Rest up

sheepThere’s a whole bunch of stories that piqued our interest today regarding the Phillies and intriguing topics.

On the Phillies it seems as if Kris Benson is a little dinged up, though that doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. Actually, it just sounds like Benson needs what we marathoners call an “easy day.” After weeks of piling hard days on top of each other, it sounds like Benson’s right arm told his brain that it was shutting it down for a few days.

“I’ve been going a month straight now, throwing every single day, and it’s held up pretty good,” Benson said. “I’ve gotten pretty far along in this process. I think to expect me to go from the first day of camp to the last day of the season without taking a break here and there because it’s going to fatigue out is … not going to happen.”

So Benson needs to go easy, which is how the body builds its self up. Most folks believe that the hard workouts are what makes an athlete strong, but that’s not even the half of it. Muscle regenerates and grows during recovery and rest – it suffers micro-tears and gets beat to bits during work. That’s part of the reason why human growth hormone is so popular – not only does it help create lean muscle mass, but also it allows an athlete to skip some of the recovery process.

Sleep, of course, is an important part of the process, too. In fact, celebrity doctor Mehmet C. Oz writes in the April, 2008 edition of Esquire that people need sleep more than they need food. That makes sense when one considers that it is during deep sleep that the body naturally produces HGH.

Writes Oz:

If you get less than six hours of sleep a night, you’re in trouble. You need sleep more than you need food. When you’re always tired, you actually age faster than you should.

In other words, work hard and then rest up because that’s what it takes.

“If I could take a break now and take advantage of it and use this to build myself up for the 60-pitch area, to bump up to the next area, then I think in the long run it will be a good thing,” Benson said.

Kris BensonOf course who could blame Benson for pushing it a little harder than he should have over the past few weeks? With the backend of the Phillies’ rotation struggling and looking for some help, Benson probably saw a spot or two ripe for the proverbial picking. There are jobs to be had on a potential playoff club at stake and Benson rightfully reasoned that one of those spots could be his.

It still could, but it seems as if some extended spring work in Clearwater, followed by a minor-league rehab stint will be needed in the meantime.

Working-class hero Chris Coste’s memoir, The 33-Year Old Rookie hit stores today. With a copy en route from the good folks at Ballantine Books, we will be sure to have a full review here ASAP.

Allen Iverson returns to Philadelphia for the first time with the Denver Nuggets tomor…


Allen IversonOh, sorry about dozing off in the middle of a sentence like that. It’s just that in Philadelphia, it’s a tired old story that another all-time great is returning to town with another team. There are many issues with this trend, namely, why do all the really good players want to leave town?

How much time do we have?

Nevertheless, it will be a more exciting story when the all-time greats play their entire careers for a Philadelphia.

Sports and politics are always a bad mix, just like it was a bad idea for the Carter Adminstration to boycott the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. But if there were ever an Olympics to be boycotted, this summer’s games in Beijing are ripe.

Excluding the issues regarding China’s horrendous human-rights record, environmental and pollution atrocities as well as the most recent killings in yet another crackdown against basic freedoms in Tibet make one wonder why the International Olympic Committee would ever consider having its games in China in the first place.

HailePlus, athletes aren’t even allowed to sign autographs for their fans as evidenced by the Chan Ho Park incident in Beijing last week.

Perhaps the best measure of protest against the Chinese is the French Olympic committee’s move to boycott the opening ceremonies in August. Even better is the subtle – but powerful – protest by Haile Gebrselassie to skip the Olympic marathon. This is quite meaningful because Gebrselassie shattered the world record in the marathon last October. Plus, Geb is the most decorated distance runner in history with stirring Olympic victories in the 10,000 meters in 1996 and 2000 in what are regarded as the most dramatic runs in the event’s history.

So when Geb says pollution in Beijing is a concern enough to skip the Olympics, the issues are worth investigating…

Like why would the IOC award Beijing with something like the Olympics in the first place?

The autopsy for top American marathoner Ryan Shay was finally released today – 4 ½ months after his death in the Olympic Trials in New York City. It appears as if Shay’s heart was too big – no drugs, no foul play. But everyone who knew Shay never suspected any of that in the first place.

Tomorrow: Lenny Dykstra and the NCAA Tournament

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.

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