The increasingly parochial observations of a casual runner in his fifties. Was "serious" about "the sport" until personal and sociocultural inevitabilities prevailed.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Advocacy plus cynicism equals reality

Any adult who devotes a large portion of his or her life to becoming faster at optional foot travel -- as a participant, director or both -- becomes an addition to an ongoing roiling expo of uncertainty, frustration, fatigue, and professional underachievement. Non-runners may think that runners look like they're in pain when they're plying their trade, but in reality, the true suffering of anyone who puts running at the top of the life priority list is as undetectable at a glance as it can be punishing and degrading to body and mind over a period of years.

Sometimes, for a while and even for the duration of a career, an athlete perceives the rewards as being at least proportional to the setbacks. Aside from those who can be considered professional runners (and probably two-thirds of the people you've ever met or will meet who make this claim are lying), longtime competitive runners as a rule are as emotionally labile as they are physically resilient, unusually so in both cases; the word that seems most apt is unfulfilled, especially those who lack other distractions of sufficient weight. This would be easy to say about anyone with enough spare time for a serious hobby and the capacity to dream big about it, but most runner types I know are more inclined to seek comfort from their actions and accomplishments than from their possessions or the people they know. That the at-large population is at least as askew in many ways as runners are is no reason to glorify the palette of traits that define "serious" runners. It's a difficult sport and the physical aspects are, to me, a comparatively small part of the challenge.

(I love running. I'd never willingly give it up. I'm just saying that admitting this in effect means admitting to a higher-than-average probability of possessing certain traits "they" might find curious if not nettlesome.)

At the same time, advising people who aspire to be better runners alluring remains a very alluring pursuit. Part of this is basic familiarity: Much of the time, running is the last thing I feel like discussing, but because I have immersed myself in this world for decades, analyzing and discussing training comes automatically to me. I sometimes wish I would suffer a blow to the head that would selectively wipe out all of my memories relating to running as a sporting endeavor. In fact, maybe this has already happened, and explains why I'm often a ball of inexplicable unrest, and also why no one will look me in the eye when I approach them while brandishing a light saber.

Some of the people I have advised over the years have performed well enough enough to earn NCAA scholarships, or qualify for exclusive races, and make international teams. I would not trade my experiences coaching high-school kids for a single faster lifetime PR or anything resembling "masters"-level competence today. (I don't think of feeding mostly adult runners training plans online as remotely the same as coaching for the same reason studying the mechanics of throwing a football won't make you a good quarterback or QB coach. It is a skill, but as anyone who has actually been in charge of a formal team knows, it's not coaching.)

None of the people I have helped learned anything from me they couldn't have learned elsewhere, and if I live to be 50, and if I can remember having written this, I may start denying ever having ever run a single race of my own volition. But as much of a waste of a potentially more focused life as this has arguably been -- I point I belabor to such an extent that even I often can't stand my own nonsense in this area -- one of the more satisfying things about knowing other runners is tricking them into forgetting their own vulnerabilities and succeeding in spite of them. When this happens, and it's neither rare enough for me to give up on experiencing again nor frequent enough for me to celebrate, I like being a part of other people's running lives.

With all of the foregoing and more in mind, I would never encourage anyone I know to pursue a career as a professional distance runner, which is not the same as discouraging him or her form continuing to compete. It's an uncomfortable living for all but a handful of people, and the physical training and racing is only a small part of that. Every race earns a job performance rating from both a dispassionate timing device and the general public whether you're due for a thorough review or not. Job security is nonexistent, and if you have the potential to be a world-beater, you accept that you will spend the next bunch of years -- and a few after your career ends, depending on your profile -- doping, discussing doping, or both. Even the limited few Americans who could be considered unusually well compensated do not lead glamorous lives. Meaningful competitions are few and far in between, and there is no way to gain enough public interest to make running reasonably lucrative for a reasonable number of college and high-school graduates every year. I obviously don't speak from direct experience, but these are not difficult observations to make.

If this seems like a contradiction -- I like seeing people get really fast, but only to a point -- just realize that I am just as good as you are at knowing within a short time if I'm watching a male who has a shot at running under 13:00 for 5,000 or a female who might break 15:00. If I'm not, I don't have to worry about him or her wandering into a psychological thresher at a later time. I don't see a conflict in telling a 25-year-old with ten years of running experience and a personal marathon best of 2:45 that he's not going to make any Olympic teams and has virtually no shot at qualifying for the Olympic Trials.

Also, it must be said that plenty of "pro runners" have worked full-time jobs, been self-coached for most or part of their careers or both. I'm old enough at this point to remember my 1980s idols, and most of them did something outside of running for sustenance. Perhaps it's not ideal, but if any sport allows you to have a complete life outside of it, it's distance running. You almost can't run for more than two, two and a half hours a day no matter who you are and there is only so much ancillary training and therapy that can be considered necessary or even really helpful. I was obviously never a top-flight runner, but I routinely ran well over 100 miles a week while working full-time and ran my best during two distinct stretches when I was working at least 40 hours a week (anyone who has coached high-school track understands that Saturdays for weeks on end consist of 10- and 11-hour days running around at invitationals). Of course, there's a difference between working as a computer programmer and working as a gravedigger, mover, or mobster in terms of its impact on your training and racing (admit it, you visit this for unexpected insights like these).

