sport - reinvigorating track & field programs at Stanford and then at Oregon. Far from done, he went on to create the current template for a successful and joyful Olympic Trials - a community-wide effort which creates an undistracted venue for superior athletic performance and a reunion-like atmosphere of celebration for those who love the sport. Track & field needs the visionary creativity of Lananna and those like him. Here's hoping Vin is inclined to find yet additional ways to provide his special brand of counsel to the track & field community.


Max Siegel, CEO of USA Track & Field, 

photo courtesy of USA Track & Field




For USATF: Coordinated Progress To Increase Exposure. After a couple of years of organizational turbulence that followed the departure of Craig Masback, the governing body of the sport now appears to be stabilizing under the leadership of new CEO Max Siegel. Now it is time to really go to work. With America able to capture a bountiful medal harvest in London, it is clear that the USA has a robust share of the world's top performers. That fact should help USATF move the needle in achieving what many have identified as its top priority: to obtain greater media exposure for our sport. May USATF experience success in its efforts here.



Athletes Only proposed cover, courtesy of Shooting Star Media


For The Media: A Blend Of Recognition And Creativity. May this be the year that the media rediscovers track & field and the untapped potential that it holds. No sport can claim a greater or more revered heritage. Nor can any other sport offer greater purity or simpler beauty than what plays out routinely on the track and in the field. This renewed recognition by the media combined with new and creative ways to broadcast the sport [think Sunday afternoon at The Masters] could help spark a rekindled interest in track & field.

For America's Championship Athletes: The Edge. Ours is a sport of milli-seconds and millimeters, where races and medals are won by the narrowest of margins. In a sport where every competitor is angling for an "edge", maybe the USA World Championship contingent can have one in Moscow. Whenever an athlete gets in the blocks, enters the ring, or steps on the runway, the thought of the dozens of American athletes who, in 1980, were denied an opportunity to compete the last time a major track & field competition was held in Moscow might provide just enough extra inspiration to allow that American athlete to produce that special performance.



Mo Farah and his fans, 2011 Nike Pre, 

photo by PhotoRun.net


For The Fans: Unadulterated Enjoyment. It is likely too much to expect that the coming months of track & field will prove to be a year devoid of controversy and disappointment. But I suspect it is not unduly idealistic to encourage track & field's fans to kick back, to avoid obsessing over the inevitable next Felix/Tarmoh-type incident, to marvel at the incredible athletes in our sport, and to enjoy the stunning performances that surely will unfold in the coming year. For the hearty fans of track & field, may 2013 prove to be a year of unconditional track & field enjoyment.


Burfoot's 50th Consecutive Manchester Road Race This Thanksgiving

On Thanksgiving morning in 1963, our country was reeling from the shock of the fatal shooting of President Kennedy only six days earlier. His untimely death, quickly followed only days later by the live telecast of the murder of his purported assassin, had thrown the nation into mourning and disbelief. Nonetheless, the country soldiered onward. In the immediate aftermath, little in the country was halted or altered. All regularly-scheduled NFL games were played and broadcast less than 48 hours after the assassination, workplaces remained open and active, and markets maintained trading. Life went on. Given the recently-witnessed sequence of responses that followed in the wake of super storm Sandy, such uninterrupted activity seems odd in comparison. Those were different times.

One such undisturbed event that went on as usual that Thanksgiving morning was the 27th running of the Manchester Road Race. Among the 200 some starters who lined up to compete in the quaint 4.748 mile event was 16 year-old high school senior Ambrose Burfoot. "I remember everything about the President being shot, as we all do. I don't remember anything about making a connection between the race and the President's shooting," admits Burfoot. "There was so little running in those days, and it was so distinct from all the rest of life, and such an aberration, that we didn't even attempt to make the kind of global connection that we all do these days every time there is an historic event like what occurred just recently with Hurricane Sandy and the New York City Marathon cancellation. So it was just my first road race and it was completely independent of the President's shooting and nobody thought about whether it should be cancelled or not. It was a just a little strange, bizarre event that went forward."

Burfoot's 25:59 performance in the '63 Manchester Road Race that day propelled the schoolboy to victory in the high school division. It was an auspicious road racing debut, but hardly a premonition of the prodigious racing accomplishments Amby Burfoot would ring up in the years that would follow: a victory in the 1968 Boston Marathon, a later marathon PR of 2:14:28 in Japan's prestigious Fukuoka Marathon [missing the then-existing American record by a mere second], and -- of course -- 9 outright victories in the Manchester Road Race.

And now, decades from that inaugural road race, Amby Burfoot looks back on 49 straight years of Manchester participation and looks ahead to November 22, 2012: the day he will run his 50th consecutive Manchester Road Race.

Amby Burfoot has traveled a long way during those 5 decades. But it appears to be a journey he was destined to make. Even before he ran that first race in '63, Amby knew the Thanksgiving Day road race was his gateway to the path he was eager to follow. "I wanted to run that road race, because, even in high school, I knew there was a world bigger than 3-mile cross country races. I knew there was a Boston Marathon," reveals Burfoot. "I knew that I had a somewhat adventurous soul. I wanted to bite into this larger world that existed beyond cross country. And I couldn't get to my first 5-mile road race fast enough," he smiles. "I was just hungering to get from 3 miles to 5 miles. So I was excited beyond all belief to go and run my first 5-mile road race."

