The New York City Marathon 2013: Some Final Thoughts

The New York City Marathon is now in the books, and my hat comes off for Toni Reavis’ prediction that Geoffrey Mutai was a sure thing. Marathon handicapping is a tricky thing. My guy, Olympic and World Championship winner Stephen Kiprotich never looked all that comfortable and looked like he was having a difficult time covering the leading pack’s surges. Mutai, however, looked impatient at times and ultimately ran away with it exactly as Reavis predicted, even though Mutai later admitted that the wind made it a tough race. It didn’t look all that tough, and one has to wonder what his time would have been without the wind. My prediction that Kebede might be “on the downside of his career” was obviously a bit premature. If he wasn’t trying to protect $500,000 he might have risked blowing up and challenging Mutai. Kebede looked good and I do predict that there are some additional marathon major wins in his future.

I did choose correctly (as did just about everyone else) in the women’s race, as Priscah Jeptoo won. I don’t think, however, that anybody predicted how Jeptoo would win. After spotting Buzunesh Deba 3:28 by mile 14, Jeptoo came storming back over the final miles to win by forty-nine seconds. The startling thing was that Deba and Tigist broke with the pack almost immediately, but really were not going all that quickly. The possibility of Deba “stealing” the race appeared to increase as the miles passed – she lives in the Bronx and trains on the course. It looked like an upset in the making. At a 1:54 into the race, however, Deba threw up and it was clear that she was slowing. I think she deserves a lot of props for hanging on for second place. I would definitely keep an eye on Deba for next year.

The final chatter coming out of the New York City Marathon is a perceived lack of competitiveness among the top American runners. Ryan Vail was the first male American in 2:13:23 in 13th, followed by Jeffrey Eggleston 2:16:13. Vail’s time was actually quite good considering the wind and bodes well for a sub 2:10 in the future. A cursory look back over New York results reveals that the U.S. field has never been all that deep. In 2003, for example Matt Downin ran a 2:18:48 to be the first American male. When Alberto Salazar won the 1981 New York City Marathon in 2:08:13, Tony Sandoval was the next top American in sixth in a time of 2:12:12. This is fairly typical, although it seems very fashionable these days to rue the lack of competitiveness among U.S. distance runners. The top American woman was Adriana Nelson, who ran a 2:35:05. No other Americans got under 2:40 and Joan Samuelson – age 56 – was the 15th American woman in 2:57:13 after decided the night before that she would even run the marathon. I wouldn’t start the hand wringing quite yet, but it is difficult to claim that American women didn’t have a rough go of it last Sunday. Should we immediately conclude that American distance running is in crisis, probably not? It might be easier to realize that the New York City course is tough at the best of times and the wind made it even worse. It has also been suggested that a lack of American-only prize money has made more competitive runners think twice about going to a race that will probably not result in a PB or a payday.

Finally, ABC7 and ESPN2 managed to deliver credible coverage of the marathon. There were some flashbacks to the old days when their coverage of the men’s race went AWOL and only returned after the Mutai’s surge had managed to break up the pack; but overall the coverage struck the right balance between professional sporting event and civic endeavor. It looks like it might be on for next year. On a personal note, I was inspired to go out for a long run and managed sixteen miles. Maybe a marathon is in my future…

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2013 New York City Marathon Predictions

All I know for sure about tomorrow’s New York City Marathon is that it is going to be a classic race. The World Marathon Majors championship series is still up for grabs, which injects some serious additional motivation for Ethiopian Tsegaye Kebede and London Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda who both toe the starting line on Sunday with $500,000 on the line. If Kebede is in the top three, the money is his, due to his London Marathon victory in April and his fourth place finish at the World Championship in Moscow. If Kiprotich wins Sunday’s race or comes in second with Kebede out of the top three, the Olympic and World Champion will take home the World Marathon Majors’ $500,000 purse. Kebede and Kiprotich’s race within the race should provide some additional – to put it mildly – drama. In pre-race interviews, Kebede has been straightforward in saying that the only person he is racing is Kiprotich. It’s difficult to say who has the advantage. Letsrun’s analysis of the upcoming race comes down strongly on Kebede’s side, citing his spectacular consistency, his motivation after the disappointment of finishing seconds short of the jackpot in 2010, indications that his training has been going very well after his disappointing fourth place finish at Moscow this summer, and the fact that he is familiar with the New York City course, having finished third in 2011. Kebede also comes across as being supremely confident.

