Archive for the ‘michigan’ Category

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#54 – Improving the Olympic Trials

19 April 2008

A pack of runners during the men’s Olympic Trials (photo credit RunMichigan.com)

This Sunday the women’s US Olympic Marathon Trials will be run in Boston.  NBC is providing a live webcast just like they did for the men’s Trials back in November, a welcome development in the media coverage of distance running.  Back then, however, I found myself wondering why the men’s race didn’t get more coverage.  It certainly helped that the event was tied to the NYC Marathon, as it will also help the women’s Trials to be partnered with the Boston Marathon.  But why couldn’t America’s most competitive, once-every-four-years marathon garner live television coverage? 

Inspired in part by Dane Rauschenberg’s analysis of lowering the qualifying standards and Hansons-Brooks runner Marty Rosendahl’s reflection of his participation in the Trials, I decided to explore two options of making the Olympic marathon trials a marquee event.  Would a larger field generate more interest, or should the participants be limited to the truly Olympic-caliber elite?  First let’s look at some numbers from the men’s trials:

2008 Qualification
“A” standard – 2:20:00 marathon. 
“B” standard – 2:22:00 marathon, 28:45 10K track, or 13:40 5K track.

179 runners ran qualifying times, 131 participated in the trials:
65 via sub-2:20 marathon, 60 participated
73 via sub-2:22 marathon, 63 participated
26 via sub-28:45 10K, 8 participated
15 via sub-13:40 5K, 0 participated

Would bigger be better?
One idea to increase public interest in the trials would be to expand the field to about 500-1000 runners.  By comparison, the Grand Rapids Marathon fielded 496 runners in 2004, growing to 1396 running the full 26.2 in 2007.  Logistically that would require a large course since the field would be more spread out, preventing the convenience of a six-lap course that the women’s Trials will feature.  The starting line would have to be strictly seeded by qualifying time to prevent back-of-the-packers from lining up in front of true contenders.  Could the aid stations handle such a large field running by within minutes?  If by some small chance the Trials organizers are reading this, they would be in shock at the thought of planning such an event.  Not only would the logistics be difficult, but financially it’s even more daunting.  After all, the men’s Trials in November actually cost more money than it earned despite the NBC coverage.

However, a large field could generate more revenue.  Rather than set a qualifying time standard, simply choose a field limit (e.g. 500) and in the several months leading up to the Trials a public leader board would create ongoing buzz.  Hopeful contenders could check to see where they stand among our nation’s runners and after a cutoff date, only the top 500 are invited to the Trials.  With so many runners participating there could be hundreds of towns following their local hero, thousands of friends and family members tuning in to watch their loved one run alongside (however briefly) our country’s eventual Olympians.  The longer total course would allow more spectators, and enough marking effort coupled with so many personal ties to the race could create a large following. 

One example is Joel Klooster.  You probably don’t know who he is; in fact, most of the avid runners in my company haven’t heard of him.  Truth is, I didn’t know either until I joined his department and recognized my new colleague as the same guy who had won a 5K I’d ran in.  Last spring Joel ran his first marathon in 2:30:09!  He finished third behind a guy who had already qualified for the Trials (Nathan Usher) and another one who missed by 17 seconds (Nick Allen).  He’s no threat to Trials winner Ryan Hall but the point is, would my local office of 1000+ employees watch the Trials if one of our own was running?  Maybe.

Maybe not.  There were at least 19 Michigan runners in the Trials including 13 from the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project.  I recall the local TV news broadcast, after the Trials were over, briefly noting that #2 finisher Dathan Ritzenhein (who grew up in nearby Rockford) and Ryan Shay are Michigan natives and that #3 finisher Brian Sell lives in the state.  Trials participant Kyle Baker, who lives and races right here in Grand Rapids, didn’t warrant a mention.  Extensive archive searching of Olympic sponsor NBC’s local affiliate Wood TV and of Michigan’s online newspaper hub M-Live.com resulted in just one article about the Trials, a story syndicated from the AP.  If the city of Grand Rapids, annual host of the 25K National Championship (in which Baker, Sell and Shay all raced in 2007) and home to some elite runners, can allow the Olympic Trials to be virtually ignored by the local media, then perhaps pulling together such a large field wouldn’t create the interest that some envision.

