One last look at the Beijing Games

My original plan was to write about how Bob Costas has morphed into the Dick Clark of sports broadcasting as well as how NBC’s Olympic coverage was xenophobic, shallow and insulting to one’s intelligence.

I was going to do that, but I figured I’ve been there already. No sense retracing my steps.

Besides, there are far smarter people who have written far more eloquently about matters than I could have. Jason Whitlock, writing for Fox Sports had a similar idea as me in that he believes NBC blew it by not offering the competition live. He also sends a warning – as I have – that all of the traditional media ought to wake up in regard to the changing media dynamic.

Who knows, it might even be too late.

Additionally, Gary Kamiya of Salon.com, wrote about how much of a letdown it was not to see “traditional” Olympic sports on TV. NBC virtually ignored track and field, which are the essence of the games.

Actually, NBC chose to ignore track and field – and most other events, too – because they did not fit into its broadcast plan devised way back when Beijing was awarded the games in 2001. According to a story in The New York Times, NBC and IOC chairman, Jacques Rogge, worked together to finagle the schedule of swimming events so that they could be aired during prime time in the United States. But before doing so, Dick Ebersol, the president of NBC sports, had to run the plan the network and IOC past one person:

Michael Phelps.

When was the last time the commissioner of baseball asked a player what time he wanted the games to start? How about the president of ESPN or Fox checking with Jimmy Rollins to see what time would be best to put the game on TV?

Answer: never.

But NBC was so hungry for ratings and the IOC so complicit to make the network happy that they were OK with a TV network setting the agenda at the most prestigious athletic competition on the planet.

Nothing was going to interrupt NBC’s vision for how the Olympics should look. That was the case when an American was killed at the Drum Tower and when political, envornmental and social questions came up regarding China. Instead, NBC dispatched its reporters out to sample some wacky food, like scorpions.

Imagine that, they eat different food in China. Good story.

So when Usain Bolt sprinted onto the scene and suddenly, like lightning, became the face of the Olympics – the unadultered, non-sponsored International star – well, NBC wasn’t having that.

To NBC, Usain Bolt did not turn in the most otherworldly performances in Olympic history. He was a party crasher. Didn’t he get the memo that Michael Phelps was the star?

To knock him down a peg, NBC lapdog Jacques Rogge claimed Bolt’s celebrations were unsportsmanlike (Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post nails it). Costas waded into the fray, too, echoing the IOC boss’ complaints. However, when Phelps pounded his chest, flexed, screamed and posed after several of his victories, they said nothing. Actually, Bob and the gang fawned all over their White Knight and wanted you to do the same.

Please ignore that man running faster than anyone else in history of the world. That has nothing to do with us.

Interestingly, Costas and Rogge sat down for an wide-ranging interview that was divided into three segments where the IOC head was asked all the trenchant questions. But since Rogge’s answers were so nuanced and in-depth, that NBC reasoned there was no way it could be shown to a prime-time audience. Instead, portions of the interview were shown during the gold-medal basketball game, which was one of the network’s few non-Phelps live events. Tip off was 2:30 a.m.

Even some of the former Olympic greats in Beijing backed off when asked about Bolt’s epic performances. In the instance of Carl Lewis, the nine-time Olympic medalist, it had nothing to do with TV, networks or overt agendas. But it had everything to do with corporations.

When asked for his thoughts on Bolt becoming the first man to win the sprint double in the Olympics since he did it in 1984, Lewis demurred with a nod to his sugar daddy:

“He’s a Puma guy. I really can’t say anything,” Lewis said “I said something the other day and the Nike people saw it and they weren’t happy.”

Join the club.

Nevertheless, to the rest of the world and for those not influenced by NBC Chinese-government-esque agenda, the 2008 Beijing Olympics were one hell of a track meet. Bolt clearly stole the show and become – to most – the face of the games, but the Jamaican prodigy had some competition.

After Bolt (and Phelps) here are the performances I will remember the most from the 2008 Games:

Sammy Wanjiru sprinting wire-to-wire to win the marathon
OK, he didn’t sprint, per se. But the 21-year-old Wanjiru ran the first mile in 4:41 and didn’t slow down until he shook off all challengers to set an Olympic-record (2:06:32) and to become the first Kenyan to win gold in the Olympic marathon.

The thing that makes Wanjiru’s run so amazing wasn’t exactly the time. After all, Wanjiru set the world record in the half marathon with a 58:53 in 2007 and ran 2:05:24 in April at the London Marathon – just his second attempt at the distance.

No, what was amazing about Wanjiru’s run was the fact that he kept his pace even though the temperature in Beijing rose to 80 degrees while the humidity held steady over 70 percent under sunny skies. Anyone who has ever run in the summertime when the humidity is over 50 percent knows it’s pretty damn difficult. But to run routine 4:40 miles over and over again in such conditions coupled with the stress of the deepest field ever assembled for an Olympic Marathon is more than impressive.

Sitting at home and watching the spotty coverage on television, I shook my head in disbelief figuring Wanjiru had set off on a suicide mission at his pace. Apparently, I wasn’t alone – Wanjiru’s competitors thought the same thing.