In the World Marathon Majors competition I’m betting against Kebede’s experience and confidence and going, instead, with Olympic and World Champion Stephen Kiprotich who has a knack – obviously – for winning high stakes championship races with no pacers. Although he hasn’t previously run New York, the hills and turns and relative difficulty of the course should help to balance out the fact that his personal best is minutes slower than some of the other elites. It also sounds like he has been training well. This might be the race when we find out that Kebede – 15 marathons since 2008 – is on the downside of his career, whereas Kiprotich, unbeatable when it really matters, is on the upswing. Of course, there’s also the chance that in solely focusing on their competition with one another, neither Kebede nor Kiprotich will win the main event — $100,000 for first place. Running journalist and racing commentator Toni Reavis has argued that Kebede and Kiprotich “don’t have a prayer,” and that Geoffrey Mutai “is your winner of the ING New York City Marathon for 2013 right now.” (http://tonireavis.com/2013/11/01/geoffrey-mutai-winner-new-york-city-marathon-2013/#more-8745) Mutai is as much of a sure thing, Reavis claims, as Alberto Salazar was in 1981. Reavis argues that Kebede and Kiprotich are out of the running because they will be concentrating too much on one another and won’t be willing to match Mutai if he goes out very fast. Mutai is also very motivated by the recent successes of his training partners Wilson Kipsang – the new world record holder – and Dennis Kimetto, who just bested the Chicago course record. He is, to put it mildly, very fit. Don’t forget that he also won the 2011 New York City Marathon in a crazy course record 2:05:05. Reavis has said he usually doesn’t make predictions, but you can essentially take this one to the bank. I don’t know, but I get the feeling that this might be the marathon in which Mutai finds out that you really do need to respect the distance.

Aside from Mutai, Kebede, and Kiprotich, are there any other possible winners? One of the exciting things about the marathon is, of course, its unpredictability. Many of the additional contenders are sentimental favorites. It would be great for the sport if they won, but it’s going to be tough. Wesley Korir, the surprise 2011 Boston Marathon victor has been splitting his time between serving in the Kenyan Parliament and training for the marathon. Korir is a charismatic and very likeable athlete who is great for the sport. It would be fantastic if he won. Next, we have Martin Lel, who won at New York in 2003 and 2007 (and who actually has a 100% success rate on the course) and has successfully overcome recent injury issues to make another run at it. His last marathon was a second place finish in 2:06:51 at the London Marathon – not too shabby and definitely a major contender if Kebede, Kiprotich, or Mutai falter. The guy that I really want to win is Meb Keflezighi. Underestimated during the last several years, Meb won New York in 2009, the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2012 and finished fourth in the London Olympics. His PB doesn’t compare with the top guys, but his experience in races without pacesetters should not be underestimated. Should the top elites beat up on each other too much, you can count on Meb to pick up the pieces. The very likeable Meb winning NYC on live national television would also be a serious boost to the sport of distance running in the United States.