Would faster be better?
For a plodder like me it’s hard to imagine going faster than 2:22 over 26.2 miles, but a core argument for a smaller field is that 2:22 or even 2:20 won’t come close to winning Olympic medals.  Do we really want a 2:20 marathoner to pull a rabbit out of his shoes at the Trials and make the team?  The odds are slim that he could repeat that performance.  It may be an honor to qualify for the Trials but most elite athletes race to win, not to take home a finisher’s medal.  Marty Rosendahl said it well when he wrote: “I did run in the trials, and my name is on that finishers list for all of time … but I don’t just want to be there, I want to be competitive there.”

Cutting the standard down to 2:19 certainly helps, but I don’t think it’s enough to change the atmosphere of the Trials.  USATF estimates that 65-85 will make the cut in 2012 but that doesn’t really change the scope of the race.  The field will still consist of a handful of true contenders, another dozen who might place if they run the race of their life, and the remaining 50+ would just be there to get their name on that finishers list.  If the current format of the Trials doesn’t seem to interest the general public, reducing the number of relatively unknown runners from 150 to 50 would hardly be noticed.

Looking at the qualifying times and results of the men’s Trials, each of the top four finishers had qualified in the top ten, with Ritzenhein qualifying with the 10th best marathon.  However, he also had the 4th best 10K during the qualifying period so his performance was certainly no fluke.  Jason Lehmkuhle finished fifth in the Trials despite qualifying 49th, the most extreme jump aside from Steve Sundell finishing 15th after qualifying 103rd.  Lehmkuhle does have a 2:16:27 marathon PR from a few years ago so he can certainly burn, but apparently couldn’t do better than his 2:19:03 during the qualifying period.  If his Trials finish was two minutes faster he’d have made the Olympic team… no offense to Lehmkuhle but he wouldn’t seem likely to threaten a world-class field that easily notches sub-2:08’s.

Interestingly, five of the top 11 qualifiers suffered a DNF at the Trials and the #7 qualifier, Fernando Cabada, did not even race (although I’m not sure why).  I’m not entirely surprised at the DNF’s – these cream-of-the-crop runners were racing to make the team or bust.  If an Olympic team had to be chosen based on history and not on a Trials race, it seems that Ryan Hall, Khalid Khannouchi and Abdi Abdirahman are the strongest marathoners we have.  However, it’s important that an athlete be able to deliver on race day and for whatever reason, Khannouchi and Abdirahman couldn’t quite make it while Ritzenhein and Sell proved that they know how to prepare for a major contest.

Even faster is even better!
My suggestion for invigorating the coverage of the Olympic Trials would be to limit the field to around 25 qualifiers.  All but three of the top ten Trials finishers had a top 25 qualifying marathon.  Daniel Browne and Josh Rohatinsky finished 6th and 8th respectively despite not posting a qualifying marathon time – instead they had qualified via the 10K, where Browne was the 17th ranked qualifier and Rohatinsky was ranked #10 at that distance.  Lehmkuhle did qualify 33rd with his 10K time, but with his 49th-ranked marathon he stands as the biggest statistical surprise in the top ten at the Trials.

There were 48 runners who posted a 2:19 or better qualifying time, which would be good enough to meet the new 2012 standard.  Even if you’re a die-hard fan of running, you probably haven’t heard of many of those names.  Incidentally the #25 qualifier, Jason Hartmann, posted a 2:15:50 and was the “slowest” man to crack 2:16 before the Trials.  However rather than using a time-based cutoff, the Trials would simply invite the 25 fastest marathoners during the qualifying period.  If your 2:16 happens to place you 26th in the country, then sorry for you but great for Team USA as it means our Trials will feature some truly elite racers. 