“I was running three minutes per kilometer,” said Ryan Hall, the U.S. champion who finished a minute behind Wanjiru in London last April, but 10th in 2:12:33 in the Olympics. “That was plenty fast.

“It was insane,” said Hall of the pace in the heat. “You’re just hoping the crowd will come back – hoping that guys will drop out or something.”

Dathan Ritzenhein, who finished first amongst the three-man U.S. team in ninth place in 2:11:59, also impressed.

“To run 2:06 in this is incredible,” Ritzenhein said. “He’s a very young guy. He’s going to be an incredible marathoner.”

“I thought I had a chance at a medal, and tried to put myself in it early,” he said. “But I looked at the clock at 5k and we were already out at, I think, 14:55. I knew if I kept that up, that I wouldn’t be finishing.”

The Redeem Team gets back the gold
I actually stayed up until 2:30 a.m. to watch the U.S. play Spain in basketball for the gold medal. The plan was to watch the game until it got out of hand and then I would trudge off to bed knowing that the U.S.A. was again the Olympic champion in basketball.

It was a solid plan, I felt, because the U.S., led by one-name stars Kobe and LeBron as well as Dwyane Wade, had been chewing off the faces of every team it had faced in the tournament. Earlier in the week the Kobe, LeBron and the gang beat Spain by 37, which meant my plan was solid.

But instead of getting to bed by halftime, I was up until the team stepped on the podium to get the gold medal.

So much for my plan, huh?

Regardless, it was pretty cool to see a team of NBA players engaged in the Olympics for a change. Though Kobe had begged off in the past, he said all the correct things and filled an important team-centric role. It was very cool.

Even cooler was when the players slipped their medals around coach Mike Krzyzewski’s neck. Coaches don’t get medals in the Olympics and the tribute to the guy who kept the team together and motivated was quite touching.

On another note… how about that game against Spain? Every time it looked as if the U.S. was about to flip the switch and end it, Spain came back with some crazy rally spurred by some wild offense.

In that regard, it was kind of worth it to stay up so late… or early.

Other moments of greatness:

  • Constantina Diṭă-Tomescu, the 38-year-old Romanian runner from Boulder, Colo., ran away from the pack to be a bit of a surprise winner in the women’s marathon. Inexplicably, when Tomescu made her move, no one else gave chase. The result was an cake walk in 2:26:44.

The thing that made this race so significant wasn’t the victory by Tomescu – she has won big races in the past. The neat part was that a 38-year-old runner is the Olympic champ. For those of us quickly approaching the latter part of our 30s, 38-year-old gold medal runners from Boulder are always cool.

  • Misty May-Treanor/Kerri Walsh in the gold medal beach volleyball game played during a downpour turned into a veritable wet t-shirt contest. I’m not sure about the legitimacy of beach volleyball as an Olympic sport, but I do get why NBC chose to show this one live.
  • Bryan Clay’s victory in the decathlon used to mean a shot at the Wheeties box, or, at the very least, a Reebok ad a la “Dan and Dave.” This time around it means the decathlon and Clay come out of obscurity for a moment or two.

Heck, Clay even appeared on NPR on Tuesday.

  • The U.S. sweep in the 400-meters, particularly LaShawn Merritt’s victory over defending champ, Jeremy Wariner. Those two runners have created quite and interesting, back-and-forth rivalry lately with Merritt winning six of the last 11 meetings. That tally should even out if the pair go head-to-head in European track circuit this summer.
  • Shalane Flanagan winning the bronze in the 10,000-meters on the first day of the track program was an apt achievement for a runner quickly moving up the all-time best charts in U.S. running. With an American record in the Olympics, Flanagan is the fastest American ever in the 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000-meters. Better yet, some believe her best event might be the marathon. Look for her to move up by 2012.
  • The Ethiopian doubles in the distance events was pretty spectacular, especially Kenenisa Bekele’s victory in the 10k. Though the great Haile Gebrselassie made the race by serving as a highly decorated rabbit for his countryman, Bekele went on to set Olympic records in the 5,000 and 10,000-meters and was the first double champ since Lasse Viren in 1972 and 1976.

Fellow Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba set the Olympic record with a blistering 10k for gold, but then showed some range in the 5,000 in a ridiculously tactical race. In fact, Dibaba’s winning time for the gold in the 5,000 wouldn’t have won a lot of local weekend road races. Still, it’s doubtful Dibaba would have lost any race in Beijing regardless of the pacing.

Disappointments

  • Tyson Gay – Amazingly, a sprinter some picked to win gold over Usain Bolt (who knew?) failed to qualify for the finals in the 100-meters.
  • Bernard Lagat – Looking to bring home a gold for the U.S. in the 1,500-meters for the first time since 1908, Lagat, a past Olympic medalist and defending world champion, failed to qualify for the finals. In the 5,000-meter finals Lagat couldn’t match Bekele’s blazing finishing pace to come in ninth place.
  • U.S. 4×100 team – can’t drop the stick in the heats, folks.

