Monday, 19 January 2015

Fan-ing The Flame

In a broader culture that values doing over watching (even if that culture doesn't actually practice what it preaches), being a sports fan tends to get a bad rap. And it's true that fans, with their sometimes excessive emotional investment in "their" team or favourite athlete, and their tendency to underestimate the difficulty of succeeding in sport at the highest levels, can be irritating to anyone with real skin in the elite sports game (i.e. athletes and coaches in particular). When a fan is serious and knowledgeable (when they have taken the time learn not only the technical side of their favourite game, but its history and lore), however, they can become, especially when massed within a community of fellow fans, an important resource, and, in some sports, an actual reason to persist for elite athletes themselves. As important as money can be in the pursuit of success, the existence of a community of non-elite or non-participating aficionados who recognize and affirm good truly good and bad performances alike, can be just as important an element in athletes' overall support structure-- call it the psychic or existential element. Top athletes make the sacrifices they do for the simple love of training and competing, and, for the tiny few, the material comforts; but, at almost any level, they also do it for recognition by the cognoscenti of their particular sport. (For proof, look no further than the fabulously wealthy and successful professional baseball player who considers his career a partial failure if he is not eventually inducted into that sport's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Ohio.) This peer group can include anyone from Hall of Fame selectors to fellow players and competitors. But, it can also include the broader sporting public, made up of recreational players and non-participating fans of the sport. And the more knowledgeable, involved, and enthusiastic this larger sporting public, the more meaningful their attention and moral support can be to the athletes whose exploits they follow.

Runners in particular, in part because they are largely un- or under- remunerated, rely heavily on the attentions and meaningful praise of this larger peer group when it comes to their non-material sustenance needs. And they tend to know and appreciate the difference between informed and uninformed fanship. For instance, any runner who aspires to more than simply completing a race for completion's sake will know the difference between the well meaning but technically baseless praise of the casually athletic family member or co-worker (e.g. the one who says your terrible race is still great compared to their inability to "run around the block!") and the acknowledgement of a fellow runner or running fan who knows how much they may have improved to run that P.B., or who's familiar with the credentials of the athletes they beat in doing it (even if there were only 10 of them in the race). And any elite level athlete will admit, if pressed a little, that part of what they think about when they imagine achieving their goals in the sport is the recognition they will receive for their efforts from serious, knowledgeable fans and media (and, on the flip side, the way their success will stick in the craw of the ignorant detractors and the unfaithful-- perhaps the most famous example of which may be Sebastian Coe's angry "believe in me now!?" taunting of the assembled British press not 20 seconds after successfully defending his Olympic 1500 title at the Los Angeles Games in 1984).

These days, when serious competitive running has all but disappeared from the cultural mainstream (to the extent that it was ever there to begin with), the aforementioned knowledgeable fan and media have largely merged into a single entity, in the form of the specialty running magazine (usually staffed by recreational runners), or, more often, the running oriented social media-- athlete blogs/twitter feeds, Facebook groups, and websites like, or its would-be Canadian counterpart, Magazines now have somewhat interactive web presences (message boards and twitter feeds), and running websites host forums that can become free-for-alls of serious fandom (and much else besides). It is within these virtual spaces, as much as within the athlete's own local running community and training group (if he/she is lucky to have one), that today's runners achieve the vast majority of whatever notoriety they will ever experience. Some elite athletes will deny ever having anything to do with the most unregulated of these spaces (the infamous "message boards", for instance), while others will freely admit to spending time in them, and will even cultivate their own direct contacts with the larger sporting public through their preferred social mediums; but, all elites train and compete in the full awareness that such spaces exist, that their actions are being closely followed and discussed via them, and that their fame or infamy will eventually be inscribed within them, like it or not.

Does the running public that is created by and that acts through these vehicles, with the incredibly close virtual proximity they can produce, have any responsibility towards the objects of their interest-- the flesh and blood athletes themselves, whom most of them will never meet in person? Do they have any obligation to consider the effects of the things they may write about the athletes of whom they are fans (or whom of they may decide they are not)? No, I would argue, even if such responsibility were in some way enforceable in a media environment where masses of simple, anonymous electronic presences can earn millions for social media companies. If they choose to take such responsibility for the quality of their fanship, however, there are some simple ways in which they can do so, the simplest of which being to just know what they are talking about.

If you survey serious runners, you will learn that they all have developed favourite places to compete and favourite races/venues (for the very best, Eugene, Oregon and Olso Norway are often tops). Generally speaking, U.S. road races are more welcoming and exciting places for pros than Canadian ones. And nothing can compare with the knowledge and passion of Japanese distance running fans; their love of the sport easily penetrates the language barrier. Much of the quality of the experience that athletes are registering can be attributed to the technical expertise of the average fan. Athletes are truly energized by the knowledge that fans actually understand the finer points of what they do, and can tell a great performance from a merely good one. And they like fans who can put the sport above parochial loyalties-- who can, in other words, support and celebrate performances by athletes of any nationality. When in one of these environments, the difference is palpable.

Even in the virtual sphere, the level knowledge and expertise of fans make some spaces more popular with athletes than others. Begun in 1998 by running super-fans Weldon and Robert Johnson, had gone global by the mid-2000s, using using up-to-the-minute reportage (much of is culled from the mainstream press and obscure corners of the internet)on all things running, combined with profiles of top athletes (including, and most notably, East African runners, who had often been considered nameless and interchangeable within the broader running public),and other fitness-related miscellany. By the late 2000s, its "world famous" message board had become the epicenter of serious fandom, attracting everyone from Olympic legends and coaching gurus, offering their opinions, stories, and training advice, to high school freshmen looking for tips on how to increase their mileage. The sheer concentration of knowledgeable attention that it represented made "LRC" the arbiter of fame in the sport, its denizens specializing in distinguishing the merely good from the great and the authentic from the ersatz at every level of the sport. Visitors could be counted on to understand how, for instance, Galen Rupp's latest win fit into both the larger scheme of his own career and that of the global scene, and to be able to see why an anonymous 2:10 marathon performance was infinitely better than the overblown, self-promotional stunts of a Dean Karnazes. While impossible to measure precisely, the existence of undoubtedly launched, and sustained, the running careers of many runners at every level in the U.S. and beyond. In any case, it almost certainly made up significantly for the almost complete loss of attention by the local and national mainstream press-- which, at one time, actually covered running as a competitive sport. Now well into its second (and much more financially lucrative) decade, LRC has not been without problems from a fanship perspective. While its top page reporting has arguably become better than ever, owing it its vastly increased revenue generation, its unregulated message board is suffering the scourge of such fora everywhere-- relentless trolling and irresponsible anonymous posting that drive away or bury the serious contributions of genuine fans. There is still gold to found within it, but it must be mined from ever greater depths of increasingly noxious ore*.

Whether it is in the flesh at races and meets, or online via social media, fans of running can, if they choose, help to lift up the athletes whose qualities they admire (and likewise provide negative incentive to those they don't) by simply learning the finer points of the sport, the way the best fans of any sport have always done, and by finding ways to let athletes know that they understand and appreciate what they're looking at. Millions of people compete in running events across North America every year; yet, the general level of knowledge of the finer points of the sport as a serious competitive undertaking remains lacking, as compared with that of even the most obscure pro sports, in which there are often far fewer recreational participants. In Canada, knowledge of the ins and outs of competitive running can never be expected to rival that of hockey; but, given the sheer number of Canucks who lace up and go for a run every day, we have reason to expect a little more. And, best of all, becoming a better fan of the sport you do and love needn't cost you a lot of (or any) money. Thanks to medium that brings you this blog, and a million other things running related, including livestreamed competition at all levels almost every week (courtesy of sites like Flotrack and Runnerspace, along with our own aforementioned, you can immerse yourself in the sport for no more than what you already pay for your connection. You don't HAVE to do this, but wouldn't you WANT to?

*The would-be Canadian versions of LRC-- the now defunct but still searchable TnF North and the newer have, at their best, played a role vis a vis Canadian runners and their fans similar and equal to that of LRC, as has, in a more old media way, the print and online magazine Canadian Running. Sadly,, now the almost exclusive venue for online running fandom, began succumbing to the same forces that undid the LRC message board before ever having had a chance to achieve the latter's greatness. This has been due largely to its decision to adopt LRC's commercially driven no-registration policy on its message board-- which, while good for the bottom line, has proven bad for encouraging knowledgeable fanship, particularly among younger participants, many of whom will never have encountered and an interactive social media space that wasn't used preponderantly for weak attempts at humour and other forms of narcissistic self-indulgence. It soldiers bravely on with its high quality top page coverage, but its true potential to create a fan base that can genuinely support Canadian athletes the way LRC has managed to for American runners remains as yet unrealized.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Raising Runners

Like most other sports these days, competitive running has become, overwhelmingly, a sport for children. While a significant (and perhaps growing) number of the adults who make up today's massive road race fields still approach the activity with finish time and place in mind,truly earnest competition in the sport today is mostly found at the age class levels, and in school races in particular (at least here in North America).