A very fast time standard could be used for an automatic entry, maybe 2:14 or 2:15, where any runner beating that time is guaranteed entry into the Trials.  For some background, nine runners qualified for the men’s Trials with times under 2:14 (Ritzenhein was 10th at 2:14:01) and 14 finished under 2:15 (Ryan Shay was #14 at 2:14:58 and Chad Johnson was #15 at 2:15:03).  If more than 25 runners can beat 2:15, then the Trials would accept however many meet that standard but it almost certainly wouldn’t be over 30.  If the USA wants world-class runners, we might as well require world-class qualifying standards.

The big benefit that I see to such a small field is that it allows the public a chance to get to know all competitors.  Major League Baseball rosters have 25 players; NASCAR lines up 32 or so cars in a race.  Limiting the Trials field to 25 runners means that press kits could include bios of each and every competitor.  Maybe NBC could incorporate chip-timed splits live in their TV coverage with real-time updates showing who’s gaining ground, who posted the fastest recent mile, who’s slowing down, etc… much like what NASCAR broadcasts already feature.  Knowing that every runner has a chance to place in the top three and make the Olympic team adds real excitement, and a smaller but stronger field means that the packs will remain tight longer into the race.

Now watch the women!
If you’ve read this far, hopefully you haven’t forgotten to watch the women’s Trials tomorrow morning!  As you tune in, think about what could make the Trials a more exciting, fan-friendly event and let me know your opinions.  Bigger?  Faster?  Something else?

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#52 – Running from the Scene of the Crime

27 March 2008
Masked Dogs

When you go out for a run, you never know what you’re going to find.  Last evening after work I took advantage of the 49-degree, sunny weather and headed out for a nice jog.  Upon reaching Main Street I noticed that the police had closed off a section of the road.  An officer instructed me, the pedestrian runner, to take the detour!  I asked him what’s going on and he mumbled a couple words that sounded like “crane drop”.

I noticed a large crane over at the flour mill and while it appeared to be intact and functional, the officer’s comments had me wondering if a crane accident had occurred, reminiscent of the collapses in New York and Miami.  As I finished the detour loop and popped back out on Main Street, though, I observed that the crane was outside the closed-off area.  Hmmm.

Poor Amanda had to drive the detour when she came home – cars were backing up enough that at times I was out-pacing them with my blazing 9-minute miles.  That’s what you call “ludicrous speed“! 🙂

Finally home, Amanda was able to find out what happened: there had been a bank robbery on Main Street!  The perpetrator left behind a bomb that turned out to be fake, but during my run was when the bomb squad was checking it out.  Apparently the officer I encountered had said “bank robbery” and not “crane drop”.  One cool thing in the news story is that they interviewed Chief Valentine, who happens to be one of my neighbors.  Good job, Jim!

The funniest thing about the robbery (if crimes can be funny) is that the bank robber fled the scene on a bicycle!  The news anchor in the video clip refers to it as the “get-away bike”.  If it was a tandem bike would the other guy be called the “get-away pedaler”?

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#38 – Qualify for the Olympic Games

3 November 2007

 

Brian Sell approaching the finish line to clinch his Olympic berth.  Photo: NBC Sports The U.S. Olympic Trials were held in New York City’s Central Park earlier this morning and the results are in:

1st – Ryan Hall – 2:09:02

2nd – Dathan Ritzenhein – 2:11:07

3rd – Brian Sell – 2:11:40

All three of those guys have made the U.S Olympic team for the marathon. Congratulations! TV coverage of the marathon trials can be seen on NBC today at 2pm Eastern.

As a fellow Michigan runner, it’s great to see that two of those top three runners have Michigan connections: Ritzenhein grew up in nearby Rockford, Michigan and Sell trains in Rochester, Michigan as part of the fascinating Hansons-Brooks Distance Project.

Update:

The news wasn’t all good for Michigan runners. Ryan Shay, a native of Ypsilanti, Michigan, collapsed early in the race and died. How awful. He had just been married on 7/7/07 this summer.

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#24 – Climb a Sand Dune

8 July 2007

On 7/7/07 I was one of the few people not getting married that day… Instead I was lucky enough to be invited to the cottage of a family friend, a cottage that is literally adjacent to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore! Growing up in Michigan I’ve been to Sleeping Bear several times over the years yet I could never get used to such amazing landscapes. In my opinion Sleeping Bear Dunes is one of the most spectacular parks in the entire country!

