Sunday, 6 March 2016

Quest for Integrity?

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

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

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

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

As Above, So Below?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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




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






Monday, 14 December 2015

The Post-Nats XC, PK POM Edition, FYI

After two successful appeal hearings and nearly two years of planning, we finally got what we wished for-- to actually stage a Nationals XC championship on the Old Fort course, with downtown Kingston in a very important supporting role. And, following the old adage, should we have been careful in our wish-making? Not at all! The final planning and execution-- though all we bargained for-- was nothing when compared with fighting for the right to stage the thing in the first place. But enough of that.

Before I say another word, here's something that anyone who attended our Nats, or will who attend one of the next 3 editions, should know, if they don't already: Clive Morgan IS Kingston's Nats XC operation. He is the brain of the thing (both hemispheres-- the logical and the creative) as well as whatever portion of the brawn his massive but finite energy permits him to be. The rest of us are but appendages responding to his neural impulses, the texture and efficiency of the operation being a function of their strength and clarity. We, the body of the thing, will become more responsive as these pathways become more entrenched, but the brain that transmits and coordinates them will remain Clive. So, if you were impressed by what you saw and experienced last month, or find yourself impressed by future iterations, please direct your regards accordingly. And anything you weren't/aren't impressed with is/will likely be something either unavoidable, or the fault of one of us, Clive's sometimes clumsy appendages.

When the gear was stowed and last of the trash binned, we were prepared to declare year one a success, but also determined to make improvements for next year.

On the upside:

-We thought the course held up very well to its biggest challenge ever (accommodating the foot-plants of 1000 runners over two days, at a time of year when moisture is not drained or absorbed quickly). We had a little mud, but far from enough to render the race one-dimensional;

-We felt the venue looked professional when in full dress, and that it rather ideally balanced size and race spectation (both on site and online). We didn't sense anyone felt wedged in, and no one had far to go to take in the races a multiple stages;

-We were thrilled with the quality of the fields and the races themselves, and think the location and venue themselves were major contributing factors in this respect(that Quebec won the senior men's regional race spoke to the value of finally staging this event in eastern Ontario). We loved some of the fast, tight, finishes featuring many of the folks we thought we'd see up front when push came to shove. Again, we credit the course for helping to produce these scenarios.

-And, we were pleased with all peripherals, such as package pick-up, technical briefing, timing/results, and all-important post-race party arrangements (which, in spite of our fatigue, we were able to assess ourselves).

On the downside:

-Start line organization was weak in key aspects, causing some confusion, however minor and probably inconsequential in terms of race outcomes;

-The failure to deliver on the commitment (made in the technical package itself) to award medals to the top three club teams was inexcusable and can't be repeated in 2016.

-The staging of Youth awards during the senior women's race was a mistake, pure and simple. The youth girls in particular should not have been forced to choose between watching their senior elite heroes on the course and receiving recognition for their own accomplishments.

We have heard from the membership on all of these things, the good and the bad, and will absorb, process, and transmit all feedback accordingly. You have it in writing here that the things we did well this year will be done at least as well next year, and that, on the off chance we make mistakes again next year, they will be new and even more minor ones. But, dear membership, there is really no cut-off for complaining about this year or making suggestions for next year. If you make a good suggestion, we will take heed; if you make what we think is a baseless complaint, we will politely but firmly tell you why we think so.

Organizational concerns aside, we had a blast hosting you all, and hope to see you back next year (with friends!). We feel the sport of XC is as healthy as it has ever been, and we are determined to do our part in nourishing it for another three years.

June to December PK POMs:

This is the section where I recognize outstanding efforts and superior performances by club members each month, culminating in the awarding of the PK Performance of the Year (POY), the owner of which will receive some training gear (shoes and apparel of their choice). The "P" in POM and POY is for "performance"-- specifically, performance relative to proven ability, or in light of significant obstacles or challenges, at time of execution. Recognition is open to all PK members, local and online, junior, senior, or masters.

We start with the "track" months-- June, July, and August:

June is typically the month during which we are most likely to see big performance increases by our junior members, and 2015 was no exception. The June POM honouree is high schooler Kieran L'Abbe, the erstwhile high school XC champ who left the sport for two years back in 2011-12. With only 4 track races under his belt in over 2 years (and perhaps a dozen ever, going back to primary school), Kieran ran 14:45 for second place at the Junior Athletics Ontario Championships in Windsor. Anyone who knows how difficult it can be to master the 5,000m on the track-- even following a few years of initiation at 3k-- can appreciate the magnitude of running this fast (at any age, let alone 17) in one's second attempt at the distance on the track (to go with one on the road). It's hard to find a performance that fits the PK POM criteria better than this one!

July's recipient is a repeater, despite being a consistently high performer (who thus needs to do a lot to o'er-leap her usual standard and meet the aforementioned criteria). Suffice to say that Julie-Anne Staehli had a rough winter and spring. Sidelined for weeks with an achilles injury that first surfaced the previous fall, Julie-Anne faced the challenge not only of returning to track racing (with its obligatory "spiking-up"), but of hurdling wooden barriers and landing single-footed on the incline of a water-jump exit ramp! When she lined up for her Nationals final in Edmonton, she had only one steeple under her belt in the preceding 12 months (a rust-buster three weeks earlier), and only a few workouts over barriers. Gamely chasing two athletes who were coming off of recent personal bests some 20 seconds faster than hers, Julie-Anne hung on for the bronze medal, turning back a seemingly irresistible challenge over the final barrier and prevailing by a mere .02 over 4th. For those who are familiar with her oeuvre as a competitor, this was vintage Julie-Anne!

August's winner is no stranger to PK POM distinction. The only remaining original member of PK, Agathe Nicholson has multiple POM honours, and has vied very seriously for POY in a number of years (how about 18:37 for 5k at age 47 and 3:01:29 at age 50)? It's only that Agathe has been so remarkable for so long (although she only started running when she joined PK-- at age 42) that has kept her from being recognized more often in this space. One of the shortcomings of the POM/POY criteria is that a consistently amazing performer like Agathe sometimes seems to get taken for granted. But, at the Glen Tay Block Race (one of regions and countries oldest road races), Agathe, now 54, ran 60:29 for just under 15k (14.7) to finish 8th over all, and miss the course record for 50-59 year olds by 10 secs. And this was while in full prep for a marathon. Agathe is, once again, a PK POM recipient!