And where kids are involved, parents are never far from the scene. This was not always so. The often hilarious lack of understanding or involvement on the part of our parents is a staple of conversation among retired elites of my vintage. Like an athletic version of the famous Monty Python "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch, former elites of a certain age will inevitably attempt to one-up each other with tails of how little their 70s era parents knew or cared about their beloved activity, or how infrequently they ever actually observed them doing it (my own father watched me compete perhaps 3 times in his life, including a high school cross country race, which he proclaimed bored him, because I had won by such a large margin, and because he had only gotten to see me start and finish!). It isn't that our parents were necessarily unsupportive (although, truth be told, many weren't keen in running, some of them vocally so); it's that they did not feel they had to be involved, or to follow our exploits, beyond perhaps buying us the odd pair of shoes, paying our club fee, or asking us how we did when we got home from a meet. For better or worse, parents of my own generation take a wholly different view of their responsibilities where their kids' sporting activities are concerned. Today, if they don't actually coach their offspring, they feel compelled to be present every time they toe the line, from the earliest age group competitions to, in some cases, the end of their collegiate careers. I have been no different in this respect, and not just because I happen to be a runner and coach.

But, because I am a runner and coach, and one with a history of involvement that stretches back to primary school, I've tried to reflect on, and to critically evaluate, the effect of my involvement in my children's running-- both on their personal experience of the sport and on the sport itself. Below are some of my reflections and critical insights.

First, a confession: In spite of my own heavy involvement in it, I never intended to have my kids take up running, and I became a coach of kids by accident (when another primary school parent guilted me into taking over her duties). Being intimately familiar with both the rewards and trials of the sport-- the great sense of satisfaction, well being, and camaradarie on one hand, and the frustration, heartbreak, and deep, sometimes unrewarded, sacrifice on the other-- the prospect of my own offspring becoming serious runners disturbed the parental over-protectiveness that is the burden of my generation-- better if they did decide to pursue something as totalizing in its demands as running (and parents my age all talk about wanting out kids to have a "passion" for something), that it be a thing whose dangers were unknown to me. Unsurprisingly, given the wall-to-wall status of running and fitness in our family (our kids grew up watching my wife and I train daily in any weather, on holidays, on the road, etc., and they had met a couple of dozen elite and former elite runners, including a half dozen Olympians, by the age of 10-- Dylan Wykes being like an older sibling to them), both of my kids would eventually try their hand at competitive running.

And what did I learn from raising runners (and watching others raise the ones I would come to coach)?

1. To understand that the sport looks far different to them in the 2000s than it did to me discovering it in the 1970s. To me, the sport was... a sport. The earliest images of competitive running for me were of thin, stern-faced men (and a few women) assembled in tight packs, circling tracks or navigating turf, in pursuit of some championship or other. My bedroom walls were covered in photocopied newspaper clippings and magazine photos of Olympians and top Canadian athletes, all of which were as readily available to me as material on pro sport athletes. Even my own kids, who saw their share of serious runners, and understood that running entailed competition, grew up seeing running primarily as a thing done either by school children, or by adults after their physical prime. By the late 1990s, and thanks to the eclipse of serious running by "fitness" running, kids were more likely to associate running with images of middle-aged people festooned with reflective jackets and ammo-belt water bottles than with that of Reid Coolsaet in his "short shorts" breasting the tape in some road race. Largely because of this, it was, and is, hard to make even the most athletically precocious kid see running as something to be pursued beyond the age of 22, at the oldest. The vast majority can't conceive of running as a thing anyone would do for life, even if only as a serious hobby, the way many younger adults approach hockey or golf. Serious, senior running (elite or recreational)is all but invisible to kids today.

2. That the rigours of even casual, entry-level training (and, in particular, going out alone for easy runs) are usually far beyond the daily experience of today's kids-- much further than they were to kids of my generation, who often had to make their own fun outside, on foot. Even those most keen on racing will find it strange and daunting to navigate long distances (i.e. 20mins or so) alone and on foot through their neighborhoods, since they rarely spend any time alone outside for any reason, and since most never walk anywhere more than a few hundred meters. Today's kids will gladly spend any amount of time at a formal "team practice", but they tend not to like to simply "go for a run" alone-- the basic component of any running program.

3. That innate talent does not drive interest among kids. Many kids with real aptitude for the sport would and do choose to warm the bench in a team sport rather than train for distance running. Even kids who have high levels of early success, or show great potential to improve, can't be expected to be any more likely to embrace running than other kids. Because they have a hard time envisioning what making the top levels of the sport might actually look like (and see point 1 above), the prospect of having above average aptitude for it does always excite them-- at least not in the way success in team sports seems to (and this is not just a matter of fame and money, because most kids realize at an early age that these things are not in the cards for them in any sport). I am no longer surprised when very talented kids quit early and without explanation, often to play sports for which they have less natural aptitude. Genuine enthusiasm for the sport (include knowledge of its stars and finer points) is rare among kids, regardless of their physical aptitude for it.

4. That very early age class success is usually a problem to be overcome rather than an advantage to be enjoyed for those kids who experience it. This was not a revelation to me, having for years watched these sorts of kids come and go, and be replaced at the top ranks by later-starting athletes, often with backgrounds in other sports. But, my experience with my own offspring provided me with an intimate picture of just how early success can create obstacles to be overcome, rather than opening doors. My son-- a confirmed non-jock with no real sports experience of any kind-- somehow found himself winning a provincial high school age-class cross country championship (and many other races besides) after only a smattering of training. Instead of feeling proud of his accomplishments and looking forward to more, he took them entirely for granted, yet also began to feel the burden of expectations that his demonstration of talent seem to impose on him. Knowing that he might have to work much harder to continue winning, and that anything short of winning might be seen as failure, he initially chose to abandon the sport, only to return (very tentatively) two years later. Meanwhile, his sister, having won nothing of note in the early age class ranks, and having run only slightly above average times in high school, fell in love with the challenge of the sport, and went on to make two U19 national teams . There were and are the inevitable differences in personality between these two young athletes, but there are also, of course, a great many similarities (including the same coaching and parenting). The main difference between them would seem to be their early experience of the sport-- immediate success on one hand, and a degree of early failure and frustration on the other. Whether it is from heavy, systematic training at early ages, or the luck of the genetic draw, early success in running does not seem, as it might in sports involving technical skill, to foretell future success, or even who will go on to love the sport for its own sake; or, if it does, it might well do so negatively. In any case, deliberate attempts to have kids win in the early years-- whether it be from actually targeting success through training ahead of the curve, or from simply from introducing precocious kids to very high level competition that they might not otherwise even know exists-- is generally to be avoided. It rarely increases kids' enjoyment of the sport in the short term, and it certainly doesn't increase their chances of success in, or enjoyment of, the sport in the long term (as much as it might increase the enjoyment of adults-- parents and coaches-- in the short term).

5. That, when it comes to kids sticking with and succeeding at the sport, what you do as a parent of runners is more important than what you say. In short, if you're the sort of parent who makes serious physical activity a part of your daily life, regardless of your level of competitive success, or if you're the kind of parent who has shown the courage take on difficult personal challenges in any area of life, whether this be quitting smoking, losing weight, or learning another language, your children are more likely to make competitive running a life long habit than if you only verbally encourage them to do it. Parents who perhaps used to be avid athletes as children or teenagers, but who now seek the "comfort zone" in every facet of their lives, should not be surprised when their kids, no matter how physically talented, choose to abandon running as soon as success requires real effort, or as soon as the more passive adult pleasures (socializing/drinking, shopping, looking at screens) become available to them without restriction. We teach kids what is most meaningful and rewarding in life by embracing it ourselves, regardless of our age, rather than by lecturing or rule-setting. This applies to running as to any activity that requires sustained effort, patience, and deferred gratification.


PKers, I'll be doing a separate post announcing all of the remaining POM winners and the POY for 2014 at the end of the month.

Monday, 6 October 2014

The Antinomies of (Men) Coaching Female Runners.

If you're a male coach of serious female runners, and if you approach your job with even a flickering awareness of the history of women in sport, or of the many double-binds that still characterize the condition of being female in a world still made largely by and for men, you will already have some idea of what I'm getting at. And if you're not, get ready to hear about why, well intentioned or not, you might be part of the problem (and there is STILL a problem) where women's running is concerned.