Barring any last-minute injuries, the women’s race at this year’s New York City Marathon is easy to predict. Kenyan elites Edna Kipligat and Priscah Jeptoo are both vying for the World Marathon Majors prize purse of $500,000 and will also come away with $100,000 for winning Sunday’s marathon. Priscah Jeptoo wins the $500,000 if she prevails in tomorrow’s marathon, while Edna Kiplagat needs to come in first or second (second only works if Jeptoo doesn’t win). Head to head Kipligat and Jeptoo have each bettered the other twice, and while Edna has a slightly better personal best, Jeptoo’s last race was a sensational 65:45 half marathon in September at the Bupa Great North Run. She is fit. I would be surprised if the race doesn’t come down to Kipligat and Jeptoo trading surges during the last several miles. If Kiplagat and Jeptoo are both having off days, look for Kim Smith, running for New Zealand, but based in Providence, Rhode Island to finally show her true potential (2:22) in the marathon. Firehiwot Dado of Ethiopia, who won the New York City Marathon in 2011 probably, feels a bit overlooked in the media whirlwind that accompanies New York. It’s not often that a defending champion is a dark horse, but Dado qualifies. If the favorites falter, she’ll win her second consecutive New York City Marathon. If I was forced to make a choice, I would bet on Priscah Jeptoo to win on Sunday, pick up $600,000, and continue her high quality racing. If there’s one thing I am confident of, it is that the first New York City Marathon after the 2012 cancellation is going to go down in running history as a classic.

Next weekend I’m running my first Stockade-athon 15K – oldest major 15k in the United States. Since the Adirondack Cross Country Championships I have been running long slow distance, emphasis on the slow. I think I have finally managed to convince myself that I have been running my long runs and recovery runs too quickly. This has been a problem since I started running in the early 1980s. Slowing down has really helped with being able to increase mileage. I think it might be too early for the results to show next weekend, but I definitely feel like I am on the right track.

New York City Marathon Television Coverage: Can We Be Optimistic?

So, the big news is that the New York City Marathon is going to be televised live for the first time since 1993. It will air on ESPN2 from 9:00 AM to 12:30 PM EST on Sunday, November 3 and we are also promised a national highlights show on ABC from 4:00-6:00 PM (I’ll be watching this because I don’t have cable). This was supposed to happen last fall, but hurricane Sandy, of course, intervened. Running fans and those who want to create more running fans are excited because an initial press conference with hosts John Anderson and Hannah Storm indicated that they, at least, were serious about presenting the marathon as an elite sporting event and appeared to be familiar with the athletes involved. According to a report of the press conference on the running website Letsrun, Hannah Storm chimed in that Stanley Biwott was her “x factor.” Everyone was also very excited to find out that Anderson is a long-time subscriber to Track and Field News. Race coverage will include thirty six cameras, three helicopters, six motorcycles, and a liberal use of split screen technology. Another saving grace is that the New York City Marathon is not on Universal Sports or NBC, so Tom Hammond will not be anywhere near the broadcast. I have to admit that I am feeling optimistic. I remember religiously watching the New York City Marathon in the 1980s, when it was first broadcast to cover Alberto Salazar’s world record (sort of) run in 1981 – a mix of examining Salazar’s splits and a focus on the front runners, as well as a liberal dose of human interest stories, helped to fuel the running boom and also fostered mass-participation in the populist endeavor of marathoning. As the years went by, however, the balance between elite coverage and “up close and personal” reports started to skew to the back of the pack. I noticed today when looking through a 2012 issue of Running Times, that one of the letters addressed the announcement that the marathon would be televised in 2012. The letter writer was optimistic, but urged that it be covered like any other professional sporting event: “My complaint with past marathon shows is that invariably the producers focus on all the ‘other stories’ of runners overcoming addiction or some other physical ailment, or raising money for a charity, or running while dressed as a gorilla.”(Letter of Brian Schafer, Running Times, August 2012, page 6) It is clear that running fans want less special interest stories and more race coverage

It is also clear that producers don’t believe that television audiences can be captured merely through compelling competition. Already, there are some ominous signs. A prerace behind the scenes show, “On The Run,” airing during race week will include features on charity runners, a 93-year old aiming to become the oldest New York Marathon finisher, and a runner who uses the marathon to get in shape for the world of competitive eating. (http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/run-karla-run/2013/oct/30/how-watch-2013-ing-new-york-city-marathon/)

Public Domain Pictures of the New York City Marathon are scarce. You'll have to enjoy this picture of the HMRRC's Pentathlon in August. It's like a marathon...