The initial taste that Thanksgiving Day whetted his appetite -- an experience that ultimately steered his life's direction. "I felt very much like I had gone from the small pond of high school to the larger world beyond," he notes. "It revealed a world I found to be very attractive, which drew me in, and which I wanted to pursue afterwards."

But even as Amby's career blossomed and his racing opportunities became more far-flung, there was a magic to Manchester, a certain something that proved to be quite special about this little New England road race that drew him back year after year without fail. "This race always was, and still is, the second biggest road race in New England, Boston being number one. But Manchester has been the New England road running event," explains Burfoot. "From the beginning, it has had the most amazing community support of anything I have ever seen. Even then, people lined every inch of the route in 1963. And that is one of things that made the race so memorable immediately for me and one of the things that kept me coming back."

And come back he did. Every year. Without fail. And as the years rolled by and as the gangly upstart grew to become the stronger and more experienced young man, the victories came. Before long, Amby Burfoot -- in the tradition of race domination and longevity exhibited by Clarence DeMar and Grete Waitz -- had won the Manchester Road Race a record 9 times, including a string of 7 victories in a row. Burfoot had hoped to add a missing laurel to his school division win and his multiple open victories. "I wanted more than anything to go and win the Master's Division sometime," he admits. "But Runners World and other things took my focus away from competitive running and I never won another division until I hit 60. And then I got lucky enough to win the 'over 60' division a few times," he notes with a smile. And with a hint of wistful reflection he adds, "So I have a kind of hat trick, even if it is not the cherished hat trick I would have liked."

And now with a spotless record of 49 consecutive Thanksgiving Day races in Manchester, Burfoot stands at the threshold of achieving a most impressive accomplishment -- 50 consecutive Manchester Road Race appearances. And as the big day approaches, he allowed himself to offer up some observations about the race that has guided his life:

On the offbeat race course distance of 4.748 miles: "Historically, somebody made a loop around town. It started and finished on Main Street. What it was is what it was. Back then, nobody bothered to measure things. We just called it the Manchester 5-Miler. Many years later when certification became important, they got somebody to certify it. That immediately raised the question, 'Should we extend this and make it an official course of 8K or 5 miles?' I was not on the inner circle of that decision, but being an old-time tradition-bound New Englander myself, I think it was a great decision to start and finish at the same point and whatever the damn distance was, we would run our guts out covering that loop around town."

On the expanding size of the race field: "It is now a 15,000-person mass participation celebration race where the first 1000 or so run pretty hard and everybody else wears a turkey outfit or a Hawaiian skirt or something silly and jogs around with their family members. And it is just spectacular that it has evolved in this manner. To me, the sport of road-racing should be big enough for the whole spectrum of participants."

On the race's growing pains over the years: "It exactly parallels the Boston Marathon, I think. The race struggled with the lack of recognition of women, race organization, the increasing numbers of runners, and the grumbling. But then came the greater intelligence that the race could, in fact, be transformed into a bigger, celebratory race.

On overcoming obstacles to keep his Manchester streak alive: "Over the years, I have run this race while struggling with the crackling breathing of walking pneumonia, the crackling sounds of tender and inflamed Achilles tendons, the stresses of a pending divorce, the concerns for a hospitalized child, and the recovery from meniscus surgery. The race has been a rudder to my life that has kept me on course when other things threatened to throw me off."

The 9-time champion works to reconcile his several feelings as his 50th race day approaches. "There are two warring parts to that. Like every other runner, there is a little spark of competitive fire in me after all these years." His voice reflects the sincerity of his struggle. "Sometimes I wish I could extinguish it and just totally cherish what I have, which is wonderful." Explaining further, he notes, "On Thanksgiving Day, there will be two things going on. I'll be thinking about my time slowing down inexorably and how I would like to be fitter this year. So I'll be a little disappointed in myself that I didn't rise to the occasion a little more. But I hope that I will celebrate that I'm still there, I'm still healthy, I'm still going the 5 miles." And with a laugh, he adds, "I may last a few more years yet, who knows?"

Allowing himself a moment tinged with a trace of nostalgic reflection, Amby reveals what clearly, for him, has been a guiding principle. "I always tell people that 50 years at one race is much more important than a Boston Marathon gold medal or anything else that I have done in my running career. Sticking with it, sticking it out, enduring through the highs and lows I believe is the essence of running. Whether you run two hours or four hours in the marathon is not so important, but staying with it, staying vibrant, staying healthy, and staying energized are really the keys."

Offering a final observation about the simplistic beauty of running, Amby adds, "Some people think that running is about their leg length, their waist size, or their VO2 max, but in the end, it is really about the gray matter between the ears. That is where all of the significant effort takes place. And if you can keep your head in good shape, then the rest kind of follows along pretty well most of the time."

As one who has experienced impressive levels of success as a runner, as a journalist, and more recently as an emerging philosopher for our sport, Amby Burfoot is a man who likely gives thanks every day -- including Thanksgiving Day. And on this year's national holiday of gratitude -- after he rings up #50 in Manchester earlier in the morning -- this gracefully-aging and gentle man who has accomplished much, adapted well, and maintained his focus will have yet one more reason for thanksgiving.