The winner of the fall's first POM was recognized for a performance in exactly the same race some 6 years ago-- and it had been almost that long since Bob McGraw had run at the level that made him one of the best over-50 athletes in Canada. A full year of consistent training with the local group put Bob in a position to go back to Ottawa's Army Run 5k and challenge the 17:06 he ran there as a 50 year old, back in 2009. On a course reliably reported to be at least 200m longer than the posted 5k (inexcusable for a race of this scale and cost, but that's fodder for another post), Bob nearly did it. He ran 18:06 to beat everyone over 50! Bob has remained injury-free and fit since September, so expect more of the same in 2016!

October is the May of the fall season: The peak month of the racing season. Track is over, but October features some of the bigger road races on the calendar, along with school XC (high school and university), meaning that everyone who is healthy ends up toeing a start line somewhere. And, true to from, October's "P" was particularly outstanding and hard-fought. Among the nominees is 4 season, clutch-performing championship masters athlete Roddy Loeppky's win in the Niagara HM (in 1:15:52, into one of Niagara's infamous 13 mile headwinds). At 46, Roddy is still capable of winning over-40 championships from 1500m to HM, and this performance was a brilliant example of what he is capable of when at his best, even over a distance that he has only raced twice in his life. Next is Alex Wilkie's pressure-defying win at the Ontario University Athletics XC Championship in Waterloo (un-touted in early September, Alex's two outstanding preliminary races made him a sudden favourite going into the championship, in spite of the fact that he was a third year athlete with a best OUA finish of 5th, to go with a rookie finish in the mid-30s, facing several veteran 5th years, including a defending champion). His 1 second victory over over Windsor's Paul Janikowski looked tight on paper, but his superior pacing and perfectly timed finishing drive meant the result was never really in doubt after 5k. Finally, there is NCAA athlete Cleo Boyd's 4th place finish in a stacked ACC Conference Championship. In a season that was never really meant to be, due to a major surgery and consequent 4 month complete layoff in the first half of the year, this was her actually second great performance of the season (the first being a team leading 20th at the NCAA's biggest non-championship race, the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational). Operating on only a few weeks of tentative workouts and two races in the preceding 11 months, Cleo executed perfectly against a field that included multiple potential all-Americans to lead her team to its first ACC Championship in over 30 years. As strong as October's other performances were, overcoming such extreme adversity to succeed in a system that is so densely competitive makes Cleo's run a cut above. She is the POM owner for October.

November is, trans-continentally, championship XC month. And, particularly pertinent to PK, this November was the month of our maiden hosting of the Athletics Canada XC Championships. For us, it would be all-hands-on-deck, either organizationally or competitively (and, in a couple of cases-- e.g. aforementioned race director Clive Morgan-- both). It is entirely unsurprising, therefore, that November's POM would come from an XC finals. Nominee # 1, chronologically speaking, is returning member Cam Linscott's phoenix-like repeat victory in the OFSAA senior boys' race (Cam had been sidelined for nearly 4 months this spring and summer with a large-bone fracture, and only began run training in early August). A week later and a hour to the southwest, Blair Morgan (2013's PK POY winner) followed up a strong OUA 6th place finish with an outstanding 8th place finish at the Canadian Interuniversity Championship, nailing down his second consecutive selection to Canada's World University Championship XC Team, and capping a varsity career that would be strong contender for best ever by a PK athlete, should POM/POY criteria be applied. Blair's improvement in his 5 years at McMaster University, and his ability to execute in championship situations (almost entirely acquired), is the stuff of inspirational coaching anecdotes for decades to come! And the final nominee for November is Cam Lincott's incredible follow-up to his aforementioned OFSAA win. Dismissed by some as a pure mud-runner with insufficient middle distance speed to win on track-like course such as the Fort (on most days), Cam lined up as a dark horse contender in the Junior Men's 8k. And a start that saw him buried in the middle of the pack as late as 3k momentarily seemed to confirm suspicions. But, seemingly just as the crowd had stopped scanning the pack for potential late-race movers and had begun attending to the race up front, which seemed now to be down to two athletes, Cam began to roll effortlessly by a now unresponsive line of fast starters. Still only in 11th with a 2k lap remaining, Cam used a knowledge of the Fort course that he began building back in grade school to time a charge that would take him all the way to the runner-up spot, only a couple of seconds behind pre-race favourite Ehad El Sandali, an athlete with a 3k personal best some 25 seconds superior to his. Still only a Youth age athlete, Cam has two more years to make this championship his own, as he did the OFSAA championship this year. Rarely has a young athlete achieved so much on so little physical preparation. As pure, one-off, performances go, this one was nearly impossible to top, making Cam the POM winner for a busy November.

With PK members now in brief post-Nats hibernation (as far a racing goes), there is no POM for December. I will return next month to announce the 2015 PK POY.











Wednesday, 2 December 2015

XC: Birth, Death, and Rebirth(?)

In our part of the world, distance running careers are typically born on the green grass of early autumn, and individual competitive seasons die in the cold mud of late November. But the 2015 Canadian running season's death in the dirt of Kingston's Fort Henry Hill might also have been the demise of something much longer lived: the era of gender inequality in XC racing distances.

With the first strike of gender inequality's death knell having been sounded at the highest levels of the sport-- the IAAF, which rather suddenly announced the introduction of gender equality at the senior level-- and the second strike (an end to inequality at the junior levels) possible in the next couple of years, it is quite likely that this year's Canadian XC Championship will be the last to offer shorter distances to female athletes. It is equally likely that similar change will be enacted all lower levels, and in most jurisdictions. Once birthed, equality matures very rapidly, and fends for itself.

But what's so important about gender equality in XC running when we have had it in running's other disciplines for decades? Why would it matter that women and girls will now be allowed (or required, depending your view of the change) to run the same distances as boys and men when they have already been doing so, and all the way up to the marathon? Can anyone really believe that girls and women are incapable of racing the same distances as boys and men when the race is being held on natural as opposed to artificial surfaces?