What, in a sentence, am I getting at? To successfully coach female runners (and I define success here in terms of the total experience of the athlete in the sport) a coach must both attempt to recognize the differences in the way female athletes still typically come to, and negotiate their participation in, sport AND treat female athletes as athletes first. This necessity of balancing two seemingly contradictory principles arises from nothing less than the whole history of "female" existence (including women's emancipatory struggles) in the modern world. It arises, in other words, from the fact that, to simply live a tolerable life in a world in which they have been viewed, for the most part, as means to men's various ends, women collectively have had to remind men of their history of oppression, articulate the specificity of their needs, while at the same time demanding social, political, and economic "equality" with men. The heart of what came to be called feminism was largely a demand, both personal and political, that women (and things coded "feminine") be recognized as both different and equal (i.e. to men and to things coded "masculine"). As grandiose as it may sound to some, I would argue that, for a man to successfully coach women athletes, he must enter imaginatively into social world of women, and of female athletes in particular-- a world that has been and continues to be shaped by the reality of male dominance. Above all, this means recognizing and attempting to understand the seeming contradiction of needing to be treated "equally" while also having the gender-based specificities of one's life experience acknowledged and understood. To the shock, perhaps, of some coaches (both male and female) who have spent their lives in the ostensibly genderless and history-less world of jockdom, I would argue that coaching female athletes effectively is a feminist practice, with all of the challenges that the term implies.

To make this argument, some generalizations are inevitable and some provisos are in order. First, gender is blurry, and times have indeed changed (although not as much as some would imagine). There are many more women today whose entry into sport and experience of it has been similar to that of boys and men than even 40 years ago. Still, I would argue that women in general still face significant barriers to serious participation in sport, both material and social-psychological, and that the world of sport is still largely a male-dominated one (sports being examples par excellence of a world made by and for men). Second, where sport especially is concerned, the experience of womanhood is not universal. The fact is, most women globally have no access to sport and recreation at all; and, when they do attempt to gain access, resistance is sometimes brought to bear in forms far more virulent than male coaches who don't get it (reportedly, even Kenyan women, who are among the most successful distance runners in the world, have to endure sexist taunts-- such as "get back home, running is for school girls"-- along with the rigors of their training). My comments here refer to the realm of my own experience (that of North America), and can be generalized probably only as far as the developed world, including parts of Asia (e.g. Japan and China).

Now for some specifics. What are some of the typical problems associated with a non-feminist approach to coaching female athletes, and what are some of the familiar styles associated with this approach? In general, I would say that the mistakes we coaches make when coaching female athletes result not so much from being unaware of, or of intentionally ignoring, the above mentioned antinomy as from attempting to "solve" it by coming down exclusively on one side or the other-- i.e. either insisting on a thoroughly "gender-blind" approach, in which there are only "athletes" and not male and female athletes, or, tailoring every aspect of our coaching practice to what we perceive to be the specificities (social and biological) of female athletes. Even the best intentioned coaches of women athletes can sometimes come down too heavily on one of these two sides (and the most experienced among us will recall times when we have erred in one direction or the other). Some coaches, however, choose to come down deliberately (and sometimes adamantly) on one side or the other, often with unfortunate consequences.

In general, the first approach-- that of treating female athletes as "simply athletes", read: simply male athletes, albeit in female bodies-- leads to ignoring certain real (albeit largely socially determined, of which more below) differences in the ways in which girls and boys come to the sport, experience it, and imagine their future in it. It remains a fact, for instance, that more girls than boys come to running out of an interest in what we have come to call "fitness", including body image maintenance, than boys, who often come into running as an extension of their involvement in competitive sport. This is yet one more in a long line of ways women and girls have come to negotiate the social demands of femininity in the modern world, and it remains an important consideration in coaching female athletes. To ignore it completely is to risk misunderstanding, for example, why the pursuit of the sport is more likely to lead to disordered eating (usually under-eating) among female athletes than among male athletes (and that male athletes are closing the gap in this respect-- i.e. because they are now increasingly induced by media images to concern themselves with the minutia of physical appearance-- merely proves the point re: women, who have long been exhorted to carefully manage their physical appearance-- originally, and still to some extent today, as an economic asset in a world where men quite literally owned everything). Ignoring girls' often different routes into the sport, and the gender specific meanings participation can often have for them, can also sometimes lead to misunderstanding and frustration about why girls and women choose to abandon the sport before having reached their full athletic potential (and the vastly lower numbers of serious post-collegiate female versus male competitors attests to this fact). Having been less likely in the first place to see running in terms of its competitive dimension, women are often less likely to want to continue pursuing it competitively, once subject to career or reproductive pressures (again, in a world where women own less, wield less managerial authority, and are frequently structurally punished for choosing to have children before the age of 30).

The second approach, on the other hand, can lead to the ghettoization of female runners, based on the belief, for example, that elements of their biology and social-psychology are universal, immutable, and prevent them from pursuing the sport with an eye towards risk-taking in the pursuit of maximum performance. Here, too much emphasis is placed on the differences between female and male athletes, leading, in many cases, to: the under-training of women versus men; inordinate vigilance against the risk of eating disorders, such that the topics of nutrition and weight often become taboo, and thus more potent than they might otherwise be; and, the belief that women will be always be less likely than men to want to pursue the sport into adult maturity (i.e. because they are "naturally" less competitive and more concerned with getting on with their "real" lives, including procreation). The risk, in general, of this ostensibly gender-sensitive approach to coaching women athletes is that damaging gender narratives are reinforced and individual women are often sold short, by being under-trained because assumed to be physically and psychologically more "fragile", or by being subtly made to feel as though their desire to be serious athletes beyond the age class ranks is anomalous, even "unfeminine" or "irresponsible". This approach can also lead to the even more troubling phenomenon of male coaches engaging in intimate relationships with their female athletes (an all too common practice in the history of men coaching female runners-- with running being one of the few sports where men have almost always coached female athletes). Even when not obviously abusive (such as when the athlete is underage, or subject to the institutional authority of her male coach), the development of emotionally/sexually intimate relations between male coaches and their female athletes almost always exploits and reinforces gender stereotypes about female athletes and is thus almost always potentially damaging to them as both athletes and women. Whether between people of the same or different genders, the coach always relates to the athlete as bearer of specialized knowledge and experience, and thus as a figure of authority. Intimate relationships between athlete and coach-- which are vanishingly rare between female coaches and male athletes-- thus always entail coaches viewing their athletes as other than simply athletes (but not in ways that make them better coaches). In the case of male coaches and female athletes, it entails coaches seeing-- and treating-- their female athletes as gendered in very specific ways (i.e. as potentially available to them emotionally and sexually) in ways that they typically do not see their male athletes. In my long personal experience in the sport, I have observed that male coaches who have indeed gone on to develop intimate relationships with one or more of their athletes are more inclined to take a stereotypically gendered approach to their work with all of their female athletes. This kind of coach typically develops more intense emotional/personal bonds with his female athletes, allows himself to be privy to more personal information about them, puts greater emphasis on the emotional/psychological aspects of racing and training, and generally cultivates a stereotypically emotional dependence on the figure of himself as a source of knowledge and support in relation to his female versus male athletes. Sadly, this kind of coach often takes less interest in his female athletes competitive success, and sometimes even trivializes women's running in general as compared with that of men.

How then to best negotiate the antinomy of (men) coaching the female athlete; how to recognize the specificity of women's typical approach to and experience of sport while also supporting their desire and right to be treated equally as simply athletes in pursuit of top performance?

In short, coaches of women athletes need to recognize that, while the factors that shape and sometimes limit women's entry into and experience of competitive sport are "real" (that is to say in their effects), their origins are social, political, and psychological-- and thus subject to change-- and not "natural"-- and therefore immutable. Historically, sport has been liberating activity for women because is has frequently been an arena in which all that was thought to be solid and "natural" in terms of society's beliefs about women's minds, bodies, and characters melted into air once women had the opportunity to take to the field, track, or road. As coaches, we can work to reinforce the liberating potential of serious competitive sport for women by recognizing and acknowledging the barriers girls and women face in entering into and sticking with it, while also encouraging them to challenge those barriers. This often means simply reinforcing female athletes own often hidden instincts and desires (the image conscious "fitness" runner may indeed want to find a safe way to unleash her competitive drive, and the female athlete who grew up believing uncritically that women should quit sport after school in favour of getting on with their "real" lives may actually want to be encouraged to see things differently and to a take chances with her early adult life). Too often coaches of female runners will belittle them for not being competitive enough (but then also call them "crazy" when they try-- quite reasonably, if often disastrously-- to reduce their weight in order to gain a competitive advantage); or, they will decry their lack of commitment to serious post-collegiate running, as if there were no basis at all to women's reservations and fears in this regard. Or, coaches will take these barriers as given and, instead of working with their female athletes to challenge or negotiate them, will adapt their coaching practice to them, helping to reinforce them in the minds (and actual practices) of their athletes. The alternative approach is to challenge ourselves to see coaching women athletes as an inherently political practice, and one with the potential to liberate all concerned-- as, in short, a feminist (or pro-feminist, if you prefer) practice.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Talent or Drive: That is the Question (or is it?)

