Are all elites running the wrong way?

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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Believe it or not, these people know how to run

Someone sent me this earlier this week. I was writing up a response to it for a blog post when I saw that Alex Hutchinson beat me to the punch.

As for what I was going to write, it was going to cover all that he stated but probably not as well. The simple fact is that gravity pulls you down, not forward. If you use it to pull you forward, it’s going to also pull you down in the process and you’ll have to expend energy to push yourself back up. In short, there is no free lunch.

One other point, though. People keep looking for what all of the elites are doing wrong and what will make all of them look foolish. I remember over a decade ago someone came up with the idea that the elites were all simply more talented than everyone else (there’s some truth to that, of course, but they also train more effectively – it’s the combination of the two that makes them elite) and that he had the training philosophy that was going to revolutionize the sport. Once it caught on with the elites, they would be demolishing all the world records.

The fact is the elites have things mostly right. If they had it all wrong, are we really to believe that someone wouldn’t come along doing things right and blow them away. We’d have a new crop of elites? Let’s get real. Maybe they don’t have everything right but all the low hanging fruit has been picked. There’s no one thing that’s going to make them suddenly get 20%, 10% or even 5% faster instantly. If there was something that significant, it would have been discovered already. What is left to find are the things that will make them fractions of a percent faster.

So let’s stop paying homage to these snake oil salesmen who make these fantastical claims about how they can make elites 10% faster overnight. Let’s take a dose of reality and realize that what the elites are doing is mostly right. Then, let’s learn all we can from them and maybe find ways that things can be improved around the edges.

The Nike Oregon Project/Alberto Salazar story

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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Alberto Salazar

By now, I’m sure anyone reading this post knows about the story. At first, I didn’t want to write about it. As the story goes on, though, I think it’s important enough to the sport that I should write about it. Not because I’ll write a better piece than the many great authors who have written on this but because I want to offer a place for you to find some of the best links and expand with my thoughts.

The breaking news

First, the original pieces: David Epstein’s article on ProPublica and the BBC article (which includes a couple short video clips and a link to the BBC documentary).

Response

There has, obviously, been a lot of response to these accusations. Obviously, that response cuts both ways. I’d like to comment on a few things I’ve seen in the commentary.

First, as of now, these are accusations. The accusations are very strong and seem to be growing over time. However, there is no smoking gun yet. While things don’t look good, I’d like to hold off a little longer to pass judgement, especially on those who are only tangentially related to the story (such as Mo Farah, Shannon Rowbury, Matt Centrowitz and other current and former members whose names have not come up in reports we have seen so far). Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire but I’d prefer to let this story play out before saying even Galen Rupp, the primary figure in the story outside of Salazar, is dirty, much less athletes who haven’t even been named. I’m not saying they are obviously clean but let’s let the story play out and the evidence come to light before jumping to conclusions. The story is out now, we will learn more.

Second, can we please put an end to the "never tested positive" line of defense? I’ve seen this come up several times since the story broke. Rupp never tested positive, even though he was tested so many times over so many years. You know who else never tested positive? Lance Armstrong. Marion Jones. And they both used that line of defense, very vociferously, even though we now know both were doped to the gills while passing tests. Plus a big part of the accusations specifically involves attempts to avoid positive tests while still using banned or regulated substances. "Never tested positive" may mean you’re clean or it may mean you know how to dope while avoiding a positive test. As much as I wish it was, it simply is not in the current world incontrovertible proof of innocence.

Third, some people are claiming that Steve Magness and the Gouchers specifically, as well as others, are lying either to benefit themselves or because they have some kind of vendetta against the Oregon Project or Salazar specifically. Let’s be real. Magness and the Gouchers have nothing to gain by making these reports and a lot to lose. They aren’t doing this for personal benefit. Getting on the wrong side of Salazar and Nike is not something you do just because you’re peeved at someone or to further your career within the world of distance running. Remember last year’s USA Indoors? Salazar seemed to have the power to convince USATF officials to "bend" the rules in order to disqualify athletes he (in my opinion wrongfully) felt wronged his athletes.

As for the responses directly from Salazar, Rupp and others beyond the "never tested positive" and "vendetta" claims that I mentioned above, we have the usual denials. The denials are expected. If innocent, what would you expect? At the same time, if guilty, do you think they are going to throw up their arms and admit it that easily? One thing that did bother me is that Salazar seemed to call David Epstein’s reporting credentials into question by calling him a "reporter" (with quotes). Epstein is an excellent reporter and attacking the messenger instead of addressing the message itself does not look good. That’s a strategy often used by those who have no good way to address the message because they are guilty.

