Tuesday, 31 October 2017

#feminism? and Women's Distance Running.

Most of us are by now at least dimly aware that the phenomenon known as "feminism" has passed through a number of different phases, from the movement known as "progressivism", which brought North Americans things like alcohol prohibition and improved public health, to suffragism (the movement to enfranchise women), to the "women's liberation" movement of the 1960s and 70s, and, finally, to the so-called 2nd and 3rd "waves" of the movement, which have focused on things like women's sexual liberation and racial, ethnic, and gender-identity inclusiveness. Despite their different areas of focus, what unites these various historical movements under the same banner is an abiding concern for women's complete self-actualization as citizens of nations and as fully-fledged human beings. They also share an understanding of women's liberation as human liberation. What has made feminism the radical challenge to the status quo that it continues to be is its promise that gender liberation will ultimately free all human beings from the strictures of prescribed gender roles, and from the domination of the "masculine" over the "feminine" in social life, positing a fundamentally new way of organizing our relations with one another and (in some variations) with the non-human world. Indeed, only a movement and a set of ideas this visionary and bold could provoke the kind of vicious and sustained backlash from conservative and reactionary quarters that feminism has endured since its first enunciation. Indeed, feminist and their male allies have evinced a kind of rigour and seriousness proportional to the violence of the reaction their ideas have tended to provoke from the guardians of the status quo, be they presidents, men of god, bosses, or simply just individual husbands threatened with loss of control of their wives as providers of labour and sexual services.

Our merely dim awareness of the radical continuity of feminism over the past century is attributable to the success of the backlash against it in distorting its meaning and erasing its real legacy. But, commercial forces simply looking to make a buck by enlisting feminism's powerful appeal in the cause of shilling products and personae (people as products) have also done much to confuse us about what feminism is and where it came from. The large scale commercial use and abuse of feminism probably began in the 1920s, when Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Bernays used the old man's insights to addict millions of newly liberated women to cigarettes And it continues today in the form of ad campaigns like Dove's cynical "Real Beauty" series (cynical because the parent company Unilever also makes millions from the sale of products that promote the fakest of fake beauty-- diet drinks and skin-whitening products The net affect of feminism's incorporation into advertising and marketing has been the creation of a kind of faux version of the ideology-- one that erases its origins as a movement for social structural transformation in favour of a preoccupation with individual, personal "empowerment" within a world whose dominant structures remain firmly intact. Once reduced to a run-of-the-mill kind of pop psych "self-help", feminism can then become almost anything anyone interested in promoting or selling something in its name wants it to be. As long as the message or the product is directed at women, it is seen to be vaguely "feminist" or at least "pro-women", even when it perpetuates women's reduction to isolated, gendered consumers looking for personal freedom via a product or an idea-- that is, even when the thing being shilled neither brings women together in a real movement, challenges traditional conceptions of femininity, nor upsets the social and political status quo in any fundamental way.

Serious distance running is a tiny subculture in North America; but, it exists within a vast and lucrative leisure and sports industry-- one that provides a degree of opportunity for a few of the sports top performers to make a real living during and after their competitive careers. Most "pros" have availed themselves of the fruits of this vast industry without doing much more than wearing a particular brand while racing (including the now obligatory self-brand social media promotion). A few more enterprising types, however, have struck out on their own, attempting to create small personal product lines, but more often simply by promoting their distinct personal brand images, using visual cues like tatoos, haircuts, unique posturing, and running outfits. And a few have used social and political causes, including feminism, to delineate their brands.

With a few notable exceptions, serious athletes in any sport are not known for venturing outside their athletic purviews to comment or act on larger political issues. The exceptions to this general rule in North American sport have been women and black athletes (and their white, male allies), simply because they have had to confront barriers to equal participation in sport, as in other areas of social life, in order to become athletes in the first place. Race and gender-based activism continues today, in the form of things like "knee-taking" and t-shirt messaging protests against police violence in the U.S. by pro athletes in the WNBA (which pioneered the latter), NFL, and NBA. In stepping outside their designated roles as athletic entertainers, these athletes have taken significant risks to reputation and livelihood in the form of a fan base that, if upset, is capable of responding with devastating force, sometimes aided and abetted by the wealthy and often conservative owners of the companies for which they work. The sport of track and field, and of distance running in particular, has produced some of the most courageous and celebrated examples of sports activism-- including: the boycott of the Berlin Olympics by American sprinter Herman Neugass; Tommie Smith and John Carlos "black fist" protest at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (supported at great personal expense by white Australian Peter Norman); and, Katherine Switzer's banditing of the 1967 Boston Marathon-- but it has tended to adhere to the apolitical rule for athletes rather being part of the noble exception, particularly in the past 30 years.

In the specific case of distance running, the one notable exception-- the direct appeal to "women's empowerment" that we now find in explicit and implicit forms everywhere, and that has helped propel road race participation numbers to unprecedented levels in North America-- serves to prove the apolitical sports rule. Ironically, the faux feminism of "women's empowerment" has thrived to the precise extent that long distance running has been "de-sportified", or, reduced to a largely non-competitive form of personal hygiene and emotional therapy. This is ironic, and telling, given that the demand of women and their male supporters for equal participation in distance running as a competitive sport created the foundation for women's mass participation today (to say nothing of the creating equal opportunities for women to win athletic scholarships and prize money alongside men). Instead of enjoining girls and women to consider becoming serious athletes, and to collectively embrace one another as a strong community of risk-takers out to challenge still dominant conceptions of women's interiority, passivity, and fragility, today's promoters of women's distance running address women and girls as already weak, fragile, and generally uninterested in challenging themselves physically through competitive sport. The implied flip-side of messages of women and girls' empowerment through running, such as "head-up, wings out" and "girl power"-- phrases for which there is no masculine counterpart in sport-- is that women and girls are, by default, unsure of themselves and in need of emotional support in the face of competitive physical challenges. As such, so-called "empowerment" messages have the perverse effect of limiting girls understanding of and belief in what they can achieve through the pursuit of serious, competitive sport.

Even when delivered by bona fide elite runners (e.g. Alexis Pappas*, who encourages young women to be "bravies"-- a term just one Freudian degree away from "babies"), self-promotional "empowerment" messages to girls and women often address them as only aspirationally strong and brave (thereby as, by default, weak and fearful). Even the gender specific emphasis on female elites as "role models" for women and girls (something their social media messages, and responses to those messages, frequently emphasize) implies that girls and women runners are in need of a kind of support and guidance that male athletes are not. Male elites are also very active on social media these days as part of their professional self-promotion, but they rarely present themselves-- or are asked to present themselves-- as "role models" for boys and men. (And you would certainly not expect them to address their male followers as anything like "bravies"). Male elite athlete self-promotion often emphasizes themes of renegade "bad-assedness" (see the beard and head-scarf of someone like Ben Blankenship, or the hyper-masculine posturing of a Matthew Centrowitz), or quirky individuality (see the long hair and sunglasses of someone like Noah Droddy

The point here is not to unfavourably contrast elite women's social media messaging with that of men; it is that, when the focus is sport promotion, the faux-feminist "empowerment" message of some female elites actually risks discouraging girls and women from thinking of themselves as potentially lifelong, serious athletes-- as, like their elite role models, risk-takers who actually relish and enjoy serious competitive challenges, rather than as seeing these challenges as something for which they must summon a "bravery" that goes against their inherent gender character. In other words, implicitly assuming that women and girls aren't already "brave" enough to embrace competitive sport reinforces the old stereotype that competitive sport is not for the average women or girl; that the average girl or women has to buck-up if she wants to be any kind of athlete. As a stark example of how entrenched the belief in inherent female frailty and insecurity has become, and of how thoroughly some contemporary elites have lost sight of the radical potential of women's sport participation to challenge old gender stereotypes, consider the recent words of current marathon world record holder and infamously tough racer and trainer, Paula Radcliffe, on the ostensible differences between male and female runners:

"The mindset is different in terms of how you would coach and motivate a female athlete to how you would coach a male athlete. Men tend to get more fired up so if you are coaching a man you might say 'you're not good enough, I know you can do better than that, you need to run faster', whereas if you say that to a woman they will just hear 'I'm not good enough' and walk off the track in tears.

"You have to say 'I know you can do this' or 'I think you can do this really well'. [You have to focus] much more on encouragement and building them up, particularly with young girls.

"It's not that you're being mean to the guys, it's just that they hear 'you're trying to push me harder and I'm going to show you', whereas women will hear 'you think I am not good enough'.

"Women will flourish and do better under somebody who really builds up their confidence. Whereas a male will do better under someone who fires them up."

"I think it's the emotion as well. Women really find it hard to turn off the emotional side of things, whereas men don't really tend to get upset. You never see a guy walk off the track in tears. I don't think it's weakness, it's just different and in some ways it makes women stronger."
(The Independent)**

Reading this, one wonders whether there ever would have been a Paula Radcliffe in the first place had this "wisdom" about the differences between male and female distance runners prevailed in the early years of the women's participation.

