Sunday, May 10, 2009

USA 1 Mile Road Championship

Story filed by RunMinnesota writer, Patrick O'Regan

On May 7th the USA 1 Mile Road Championship races were held on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis. The races – women’s, then men’s – took place on a lovely evening, perfect for a short run, and with crowds of full-throated fans lining the Mall. It was a positive thrill to see the elite runners, among the best in the country, charge past, just a notch or two less than full speed, hell-bent for the win and for the times (4:28 and 4:00) that were set for the $10,000 bonus prize.

Preceding the Championship races, some 3,200 citizen runners – many outstanding athletes among them – coming in waves, starting a few minutes apart, swept down the Mall, helped along, like the elite runners to come, by a rolling cacophony of cheering. The citizen-races were fitting preludes to seeing some of the best milers in the country compete. In all, the evening was a memorable event for a fan of the sport.

The afternoon before the races, the runners held a press conference with the local media in the Hyatt Regency Hotel on the Mall near the finish line. Panels of the top women and men runners answered questions and generally made themselves available for interviews. A few words on the press conference, then the races themselves, might be of interest.

The Press Conference

The press conference was well-attended – perhaps 30 people – but the ratio of outstanding runner to spectators and media was about one to three. Seldom will you see so little attention paid to so much talent. In other countries – African countries – these runners could not walk down the street without being waylaid by admirers. Perhaps it’s better. The nicest people in the world can be corrupted by money and fame. The gracious Hall and Rowbury, Rankin and Torrence might become impossible characters.

All the top runners slated for the race were there. Some people in the audience were notable, too. Ryan Hall, the best American marathoner and husband of Sara Hall, one of the elite milers, was there. Ryan was third in the Boston Marathon this year; seventh at the Beijing Olympics, following a terrific run around Central Park in the Olympic Trials. This is a runner way beyond the imagination of a citizen jogger. He looks small, shy and a little scruffy in his blue jeans and baseball hat. He is sloughed in his chair and has a pained expression. Perhaps he’s annoyed because he has to sit still.

I can no longer run one lap of a track, shattering myself with the effort, as fast as Ryan Hall runs 105 of them, without a break. In other words, if I ran the marathon in relays – 105 of me, in turn, giving it all I had – I would still be way behind him when he crossed the finish line. He and the other elite runners in the room leave a citizen runner star-struck.

What must life be like to run as these elite men and women do? Is running just another part of life besides the things that count for much more? Are these runners preoccupied with being among the best in the world at something as fundamental as running? Are they self-involved? It doesn’t seem like it.

Taking the women’s panel first:

Shannon Rowbury (4:20)

Shannon won the 1500 in the Olympic Trials and is currently the highest ranking American woman in the mile and 1500. She placed seventh in the Beijing Games (4:03). She had to be considered the favorite in the race, though, as she pointed out, she hadn’t raced since last fall.

Shannon gets away from running by attending live concerts from time to time, but says that she is prohibited from having much of an active life, apart from running, because of the rigors of the sport. She leaves the impression of someone consumed by running. Many years ago, marathoner Frank Shorter said, “That’s what it takes.”

Sara Hall (4:25, road)

Sara’s goals in running are to make the Olympic Team in 2012 and win a National Track and Field Championship. She might have a marathon in her future. The Twin Cities marathon? she asked herself.

Sara works for her church as a way of getting something besides running into her life. She was recently training with her husband at altitude.

Carrie Tollefson (4:27)

Carrie, a native of Minnesota, made the finals of the 1500 at the Athens Olympiad in 2004. She’s had a raft of injuries, but is getting back to full speed again. Her goal for the race is a fast time – to come away from the race feeling she had run it well.

Having for years been steeped in running, Carrie’s motivated now to have more balance in her life. “We should use all the gifts we have,” she said.

“The race will be over so fast,” she said. “It’s pretty cool. … My wheels are more for the 5 k.”

This brings back memories. I recall standing before the TV watching the women line up for the finals of the 1500 in Athens. Like a lot of fans, I’m sure, my thought was – Why is she running this race? Wouldn’t she have a better shot at a medal in the 5000?

“Okay, ladies, now it’s a 400 m race. Run like mad.” Given that scenario, and knowing that the runners are after medals and not records – so the race will likely be tactical: decided by a mad sprint in the last 300 m – isn’t it likely that the top three in the 400 will probably be in the medals or close? And isn’t it also likely that the last three will not be in the hunt for a medal?

Jim Spivey, the fine American miler, had made the Olympic team in the 1500, but went up to the 5000 before the next Games. “I could no longer run a rested 400 under fifty-two seconds,” he said. He was fourth in the Trials in the 5000.

It’s just a fan’s assessment – and presumptuous.

Emily Brown (4:37)

Emily qualified for the steeplechase in the 2008 Trials. She combines being a professional dietician with running. She uses what she has learned from her career for her training.

Emily’s goal is the U.S. Championship in the 5k.

Now the men’s panel:

David Torrence (3:57)

David is the indoor 3000 m champion this year and the winner of the Puma Mile.

“What’s important to me,” he said, “is staying healthy, recovering, stretching, doing the little things right.” He says he loves to compete, and run against a great field.

Kyle Alcorn (4:00)

Kyle won both the NCAA Indoor 3000 and the NCAA Steeplechase Championships.

“The mile is a great test,” he said. “With this, I’ll see where my conditioning is at. He plans on concentrating on the steeplechase after this, with an eye on the U.S. Outdoor Championships.

Jon Rankin (3:54)

Jon has the fastest time in the mile and 1500 coming into the race. He won the Falmouth Mile Road Race in 3:57.

Jon’s strategy is to go out hard and run the whole race fast.

Jordan Fife (3:59)

Jordan was third in the mile on Nicollet Mall last year. The course has changed, however. Now it is a straight route till a slight curve at the end.

“The slight advantage I had” (from running the course last year), he said, “is largely lost.”

Jon thought the winning time would be sub-four-minutes or close.

Darren Brown (3:58)

Darren won the Boston Road Race Mile earlier this year. In that race, he got away early enough to hold on for the win, taking the last two laps of the roundabout course alone.

Darren broke four minutes last summer. His strategy is to stay relaxed as long as possible.

A question was asked about Olympic 1500 m Champion Rashid Ramzi, who was caught – appar-ently – for drug use during the Games. (The drug allegedly used was Cera, an EPO-like red blood cell enhancer.)

Darren Brown said the situation was sad but not surprising. (Ramzi has long been the subject of suspicion.) His approach would be to legalize the practice, but require the athletes to declare what they are taking.

True enough, this approach would devalue any drug-enhanced performances. But I’m reminded of the two-page photo spread in Outside magazine a couple years back. It showed the cyclists – men of 20, 21 and 22 years old – who had died in recent years. There were ten of them. Leaving aside Marco Pantani, who died of a cocaine overdose but was suspected of using performance enhancing drugs, these young guys died of heart attacks brought on by the use of EPO. Like Ramzi, they were boosting their red cell counts. But their blood became so thick that it could not flow freely through their coronary arteries.

Jon Rankin said it breaks his heart to learn of the cheating in track and field and other sports. “We have God-given gifts,” he said, “and we should use the gifts we were given. … This puts our own efforts down. People think it applies to us, too. It’s not fair.”

1 comment:

Chad said...

"A few words on the press conference, then the races themselves."

I see the press conference stuff, but nothing about the races themselves. Did I miss something?