Salazar’s history

Salazar has always seemed an outsized individual and one who has always stated that he’d do anything to win. Given prior statements, the idea that he may play in the gray area of doping rules doesn’t seem far fetched. In fact, the idea that he might flat out break the rules if he thinks he can get away with doing so doesn’t seem outrageous.

The most obvious and probably well known prior statement:

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The above is a screenshot highlighting a few key lines I thought of as reading these accusations, from a 1999 paper by Salazar himself (pdf).

Further coverage

As would be expected in a story like this, it didn’t end with the ProPublica and BBC coverage. There has been quite a bit of follow-up.

First, Competitor.com interviewed Epstein.

One of a few interesting things to come out of this interview: Mo Farah received letters about this reporting and apparently responded to those letters. This doesn’t look good for him, as he tried to act this weekend like he was caught by surprise with this report. He knew ahead of time, he was not caught by surprise at the same time the rest of us were. It also doesn’t look good that Salazar appeared to address what he wanted to address while not addressing other questions.

Next, a former Oregon Project coach is not surprised by the allegations. Apparently not because he knows of something from the inside but because he knows Salazar will do anything to get better. As he states, "there’s no stone left unturned. If there’s a way to get better, it’s done." He also raises some very valid points about the inefficacy of testing.

Not so much breaking news but Ross Tucker at Science of Sport had a good post this weekend about the no good week for doping (this isn’t the only doping story for the week). In it, he mentioned the curiosity of Mo Farah acting like he was blindsided when he couldn’t have been (see above). He also mentions some other good topics that are at least tangentially related.

Finally, Salazar says he plans to "document and present the facts" as quickly as he can to "show the accusers are knowingly making false statements."

Let’s see what his side of the story is because the side we’re seeing right now paints a very ugly picture. I’m still a little hesitant, though, because he could have responded to the ProPublica and BBC queries with "I will have a response but I need some time to document and present the facts" and BBC policies specifically would have allowed him at least some amount of time to do so before running the story.

The story continues

I’m beginning to write this on Monday and finalizing on Wednesday. Obviously, with a very rapidly moving story, it’s possible that, simply between Wednesday evening when I finalize and schedule this post and Thursday morning when it appears, there will be new developments in this story. I’ll try to keep this post updated in the comments. Stay tuned. I’m sure there is much more to come. I’ll probably try to avoid writing another whole post on this and just update in the comments but we’ll have to see where this story goes and whether a whole new post may be needed if developments warrant.

Another honor for Coach Conway

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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Coach Conway – inspiration, role model, mentor – working the finish line, one of the many jobs a high school coach fills

A personal post this week. As anyone who knows me as a runner knows, my middle school track and high school cross country coach has been a huge influence on my life. To be honest, he has been inside and outside of running.

To explain what Coach Conway has meant to me would take far more words than anyone wants to read in a blog post. To try to keep it short, I highly doubt I would have found my way to distance running without him and it’s no secret how big a part of my life running is. He has done much more for me, though. He taught me to be confident in myself, to be proud of what I’ve accomplished while remaining humble. He’s been an amazing role model on many levels, from the way he freely shares his incredible wealth of knowledge to his work ethic and desire to excel personally as well as be as helpful to as many others as possible.

Coach Conway’s accomplishments have rightfully garnered him many honors. As an athlete, he’s a member of the Indianhead Track Club Hall of Fame and the USATF Masters Hall of Fame (class of 2007). As a coach, he’s a member of the Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame (class of 1998). I had the extreme honor of being his invited guest to the induction ceremony for the Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame. I couldn’t have been more proud to sit there next to him as he was granted that honor, not just for coaching state champion athletes but also for coaching runners like me to be the best runners – and people – we can be.

Well, I just found out that Coach Conway is being inducted into another hall of fame. While he would likely never admit it, a lot of people who know him would agree with me that he can’t win enough of these honors. He deserves all he gets and many more.

Since hearing this news, I’ve been thinking about Coach Conway a lot again. How much he means to me and my life but also how many others out there have had their lives forever shaped in wonderful ways by his guidance. Coach Conway is the reason I started HillRunner.com, the reason I decided to take up coaching and the reason I do everything here. He gave me so much, in so many ways, through running that I wanted to do something to give a little back. I wanted to pay it forward in any way I could. If I can help even one person even half as much as he has helped me, I know I’ll have made this world a better place.

In the meantime, congratulations to Coach Conway! I couldn’t ask for a better inspiration, role model and mentor.

Haile Gebrselassie has retired from competitive running

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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I will always remember both the ferociously competitive spirit and the huge smile

In case you haven’t already heard, the great Haile Gebrselassie has officially retired from competitive running. He says he will keep running and will remain involved in the sport but he is done competing.

