Friday 14 January 2011

Whither Withered Canadian Marathoning in 2011? And P-K POY!

The year 2010 marked the first year that Canadian marathoning, at least on the men's side*, ceased looking like the withered vestige it had become since the immediate post-Drayton, halcyon years of the 1980s and early 90s. After many years in succession in which a time in the mid-to-high 2-teens would invariably get one ranked among the top 3 nationally-- and win a national title, if it were run in Ottawa-- we suddenly have 3 men with brand new personal bests under 2:13, and the promise of at least two more in the same neighbourhood over the next few months. In what follows, I consider what all this might mean for the short and medium-term future of the event. I then announce the much anticipated (at least by me!) P-K POY winner for 2010.

But first, what exactly happened to the quality of Canadian marathoning circa 1995? What caused it to begin to shrivel and die almost at the moment of it's greatest vitality?

The longevity of career provincial bureaucrat Jerome Drayton's national marathon record (now going on 36 years)has been one of the few serious running-related stories that has managed to attract attention in the conventional media lo these many years, and commentators have sometimes attempted to account for it in one way or another. And, the fact is, this record suffered its greatest period of vulnerability by far in the first 10-15 years of its existence. Since the early 90s, it has rested serenely on the page, watching all of its brothers and sisters consigned, one after another, to oblivion. The strange tale of Drayton's Zombie Marathon Record has occasionally made its way into the mainstream media in large part because it seems to support a broader narrative about declining national fitness levels, childhood obesity/inactivity, and our alleged general loss of physical robustness. And, while this story-line provides some of the answer, the truth, in my view, is much more sport-specific than all of this, important though it is in an general sense. Aside from simple demographics (and it is rarely mentioned that Drayton and those who would challenge his record in the '80s were baby-boomers, whose numbers swelled the ranks of all elite sport at this time), the solution to the apparent puzzle of Drayton's record lies in much more proximate factors-- variables related to the marathon itself. Our alleged Great Loss of Physical and Moral Fibre has, after all, not saved any of the other Canadian long distance records from being significantly revised. All records from 800m to the Half Marathon were broken during the period of greatest security for Drayton's hoary mark.

Chief among the factors explaining the stickiness of this mark is its sheer precocity. When Draton ran 2:10:08 back in 1975, the world record was only 2 minutes faster (and legend has it that Drayton himself would have run under 2:10 if the sole of his shoe had not begun to tear away in the final few miles of the race-- and take that, detractors of the contemporary running shoe, which would never, even on its worst day, fail in this manner!). In other words, Drayton was just spectacularly good in his era. If some Canadian where to run anywhere near the equivalent performance today (something like 2:06-7), we could expect that record to last a very long time too. But still, others with similar or greater ability over the shorter long distances followed Drayton into the event shortly after-- athletes like Peter Butler and Paul Williams, with only Butler coming close (albeit on the aided CIM course). What these and others seemed to lack was Drayton's early, sustained, and exclusive focus on the marathon itself--- a focus that saw him stick with the event through the six injury-plagued and under-performing years between his breakout 2:11 and his eventual record run. Most of Drayton's would-be successors (and here we could add men like Art Boileau, Dave Edge, Peter Maher, Carey Nelson, and Peter Fonseca) either lacked his ability over 10k to HM, or else were late-career converts from the shorter distances who lacked the time or the inclination to stick with the event long enough to work their times down.

A new set of variables would begin to appear by the late 1980s, cutting off progress and clearly delineating the immediate post-Drayton decade as a Golden Age for the event in this country-- something of which contemporaries, myself included, had little inkling. It would take several more years before we would begin to realize that Drayton's record wasn't going anywhere soon. In addition to the aforementioned demographics, subtle changes in the dominant paradigm of training for distance running would gradually all but dry up the pool of potential marathoners in this country (as in other jurisdictions where such changes took root, such as the U.S. and U.K.) In short, the new orthodoxy in distance training, particularly for junior and university-aged athletes, was that less (volume) was more-- that becoming faster at intermediate distances would somehow make it easier to sustain higher speeds over longer distances, through a kind of knock-on, or "reserve speed" effect. Discredited in spite of its massive success was Drayton's own approach to distance running, and marathoning in particular-- that of simply finding out how many miles the best runners in the world were doing and attempting to do as much, or a little more (an approach that also made Drayton one of the nation's best ever at 10k, 15k, and HM it should be noted). Now, young runners with the potential to become good road racers, and, eventually, marathoners, were warned against "burn-out" and/or encouraged to develop all of their hypothetical middle distance potential before attempting to move up in racing distance. Most either "burned-out" anyway from too much high intensity work (which many had forgotten from the days before the invention of high mileage training was probably the real culprit behind premature abandonment of the sport), or else never learned how to train properly for the longer events when the time came. The most visible effect of this change, for those with the perspective to discern it, was a rapid decline in the number junior or university-age athletes with the ability to run fast over 5 and 10k (e.g. suddenly all but gone was the junior 30-min 10k runner). Thus, while the middle distances thrived uninterruptedly throughout the 1990s and early part of the last decade, their ranks continually replenished from year to year, the decline of distance running proper, and of long road racing in particular, would plunge the marathon into a steep decline from which it is only now showing signs of recovering (a few years behind the U.S., as it happens, which reached its nadir in the early years of the last decade).