Alongside with the theme of "bravery" and "role-modeling" in elite women's social media messaging we find that of "health" and "healthy participation". Elite and sub-elite women's social media messaging abounds with talk and imaging focused on food and diet. And while it's true that men and women have somewhat different dietary requirements to sustain high level training, the differences are nowhere near proportional to the differences in social media content about food and diet between female and male distance runners. Once again, the obsessive emphasis on food, diet, and health, while oftentimes well intentioned, creates the impression that serious distance running is far more risky for women than it actually is. (And, in spite of the well documented problem of disordered eating among female distance runners-- prevalence among men is woefully under-researched-- distance running is not a particularly dangerous sport for girls and women, particularly when compared with speed and power sports, which often present grave danger to the long term health of their participants, male and female, in the form of things like head injuries and complications from the use of banned drugs. Furthermore, there is no evidence that disordered eating is more common among female runners than among female non-runners). It is worth noting that the disproportionate emphasis on women's diet and health in distance running that we find in media content directed at female runners is continuous with messages from an earlier era that warned women of the risk of sport to their "femininity", and to their reproductive capacities in particular. Today's messaging may say that these risks can be faced and overcome; but, that the risks of women's participation in sport are still being disproportionately foregrounded-- including by some elite participants themselves-- would seem to indicate how little things have changed. Girls and women are still encouraged, even if only implicitly, to consider their health in relation to sports participation in ways that boys and men rarely are.

We can see the real nature and effects of faux-feminist "empowerment" on women's distance running as a sport no more clearly than in the recent debate about women's XC racing distances at the high school and collegiate levels here in Canada. Challenges to the gender-unequal status quo exposed significant reserves of old-school sexist reasoning (e.g. that shorter women's distances were "fine", or that women and girls didn't actually want or need to run the same distance and men and boys in XC, regardless of the accepted practice of equal distance on the roads and in track). But, it also provoked an unusual response from at least one notable and very high profile distance runner. Outspoken former American elite and Stanford grad Lauren Fleshman, in a remarkable blog post last year, deployed her understandings of "female athlete wellness" and "feminism" in a defense of unequal XC distances for women. Mandating equal distances in XC, she argued, would entail failing to honour the special history and legacy of women's distance running, and would be a form of admitting the inherent superiority of the longer "men's" distance (as if a measure of space could be inherently gendered). In this way, she portrayed a straightforward and far from unprecedented (to say nothing of long overdue) equality measure as a form of sexism, because it supposedly failed to honour women's "uniqueness" as athletes. Of course, it turns out that this narrative of "uniqueness" is very similar to the old social script according to which women are understood to engage in sport in pursuit of things like "wellness", rather than, like their male counterparts, to challenge themselves and to take risks. Fleshman's kind of "feminism" amounts to pandering to women and girls; it encourages them to accept whatever feelings of weakness, fear, and passivity they might be feeling in the face of competitive sport as inherent to their gender-- even tokens of their gender "specialness" to be validated and embraced. This message is, of course, in distinct contrast with the early and original feminist exhortation of women to take up competitive sport on equal terms with men as a direct challenge to prescribed gender roles. The pioneers who fought for racing distances longer than 400m for women; who fought for equal scholarships and prize money for women; and, who eventually brought us the women's Olympic and World Championships marathons, would be hard-pressed to find anything remotely "feminist" in Fleshman's case for continued unequal distances in XC running. It comes as no surprise that Fleshmen is now a budding entrepreneur in the running business, having created a nutritional product (Picky Bar) marketed to physically active women. She is also a brand ambassador for Oiselle***, an active-wear clothing line marketed to women. As such, it is understandable that her kind of "feminism" is not out to genuinely challenge anyone's preconceptions about women, and certainly not about to dismantle any structures of male privilege, there being significant risks to the business model of selling products to women in either of those endeavours.

Finally, the danger of the faux feminism of "women's empowerment" in distance running is that it affords support to a still male- dominated coaching and administrative structure (to say nothing of a still demonstrably sexist male fan base, as displayed in all its colour on message boards like that hosted by Letsrun.com), which takes no active interest in the promotion of women's competitive participation. We would do well to bear in mind that the reason women's XC racing distances remained at approximately 50% of men's for decades was not that male decision makers where being respectful of the "unique heritage" of women's shorter racing distances; they opposed, or refused to even consider, increasing women's XC racing distances from their introductory levels for the same reason they had always opposed women's equality in sport-- because many had never really believed in it, and saw a chance to preserve the one remaining instance of gender-based inequality in the sport. Today, when these same decision makers-- be they administrators or coaches-- hear ostensible women's sport leaders like Lexi Pappas, Paula Radcliffe, and Lauren Fleshman fretting about girls and women's fear and fragility in the face of competitive sport, they are liable to be confirmed in their view that there is no further need for active promotion of women's distance running. What they should be hearing from female elite distance runners and their male allies is a steady drumbeat of demands for complete equality of opportunity for women, including the active encouragement of girls and women to challenge themselves as athletes and not just "participants" equally concerned about their "health" as with their performance. In Canada, the one frontier in women's distance running that remains to be fully explored is that of the longer distances-- 10k to the marathon. As a nation, we managed to produce some promising success in the early, heady days of women's long distance running-- the 1980s; and, we have continued to produce large numbers of girls and young women with real aptitude for this event range. Yet, in spite these successes, and in spite of a truly massive increase in rate of recreational participation by women in races of this distance, our competitive depth in them is all but non-existent today. Until we understand the importance of dismantling harmful stereotypes about the unique physical and psychological fragility of young female distance athletes, and until we stop indulging young women in their own socially determined feelings of weakness and fear around competitive long distance running, and instead start challenging them to "step up", as we do with young male athletes, this frontier of excellence will continue to go unexplored, to the detriment of everyone who loves this sport.

*Pappas, an intelligent and articulate Ivy League grad, who is also a hardcore distance veteran, projects a self-consciously waifish personal style, and her faux feminist social media entreaties to girls and women athletes verge on the infantile.

**This remarkable series of quotes largely speaks for itself. Among other things, it reveals an astonishing practical unfamiliarity with distance runners, male and female. Anyone who has worked for any length of time with runners of both genders will know that women are no more inclined to be sensitive about a poor performance than men; and, that if there is any difference at all in their overt behaviour in this regard, it is owing to the greater social license women are granted to display their sensitivity. A coaching style based on Radcliffe's "insights" on gender would produce a prison-house of forced masculinity for male athletes and an open invitation to displays of emotional fragility on the part of female athletes.

***Canadian Oiselle athlete Sasha Gollish also intervened in the equal XC distances debate, but ambiguously and, ultimately, non-committally. Her expressions of concern for the "whole athlete" when considering the question of XC racing distances, however, sounds familiar to anyone versed in the faux feminism of "women's empowerment". While purportedly concerned with both male and female student athlete "well-being", she did not offer her insights on the issue until the question of girls and women's distances was raised; and, she conveniently ignored the fact that male student-athletes had been racing twice as long as women for decades, with no discernible ill-effects on their overall "well-being" (the questions of men's "well being" as distance runners never having been raised in the first place!)

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Appearance vs Essence: Coaching and Counter-Intuition

We know from the history of science that genius initially resides in having seen beyond the appearance of phenomena to their deeper essence. Consider, for instance, Nic Coperinus-- he of heliocentrism fame. And, before him, think about the ancient Greeks, and their ability to employ reason to pierce the veil of appearance concerning the very ground we walk upon (they deduced that it must, in fact, be globular and not flat).

If there is a Copernican figure in the very new (and less consequential) field of endurance training science it would be 1960s antipodean athlete/coach Arthur Lydiard. Making explicit what a generation of increasingly professionalized athletes and coaches had been groping towards in practice, the appearances that Lydiard managed to see beyond, and which had formed the basis of training for distance runners for the entire 60 years of the modern era of sport, was two-fold. Pre-Lydiard, coaches and athletes believed that elegant form was a determinant of performance (when it was not simply and end in itself for early practitioners), and that the best way to train for a particular race distance was to continually practice the precise pace one needed to win, whilst also always being careful not to squander one's finite energies on preparation. The counter-intuitive essence that Lydiard managed, through practice and systematic observation, to grasp was that cardiovascular and metabolic physiology drove ALL distance running performance; and, that the way to improve these processes was not, in the first instance, to fixate on the appearance of form or the specificity of different race paces, but to spend more time simply running.

It is worth noting that Lydiard and the pioneers who began breaking with established training orthodoxy-- people like Czech iconoclast Emil Zatopek, who destroyed world records and vanquished opponents simply by out-training them-- were not, like most coaches and champions from the classical era of the "amateur gentleman", members of the leisured classes; they were proletarians, and thus, being acquainted with hard physical labour, familiar in a practical way with the physical "training effect". In other words, experience (their own and that of their fathers and mothers) would have taught them that a muscle worked hard does become dissipated; it becomes bigger and stronger, at least until age does its inevitable thing. They would have known intuitively that human exercise capacity is obviously not limited by our finite energy stores; that the human body overcompensates for demands placed upon it, such that we have more vital energy the more activity we perform (in the medium term, and with enough nourishment and rest). Unlike their aristocratic predecessors in sport, they would have known that we are not like batteries, whose energy "runs out" in a linear fashion.

