Watching Professional Endurance Sports Events Is Weird

Thursday night, I went to the HOKA ONE ONE Middle Distance Classic (a name which maybe helps explain why track meets are hard to turn into bigger sporting events). It was fun before it started pouring rain. It was also $10 if you didn’t have a student ID. Perhaps unsurprisingly, or maybe surprisingly depending on your point of view, there were about 200 people in the stands.

Even Justin, who was with me, asked if there was anyone big there. Um, yeah, like a bunch of Olympians, some Olympic medalists, World medalists, etc. He agreed he had heard of some of the names I was listing.

The weird thing, if you think about it, is even the people you can’t name, who won’t make it on even the most niche coverage, have to train a LOT to be that good. You train and you train and then you go to a random track at a small school in the suburbs of Los Angeles, warm-up jogging around the neighborhood, then run as hard as you can in front of a few hundred people until it starts pouring rain. Go ahead and try to explain that job to a career counselor.

After graduation on Friday and some celebrating on Friday night, we then rode up Mt. Baldy on Saturday to watch the Tour of California. We made it on TV, though I don’t know if you can see us through the crowds on the side of the road:

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Then, after going for a run Sunday morning at JPL, which is right by the Rose Bowl, we went down to watch the end of the race at the Rose Bowl. I thought we wouldn’t be able to get close, but we basically just parked down the street and walked up.

It actually was really exciting. Peter Sagan, who is best known as a sprinter, managed to do well enough up Mt. Baldy that he ended up just three seconds out of the overall lead. This is crazy. And if he placed in the top three at the last stage (or at the intermediate sprint during that last stage) it would give him enough of a time bonus to take back the overall win.

He actually managed to do it by just millimeters at the line. See, it was genuinely exciting. But it’s hard to explain or to get anyone who doesn’t know about this stuff to care.

I know a lot about triathlon, like for real, a lot. But then I’ll peruse the new TRS Triathlon website (which I actually mostly like) or the ‘Twitch or, god forbid, the ‘Twitch’s forums, and I think, ‘Shit, I don’t know that much.’ I don’t obsess about what every single pro is doing or who did what when or gear, man do I not care about gear. Yet, there are people who do, and in a way you’re riding your bike around a mostly empty Rose Bowl as hard as you can just for those people.

Professional endurance sports are weird.

 

Is USATF Doing a Good Job?

Who knows.

Actually, literally, who knows if USA Track & Field is doing a terrible job or a great job? Lots of people have opinions about the question, even Runner’s World is getting into the debate. But I’m not sure anyone actually knows.

The problem is that there’s no criteria by which to answer this question. Typically, when we attempt to judge effectiveness in anything, we first have to decide how we’re going to know if what we’re doing is working. This is generally actually a requirement of grants to nonprofit organizations. If I give you $1 million to fight malaria, then I would like to know if you are effectively fighting malaria. If I give you $1 million to promote track and field, then I would like to know if you’re effectively promoting track and field. But, what measures will we use to determine this?

Is USATF supposed to help the U.S. win medals? Do we measure effectiveness by elite results? Is it supposed to help grow interest in running? Do we tell if that’s working by looking at the number of people doing running races? Is USATF doing a better job if it raises more money or has more of its officials placed on international boards and the like? Are those measures directly related to and reflective of USATF’s efforts? Probably not. (Which also tends to be a requirement of measuring effectiveness—that what you’re measuring is directly impacted by what you’re doing.)

USATF’s actual mission is: “USA Track & Field drives competitive excellence and popular engagement in our sport.” But, what are the ways to tell if it is driving competitive excellence? Or popular engagement?

Look, I’m not a big fan of the 23-year Nike deal that USATF signed. There’s also no reason the national governing body of a sport should be sending its athletes cease-and-desist letters for making fun team videos. And, I thought the mess of DQs at indoors last year had all kinds of problems. I don’t know for sure if those problems are getting resolved or if they were never as big as they seemed in the first place. I don’t know for sure if they’re remnants of an old regime or of business as usual. It’s also highly possible and probably likely that the outpouring of anger about sponsorships and money and the strange politics of elite sports isn’t really about USATF, but is about a lot of other things that have been a long time coming.