Hasay_Jordan1-NCAAxc10.JPGJordan Hasay, NCAA Championships, 2010
Photo by PhotoRun.net



Oregon Coach Touts Vast, Untapped Potential

At last week's NCAA Div I Cross County Championship, as women continued to stream across the finish line, the first finishers -- which included Oregon's entire team -- gathered in the mixed zone tent eagerly awaiting the official team tally. The Lady Ducks were hopeful, yet anxious. When word finally came that the Oregon women had captured their first team title in 25 years, the tent filled with shrieks and squeals as the 7 diminutive Oregon racers embraced in a bouncing and joyful Duck huddle. Tears of joy flowed as the women of Oregon celebrated their hard-earned victory.

Senior Jordan Hasay, Oregon's revered team leader, also shed authentic tears of happiness and displayed genuine wide-eyed joy. But a more careful observation revealed that Hasay -- one of the most gifted female collegiate distance runners in recent memory -- was overcome with a variety of differing emotions. As the victorious women danced and hugged, Hasay's effervescence was occasionally interrupted by a flickering pout as she struggled to hold back tears of a different kind -- the tears of personal disappointment prompted by her narrow loss of the individual title. Oregon's #1 runner had come to Louisville's E.P. "Tom" Sawyer State Park on a mission. After earlier NCAA XC championship finishes of 18th, 3rd, and 2nd, Hasay knew that only a win in her final championship appearance would be the fitting capstone for her collegiate cross country career -- and would meet the expectations of so many in the track & field community who, perhaps unfairly, have watched her every move and have eagerly awaited the kind of breakthrough of distance domination that was her high school trademark.

The championship race found Hasay caught up in the race's electrifying finish over the final 600 meters -- a four-way battle which pitted her against Wichita States' Aliphine Tuliamuk-Bolton, Dartmouth's Abbey D'Agostino, and Iowa State's Mary Saina. After a weak break attempt by the Shocker failed, Hasay threw in what looked to be the decisive move with 250 meters remaining. But Saina was ready. The ISU senior responded with a vengeance over the final 80 meters to overtake the Oregon star for the 4-meter victory. When a disheartened Hasay eased in the final strides, she unwittingly allowed the fast-closing D'Agostino to catch here at the line. NCAA officials had to review those second-place and third-place times down to the third decimal before awarding the runner-up spot to the Dartmouth junior.

Candid as always right after the race, Hasay patiently recounted the cat-and-mouse kickers' game that unfurled down the race's final straightaway. "I was prepared. It was the perfect race. I just couldn't get away," she explained. "I've had a lot chances to win individual titles. I'd rather win the team title than all of the individual titles. I am really happy for our team. My race strategy was to be the last move, but she [Saina] just held me off. I really believed I had the best finish."

Recapturing her composure, Hasay did allow herself to offer an insight into her personal disappointment. "This has been a little bittersweet for me," she confided. "It was just my last chance and I really wanted to do something special. I just couldn't pull it off today. It is hard. But I'll be back as always."

Hasay's admission offered an inside view as to the heightened expectations -- and the accompanying pressure -- that have accompanied Hasay since she arrived on the Eugene campus a little over three years ago. Hasay's magical and celebrated high school career is like no other. As a California prep, Hasay essentially re-wrote the girls' middle distance national record book in distances ranging from 1500 meters to 2-miles, winning 7 Junior national championships and setting 13 age-group records and 9 high school class records.

All the while, speculation grew as to where the young phenom would attend college and how she might perform on the bigger stage. The University of Oregon ultimately won the Hasay Sweepstakes, purportedly appealing to the young star that the protective and supportive laboratory that is the extended U of O track & field family would offer the best and most comfortable environment for her to explore her prodigious potential. It must be added that Hasay's decision to become a Lady Duck had to be influenced in some intangible way by the connection she made with the Eugene community during the 2008 Olympic Trials. After Hasay broke the American high school record for the 1500 in the semi-final round, the new record holder knelt by the infield time clock while a bevy of photographers clicked photos amid the rhythmic chant of the 22,000+ Hayward Field fans: "[clap, clap, clap-clap-clap] Come To Or-e-gon!"

With the young middle distance star now in her senior year, it can be said that both the greater university family and the athlete have delivered as promised. As it does with all of its track & field athletes, U of O and the larger Eugene community have embraced Hasay, providing her with a blend of matchless facilities, expert and accessible coaching, academic assistance, a knowledgeable and passionate fan base, and spirited community support not to be found elsewhere. For her part, Hasay has been assembling a truly impressive collegiate career. With her senior track seasons remaining, and in addition to numerous Oregon and PAC-12 victories and honors, the 15-time All-American has captured 2 NCAA crowns -- 2011 indoor wins in the mile and 3000 -- which resulted in her being named the USTFCCCA 2012 Indoor Athlete of the Year. It shouldn't be overlooked that Hasay, a business major, is also a 2-time Academic All-American.

And yet, there is an unspoken uneasiness around the fact that Hasay's phenomenal record as a young high schooler is not being fully replicated at the collegiate level. Perhaps consistent with the old maxim that no good deeds go unpunished, Hasay's impressive record while at Oregon is nonetheless viewed by some as falling somewhat short of what might have been expected from an athlete who totally dominated her events as a prep.