Accompanying the rise of this new aversion to running long distance in training was the failure of sufficient numbers of ex-athletes from the high-water days to re-enter the sport as coaches or adminstrators-- a failure that cannot be placed entirely at the feet of these former athletes themselves. Canada is somewhat unique among sport cultures-- at least in our sport-- for not valuing the experiences of former athletes when it comes to the recruitment of professional coaches and administrators, and for the sheer paucity of professional coaching opportunities, period. Here, the coaching certificate or the Sports Admin degree is, all other things being equal,favoured over a lifetime of success on the field of play. The result has been a sudden and catastrophic loss in the ground-level knowledge base, both technical and cultural, in the distance events. Resurgence in this event range now requires the equivalent of the reinvention of the wheel. This resurrection of knowledge from the old days, augmented by the inevitable new refinements, has been greatly aided by the advent of the internet; but, much more remains to be done to uproot newly ingrained misconceptions about the negative effects of high volume training and to restore the once commonsense acceptance of the centrality of long distance training to long distance racing. At the high school level in particular, work must be done to teach coaches that athletes ages 16 and up are probably safer, and far more likely to succeed in the long term, when their programs are based on relatively large volumes of easy running, as opposed to intense year-round interval training and frequent racing. There was much less fear of youth and junior age runners "burning out" or becoming injured from higher volume training and long distance racing during the post-Drayton era than there is today. One suspects that the misguided culture of over-protecting adolescent children-- which is really a culture of extending childhood beyond its natural boundaries-- is at work here. While it is certainly true that younger children need to be introduced to long distance training very gradually and carefully, higher volume training poses no special psychological or physical threat to post-pubescent athletes who have made a serious commitment to the sport.

Returning to the present, what has changed to suddenly put three Canadian men within striking distance of the oldest record in Canadian athletics, and what are the prospects for this resurgence becoming a sustained movement? The answer to the first question is quite simple: The small core of runners now in a position to expunge the Drayton record all emanate from within training programs grounded in the kind of high volume running that Drayton himself would have done. Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis are part of the Speed River group, which has been the first in many years to successfully recreate the high volume training enclave characteristic of the post-Drayton years, during which several such groups combined to produce the couple of dozen male and female marathoners who dominate our all-time national rankings. Before taking their shots at the marathon, Coolsaet and Gillis, along with the rest of their large and ambitious group, dined on a steady diet of high kilometer weeks, routinely running 140-160kms as they developed from provincial to international level 10k runners. Moving to the marathon was therefore not so much a jump as a natural progression, precisely the way it happened for distance runners in the 70s and 80s, for whom the marathon was, in a way, just another road race. Meanwhile, Dylan Wykes and Simon Bairu (who has yet to actually record a marathon time, but whose talent makes him a threat to the record even on a mediocre day) are products of highly successful NCAA distance programs-- programs that never forgot the secret of success in the sport. And, after university, both fell immediately into club programs that did things the old way, Dylan with Physi-Kult (and, just recently, with 80s veteran Richard Lee's group in Vancouver B.C.) and Simon with the Nike Oregon Project under his old college coach, and alongside the training group of 80s marathon star Alberto Salazar. At the moment, the only Canadian athletes with a chance to compete with this small group at the marathon distance (or, indeed, at any distance over 5000) are other athletes training in the same way; in other words, their own team mates!