Resistance to gender equal distances that is not of the straight-up troglodytic variety does not maintain that girls and women are not capable of racing as far on grass and dirt as boys and men. The case for continued inequality is more subtle than this. Its terms, however, tell you just about all you need to know about why adopting equal distances is so important, at least for those of us who truly care about distance running as a competitive sport for both men and women. We continue to be told, and not without some empirical basis, that girls and women themselves typically don't want to, don't think they should, and don't want to be required to run the same distances as boys and men, if those distances are going to be significantly longer than the distances they currently run. We are sometimes told this by female competitors and coaches themselves. We are also sometimes told that girls and women will abandon the sport in significant numbers if required to apply the same effort as boys and men to train for and complete the required racing distances. Again, this is not entirely without empirical basis. But, it is the very fact that these assertions have some empirical basis that is the greatest indictment against 30+ years of unequal race distances (and attendant training expectations)in this sport: Unequal racing distances have helped shape girls and women's own perceptions of the meaning and purpose of the sport for their gender, and it has done so in a way that does a profound disservice to the athletic potential (and sometimes aspirations) of a particular subset of female athletes-- those with the potential do do better over traditional (i.e. men's) XC distances. The prolonged practice of unequal racing distances in XC has made female athletes unwitting agents of their own exclusion, or agents of exclusion of other women with slightly different but relevant athletic makeups.

XC racing is typically the first form in which young runners of both genders encounter sport of distance running, because XC running is overwhelmingly a school-based sport,and because it has been typically offered in the fall or winter months. Before they ever attempt a middle distance track race, athletes of both genders will typically have raced a longer distance over grass and mud. In many jurisdictions, those distances will have been gender-equal at the earliest ages, when the sport is typically done for fun (an extremely challenging form of fun, but that's another story). During precisely the years when athletes typically choose to approach the sport as a serious competitive endeavour, boys and girls begin to be offered different distances. It is at this highly formative moment-- a moment when they often still feel they are, and sometimes actually are, the full athletic equal of boys their own age-- that female athletes receive their first lesson in their own alleged athletic fragility and psychological inferiority (a lesson often reinforced by the larger culture). You may not yet understand why, girls are told, but you are not suited to running the same distances as boys in the long distance sport of XC. You are henceforth consigned to a more suitable, miniaturized version of what the boys and men will do. And to this broader sociological lesson is eventually added a sport-specific one: If you are bigger and stronger, and possess greater ability over the middle track distances (that represent the long distances in the school system), you will continue to succeed in the sport of XC disproportionately to boys and men of similar physical makeup, who will typically fall further behind as the competitive distance increases (disproportionately to that of girls/women). If you are female and good at this mini version of XC, you will likely grow to enjoy the disproportionate competitive success you get to experience during the fall, while your male counterparts are often learning to live with temporary or permanent consignment to the middle of race packs. And you may even begin to feel a sense of entitlement to the sport you have been allowed-- even encouraged, by coaches who have become attached to the separate and supposedly equal status quo-- to colonize. If you are female and aren't as well suited to this shorter version of the real (read: men's) sport, you will likely never get to find out how relatively unsuited you actually are. You will likely continue to play along for the other benefits the sport offers (team camaraderie and competition), but you will have been systematically denied an equal opportunity to discover and enjoy the benefits of your particular physiological gifts. If you are lucky, you may eventually meet a coach, perhaps from outside of the school-based system, who will go out of his/her way to introduce you to long distance track racing, or even triathlon. If you are part of the unlucky majority, however, your particular talents will remain buried forever. And, for those who care, the loss will be not only yours but the sport's. Thus it is today in XC exactly as it was in the sport writ large before the introduction of women's long distance racing on the roads and track, when the longest distance female athletes were "permitted" to race was 800m.

But gender equality in XC race distances remains more important than on the roads and in track precisely to the extent that XC racing is seminal to the sport of distance running as a whole for both genders. Our first impression of what distance running is is offered by school XC; and, if we're Canadian and not able or inclined to run in the NCAA, our best opportunity by far to discover and develop our ability over the longer distances will be in school-based XC. If we're male, however, that opportunity will be a more meaningful one than if we are female, as long as the practice of unequal racing distances prevails.

The Canadian XC Championships in Kingston marked the death of yet another competitive season, but whether it also marked the death of an entire (and over-long) era of fundamental inequality in the sport itself and its rebirth in a more egalitarian one-- an era in which female distance runners on the cusp of committing to the sport will never remember a time when they didn't race as far as boys and men, and in which female athletes with true long distance running ability will be allowed to prevail-- is in the hands of the sport's coaches and administrators in every jurisdiction, starting at the top. And while the logic and substance of the argument for equality is overwhelming, the power (at least in the short term) of those who sit atop the sport is real, and the psychological rootedness of the gender unequal status quo very deep in some quarters. Expect some defenders of unequal racing distances to retrench behind jurisdictional walls, to fight back with technical arguments and special pleading about the uniqueness of their systems or teams, and to point to the practices of other jurisdictions (even other sports) as justification for going slowly or for not acting at all. And, of course, also expect many to defend the status quo by citing the interests and desires of current female athletes themselves (never minding the fact that the perspective of these athletes is in large part a product of the unequal system itself, or can be explained by the fact that many of them have a vested competitive interest in the unequal status quo). But also expect these agents to become embarrassed by their own arguments in proportion to their exposure to outside scrutiny; and, if that scrutiny is sustained enough, to eventually accede to the logic of equality. Finally, expect them to one day pretend they were always on the side of equality. Just as no one will ever admit to having opposed equality in track and road racing (or having supported any other of the ideas now residing on history's scrap heap), everyone will one day always have been in favour equality in XC racing!



Thursday, 4 June 2015

Distance Running's Generation F(ollow)?

