The agony & the ecstacy: American Track & Field, where are we going?, commentary by Larry Eder

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Last night was a watershed event. At the Weltklasse, three American women, distance runners, were under 4:01.1, in the 1,500 meters, Nick Symmonds was duking it out with the best 800 meter runners in the world, and Dathan Ritzenhein held his own in the 5,000 meters, finishing third, breaking the hallowed AR of Bob Kennedy, running 12:56.27.
Last month, while I was in the UK at the Aviva London Grand Prix, British friends were noting that their country needed to have a rebirth in distance running, like the US. Boy, that one knocked me off my seat. I can remember so many years when our guys were getting their butts kicked.
But, in truth, the changes in our middle distance runners started way back in the early 90s, when Bob Kennedy, Todd Williams, Mark Croghan were competing and many of our runners had taken to the roads, not focusing on becoming good at the world stage.

I remember in 1984, on a day break in the Olympic schedule, where a couple of US finalists actually ran a 10k road race, for money, during the Olympic schedule. It really upset me, as I could not understand what was going on in their minds!

Today, we are beginning to become competitive, on a global stage, and that is good. Lots of people have played a part in that, and they need to be recognized. And lots of people led the way. But, we can not get complacent, and here is why:

Keflezighi_Meb-Falmouth09.jpg

Meb Keflezighi, Falmouth, August 2009, Meb is the Olympic silver medalist, 2004, Olympic marathon, photo by PhotoRun.net.

There was a period of time, when, I believe, Americans did not believe that they could any longer be competitive on the world stage. The comments would be, " well, really, our kids do not want to work that hard, and look at what the rest of the world is doing."

It was not long slow distance that killed American distance running, it was no distance. It was the belief that a little bit would do it. An acceptance of mediocrity when the world was happy to look at us, knowing how much talent we had at a typical high school track meet, and that we in the US just did not get it.

In 1995, in Goteborg, I remember being interviewed by a Swiss TV crew asking me if track was dead in the US. I was astounded. I had just come out of reading the results from 39 of 50 state track meets and realizing that we had the best farm program in the world.

Coaching clinics around the country, where 25,000 coaches a year listen to the likes of Loren Seagrave, Jan Johnson, Peter Tegen, Bob Larsen and Joe Vigil, to point out a few. Communications, like the web, has made it amazingly easier to find pieces on altitude training, to find Vigil and Larsen's notes, to read all you can on Arthur Lydiard.

In 1999, a group of us helped bring Arthur Lydiard to the US to speak in about twenty cities. The night Arthur came to Madison, Jerry Schumacher, then, coach at UW-Madison, Joe Hanson, my partner in crime at Edgewood (he was Phys Ed director, we did a track program for fifth and sixth graders), and the team got to ask Arthur questions on the sport, and Arthur loved it. Pascal Dobert, the US steeplechaser, spent time with Lydiard, as did the Downin brothers. To know where to go, one has to learn where we have been.

Joe Vigil and Bob Larsen lead the way, with Meb Keflizighi and Deena Kastor. I have been fascinated with how Meb and Deena developed. In Athens, Meb ran a perfect race in horrible conditions to take the silver in the marathon. In Deena's race, her last 10k was better than the rest of the fields, and she won her bronze medal, after years of running 5ks, 10ks, and then moving up to the marathon. Americans were learning how to work hard, and race sparingly, once again. History can repeat.


At the Cardinal Invitational in 2001, when the late Kim McDonald helped put a field together in the 10,000 meters for Meb Keflizighi to have a chance to get Mark Nenow's 10,000 meter AR. ( Nenow was one of the few guys, in the late 80s who remembered how to race and did race against the best, all of the time. ) Meb's 27:13.85, a new AR, followed the fasted 10k ever run in the US, by one Abrahim
Chebii, 27:04.28. The Cardinal Invite in the late nineties and in this decade, was like
old home week for distance coaches. Put on a great event and they will come.

Terrance Mahon has had success with athletes from 800 meters now ( Anna Willard), to the marathon. His system, supported by the city of Mammoth, Running USA, and many others who care about the sport, is focused hard work, complete training, from core to massage, and a team approach to bringing out the best.