Maurica Powell, the Oregon women's distance coach, views it all quite differently. With specific reference to Louisville's cross country championship race, the Oregon mentor cites Hasay's ability to focus and notes, "Jordan Hasay cared more about winning the team title than she did about winning an individual title, so she ran that way." Powell is quick to acknowledge that this cross country race -- Hasay's final one as a collegian -- had special meaning for her team leader. "She has been sentimental all week. It is a hard thing for her to see cross country coming to an end because she loves it so much."

Powell swiftly dismisses any notion that Hasay's further upside potential may be limited. "This is, in my mind, just the beginning of the career for Jordan Hasay. I can guarantee you she has not nearly scratched the surface of how good she can be," she states without reservation. "Anything she did in high school is nothing compared to what she can do."

This is a welcomed forecast for those who love track & field -- and especially for those who attach special joy to witnessing the middle distance successes of Jordan Hasay.



11th Place Team Finish Best In Tigers' History

Saving its best for last, the Princeton men’s cross country squad ran a brilliant and heady race when it counted most. Closing hard over the final kilometers in Louisville’s E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park, the Tiger runners moved smartly through the field and captured their prize: an 11th place team finish – the best NCAA championship performance by any men’s cross country team in the school’s history. A beaming Jason Vigilante – the Tigers new head cross country coach – described his charges’ big race performance as “beyond exceptional.”

The Tigers were led by Heptagonal champion Chris Bendtsen ‘14 who raced over the 10K course in 30:07 to finish 43rd. Chasing him into the finish chute were Heps runner-up Alejandro Arroyo Yamin ‘14 (58th in 30:24) and Tyler Udland ‘14 ( 79th in 30:33). Mike Franklin ‘13 (134th in 31:06) and Matt McDonald ‘15 (151st in 31:06) rounded out the scoring.

Nimble pre-season adjustments were necessary to preserve the team’s opportunity for success this fall. Coach Vig cited the resiliency of his athletes. They were compelled to adapt to the late summer departure of Tiger head coach and distance guru Steve Dolan – who left Princeton to take on the Director position at Penn – and to his arrival as the new coach. “The guys who had moved on from the program had really established a phenomenal culture. For me coming in, it wasn’t difficult. I was accepted,” explained Vigilante. “The runners here wanted to be part of a new program, a new page.” But the head coach is quick to acknowledge this season’s boost from the legacy of excellence established by Dolan and his accomplished athletes, many of whom had graduated. “Coach Dolan had done a tremendous job. Donn Cabral, Joe Stillin, and Trevor Van Ackeren [all of the Class of ‘12] really were the foundation for developing this new program. This [the best-ever NCAA championship team performance] is the byproduct of that.”

In the women’s 6K championship race, senior Greta Feldman – who earlier this year earned All-America honors for her 6th place finish in the 1500 at the NCAA outdoor national championship – ran 20:42.5 to finish 88th.


2012 ING NYCM Finish Line, Sunday, November 4, 2012, photo by PhotoRun.net



NYC Mayor And NYRR Leadership Deserve Support

Nobody wanted it to be this way. Everyone wanted New York's first Sunday in November to be as it always is: a glorious, bracing fall day, the city's harbor filled with water-spurting tugboats, and tens of thousands of runners eagerly poised to explode over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to begin a five-borough odyssey to the Central Park finish line. But the meteorological gods had other plans.

Less than a week before the New York City Marathon's race day, Hurricane Sandy -- or "The Frankenstorm" as it came to be known -- unleashed a furious attack on the East Coast. Although the approaching storm was widely broadcast and the inhabitants and the safety forces of the eastern seaboard were provided ample time to prepare and -- in some cases -- to vacate, few were able to withstand the actual ferocity of the hurricane-force winds and relentless lashing rains that Sandy delivered to the New Jersey Shore line and the greater metropolitan New York area.

As Sandy uncorked its fury, New Yorkers did what New Yorkers always do -- they dug in their heels and toughed it out. Two days later, as the storm blew beyond the city and later tapered off, city inhabitants and its elected leadership made preliminary post-storm assessments. The devastation was horrific, to be sure: power outages plagued millions; storm surges of record magnitude wreaked havoc, crippling homes, businesses, and entire neighborhoods; and inner-city transportation was rendered chaotic or inoperable.

Early in race week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York's stoic, indefatigable leader, was eager to move the city forward, beyond the immediate aftermath of Sandy. He and the New York Road Runner Club envisioned the upcoming New York City Marathon as a way to demonstrate the fortitude of City's inhabitants and to galvanize the community with an event that annually promotes unity, cultivates civic pride, and offers to the world an inside glimpse of the heartiness of its citizenry and the resiliency of this special city. The Marathon, the Mayor announced, would go on as planned.

Initial reaction to the Mayor's bold proclamation was generally met with admiration. Early voices endorsed the notion that the City would rise above the weather-induced calamity, spit in the eye of this setback, and demonstrate to the community and the world that New York can take an enormous punch and come back strong. Many likened such an approach to the running of the 2001 NYC Marathon -- which took place less than two months after the 9/11 attacks. References were even made to the 1972 Olympics -- when the marathon was run in Munich only days after 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed in a terrorist attack.