Unlike our science-phobic Prime Minister, I am not afraid to "commit sociology" to explain novel patterns of human social behaviour when I see them in my area of expertise. I refer in this instance to the current epidemic of so-called "tactical" racing among elite/serious (but, interestingly, mainly male) runners at every level above that of junior high school. While the old fashion "tactic" of attempting to outrun one's opponent with superior pace is still deployed from time to time, the default racing strategy at every level, from the global to the local, is rapidly becoming that of "sit and kick", as it used to be called. So much the default approach to racing has this strategy become (and I sometimes fear that I may never see any other kind of race when more than a few serious competitors are gathered-- unless their are financial time bonuses!)that it is really no longer a "tactic" at all: it betokens the complete demise of actual tactical deliberation. When there is only one acceptable tactic, there are no longer any tactics at all!

What used to be known as the "sit and kick"-- the tactic in which the athlete or athletes possessing what he/they believe to be the best top-end sprint speed, best acceleration, or whatever else it takes to win a race run at extreme sub-maximal paces, decline(s) to lead, hoping the pace will remain slow for as long as possible, making the effective distance of the race as short as possible-- has now been simplified by the current generation to something like "never lead, under any circumstances, no matter how slow the pace!". Leading a race at ANY pace has now been deemed, whether by rational choice or the simple lack conscious choice-making, automatically the least favourable racing tactic for almost every runner in almost any situation.

Again, it's not that "sit and kick" is a new tactic. It's been around since the dawn of the sport as one among an array of possible race strategies. The first time I witnessed it in its purest form was in the late 1970s (a World Cup 1500 race, in which some of the best runners in the world ran five seconds a lap slower than they were capable of before unleashing a furious last 250m). I had seen races that were not run full-out from the gun, but I had never seen world class runners choose to turn a distance race into a pure sprint in quite this way. And while I would see it again from time to time, it remained relatively rare, until just a few years ago. For the next 25 years, I would be just as likely to see (and to participate in) races in which an athlete ran well below goal pace for the first few laps of a race, injected torrid mid-race surges, attempted to maintain a steady but manageable pace, cooperated with another athlete to ensure an optimal pace, or launched a sustained finishing drive from several laps, or kilometers, from the finish. In other words, I would, within a given season or year, witness the full array of possible race tactics, as per the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the various dramatis personae in each instance. What was obvious, and what appears to be increasingly rare today, is that athletes at all levels were willing to take direct action to ensure that the race played to their strengths, even if this entailed a deliberate and forceful seizing of the initiative. Even when they knew they could not win, athletes in earlier decades seemed to be more willing to take action to shape a race in ways that seemed to ensure the highest possible finishing place. Today, even the slowest footed athletes often seem content to remain in lockstep within a dawdling pack, waiting for someone else to make the first move, knowing that their chances of the highest possible placing are being reduced with each meter run. And why? Simple reluctance to ever assume the lead, it would seem. And here is where the sociology, or probably more precisely, the social psychology, can be brought to bear. Why have runners today become more reluctant to lead races than in the past?

But first, some anecdotal support for my basic claim that something new is indeed happening when it comes to race tactics (or the increasing disappearance thereof). In my career I have run over 1000 races covering all distances, in all conditions, and on all conceivable surfaces-- from 800m to the marathon, from midday tropical sun to winter snowstorms, and from state-of-the- art Mondo to glare ice. And I have watched at least twice as many races at every level live, on TV, and, increasingly, on the internet. After all these years and races, what are the odds I would see any really novel event or pattern when it came to race execution? Not great, one would think; yet, in just the past few years, I have indeed seen a few things I've never seen before. And I've seen some things I had seen only very infrequently in my first 25 years in the sport begin to happen with greater regularity, and at all levels.

To wit, from the global to the local, and from the grand to the tiny:

1.Four consecutive global men's 5000m and 10,000m races (two Olympic and two World Championships) in which, despite not unfavourable weather conditions, a dozen or more of the best runners in the world were content to run at a speed that all but guaranteed victory to the fastest middle distance runner in the field, and that turned earning a medal into a crap-shoot based on top-end sprint speed, positioning in the final 400m, and plain old luck-of-the-draw. At least one half of the the tactical brilliance of the winner of all four of these races (Mo Farah of GB) was the unprecedented, repeated, tactical paralysis of the rest of the field. In the 2012 Olympic 5000, run less than a week after Farah's sit-and-kick win in the 10,000, athletes allowed the pace to slow such that the winning time was reminiscent of the 1960s-- the slowest winning time in 34 years, when the race was run in Mexico City, altitude 2,250m.

2. Two high level men's cross country races in the same season (2014), run in nearly ideal conditions, at paces approaching 20 seconds per mile slower than the all-out ability of the average participant until well past the halfway point. The most bizarre and telling of the two-- the 2014 NCAA Championships-- saw 90% of the field still in contention past the halfway mark of the race, and the front group spread 25-30 wide as runners gathered at the front but refused to set foot in the actual lead. The NCAA XC Championship, famous for decades for its hell-bent front running and wars of attrition, was for the first time in its history turned into a so-called "tactical" affair. What was remarkable was the unwillingness of any of the 50 or so top contenders to ensure even the kind of moderate pace that would have winnowed the front pack down to a manageable size before the final push. Even with plenty of room to run, every athlete, the slow and the fast alike, it appeared, favoured his chances in a kick more than his chances off of a moderately fast pace-- that is, if he himself had to play a leading role in setting that moderately fast pace. And even at a pace that must have been conversational at times, no team of runners (and XC is at some level a team sport) attempted to hatch a plan to shape the unfolding of the race in ways favourable to it own fortunes-- unless every team somehow wanted the race to come down to a 2k free-for-all.

3. A final leg of a relay race (the 2015 Penn Relays college men's distance 4x 1mile, featuring several teams of athletes all capable of sub-4 mins) in which, in order to avoid setting foot in the lead, the two frontrunners nearly came to a standstill on the back-straight of second lap, and in which the rest of the field, now having caught up to the jogging leaders, also declined to take the lead, even when doing so would have entailed simply maintaining the pace they had been running up to that point! So unusual was this spectacle that the experienced crowd gasped before commencing the boo the athletes. Some observers later pronounced the whole thing "entertaining", but none seemed to deny that they had seen something probably unprecedented in the 100 year history of the meet.