But, whatever measures we use to determine if USA Track and Field is doing a good job at the job of track and field at least one of them has to be how athletes feel about the organization. If USATF doesn’t have buy-in from its own athlete members (and it very much is losing this buy-in with an increasing number), then it’s failing at being effective at one very important part of its job.

Now You Know

Yesterday, I hurt. My legs hurt. My face hurt. My brain hurt. But, mostly my legs.

After I accidentally slept through the team ride (and then after I waited for Steve to fix his bike, ate some breakfast and watched some Olympics), we went for our own ride. It hurt. For the first 10-15′ my legs were in extreme pain, simply from fatigue and being at the end of a long hard training block and doing too many squats the other day. But, eventually, they came around or went numb. It’s unclear. And I rode totally strong and steady.

Then, I was supposed to do a hardish hour run after. The whole idea was some short half-marathon pace efforts on tired legs. Well, the tired part was achieved. And, as I ran easy at the start I was just shell-shocked at how physically in pain I was. I actually stopped 10′ in and was about to turn back, about to call it. It hurt too much. But, I stood there at the base of the trail and decided I just needed to get through this.

By the time I started the 3′ efforts at 6:30 pace I wasn’t optimistic. Then, the first one was fast and easy. My legs stopped hurting. They went blank. The second was easy too. The third not quite as much and the fourth really not. But, it all got done. It never hurt more than it already had. It was possible. I can run 6:22 pace at the end of lots of hard training, after 2:30 of riding, when everything hurts. I can. Now I know.

I came home and was watching/fast-forwarding through the coverage of indoor track nationals. And I stopped to see the women’s 3k race. It was a mostly boring and slow race, but at the end Jordan Hasay and Shannon Rowbury started to sprint and it seemed like the biggest names in the field were going to win. Then, this other girl, Gabriele Grunewald, went by them and blew them both out. And, I swear, I may be projecting, but it looked like she suddenly realized she could beat them and win.

But, then, Grunewald was DQ’d. The argument is she ran into Hasay and impeded her. I don’t know about the talk now that Grunewald is always throwing elbows. I just know that in the race it didn’t look like her running into Hasay and then Rowbury was overly aggressive or changed the outcome. And the committee that hears appeals agreed with me twice. But, Alberto Salazar (Hasay’s coach) and Nike won out and there’s more than a few questions being raised about why.

The thing is, though, yes, it appears to be bullshit. But, you can’t take away her knowledge that she beat them, the realization that she can be national champion. And you can’t make any of the other girls in the field not know that they got beaten. Now you know.

Thoughts and Concerns About the Track and Field World Championships

The past couple days I’ve been watching the Track and Field World Championships full-time and I have more than a few thoughts about the races and coverage. If you follow me on The Twitter, it’s possible you already heard some of these. And, also, you should be watching (and have your own thoughts). It’s good.