Amanda and I drove the three hours north with my cousin and navigator Ana, who’s been going to this cottage all her life. Sadly my brothers couldn’t make it, but my parents were there along with some aunts, uncles, and cousins. First off I sampled several pieces of raisin spice cake along with countless other snacks that everyone had brought along. Yum!

Then there was some beach frisbee, then floating in Lake Michigan on inner tubes, then hiking down the beach to a small lake, then more floating over the sandbar, then some beach hillbilly golf. Yep, we spent a lot of time on that beach! Amanda has the sunburns to prove it, too.

Being so close to Sleeping Bear, all day I was eying this giant sand bluff with plans to climb it. Legend has it that some years ago my cousin Gabe set the family ascent record at 7.5 minutes while Ana holds the female title at 10 minutes. Both were teenage-fast avid cyclists, but could I keep up?

The bluff rises 450 vertical feet above Lake Michigan; marking our path using Google Earth shows the slant distance to be about 800 feet. As we approached this sand mountain my dad, a civil engineer, explained to me that typical sand has an angle of repose of about 45 degrees. Yeah, that looked about right:

Wow, this wasn’t going to be easy! The ants crawling up the hill formed in to humans as we got close enough to see the action, and crawl was the word of the day – I noticed that everybody who was going up was doing so on all fours!

Off we go! I was able to walk upright for the first two minutes before so much lactic acid built up in my quads that the muscles refused to respond to my commands. I was forced to rest a few seconds before I resumed the ascent, this time using all four limbs like everyone else. The terrain was atrocious! The sand was filled with rocks from pebbles up to softball size and my toes took a beating. Each step I took, my foot slid halfway back down the hill! Progress was frustrating to say the least. While my feet mashed through the sand and rocks my fingers were like pitchforks jabbing into the hillside until they became so tired that I had to walk on my knuckles just like a chimpanzee.

After 14 minutes I finally made it to the top! In retrospect I probably could’ve made it in 12 had I not burned out my quads by walking upright in the beginning. I can see why my cyclist cousins were so fast – you really need strong thighs! My lungs were fine but my quad muscles were operating above their lactate threshold the entire climb. Ana arrived to the summit in 15:45, then her sister Adrienne in 16:30. The three of us sat down (“collapsed” might be a better word!) to recover and take in the incredible view of Lake Michigan stretching to the horizon in front of us.

Finally we had company – Uncle Andy arrived at 25 minutes followed by his young daughter and her friend who impressed everyone with a 26-minute climb. My dad made it to the top in 31 minutes – not bad for a guy pushing 60 years old! He rides his bike a lot and that really helped him – he said that his lungs were the limiting factor, not his legs. Andy’s young son arrived at 35 minutes, toting his snowboard all the way! Last but not least, Aunts Therese and Kathy dragged themselves up in 36 minutes. Everyone made it!

Most folks on the hill had driven to the overlook at the summit and decided to hike down, then were forced to suffer the ascent just to get back to their car! Either that or walk a 7-mile detour. Luckily for us we wanted to do the climb, then got to enjoy the easy descent. Young Issac tried his snowboard but found it to be much easier on snow than sand. However, Ana and Adrienne had a fun technique of skiing down the hill that worked pretty well:

I opted for a straight run, but it was more like a high-stepping march, lifting my knees as fast as I could to keep my feet from dragging behind my body – I had no desire to taste the sand! Unfortunately Uncle Andy performed one somersault on the way down, but he said it wasn’t bad because his sunglasses didn’t fall off. 🙂

After maintaining an effort that was close to what my 5K pace feels like for 14 minutes just to reach the top, I ran down that same hill in just one minute! What a blast that was. It really did feel kinda like downhill skiing, but unless you’re as fit as sky-runner Matt Carpenter you only get one hard-earned “lift ticket” to the top!

My feet were very sore during the walk back to the cottage, but being able to splash them through the cool surf of Lake Michigan helped soothe the pain. Best of all, back at the cottage it was time to eat! Now that was a meal well earned. I can’t wait to go back someday and conquer the Sleeping Bear bluff again!