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!