As many runners of similar age, I grew up as a fan of running watching and cheering for Geb. Actually, I was split between Geb and Paul Tergat, his chief rival through most of the 1990s on the track and into the 2000s, first on the track and then in the marathon. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a better two person rivalry in distance running history. Geb always seemed to have the upper hand but Tergat was always there From trading world records to the legendary 2000 Olympic 10,000 meter finish, they were always neck and neck.

Beyond the amazing competitions and times posted by Geb, though, I will also always remember that broad smile you can see in the image above. He always seemed to be friendly with everyone and truly love what he was doing. His enthusiasm for running and for the spirit of competition was amazing.

For all that you have done for the sport and for the great inspiration you have been for so many, thank you Geb. You are a true living legend.

Larry Rawson’s weight comments at the Boston Marathon

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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Lightweight? Yes. Also and more important: powerful, extremely fit, amazing stamina.

Did Larry Rawson do a disservice to young and likely not so young runners across America? In my opinion, yes.

I didn’t see the coverage live. I saw a lot about the topic as it was happening via Twitter, though, and it reminded me of previous races I did see live where Rawson constantly focused on the weight of the elite female runners. When I saw some replays of the race, I heard at least some of his comments and heard what I feared but also expected given his history.

During the race, as he has done during other races, Rawson repeatedly references the weights of certain members of the elite women’s field. He at times seems fixated on their weights, as if the weight of the runner is the most important factor in the race.

What does this do to the high school runners watching the race who want to emulate these runners? When a commentator focuses this much on the weight of the runners, it will appear to some who are watching that weight is the key to their success.

The truth, as is obvious to most of us who will read this, is much more complex. Yes, weight matters. There’s a reason 150 pound women and 200 pound men aren’t winning major marathons. However, there’s much more than just weight.

I would argue that even more important than weight is strength (or power) to weight ratio. Obviously, also, aerobic and muscular endurance. Efficiency also matters. As do various other things that are too numerous to list.

We already have a problem in this sport. Some ill informed coaches and others who young runners, especially girls and young ladies, take advice from already place way too much importance on weight. Eating disorders are a problem for too many runners. I’ve seen the damage eating disorders can do. While these disorders are complex, focusing too much on the weight of the elite runners surely doesn’t help.

Before he does this again, I would ask Rawson what kind of message he wants to send.

When will we see a 1:59 marathon?

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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I wrote a little about this Sunday when posting about Dennis Kimetto taking the marathon world record under 2:03 but I don’t think I’ve written a full length post on this so here it is.

Every time the record is broken and, especially, when a "minute barrier" is broken like we saw on Sunday, the discussion always starts: how soon until we see someone run a marathon in under two hours? It seems like, every time we go through a new "minute barrier", we get predictions that breaking through the two hour barrier is imminent. It’s only a matter of 5-10 years. I’ve been hearing that it’s only a matter of 5-10 years for over 10 years now and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the talk has been going on even longer.

The fact that "within 10 years" has been going around for over 10 years should say something about how likely these predictions are. However, let’s look at the factors involved. I’d like to look at things by the numbers and consider recent trends in distance running and what they might mean for the future.

The Numbers

First, the progression of the world record. Let’s consider how long it took for each "minute barrier" to be broken:

2:08: 1985

2:07: 1988 (3 years)

2:06: 1999 (11 years)

2:05: 2003 (4 years)

2:04: 2008 (5 years)

2:03: 2014 (6 years)

I started with the 2:08 barrier because there’s debate about when the 2:09 barrier was broken. It was either 1969 by Derek Clayton (this is a disputed record, due to a course that was possibly 500 meters short) or 1981 by Rob De Castella.

There are a few ways we could look at this:

Fastest case scenario: The progression from breaking the 2:03 barrier to breaking the 2:00 barrier follows the progression from 2:08 to 2:07. That means 3 years per minute or 9 years from now we’d see a sub-2:00.

Slowest case scenario: The progression from breaking the 2:03 barrier to breaking the 2:00 barrier follows the progression from 2:07 to 2:06. That means 11 years per minute or 33 years from now we’d see a sub-2:00.

Middle ground: The progression from breaking the 2:03 barrier to breaking the 2:00 barrier follows the average progression from 2:08 to 2:03. That’s 5.8 years per minute or roughly 17-18 years total for 3 minutes.