All sport is now "professionalized" of course, and the physiological "training effect" discovered in practice by people like Zatopek and explicated in expert layman's terms by Lydiard has been documented in voluminous detail, even giving rise to an entire field of inquiry-- that of "exercise science". Nevertheless, as with the persistence of "flat earth" societies, old appearances can be notoriously hard to dispel-- paradoxically, the more so the more established the science that first pierced them. Lydiard's groundbreaking discovery that general aerobic conditioning is the foundation for success at all distances in the discipline-- formulated in terms of aerobic "base" and race-specific "superstructure"-- is now simply commonsense, such that its specific origins as a practical discovery have all but disappeared from collective memory. And, as "commonsense", it is now as kind of orthodoxy, attractive (and potentially profitable) as a target for enterprising iconoclasts.

Take the persistence of the appearance that training at, or below, goal race pace will, in itself, somehow make goal race pace more attainable (as if running at a previously unattainable pace were a simple matter of skill or familiarization, like "muscle memory", rather than a function of our unseen physiological capacities). This eminently intuitive throwback to the pre-Lydiard era was almost single-handedly responsible for plunging North America running into a 10 year dark age, in which performance relative to historical standards at all levels declined measureably. In the 1990s, coaches everywhere were suddenly questioning the value of racking up large quantities of easy volume and were counselling "quality" (faster running) over "quantity", forgetting Lydiard's singular insight about the relationship between these two kinds of running-- that, in a profound way, "quantity" was itself "quality", by way of the ertwhile mysteries of human physiology. By the turn of the century, the runaway (literally!) success of east African runners, whose coaches had been introduced to Lydiard's higher volume approach to training in the 1960s and had never deviated from it, had made it apparent that North American coaches and athletes had gone profoundly astray. Ten years later, with the restoration of orthodoxy (aided in crucial ways by the unprecedented power of the internet to disseminate best practice-- and here the website Letsrun.com played a crucial role), North American performance levels had been restored--and then some (at the high school and university levels, the quality and depth of performance was completely unprecedented)!

In my own coaching practice, not a month goes by that I don't find myself trying to explain the counter-intuitive notion that doing a lot of running at sub-maximal paces (aka easy aerobic running) is the first order of business when it comes to improving performance; that simply trying to run at or faster than some goal race pace as often as possible, as per the common early 20th C approach, will run up against severe limits, and sooner rather than later. Often it requires the full aresenal of phyiological explanations (re: things like capillarization and mitochondrial development) and practical examples to close the deal. And sometimes nothing is sufficient to convince the observer that appearances can be deceptive, that is it not possible to sustain a race pace you have never achieved before simply by "practicing" it over and over again, or by regularly exceeding it in training, in the hope that it will begin to feel easier, and thereby become easier to sustain in a race situation.

The matter of running "form" and biomechanics is trickier but no less frustrating matter. Today's purveyors of "form correction"-- from the barefoot/"minimalists" of a few years ago to the proponents of various running "methods", such as POSE-- do not represent a straighforward throw back to the early 20th C's fetishization of running form as a kind of mash-up of function and aesthetics. They do, however, often mistake appearance for essence, and garner a great deal of attention in peddling illusion. In its proper place, the application of the science of movement can, of course, aid in propelling distance running performance. And the proper place of biomechanical science is within an overall approach that acknowledges the ultimate primacy of physiology over biomechanics. And the fact is, no one has yet been able to establish on an empirical level any independent, causal role for biomechanics in altering the variables that we know to directly determine performance in our sport-- variables that can be grouped under the label of physiological "efficiency", or the ability to take in and utilize oxygen to support movement sustained for periods of longer than about 30 seconds. Master coach and exercise physiologist Jack Daniels proved years ago that even the most experienced eye could not accurately match observed movement patterns (runners' form) with their underlying efficiency, often seeing visual elegance as physiological efficiency where no such connection existed. Daniels' simple but ingenious bit of practical research seemed to show that physiological efficiency could come in a range of different biomechanical packages; that, perhaps, different bodies, when subjected to the same physical demands (in this case, running as much as possible every day for years on end), might find their own biomechanical lines of least resistance regardless of their elegance to the human eye and sensibility.

But what, one might ask, if there IS a biomechanically ideal way to run, albeit yet undiscovered by science? Furthermore, don't the world's best distance runners look different (smoother, more relaxed and powerful) than the average recreational runner, thereby presenting us with a biomechanical ideal for which to strive?

Herein lies the tricky part of the question. Yes, there may well be more or less efficient ways to run; but, we beg the question about the potential value of discovering this truth when we assume that more efficient running form can somehow be learned; when, in other words, we assume that the ability to move more efficiently is a skill that can be acquired through instruction and more careful self-monitoring, as many running "method" practitioners today do. There may be a way to run more efficiently, but it may well be inborn-- i.e. like other facets of running "talent", such as higher baseline MVO2, or general body type. In other words, efficient biomechanics may well be part and parcel of what makes one person better at the sport than another. And running, being something human beings are able to do at an extremely early stage of their physical development (not long after they acquire the capacity to speak in sentences), might well be almost completely hardwired, with any refinements in basic movement patterns happening automatically, from simple repetition. Indeed, in my own coaching experience, I've noticed that young runners become gradually smoother and more refined in their action without any coaching intervention whatsoever (I have never offered "form" cues beyond reminders re: posture and relaxation). Simple repetition and physical maturation seems to be all that's required for young runners to start moving more like mature elites. And, interestingly, even as young runners become smoother, the signature elements of their form tend to remain. Indeed, I've often noticed very distinctive familial similarities within these signatures, further suggesting the extent to which the whole business may be hardwired and largely immutable, for better or worse. So, even if one runner possess more "efficient" form than another, it does not mean that the less efficient runner can improve his/her efficiency simply by copying the movement patterns of the more efficient runner. In fact, in some of the only research conducted on the relationship between form adjustments and physiological economy, it was discovered that attempts to make wholesale, conscious changes in our movement patterns while running actually tends to decrease our physiological economy!

If there is no proven direct link between biomechanics and physiological efficiency in running (such as there almost certainly will be in endurance sports that involve significant skill acquisition, such as swimming and x-c skiing), is there still no good reason to think about our running form? Of course not. We know, for instance, that the same repetition that produces the automatic refinements we see as we progress from beginner to experienced runner can lead, over time, and when combined with the aging process, to muscle imbalances that can result in injury. And there is, of course, no greater threat to running performance than the inability to run at all for extended periods of time. As long as we must rely on our bones, joints, and connective tissues to transmit the capacities of our powerfully trained muscles and cardiovascular systems (which is the very definition of running itself) there will be a role for thinking about, and intervening in, our biomechanics. But, I would argue, the proper focus of that thinking and those interventions should be on maintaining or restoring our own signature ways of moving at their most refined. It is when we attempt to work from an ideal form template, as though there was an ideal "method" of running that could be attained through simple self-monitoring and conscious "correction", that we go awry. Among the many things runners must consider when they break down in injury, and/or when they age, is the way in which their personal biomechanics may have become changed in sub-optimal ways. And, by way of intervention, this may mean having to focus on shoring up or mobilizing certain key musculoskeletal complexes, often through a combination of strength training and therapeutic interventions like massage and physiotherapy. But the goal of any recourse to biomechanics must always be the restoration of the body's own unique adaptations to the challenge of training to race.

To understand running-- or, more specifically, how to become better at running-- is to understand the ways in which the determinants of performance are largely counter-intuitive. And to understand just how counter-intuitive-- how different in essence from their commonsense appearance-- consider for a moment the depth of insight it must have taken for Emil Zaptopek, taking up the sport largely coach-less in war-ravaged Czechoslovakia circa 1948, to break as radically as he did from the intuitively sensible practice of training only at goal race pace, and of conserving one's finite energy as much as possible for expenditure on race efforts (Zatopek was known to run as many as 80 repetitions of 400m at what today would be called tempo, or aerobic threshold pace, as a routine part of his weekly schedule-- hardly conservative where the matter of vital energy is concerned!). Or, consider the maverick genius of Lydiard who, when asked by a young Peter Snell about how to become New Zealand's best 800m runner, counseled 100 easy miles per week for months on end, instead of the more intuitive method of focusing directly on his perceived deficit of finishing speed (Snell would famously take Lydiard's advice and go on to become not only New Zealand's best 800m runners, but one of the greatest middle distance runners the world has ever known). More simply, the next time you are finishing a long aerobic training run, consider the counter-intuitive genius it must have taken to have beeen the first person to link this distinctive feeling of low level, grinding fatigue with improved performance at all-out mile race paces. Consider, in other words, that what we now know to be effective training for distance running-- much of it in defiance of simple appearance-based commonsense-- had first to be discovered, and then to be set against established practice in a fight for widespread acceptance.