But as race week in New York progressed, more detailed information about Sandy's devastation emerged: the hurricane damage was more extensive than originally thought; the timeframes for the anticipated resumption of an array of city services lengthened; the scope of resident suffering was revealed to be more serious and more widespread; and the magnitude of the type of realistic and effective overall relief effort that would be needed was approaching overwhelming proportions. Suddenly, the concept of running the New York City Marathon as a sort of glorious symbol of the city's indomitable spirit and its triumph over adversity -- viewed as a noble undertaking just days before -- was subject to rightful questioning. And that questioning soon ignited an impassioned conversation -- on social media and elsewhere -- of the pros and cons of staging the race.

The City and the NYRR found itself in uncharted waters, unable to draw upon past experience within the sport to help guide it in making an appropriate decision in this unprecedented circumstance. As the hours before race day were melting away, and as the chorus of influential voices on both sides grew larger and louder, Mary Wittenberg, President and CEO of the NYRR, announced late Friday that the race would not be held, would not be postponed -- it would be cancelled. In acknowledging the fevered pitch taken on by the raging debate, the NYRR posted a statement on its website that explained that "Neither the NYRR nor the City could allow a controversy over the Marathon to result in a dangerous situation or to distract attention from all of the critically important work that is being done to help New York City recover from the storm."

Anger, relief, disappointment, frustration, sadness, and vindication are but some of the emotions evoked by Friday's announcement. All are understandable reactions to the cancellation. But, in the end, it must be appreciated that the City and the NYRR were placed in a very difficult and unprecedented situation and were called upon to make an extremely critical decision that would have implications beyond the parameters of the race itself. It is tough -- and perhaps impossible -- to quarrel with the decision to cancel the race, to eliminate distraction from the relief effort, and to quell an unnecessary controversy. To place the accelerated relief effort to aid more than 2 million people in distress ahead of a sporting event hosting 47,000 runners in the same devastated city seems like the appropriate ordering of priorities.

The opportunity for unbridled expression in this country is a valued, time-honored and protected right. And while everyone is entitled to his or her own view of this complicated, multi-faceted situation, the Mayor and the NYRR have earned the right to be given the benefit of the doubt, to be accorded a certain deference in the judgment they were called upon to exercise under trying and unprecedented conditions.

It would appear that a presumption of good faith to which both the City and the NYRR are rightfully entitled would not currently appear to be misplaced. Race leadership has lost little time in transforming what could easily have been viewed as an overwhelming disappointment for the organization into a unique opportunity to redeploy its considerable influence, organization and resources in a way that can aid storm recovery in a significant way. The NYC Marathon website already invites its runners -- indeed all of its visitors -- to support the "Race To Recover" Relief Effort by supplying clear directions on how to make text-driven contributions.

A humanitarian act like this from the NYRR -- assembled and promoted even in the midst of the frenzied race cancellation weekend -- represents a positive first step. But as would be expected and as the NYRR likely knows and understands, more proactive initiatives will need to be forthcoming in the days and weeks ahead. It is true that the race cancellation as a result of Sandy's wrath will undoubtedly cause the NYRR to endure significant unanticipated economic consequences and sustain large unplanned expenses. But those unbudgeted costs, not likely subject to current quantification, will be offset in some measure by certain cost-savings arising from the race cancellation. And so the race organization must challenge itself -- in much the same way it expects it marathoners to challenge themselves on race day -- to do even more. Additional initiatives -- such as redirecting additional amounts of its own revenues to the relief effort or developing and implementing a procedure that would allow disappointed 2012 entrants to gain prompt and assured entry into the 2013 race while receiving some sort of discount or refund, a portion of which runners could elect to direct to the relief effort -- would be welcomed further action. Such overt steps would also further signify that the trust and support they seek and likely will receive -- from the marathoners in particular and the greater community in general -- has not been misplaced.

Deeper thought into the consequences of the cancellation suggest that many matters yet to emerge will have to be addressed: legal and public relations issues surrounding entry fee forfeiture under circumstances where event participation is precluded due to no fault of the athlete; appearance fees for elite athletes; "claims" elite athletes may assert regarding lost revenue opportunities; and "claims" by all sorts of entities that provide funding for the event, from high-profile sponsors to fee-paying expo vendors -- to name a few.

The City of New York and the NYRR will be left to sort out all of the consequences of Hurricane Sandy and the subsequent race cancellation. As we look back on the events that have occurred and the actions that have been taken since Sandy bombarded the East Coast, those of us who love the sport will have plenty of opportunities -- and the benefit of perspective -- to judge and to comment upon the decisions that leaders had to make in real time. It is often said -- and with justification -- that hindsight is 20/20. But in this situation, that sort of retrospective vision will likely prove to be most useful if viewed through the lens of tolerance and understanding.


Bill Rodgers, 1975 BAA Boston Marathon, 2:09.55, photo courtesy of BAA

Iconic Marathoner Bill Rodgers Looks Back, Looks Ahead

With the New York City Marathon being held this coming weekend, this seems to be a most appropriate time to look back on the storied career of 4-time NYC Champion Bill Rodgers. It has been nearly a half century since that Thanksgiving Day in 1966 when a skinny Will Rodgers ran his first road race -- winning the High School Division of the famed Manchester Road Race. That auspicious, yet simple, beginning augured well for the future. But few would have predicted from that performance that Rodgers would emerge as one of the most successful and dominant marathoners of his -- or any -- era.