4.An IAAF Diamond League meet (the 2015 Prefontaine Classic in Portland, Oregon) featuring many of the world's best distance runners, racing in ideal conditions and at a time of year (late spring) when most would be ready to run at personal best levels, in which whole fields of athletes repeatedly chose NOT to follow the paid pacers agreed to by the athletes themselves, their coaches, and agents! Only in the men's 10,000m did the top athletes all attempt to stick with the agreed upon early pace-- but even they would slow down shortly after the exhausted rabbits quit the scene.

5. A national championship 10,000m (the 2014 Canadian Championships) in which, in a tiny and fragmented field, two athletes with superior seed times remained in single file for 20 laps behind a less experienced leader, and in which one of the two followers completely ignored the eventual winning move in favour of continuing to sit on the shoulder of the old leader and now second place runner till the final lap, in order to take as little risk as possible in ensuring, not the win, but second place!

6. A midwest NCAA Conference meet (the 2015 Big 12 Championships) in which the men's 1500m was won in 4:05 (a time more than 25 seconds slower than the personal bests of the top athletes in the field), after an opening lap of 83 seconds-- slower than the typical opening pace for a primary school girls' 1500m!

7. Heat two of three in a routine spring all-comers meet, featuring 15 nameless teenage and 20-something male athletes, held in perfect weather conditions, in which the athletes, having selected their own seed times order to ensure an opportunity to run fast against suitable competition, decide, not 50m after the gun, to run "tactically", so as to avoid having to lead. The result was that only one athlete equaled his seed time. Apparently, even when nothing matters but finishing time, young athletes today will sometimes abandon their pre-race goals seconds into a race-- if, that is, pursuing them entails taking any individual initiative!

8. A local high school boys championship 3000m featuring 2 competitors-- technically four, but the other two fell over a lap behind before the 2k mark-- in which one athlete literally hid behind the other until the final 120m in order to avoid taking even a single step in the lead, and in which the frustrated leader nearly came to a complete stop on the track in order to force his pursuer assume duties (which he refused to do)! The winning time was the slowest in the history of the championship, by more than 30 seconds, and the winner was subsequently beaten handily by the loser in a faster paced race not one week later.

I could go on. Most of these examples are taken from just the past few months.


How do we explain these phenomena-- both the increasing frequency of once rare events (such as the sit-and-kick global track championships, or the failure of world class athletes to pursue appointed, paid rabbits) and the truly novel variations on the theme of "lead-aversion" (such the mass sit-and-kick XC championship, or the "tactical" all-comers heat)? As a seasoned observer/competitor and an erstwhile social scientist, I offer that there is a narrow, sport specific explanation, and a broad sociological explanation, with my preference being for the broad one.

The narrow explanation is that the current extreme preference for following over leading in almost all race situations is due to the influence of the era's greatest distance track athlete-- the aforementioned Mo Farah of GB. In this account, younger athletes have recently been engaging in a fad-like (and over-literal)following of the example of this highly successful athlete-- a fad that that will abruptly end along with his dominance, at which point the racing style of the new dominant player, whatever that may be, will become vogue. Supporters of this sport-specific explanation will point to the earlier influence of athletes like Emil Zatopek or Steve Prefontaine, who made courageous (sometimes to the point of foolhardy) front running the preferred tactic of the young in their respective eras. They might also point to the more recent craze for incautious marathon pacing ignited by the example of the late Olympic Champion Sammy Wanjiru (which, interestingly, now seems to be giving way to the old orthodoxy of even or negative-split pacing).

The broader explanation does not deny this narrower one, but rather absorbs and expands it.

The example of top athletes-- whether in the area of personal style, training methodology, or race tactics-- has always had a trickle-down influence on the behaviour of younger athletes. And, this narrower, sport-specific explanation would account for the fact that aversion to leading seems to have become something of a cross-cultural phenomenon, at least when the various national and ethnic cultures that make up distance running meet in global competition (and the sport is mainly what members of these different cultures have in common). But, I think a broader, more sociological explanation is required to account for apparent extreme affinity of the current generation for this passive race tactic (at least in some places), and for some of its particulars.

First of all, there is evidence that aversion to leading has not taken hold in the national strongholds of the sport-- Kenya and Ethiopia. Athletes from these countries are as familiar with the exploits of Mo Farah as anyone. Yet, at least when they are racing one another at home or on the roads and XC courses of North America and Europe, they seem just as inclined as ever to attack the lead with abandon (their torrid front running in every race at the recent World XC Championships in China shows that they still prefer fast starting and hard racing). The same appears to be true of Japan-- the non-African world's centre of distance running excellence and popularity, where the post-race collapse (whether feigned or real) remains a requirement. Second, aversion to leading is a distinctly gendered phenomenon, whether at the global or local level. Extreme sit-and-kick women's global championship races are not unheard of, but they are not nearly as common as men's, and are often weather related. And this kind of racing is almost unheard of among women at lower levels. Women and girls in almost every situation still appear far more inclined to default to maximum sustainable pace in race situations offering favourable atmospheric conditions. For instance, at the 2014 NCAA XC Championships-- venue of the infamous sit-and-kick men's race-- the women's winner soloed to a near course record in the same somewhat windy conditions as the men faced an hour later.

So, a broader more sociological explanation would seek to explain why extreme aversion to leading races is becoming primarily a North American (and possibly European-- I'm not sure) male phenomenon!

Could it be that the general lassitude, risk aversion, and penchant for conformity that have led some to speak of a crisis of masculinity in North America (which has its mirror in the increased relative academic and general leadership performance of girls and women in the past quarter century) is now being expressed, however perversely, in the tendency of male distance runners to freeze up and refuse to take the initiative in race situations, even when doing so would be in their individual interest (perversely because male distance runners are gender and generational non-conformists in the very fact of being distance runners)? As a coach of many serious young male distance runners, and as an acquaintance of many more, I have been privy to their accounts of races in which the pack freezes and soldiers along at a pedestrian pace. In some instances they will offer than they did not lead because leading is always the worst option ("the early leader always gets out-kicked"). But most of the time their response will be passive. They may say that they had wanted to run faster, but that the race "just didn't go that way", as if races are things apart from the runners who make them up. And when asked how they feel about their result after such a race (if it wasn't the finish place they had wanted or hoped for) they will often just say that "the race was tactical", implying that finish places other than first in such situations are rendered somewhat irrelevant, because an extremely tactical race isn't actually a "real" race. Sometimes, though rarely, they will say that no one generally tries to lead anymore, because the younger generation is tactically savvier, having learned from earlier generations the grave folly of pushing too hard from the front (as if running all out from the front were the only alternative to jogging and kicking the final 200m). In all but the last instance, the common element in these responses seems to be that no one bears any personal responsibility for the way a particular race unfolds-- except perhaps, in instances where someone does try to force the pace and does not win, "that idiot who tried to lead". Here it would seem that failure in a group, if such thing is even considered possible, is always preferable to failure as a risk-taking individual (even when it is impossible to say whether the risk-taking individual actually finished further back than he might otherwise have, and hence actually "lost"!).