Public Domain Pictures of the New York City Marathon are scarce. You’ll have to enjoy this picture of the HMRRC’s Pentathlon in August. It’s like a marathon…

I think what we are going to see is a tug-of-war between Anderson and Storm’s efforts to commentate as if they were at a major professional sporting event – which they are – and the producers’ efforts to please advertisers by pumping personal interest stories. Much of the success of the coverage will probably depend on the professional athletes themselves. A compelling fast race with numerous lead changes, some great tactical moves, and some blowups is probably the ideal way to keep an audience. If the race transpires as it did in 1983 when Rod Dixon chased down Geoff Smith in the final meters in the rain, human interest stories will probably not be necessary. Unfortunately, television has a rather bad track record when it comes to distance racing. It is par for the course that a critical break in a race will be made during a commercial or during an “up close and personal” segment. It doesn’t just sometimes happen, it almost always happens. That is why I am trying not to get too excited. There are some good indications that this time could be different, certainly the commentators will be a fresh of breath air; but, there are some signs that this could be merely a continuation of the same hackneyed, frustrating coverage that probably drove viewers away in the early 1990s. Regardless, I will be watching some running this upcoming Sunday.

Distance Running in Crisis: Some Initial Thoughts

My new goal for the next several months is to write more and procrastinate less. My original intention when I started this blog was to examine running from the perspective of a masters runner to sort out the best ways of getting fitter, faster, and, ultimately, to have more fun. I also wanted to explore running as a cultural phenomenon and use my historical training to make some interventions into running’s greater meanings.

During the last several months, various commentators have blogged and published articles arguing that the sport of running is in crisis. My intial read on this was that crisis sells newspapers and helps to generates blog traffic. Closer examination, however, reveals that there do appear to be some valid arguments that point to larger problems concerning the popularity of running as a spectator sport. Over the next several weeks, I am going to examine some of these problems and offer some solutions.

The first crisis that I am going to tackle has been lurking since at least the early 1990s: spectator interest, so the argument goes, in the sport of distance running as been undermined by a lack of competitiveness among U.S. distance runners at the international level, as well as in domestic marathons such as New York, Boston, and Chicago. This has resulted in less support for U.S. distance running as the financial backers of the sport have perceived less marketing potential in supporting elite athletes. Several months ago, for example, the Competitor Group very publicly ended appearance fees for elite athletes running in their Rock ’n’ Roll race series in the United States. Subsequent discussion made it clear that the private equity firm Calera Capital that owns Competitor Group, Inc. (CGI), believed that having elite runners at its events didn’t actually recruit participants and that they could make plenty of money by providing everyday fitness runners with an entertainment experience, as well as a destination. Why this came as a surprise to anyone is rather astonishing – CGI is first and foremost a media company designed to generate maximum web traffic and sell advertising. The development of elite runners seems to have been a side effect of their business model. Why did they pay large appearance fees for several well-known runners, such as Kara Goucher and Ryan Hall, to run in their races in the past? The argument is that the participation of elite athletes in CGI events are necessary to convince the media that these races are competitive “real” events that they should cover. Media coverage, in turn, generates excitement and interest that attracts regular fitness runners to submit their race applications and pay their entry fees. There aren’t a whole lot of events that a “hobby” athlete can compete in with the elite professionals of their sport. That was the idea behind CGI’s model of high appearance fees for a few name elites combined with generally small prize purses. It would also appear that high appearance fees combined with low prizes helped to restrict the domination of African distance runners that has occurred at the major city marathons during the last several decades. What would happen, however, if someone within Calera Capital or CGI questioned this business model? This did happen with the announcement that CGI was ending appearance fees for elite athletes at most of its Rock ‘n’ Roll race series events.