Bill Rodgers, who will turn 65 in December, smiles as he looks back on the improbable pathway he has followed. "I never really thought about becoming a road racer, because nobody hardly did it in those days," explains Rodgers. "I didn't really become a road racer until I moved to Boston after graduating from Wesleyan in 1970." Before long, he was training with the Greater Boston Track Club under the watchful eye of Bill Squires. Studied caution preceded Rodgers' first foray into marathoning. "I saw the Boston Marathon twice before I decided to run it," he outlines. "I ran the marathon for the first time at Boston in 1973." That year, inexperience and hot weather caused him to learn that the marathon cannot be bullied. He didn't finish, dropping out -- cramped and dehydrated -- at the top of Heartbreak Hill. By the following year, he had learned how to romance the cruel mistress, finishing 14th in 2:19:34 -- a solid performance, to be sure, but hardly a premonition of what would lie ahead. 1975 proved to be his breakthrough year. Those who followed the sport took notice that year when Rodgers made the USA team for the World Cross Country Championships. When he went on to finish 3rd in the championship race in Morocco, more than a few suspected that something special was going on here.

A month later, Rodgers ran 2:09:55 to become the surprise winner of the Boston Marathon. Even stopping to kneel on the road in the Newton Hills to re-tie his racing flats could not prevent Rodgers from breaking the American record. Like road racing and marathoning across the country at that time, Rodgers' running career simply took off: 3 more Boston wins; 4 consecutive victories in New York; scores of other impressive road race titles and victories; and even an Olympic appearance. In short order, this gentle spirit with a certain scattered, loveable innocence became the most visible face of the country's running boom.

"Few people appreciate the changes that have occurred in running because so few people really know the history of our sport," notes Rodgers, looking back. He is quick to detail how different the sport was in the mid- to late-70's -- a time when runners like Benji Durden, Frank Shorter, Ron Tabb, Greg Meyer, Alberto Salazar, Tom Fleming, and others joined Rodgers at the elite end of the sport. "It was an era when it was mainly a guy's sport," notes Rodgers. "We were being manly men," he laughs. "But there was a recession going on in the 70's and we were trying to be professionals, make that big push," notes Rodgers in addressing the emergence of the financial element. "But it was really only being done by the athletes. Most of the race directors were nervous about it," cites Rodgers. "Fred Lebow was nervous about it in New York City, because I would go in there and make some pretty outrageous comments like maybe we should have prize money. I was pushing for it. But others didn't seem safe and stayed back. They didn't speak up about it," laments Rodgers. "But ultimately, nothing could stop it then. It wasn't me, it wasn't one runner, it wasn't 10 runners. It was that the sport was changing. It was market forces," he explains. "It was the mass numbers of runners that changed the sport, made it bigger, brought in professional race managers, sponsors, everything.

And with that change came the dawning of the all-encompassing urban marathon. "1976, the year of my first New York win, was the first year the race was held in all 5 boroughs. There was this guy named George Spitz -- a New York politician -- who had this idea that we should do this throughout the whole city, and not just Central Park," notes Rodgers. "Fred Lebow was very reluctant; he didn't know if it could work. But, finally, Fred said, 'OK, let's try it.'" That year, 2000 runners stormed over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at the start of the race that changed the sport forever. This Sunday, 47,000 runners will do the same.

Rodgers has vivid memories of his 1979 five-borough victory. "There was a misfiring of the gun. The cannon went off and hundreds and hundreds of runners just took off. It couldn't be re-started. I got going, but I got caught in the pack," an animated Rodgers recalls. "Kirk Pfeffer -- a 2:11 marathoner -- just took off. He was running out of his head. It was his first time in New York. But it was my fourth time. So I had an edge in the sense that I knew the course," he explains. Rodgers patiently closed the gap, ran Pfeffer down in Central Park, and cruised on to his 4th consecutive -- and final -- New York win. "I love the course. And that's why I think I did well. I think wherever your heart is, you want to do well." And, after a pause, he adds an after-thought, "I think New York is putting the most effort into lifting the whole sport of marathoning in the US, and maybe even globally."

Upon reflection, Rodgers cites another powerful force that changed the sport: the emergence of women. "Greta first won New York in 1978. And Joan won Boston in 1979," he recalls. "They were knocking on the door. People like Roberta Gibb, Kathrine Switzer, Nina Kuscsik, and others were there. It was kinda like an avalanche thing. Smaller at first, then bigger, bigger, bigger," he smiles.

Rodgers notes how all of these factors converged to forge the changes in road racing that has produced the expansive sport spectacle we witness today. "Money came in. The sport went professional. That revolutionized it," he observes. "There was more TV. All the runners were treated better. Big sponsors came in. And when big sponsors come in, then smaller sponsors come in as well. I think that was the big thing in our sport: it started to become more integrated into our society."