If this broader explanation has any credence (and I'll admit to a little facetiousness, born of frustration, in offering it), I leave it to the reader to consider its deeper cultural underpinnings;-)And, I offer a challenge to the current generation of distance athletes to reconsider their fear of leading. For many athletes, in many different circumstances, it is the highest percentage tactical option.


PK POMs/POY: They're Back
!

After some uncertainty around prizing (and, yes, falling too far behind in monitoring performances in 2014) I had suspended the POM/POY feature. I'm pleased to announce that it's back for 2015, meaning I have some catching up to do!

Race participation was at its usual very low ebb in January, so there is no POM for that most wintry month.

The winner of the February's POM was junior Branna MacDougall's very fine bronze medal performance at the Pan Am XC Championships in Barranquilla, Colombia. It's rare when an athlete of Branna's calibre does anything truly surprising, but a medal at one's first international competition is most certainly POM worthy! Congrats, Branna.

Branna would go on to lead the National Junior Team at the World Championships in March, but the March POM (which is based on the scale of performance relative to the athlete's abilities and personal circumstances at the time) goes to the amazingly renascent master's runner Steve Blostein, for his win at the provincial master indoor championships (50+ 3k). Steve is a model of tenacity and has rebuilt himself after years of injury, such that he is now seeing race times he has not seen since his mid-40s. This was more example of his recent rebirth.

April's POM was uncontested. Again, while age class performances by talented young athletes are usually not the stuff of POMs, some such results cannot be ignored. Brogan MacDougall's front running 9:39.9 3k in her first ever track 3k, and first high track race period, was simply off the expectational charts. No Canadian girl of the same age or younger has ever run the distance faster. Congrats, Brogan!

May's POM came on the month's penultimate day, and was put up by none other than the 2013 PK Performer of the Year, Blair Morgan. Following a solid but unspectacular (by his standards) 2014, Blair notched a significant PB over 5k at the Penn Relays in April (a 21 second improvement of his best of 14:57, set in 2014). A month later, in rainy and windy conditions, he peeled another 16 seconds from this best, reaching a whole new level of lifetime performance. Can he repeat as POY in 2015 with this, or perhaps another jaw dropper!?








Friday, 20 February 2015

George's Pictures

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

-Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill

What, I asked myself, is so mesmerizing about George Aitkin's vast trove of amateur (but sometimes excellent) photographs of runners doing what we do? George's collection began when he himself took up the sport some 40 years ago, and it includes many shots of me and people I knew well as friends and competitors(including some of the people whose exploits hooked me on the sport, and kept me hooked all these decades). What exactly am I looking for when I stare at these old shots, I wonder. Like my old training logs, gear, and body weight, George's photos are yet another reminder that running remains my strongest link to the past-- and to young adulthood in particular, as I imagine it does for my fellow lifers, whose comments and mute "thumbs up" accumulate in the spaces beneath each shot. Beyond eating and the usual daily ablutions, there is nothing I have done with the same frequency my entire life as train for and compete in the sport of foot racing. I am vividly reminded of this fact every time I see my much younger self in one of George's frames. But I realize I'm in search of more than this when I scan the faces of athletes (myself included) featured in these old pictures. When I study them closely, the racing shots in particular (and the vast majority are racing shots) seem to me to offer are glimpses into the minds of runners at what were, at the time, moments of utmost importance, requiring intense and earnest focus. Younger runners will be inclined to see these these photos as perhaps odd and funny. They will recognize the activity clearly enough (cross country courses and tracks still look largely the same, and running form is timeless), but they are likely to be drawn to the 70s and 80s fashion, hairstyles, and terrible footwear on brilliant display in many shots-- the styles are old, but not yet old enough to look classical, like Bannister's long forelock and Oxford all-white uniform. Or they might notice the cars in the background of the road race shots, all strange angles and skinny tires. I see these things too, of course. But what I mainly see is what Dylan Thomas, the language's most famous, and perhaps best, poetic nostaligist sought to convey in the above lines: heartbreaking innocence and courage in the face of a decline whose imminence is much greater than the young athletes pictured can possibly be aware. There's plenty of joy and fun on display too, but what draws me in is the poignancy of young runners giving so much of themselves in moments of, at the time, utmost importance. I know I have this response because I have now lived through it all as a runner and seen how it ends up (and perhaps also because there are so many fewer photographs of me and my generation of athletes than there will eventually be of subsequent ones). The race we are doing, or about to do, is always the most important one, particularly when we are young and still breaking new ground, wondering how far our abilities will take us. But then it is over, and we move on to the next one, until, eventually, whole swaths of particular races are blended into a single period, their particulars often forgotten or conflated. In bringing these particulars back into relief, and from a then anonymous spectator's point of view, these pictures both jar and fascinate us. We see ourselves as we were then seen, and as we now see younger runners still totally immersed in training and competing. The effect is a genuine kind of nostalgic wonder (not a sentimental one) uniquely available to us because our youthful striving was highly public and physical, and could thus be clearly represented visually. Old photos always hint at what beneath the surface of their subjects, or outside the frame, but old running photos seem to suggest these things in especially stark and poignant ways, at least to an old runner like me.

Here are a few of my favourites:

A group shot of four of our best ever as juniors-- a great mix of shy, awkward, and confident.

A front pack shot featuring four of our then most outstanding junior women runners. As is so often the case, only one (Emily Mondor) would become a senior elite. Emily died in a car accident back in 2006.