And it would seem that the fight between the counter-intuitive genius of figures like Zatopek, Lydiard and, later, Jack Daniels (of Daniels' Running Formula fame) is never completely won. The power of appearance-- in this case, as bound up in the notion that to run faster we must favour training faster over training longer; or, that to become more physiologically efficient we must strive to look more biomechanically efficient-- seems to pose a constant threat to that which is true but not readily apparent. And the defense of essence over appearance is made all the more difficult when the latter retains the advantage of seeming new and innovative-- which the emphasis on "speed work" over "long, slow, distance" did in the early 1990s, and which the turn to biomechanics, by way of shoe fads and method-based running clinics, now does. Today's thinking coach and runner must remain open to genuine innovation but at the same time demand a very high burden of proof from those who would question what we know to be the basics of sound practice, particularly when what's presented as new and exciting looks suspiciously like the old and superseded.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Farewell To, and Reflections On, Junior Coaching.

Apart from the rookies who enter my team at Queen's in the future, and from the precocious Brogan MacDougall (who, while still in the junior ranks for another 3 years, is already a senior elite athlete in terms of performance), I ended my career as a coach of age-class athletes effective last spring. I have no regrets about this decision, and many reflections on the 8 odd years I spent doing it. Some of these latter may be of benefit to those contemplating--or perhaps just beginning to negotiate the gauntlet of-- junior coaching.

I have no regrets because I leave the PK Junior group-- now as big as it has ever been, but not too big to be effective-- in good hands (those of Queen's and PK Elite Assistant Coach, Brant Stachel), confident that the kids will continue to get the start they need in the sport.

And it is impossible to overstate the importance of a proper start in a sport as initially lonely, daunting, and unfashionable to mainstream youth as serious distance running. If the emotional demands of training and the (for many) terrors of competition are not managed with skill and wisdom, young runners are apt to abandon the sport early and for good. And no coach has ever achieved a perfect record when it comes to creating lifelong runners, or even just happy and satisfied ex-runners. Most of us don't even come close, even when we make it our main intention.

With nearly 40 continuous years in the sport and 125,000+ miles etched into my tissues, I consider myself to be, for better or worse, among the life-longiest of life-long runners. Yet, because my own start in the sport was so haphazard and luck-dependent, it could easily have been much different. Like the dozens, even hundreds, of young athletes I have seen come and go over the decades, I could just as easily have entered and exited the sport quickly and disillusioned, without ever having glimpsed my true competitive potential or experienced the manifold benefits, both mental and physical, that the serious pursuit of running offers to those who abide with it. Granted, I may eventually have discovered a suitable replacement for serious running; but, I can't imagine I would have found something better, all tolled. And I know I could easily have done much worse. Along with its own benefits, I simply can't think of another activity that fits so well with, indeed supports the pursuit of, life's more non-negotiable responsibilities, such as work, raising a family, and coping with aging and loss. Just ask anyone who did it long enough to love it, then lost it permanently to physical debilitation. It is relatively cheap, logistically uncomplicated, portable, and suitable for people of any age living almost anywhere. If you could give lifelong running as a gift, you would, without hesitation. And it turns out you can!-- by giving young runners the kind of start in the sport that will keep them at it long enough to acquire a deep taste for its strangely satisfying rigors.

The broader context within which I discovered the sport has changed (more people of all ages now run, and the running industry is now a multifaceted behemoth within the even larger "health and fitness" mega-complex); yet, when it comes to introducing young people to the sport, there would appear to be some eternal verities. If, as coaches of young runners, we abide by these, we give our charges the best chance of realizing their full athletic potential and, perhaps more importantly, of becoming life long runners.

Start Later

The first of these is that, while children can indeed enjoy a little racing and training in their formative years, running is not really a children's sport. Real proficiency in the sport is determined much more by training than by so-called natural ability. In the medium and longer term, even the most gifted runner can't beat one of average ability, if the former is completely untrained and the latter has spent years increasing his/her gross capacities; and, the ratio of time spent training versus time spent racing is vastly skewed towards training when compared with almost any other sport. In short, to be a runner is to be, primarily, an athletic labourer (there is a reason we refer to our training in terms of "work", as in "workouts", rather than in terms of "practice"). Because children's athletic pursuits need to be primarily playful, serious distance running is best avoided in kids. Over my 10 years coaching kids, my original, intuitive belief in later-starting (age 13 for actual training) only became stronger.

Train by age, not ability

Second, a good intro to the sport can be insured by establishing training loads by age rather than ability. The six different individual OFSSA (Ontario high school) champions who emerged from the PK junior group during my years directing it all followed the same basic training plan-- one determined not by their ability but by their grade level. Grade 9s of both genders ran 5 days per week at 30-45mins, including 2 workouts; most did not compete more than once or twice indoors or in the summer months; and all had extended breaks between seasons. The plan for grade 10s was similar, but included an additional day of running per week and a few more minutes of running per day. And so on it went through grade 12. All runners had very similar four-year rates of improvement (meaning that the more precocious ones tended to become very good), and the vast majority (well over 90%) went on to compete at the university level in Canada and/or the U.S. About the same percentage continued to improve their personal bests after high school. The ones who have now graduated, furthermore, are well on their way to being life long runners, even if only for general fitness.

Race sparingly

Third, racing should be relatively infrequent (10x per year is more than sufficient to develop the necessary skills and to fully realize the benefits of the year's training). Too often, team sport schedules, which can have kids competing almost as often as they practice, are sometimes used as the standard when setting youth track club competitive schedules. And, since kids like to compete, a busy competitive schedule is sometimes good for short term athlete retention. I have always found something perverse in having developing distance runners compete up to twice as often as their senior-elite counterparts (who have been known to race as little as 5 times in a year). Racing is no less stressful for younger athletes, and can be more stressful for some. And pressure to race when things are not going particularly well in training-- and, for a number of reasons, training goes poorly for younger runners as often as it does for mature athletes-- can lead to an early exit from the sport. Very young athletes can have a difficult time putting a string of poor race results into proper perspective. When you're very young and have only raced a few times in your life (and usually with a chance for a personal best every time out) even 2 or 3 poor outings in a row can lead you to question your commitment to the sport, particularly when other recreational options are readily available.

Be athlete-centred

Finally, coaching at any level, and particularly at the age-class level, should be a form of service to athletes. Effective coaches strive for competence and let their athletes supply the rest. At the age-class level in particular, potentially competent coaches are far more common than athletes with the necessary drive and focus to succeed in the sport. Stories abound of relatively inexperienced high school and club coaches presiding over very successful teams simply by sticking to the basics, remaining humble, and putting athletes at the centre of the process. Age class coaches, whether school or club-based, who start with a structure built according to their own "vision" of what a training group of kids should look and act like, then attempt discipline kids according to that structure, are more likely than not to fail in the long run, particularly if their knowledge of and personal involvement in the sport is limited. As coaches, we have a right to be proud of "our" athletes' success in reaching their goals; but, we should understand that we don't create that success, and that we don't "mould", "sculpt", or whatever other shaping metaphor you prefer, our athletes as people or as competitors. If we're being honest with ourselves, or if we simply listen to our athletes talk about the sport, we will understand that who their coach happens to be is usually very low on their list of concerns, unless that coach is excessively demanding or otherwise unpleasant. In my years as a junior coach, I simply tried to make my group as accessible as possible. I never charged a fee, required regular attendance (I was going to be there anyway, regardless of who showed up), or made demands of athlete regarding adherence to the training plan. The net result was an atmosphere that fostered a simple love of running; that permitted less serious runners to pursue their more limited goals; and, that created the conditions for highly motivated and talented runners to succeed at unprecedented levels for a community as small as Kingston, Ontario.

P-K Junior Group, 2008 to 2016:

In the 8 years since its inception, the PK Junior Group, which at no time during this period contained more than 17 athletes, produced the followed record of competitive success:

-6 individual OFSAA Champions (Nicole Armstrong, Heather Jaros, Kieran L'Abbe, Branna MacDougall, Brogan MacDougall, and Cam Linscott), including 2 OFSAA Records (Heather Jaros and Brogan MacDougall)

-6 individual National Junior medals (Nicole Armstrong, Dylan O'Sullivan, Cleo Boyd, Branna MacDougall, Brogan MacDougall, Cam Linscott.

- 7 National Team berths by 5 athletes (Heather Jaros (1), Cleo Boyd(2), Branna MacDougall(2), Brogan MacDougall(1), Cam Linscott(1)).

-1 National Junior Record (Branna MacDougall, 5000m, 15:48).

-8 NCAA/CIS scholarship recipients (Jeff Archer (Queen's), Blair Morgan (MacMaster), Dylan O'Sullivan (Dartmouth College), Cleo Boyd (University of Virginia), Clara Langely (Tulsa University), Nicole Armstrong (Villanova University), Branna MacDougall (Iowa State University), Cam Linscott (University of Toronto).