As is the case with all runners, Father Time has slowed this champion. But Bill Rodgers enthusiastically participates in about 25 weekend events each year -- earnestly meeting new runners, patiently offering training tips and racing advice, and doing what he loves to do: race. "Running-wise, I am happy with the way things are going. I would like to run better. I haven't run that well in a while now," he confesses. "I think I need to do stuff like yoga," he adds with a laugh.

But his love for the sport he helped elevate still endures -- even as a fan. "I watched the Olympic marathons. The men's race was so shocking! Especially with Hall and Abdi," he exclaims. "Hall had never had a bad marathon day in this career. It was a first for him, a rarity," he notes. And then, almost as a footnote, he adds, "I think it is tricky to prepare for a Trials and then to prepare again for the Olympics itself."

Bill Rodgers is upbeat and optimistic when he thinks about what the future holds for road racing. "The sport will continue to get bigger. The mainstream sports media in general doesn't follow our sport that closely. So they don't appreciate our growth over the past 10-20 years," he notes. "But they might see something new. But the numbers of some of these new sports will never approach the numbers of just running." And Rodgers sees more reason for optimism. "One of the strengths of our sport is that it appeals to all ages. I do see that continuing -- the age-grouping, the age-grading," Rodgers predicts. "The aging baby boomers are going to keep going. That trend will continue. More women, more kids." And noting the explosion in the growth of cable channels, he adds "I think we will get national TV coverage for more races." Noting how a passionate and focused group can still move the needle, Rodgers adds, "Growth in the sport can really be aided through the efforts of individuals."

And what about the future for Bill Rodgers? Fully recovered from a serious health scare five years ago, Rodgers has his world in proper perspective now. He enjoys the uncomplicated life he shares with his girlfriend Karen in Boxboro, Massachusetts. "I used to always be after records, you know," he admits. "Of course, things change. Also, maybe it's just aging. But I'm going to have to just keep doing what I'm doing. I like going to races. I like meeting new runners. I like running with my girlfriend on trails." And it is clear he speaks the truth when, with a smile, he adds, "I am very happy, you know?"

Which Extraordinary Athlete Will Gain Annual Honor?

As was the case last week when 5 exceptional athletes in the running for the 2012 Male Athlete Of The Year were fully vetted, the task of evaluating and ultimately selecting the most worthy recipient of this year's Female Athlete Of The Year is no less daunting. To embark on the subjective journey of comparing and contrasting the 2012 competitive records of the world's pinnacle women track & field performers, it is helpful to be reminded once again of the trio of respected Track & Field News criteria: (i) honors won; (ii) won-loss record in head-to-head competition; and (iii) progression of marks. These three beacons -- subjective in part and not evenly-weighted -- can light the way as we examine the sport's most accomplished female athletes of the past year.

For a track & field athlete to gain entry into the serious conversation about this annual award, one's performance over the year must be near- perfect. So high is the standard here that even the slightest performance blemish can be sufficient to knock an athlete out of consideration. In this Olympic year, quite a few women won Olympic gold medals and posted world-leading marks in their specialty. Look who accomplished this incredible feat in 2012: Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce (100m); Sally Pearson (100m hurdles); Allyson Felix (200m); Mariya Savinova (800m); Yuliya Zaripova (3000 Steeple) Anna Chicherova (HJ); Jen Suhr (PV); Barbora Spotakova (Jav); and Jessica Ennis (Heptathlon). For many in this exclusive club, 2012 will stand as their career year -- the zenith of their athletic achievements. Amazingly, even this type of event domination -- while likely sufficient to allow nearly all of these athletes to capture the #1 world ranking in their event -- is just simply too commonplace, without more, to place the athlete in serious contention for the AOY prize. For that to occur, a thorough review of the 2012 record of the track & field performer must reveal "something more."

Olympic Year Produces Bumper Crop Of Worthy Athletes

Every fall, just before the vivid memories of the recently-completed track & field season begin to fade, enthusiasts of the sport turn their attention to an annual post-season ritual: assessing the performances of the very top athletes in an effort to identify the most worthy candidate to be named Athlete Of The Year. In 2012 -- an Olympic year -- it is not at all surprising that more than a few superlative athletes had pinnacle performance years that clearly put them in the conversation. Ah, but alas, only one can capture the AOY title. The evaluation process -- often best conducted with a group of track buddies over a hoppy beverage -- is a subjective exercise in which reasonable minds can come to differing conclusions. That should not deter us from this journey. Let us begin.

First of all, this subjective evaluation is not without helpful guidelines. Track & Field News -- which without quarrel proclaims itself to be the "Bible Of The Sport" -- has laid down a sort of Marquess of Queensberry set of generally-recognized governing principles for evaluating candidates. The three criteria are: (i) Honors won; (ii) Win-loss record in head-to-head competition; and (iii) Sequence of marks. These criteria are not evenly weighted. And as T&FN tersely notes, "We reward people who have proven themselves against other people, not against themselves."

Against that backdrop, it would appear that 5 men turned in performances in this Olympic year that placed them head and shoulders above a strong collection of other tremendous athletes who won Olympic gold medals or set world records. Let's look at what these athletes did in 2012.