One thing to notice about the above trend: Notice how the 2:06 barrier took 11 years to break? The 1980s was a golden era of marathoning. One could argue it only took 4 years to break the 2:08 barrier, then 3 years to break the 2:07 barrier. Then it took 11 years to see the 2:06 barrier broken. This is the reversion to the mean we would expect to see. I wouldn’t be shocked if, after seeing "minute barriers" broken fairly regularly recently, we are heading toward another dry spell relatively soon. Even if not, don’t expect that 4-6 years per minute improvement to accelerate.

So the progression so far suggests, in my opinion, that we’re looking at another 17-18 years, give or take, before we see a 1:59 marathon. What other considerations should be taken?

Recent Trends

I mentioned that the 1980s was a golden era of marathoning. If that was a golden era, then this is a platinum era or something along that line. Why?

Money

The top rung of the marathon ladder right now is awash in money. Between huge appearance fees, generous prize money, time incentives and additional prize money from the World Marathon Majors, the best of the best marathoners can make a lot of money. More than that, though, money in distance running on the track is drying up. In fact, the 10,000 itself – the event we’d expect to be the closest crossover to the marathon – is a dying event on the track. It’s very infrequently run outside of championship meets and not a big money event. Not surprisingly, we’ve seen times stagnate or even regress in that event. The world record in that event will turn 10 years old next year and nobody is challenging that record. By world class running standards, nobody is even close. That’s at least partly because all the talent that used to be running the 10,000 is moving up to the more lucrative event.

As all the best talent moved up to the marathon, skipping the track or at least spending much less time on it, we see runners at their prime trying the marathon. In the past, the usual trend was to run track through your prime, then move up to the marathon. This was surely the path followed by Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie. Since Geb, though, we have Patrick Makau, Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto breaking the record. These are not big name track guys moving up to the marathon. They are marathon specialists.

This money in the marathon and the resultant marathon specialist running the marathon in his prime is a historical shift within the sport. It’s a one time event that will produce a surge in improvement over the short term but will not drive continual progression. Eventually, the progression will slow. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the 2:02 barrier broken within the next decade but then things are going to move a little more slowly unless or until we encounter another historical shift.

Approach

The late Samuel Wanjiru was a fearless runner. He’d attack from nearly the very beginning of a marathon and would not relent until he crossed the finish line. He is often credited with changing the philosophy of the top marathoner. Instead of a marathon being a 20 mile warmup followed by a 10K race, it became a race from gun to tape.

This racing philosophy and the corresponding training philosophy is mentioned by the great Renato Canova in his review of the record.

This approach surely played a role as guys are more willing now to lay it all on the line early. Sure, it results in some epic disasters at times but it also results in guys coming closer to their ultimate potential.

Again, though, this is a one time occurrence. As guys refine this approach in order to walk the line of epic disaster without going over, they will continue to incrementally improve but the big gains from changing the approach to racing a marathon have already been accomplished.

Doping

It would be remiss of me to ignore another point that was brought up to me after I made my comments about this on Sunday. I was reminded that this golden age of marathoning doesn’t just coincide with more money in the marathon. It also coincides with more stringent doping controls in track and field. Is it likely that the drug cheats are moving to the less stringent marathons? Absolutely. However, in the same way that I describe money creating a relatively short term spike in improvements above, the drug situation would do the same thing. The difference would be that, if marathons follow track and field some time in the future, we’d actually see a regression in performances. That would mean expect to wait even longer.

Note: I’m not accusing Kimetto or anyone else individually of doping. I don’t believe in saying "he’s so fast he must be doping". I believe you better have some kind of solid evidence before making such severe accusations. However, it would be naive to think nobody is. It’s possible that dopers are raising the depth of the field and that’s requiring honest athletes to push that much harder to rise above the pack.

Conclusion

This is truly a golden age of marathoning. We’re seeing amazing times at almost every race that could not have been imagined even a decade ago. If you like insanely fast times, I hope you’re enjoying this. Just don’t expect it to continue at this rate indefinitely and definitely don’t expect it to accelerate. That means don’t expect a 1:59 marathon in the next decade. Maybe in the next 20 years but I’m not even convinced we’ll see it in that amount of time.

Dennis Kimetto: 2:02:57

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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For those of you who haven’t heard, Dennis Kimetto this morning shattered the marathon world record in Berlin with a 2:02:57. That takes 26 seconds off the former world record, held by Wilson Kipsang. With his customary second place finish (his sixth time finishing second at a major marathon) Emmanuel Mutai also went under the former world record.

I see three things with this world record.

First, what an amazing run. Notably, Kimetto had Mutai to run with until he broke away with about 2.5 miles to go based on reports I’ve seen. In fact, Mutai was the one pushing the pace for a while. Even when Kimetto broke Mutai, he had to push the whole way because Mutai didn’t just disappear. Direct competition in a fast race like this can do one of two things. Sometimes, it causes the pace to slow as runners size each other up and play the tactical game. Other times, someone decides to just lay it on the line and go all out. In this case, obviously, the latter happened.