-1 National XC team title (Junior girls-- 2014, at a time when their were only 7 junior girls in the group!).

-1 National XC team silver medal (Junior boys-- 2010).

In short, in these 8 years, athletes from the small PK group produced significantly more provincial and national level success than all other age class distance athletes combined in the city's entire history.

And long may they run!

2016 PK POY

From a lengthy list of outstanding performances by PK athletes of all ages, some of which are mentioned in previous postings, and others detailed on social media, I have selected Branna MacDougall's personal best and National Junior Record, set at the World Junior Championships, no less, as our Performance of 2016. When it comes to surpassing personal performance, you simply can't do any better than a lifetime best in your target race of the season. And when that target race is also a major championship, all the more impressive! Congrats, Branna!

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Making Distaff History at the Old Fort

In a sport as old as foot-racing, it is not easy to make any new history. But, it is in dubious thanks to all those collegiate XC coaches over the past three decades who have either ignored the issue or fought against change on the rare occasions when others have forced them to consider it that we actually have the opportunity to do so this on Saturday, when we host our annual home meet here at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.

Believe it or not, Saturday, Oct 15, 2016 will see the first equal-distance women's collegiate women's XC race in North American history. You heard that correctly. For the first time since women's XC running was introduced at the intercollegiate level in North America (1981 in the NCAA and 1980 in the now CIS) women will race each other over exactly the same distance as the men-- 8k. Individual women have raced the men's distance (although exceedingly rarely), but, unbelievably, never has an entire field of female collegiate racers been offered the chance to run exactly the same course as their male counterparts-- and this, in spite of the fact that they have been racing exactly the same distances on the track for over 30 years.

As a bonus, the field of women who will be making this little bit of long overdue history promises to be outstanding. Along with arguably Canada's top two high school competitors (and two of the best in our history), Brogan MacDougall and Shona McCulloch, the race will feature 5 former members of Canada's team to the World University XC Championships-- Julie-Anne Staehli, Claire Sumner, and Victoria Coates (all while attending Queen's), Colleen Wilson (Dalhousie), and Karissa Lepage (Regina). Add to this a battle between two of the CIS best women's teams-- Queen's (top 4 nationally the past 3 years) and Western University (currently ranked 4th nationally)-- and there will be nothing at all token about this little gathering of female athletic talent!

If you happen to be within driving distance of Old Fort Henry and would like to witness some new history made on top of the old, AND, you would like to see the best non-championship women's XC race you are likely too this season, please join us on Saturday. The women's race will begin at high noon and the men's at 1pm. And if you would like to do a little racing yourself on the fabled Fort layout (host of Canadian Nationals from 2015 to 2018), please enter the community race, brought to you by Running Room Kingston. Entry can be done online at https://www.events.runningroom.com/applications/?raceId=13622&eventId=40595&vrindex=3 Space is limited, but registration is still open as of posting.

Monday, 26 September 2016

One More (and final?) Time for Gender Equal XC Distances

Aaand, we're back! Back, that is, for another round of the debate that should never have been in the first place, or at least not this side of 1984!

The question is, or should be, primary-school simple: Should men and women race the same distances in cross country running (or, rather, should they ALSO race the same distances in cross country running-- because they already do, and have done so for decades now, on the roads and in track)?

Let's review the arguments*:

Pro: Our sport is based on racing equal distances regardless of speed. Being slower does not make one less capable of completing a given distance, and the only difference between men and women distance runners is that, on average, women are a little slower. How, for godsake, is the practice of having boys/girls and men/women run different XC distances based on gender in any jurisdiction outside of Saudi Arabia even a thing? Were the bodies that equalized racing distances for men and women on the roads and track all those years ago wrong to have done so? If so, what have been the alleged negative consequences, and how would sticking with unequal distances have prevented them?

More proximate pro-equal distances arguments include:

-That not offering women equal distances in XC racing is a type of gender discrimination that does not produce an equitable outcome. In other words, instead of making the sport of XC effectively the same for men and women (something that, for instance, lower hurdles and a smaller shot do in those events), unequal distances (as much as 40% unequal) simply deprive women with the ability to succeed at longer distances the same opportunities afforded male athletes to enjoy their specific natural advantages. Instead, shorter distances allow women with relatively more of the physical and psychological qualities necessary to success in the middle distances to dominate XC, thereby doubling their opportunities to enjoy success in the larger sport of distance running.

Con: To encourage participation at the inception of women's XC (primarily in schools but also in clubs), girls and women were offered shorter racing distances. What began as an expedient has since become a kind of "tradition" worth preserving, because it "works" (i.e. women's XC continues to exist and girls/women themselves are not clamoring to run the same distances as boys/men).

More proximate anti-equal distances arguments include:

-The participation of female athletes will decline if distances are equalized even if girls'/womens' racing distance are not increased. In other words, simply being asked to race the same distance as boys and men will discourage women and girls from doing the sport of XC. (The operative assumption here is that any equalization of XC distances must entail an increase in the distance girls/women race, because the distances that boys/men race must remain the same-- or, at least, boys/men's distances can only be changed following the application of a sport-specific logic to the question; in other words, they cannot be changed simply to promote gender equality).

-Other sports and other events within the broad category of Athletics make adjustments for gender. (The twin operative assumptions here being that what other sports do is a more meaningful and important guiding consideration than our own established practices within the sport of distance running as a whole, and that unequal distances create "equity" through inequality-- an argument that requires a sport-specific rationale that, to my knowledge, has never been adduced. Again, the only difference between male and female distance runners is that female athletes are typically a little slower; they are not less capable of completing a given distance in a way that, for instance, women, with their generally shorter stature, smaller hands, and lower center of gravity are, on average, less capable-- i.e. less capable in a way the fundamentally alters the nature of that event for them-- of clearing "42 hurdles or throwing a 16lb shot.)

-XC should create "equity" by changing its racing distances to still gender-unequal ones, but ones that produce the same average finishing times across the genders. (The assumption here being that the greater time that slower men take to complete a fixed course does not fundamentally change the nature of XC for them, but the greater time that women take to complete a fixed course relative to men somehow does-- and no one I know of has addressed the underlying problem with this assumption by proposing to make XC running a contest of who can cover the most ground in a fixed amount of time-- as in "The Men's National 30min XC Run Event" )

-Different jurisdictions should be free to preserve unequal distances for any reason they like (reasons that might include: protecting participation numbers under special circumstances; protecting the competitive status quo between team rivals (e.g. within schools-based leagues); or, saving time at meets/relieving spectators of the burden of watching slower female athletes complete courses). (The operative assumption in this case is that unequal distances in XC are not a civil/human rights issue; that, as long as women and girls get to compete in XC at all, their right to equal opportunities in the sport has been honoured.)

-And a special one, straight to us from the early 20th C: REAL equality means honouring the wishes of the majority of current female participants regarding what XC distance they would prefer to race. (Here, the operative assumption is that there is no larger question of principle underlying this debate; that the whims of current competitors, tallied up vote-wise, should trump the basic equality rights and interests of all future competitors-- a logic that, if applied, would quite likely have deprived women of a whole host of basic equality rights, including the right to vote itself, back when the "Woman Question" was first being asked.)

So, where are we now, another year on from the debates of late last fall? In terms of the arguments, general and specific, nothing has really changed. Paradoxically--given the simple, straightforward, and logically/historically powerful nature of the case in favour of gender equal racing distances-- the simple fact that the practice of gender-unequal racing distances in XC has been in place as long as it has, and at every level of the sport, has placed the burden of making the case on the equal distance side. As Ed Burke (the father of modern conservative thinking) well knew, the simple staying power of an institution or practice eventually becomes itself an argument for the thing's continued existence-- an argument no one ever has to explicate in terms of principle or logic. Such is clearly the case with gender unequal racing distances. In modern social-scientific parlance, the power of "status quo bias" is stronger the longer the status has been quo. Nevertheless, there have been some small but important change in terms of practice in the past 12 months.

At the high school level in the U.S, 48 of 50 states have now introduced equal racing distances in XC (5k), thanks in large part to the enshrinement of equality rights in Federal government funded educational institutions. And, in Canada's largest province-- Ontario--, schools will introduce equal racing distances in provincial qualifiers this fall, with talks about equalizing distances in the championship races now under way (reports are that the sticking point remains the actual distances to be run across the province's three high school age groups). At the club level in Ontario, things are moving somewhat more slowly (the provincial governing body, Athletics Ontario, failed to follow Athletics Canada's lead in equalizing senior distances for this years' edition of their XC championships, but it is currently conducting a membership survey on the question). Finally, and perhaps most promisingly, elite Canadian female distance runners themselves have begun to speak out, and, most importantly, have framed the question as one of equal opportunity for athletic self-actualization, and not simply in terms of what current female competitors in general would prefer, or what they are or are not currently capable of doing.