Anyway, that’s it for now. Hopefully we can do this in London for the 2012 games from a closer vantage point.

Time to stretch

Will & HeidiI’m not an expert on much, but it seems to me that there is much more anticipation about the official opening of spring training this year than in the past. Folks are charged up about baseball and spring training as if the day pitchers and catchers are expected to report to camp has some sort of significance. I don’t know – maybe it is significant. But it’s kind of like the first day of summer or something in that it might be hot for weeks leading up to the “official” day, but it’s not really summer until the third week of June.

Spring training “officially” begins this Thursday, but it’s largely ceremonial – a made-for-TV moment, if you will. The fact is most of the ballplayers have been working out since November and shifted their regimes to Florida or Arizona earlier this month. This Thursday teams like the Phillies will stretch and run formal drills with the wags from the press in attendance. But really, nothing changes for another few weeks when they kick-off the exhibition season.

Still, who doesn’t like the first days of spring training? Watching ballplayers stretch and go through old-timey calisthenics under sun-soaked skies from snowed-in northeastern cities is a way to mark the seasons. TV folks trot out the standard clichés while the newspapermen get to work on the issues facing the club, such as when will the team add another arm to the pitching staff and when will they come to terms on a contract with the top slugger.

New year, same themes.

So while the ballplayers go through their stretches and cover-first drills, I’m going to hang out up here in the snow and cold until Feb. 25. That’s when I’ll go to Clearwater for all the color and pageantry of spring training. Besides, spring training is the best part about baseball.

Until then, it’s back to the ol’ grind.

Here are a few sports-related stories that actually turned my attention away from the stuff I normally read about for a spell:

***
Bryant GumbelBryant Gumbel’s Real Sports on HBO is easily the best sports show out there. The reasons for that are myriad and too long to get into now, but it’s always enjoyable to watch and listen to topics that get into issues.

One of the issues tackled by Gumbel in the latest episode of the show was the ethics of Roger Clemens’ lobbying of Congressmen ahead of tomorrow’s hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Gumbel questioned whether Clemens’ overt wooing of specific Congressmen would affect the legitimacy of the hearings and closed the show with this:

“Finally tonight, a few words about flattery. Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state and notorious self-promoter, once observed that ‘Those who say flattery doesn’t work have never had it practiced on them.’

“That quote would seem to have registered with Roger Clemens, who, facing congressional hearings this week into his alleged steroid use, suddenly became civic minded last week, and made a number of personal house calls on Capitol Hill. Given Clemens’ well-earned reputation for surliness, his transparent charm offensive was to many— exactly that. Aside from the obvious question about why elected officials would consent to meet with a freshly deposed witness in advance of his testimony, you’ve also got to wonder just how much Roger’s shameless slurping may have compromised the objectivity of those slated to question him.

“Following some face time with the accused, one California Republican came away gushing about how much Clemens was the kind of guy you’d want as a neighbor. Since neither party has a monopoly on bad judgment, a Democratic congressman from Brooklyn named Edolphus Towns, all but fell at Clemens’ feet. Parroting the pitcher’s defense after their meeting, Towns claimed his half hour personal visit had made him a believer in Clemens’ character.

“Now I obviously have no idea if Roger Clemens is guilty of that which he is accused. Maybe he is. Maybe he isn’t. But you do have to wonder why someone who’ll be under oath and claims he’s innocent would engage in what looks like the political equivalent of jury tampering to try to influence his reception before a House committee. You could argue it’s good insurance. Or you could conclude that on the heels of an interview, a press conference, a taped phone call and a deposition…he doth protest too much.”

It makes one wonder not only about the relevancy of Congress tackling the issue of steroids in baseball, but also if the hearings are nothing more than the typical political dog-and-pony show. The New York Times examined the issue, noting Congressmen in charge of questioning the pitcher posed for pictures and got autographs during Clemens’ lobbying jaunt.

***
According to published reports, The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue was released this week. Hey, who doesn’t like swimsuits? But really, does the SI swimsuit issue really matter anymore? With all the stuff out there on the Internet – swimsuit or not – is the issue just another media anachronism from another tired magazine?

Hey, I’m not telling them to stop…

***
One of my favorite sporting events takes place this weekend in San Diego where some of the best runners in the country will battle it out over the hills and dales in the U.S. Cross Country Championships. This being an Olympic year with the Trials in Eugene quickly approaching, some runners decided to sit out, like defending champ Alan Culpepper. But the top two finishers in last November’s Marathon Olympic Trials will be there.

Undoubtedly, the 12-kilometer championship race will be hyped as the match-up between tough Dathan Ritzenhein and the American distance running’s great hope, Ryan Hall. Runners Dan Browne, Andrew Carlson, James Carney, Anthony Famiglietti, Jason Lehmkuhle and Jorge Torres will also be in San Diego fighting for both a national championship and a spot on the national team for the World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh, Scotland on March 30.