I think it is clear that with the increasing popularity of color runs, obstacle course runs, and the ballooning of haphazardly organized charity 5Ks –– all “races” in which competition is secondary to “having fun” (like racing isn’t fun!), merely finishing (an accomplishment, of course, for first time racers not to be scoffed at – my first five miler when I was in sixth grade seemed very long and my big goal was to finish without walking), or establishing real, face-to-face community in an increasingly depersonalized society –– allowed CGI to wonder if elite athletes were really all that necessary. There is plenty of evidence that even serious runners aren’t influenced to join a specific race because of elite participation. Toni Reavis provides a great example of a woman qualifying for the Boston Marathon who could have cared less about whether there were running elites in her race or not: “I wouldn’t even know if there were elite runners at the Rock `n` Roll Marathon,” she said of the race where she ran her old PR 4:18.” (http://tonireavis.com/2013/09/16/dumbing-down-slowing-down/) The question remains, however, how CGI’s new approach to the Rock ‘n’ Roll series will affect their bottom line. Will media coverage decline when there aren’t any stories of elite competition on which to focus? Will declining coverage undermine the number of race entries? Will cities be less amenable to closing roads for a race that will garner only a minimum of media interest? These questions, of course, remain to be answered. It might turn out that elites do provide some intangibles that contribute to an event’s prestige and help to spur necessary race entries.

Days after CGI cut elite athlete appearance fees, CEO Scott Dickey explained that the Rock ’n’ Roll series had always been more about the regular back of the pack runner and was “more about the lifestyle than the sport.” (http://www.runnersworld.com/races/rock-n-roll-series-significantly-lessens-elite-program) Dickey’s quotation is instructive. One of the problems that distance running in the United States faces is the separation between lifestyle and sport. It reminds me of the dilemma that the North American Soccer League confronted during the late-1970s and early-1980s. Soccer-boosters couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that although there was a soccer “boom” occurring at the club level (It appeared that every girl and boy in the United States between the ages of seven and fourteen was on a local team.) and widespread interest in the game, the NASL was mired in financial issues that could be partially traced to a lack of fan interest. The public was just not watching soccer – either at the stadiums or on television. The lack of television viewership was a serious problem, as advertising revenue suffered and the NASL television contracts paled in comparison to the money that professional football and baseball commanded. At the time, observers explained this as a symptom of the seeming impossibility of televising a soccer game with commercials (a problem subsequently easily solved), although it is evident in hindsight that those who played soccer may have been more interested in doing it than watching it. Rather than inside viewing, they were outside playing. You can probably see where I am going with this analogy. Running is essentially an individualistic sport of singular accomplishment. Most participants in a typical road race will not be contending for an overall victory. There are, however, personal triumphs –– completing the distance without walking, setting a personal best, raising money for a charitable cause, getting healthier by training for a race –– that make it appealing to each participant in specific, personal ways. This is one of running’s strengths as a mass-participation sport, but it is also a weakness, particularly when it comes to marketing the sport at an elite, professional level. The majority of the sport’s participants have goals and definitions of success within the sport that are only tangentially related to the sport’s elite level.

The problem, therefore, is how to turn runners into devoted fans of the sport of distance running. One of the underlying subtexts of this question addresses the issue of competitiveness. A recent inflammatory article, “The Slowest Generation: Younger Athletes Are Racing With Less Concern About Time,” by Kevin Helliker, writing for The Wall Street Journal, argued that along with the mass-participation ethos of road racing there was an “embrace of mediocrity” as younger runners just didn’t seem to be all that interested in getting faster or even competing. (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324807704579085084130007974) Instead of recognizing the likelihood that increasing marathon times reflect the healthy influx of less experienced runners participating in the sport in record numbers, he draws the conclusion, instead, that this is indicative of a more general competitive malaise among Americans. Helliker goes on to quote the ubiquitous Toni Reavis: “This is emblematic of the state of America’s competitiveness, and should be a concern to us all.” This crisis of competitiveness sounds similar to the crisis of masculinity that commentators identified at the beginning of the twentieth century that was subsequently “solved” by Teddy Roosevelt taking sparring lessons in the White House and sending U.S. troops to Central and South America on a regular basis during the twentieth century. It is a stretch, however, to equate increasing road race times with a crisis in competitiveness –– especially the competitiveness of professional runners –– when there is plenty of evidence to indicate that U.S. professionals are actually getting more competitive. I’ll defer this discussion for a later blog.