Zap Fitness, Brad Hudson's group, Minnesota's group, all have an approach that works for them. Similar to the guys who ran for the Greater Boston TC in the late 70s, early 80s, the Florida Track Club in the late 60s, ealry 70s, and the LA Track Club in the early sixties (and Santa Clara Youth Village). History does repeat. Working as a group was something this New Zealand milkman named Arthur Lydiard did, when he brought a group of local kids, Bill Baillee, Peter Snell, Murray Halberg together to train in Auckland New Zealand in the late 50s.

This year, training together and focusing on goals has brought huge dividends. The Oregon project, under the watchful eyes of Alberto Salazar, has paid huge dividends. Kara Goucher's bronze in 2007 at 10k, her move to the marathons with thirds in both NYC and Boston, Amy Begleys' 10k in Berlin this year, Matt Tegenkamp, Chris Solinsky, Evan Jager at the 5,000m, and now Galen Rupp joining the group. Dathan had spent two months training with the Oregon project, using his base and long training and re introducing his body to fast speed work, and in two months, Pbs at 10k and five k. Dathan and Galen working out together for a year, should really make for some fast races.

Hats off to Mark Rowland in Eugene, with Nick Symmonds, who is developing into a fine 800 meter runner (and watch out for Andrew Wheating when he gets healthy again). Bernard Lagat showed his stuff in Berlin, winning two medals, silver at 5,000 meters and bronze at 1,500 meters.

But there is a caveat: groups are not good for everyone. But, the options for good coaching, training advice, camps are, and that is where we have to, for all events.

I think that we are making huge progress. But I see some places we need to address, now:

Men's shot put-Christian Cantwell, Dave Taylor, Reese Hoffa, Adam Nelson, these guys will retire some day. We need to focus on bringing through another generation, and not forget it takes a dozen years to develop good throwers.

Men and women's discus-this event is technical and requires a long focus. Stefanie Brown Trafton shows this.

Men's steeplechase-Anna Willard and Jenny Barringer have showed it on the women's side. Some coach has got to take his 1;48.5 800 meter guy and teach him how to steeple, (stole that one from John Chaplin). US guys running 8:24 need to go to Europe for a summer, get in B races and get into the 8:15s. Brian Deimer, Henry Marsh, Dan LIncoln, Horace Ashenfelter-remember, Ashenfelter did his hurdle practice on park benches and spent his one hour workouts doing fast repeats. Quality is important.

Short relays-I know, USATF High performance and Coaching Education will work on it, but we got to to this sooner than later. Just watching Wallace Spearmon and Usain Bolt going at it last night at Weltklasse totally wound me up!

Race walking-we have had competitive walkers, get our 2:18 marathon guys and convince a few to do the 50k training. Remember Larry Young? Come on!

Women's 800 meters--they need to go to Europe, get the heck knocked out of themselves and race! Same goes for the men in 800 meters, with Nick Symmonds getting honorable mention.

Triple jump-men and women-we suck. Ask Dick Booth, he is the man. I look at Michael Jordan and see a 57 foot triple guy. In the land of Mike Conley, Willie Banks, this is a sacrilidge. I like Phillips Iduwu from UK, but we got guys in this country who can make him work for it.

Javelin-find those third string quarterbacks and former baseball pitchers on the guys side, and get some women volleyball players.

Sprints-we have some competition! And it is real close. Jamaica is to the sprints what Kenya and Ethiopia have come to be in the distances and we better realize that. If Jamaica can get the baton around, we better figure out a way. Usain Bolt is once in a generation, and while I do believe, over 400 meters, LaShawn Merritt and Jeremy Wariner will be making him work for it, there are more Usain Bolts out there. We have to develop athletes, not hope for them to pop up.

I welcome your comments on this! Consider this the beginning of a Chautaqua ( look it up). In the 1840s-50s, people would put big tents up in the Midwest and have these long discussions on what mattered. If you believe in the sport, then take the time, give us your thoughts, and lets put it out on the table.

I am truly pleased with Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, our USATF High Performance director and Terry Crawford, our new Director of Coaching. They have to ask the hard questions, let's give them our two cents and remember that it is time to work together.

(This is what happens when I get my hour walk in, go to farmer's market, and get my iced americano! ).

Have a great weekend!

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