  • It would have been cool to see a back-in-form Tyson Gay v. Usain Bolt race. And, I know, I know, Gay cheated and doped and had to be axed, but it seems a little optimistically naive to think Gay and Asafa Powell were doping but Bolt isn’t. So, if we’re going to watch one doper win, I’d rather have seen them all go at it. (And, I know, I know, assuming everyone else is doping is a whole prisoner’s dilemma that just encourages more doping. But, if anyone is, don’t you think it’s Bolt? And, I can sort of understand why Gay would be tempted, would be coming back again from injury, be the old guy now, and here’s Bolt who just can’t be beat, who defies basic odds, and who probably is doping himself. Wouldn’t it just be so easy? I’m just saying, empathy is the first step to understanding and, then, understanding is the first step to finding solutions.)
  • If Jamaica is able to be the first-ever country to put four men in the 100m final — EVEN THOUGH their next two best after Bolt, including defending World Champ Yohan Blake, were out for injury or doping suspensions — don’t you think there ought to be a reason why the island nation of 2.6 million is defying basic statistical odds?
  • Speaking of doping, it was nice that NBC actually mentioned it instead of just ignoring the topic entirely and trying to erase people from historical footage like in their Tour de France coverage.
  • It was nice of NBC, also, to sort of mention the whole Russia banning being gay thing.
  • Except, you know, they didn’t exactly. Because mainstream media (not that I don’t loathe that term) keeps calling it a ban on “propaganda about alternative lifestyles aimed at kids.” That’s incredibly, what is the word, bullshit.
  • As everyone keeps arguing back and forth about boycotts and human rights — not that sport boycotts have virtually ever affected policy changes on human rights — no one is actually answering this question: Are gay athletes and coaches and fans being allowed to compete and spectate right now, without being harassed or manhandled by police, with the full freedom allowed by their competitors? That sort of seems like a main question before Sochi.
  • You know who seems like they all just get along? Decathletes. After 20-year-old Gunnar Nixon jumped a personal best in the long jump he came over to tell teammate (and Olympic champ) Ashton Eaton. You know what Eaton did? Even though the jump put Nixon in the lead over him. He got excited for the kid and gave him a high-five and slapped him on the back. You can see it in the background of the NBC coverage. It makes you feel good about people.
  • Though, on the other hand, I pretty much have heard the whole Eaton almost being hit by a javelin thrown by his fiancee story more times than I could possibly care about.
  • The 1500m in the decathlon is, like, the most amazing thing to watch ever.
  • Except for maybe the 50k race walk.
  • And, if you want to talk about cheating, let’s talk about race walking. There have been studies done showing that there’s simply no mathematical way to cover the distance they do with the leg length they have and NOT have both feet off the ground. Which is why the whole point is just not to get caught and the standard is ‘looks like walking to the naked eye.’ The British announcer explained it as a contest of ‘Who can whisper the loudest.’
  • You know what other coverage sucked? The 45″ summary of the women’s marathon.
  • But, they did, however, show all the prelims of the 100m. Naturally.
  • Watching those heats was actually informative, though, because it turns out that diversity bids, or wild cards or whatever they’re called, are quite numerous in the women’s 100m. The qualifying standard is 11.36, but there were women running in the high 12s in prelims. That’s weird. I understand that we want to encourage participation from underrepresented countries and groups. But, it never quite makes sense to me when there ends up being a swimmer at the Olympics who has never been in a pool. Not that I don’t think there should be development programs and wild cards, but in most countries everywhere there are people who know how to swim pretty well. (Though, it turns out the whole swimmer who’d never been in a pool thing worked out ok for him and he actually is the coach of Equitorial Guinea’s swim team and can swim a 55″ 100m now, so maybe I’m completely wrong.) Running is even more democratic than swimming. It’s not as expense-prohibitive as most sports. Hell, some of the fastest people come from countries that don’t have much money. So, when we put women in the 100m who are running in the high 12s and we congratulate ourselves for being inclusionary, are we mistakenly just trying to make ourselves feel good? Does the fact that they’re so far back feed into our notions of the good we’re doing, because if they were better it wouldn’t be as far a stretch for them to be there? I don’t know how I feel about it, but I know I just kept wondering why they couldn’t find one woman from those countries who ran the 100m faster.
  • You know what did make me feel good, though: Ryan Wilson. At 32, he finally made his first World Championship team for the U.S. That means he must have been close for years. It would have been easier to quit, probably. But, he made the team and then he got second. So there.
  • That 110m hurdles mens race, though, is probably the most competitive race.
  • Except maybe the women’s 400m.
  • Actually, there’s been a lot of good races.
  • Wait, where was David Rudisha?