While it remains entirely possible, even likely, that those with the power to make the relevant decisions will stick to the same guns they were manning (and, in a couple of cases, woman-ing) last fall, the simple passage of another year-- a year in which people have had a chance to reside quietly with the question, and to reflect on the principle involved-- is bound to work in favour of those continuing to argue for equal distances. But the fact that there are now at least two established female athletes making a principled case in favour of equality, replete with arguments detailing the gender-based disadvantages they have faced in their careers, is perhaps the most important new element in the debate as a whole. Logic and principle should always rule the day; but, the politics of symbols, unfortunately, continues to matter here as elsewhere. Sadly, if the relevant administrative bodies (OFSAA, OUA, CIS, and all of Canada's Provincial Sport Organizations) finally agree to end the practice of gender unequal XC racing distances for girls and women, it will likely be as much to avoid continued negative scrutiny, even embarrassment, as it will be to do the principled thing and finally complete a process of reform begun decades ago, with the introduction of long distance running for women itself.

In any case, it's my hope, naive though it may be, that the next thing I have to say on this topic will be that it is no longer necessary to speak on this topic here or elsewhere (and I predict that, once the change is made, memories of the old system will instantly seem odd and distant).

*There are those who would argue that there was a middle ground in the debates of last year-- that, between the pro and con positions, there was a practical "when and how" orientation. In other words, some argued after the fact that they had not been against the principle of equal race distances, but against the suddenness of the proposed changes. This compromise position, while not unreasonable in theory or principle, lacked all credibility in this instance, because essentially ad hoc. Even after the IAAF equalized senior XC distances at its championship event, and recommended, as it always does, that NSO's follow suit, there was not a single proposal extant within the Canadian sport community detailing how and when any changes should be implemented. My own administrative body, the Canadian Inter-university Sports Coaches Association, reacted with complete surprise to my proposal to equalize distances effective this year (2016)-- and this, after I made a similar proposal two years earlier within the OUA Coaches Association (which lead to an infamous three year moratorium on discussion of women's race distances within that body). If the main issue last fall really had been "when and how" rather than "whether at all", then one might have expected more than one proposal for change at the CIS meeting immediately following the IAAF's decision of last October. Will there be multiple proposals with different time lines this year? Time will tell.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Quest for Intergrity Continued: Lessons in Impunity

Unfortunately, the scandals-- big and small-- that were the subject of my last post played out more or less as expected. The simple chutzpah that seems to propel unethically self-interested behaviour these days does indeed seem to be the best defense against criticism of the behaviour itself. To amend the old sports cliche, the best defense for bad behaviour these days might just be no defense at all! To get-- and keep-- what you want may be as simple as acting boldly, disdaining your pesky critics (the envious "haters"), and allowing any would-be scandal to simply disappear into the welter of daily events and their endless online epiphenomena. At worst, if you hold any power or authority, you may have to announce, or even actually make, a few cosmetic changes. Nothing so embarrassing as an admission of culpability or a pledge of genuine accountability. Why ever admit guilt or take responsibility when its entirely possible that most people will have forgotten what you did in the first place before you've had a chance to clear your throat!?

While the international stories I referred to (the Russian doping scandal and the ongoing probe of the Nike sponsored "Oregon Project") offered some hopeful news along with the bad or simply buried news (the IAAF did ultimately suspend Russia's track athletes from the Olympic Games, and the US anti-doping outfit USADA did eventually subpoena a dodgy NOP Dr. suspected of diagnosing non-existent illnesses in order to write prescriptions for potentially performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals for elite athletes), the lessons of the past few months have been in the nature of modern impunity and how to achieve it in the face of the bold-faced facts, rather than in the irrepressibility of truth and fairness once wrongdoing has been revealed. These days, any quest for integrity, either high or low,is easily waylaid in the fog of online mediation, or simply stymied by the brazen determination of the culpable to wait out the worst of it until attentions are diverted (with the latter-- utter shamelessness in the face of the most damning and incontrovertible evidence- shaping up to be a kind of new spirit of the age).

Since analysis of the big and ongoing international corruption stories in athletics is not in short supply, I focus here on Ontario's grubby scandal-ette -- the 2015 Quest for Gold nomination process, which came to a muddled kind of non-conclusion, replete with promises of change but no specific admission of what its precipitants actually were, let alone any acknowledgement of deliberate wrong-doing, early this spring (note: this post is delayed by the promise that the whole affair might be covered in an accredited publication, which it ultimately was not).

I start with the nitty-gritty. The following are facts of the matter, which, low these many months, have never been disputed, or even seriously answered for, in spite of now long forgotten promises of complete transparency on the part of those principally concerned (the original Quest for Gold nomination committee and Athletics Ontario):

1. For at least two years (2014 and 2015), members of one Ontario club, the Guelph-based Speed River club, managed to receive performance-based financial support from the Province of Ontario Ministry of Sport and Tourism without satisfying the clearly published criteria for winning such funding (as expressed in the form of "points" earned for times run and placings accomplished at provincial and national championships). It is now clear that this MUST mean that either the Speed River athletes in question prepared and submitted (at the very least signed) fraudulent applications for funding, or that they filed truthful but incomplete applications that were nevertheless accepted by the nomination committee. No other conclusion is possible, and no alternative explanation has ever been proffered.

2. Speed River had a senior administrator, Chris Moulton, on the Quest for Gold nomination committee in both of these years (Moulton has since resigned from both his position at Speed River and on the Quest for Gold Committee, but not as a result of anything to do with these matters). Moulton declined repeated and explicit requests for comment (by Canadian Running Magazine, for a piece that was ultimately not published) on the affair, offering no explanation or defense of the committee's decisions or the obvious appearance of conflict of interest that these decisions created.

3. In a comment to Canadian Running, committee member Sue Wise (also since resigned from the committee and all duties with Athletics Ontario) admitted that the Speed River athletes in question "didn't exactly follow [all of] the criteria" for Q for G nomination-- but, she claims, for reasons that "could not be held against them" (of which more below).

4. The Speed River athletes in question were, at some point after critical questions were raised, removed from the original nomination list, but with no acknowledgment that their applications had ever been, in fact, fraudulent. After a significant delay, special appeals to the Ministry of Sport and Tourism were filed on behalf of Speed River athletes Hendrikx and Allison. These appeals were ultimately successful, and these athletes were awarded "special ministry cards" of the same value as the cards allotted to fully qualified nominees.

5. It would appear from comments made to Canadian Running by both Allison and Sue Wise (Hendrikx, like Moulton, declined to comment) that the grounds for these successful appeals (the terms of which could not by law be formally disclosed by anyone but the appellants themselves) was that the appellants were adversely affected by a change in the date of the joint Ontario/Canadian 10,000m Championships held in London, a one hour drive from Speed River headquarters in Guelph, in early May of the year. Sue Wise is, in fact, on record as having claimed that the Speed River athletes were unaware of the date of these championships until late April, mere weeks before the event, and well after their competitive seasons had been planned (their air tickets booked, etc.). It will be recalled that successful participation in this event would have been crucial to any athlete's prospects of securing Q for G funding in the 10,000m, which both Hendrikx and Allison somehow managed to do in the first round of nominations, in spite of having given these championships a miss. This is the nub of what Wise meant when she claimed that Allison and Hendrikx "could not have met the Q for G criteria".

6. The successful appeals of Hendrikx and Allison, if they were in any way based on claims about a "late change in the date" of the 2015 Ontario/Canadian 10,000m championships, were based on yet more demonstrably fraudulent claims. It was a fact well known to the leadership of Speed River that the date of this championship was, indeed, never changed in any way. It is a matter of ample record that the date and location of these championship was never announced otherwise than as Sunday, May 10 in London, Ontario. Speed River athletes and staff would have been aware of this fact as few others would, because Speed River itself lost the right to host this event on appeal by the London Runner club-- an appeal, moreover, that was launched immediately after the event was awarded to Speed River late in 2014. The proposed Speed River date of mid-June was thus never established or announced as the official date of the event and the official date therefore never "changed". Furthermore, the official date of May 10 would have been known by Speed River the very second the successful appeal by London Runner was announced by Athletics Canada in mid-February of 2015, not in late April, as their successful appeals apparently maintained. In other words, these athletes and their coaches simply could not have been unaware of the date of the Ontario/Canadian 10,000m until late April, as they claim, and would indeed have been aware of the official date in plenty of time to build it into their seasonal planning (particularly given that London is a one hour drive from Guelph). It is therefore simply not true that, as Wise claims, these athletes "could not have met" the full criteria for Q for G funding, and thus deserved special consideration upon appeal. It is eminently reasonable to thus conclude that these two athletes deliberately skipped these championships, knowing full well that doing so would make earning sufficient Q for G funding points next to impossible, and that they then lied about their reasons for doing so in order to receive several thousand dollars of government funding each on appeal. It is either this, or they were deliberately mislead by their leadership into filing the applications and appeals that they did. Again, no other conclusion is possible.