Livan HernandezSo who’s going to win? Certainly it’s hard to bet against Ritzenhein and Hall, who clearly are the class of the field. Dan Browne is another Olympian and a veteran of some big-time races, while Torres is an excellent cross runner and Famiglietti has the pedigree, too. But my dark horse is James Carney, a graduate of Millersville University, who won the U.S. championship in the half-marathon last month in Houston.

With the way he has been racing, Carney could make the Olympic team in the 10,000-meters if he isn’t careful.

***
Speaking of the Olympics, there was an interesting story in The New York Times on how the USOC will supply athletes with American food and chefs while in Beijing for the games. Now we all know that holding the Olympics in China is wrong for thousands of reasons, with pollution, environmental and human-rights concerns right at the top.

But according to the story in The Times, an American delegation traveled to Beijing and tested out the food sold in Chinese supermarkets… let’s just say it didn’t go well.

While in China, USOC caterer Frank Puleo picked up a 14-inch chicken breast and had it tested – the results:

“We had it tested and it was so full of steroids that we never could have given it to athletes. They all would have tested positive.”

That’s really saying something considering how full of hormones and steroids (and other things) meat sold in the U.S. is loaded up with. That is, of course, if author Eric Schlosser is wrong… which he is not.

***
Finally, it’s interesting to note that the Twins signed Livan Hernandez for $5 million for one year. An innings-eating right-hander, Hernandez hasn’t missed a start in years and routinely piles up 200-plus innings every season. Even last season when his Ks-per nine innings were way, way down, Hernandez still threw close to 220 innings (counting the playoffs).

Knowing that it only took $5 million to get Hernandez, 32, to sign with the depleted Twins, would it have been wise for the Phillies to take a shot at the righty? I say yes because I like sure things. Hernandez is almost guaranteed to turn in another 200-innings season in ’08.

Wrapping up the Trials weekend

The Big ThreeAs far as marathoning in America goes, last Saturday’s Olympic Trials was our Super Bowl. There was tons of hype (relatively speaking), all of the best runners were there, the drama was palpable and everyone who follows the sport was talking about it.

The difference between our Super Bowl and the other Super Bowl[1] is that the Olympic Trials occurs once every four years and is only open to folks who have been able to meet either the “A” or “B” standard. The A Standard is completion of a marathon in 2:20 or faster, which is an average of 5:20 per mile. Runners who meet this requirement are entered in the race and have all of their expenses paid to and from the site.

The B Standard is completion of a marathon in 2:22 or better (5:25 pace) OR a 5k on the track in 13:40 or faster or a 10k on the track in 28:45.

Aside from that, the only other way to get into the Olympic Trials Marathon is to win a medal in the Olympics, and this year (for a change), one guy in the field had done that (Meb Keflezighi).

Another difference between the football Super Bowl and the Olympic Trials is that the trials are always interesting and exciting even in bad years. Even in the 2000 Trials (which, for some reason, they held in Pittsburgh in May when it was oppressively hot and humid) were unique because only one runner came out of it eligible to run in the Olympics. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh doesn’t even have a marathon anymore.

What self-respecting city doesn’t have a marathon?

Anyway, the one thing that had always been odd about the Trials Marathons is that the USATF held them in weird spots. In 2004 it was Birmingham, Ala.; 2000 was Pittsburgh; 1996 was Charlotte; Columbus, Oh. had them for ’92 and Jersey City, N.J. was the host in ’88 after Buffalo, N.Y. hosted for 1980 and 1984.

The thinking on such sites (I guess) was to emulate the course and the conditions the runners would tackle in the Olympics, which makes it strange then that the ’96 Trials weren’t in Atlanta. But this time, they turned it into an event and held the big race in New York City a day before the New York City Marathon. More interestingly, the course snaked through midtown Manhattan for two miles before the runners looped through Central Park for the final 24 miles. Not only did this criterium setup give fans a chance to watch the race, but also it gave the runners great knowledge of the course – they always knew what was coming.

Plus, the New York Road Runners, led by Mary Wittenberg, smacked it out of the park. The event was about as perfect as imagined.

Except for that one part…

Be that as it may, here are the final observations on the big weekend before we put it away for a little while… the Olympics are nine months away.

Watching people run
Jane PauleyLet’s start with the coverage of the race, which for those outside of the New York City metropolitan area meant waking up earlier than usual on a Saturday morning and tuning into the Today show for the start before switching over to NBC’s streamed Internet coverage.

Here are two points of view on that which probably don’t have anything to do with each other:

Firstly, I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen the Today show since Jane Pauley left and now I’m very certain why that is… seriously, people voluntarily wake up early to watch that. Look, I know most TV is very poor and it part of the reason why the rest of the world hates the U.S., but geez… can’t they just pretend to a.) care and b.) be knowledgeable? When did it go bad for TV news?