We in the coaching business are often asked: What is more important for success in the sport, "natural" talent, or a willingness to go the extra mile in training (aka "drive")? After all these years of training, observing, and coaching, I think I'm ready to furnish some kind of answer. As I'll try to explain, it's really neither, once you've addressed the more important meta-question of why we run at all.

But, first, some definitions are in order. I define running "talent" as the package of physical predispositions that an athlete receives gratis from nature, a.k.a. genetics (and I leave aside the fascinating question of precisely how we come to receive these gifts-- e.g. how genetic cues can be activated by the lifestyle habits and other experiences of our parents and grandparents, as detailed in the study of epi-genetics, a good intro to which can be found in archives of Alex Hutchinson's always illuminating blog, Sweat Science. For distance runners, the two most basic features of our genetic endowment are our baseline aerobic capacity (i.e. our untrained aerobic capacity) and the robustness of our response to aerobic training stimuli once it's systematically applied. (Interestingly, the science now suggests that these are indeed discreet genetic endowments that can be easily isolated, and, for the curious, measured using a simple test-- for a fee, of course). Among other complex "natural" variables are our basic body-types and neurological/bio-mechanical make-ups, which, it stands to reason, can affect our basic aptitude for the sport, including our ability to avoid, and heal, common running-related injuries. (These variables are complex because it appears that we're born with some and can acquire others through our early lifestyles. In any case, we can't do much about these things by the the time we're old enough to be serious athletes, so we might as well call them natural gifts.) As with everything to do with our physical natures, our predisposition to run is bound to be a very mixed bag; and, as in the story of Achilles, all it takes is one weak link-- if it is weak enough-- to do us in, or at least make long term success much more of a challenge. We all know at least one example of an Achilles-like athlete-- one who is plagued, often to the point of despair, by a few centimeters of poorly designed anatomy (often, not coincidentally, that which felled the great Achilles himself-- the Greeks knew their running)! However, it's usually fairly easy to plot individual athletes along a rough "talent" continuum. Young runners who easily beat their peers on very little or no training, who dominate the early age-class ranks simply by showing up, and who possess both superior endurance and sprint speed, are the examples par excellence of what we mean when we refer to talent, or natural talent. But, we can't forget those older runners, who, never having had the opportunity to really apply themselves to running as children and youths, improve dramatically, seemingly at the mere mention of the word "training". Casual observation would suggest that majority of the world's best athletes appear to have been those possessed of most acute responsiveness to training stimuli (most were very good, but not particularly distinguished as youth and junior athletes, and some were really not very good at all until they began serious training), while a tiny few seem to have been double winners of the aerobic-potential lottery-- i.e. at the front of the pack from step-one, yet able to continue improving at the average rate well into adulthood.

The concept of "drive", a.k.a determination to improve regardless of the sacrifices entailed, is a lot easier to define, but a lot more difficult to explain in terms of origin or specific character. The desire to succeed in running, or in anything else for that matter, doesn't seem to have any clear heritable dimension. It seems to derive from an admixture of personality and biography that is as unique as individuals themselves. It can also be a very generalized or highly focused trait (some runners are driven only when it comes to their running, while others bring the same high level intensity to everything they do). Most interestingly, the determination to improve and succeed does not seem to bear any clear relationship to "natural talent" in distance running. In my experience, the most talented runners tend to possess only the average amount of drive to get better; in other words, their surplus of talent tends to make them neither particularly complacent about improving nor particularly driven to reach the highest level possible. And this seems to apply regardless of age. In running, "wanting it", whether the "it" in question is a spot on the Olympic team or an age class Boston Marathon qualifying standard, seems to be a fairly randomly assigned character trait, and seems unrelated to the naturally assigned traits that make up raw physical talent.

"Talent" and "Drive" are, of course, nothing but ideal-types, useful for conceptual purposes only. In the chaotic flow we call practical reality, the two variables are hard to isolate and almost impossible to quantify with any kind of precision. Everyone, it seems, has a complex mixture of both physical aptitude and drive; and, to make matters still more complicated, only the most basic elements of the "natural talent" variable (aerobic baseline, responsiveness to training stimuli, and basic body-type) seem constant over time. Both bio-mechanical aptitude and "drive" can be vary considerably over time in the case of an individual athlete. Both physical and psycho-social maturation can and often do transform individual athletes beyond recognition, for better or worse, athletically speaking.

The answer to the question "what's more important for success in the sport, talent or drive?" thus ends up being a pretty complicated one (and dependent on what we mean by "success", of which more below). What we coaches can say with some degree of certainty, however, is the basic type of athlete with whom we most prefer to work. In my case, since I get to work with many of both types, it's a very difficult call. On the one hand, it can be awe-inspiring, and deeply gratifying, to see at close hand, and be asked to help, very talented athletes do what they do. What many of the less talented among us often fail to appreciate is the intense psychological pressure that very talented athletes must face, starting at an early age, in order to be able to compete. Few notice the efforts of the less naturally talented but hard-working athlete as they attempt to make their way up the lower and middle ranks of the sport; but, many watch the very talented-- most, supportively, but some, jealously, in secret hope that they might fail, and thus be brought down to our more pedestrian level. This is true in relation to most human endeavours, and is the lifeblood of the always thriving schadenfreude industry. The very talented athlete who can successfully cope with this often intense scrutiny, whether or not he/she ultimately succeeds in fulfilling expectations, is remarkable to watch and a pleasure to know. And the athlete who does succeed in reaching the highest levels is, psychologically speaking, a unique human specimen, possessed of abilities beyond normal comprehension. Here I recall an anecdote related by the famous British coach, Harry Wilson, whose prize athlete was multiple world record-breaker and Olympic Champion Steve Ovett, one of the greatest middle distance runners of all time. From the age of 16 until retirement, said Wilson, Ovett would insist on speaking with his old coach on the eve of most races. By the time he had reached the pinnacle of the sport, Wilson said that he felt at a loss for anything of value to offer Ovett in these pre-race calls. What, really, could I tell him? said Wilson. He was, after all, Steve Ovett!

On the other hand, few experiences are more inspiring and humbling than watching an athlete unearth his/her unseen potential through hours and hours of difficult, and largely anonymous, labour. Often this kind of athlete will also have had to persist through serious injury, and in the face of the doubts (and sometimes ridicule) of those around them, including friends and relatives. My favourite coaching stories involve athletes like this, both because they are often the most moving, and because they are the most relevant to athletes of more modest talent-- i.e. almost all of us. It is not that the very naturally talented among us do not often work very hard to realize their potential; it's that, when they do, their efforts are much more likely to be recognized and validated in conventional ways. Winning, it seems, justifies sacrifices that seem otherwise absurd. By contrast, the athlete with less natural ability than sheer drive must believe, at least for while, in the value of what they're doing when perhaps few others do or would, and often must wait much longer before receiving validation of their efforts, if, indeed, validation ever comes. And when these kinds of athletes are young-- i.e. at a time when they're most insecure, and when status-consciousness is almost cult-like-- their examples are all the more powerful and exciting to me. If, as a coach, I were ever forced to choose between these two basic types-- the extravagantly gifted or the highly driven--, and all other things were somehow equal, I would ultimately choose the latter.

Luckily, however, I'm NOT forced to choose! And, in fact, the talent versus drive question is not the fundamental one. What's more important is the meta-question of why, as athletes or coaches, we should care one way or another about who has talent and who has drive, and in what proportions, when the more important question is why any of us bothers at all? Isn't it, after all, possible to be either miserable or fulfilled in the sport whether we're naturally and immediately great at it, or instead have to work very hard to do well? In fact, doing "well" at running must ultimately be measured in terms of the intrinsic fulfillment we derive from the activity, regardless of how well we stack up against the best (but, my bias is that I think these intrinsic rewards are greatest when we all strive to stack up as best we can, both against our own potential best, and against the ultimate best than human beings have achieved in the sport). An example of how the talent vs. drive question may not be relevant to the deeper one of how much it all matters, and why, can be found in the great American Steve Scott's admission that he had felt his career-- one that included over 100 sub-4 minute miles, a near world record, and a World Championship silver medal-- had been a "failure", because he had not reached the absolute pinnacle of the sport! In other words, the brilliantly talented and successful Steve Scott had found a way to be less than satisfied with a career of which not one in one million of us could ever dream. And I imagine it would be possible to find a reason for disappointment in the face of even greater tangible success (did Scott's more success rivals-- Steve Cram, Said Aouita, and Sebastian Coe-- worry about their status as all-time greats, and perhaps feel less than satisfied by the assessment?). From every starting point, and at every level of competitive achievement, it is ultimately the same: we create our own joy, or fashion our own sorrow and torment, based on our individual capacity to learn from, and experience as richly as possible, every facet of this very old and elegantly simple activity.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Intimations of (running) Mortality

In the end, the dark tunnel down which my runner persona was hurtling was just the final weeks of the worst winter in 36 years, and the bright light at the end of it, the spring sun.