Thumbnail image for Bolt-BlakeFH-OlyGame12.jpgUsain Bolt, London 2012 Olympic Games



Usain Bolt. Let's start with this incredible sprinter. Many would proclaim we should start -- and end -- with Bolt. But an equal number could suggest that a deeper analysis might uncover a weakness in his candidacy. Few would deny that Bolt may well be on the pathway to become the greatest sprinter in history. Indeed, no athlete -- man or woman -- has ever accomplished what Bolt achieved this season: to win the Olympic 100/200 sprint double twice. But that feat was accomplished over a span of years -- not simply this year. Bolt's dual losses to countryman Yohan Blake in the Jamaican Trials showed his vulnerability and would require he be given a lower mark on the won/loss criterion. It is true that Bolt ran a scintillating anchor leg on Jamaica's world record setting 4 x 100 relay team in London. But his 2012 personal marks of 9.63 and 19.32 -- while truly dazzling -- were not improvements of his phenomenal world records set in earlier years.


Thumbnail image for Rudisha_David1-OlyGame12.JPGDavid Rudisha, London 2012 Olympic Games, photo by PhotoRun.net


David Rudisha. Like Bolt, Rudisha produced a dominating win in the Olympic 800 final. And he did so in the world record time of 1:40.91, prompting speculation that the previously-incomprehensible sub 1:40 800 may not be far away. But the 800 specialist is not without a blemish on his report card. Like Bolt, Rudisha also has a loss this season. Mohammed Aman, 6th place finisher in London, executed a surprising post-Olympic ambush of Rudisha in Zurich to spoil his perfect season. Could that upset cost Rudisha his 3rd consecutive AOY title?


Thumbnail image for Farah_Mo5KFV-Olympic12.jpgMo Farah, London 2012 Olympic Games, photo by PhotoRun.net


Mo Farah. If sentimentality was a pivotal factor in the selection process, the gritty Brit might be the runaway winner. That is not to suggest that Farah lacks legitimate credentials. He does not. You have to give him the highest marks possible for "Honors won." His 5,000/10,000 double gold medal performance in front of his adoring countrymen was almost too "storybook" to be believed. In the 10,000, Farah even found a winning strategy that placed his rapidly-improving training partner in just the right position to get up for the silver. There is likely little doubt that Farah should be ranked #1 in both the 5,000 and the 10,000, but to capture the AOY prize it will have to be overlooked that this year 10 athletes posted quicker 5K marks and a whopping 37 runners notched faster 10K times than this ferocious kicker who beat everyone when it counted most.

Ashton Eaton. It's difficult to imagine how Eaton could have had a better year. He was on a roll even as early as the indoor season -- usually a venue that leaves little opportunity for multi athletes. After setting the WR at the Trials -- in front of his hometown crowd, as every living American Olympic decathlon gold medalist looked on, and as the sun emerged during the final event -- the 1500 -- after 36 hours of rain -- Eaton seemed destined for gold. His pre-ordained Olympic win was glorious, even if entirely expected. Often not fully appreciated is the fact that the newly-crowned World's Greatest Athlete set PR's in 2012 in 8 of the 10 decathlon events. Honor's won? Check. Won-loss record? Check. Sequence of marks? Check. It is difficult to suggest that Ashton Eaton is not the Athlete of the Year. Oh, and he belongs on the Wheaties box, too.

Thumbnail image for Merritt_Aries-London12.jpgAries Merritt, London 2012 Olympic Games, photo by PhotoRun.net


Aries Merritt. Not unlike his impeccable hurdling, there is virtually nothing to criticize in analyzing Merritt's spotless season. He ran often. He ducked no one. And he never lost a final. On London's big stage, he was unfazed by the big target on his back as he captured gold in an event where there is no margin for error. But he left perhaps his biggest moment for the post-Olympic season. As the European circuit was nearing an end, he ran the perfect hurdle race in Brussels. Alone after the fourth hurdle, he powered over the remaining barriers with precision and focus to take down Dayron Robles 12.87 WR by .07 seconds -- an enormous reduction in the realm of high hurdling where world bests are eked out 1/100th of a second at a time. This puts Merritt's Beamon-esque 12.80 hurdle performance in perspective: in 1981, Renaldo Nehemiah set the 110 Hurdles WR by running 12.93. In the 31 years that followed, the WR was lowered by only .06 seconds. On that chilly, windless night in Belgium, it took Merritt just a little under 13 seconds to reduce the world record mark by an even larger margin.

So who should be selected? Strict application of the T&FN guidelines can help. While all 5 won championships in London, this year both Eaton and Merritt were world record-setting Olympic gold medalists who were undefeated in their specialty. Against that near-perfect standard, the remaining trio falls just a bit short. Rudisha suffered that season-ending loss. Farah, while undefeated, posted only underwhelming marks. And the iconic Bolt, albeit with three Olympic golds, still suffered those troubling losses to Blake and posted top individual marks this year that didn't alter the record book.

OK, but how do you pick between Eaton and Merritt, two exquisite athletes who performed flawlessly in 2012? Do you give the nod to the versatile decathlete who is clearly the more dynamic athletic performer? Or do you go with the skilled technician who lowered the hurdle WR by such a large margin? Well, you could flip a coin. Or -- better still -- you could get together with your track & field cronies, sit down and share a beer, and figure it all out.

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Dunaway AwardAt the 2019 annual meeting of the Track and Field Writers of America, Dave was presented with the James Dunaway Memorial Award “for track & field journalism excellence.”

Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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