Secondly, the web cast of the race was outstanding for many reasons. One was there were no commercials. Another was that Al Trautwig, Toni Reavis and Lynn Jennings with Ed Eyestone out on the course were excellent. Eyestone finished second in the event in 1988 and 1992, while Jennings dominated American women’s distance-running track and field during the 1980s and ‘90s and won the bronze medal in the 10,000 meters in 1992. As far as Reavis goes, it’s quite obvious that he loves the sport and it would be difficult to find a TV pro more knowledgeable about running. There’s nothing worse than watching a running event on TV when it’s clear the announcer was assigned the gig… it’s just brutal. That clearly seemed to be the case with the two mushmouths who covered the web cast of Sunday’s New York City Marathon.

Anyway, more on the media…

Interestingly, when news was breaking or needed a source/confirmation, there were two places I went to first and neither were Runner’s World. Weldon and Robert Johnson’s Let’s Run site was on top of everything, including the rumors which can be quite dangerous. Nevertheless, the first “media” outlet that had the confirmation on Ryan Shay’s death was the Johnson Bros. site. In fact, the Shay family has been communicating with the running community through the site, which has a very tasteful, moving and well-documented tribute to fallen hero, Ryan Shay.

I could live to be 200 years old and I’ll never be able to wrap my head around that…

Another spot I kept returning to was Mark Floreani’s site, FloTrack. Armed with just a camera, access, the obvious questions and little journalistic savvy, FloTrack featured some excellent pre- and post-race interviews with the “People’s Champ,” Brian Sell and his Hansons’ teammates.

All it takes is work
Brian SellSpeaking of Sell… wow. He ran a spectacularly intelligent race to take the third and final spot on the Olympic team on Saturday. Interestingly, he seemed to fool a lot of the so-called pundits who said he was a “strength” runner who needed to take the pace out hard and surge in the middle of the race in order to make the team.

Do these people pay attention or are they up early watching the Today show?

Yes, Sell is a strength runner because his strength is his strength. Pointedly, the dude is a bleeping horse and compensates for a lack of talent (read: speed and it’s a relative term) with ridiculous amounts of effort and work. Plus, as has been well documented, he went to two small Pennsylvania colleges, grew up on a farm in Bedford County and works at Home Depot even during his preparation for big races. In fact, Sell told FloTrack that because he spent the weekend in New York City making the Olympic team, he would have to make up for it by working extra hours this week.

Remember when all of those people were complaining that Ryan Howard was only getting paid $1 million by the Phillies last year? Yeah, well did he get a part-time job so he could build a nest egg and help out with the mortgage payments?

Simply, Brian Sell is validation to the idea that good things happen to people who work hard.

Anyway, where were we…

Oh yeah, Sell is strong as hell, but in his best races (Boston and Chicago in 2006) he ran fantastic times to finish just off the lead because he ran an even pace and stuck to his plan. It was none of that silliness about him wanting to “turn this into a marathon of attrition… .” It’s a marathon. Isn’t that attrition enough? His plan was simple and solid – run as many steady five-minute miles as possible and then bring out the hammer for the last loop.

Just like when Sell ran a 2:10 in Boston and Chicago, the plan worked.

2:09:02!
Ryan HallQuite simply, Ryan Hall’s effort in the trials was chilling. In terms of excitement in a marathon, it could be better than watching Salazar in his debut in New York City; Rod Dixon catching Geoff Smith at the 26th mile in the 1983 New York City Marathon; or Khalid Khannouchi battling Moses Tanui in Chicago in ’99.

“If Ryan Hall is shooting for anything less than gold (in the Olympics) he’s crazy,” Sell told FloTrack. “He’s phenomenal. I think he’s one of the top three (marathoners) in the world right now. Easily.”

Watching Hall surge away from the best runners in America with 4:30s through the hilly course in Central Park was ridiculous. It was as if he were out for an easy Sunday morning jog. Better yet, it was like watching Jordan dropping 63 on the Celtics during the early days of his career when he hadn’t quite figured it all out, but was clearly the best in the game. Hall is a lot like that because he has run just two marathons (the third will be in the Olympics) and he should have been under 2:09 in both of them… do you know how many people born in America have broken 2:09 in the marathon? Try three guys – that’s it. Hall should have done it twice.

Nevertheless, Hall running the marathon is like watching Picasso paint. Better yet, he could be better at his sport than anyone else in the United States right now… and his coach (Terrence Mahon) is from Philly. Who would have known[2]?

Just think if Hall ran for Nike instead of Asics…

Other randomness…
Dathan RitzenheinYou can’t fake a marathon. In order to do one well, one has to put in the work. Despite this, Khalid Khannouchi nearly made the Olympic team and he still might as the first alternate by virtue of his fourth-place finish. If Hall, Sell or Dathan Ritzenhein drop out, Khannouchi is on the team and he says he’s ready to jump in if given the chance.

Wait… wasn’t Khannouchi supposed to be the mercenary who put paychecks ahead of running for the U.S.? Could he get there and win a medal? Wait and see…

It was pretty evident what Ritzenhein’s strategy was in the race: follow Hall. Until Hall threw down his big surge at 17, Ritz did just that. In fact, when Hall took off his cap and cast it aside it took Ritzenhein a half a second to do the same thing. Just like that there were two perfectly good hats laying in the grass (with sponsors’ emblems!) in Central Park.