Second, let the Boston 2011 "record" be laid to rest. Geoffrey Mutai’s 2:03:02 can be retired as the fastest time anyone has ever run but not the world record. Good riddance. I never liked that discussion. There’s a reason standards need to be met in order for a course to be record eligible and the insane tailwind of 2011 proved why those standards matter.

Third, let the sub-2 hour talk heat up. The safe money is still on it being a long time before we see a sub-2 marathon but that won’t stop some people from talking about it as if it will be in the next year or two.

Just a quick recap of why it will be a long time: The sport has undergone a drastic change in the last decade. There used to be big money in track and field and less money in the marathon. That balance has shifted. Between big appearance fees, big prize money including time incentives encouraging faster times and the World Marathon Majors prize structure, we see the marathon becoming a very lucrative pursuit. In the meantime, the 10,000 on the track has all but died. That’s drawing the best of the best to the marathon and encouraging them to chase what just a decade ago would have seemed like insanely fast times. The result is a historical shift in the talent pool resulting in a relatively short term dramatic improvement in performances. The 10,000 meter world record on the track will turn 10 years old in 11 months and hasn’t been seriously threatened in some time. That’s because potential world record holders in that event are skipping it in favor of the marathon. In the meantime, Kenenisa Bekele who holds that world record is moving up to the marathon and will likely do well at the upcoming Chicago Marathon but won’t set the world on fire with the world’s second 2:02 because he’s past his prime.

So don’t expect a sub-2 hour marathon in the next few years but enjoy this amazing time in marathoning and understand that it’s truly a historical period for the marathon. It will take at least one more historical shift like this, though, before we can expect the 2 hour barrier to fall.

Finally, congratulations to Kimetto on becoming the first person in history to run a marathon under 2:03. What an amazing performance.

Live blogging the Boston Marathon

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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For those of you who can’t watch the Boston Marathon live, I’ll be watching the live stream and posting updates along the way. Check in on the comments of this post Monday morning and don’t forget to refresh frequently to see the latest updates.

Elite women start at 9:32 Boston time (estimated finish around 11:55 Boston time)

Elite men start at 10:00 Boston time (estimated finish around 12:05 Boston time)

I will be home with my daughter so I’m not sure how frequently I’ll be able to post updates but I’ll do my best. If anyone else wants to chip in with updates, I always appreciate the help. Also, as always, live analysis and commentary/questions are very welcome.

I may offer a post-race analysis on another post later but it won’t be right away.

As for my usual weekly blog post, it will probably be a day late. I don’t want it to get lost in the shuffle of Boston Marathon coverage.

What’s happening at USATF?

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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I’ve been wondering for over a week what happened in the meeting between USATF and TFAA to discuss the disqualifications at the USATF Indoor Nationals meet. After an initial announcement that there was going to be a meeting between USATF and the TFAA to discuss procedures and possibly push for some form of athlete representative overview/review of the process, there became nothing but a lot of silence.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one wondering what happened. Lucky for me, Nobby Hashizume did the digging to find out what happened as you can see at his post. It turns out the meeting was cancelled. As for who decided to cancel it and why, that doesn’t seem to be coming out.

In the meantime, fortunately, Gabe Grunewald got her national championship and her chance to run at Worlds. So all is good, right? Well, no. We still don’t know how all that happened was allowed to happen. There is no evidence that this will be prevented from happening in the future.

Plus, Andrew Bumbalough is still disqualified. His disqualification, if possible, is even more egregious than Grunewald’s. First, much like Grunewald, the "incident" that resulted in the disqualification doesn’t seem worthy of such treatment. It was another instance of incidental contact that is normal when racing indoors. Second, Bumbalough wasn’t even part of the "incident". It was another runner!

Some might say it doesn’t matter. He didn’t win the race. He wasn’t in a Worlds qualifying position. Still, it matters. If for no other reason than he was disqualified when he did nothing wrong and there was conclusive evidence of this, the disqualification should have been overturned. Even if 8th place doesn’t seem like a big deal, we don’t know how his sponsor contract(s) is/are structured. Sometimes runners get bonuses for officially competing at national championship meets. Sometimes they get bonuses for things like top 10 finishes. Heck, if nothing else, he should have the personal satisfaction of having the officially recognized 8th place finish.

Most importantly, though, the fact that even this modest meeting didn’t happen suggests USATF is going to just sweep this incident under the rug. Nobody cares, it didn’t happen, nothing is going to change. Is this what we want to come of this ugly incident?