Former 2:24 marathoner, now pushing 50 and reduced to a pitiable spastic shuffle • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on distance running since 1999; mostly a crank since approximately 2016 and possibly long before • Coach and adviser of less pessimistic perambulators • Dobie-mix owner Sentence-fragment impresario

Monday, August 26, 2019

How to Beat the East Africans, revisited

I was poking around last night through my trove of musty Runner's World articles (all of which were actually written for Running Times) last night and decided to click on one I wasn't looking for from almost nine years ago. I decided to investigate this one because the title didn't immediately evoke any memories of having written it, the kind of lapse that happens with increasing frequency now that I live in a pleasantly beveled THC haze. I don't remember what I was actually looking for, either, come to think of it.

I had apparently once again gotten fed up with bad articles about running in mainstream publications (a tendency I'm thankful to say has since given way for the most part to attacking entire running publications themselves). In this instance, I was taking issue with the premise that American-born distance runners (to be interpreted in the traditional sense) should be able to beat East Africans with enough good old-fashioned American ingenuity, given that training didn't seem to be accomplishing this. Drugs were not mentioned, but should have been, since Alberto Salazar's name featured prominently in the piece and the ones I was attempting to rebut, or correct, or slander.

In any case, a few things popped out at me. One was my own reaction to seeing the title: "That's easy -- make more East Africans Americans." And that's essentially how some of the leaders of American distance running have managed this challenge. Down in Colorado Springs, sometime in the current decade, Scott Simmons started up the American Distance Project, a simple enough appellation that seems like a sly tongue-in-cheek gambit given the team roster. Since becoming U.S. citizens, a number of East Africans have used their newfound American ingenuity to make U.S. Olympic and World Championship teams and win medals.

In 2012, the U.S. had two East African-born men on the Olympic squad, but Meb and Abdi, neither of whom have had last names since I was between regular and adult diapers, came to the U.S. as kids and graduated from U.S. high schools, and since I'm talking about the mechanisms of becoming American and not just the natural talent in play, I look at this differently. In the two true distance track events, the 5,000m and the 10,000m, two of the five U.S. men (Galen Rupp ran both events) were East African-born. By 2016, five of the six were from East Africa (Rupp was still kicking it in the 10,000 at that point). At the 2017 World Champs, the was four out of six. (A small concession: Only three people make a World Champs or Olympic team in each event, and over the years a lot of the same names, e.g., Bernard Lagat, show up repeatedly in these types of analyses.)

The trends set out of East Africa in these areas are similar between the sexes, but the women experience a lag for, I imagine, mostly cultural and political reasons. Which says nothing, but there it is. We may see more East Africans on U.S. women's distance teams, and soon.

All of this is completely aboveboard, obviously, and I possess no sense of crude nationalism about this whatsoever. If I were a native-born American who was edged out for an Olympic spot by someone who became a U.S. citizen primarily to run -- and why not? -- I would probably feel differently at some level. I'm just highlighting the fact that folks have decided to address this "problem" using the only potentially effective solution imaginable. It's not yet possible to create humans de novo from DNA including whatever allele combinations most strongly contribute to distance success in folks of Ethiopian, Kenyan, Eritrean, Somalian, Tanzanian and Ugandan descent, but it's straightforward enough to import them and assign them a new uniform.

Does any of this matter? As in, will it affect other world events in a systematic and predictable way? I guess you could argue that post-collegiate American-born studs would be marginally less likely to try for an Olympic spot it it seemed like this would require beating three guys with sub-13:00 or sub-27:00 creds. But really, unless current immigration policy changes (and such things have been known to make news), I expect future teams to consist largely of people connected to East Africa no matter what Americans on a more typical path are doing. And in the end, this is professional track in 2019 anyway. Doping cases are like mass shootings, except that they're funny. Next week it'll be a different "shock" that someone who requires banned drugs to stand a chance is indeed using 'em. Huzzah!

Apart from that, I suggested that Ryan Hall's religious faith was probably at least as valuable a training aid for him as any of the (non-pharmacological) gimmicks Salazar throws at the members of his crew. I believe this, and it's not to say that neither is useful.

I also made a successful prediction of sorts:
Ritz struggled to some extent in New York, but did not collapse by any means. The race developed strangely, with a mammoth surge by the leaders about two-thirds of the way into the race that perhaps hurt Ritz as much in catching him unawares as it did in terms of grinding him down. He wound up eighth in 2:12:33, 2:33 off his personal record.  
The thing is, Ritzenhein has run only one “time-trial”-style marathon in his relatively brief career, that being in London in 2009, where he ran his fastest time to date (2:10:00). In an age especially driven by a hungering for records, Ritz has steadfastly placed competing over time-trialing. It would not be surprising to see him tear off a 2:07 on one of the sport’s notorious autobahns such as Berlin or Rotterdam.
Ritz went on to run 2:07:47 in Chicago two years later, and just this weekend nailed a 47:19 for 10 miles for forth place at the CRIM 10-Miler in Michigan. He'll be 37 in December. Right now, there are probably a couple of future Ritzes in U.S. high schools, maybe even a couple in Colorado alone. But unless they go on to Rupp-like levels of proficiency in six or seven years, they are far less likely to make international teams than they would be had they been born in 1980 instead of after 2000.

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