Obviously, based on his second-place finish and his PR, Ritz’s tactic was a pretty good one.

Dan Browne was the visual definition of the word “gritty” through the first 20-plus miles of the race before Sell passed him to take over the third spot. Battling injuries and stagnant training since the last Olympics, Browne threw it all out there to close the gap and remain amongst the leaders until his calf weakened. Still, Browne took it home for a sixth-place finish.

Olympic silver medalist Keflezighi also turned in a gritty performance though it would have been easier for him to drop out over the last 10k when it was clear it wasn’t his day. But Keflezighi rarely takes a DNF. Last year he limped home in 2:20 at the New York City Marathon despite stopping off in the bathroom en route because of a bout of food poisoning he picked up as a souvenir in a Manhattan restaurant in the days before the race. I’d give my left one (or right) for a 2:20 and Meb went out and did it after a few pit stops and food poisoning.

Locally, a few runners performed admirably in Saturday’s big race. Millersville University’s James Carney, a 10,000-meter specialist, finished in 14th with a 2:16:54 in his marathon debut. Macharia Yuot, a “Lost Boy” living in Chester, Pa. following his great running career at Widener, finished 33rd in 2:18:56.

Michael McKeeman of Ardmore, coached by Mahon and a training partner for top women’s runner, Deena Kastor, was 73rd in 2:26:15, while Matthew Byrne of the Philadelphia Track Club was 84th with a 2:28:40. Byrne’s teammate Edward Callinan took a DNF to round out the local heroes’ efforts.

CSN Olympic Trials coverage
* ‘It cuts me straight to the heart’

* Two-time Olympian Culpepper looking for ‘threepeat’

* Khannouchi still chasing the Olympic dream

* Breaking Down the Trials… Sort Of

* Counting Down to the Trials


[1] By Super Bowl we mean a term of great hubris… like Titanic. When people use the term titanic, they don’t mean the ship that sunk in the North Atlantic.[2] Obviously not the Philadelphia sports media. Way to be on it, guys!

‘It cuts me straight to the heart’

Ryan HallNEW YORK – It was supposed to be American marathon running’s greatest day. It was the day where American marathoners were going to send a message to the rest of the world that they were – once again – a force to be reckoned with during the Olympics in Beijing next August.

In one regard that was very much the case. As evidenced by Ryan Hall’s inspirational victory in a blistering 2:09:02 over the unforgiving rolling terrain in Manhattan’s Central Park in Saturday morning’s Olympic Trials marathon, American marathoning is, indeed, back.

Big and brassy.

So how can a day that began with so much promise and with so many dreams end so tragically? How can one bear so many contrasting emotions?

How can so many great performances by some of the best in the sport be rendered so meaningless? And how can life be so cruel sometimes?

A run for the ages
Oh, but let’s begin with the heroes so we don’t go crazy…

“I didn’t expect to run this fast on this course, especially after previewing it,” said Hall, America’s great new hope in the marathon. “I didn’t care how fast we ran the first half, I wanted to close fast. It was a good run for me. I was trying not to get too excited too early, but I saw myself achieving my goal in the last lap. The last mile, I knew I was going to be OK.”

During his inspired run to shatter the previous American Olympic Trials marathon record by more than 70 seconds on a criterium-styled course that some experts and runners predicted would gobble up the runners and send them limping in no better than 2:13, Hall announced his presence on the world marathoning stage. In just his second marathon, the 25-year old Stanford grad training in Mammoth Lake, Calif. under the tutledge of ex-Villanova runner and Delaware Valley stalwart, Terrence Mahon, showed that he just might be the next American runner to win gold in the Olympic marathon.

Hall threw down the gauntlet around the 17-mile mark and surged away from four other runners in the lead pack with a pace no one could match. Better yet, Hall went through the first half the race in a modest 1:06:17, before turning it up with a 1:02:47 during the second half… talk about negative splits.

Hall’s surge was a 4:32 mile, followed by a 4:41, and a 4:34. For the 20th mile, Hall ran a 4:40, followed with a 4:51 at 21, a 4:42 at 22. He ran miles 23 to 25 in 14:28 just in case anyone might have doubted his intent. During the last loop of the course when it was clear that no one was going to be able to catch him, Hall pumped his fist, directed spectators who dashed onto the course, pointed to the sky and waved to the crowd.

It was domination with flair.

“I felt like today what I did was more impressive than London,” said Hall, whose 2:08:24 effort in London last April was the fastest marathon ever by an American-born runner.

Judging from the response of his competitors, Hall might be right on the money in his assessment.

I looked at some of the mile splits and honestly, I was blown away,” said defending trials champion Alan Culpepper, who was forced to drop out of the race at the 16th mile with hamstring trouble. “I think he could run three minutes faster on a standard marathon course.”

Said fellow Olympian Brian Sell: “I think he’s one of the top three marathoners in the world right now.”

Hall predicts the best is yet to come.

“I know I can run considerably faster,” he said. “There’s definitely more gears in there. I’ll get to test those in Beijing.”