This lack of competitiveness that Helliker and Reavis identify, however, could be quite useful in understanding why runners don’t become fans of the sport. I think they reach the wrong conclusions about “competitiveness.” Rather than leading to mediocrity at the professional level, disinterest in competition among everyday fitness runners leads to a lack of desire to become fans of the sport. Just because you love running and it has become part of your “lifestyle” does not mean that you are an active participant in the “sport” of running. I’m not sure if inculcating a new, more competitive ethos in the average road race participant is possible or even desirable (I think there are some signs that over competitiveness and a complete focus on racing could sour some people on the more community-oriented aspects of the sport.) as a way to increase fan interest in distance running. It is possible, for instance, that we are conflating two separate issues. There is, however, another possible intervention, that could generate interest among the general public in the sport and that is by revamping the sport itself by making it more media and fan friendly. How to go about doing this is a topic that deserves several blog entries. I am going to initially focus on one reform suggested by journalists such as Toni Reavis and Running Times columnist Parker Morse. This is the adoption of team competition for distance running to overcome the fact that the competitiveness of the sport at the international level precludes –– except in rare instances (Morse points out that Bill Rodgers is intimately associated with the Boston Marathon and Greta Waitz with New York) –– the association of an individual athlete with a specific marathon. This lack of consistency undermines fans’ desire to follow distance running. The solution is to cultivate running teams similar to other professional sports teams, that spectators could follow over time and to which they could develop loyalty.

One of Reavis’ ideas, earlier foreshadowed by Morse in his Running Times’ column, “In Search of Continuity: Why teams would work better than records to build our sport” (http://www.runnersworld.com/rt-columns/search-continuity), is to develop running teams that would represent cities. Reavis briefly describes this team-based response as a way to popularize track and field, as well as road racing, in his blog of September 28, 2013, entitled, “Team-Based Competitions Rather Than Individuals.” (http://tonireavis.com/2013/09/28/team-based-competitions-rather-than-individuals/#more-8363) The individual runner would be incorporated within the identity of a team. This is a good idea since one of the problems with distance running is that top runners often get injured and drop out before the race even starts, thus hampering the ability of spectators to follow a specific athlete on a regular basis. Team competition might lessen some of this disappointment by fostering spectator loyalty with a city-identified team. True baseball fans, for instance, don’t stop following, or, more importantly, watching the Boston Red Sox because Dustin Pedroia has spent the last two weeks on injured reserve. They also didn’t stop following the Red Sox when Yaz retired. The idea is that fan loyalty and interest, as well as continued viewership, will increase when the public identifies more strongly with a team than a specific individual on the team. Ultimately, then, the development of team competition based on cities will overcome the fan loyalty pitfalls associated with a sport in which individual accomplishment is often the only indicator of professional success. The team competition model also allows us to avoid thinking that the only way to solve the spectator problem is to make everyday fitness runners more competitive and that somehow this will make them more interested in watching specific athletes. The city team model has a lot to offer and deserves to be realistically assessed and, hopefully, implemented.

If you have stayed with me so far, I can say that this is merely the beginning of my ongoing examination of the crises associated with the sport of distance running. Next time, I’m going to discuss the unanticipated results of professionalization on the sport.

Just completed the Hudson Mohawk Half Marathon on October 13, 2013

Just completed the Hudson Mohawk Half Marathon on October 13, 2013

In other news, I’m still a fan of my Hoka One One Bondi Bs, although the sole wear really needs to be improved. My training is going well and I have started to finally heed the advice about running my recovery and long runs much more slowly – 9:30-10:00 minute per mile pace. I definitely feel better the next day and I am confident that I will be able to use this strategy to boost my mileage. My last race was the USATF Adirondack Cross Country Championships where I ran several seconds under twenty minutes. I good result for me, since I really didn’t see myself breaking twenty on the Saratoga Cross Country course anytime soon.

Finally, as part of my efforts to spend more time writing, move to the next level of blogging, and attract more readers, I have installed a PayPal donation button. My intention is to keep my blog clean and free from advertising links, but raise some funds to help with coffee and beer expenditures. I would be much appreciative of any support – thanks.