But a near-running death experience such as I imagined I might be confronting when my foot problem (see two and three posts ago) stretched un-changingly into its fourth month, certainly sets one to thinking about THE END. And when you get the longest and most intractable injury you've ever had after your 50th birthday, you can be excused for contemplating the worst-- what if this thing NEVER goes away?

I've had enough close friends face similar crossroads to know that not being able to run anymore is nothing like the END end (about which there's no point in seriously contemplating anyway, as, to paraphrase Nietzsche, when we are death is not, and when death is we are not). Plenty of people at all ages manage to adjust reasonably well to a life without running, usually by switching to some other vigorous aerobic activity. But, for someone who has run more or less every day of his life after the age of 15, the prospect was bound to provoke a little more reflection.

Just as in the stories of the faux dead (people who were actually just dying, and not yet actually dead), my running life passed before me-- albeit less as a flash and more like Rainer Fassbinder's 15 hour epic Berlin Alexanderplatz, beer drinking included. And what did I recall? Interestingly, I remembered things about the days before I ever ran, and the little things that turned out to be indications that I would one day be a runner, than I did the highlights of my racing career (along with more prosaic thoughts about how beer would never taste a good without a prior, running-induced emptying of the tank).

Looking at a childhood picture of my late younger brother (dead of a heart attack at 39) and I, taken by our mother in the early spring of my 10th year, in which he is standing in the foreground, rubber-booted against the puddles, and I am running away from the camera for, apparently, the sheer thrill of it (my form and posture almost identical to what it is today-- maybe a little better-- incidentally), it occurred to me that the joy of running as simple movement had always been something available to me. Then I remembered how, maybe a year before that, I had gone a couple of weeks without my bicycle for some reason, and decided to run alongside my friends on theirs as we made our neighbourhood rounds (yeah, that's what your free-range 9 year old boy did for amusement in those days). There was also a period around the same time when, being a young equine-ophile, but of lower middle class parentage, I would decide that, if I could never own a horse, I would be one, by times trotting, cantering, and galloping through the conservation area near our apartment, as if on a trail ride, for an hour or so every day (come to think of it, I was really more of centaur than a horse, as my upper body was always the rider and my lower the horse). I guess when I contemplated never being able to run again, my first thoughts were of the loss of running as I had first encountered it-- as a feeling of power and fluidity, done for its own sake, because capable nerves and muscles simply compelled it in some primordial way. I'm not aware of feeling that sensation in its pure form much anymore, but its source must still be there somewhere, buried deep inside the old machine.

As it looked like my foot might actually get better (I'm now into my 5th week running on it, more or less pain-free), my mystical, near-death musings turned pretty quickly to practical ones. With the spring upon us and my younger athletes moving off of the indoor track and treadmills, I thought about how different my childhood introduction to running was from theirs. I'd long noticed that even the most well adapted of them tended to have far more minor injuries-- most of a certain type-- than I and most of my cohort ever did, in spite of the fact that we lacked what are now some of the rudiments of running survival, such as decent shoes, treadmills, and sport physiotherapy. From the age of about 6, I can remember little else but being on my feet-- outside in the spring, summer, and fall, and on skates or walking to school in the winter. Like the east Africans of today, I was, both of necessity and for pleasure, pedo-ambulatory almost constantly in the years before I actually starting competing at running. As a result, I was skinny and strong as steel in all the requisite places for a runner (feet, calves, quads and glutes). My early stealth-prep was, I think, a big part of the reason that I did not sustain my first real injury until age 30.

Even the most active of kids today do not spend a fraction of the time I (we) did on their feet. This is not meant to sound moralistic; things are simply different today. I have no doubt that, had we possessed the same inducements to inactivity-- your computers, game systems, and on demand televisual entertainments-- that kids do today, we would have been no different. After all, the rudimentary forms of these amusements that some of us did possess-- 3-channel analog TV, arcade games, and those forerunners of the Gameboy, hand-held units on which you could play something resembling football, using blinking LED hash-marks as the "players"-- enthralled us, particularly us boys. They just weren't compelling enough to supplant the outdoor activities we'd grown up doing. Many of today's young runners, in spite of having great shoes, t-mills, access to physios, and knowledge of the importance of things like core strength-- seem to have to pass through a gauntlet of minor foot, achilles, calf and knee injuries before reaching athletic maturity. In some cases, this hardening of the muscles and connective tissues can take years-- longer, in fact, than many budding runners are prepared to endure. Without good cross training plans to get through through these injury trials, many serious teenage runners would never recognize their potential, and would never progress to collegiate running, let alone to the senior elite level.

What is a coach of young athletes then to do? Unfortunately, not much-- at least without making running even more daunting (and, yes, tedious) to the young athletic mind of today than it already seems to be. If it's not practical to have kids on their feet constantly from the time they can walk, then one option would be for parents and coaches to prescribe a regime of plyometric and strength-building activities alongside a young athlete's running routine. And a certain very keen 13-14 year old will really take to this sort of thing. The vast majority (and probably even the keen ones, by about age 16) however, would, and do, balk at such a suggestion. The idea of going out for a run every day (or the 4-5x per week that beginning runners need to get used to) is such an alien thing to most kids today-- kids who have likely spent very little time outside, on foot, in their lives-- that adding another 30-40 minutes of what amounts to drill into their routines is liable to push many of them out of the sport altogether. One very good alternative solution for the more team-sport oriented kid is to encourage him/her to try-- or continue till about age 15-16-- a sport that entails some jumping, sprinting, and lateral movement. For kids with the disposition for hanging out with the typical jock type that inhabits the world of team sports, this is often a perfect solution. But running is well known for attracting the opposite kind of kid-- the kid who wants to control his/her own athletic destiny, who relishes the sheer difficulty of training and racing, or who just wants to be left alone. For this kind of kid, the team sport experience is anathema.

In the end, I think the best approach is to muddle through by getting kids to run small amounts, learn the basic routines of being a runner (the most of important of which is simply getting out the door to run easy, even if it means being alone for a while), and seeing how they hold up. For those who break down, try to isolate the source of their problem, teach them to x-train (which they will usually do, once they've experienced the feeling of being aerobically fit, and have thus learned to fear de-conditioning), and perhaps then try introducing some targeted strength work (which, again, is an easier sell when a young athlete has experienced, first hand, the importance of it.) And, then, most importantly, have them come back to running as soon as possible. It also helps greatly to teach kids that even the best runners in the world get injured, often more than beginners, and that getting hurt is part of how you learn and grow. (And, let's remember, running injuries are never fatal or permanent-- unlike those many team contact-sport athletes court on a regular basis. The worst thing about a running injury is that you can't run, and the worst part of that is the temporary heartbreak; it's therefore silly to avoid ever taking chances with your running in order to continue running-- i.e. at below the level of your potential!).

Nats X-C Addenda:

Thanks to everyone for your congrats on our winning the bid to host Nats X-C. Thanks also to our local paper for its rapid uptake of the story following AC's official announcement And, finally, a formal thanks to CFB Kingston, Fort Henry, and the staff at Tourism Kingston (Sport division) for their ongoing support (I think I may have neglected this in the post last week). They have been excellent, and have renewed their pledge to help us make these Nats the best and most memorable ever. And if there is one thing that our guests will learn shortly after arrival here, it that's Kingston knows how to welcome and accommodate visitors. It is, after all, one of our core businesses!

As for the twisted path we took to get the hosting rights, we know as little of the details today as we did last week. We remain curious about these details, but are content to leave the pursuit of them others.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Two Cheers for A.C.!!

I'm not referring to air conditioning, alternating current, or Al Cowling here (two of which actually deserve the full three cheers, and the third no cheers at all, unless you happen to be one Orenthal James Simpson). No, I'm talking about Athletics Canada, our governing body for the sports of track and field (including Para), road racing, and cross country running. Why I'm celebrating AC now, but with only two of the customary three huzzahs, is the subject of this rare editorial installment of the blog.