Maybe it's best to not be beholden to anyone or anything in running. There are assuredly some fantastic development programs out there, and as far as the elite ones go, it's hard to find a single thing wrong with what Ben Rosario's NAZ Elite crew is doing in Flagstaff. (Contra the NOP, their runners are engaging and funny. Some of the athletes ran for Salazar went in with these qualities,
but they were not only not allowed to flourish, they were actively suppressed.)

All of these stood as my convictions long before the gory splatter of revelations concerning Mary Cain and her former coach, Salazar made news almost two weeks ago. The hit piece in The New York Times that was motivated by something other than a concern for Cain's welfare and triggered the maelstrom a week and a half ago has been supplanted by more helpful articles by journalists who seem interested in covering the whole story, and I'm somewhat less rankled by the NY Times presentation now that I'm aware things were unimaginably worse inside the NOP than even the most determined cynics and haters realized.

At first, I was behind on reading the media coverage because I was busier with other matters and not especially interested, but now I'm "behind" by choice because what I'm seeing practically makes me want to cry, and I usually only do that when I'm drunk and watching sappy TV commercials at 3 a.m., which doesn't happen any more, and when I'm listening to something like Lucky Man at just the right moment. My main impression after the few I've perused is that there was literally nothing good about the Nike Oregon Project for the athletes themselves other than the times they reached. Whether this will outweigh the negatives at the ends of all of their careers will, I imagine, be an entirely individual matter and not one many of them will be eager to discuss.

Cain's including her teammates, or fellow NOP members, in her criticism of how things were, right down to people allegedly ignoring things like cutting on her part, seemed a minor part of the NY Times piece because Salazar was its clear central figure, but that aspect of the mess has been thoroughly explored now, and I am guessing that the end result will be ongoing behind-the-scenes finger-pointing and rumor-stoking and a retreat into further reticence on the part of some of Salazar's former runners. I am in no more of a position to judge specifics than anyone else who wasn't present, but I remain astonished at the level of frank unhappiness that must have persisted on that campus, or manor, or fiefdom, or whatever the former NOP base of operations is best called. It's easy to say "You were all warned," but it's also easy to understand why people continued to accept invitations to join the fractious squad. In any event, it's very hard to blame individual runners for the majority of the tumult between athletes there. I'm assuming readers of this know at least as many of the details as I do about the situation -- people being ordered not to make close friends with teammates, public shaming of ass sizes, all sorts of fifth-degree Deer Leader bullshit.

Yes, pro sports are business and yada yada yada, but running is a sport that can very quickly become no fun at all in the wrong training and living environment. Say, when you have Emperor Palpatine with Androgel-spraying fingers for a coach and think some your Stormtrooper teammates are actually Jedi Knights in disguise. At least in the NFL you can occasionally blow off steam by getting in a drunken brawl in a nightclub, often while live-tweeting the mayhem, and maybe sit out a game or two as a result.

While Salazar is an established ubergoon and deserves whatever consequences he'll amass from this -- and it's not like he has a decent rep to protect these days -- I think the fact that the outrage is being lasered at an already-universally reviled, already-banned coach is, in part, a collective admission by the running community: The gravest of the concerns at the throbbing core of this debacle are never really going away. The fundamental rage -- and again, plenty of individual coaches deserve their own share of it -- is over the fact that coaches, some of whom, but not most, are observed exploiting and nurturing eating disorders with alacrity, are unlikely to have the power to create eating disorders from scratch. Most of that starts with an alcoholic, domineering dad. (A current NCAA Pac-12 coach told me, not entirely in jest, that the ideal recruit would have a drunk for a dad and a helicopter mom. Sadly, I can see why.)

Anyone wanting to be a part of a sport that doesn't put thousands of people a year through an eating-disorder wringer needs to pick a different one, because at root level, coaches are not ultimately to blame for the factors that underlie a propensity for developing an eating disorder, and those factors simply aren't going away. And although to my own eyes this reads suspiciously like mansplaining, it's not; while I don't pretend to be able to empathize with the pressures faced by any professional athlete, especially a young woman whose racing outfit is essentially a bikini and who is being berated even at meets by her raving coach, I have experienced many of the same unwelcome banalities -- almost entirely from within -- and self-destructive habits, and have been open about those over the years.