With the above facts clearly established the only remaining question is the larger one: How is it that people are allowed to get away with this kind thing in full view of a community of interested-- indeed materially affected-- parties? My first installment above attempted to provide some general answers, but I think we can conclude that:

1. These days, as perhaps never before, fortune favours the bold and audacious, whether they are straightforwardly dishonest or not. In this case, who knew just what was possible until the leadership of Speed River simply went ahead and unapologetically did what it did? In none of the instances where this organization has been found bending or breaking rules to gain petty advantage has it appeared particularly concerned with being found out, nor has it shown any sign of shame about its conduct (it's victims apparently being so far beneath concern). In each instance it has simply maintained a disciplined silence and waited for attentions to turn. The same pattern is apparent in the bigger scandals mentioned above. One imagines that the IAAF, the Russians, and the NOP surprised even themselves with what they were able to get away with by simply not giving a shit about the consequences-- or, perhaps more accurately, by believing in their ability to manage any negative consequences and to come out ahead in the end.

2. In the face of brazen wrongdoing there is often little recourse for those wronged or morally outraged, particularly when the material stakes are too petty for those with the power to bother trying to hold the offending parties to account. Demanding and getting accountability may require more persistence than many of us thought or would have hoped. In this instance, those with the power to act-- Athletics Ontario-- simply stalled, obfuscated, then attempted to move on in the face of scrutiny. In the end, it was as simple as that.

3. Life in the online mediated world has shortened memories and created ample hiding places for evidence of bad behaviour amid its incessant virtual clutter. You can apparently do and say bad things and have them disappear below the surface quickly and without ever creating an easily discernible pattern. This is something the leadership of Speed River appears to have figured out, and factored into its behaviour, some time ago.

4. Doing whatever you like to get ahead and brazening out the consequences if these things aren't always exactly kosher can be part of a recipe for success! The Guelph/Speed River organization has been massively successful on the national level at recruiting, preparing, and supporting top level athletes, with 7 of its members being named to this year's Canadian Olympic team. Whatever its many strengths (and there are undoubtedly many, just as there are within Russian Athletics, or within the NOP), its clear willingness to throw its weight around within institutional circles, and to, in this instance, commit fairly open fraud, however petty, has almost certainly been a factor in its success. Even very small advantages can add up in the world of sport, as in life itself. And, of course, success can provide its own rationale for behaving badly-- not to mention a balm for the occasional bout of guilty conscience.

5. What we have seen may be just a sample of what has been going on for some time. This is speculation, of course, but it's not likely that any organization attempts the kinds of things Speed River has fairly openly been up to in the past few years without first testing its influence and honing its skills a little more covertly. What we know is instructive (and damning) enough, but there could well be more that will never be widely known.

6. There will be more where this came from, albeit perhaps not from Speed River itself. The most important lesson that impunity teaches is that fraud and impropriety might well be worth it in the end, for those without scruples.

7. Attempting to defraud a funding program for developing athletes is not a trivial matter when this funding can make the difference between sticking with the sport and perhaps quitting it together. Speed River athlete Katrina Allison herself underlined the importance of this funding for second tier athletes when she offered the following in an interview about the Q for G affair: “Last summer I had a job that kept me on my feet for 6-8 hours a day, either right before or after training. I didn’t think this would impact my training too much, but it definitely does after a little while. Jobs like this are just not ideal for an athlete trying to optimize training and recovery. But to be able to afford costs associated with training and racing across the continent, I didn’t have a choice.”

All the more reason to ensure that the competition for funding that enables developing athletes to avoid such jobs is scrupulously fair, one would have thought.

A final note: As mentioned, there have been some important changes made to this year's Q for G scoring and vetting process. This process has not been truly overhauled since its inception, so the timing of these changes can be seen as an implicit admission of, at the very least, irregularities in last year's process. Interested parties would do well to familiarize themselves with these changes by visiting the Athletics Ontario website.

PK POY and 2016 POM Catch-Up:

Given how delayed this announcement has become, I will skip the usual adieu and just make it. The 2015 POY belongs to junior Cam Linscott for his pheonix-like silver medal performance at the National XC Championships right here in K-Town. Cam began 2015 gravely injured (a high femoral fracture) and only began serious run training in the late summer. His successful defense of his OFSAA crown at Duntroon attributed by many to his superlative mudding ability, few believed he yet had the tempo and finishing speed to contend on the normally track-like Fort Henry course. Using his trademark pacing ability and supreme cool under fire, he overcame a bad start to pass everyone in the field but one with a perfectly timed charge over the final 3kms. Cam enters this U of T this fall and might be as good a bet as there has ever been for CIS ROY honours.

POY honours for the first half of 2016 are as follows:

January: Brianna Bradley's massive and long-awaited 3k personal best in Ottawa. Injured on and off (mostly on) for the better part of 3 years, Brianna returned home from the NCAA in early January and immediately got the ball rolling! She would go on to run 9:55 in Boston 3 weeks later, along with a very respectable road 5k of 17:47.

February: CIS star Alex Wilkie for his 4:05.88 mile. With the extent of Alex's hip problem now revealed, this performance takes on a new significance. In excellent position to record his first sub-4:00 mile, he was forced to hobble his final 400m simply to complete the race. His time remained a CIS qualifier, though he was never able to take his spot on the starting line in March.

March: Junior Branna MacDougall returned to the front ranks of Canadian age-group distance running by winning the Pan Am XC Championships in Venezuela, in spite of entering the meet as Canada's 3rd runner. When you're as successful as Branna has been, surpassing expectations (the basis of the PK POY system) is hard to do. Winning an international championship, however, surpasses almost anyone's expectations!

April: Journeyman Kevin Coffey (an online athlete and member of the Running Room Athletic Club) for his outstanding run at the storied Vancouver Sun Run. Capping a breakthrough spring of racing and training on the west coast, Kevin mixed it up with some of Canada's best and got himself over the BC Place finish line in 30:13, taking 43 fewer seconds to complete the distance than he had ever done before.

May: NCAA athlete Cleo Boyd completed her journey back from foot surgery in 2015 by making history at her school (U.Va in Charlottesville) in winning a conference double over 5,000 and 10,000m at the ACC meet in Tallahassee, FLA. In doing so, she became the only U.Va athlete, male or female to win these events, let alone in the same meet. Cleo had run well since the fall of 2015, but no one could have foreseen anything like this from her, at least not this soon. Very honourble mention for May goes to Branna MacDougall for crushing Cleo's junior PK club 5,000m record in her first try at the distance on the track. Her 16:10 also qualified her to represent Canada and the World U20 Championships in Poland in July.

June: The youth movement continued in June, when junior (very junior-- 15 year old) Brogan MacDougall soloed the second best time for 3,000m ever run by a Canadian high school girl at the OFSAA Championships, coming a mere hand-span (.15) from becoming the fastest ever. Brogan's accomplishments to date, including a silver medal in the senior division of the OFSAA XC meet and a win at the National Youth XC Championships last fall, have been nearly unprecedented, but this performance was a notch above still!

July: The month is not yet complete as I write this, but there is no risk of prematurity in announcing Branna MacDougall's Canadian Junior 5,000m record (15:48) and 10th place at the World U20 Championships in Poland as the July POM. Again, surpassing expectations is never easy when you've reached Branna's level. But, a 22 second personal best and 4 second improvement on the fastest any teenaged Canadian has ever run for the distance, and under global championship pressure, thousands of miles from home, is a performance of the most rarefied kind. Branna now enters the NCAA in August as the fastest North American high school 5,000m runner of all time*! With an proven ability to roll with the punches and a sporting intelligence that belies her tender age, her future as a collegiate athlete looks like something for the ages.

*The U.S. high school record is listed as Mary Cain's 15:45.46, set just before her graduation in 2013. Cain signed a pro contract with the Nike Oregon Project and did not enter the NCAA.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Quest for Integrity?

Fans of cycling had to endure years or it. Followers of the big North American professional sports (and NCAA "revenue" sports) had to price it into the bargain of fanship beginning decades ago. Even the campy demi-sport of figure skating had to confront it a few years back. Fans of our sport-- track and field and road racing-- have felt its gnaw from time to time, but we have managed to keep it from unsettling our deepest foundations, or at least to believe in the integrity of our sport's most important structures. Until last year.

I'm talking about the systematic loss of integrity, not of individual athletes (which has been constant in sport since its ancient inceptions), but of those charged with safeguarding the very administrative edifice that makes it possible to engage in meaningful physical contests on a large scale in the first place. Because sport is pure artifice, the existence of rules that can be established, enforced, and adjudicated with the utmost fairness, and in the general interest of the whole sport community, are a sine qua non. When those who play the game break the rules and are sanctioned, the game becomes stronger. When those who are charged with safeguarding the rules ignore or break them, the opposite occurs. And this extends all the way from the adjudication of sport within arena of play itself to distribution of the basic resources necessary to enter the arena of play on as equal a footing as possible.