Close and regular readers of this blog, and those simply familiar with my ouevre on the subjects of AC and of cross country running, whether in writing or in verbal rant form, will know that I have a long history of being critical of the former (in which I have been far from alone, sad to say), and of adoring the latter. These two things came together in a very real way when one of my close collaborators in PK-- the event meister Clive Morgan, whom some of you might recall from such works as The Loyalist Kids of Steel Triathlon, the 2012 AO X-C Championships, several editions of the Queen's Open X-C meet, several editions of our beloved Reddendale Ramble 5k, and the 2013 OUA X-C Championships-- and I decided we would construct a bid to host Athletic Canada's annual cross country championships, held near the end of November each year. What happened next did nothing to dull my ardour for X-C running, but it did complicate my feelings about A.C.; hence, the awarding of only two cheers instead of three to what some (well, really just me and maybe Clive so far) are calling "the new" AC.

By now, some of you will have heard that Physi-Kult Kingston was indeed chosen by AC to host the National X-C Championships for the four years following the end of its west coast run this fall (i.e. 2015 to 2018). What very few of you will know is that the process through which we came to win the bidding was anything but standard; indeed, it was entirely unprecedented in the recent history of these sorts of things, at least in Canada. For the uninitiated, bidding on an event such as Nats X-C involves first submitting an "intent to bid", in which the prospective bidder demonstrates, more or less, that they know what they're getting themselves into, and then offering the bid itself. The actual bid is simply a detailed response to a lengthy set of technical criteria that the solicitor of the bid deems important to address if a successful championship is to occur. For an X-C Championship, these criteria include things like: course dimensions, surface, and spectator-friendliness; on-site amenities such as parking and emergency services; and, a realistic budget to cover all of the necessary expenses. For staging a national championship, bidders must also address things like availability of nearby hotels and restaurants, accessibility by road and air, and capacity for "event building" in the community at large. For us, everything proceeded routinely through these two stages of the process. We submitted our intent to bid, engaged in a little back-and-forth clarification with the AC point man on the Competitions Committee (whom I'm choosing not to identify), and proceeded to assemble and submit our bid proper.

I should say that, by this time, we had learned who our bid competitors would be (one of the bits of info we asked AC for during the intent-to-bid stage). There had been "intents to bid" from a group in London (which would never proceed to the formal bid stage), Haliburton (about which we knew nothing), Montreal (which we knew just enough about to know that our bid was probably going to be superior), and Guelph (which we thought at first might not be from the Guelph-- Guelph/Speed River-- but rather the group that had recently hosted the Athletics Ontario Championship). Naturally, our greatest concern was with the Guelph bid (which turned out to be from Guelph/Speed River after all) We knew that they knew how to organize and build and event, that they had incumbency on their side (having hosted four consecutive years back in the '00s), and, more troublingly, that they had, potentially, inside pull via the recent appointment of Head Coach Dave Scott-Thomas to the position of AC Endurance Coordinator. We also strongly suspected that AC might see giving Guelph the championship for another four years as a back-door way of subsidizing Guelph's national team athletes (i.e. via the proceeds that hosting such events can generate). However, knowing what we knew both about Guelph's home course-- the one on which they hosted their four iterations of the championship, and on which they hold their annual university meet-- and about the course specifications for hosting the national championship, we also felt that any committee looking closely at the bid materials-- or better yet actually conducting on-site inspections of the various courses, as Athletics Ontario does-- would see that our layout was clearly superior (in that it actually met the specifications in the bid package in ways-- such as minimum width, distance of the start to the first turn, grass surface throughout, spectator visibility-- that the Guelph course simply did not). So it was with hope combined with that old, familiar feeling of unease with all things Athletics Canada that we awaited the verdict of it Competitions Committee, which was set to convene in early December of last year, following the championships in Vancouver.

But then something very strange happened. One night in late November, some 10 days before the Competitions Committee was to meet to decide our fate, Clive stumbled across this:

The sinking feeling I experienced upon seeing this clip was such that I neglected even to ask Clive what he was doing watching a Guelph City Counsel meeting late on a weeknight (he is a Guelph alum, but questions still remained). Dave's very clear and deliberate choice of words ("We have been asked to host again...", and not "We have been asked to submit a bid to host again...", or "We are hoping to host...") meant only one of two things: That Dave was lying to the counsel in order to bolster his case for the funding he was requesting (understandable, considering how these things go, yet also completely out of character), or that the Nats X-C bidding process for 2015-18, into which we had poured our time, energy, and expertise-- and in which cause we had managed to enlist some very busy professionals in the City of Kingston--, had been a fait acompli, a sham in which we were being treated like well meaning dupes, helping to cover for a rigged process.

Since we had already established a rapport with the AC point man on the committee, we immediately forwarded him a copy of the this clip, along with a request for clarification. He was nonchalant in assuring us that he had no idea to what Dave could have been referring, and that the integrity of the bid process was beyond question. In particular, he said that, in effect, there would have been no reason to rig a bid process that AC could simply have foregone in the first place (i.e. that, if it had wanted to award the championships to Guelph without considering other bids, it could have, and would have, simply gone ahead and done it.) He also claimed that Dave wasn't really an AC employee, because "his salary is paid by OTP (the special, high performance Own the Podium program of Winter Olympics fame and notoriety) not AC, and that he (Dave) had "nothing to do with the cross country championships" in any case). A little troubled by these last claims, which seem to deliberately miss the point (i.e. if the issue was Dave's titled AC position, and how it may have given him privileged access to the inner workings of AC before bids were even submitted, what difference did it make who paid his salary, or whether he was directly involved in the X-C bid selection process?) we nevertheless did the only thing we could and placed our faith (warily) in the integrity of the process.

Our journey off the map and into uncharted bureaucratic waters began the minute we received the boilerplate rejection email informing us that "our bid had not been successful", galling us with an offer to "discuss areas in which our bid could be improved for future candidature", and suggesting that the winning bid (Guelph's, it would soon be confirmed) had been selected principally on the basis of its superior "planning around (italics added) the competition to make it a unique event experience"-- criteria NOT solicited in any of the bid instructions. Suspecting that we had lost to the Guelph bid, we immediately asked for more information, including the composition of the Competitions Committee that had rendered the decision and, after a couple of quick exchanges, the procedure for appealing the decision. Our AC point man gave us the names of the committee members (which turned out to be publicly available information) and offered that we could proceed as we pleased, as AC was "very comfortable with how the (bid and selection) process played out." Seeing that, to our amazement, the 8 person committee that rejected our bid had been 1/4 composed of active associates/members of Guelph/Speed River (coach administrator Andrew Maloney and national team athlete Alex Genest) and that these members had apparently NOT recused themselves from deliberations or voting on the basis of a potential conflict of interest(!), we decided to mount a formal appeal on grounds of potential bias and the clear appearance of bias against our bid and in favour of the winning bid. So ended our correspondence with the AC point man; from this point to the conclusion of the process, we would deal strictly with AC top man Rob Guy and AC legal advisor Rachel Corbett.

After Ms Corbett's unequivocal acceptance of the terms of our appeal, the first remedy offered by AC was to send the bid materials back to the original committee for another look(!). For reasons too obvious to state, we suggested that this would not be satisfactory (if there was any substance to our suspicions, what were the odds that, having accused it of irregularities, including potential deliberate bias, that this committee was going to reverse its decision in our favour!?) After Ms Corbett's expression of support in principle for our objections, AC then agreed to appoint an entirely new, three-person appeals committee (and now we were truly at bureaucratic sea, with no familiar landmarks in sight) made up of appointees from AC (board athlete Jared McLeod) and legal rep Corbett (Alannah Hinrichsen), and the chair of the original Competitions Committee (John Halvorsen). It was eventually agreed that the appeal panel would render its decision based on original bid documents only (the aforementioned bid instructions, and the materials submitted by each bidder), as well as a copy of AC's "strategic plan" statement (a fairly Rorschact piece of work, in that it didn't seem to provide any kind of compass on this question at all).

As we waited the two and a half weeks it took for the committee to render what we hoped would a a final and binding decision we had time to reflect on our experience and to prepare for what we believed would be the inevitable outcome (that the Guelph bid would be re-selected). By now we firmly believed that there indeed had been a prior informal agreement between Guelph/Speed River and AC to return the championships there for another 4 years, even though it meant that, by the end of the 2015-18 run, these championships would have been held at only two venues (Guelph and Jericho Beach in Vancouver) over a period of 14 years-- longer than the span of many successful athlete's entire careers from Junior onward (indeed, even though it meant that the championships would have been held in Ontario 12 times in the past 20 years without ever moving east of the GTA!). My experience of having watched AC in action as both an athlete and coach (and my involvement in the sport has been uninterrupted for 34 years) convinced me that it (AC) would find a way to get what it wanted regardless-- and everything that had occurred thus far seem to suggest that someone at AC really wanted to put these championships back in Guelph.