Meanwhile, 24-year old Dathan Ritzenhein from the University of Colorado finished in second place in 2:11:07, and Pennsylvanian Brian Sell rounded out the Beijing-bound trio by finishing in third place in 2:11:40.

Two-time marathon world record holder and top American qualifier, Khalid Khannouchi, turned in a gritty performance to finish as the first alternate in fourth place with a 2:12:34 after two years worth of injuries limited his training before the trials.

Working-class hero
More than a simple reemergence of the American marathoner, Saturday’s trials showcased a dichotomy in racing style, and pedigree. Both Hall and Ritzenhein were high school all-Americans who were highly recruited by all of the big-name running schools as well as the top shoe companies following their highly decorated college careers. Hall ran a 4-minute mile in high school, but struggled with that event at Stanford before moving up to the 5,000-meters.

Less than a year after finishing up at Stanford, Hall won the U.S. Cross Country championship, set the American record in the half marathon with a 59:43 before his epic marathon debut last April in London.

Ritzenhein, the youngest runner in the field, was a collegiate 5,000-meter and cross-country specialist, who won the U.S. Cross Country championships in 2005 – not even a year after he ran the 10,000 meters in the Olympics in Athens.

But Sell was a product of little St. Francis College in Loretto, Pa. after starting out at even smaller Messiah College near Harrisburg. His high school two-mile times were, he says, more than a minute slower than his new Olympic teammates’. A self-proclaimed late bloomer, Sell joined up with the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project based in Rochester Hills, Minn. where he developed as a marathoner. A strong performance in the 2004 Olympic Marathon Trials, coupled with even more impressive runs in the Boston (2:10:55 for fourth place) and Chicago (2:10:47 for sixth) marathons in 2006 solidified his standing in running circles.

More than that, Sell became the de facto “People’s Champion” of marathoning because of his penchant for piling on the miles – running upward to 160 per week with most of them faster than 6-minute pace – and his so-called “blue-collar” ethic. Despite running all of those miles per week during his marathon buildups, Sell still found the time to put in his 30 hours working in the garden department at Home Depot.

“I hope every kid out there who’s not a state champ or district champ looks at what I achieved today and says, ‘Hey if I put in the work, I can do this,'” Sell said. “This is the happiest ending I can think of.”

Even his effort on Saturday morning in Central Park personified his ethic. Not blessed with the turnover of the former miler Hall and the all-American Ritzenhein, Sell stuck to a simple plan of running as many 5-minute miles as he could. While running most of the race with the chase pack – sometimes a minute off the pace set by the lead five of Hall, Ritzenhein, Meb Keflezghi, Abdi Abdirahman and Dan Browne (all past Olympians) – Sell says he had no other choice but to stick to his steady-as-he-goes strategy. Had he dipped down ever so slightly to a 4:50 pace, or attempted to chase down the leaders, Sell says he likely would not have finished the race.

“When we were out in 11 flat for two miles, I knew I had to keep it honest to have a chance at all,” Sell explained of his off-the-pace strategy, one he used to run good races in Boston and Chicago in ‘06. “Honestly, I was trying to run around five-flat. I didn’t have too many miles above five-flat. That tells you how fast these guys were up front. I was just fortunate to pick up the carnage from these two. I was just trying to keep relaxed until the last lap, then attack. When I saw them with a lap to go, I just didn’t want to go too hard. I’m just happy I timed it right.”

Had he not qualified for Beijing, Sell told The New York Times he was ready to hang up his Brooks trainers and head off to dental school.

Instead he has at least one more race to train for.

“It’s been 13 years in the making for me, so this is one of the greatest days of my life aside of the birth of my daughter,” Sell said.

But Sell related that elation in a subdued manner. The same went for the guys sharing the podium with him, too.

“Today was a dream come true for me. I’ve been dreaming about this moment for 10 years,” Hall said. “But as great as the moment is, my heart and my thoughts are with Ryan Shay and his family.”

Death in the family
Brian Sell Distance running, and marathon running in particular, is as beautiful as a sport can be. Bathed in simplicity, running is as pure as athletics can be. But it’s also a cruel sport. Often, every weakness is exposed during a competition no matter how strong or well prepared a runner is.

But then again, that’s part of why we love the sport so much.

Running, too, is a small, tight-knit community. If there are six-degrees of separation in regular society, cut that in half in running. After all, even a beginning runner can catch up with Brian Sell at the Home Depot.

Amongst the sports’ best, the dividing line is even narrower. At one point or another, the top American runners cross paths for regular training runs, let alone races on any weekend in any back road hamlet across the country. Between all of the training and racing it’s more than a common language or a shared lifestyle that runners share, it goes much more deeper.

That’s why Ryan Shay’s death in Saturday morning’s race – just 5½ miles into the run – sends tremors through the community.