Which brings us to the answer to the second question: At the moment, this resurgence in the men's marathon, centered around the promise of these four athletes (with perhaps a 5th in the form of Speed River steeplechaser Rob Watson, who will debut at the end of this month in Houston), does not appear to be sustainable beyond the end of their careers, and all are in their late 20s or early 30s. Unless the current crop of Canadian collegiate athletes adopts their example, and finds the coaching support necessary to do so safely-- and this has certainly not been the trend among the last few cohorts of Canadian post-collegians-- it is entirely possible that Drayton's record will survive almost indefinitely, should it make it through the next 5-7 years. The overwhelming trend among Canadian post-collegians for the past 20 years has been to abandon the sport entirely, or to continue for perhaps a year or two in the same event range as in high school and university-- the middle distances-- with few if any taking up the longer distances, and road racing in particular. At our national championships, for instance, the 800 and 1500m remain by far the most crowded fields. Many of these athletes are, of course, no more natural middle distance runners than were Coolsaet, Gillis, Wykes, and Bairu, who were all low or sub-4 minute milers in their early 20s; but, they persist in the middle distance events out of an kind of inertia that is rooted in lack of initiative-- a lack of initiative that is itself a result of the aforementioned loss of collective knowledge about how to train for long distance events. Our post-collegians have, in general, shown little interest in becoming long distance runners, road racers, and marathoners in particular, because they don't believe they're capable of it; and they don't believe they are capable of it in part because so little in their training background has prepared them physically and psychologically for what it might take to make this transition. There is hope that the example Coolsaet and Co. will help change all that, and certainly the channels for transmitting that example in all its detail exist today in a way that they did not in Drayton's day (all of these athletes, for instance, post blogs describing their training and racing on a regular basis). But, the immediate prospects for turning the current resurgence into a movement lasting a decade are more are still not promising. At the very least, such a sustained renewal will require the development of one or two more post-collegiate groups on the model of Guelph/Speed River, and there is no obvious candidate in the wings, at least not in Canada itself. Creating another such group will require the fusion of capable coach and a critical mass of young athletes willing to take risks, just the way it all began at the U of Guelph more than a decade ago.

*On the women's side, there is as yet no resurgence in the marathon, or in long distance running in general, in spite of the fact that our age-class ranks continue to burst with talent. In fact, a once proud tradition of international excellence in Canadian women's distance running has all collapsed in the past 20 years, leaving virtually no trace. This will be the subject of the next installment of the blog.


And now the moment that followers of the P-K POM drama have been waiting for all year: The announcement of the second annual POY!

Before I do so, a nod to the top nominees:

In a year of outstanding performances (documented in greater detail in the POM posts), a few stand out for their sheer off-the-curve audacity. Among those I'd like recognize one more time, and from which I have selected the 2010 POY, are: Rejean Chiasson's spectacular HM personal best, set on a slow course, while finishing as the second Canadian at our national championships ; rookie master Rick Minichiello's improbable 15:07 5,000m run in August; Chris Mercier's massive marathon P.B. in Berlin in September (and if there were a P-K performer of the year award, Chris, with his multiple POM nominees and winners, would certainly be in the running); Mike Gill's 30-odd second road 5k best of 15:03; Mike Gill's 25th place Nationals X-C finish (Mike was last year's POY winner, and would be the other clear candidate for performer of the year); and finally, Dylan Wykes electrifying 2:12:39 marathon win in California, his last performance as a full-fledged P-K member.

As I explained last year, Performance of the Month/Year honours go not simply to the highest finishes or the fastest times, but to those results that represent either massive, one-time improvements, or exceptional execution under challenging circumstances, whether personal, competitive, or climatic-- and most honorees contain some or all of these ingredients. The criteria for POM/POY performances therefore mean that athletes of all ability levels have a chance of being recognized for a personally outstanding performance. As it happens, however, this year's winner-- Dylan Wykes, for his marathon win-- is an elite performer with now very real Olympic aspirations. Dylan performance counts as both a huge personal breakthrough-- something that becomes more difficult to achieve the more experienced the athlete-- and a fantastic piece of competitive running in the sport's most complex and risky event. Winning a race is never easy at any level; winning a marathon at the elite level is one of the more difficult things to achieve in all of sports. All competitors come to the line maximally prepared, and all are intimately familiar with what it takes to win races; yet, only one can prevail in the lonely hour of the final instance, and Dylan was that competitor in Sacramento, California last December. And then there is the manner in which he won: taking the lead in the first mile and never relinquishing it for even a step. This is always a dangerous approach in the marathon, but it has also been the road to glory for many of the sport's best. Trusting his preparation and going by instinct, Dylan plowed his own "brave and lonely furrow" to victory, a massive new personal best, and P-K POY honours for 2010. Congrats, Dylan!