Another front pack shot, this one of a junior boys 10k road championship (all but unthinkable these days), featuring mostly anonymous (to me) but very brave and earnest faces.

A much more recent shot of team mates Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis, in the final meters of a National XC Championship race, fighting hard for the win.

This one of recently retired all-time great Simon Bairu as a junior, but looking much younger.

Enjoy! And thanks, George.



Monday, 2 February 2015

Form and Substance: The Logic and Style of Workout Design

Beginning and veteran athletes alike might occasionally find themselves wondering how their coaches come up with the workout designs they do-- and, the truth is, the formula is often unequal parts science, habit, personal idiosyncrasy, and sport psychology, with the relative size of each constituent part reflective of the degree and quality of effort the coach in question has applied in his/her design.

Athletes (and readers) might be surprised to learn that "science" is often only one consideration in the design of any one workout. Good coaches have always intuited what exercise science is now revealing to be true-- that the body is not all the precise in the way it responds to any particular training stimulus. When it comes to training to run long distances, the basic stimuli (easy aerobic running, interval training at maximum oxygen consumption, and running at "anaerobic threshold") overlap considerably to produce what we commonly refer to as racing "fitness". Runners will often be surprised when they, for instance, run a personal best for 5k after a long period of mainly easy aerobic running, or when they enjoy a great cross country season after a long spring and summer season of racing middle distances on the track. Sometimes these anomalies are the result of seasonal "carry over" (e.g. benefiting from the specific training one may have done two or three seasons back), or simply of ongoing athletic maturation. The fact is, however, running is, largely, running; if we can stay healthy enough to do it effectively, almost any kind of training is helpful.

So then why bother with precise workout design-- and, indeed, with seasonal periodization-- at all? If there are indeed many routes up the mountain of distance running success, why not just work "hard" however and whenever we feel like it? In fact, why bother with coaching at all?

The answer is that, while perhaps less important than some coaches and athletes may have believed, and than some may still believe, the degree of specificity in each kind of training stimulus remains important in the longer term, and when attempting to truly maximize lifetime performance. But, just as importantly, the psyche of athletes must be protected from the inescapable stress and monotony of serious training for the sport. Varying workout venues and terrain, and the normal variation in seasonal training conditions, can provide some relief; but, more crucially, the type of training stimulus must be varied seasonally, and, within seasons, the dosing of this stimulus-- including, on the quotidian micro level, the actual design of workouts-- must offer sufficient variety to keep athletes' interest, and to forestall as long as possible the "not this again" moment that we all experience when faced with the identical difficult task for the nth time. There are always exceptions (of which a little more below), but the general rule is that athletes need things mixed up a little in order to stick with it long enough to reach their full potential.

The Substance:

Thanks to the great Arthur Lydiard (and a few more minor figures), we know that different running speeds and durations produce different physiological adaptations, and that the basic aerobic conditioning derived from easy running is the secret of success at all distances, from 800m to the marathon. And thanks to the perhaps less seminal, but equally great in his own way, Jack Daniels, we have a pretty good idea how to target these different stimuli in the basic design of training sessions (their pacing and duration). If Lydiard showed us roughly the correct proportions of each broad kind of training stimulus within a yearly training plan (the now famous 80/20 formula), Daniels provided an excellent guide to measuring, and thus better applying, these stimuli within a given workout.

Thanks to Daniels' brilliant translation of his laboratory research on elite distance runners-- encapsulated within his VDOT training tables-- we have a clearer understanding of precisely what we are (or should be) striving to achieve in each of the basic kinds of running workouts we do within a given phase of training, and thus roughly how much stimulus we should be attempting to apply in a given session.

Our running is "easy", according to Daniels, when we are not producing lactic acid in our muscles. Within this broad range, he argued, we should consider the optimal pace to be that which produces maximum cardiac stroke volume (i.e. at which the left ventricle reaches capacity, but not stroke rate). The actual amount of easy running within a given plan he understood would be a general function of the athlete's longest competitive distance, level of experience, and demonstrated capacity to recover from training (usually a function of age and experience, but also of personal physiological makeup).

When performing typical "interval" training-- shorter bouts of running at efforts approaching or exceeding race speeds-- Daniels cautioned us to understand that athletes typically achieve their maximum levels of oxygen consumption (MV02) at the pace they average when attempting to cover as much ground as possible in 11 to 13 minutes-- i.e. at personal best 5k pace for the very best in the world, and at P.B. 3k pace for the average recreational runner. Workouts designed to produce race specific stresses-- and, crucially, no additional stress-- on athletes preparing to race at MVO2 should maximize the amount of time the athlete spends running at exactly this pace (controlling as well as possible for conditions). The interval of rest between bouts of running, he thus instructed, should be just long enough to allow the athlete to maintain the correct pace, and the bout of running itself should be long enough to enable the athlete to reach MVO2 at the desired pace. By correctly manipulating these two variables, he showed, a coach could create a workout in which an athlete was able to run more than the 11-13mins he/she could run uninterrupted at MVO2 pace. Make the recoveries too long in relation to the work bout and the athlete would either run faster than required to produce the desired stimulus (and thus increase impact stresses), or else not achieve MVO2 within the work bout. Make interval too short relative to the work bout and the athlete would be unable to sustain the required pace beyond the first or second work bout. Either way, total time at MV02-- the purpose of the classic "interval" workout-- would be reduced.

We also learn from Daniels' lab researches that the maximum pace a rested athlete can maintain for 60 minutes is also the pace slightly above which his/her blood lactate levels would begin to rise un-sustainably-- the so-called aerobic/anaerobic "threshold" pace. "Tempo running" sessions, he thus maintained, should target this pace, and should typically total 20-40 minutes, not including brief recovery periods, when recoveries were employed. Attempting to go for long periods at faster than this pace would likely be counterproductive, because the accumulation of lactate would force a reduction of pace, distance, or both. Going slower, on the other hand, while permitting the athlete to go longer, would not condition him/her to run at this maximum sustainable aerobic pace (a very useful one in training for races from 10k to Half Marathon). Finally, the 20-40 minute guideline was in recognition of the fact that athletes typically do tempo sessions in the middle of a training week, and thus when not fully rested, making the full hour he/she could be expected to go at "tempo" pace when fully rested excessively stressful for a single training session.