Ryan Shay, a 28-year-old veteran marathoner, collapsed during the race in Central Park and was pronounced dead at Lenox Hill Hospital. No cause of death was given. The Michigan native was a graduate of Notre Dame and was competing in his second Olympic Marathon Trials. In 2003, Shay was the national champion in the marathon and won five total national titles in distances ranging from the 5,000-meters to the marathon.

Shay was considered a darkhorse contender for the Trials race, though was well off the pace through the first five-kilometers.

It is, after all, a small group. Shay was recently married to Alicia Craig, who was a Stanford classmate of Hall and Hall’s wife, Sara. In fact, Sara Hall was a bridesmaid in the Shay’s wedding last July. Hall and Shay lined up next to each other at the starting line of Saturday’s race.

Tragically, Shay’s body was transported in an ambulance past Hall and the frontrunners near the nine-mile mark of the race.

“It cuts me straight to the heart,” Hall said, clearly having a more difficult time grasping the reality of his friends’ death in the race than the realization that he had accomplished his goal of making it to the Olympics.

Shay trained at altitude in Flagstaff, Ariz. with Abdirahman, who told reporters that he warmed up before the race with his friend and kept looking for him on the course as the race progressed.

“I warmed up next to him this morning,” Abdirahman told The New York Times. “I was the one complaining instead of him. He was looking good. In the race, I was looking around at 10-13 miles to see where he was. I expected him to come up because I knew he was in good shape.”

In trying to make some sense of what had happened to their friend, runners were quick to point out Shay’s ability to pile on a heavy workload. In fact, Shay revealed in a Runner’s World interview before the race that he had been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and had finally recovered enough to train hard(er) for the Trials. After the race, Shay’s father Joe told The Associated Press that his son was told he had an enlarged heart as a teenager, but had been cleared to run by doctors. Those doctors, the elder Shay said, claimed the larger heart might have helped him become a champion runner.

“The thing that made him such a great runner may have killed him,” Shay said. “But he never complained about it.”

Shay was born May 4, 1979, in Ann Arbor, Mich.. He is survived by his wife of nearly four months, his father, Joe and mother, Susan, both high school cross country coaches. He is also survived by four older brothers and sisters and three younger ones, as well as his large family of runners.

“He achieved through hard work and effort goals and dreams that most people will never realize,” Joe Shay told the AP. “He was a champion, a winner and a good person.

“He used to say, ‘Dad, there’s a lot of guys out there with a lot more talent than me, but they will never outwork me.'”

More: NBC’s complete race coverage

Full results

It cuts me straight to the heart

Breaking down the Trials field… sort of

Hall, Khalid, MebFor some reason ESPN the Magazine is delivered to my house every two weeks. I don’t know why this is because I never ordered it and I don’t really think I particularly want it, either. In fact, I even called a number I found inside of the magazine to ask them to stop sending it to me and they politely yet forcefully told me, “No.”

So I continue to get the ESPN the Magazine.

Occasionally I even look at it because I have a few friends who work there and I like to keep up with them.

That’s just the way I am… I am a supporter.

Supporter or not, I think I am pleased that the magazine comes to my house because there was a quarter-page capsule/preview for the Olympic Trials Marathon, which is quickly approaching on Nov. 3 in Manhattan. Written by Alyssa Roenigk (she has a cool web site), the preview outlines the chances five of the top runners have to make the Olympic team for the 2008 games in Beijing.

It was nice marathoning in an ESPN sponsored publication.

However, there were a few glaring omissions within the five top runners previewed. Included are Abdi Abdirahman, Ryan Hall, Meb Keflezighi, Khalid Khannouchi and Brian Sell, which is good and correct. Any top three could (should?) include at least two of that bunch.

But how did Dathan Ritzenhein get on the pay-no-mind list? Or what did defending Trials champion and current national cross-country champ Alan Culpepper do to be excluded? Excluding Ritz and Culpepper is kind of like having a baseball season without the Yankees or Red Sox. Sure, they can be beaten, but chances are they will be with near the top of the standings at the very end.

Meanwhile, some of the capsules on the runners explain how some might miss the top three because of the hilly nature of the course. Two of these runners who don’t like such terrain are 2:08 marathoners. Now I don’t know much about anything, but I know that 2:08 marathoners are rare in America. In fact, in the history of running, only six American men have run 2:08. That’s six, as in one more than five. Of those six, only three – Hall, Dick Beardsley and Bob Kempainen – were born in the United States. The other three – Abdirahman, Khannouchi and Alberto Salazar – were born elsewhere. That doesn’t make them any less American, but the point is, 2:08 American marathoners are not common and they won’t be bothered by the rolling course.

Anyway, with a little more than a week to go before the big race, here’s my top 3, which I am liable to change in the days leading up to the race.

The Top 3:

1.) Ryan Hall
2.) Dathan Ritzenhein
3.) Abdi Abdirahman

Watch out for Sell. ESPN says “he loves hills and will push the pace, keeping opponents honest from Mile 1.” But in Boston in ’06 where he ran his 2:10:47 PR, Sell ran an even pace and surged during the final 10k where he picked off faltering runners (including Culpepper) to finish fourth. Sell is a brute and a tank and he runs smart.