Wednesday, 27 March 2013

P-K POMS/POY and Miscellany

Where was I? Ah, yes, promising to increase my recent rate of posting to this space back closer to the historical average(now increasing, due to my delinquency!). In honour of the recent pope-ular renewal, Mea Culpa!

In this installment, I finally get around to recognizing the top monthly performances by P-Kers in 2012, and crown the best of them-- the winner of the third annual, and coveted, P-K Performance of the Year (POY), the owner of which receives a small Mizuno prize package. I also offer a miscellany of recent observations on the sport (normally the stuff of individual posts; but, given my aforementioned delinquency, they would likely never have appeared otherwise!).

Final 2012 POMs

September's POM belongs to a winner of the club POY before this space, or indeed the online group, had been created, and it is his first such club honour since. Steve Blostein's run at the U.S. masters championships in Syracuse, New York ended a long trek in the wilderness of injury-- some run-of-the-mill masters stuff, including back and hip problems, and one acute injury resulting from a misstep while running on a partly frozen golf course at this very time of year. Having slid from a solid sub-18 minute 5k man in his mid-40s, Steve had slowed to 19mins plus at times over the years-- that is, when he had been able to compete at all. Diligent rehab, as well as a return to his first endurance love, swimming, enabled him, now in his early 50s, to once again flirt with sub-18:00-- 18:03, to be precise! After a winter of very strong training, Steve looks to get back to where he was 5 years ago, and at all distances. If his form continues as it has been, look for him to make further appearances in this space.

The nod for October goes to a new member of the Junior group, Felix Lafontant, whose string of strong X-C performances in October (at the local and regional high school championships, and at Kingston's annual Run with the Wild X-C event), any one of which could have been nominated, demonstrated his remarkable progress since joining the group in the late summer. A newcomer to the sport at the age of 18, Felix went from a back-of-the high school pack local runner to a respectable provincial level athlete with a serious future as a collegiate runner (he will attend Queen's in the fall). Rarely has a teenage athlete taken to the sport with such gusto. In terms of his desire to run long and hard, Felix is a would-be Rejean Chiasson (i.e. would be, that is, if I would let him off the leash!).

November is the heart of championship X-C season, and there were a number of worthy performances turned in on the turf. Grade 10 Heather Jaros stunned observers with her 12th place finish at National Juniors in Vancouver, beating many older and much more decorated competitors, including multiple OFSAA senior medalists (Heather had only finished 3rd in the OFSAA Junior race a few weeks earlier). At the other end of the age spectrum, masters athletes Richard Ascough and Joanne Armstrong were outstanding at the OA meet in Kingston, with Richard scoring an outright 5k P.B. over the rolling Fort Henry course, and Joanne finishing in the 45-49 medals, also in a near outright best, in her first ever X-C race! Finally, yours truly managed to become the oldest winner by three years of the National Masters X-C Championships, after sliding as far back as 4th in 2011. And the POM goes to... Heather Jaros, for the sheer audacity of her performance! Running in her first out of province race, and with National Team berths on the line (she was actually too young to be considered, had she manage to finish in qualifying position-- which she very nearly did!), Heather showed remarkable courage and self-belief.

December, always a quiet month for racing in this hemisphere, saw only one POM-worthy performance-- masters runner Jeff Brison's season best 5k (17:16 some 30 secs better than where he started in the spring) at the Wonderful Run 5k in Seneca Falls, NY.

2012 POY

And, now, the P-K POY for 2012: Regular readers will know that junior Cleo Boyd had a stunning 2012 on the track. It is an unfortunate fact that young female runners in North America (and perhaps elsewhere) rarely experience their most rapid rates of improvement in their late teens, indeed, if they manage to improve at all past age 16. Already a decent provincial level competitor, Cleo had a run of improvement in the spring of the year much more characteristic of young male athletes, who often parlay late spurts of growth and strength into rapid improvements in performance. The performance of the year-- Cleo's World Junior standard-breaking 9:33 3000m-- capped this astonishing 6 week period in which she improved her personal best at the distance by 25 seconds. Her best performance was all the more of impressive due to having been a final opportunity to make the standard, and coming only a few days after an agonizingly narrow miss (her 9:35.0, set on the home track in Kingston). Congrats, Cleo, and thanks for making this year's POY deliberations the easiest ever!

And now to 2013! Look for the January through March POMs in the next installment (I promise!).


Racing/Training/Running Miscellany

1. Training in the winter is not easy (but does it make us better?)!

The retro-winter of 2012 has served to remind many of us here in Canada that running outside in the snow and cold, and on pavement, for weeks on end is neither fun nor, I believe, as productive as running under more moderate conditions and on softer surfaces. And regular tread-milling, while a good solution to the problem of pounding one's hips and quads on cold asphalt and concrete, or pulling one's groin on ice and snow, only creates another winter problem-- monotony (and, for many, the inconvenience of finding an available treadmill everyday, especially in January, when clubs are filled with the newly exercise-resolved). But what if running in the cold had some surplus physiological benefit, such as research has revealed for heat running (i.e. that it can produce some of the same adaptations as running at altitude)? A young apprentice coach I ran into while at the CIS championships in uber-cold Edmonton said that he had seen some recent research precisely to this effect. I have yet to locate said research, but will comment when I do. In the meantime, I suppose I'll make-do with the placebo effect of believing that running in the cold is some kind of super-training.

