Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The two biggest pathos of the 2017 World Champs

Earlier today, a friend remarked "there's nothing easy about this sport." She wasn't talking about her near-Olympic Trials qualifying miss (19 seconds, or about 1/5 of one percent, all lost in the last mile) or returning from a potentially career-ending injury recently; she wasn't talking about herself at all, in fact. She was making an observation about an athlete who should know by now that you don't win races on the basis or your reputation or anything you did a bunch of years ago, and that the more you position yourself as a prima donna, the more of a target you become.

She was merely saying something we all tell each other as a matter of course: A lot of the time, this just sucks from lots of angles.

While every sport is characterized by pathos, this one is filthy with them. When someone fails in running, it's undeniable -- times and places don't lie, and there are virtually no blown calls. It's painful, often jarring, to watch. Injuries are arguably as great a factor in interrupting ending elite running careers as they are in American football.

Which is why it's so cool when it goes the other way.

The 2017 World Athletics Championships are over, and two emotionally charged stories stand out. I'm not the only one who thinks nothing else out of London over the past 10 days came close.

Women's steeplechase

Had anyone suggested before the steeplechase today that Emma Coburn would break her own American record by over five seconds and win gold in the process, I would have argued halfheartedly at best.  Emma is a gamer who went into the contest with an Olympic Bronze Medal from Rio. But she wasn't the favorite. I would have put the odds of this outcome at no worse than 10:1.

But if you'd claimed that Courtney Frerichs would break that record by over three seconds and beat everyone from outside the U.S., I would have gladly accepted 200:1 odds and thrown in 10 grand to win an "easy" $50. This was Billy Mills-level out of nowhere. This was the kind of thing that makes an ordinary or blah day exciting even when you have nothing to do with the outcome, because when you know how consistently capricious and plain punishing the sport can be, it's nearly impossible not to get choked up when you see it go this right.

Since Emma is now as close to a celebrity as women track runners get, I like to pat myself on the back for doing the first known article about her, which was before she went to her first Worlds in 2011 and still had a year left at C.U. What's crazy about it is that six years ago, 9:40 was still fast enough to win a national title in the steeple.

Note that Emma's best high-school times for the 800, 1600 and 3200 were 2:18, 5:11 and 11:32. She never even broke 20:00 for 5K. Allowing for the altitude effects of the latter two track events, run at about 4,600', she ran the sea-level equivalent of around 5:04 and 11:12. And she competed for four years at Crested Butte and traveled as far as Florida even in high school to race, so it's not like she showed up at CU as track ingenue.

As for Frerichs, was not exactly a blue-chip prospect before packing her bags for the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2011. (She wound up graduating from the University of New Mexico.) She ran 2:24 for the 800 as a freshman and never got faster; she managed an 18:12 5K,in XC but was only 54th at her state meet as a senior. Her fastest open 3K is 8:56.99. The only event in which she has had a performance remotely comparable is...well, the open 3K, or a 15:31 indoor 5K two and a half years ago, which is worth maybe 8:50-8:55 for an outdoor 3K.

I can't believe there is a runner alive who can run a steeple that fast and not be capable of threatening 8:40 and 15:00. She'll probably run another race or two in Europe before the season ends (I'm purely guessing), and maybe she'll try to strike while the iron is hot and go for fast times at those distances.

The take-home here, though, is that I got misty-eyed watching the 2017 World Championships women's steeplechase final. Very much so. So did a lot of men my age. I believe that for people who have been closely following track and field for decades, it seemed like a moment in which it was possible to set aside doping-related cynicism and believe in extraordinary athletic miracles at the same time. The same thing happened with the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team in 1980 at Lake Placid. (I actually played organized hockey at that age and had been a Bruins fan since about the age of 4, but I couldn't grasp the full enormity of what the U.S. team accomplished there until years later.)

Anyway, this was the most amazing championship-level race I have ever watched live and maybe the most remarkable overall.

Usain Bolt retires

I won't spend a lot of time on this one. The hagiographies from better, more prominent writers as well as hacks will be endless as it is. But Bolt -- who went out on a downer after losing to Justin Gatlin in the 100 meters (if nothing else, the crowd hated this outcome) and collapsing with a hamstring injury in the 400-meter relay -- really is irreplaceable and deserves the attention. Even people who don't follow sports at all, much less track, typically know who he is, at least at the level of "That tall Jamaican guy who breaks records." Combine a charismatic guy with the highest-profile event in track and you get a worldwide sensation.

Was Bolt clean? In all honesty, this seems giddily naive. But Bolt is like the Bill Clinton of athletics. Clinton could look the people of the world in the eye and lie to them, at least about tawdry things and marital infidelity, and practically everyone still loved him even though no one believed him. He just had that kind of appeal. Bolt is like that -- people's general attitude is "Well, he's no dirtier than anyone else," which, although true, isn't a courtesy most of us are willing to give any other sprinter. Bolt ran for Jamaica, but I know very few Americans who didn't root for him to win every single time he went up against the U.S.A.'s best.

I'm sure we'll see him on TV before long. Here's his farewell press conference.

1 comment:

  1. I got misty-eyed too...but it was because I came in from outside quick to watch the race, forgot to empty my pockets, and sat down on my keys by mistake.