In addition to not reading much of the coverage, I haven't read any message-board or other opinions of said coverage (and that's another thing; while I give the Johnsons loads of credit for tirelessly churning out solid information, no serious sport could possibly have a wreck of a quasi-moderated free-for-all forum like the Letsrun board as its go-to chatter site), but my initial scorn over the really bad video clip that serves as this controversy's index case has given way to sadness and resignation, and I can't decide which is worse. Some of these feelings are almost childlike in their "But fucking why?" character. For example, I like to forget that I ever lived in South Florida, but about thirteen to fifteen years ago, I did, and a couple of times Amy Yoder Begley showed up for a February 5K near my place that offered a little prize money. I happened to wordlessly cross paths with her while jogging both before and after the race, and if not for how fast she ran during the 5K itself, she would have looked for all the world like someone who had no idea she was considered "good"and just ran around because it made her smile. The kind of person even someone like me would be loath to curse around, sometimes. Plus the inadvertent head-roll thing always makes you root for someone, or should, because it just looks, to use a childlike word, cool. And fun. These impressions came before the awards ceremony and before I had any idea who she was (which was in turn because she was not yet at the peak of her career), so I don't think I can be accused of being purely a fanboy.

The result of this lingering impression of the nice-girl-next-door type in combination with this piece is a disgust so absolute that no young child could even conceive of it, much less name it. Her laugh was annoying the team? I have no problem believing people this shitty exist and are more often than not in positions of authority when they're not incarcerated, but the fact that this brand of...I don't know, "abuse" has become too pedestrian and diluted a term. What is being characterized even by some of Salazar's detractors as a will to win becoming all-consuming seems to bear a strong resemblance to garden-variety sadism. Over a period of years.

I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that there should be more women coaches of women's cross-country and track teams. I would go so far as to say that any NCAA women's program that doesn't have a woman either at the reins or as a primary assistant is doing itself and its athletes a disservice, because I think that under certain conditions, empathy only goes so far and cannot completely cross gender lines no matter the effort put forth by the person doing the empathizing. If this sounds like sexism, or reverse sexism, then ask yourself why so many women are calling for more women coaches. Either they think that all of the men who have coached women to this point happen to be assholes, or they acknowledge the differences I'm getting at. I cannot say for sure whether such a change, ceteris paribus, would make for more successful teams in terms of wins and losses, but I would bet my life that a lot more women would emerge from college running having enjoyed the experience far more.

Colleen Glyde Julian is mentioned in this Sports Illustrated story by Chris Chavez, who is always good and keeps getting better. The bit about her role is a perfect example of how being anywhere near the well of Salazar is a great way to find yourself poisoned. Colleen used to work for Human Kinetics and was my project editor when I was putting together Run Strong. She really couldn't have been more knowledgeable and helpful, and I balk absolutely at the idea that she would have willingly ignored the crossing of a single naked i or the crossing of a half-assembled t. What seems a foregone conclusion is that she was one of the countless people being fed only part of the story from on high and left blowing in a stinking wind when the whole NOP structure was finally pulled down own its own rotting head.

It is too easy to focus squarely on the cynical aspects of professional running. As if the caliber of people who are most deeply entrenched in this glorified from of cardio isn't enough of a sick joke, the sport is riddled with doping at the top level, and more recently, quarrels about major shifts shoe technology have given bilious message-board voices even more to yammer about. It's not a bad way to spend a few years, but you may have noticed that apart from Olympic-caliber runners, you don't see a lot of pros over the age of thirty. Not in relation to the amount of 28:XX and 32:XX talent rolling off the NCAA assembly line every spring.

Being an advocate in competitive running requires pretending that a lot of what's true about running clearly isn't, or otherwise finding a way to treat the person or entity you're advocating for as a limited case. In other words, if you want to help someone in this sport, you have to ignore a lot of what you know to be true and be the best ally you can be anyway. That's where the "equation" in the title of this post comes from. If you're working with a youngster, cynicism should be out of consideration and your help translates into that kid's (or adult newcomer's) entire reality. If you're the college coach of a 15:15 5,000-meter runner, the equation now holds a strong level of cynicism, and the coach's advocacy -- and the athlete's hopes along with it -- may have to be juggled and modified substantially if she is to continue thriving in her running career, be running a serious side job or a real one. I wrote this entire paragraph to justify the title, which had no meaning at all when I wrote it and now seems even more pointless. Fuck it.

I look at runners I like and in some cases hope for them to be good enough to earn an NCAA scholarship but for whatever reason take a pass on "groups" when they graduate -- even though there are lots of good groups with coaches who work closely with individual needs. This is all very easy for anyone who hasn't has a world-class talent fall into his or her lap to say, because most of us can be very confident that this will never happen, and maybe I'd change my view.

Anyway, inspired in part by a recent podcast by Mario Fraioli, I am going to explore the state of "running media" more fully in an upcoming post, but one thing Mario and his guest, Jeanne Mack, didn't mention is that because the running media per se reaches a very limited slice if the population, most people's exposure to running-related stories comes from major media outlets like The New York Times and the Washington Post. This is very unfortunate, because many the stories that have resulted are amazingly disingenuous and dishonest.

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