But, to circle back for a moment, if there indeed had been an informal plan to give these championships back to Guelph, we believed it had probably begun innocently enough-- and we did not blame Guelph (whom we happen to like and respect for what they have built in a city not much different at all from Kingston) for taking advantage of whatever special, informal access it may have had to AC. It is entirely possible that there has never been much real competition to host these championships, particularly when the requirement to move them back and forth between regions of the country that have the climate to host an X-C meet at the beginning of a Canadian winter is taken into account. For all we knew, the last time Guelph won the right to host it had done so uncontested, and regardless of the fairly obvious deficiencies of its course where the technical specifications are concerned (something which would not have been apparent to anyone who had not gone looking for them). Besides, Guelph's four championships had been very well reviewed by all concerned (we attended, and very much enjoyed, all four of them). That they had simply been "asked to host again" therefore did not come as much of a surprise, and we were more than prepared to troop back to Guelph for another four years (if nothing else, it was going to be welcome relief from the hassle and expense of going to Vancouver, as lovely a place as that city is). What was different this time-- and what rankled-- was that there WAS ultimately another bid (ours), and one, furthermore, that we knew to be very good; and yet, AC had seemed prepared to attempt to honour whatever informal agreement it may have had with Guelph, even if it meant allowing the bid selection process to go forward in spite of some aforementioned glaring irregularities (AC's initial lack of concern with the appearance of bias, even when it was clearly pointed out to them, seem to us to betray its real intentions). If,in the end, we felt we had lost to a truly superior bid, and at the conclusion of an unquestionably clear and unbiased process, then we would have left the field without complaint. As things stood, we knew there would be some bitterness and disappointment when what we felt was the inevitable came to pass(on my part, not least because of what the whole experience would do to my fledgling belief that the secretive and insular culture of AC had actually changed under the leadership Rob Guy).

But our one hope was that perhaps AC really had changed since Mr. Guy took the helm. It was a promising sign that he had turned our request for an appeal promptly over to the estimable Rachel Corbett, and then agreed immediately and in full to all of her very fair an reasonable suggestions. This was, after all, the same Rob Guy who had rid AC of some of the principal sources of its old culture; who could be spotted frequently at championship events, mingling with the average fan, and clearly, fan-like himself, appearing to enjoy the action; and, who had finally put a stake in the heart of the old, egregious and self-defeating practice of "self-funding" for traveling national teams. In the end, perhaps our pessimism about the probable outcome of the final appeal was just an old reflex. Or, perhaps the Guelph bid really was better than ours, course deficiencies notwithstanding. In any case, since we couldn't figure out how anyone at AC would ever be able to influence an ad hoc committee of three, whose appointment seemed to have been entirely kosher, having been supervised by a professional sports lawyer and arbitrator, we allowed ourselves a sliver of hope over the two weeks the panel took to release its final decision.

In the end, the appeals committee did not address the issue of potential bias, and it did not zero in on any possible deficiencies in Guelph's course. It didn't have to. It simply confirmed, unanimously, the overall superiority of Physi-Kult's bid. The final paragraph of its detailed findings ran as follows:

In conclusion, there is no one single element of the respective bids that swayed the Panel one way or
another, but everything taken together indicated to the Panel that Physi-Kult was a superior bid in terms of
satisfying the bid requirements. The Panel is also of the view that offering this event opportunity to a host
which has not had it before is good for building capacity within the sport, as noted in the Strategic Plan
(So, to our surprise, it seems the vague "Strategic Plan" document had actually played a role after all!)

What is the point of relating all of this, beyond satisfying the curiousity of the curious? What is the lesson in this saga for all those who deal, and will deal, with our national governing body (and why, in the end, the final verdict of only two cheers for AC)?

First, an appeal was actually granted in this case-- when, in days gone by, our complaints would likely have been dismissed under the usual barrage of bureaucratese, with AC's brass content to simply brazen-out any attendant backlash (there's one cheer for the "new" AC). Second, the appeal process that ensued actually remedied the deficiencies of the original flawed process and managed to deliver a verdict that may not sit well with everyone in the organization (there's the second cheer). The withholding of the third cheer-- and that which indicates that any process of reform leading to greater professional accountability to its dues paying members (whose dues are now more important than ever) that Mr. Guy may have initiated is not yet complete-- is that it ever had to come to this in the first place. That AC could have been content to initially ignore such commonsense-beggaring irregularities as a committee allowing its members to argue for and vote on its own club's bid for a lucrative, multi-year hosting contract, or one of its contract employees-- and one with a direct connection to one of the clubs bidding on said contract-- publicly stating that the bid selection had been predetermined, strongly suggests that AC's transformation is not yet complete, and that those dealing with it should be prepared to demand greater clarity and accountability. If we had not been as persistent and skilled as we were in both preparing our bid and articulating our objections to the original vetting process, AC would ultimately have been allowed to award a four year championship hosting run to a bid that an appeal panel of three subsequently unanimously decided was inferior to one of its competitors.

In conclusion, we would say to the cross country runners of Canada, young and old (i.e. the community we feel AC's decision to award us these championships really serves): See you in Kingston in 2015! From arrival to after-party, we promise to make these the best four Canadian X-C Championships ever staged!

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The ABCs of X-Training

No matter how old I get, this sport, and my body, never tire of schooling me. These past few months, I have been returned for some remedial work to my least favourite course-- X-Training 101. As a coach, I have had to teach this particular course on many occasions; but, if there's one thing I've learned from teaching in general it's that the occasional "self-administration" of an exam or two really helps ensure you know what you're talking about. Unlike the other courses I've taught, however, I didn't choose to self-test my own protocols; it was the sport itself that forced it on me. In any case, here I am, revisiting subjects like "Elliptical workouts: Do they suck less than stationary cycling and why?; or, "Pool running; Belted or beltless?". And since I'm stuck in class for the foreseeable future, I thought I might as well take my exam review public. (For the sake of brevity, I'm going to confine myself to the section of the course entitled "x-training when injured", leaving the section on x-training as a supplement for another installment.)

What is x-training?

For distance runners, it's any non-running activity that stresses the aerobic system in ways similar to running, but without loading the problem area (in my case, this time, the right forefoot). Examples of common x-training modalities are, in no particular order: swimming, cycling, hiking/snowshoeing, x-country skiing, deep water running/water tread-milling, arm-biking, ellipticaling, and walking (yes, walking). Really, only strength training (including so-called "crossfit") is NOT x-training for runners. Building muscular strength and power when unable to run may be called for for rehab purposes, but injured runners should not kid themselves that extra time in the weight room is going to preserve their running gains in any meaningful way. Strength-building activities like X-fit may even add muscular weight gain to the inevitable (but it is hoped minor) fat gain associated with running cessation, leading to reduced relative aerobic capacity.

To x-train or not to x-train?

It may seem counter-intuitive, but there are some knowledgeable people (perhaps most notably, emeritus coach Jack Daniels)who suggest that perhaps injured athletes should consider not attempting to retain their aerobic fitness through x-training when injured. Not least because x-training can be tedious and time consuming in the extreme, this theory is worth examining. It's core logic is pretty simple: in order to reduce the potential for future injury, it may be best to keep the musculo-skeletal system in some kind of sync with the aerobic system. Cross training, the theory goes, preserves, and may even enhance, basic aerobic capacity in injured runners, creating the potential for overwhelming de-conditioned musculo-skeletal structures upon returning to running, initiating the dreaded "cycle" of injury. In other words, the logic goes, the transition back to running may be smoother if the runner's aerobic capacities have been eroded proportionately with his/her musculo-skeletal atrophy.

As exciting as the possibility that there may be some scientific justification for our essentially laziness-based desire to sit on the couch and wait for the pain to go away, I would argue that the benefits of x-training when injured far outweigh the slim, and probably dubious, benefits of letting the aerobic and musculo-skeletal systems remain in sync. There may still be a case for not going crazy on the bike or elliptical, but I can see no valid justification for not x-training at all when hurt. At the very least, aerobic x-training keeps us in a familiar routine, keeps our weight under control, and generally reminds us what kind of athletes we are. Its unpleasantness may even serve to remind us of the things we really loved about running in first place, and make us take the privilege of pain-free running less for granted. (After all, getting injured in the first place usually results from inattention of some kind, and probably should be punished, in order to encourage greater vigilance in the future!) It is not uncommon for runners coming off long stints of x-training to declare that they will never again complain about having to go for a run or do a workout.