Other paces, Daniels surmised, had their place as "practice" speeds, even if they did not correspond to specific, basic, physiological states. Running at, for instance, 1500m race speeds could help athletes preparing to race this distance learn to relax at, and thus better cope with, the required pace. But, it might also help athletes preparing to race at longer distances achieve more efficient muscle recruitment, maintain better balance, and relax more completely when launching finishing drives. Likewise marathon race pace could be used by both marathoners as highly specific race prep, and non-marathoners as a challenging recovery during fartlek sessions, or as an intermediate pace during longer "progression" (pace-cutting) runs.

Other coaches have tried to push the science of workout design beyond the systematic (but still somewhat loosely grounded) guidelines offered by Lydiard and Daniels. It is quite surprising, however, how little the substance of the most successful training plans of the past 50 year has deviated from the basic principles enunciated by these two figures, one operating through trail and error and the other on the basis of laboratory-based physiological test data. The majority of the difference between different training plans in general, and in the design of the specific workouts that are their bread and butter, concerns matters of form.

The Form:

The question of form in workout planning is largely one of personal coaching style, experience, and intuition. Workouts of equal effectiveness in terms of substance (i.e. the target physiological stimulus) can take an infinite variety of forms, based on a coach's own training experience, and his/her general understanding, or even "feeling", about what kind of design might work best at any given time for a particular athlete or training group. However, any coach at any time should be able to explain (in 100 words or less, or at least concisely enough not to delay the start of the workout!) both how any given workout design fits into the larger training phase, and why it is perhaps preferable to the conceivable alternatives. And if the answer is simply that the session is "hard", or that it's "what we've always done", it may be occasion to ask deeper questions about said coach's overall training philosophy.

This does not mean, however, that a workout cannot be very simple in its basic design (such as the classic 20x400m), or that a coach who uses the same basic design for every kind of session (e.g. 20-30mins straight for every tempo session, or 10x 800 for every interval session)is necessarily an inattentive or unqualified one. There ARE benefits to very simple workout designs (e.g. they work well for refining pacing skills, they and allow for clear tracking of fitness), and some athletes thrive using them. And, in fact, fancy workout design can be the hallmark of a certain kind of poor coaching (when design complexity is gratuitous, it can mean that a coach is attempting to cover for his/her lack of basic knowledge and experience, or that he/she is really an artist at heart, whose creative passion might be better deployed elsewhere). Some of the most poorly designed workouts I have ever seen were also the most creatively designed (e.g. a tempo session in which the recovery period was different for each athlete in the training group, and determined by the roll of a dice!; or, an interval workout in which no repeat or rest period was the same distance or time, but that had the supposed virtue of adding up perfectly to the race distance being trained for, and of finishing at the track's official finish line). Elegant design is of no real use in and of itself; and, if it makes a workout difficult for the average athlete to follow while executing the session (and I knew a coach whose workout designs were so ornate that he had to pass out cards before each session-- which he would eventually have to laminate, to protect them against the weather-- for his athletes to consult mid-workout, lest they lose the thread!), then this kind of creativity can actually be counterproductive.

Whether simple or complicated, a particular workout design, after it has passed the substance test (does it address the correct stimulus?; is it physiologically possible?; does it fit the training plan for the week?), should address the psychological problem of workout execution from the athletes point of view. As I've argued elsewhere, effective coaching in distance running is about empathy. When designing a particular session, a coach should be able, himself, to imagine in detail what it will feel like at each stage of completion. An effective coach will also be able to anticipate, based on her knowledge of her athlete's psychological makeup and propensities, the ways in which it is possible to fail to properly execute a particular session. Good workout design will thus manipulate the key variables of distance, recovery, and pace, such that a given athlete is more likely to achieve the targeted physiological stimulus. For example, and athlete who habitually likes to exceed the targeted pace will often do well with shorter or more active, fartlek-style recoveries (which can be set in a way that makes it impossible to run faster than the targeted pace); or with, and athlete who likes to ease more carefully into workouts, the session can be made slightly longer, allowing for a couple of early "throw-away" reps.

In my own practice, I like to use a mixture of sessions I have found to be highly effective over the course of my own career, and that I know from experience tweak the runner's brain in interesting ways, and that better prepare them psychologically to race. Typically, I favour sessions that induce a fairly high and steady level of aerobic distress throughout, and that reward precise, even pacing (on the track, interval sessions with active or minimal recoveries, and on the road and turf, farlek sessions, which mimic the often varied effort and blind pacing entailed in these kinds of races). Like many coaches, I like to alternate completely new sessions with "touchstone" sessions, in order to both offer variety, and prevent athletes from probing for precise feedback on their fitness before their fitness has actually had time to improve. And I sometimes like to prescribe a session that I know from experience will provide very precise feedback on race fitness (even if I don't let the athlete know this till after the session, if at all). Finally, I will sometimes prescribe a session that I know to be psychologically easier to complete for that reason alone (knowing that athletes just need to go through the motions some days).

Knowing that there is a fairly high degree of overlap in terms of physiological stimulus between different kinds of running, we shouldn't worry all that much when our coach's workout designs and preferences contain a degree of the personal, even the idiosyncratic (such as when some universities coaches have their teams do the same annual signature workout each season), particularly if his/her personality jibes well with our own. In fact, a little expression of personal style-- whether of the iron-willed, "every-workout-must-be-simple-and-hard" type, or the more loose and poetic "ever-workout-must-express-a-different-mood" type-- can be part of what attracts an athlete to a particular coach, and induces him/her to "buy-in" to the training plan-- which is itself an important variable in coach/athlete success. The purpose of any training plan is, after all, simply to keep the athlete healthy and consistent for as long as possible-- and there are many different personal styles compatible with achieving this goal.








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 Letsrun.com, or its would-be Canadian counterpart, Trackie.com. 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, Letsrun.com 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 Letsrun.com 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 Trackie.ca), 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 Trackie.ca-- 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, Trackie.ca, 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.