Loss of integrity within the administration of sport begins when administrators themselves begin to see themselves as competitors rather than neutral arbiters, such as when they use their positions for self-enrichment, or to give "their" athletes a leg up. In the world of our sport, the Nazis were the first to see the full potential of international sport as propaganda, but it was the Cold War rivalry between the USA and the USSR in the middle of the last century that produced the gravest threats to the integrity of our sport. During this period, competition became not just inter-national but inter-systemic. The result was that scientists and coaches, often under the auspices of the military, were given rein to explore means of performance enhancement that threatened to turn sports into a contests of technological rather than athletic superiority. But our sport survived the Cold War era, and the means to police existential scientific threats to its integrity, in the form global administrative bodies marshaling growing technological expertise, were eventually devised. After the Cold War, increasing commercial incentives created both the pressure and the opportunity for individual athletes and their coaches (with the possible/probable connivance of large corporate sponsors)to find illicit pharmacological advantages. Still, while always far from perfect, these global administrative structures proved sufficient, at the very least, to keep the worst kinds of cynicism at bay and to preserve at least some hope for a future of clean and fair sport.

But then came the revelation in late 2015 that the top leadership of the IAAF (the international governing body for the sports of track and field, road racing, and cross country) had for years been taking bribes from individual athletes in return for the covering up of positive drug tests. These athletes were then permitted to continue to compete, and to win medals and money, in IAAF sanctioned championships, including the Olympic Games. There is also now credible and mounting evidence that the IAAF and the IOC engaged in the rigging of international bid hosting competitions. These revelations were made at the same moment that soccer's global corruption scandal (which had apparently been hiding in plain sight for at least a decade)was erupting across the headlines. Like FIFA (soccer's global administrator), the IAAF sought to simultaneously limit damage to their reputations by denying specific charges while also pledging reform. Those at the centre of these scandals may or may not see the inside of jail cells, but the damage wrought to the ideals of global sport is now irreversible, whether or not anyone is ever held to account criminally.

As Above, So Below?

For those of us toiling at the national level of elite sport-- as athletes, coaches, or organizers-- the extremity of the rot at the sport's administrative pinnacle seemed, in an instant, to explain rather a lot. If the IAAF had been taking bribes to cover up failed drug tests and rigging multi-million dollar bidding contests, it made perfect sense that national and regional governing bodies would feel a kind of moral license (or, at the very least, a sense of impunity) to engage in their own appropriately scaled forms of corrupt behaviour. Thus, in huge federations like those of Russia and the USA, allegations of widespread, systemic doping and undue corporate influence (leading to such things as the tolerance or doping and/or the hiring of suspected or convicted dopers as coaches and administrators) respectively seemed entirely plausible, as did much more petty allegations, like those against long time Nike athlete and coach Alberto Salazar for attempting (successfully, it would turn out) to influence officials in support of his athletes mere weeks after Nike closed an unprecedented 23 year, 460 million dollar deal to sponsor (in effect, to purchase)the governing body of American athletics, the USA Track and Field Association.

Here in Canada, with its small and dispersed population and it official mythology of politeness and fair play, we could expect any unethical behaviour among our coaches and administrators to be more much more petty than grand, if no less flagrant and knowing. (As an aside, extremely brazen "ends-justifying-means" styles of leadership in Canada had 10 years of encouragement by example at the highest levels, as our federal government routinely eschewed even the appearance of fair play in its dealings with declared "enemies" both within and without).

"Speed River works hard to be the best. They are professional and hyper organised.

The haters run mom and pop clubs and then whine when the speed river machine takes (legal) advantage of their own size and abilities to get what they want.

I know it sucks to always have to face an opponent with more resources, connections and influence, but that club was built out of nothing.

It is open to anyone else in Canada to try to take the crown from speed river - go for it rather than whine about these provincial little details."

Although posted anonymously on the "world famous" message board of Letsrun.com, the comment above almost certainly comes from someone intimately familiar with the Canadian athletics scene, including the "controversies" involving the club it references. And, judging by its similarity in theme and tone to the responses of some club members to the many allegations of unethical behaviour that are the theme of the thread in which it appears (when there has been any response at all), it does pretty clearly express the views of many of the club's hardest core supporters. It's also a pretty pristine crystallization of the zeitgeist of our sport's leadership today: 1. "Professionalism"= winning by means of "taking (legal?) advantage of (your) size and (ability) to get what (you) want"; 2. The people you shoulder aside in getting what you want are small time losers or "haters", who hide their fear or inability to "do what it takes" behind a facade of "principle"; 3. Rules and other ethical barriers are petty details ("provincial little details") that are, or should be, of no concern to winners like you; 4. Everything you do is justified by how determined you are and how hard you work (again, others are slacking losers only pretending to care about rules and principle in order to hold you back; you, on the other hand, are all business, all the time!).

I invite readers to follow the links in the above thread for details on the serial breaches of ethics at which the leadership of this group has been dead centre. One of these links will take you back to this very space, wherein I detailed my experience in helping to expose and undo a clumsy attempt at collusion between Athletics Canada and Speed River to rig the bidding for an important national hosting opportunity (our National XC Championships, from 2015 to 2018). Since I wrote about that experience, AC and Speed River were caught attempting exactly the same thing in relation to another national championship bidding process. Once again, the complainant (Steve Weiler of London Runner) won the right to host on appeal. But this time the attempted bid-rigging was officially alluded to. In his written statement, adjudicator Ross Dumoulin used the phrase "led down the garden path" to describe Athletics Canada's attempt to deceive Weiler and engineer a winning bid for Speed River.

Meanwhile, for the past few months, clear evidence of irregularities in the nomination of athletes for funding from the provincial government (the Quest for Gold program) has come to light (although "come to light" may not be the best description, since they were always there in plain sight). As with the National XC affair, these irregularities include possible conflict of interest involving the participation of members or Speed River on relevant committees (in 2013/14, there were two members of Speed River on the National Competitions Committee that initially awarded the four year bid to Speed River). This time, senior Speed River coach/executive Chris Moulton participated on a committee in which, for the second year in a row, Speed River athletes were nominated for funding in spite of clearly not having met all of the points-based criteria (details of the application guidelines and procedures can be found in the above link)*. In spite of repeated requests for explanations from committee members (whose names and affiliations are also available at the above link), and apart from protestations that "Ontario's best athletes have been supported", no clear explanation of these apparent anomalies has been forthcoming. (If there were a link, I would have provided it). Again, it would seem that the culture of sports admin in the new period dictates that if you are not among the inner circle of hard-driving "winners", you are merely a trouble-making "whiner" entitled to nothing by way of transparency.

As of writing, final decisions on an undisclosed number of official appeals of the original Quest for Gold nominations are a week late and counting. There is no formal way to find out the nature or grounds of these appeals, and the committee members who vetted the original applications maintain complete silence, including refusing to release or otherwise post any information on the process by which these original nominations were made. Even if all of the questionable nominations are reversed on appeal, serious questions will remain about the process that led to them in the first place-- questions that go to the heart of how our sport is administered in this new era.

And part of the newness of the era is the difficulty of effectively demanding accountability within a massively fragmented media-scape. Even the largest and most serious allegations (e.g. those around doping and bribery) are often initially made by maverick journalists and other whistle-blowers, who must then run a gauntlet of attacks, both open and anonymous, on their credibility. For perpetrators, the options of counter-attack (anonymous and otherwise), evasion, or simply brazening out the allegations until the spectators move on are all available. Then, of course, there is the daily torrent of more serious bad behaviour behind which to conceal one's petty transgressions. As for the option of complaining within formal administrative structures, this is increasingly a mug's game. You often end up complaining to the very people you're complaining about.

And, to be sure, there are many worse things afoot, even in Canada, than the unethical behaviour of a few sport administrators. Yet, the beauty and simplicity of the activity being administered (in this case, the efforts of young athletes to pursue their dreams in the world's oldest contests of athleticism), and the relative pettiness of the material stakes involved (few if any people's lives or livelihoods are at stake in who wins or loses a few thousands dollars here and there), makes the bad behaviour all the more unfortunate. Never mind the moral imperative, the fact that we can all easily afford to put ethics above all else, and, in turn, to model ethical behaviour for athletes themselves, makes the failure of some of us to do so all the tawdrier. What, in the larger scheme of things, could the leaders of an outfit like the Speed River Track Club possibly hope to gain that would be worth risking their reputation in the way that they clearly have over the past few years? If this is what "winning" looks like, I'm happy to remain a loser.

*In the interest of full disclosure, PK had one athlete (Alex Wilkie) nominated for Quest for Gold funding for this year, and one athlete (Julie-Anne Staehli) fail to have her funding renewed as a result of a new requirement-- that continuing athletes improve their personal best time in the event for which they are receiving support. Not having run a personal best in the 3,000m Steeplechase, Julie-Anne, as per the rules, did not apply for a renewal of her funding, in spite having made a concerted effort to accumulate significant points for her performances at our provincial and national championships (a key component of scoring in the Quest for Gold application process). Because she did not apply in the first place, Julie-Anne was given no way to appeal for special consideration based on evidence of serious irregularities emerging after the application deadline-- irregularities that involved athletes not only applying for but actually being nominated for funding without having met the basic requirements of the application process.