2. I'm beginning to miss "amateur" running.

And, no, I don't mean the stuffy, aristocratic business of outlawing anyone who ever made, say, 5 bucks for pitching in a baseball game (such as happened to the great Jim Thorpe, the native American athlete who won both the decathlon and modern pentathlon in the same Olympic Games). I'm talking about the "ideal" of having something approaching an adult life and adult responsibilities outside of sport. I came to this realization while perusing the running press (Running Times and Letsrun.com), which frequently provides interviews and other such glimpses into the personal lives and daily routines of some of today's fully contracted (i.e. "pro") distance runners. Serious old-school amateur greats like Roger Bannister (who broke 4 minutes for the mile while a full time medical student at Oxford), Peter Elliot (full time engineer and World and Olympic Silver Medalist), and our own Jerome Drayton (full time civil servant, unofficial three time world champion, and still Canadian marathon record holder) would be shocked at the infantalized world in which many of today's elites, many of them in their late 20s and early 30s, dwell. In an Running Times in-depth look at his life as a post-collegiate athlete, former American junior star German Fernandes reveals how he and his fellow pros at the Oregon Distance Project, some of whom have degrees from very reputable universities, struggle against the apparent boredom of their downtime from training by playing videos games. And in a similar interview with Letsrun.com, superstar New Zealander Kim Smith, also the holder of an undergraduate university degree, is revealed as human being utterly devoid of serious non-athletic interests of any kind. Her time between runs is spent watching T.V. (despite great chasms of free time, she doesn't even bother with any of the now obligatory strength and body maintenance work), and she admits to giving no thought whatsoever to her life after athletics. Then there's Galen Rupp, America's current top distance track man, who, in spite of ample invitations, has yet to offer even the most rudimentary insight or observation concerning his own life as an athlete, let alone the wider world. He is a figure so bland and colourless that even the world's greatest marketing machine-- Nike-- cannot fashion a media image for him, and appears to have given up the effort altogether, in spite of Rupp's phenomenal recent success on the world stage. Granted, even for those with abundant talent, striving to be the best in the world (or even just very good) requires serious sacrifices; it always has. The examples of former greats show, however, that elite level sport and being a grown-up need not be mutually exclusive(and many of the best from the 70s and 80s ran times that would place them near the top of today's world lists, in spite of their having, or choosing, to do something constructive with their spare time). I would go further and say that elite athletic performance would be utterly pointless if it actually required the infantilization of performers. It does not. Indeed, participation in elite sport can promote greater maturity and adult insight, if done within the context of a well-rounded life. Many of the sport's former greats managed to derive, and engagingly articulate, interesting insights from their experience as athletes (the best example of which may be contained in Dr. Roger Bannister's underrated autobiography). And it's gratifying to see that at least some of today's top "pros" still manage to do adult things with their spare time, such as have children, start small businesses, pursue serious post-graduate studies, or even just produce interesting blogs. Thankfully, for every Fernandes, Smith, or Rupp there is the odd Lauren Fleshman

3. The beginning of the end for "oxygen vector" doping in distance running?

It could well be that a confluence of recent events, including the final collapse or the Lance Armstrong edifice of fraud, a damning expose by German journalist Hajo Seppelt, and the revelation the "biological passport" system (by which elite competitors have their blood profiles measured and stored for comparison against future results) may have netted as many as 17 new positives for endurance athletes dating back to the 2004 Olympics, will lead to a significant reduction in the rate of use of performance enhancing drugs, and so-called "oxygen vector" drugs (such as EPO) in particular, in distance running. Indeed, the decline in performance levels at the very top of the sport (with the exception of the marathon, which was a relatively underdeveloped event compared with the track distances races until a few years ago, and whose competitors are less subject to frequent out of competition testing)had already been declining back to early 1990s levels before any of this occurred, suddenly making current world records seem untouchable. The next few months could well be the most interesting-- and shocking, for those who believe our sport is largely clean at the highest levels-- period ever in the history of the sport. In short, this spring could mark the beginning of distance running's Great Reckoning, similar to that which pro cycling has been in the throes of since at least the 1997 "Tour of Shame". I look forward to a day when our most talented young athletes do not have to confront a choice between ethics and health on one hand and enjoying the full rewards of their talent on the other. And it would be nice if Canadian athletes in particular-- who are subject to one of the most rigorous domestic testing regimes in the world-- were no longer being evaluated against (i.e. for the purposes of carding and national team selection) a doping-supported set of international standards. More on this in future installments.

4. USA men beat Kenya at World X-C!?

No, this is not a futuristic joke headline. This actually happened this past week in Bydgoszcz, Poland. Granted, the Americans did not win the whole enchilada (they were, unsurprisingly, beaten decisively by Ethiopia). And, the Kenya team they bested was not comprised of the country's very best X-C men (but then, the U.S. left a handful of its top athletes at home too). Still, a win by ANY US team over ANY Kenya team at World's would have been all but inconceivable as recently as three years ago, and the stuff of science fiction a decade ago. And so the U.S. distance running revival proceeds apace. And Canada, through the influence of internet based sports media and the participation of our athletes in the NCAA system, is showing all the signs of following suit. The Canadian men were 9th in this addition, mainly due to a couple of unexpectedly sub-par performances on the day, but are showing the kind of strength and depth to finish much higher in upcoming additions. The same is true on the women's side, where Canada finished 8th, but had two athletes in the top 25, with several of similar calibre choosing not to participate this time around. The mainsprings of this revival are the subject of debate; but, I would suggest that the rediscovery by coaches and athletes of something they should never have forgotten in the first place-- namely, that general aerobic conditioning through high levels of easy running volume is the foundation for success at all distances 800m and above-- is the principle driving force of this renaissance. The feedback mechanism of young North Americans seeing one another get the job done at the highest levels, and finding out how they did it via media likes Letsrun.com and the many athletes blogs now in circulation, will ensure that this revival has legs well beyond 2016.






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