My one concession to the "no x-training" position, however, is in the case of injuries expected to last less than one week (but only if the athlete has not x-trained at all in the previous year). For injuries expected to entail less than a week away from running, the initiation period entailed in x-training (of which more below) often makes it more trouble-- and risk-- than it's worth.

Choosing one's punishment:

While we never choose when and how to become injured-- at least not consciously or deliberately-- we do get to exercise some choice when it comes to our x-training. This choice, however, is not entirely unconstrained-- that is, if we want to both reduce our down-time and achieve maximum benefits.

The first consideration when choosing an x-training modality is the type an location of one's injury. All types of x-training can work the body hard in various ways, and none do it in exactly the same way as running. The trick in choosing the best course of x-training action is trying to maximize the aerobic bang-for-buck while minimizing the load on the problem area. For instance, gravity/impact force is your enemy when dealing with problems below the knee (and the further below the knee, the greater the threat). For metatarsal problems, including stress fractures and neuromas, the only real x-training option is deep water running (and, later, water t-milling, for those lucky enough to have access to such technology). For calf and shin problems (including achilles tendinitis and tib. post pain) the elliptical, or some combination of the elliptical, water running, and cycling, may suffice. For problems at the knee or above, however, the hip/glute dominance of water running, plus the greater range of motion entailed, may present problems. Here the elliptical, or other more moderate weight bearing activities such as hiking, may work. As a very general rule, if you get persistent pain in the problem area from any type of x-training, it is probably delaying your return to running, and may not be worth your while in the long run. Things can get tricky, however, if a particular type of training causes only very moderate pain and produces a great aerobic stimulus. In this case, some minimal forestalling of recovery may be a beneficial trade-off, particularly if the injury is going to require a very long period of recovery in anyway.

The second consideration is how much aerobic stimulus you're likely to get from each available* alternative. Since there is little good science on this question, and likely too many variables to control in any case, I rely primarily on my own hard won experience. Generally speaking, x-training that produces the highest heart rates is to be preferred. In particular, however, it is important to consider how much experience one has with the kind of training in question(i.e. how long and risky the initiation period to the new activity is likely to be), and how much the activity mimics running (in ways that do not stress the problem area, as aforementioned). Swimming, for instance, is a great, full body, near-zero gravity kind of training that is capable of producing very high aerobic loads. Swimming is next to useless, however, if you never learned to do it properly; and, swimming doesn't mimic the running posture or muscular loading at all. Chances are that your injury will be gone before you have mastered swimming sufficiently enough to gain any real benefit. Stationary cycling, on the other hand, while simple to master and great for eliminating ground contact and stimulating the aerobic system, is pretty useless if you lack the leg power to drive the pedals, and thus your heart rate (getting out of the saddle helps remedy this, but its not possible to stay in this position for very long). The same can be said for x-country skiing (skating, not traditional), which has much to recommend it (including the tremendous psychological bonus of being an outdoor activity), but is usually not worth the time and effort to learn (to say nothing of the impracticality of accessing places to do it consistently, for most of us living south of the Ottawa Valley). My own default choice over the years since its invention and perfection has been the elliptical trainer. The elliptical is easy to master (taking only about a week to become comfortable); is safe for almost all injuries (except for my current one, unfortunately for me); produces a reasonable facsimile of the running motion (it's like cycling out of the saddle, except with the arm/upper body involvement that cycling more or less lacks); and, once mastered, can produce truly prodigious aerobic workloads. On the elliptical, it is also very easy to measure one's workload, and thus potential aerobic gains. As such, it appeals the numbers-based obsession of the average runner, providing a self-competitive stimulus that makes the x-training experience a little more focused and a little less soul-crushing. When using the elliptical, the only really important considerations are the resistance load and rpms (always low enough to spin at 90 rpms or greater while producing a heart rate corresponding to the various levels one would see during different types of run training), and the time equivalence with running (I convert the elliptical to running at a rate of .75/1.00).

*And physical access to different modalities is an obvious constraint at all times. These days, most of us have reasonable access to gyms, and many of us have ellipticals and/or treadmills at home; but, for some, convenient access to x-training equipment and facilities remains a problem. Sometimes the optimal x-training modality is simply the one you can actually fit into your schedule.

How to Proceed:

Once you've decided on a modality, the question becomes how to begin-- and even the most straightforward of x-training activities (e.g. hiking/walking) requires a break-in period. You may think your running fitness has prepared you for any old kind of aerobic activity. If you do, you are wrong. Your running has provided you with a great circulatory/respiratory engine, but it has conditioned your limbs and neuromuscular pathways for running only. You will feel awkward, and end up with some unfamiliar delayed-onset soreness, from ANY unfamiliar pattern of loading, regardless of your general level of fitness. And, in your desperation to get going, you may even injure yourself from your x-training activity. And how embarrassing would that be?

In general, the x-training that involves the least amount of gravity/ground impact is the least risky on start-up. In particular, however, some low-impact activities-- i.e. those that entail radically different postures from that of running-- can require much longer initiation period. The special skills and particular patterns of muscular loading involved can make swimming and x-c skiing, for instance, more trouble than they're worth for many runners, particularly older and less athletic ones (and you know how you are! For those with some recent background in these sports, however, start-up time can be very minimal). The easiest activity where transition time is concerned is probably stationary cycling (but it is also perhaps the worst for runners when it comes to posture and capacity to produce requisite aerobic loads). Most runners can manage up to an hour of stationary cycling at an easy spin tempo (90-100rpms) on the first day. For the most common and accessible types of x-training-- water running and elliptical training-- I have found that 30-35mins at easy to moderate effort is best on the first day, followed by a build-up of 5-10mins per day for a week, with a full day off before proceeding with moderate to harder efforts. The typical moderate to hard elliptical or water running session should last 50-75mins and entail a total of 25-40 minutes of higher effort. And it's important to note that these low to no-impact activities require less recovery time between bouts of higher intensity effort, because of the lack of hard, eccentric loading involved (ellipticaling) and the greater ease of blood circulation (water running). For harder elliptical sessions, I recommend a rest/work ratio of no more than .5 to 1. For water running, .30 will usually suffice (which should come as no surprise to those with serious swimming backgrounds).

How often and how long one should x-train depends on the expected duration of the problem. For problems expected to last 1 to 3 weeks, 50-75mins per day is more than sufficient. For longer term injuries (stress fractures, surgical repairs), it's probably advisable to plan for 60-100mins per day in one or two sessions, with 2-3 moderate to high intensity sessions per week, once the break-in period is over.

Lessons Learned(?):

Besides preserving our aerobic gains, keeping out weight under control, and continuing to feel like an athlete in training, are there any lasting benefits to x-training? There are indeed, and chief among them is the reminder we receive about just how tedious, inconvenient, and difficult x-training really is, after we may have forgotten. The reminder can induce caution in the future, when confronted with the problem of how to respond to an injury threat. Athletes experiencing the first warnings of trouble in a known problem area, and wondering whether or not to roll the dice and continue running, will do well to have a clear recollection of precisely what is a stake in coming up snake-eyes-- potentially weeks of soul-crushing indoor penance, spinning a wheel, or inelegantly plying the waters of some dimly lit and smelly natatorium, usually at some un-chosen hour of the day, and in the often hostile company of the facility's intended users-- actual swimmers, and parents with small children.

Runners consigned to x-training might also discover, or rediscover, the value of maintaining some x-training in their regular routine. Along with providing a little variety and low risk aerobic stimulus, a little supplementary x-training can ensure that, when injury strikes suddenly, we are ready to deploy to the gym or pool immediately. The hassle of starting or restarting an x-training routine from scratch can lead many to idle in self-pity for a few days following the onset of injury, costing them potentially useful training time at what might be a crucial point in their season (and not all injuries strike during our non-racing seasons); or worse, reluctance to hit the elliptical or pool again can lead runners to court risk that they otherwise might not. If a little x-training is a part of our regular routine, we are more likely to do it to ward off injury before it's too late, and get after it immediately following the onset of a sudden or unexpected problem, like an acute injury.

Finally, runners coming off a few weeks of vigorous x-training can learn just how well it can work in preserving, and sometimes even enhanncing, aerobic capacity. Regular readers will be familiar with my accounts of PK runners who have emerged from the pool or dismounted the elliptical to produce solid results, including personal bests, within 2-3 weeks of hitting the ground (which is about how long it takes to readjust to running after coming off of the elliptical; readjustment after water running typically takes a little longer, mainly due to lower leg atrophy).

Class dismissed!

P.S. Stationary cycling and belted (unless your unusually buoyant).