Why Road Racing Can Suck to Watch

Two Sundays ago I spent a chilly (nay, freezing) morning riding in the lead vehicle at the NYC Half, and before my phone shut down due to the arctic temperatures halfway through the race I realized, for maybe the umpteenth time, why road racing is such a hard sell as a spectator sport, even on TV.

Geoffrey Mutai easily wins the  2014 NYC Half. (PhotoRun/NYRR)

Geoffrey Mutai easily wins the 2014 NYC Half. (PhotoRun/NYRR)

For the first five miles of the race a large pack, fronted by America’s Meb Keflezighi, ran together through Central Parkl, but the focus was on the showdown between Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai and Mo Farah of Great Britain, who are scheduled to duel over twice the distance in London next month.

Then, coming down the hill just below the old Tavern on the Green, which Mutai had ascended in the opposite direction in his 2011 and 2013 NYCM wins, there was a brief tangle of legs. Farah went down, hitting the pavement hard, and Mutai, whether in reaction or by coincidence, put the racing hammer down, dropping the pace from 4:45 to 4:30 for the next three miles.

By the time he’d made the turn on the West Side Highway Mutai was 30 meters clear of second place, and that margin only grew as he essentially time trialed the rest of the way down to the Battery. He looked as though he might have been out for a tempo run back home in Kenya, and it was about as exciting to watch – in short, not very much.

That’s one of the main differences between running and almost any other sport – the perceived degree of difficulty between the elites and the masses, and even among the elites themselves. To be sure, Geoffrey Mutai running sub-5 minute miles looks different than Joe Jogger at double that pace, but only in a matter of degree. More to the point, the only way to differentiate an elite’s 4:50 mile from one 30 seconds faster is by looking at a stopwatch, or observing the disintegration of the lead pack.

In contrast, there’s an easily observable difference in ability between a weekend duffer and Phil Mickelson, or Derek Jeter and a beer league softball player. They’re playing the same sport, but in name only. Watch a pro making a no-look behind the back pass while driving the paint or drilling a slap shot through the five hole from the blue line, and there isn’t the tiniest iota of doubt they’re performing on an entirely distinct plane, if not a completely different planet.

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Play Ball!

As the seemingly interminable winter finally begins to loosen its grip, albeit grudgingly, on most of the country, baseball fans everywhere, who see the prospect of green grass and warm weather as little more than a cruel promise right now, have been sustained, as they have for decades, by one thing: spring training, and the promise of the first real games in less than a month.

200px-GateRiverRunLogoRunners have similarly adapted a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel attitude, knowing that slogging through a slushy 10-miler or speedwork in arctic conditions will be eventually rewarded by balmy races in shorts and singlets.

But while baseball’s first pitch won’t be thrown out for several weeks, for the road racing world, Opening Day is Saturday, and stretches across the weekend with a doubleheader that is sure to satisfy both participants and spectators alike. Continue reading

Wanted: A Sense of History

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The New Balance Track and Field Center at The Armory, in the Washington Heights section of New York City.

Not long ago I was in New York City at the New Balance Track and Field Center at The Armory, the epicenter of indoor track and field in the Tri-State area. The occasion was the high school Eastern States Championship, at 80 years the oldest indoor high school meet in the country. It was also to see a longtime friend and colleague, Pete Gambaccini, receive the Stan Saplin award for running journalism, and to have a plaque with his name unveiled on the “wall of fame” in the Armory press room. Pete’s been covering the sport for more than two decades for Runner’s World, and is one of the more fair-minded and erudite observers of the sport there is.

At the small reception that followed, we were talking to a young scribe, less than half our age, who seems destined to follow in Pete’s footsteps someday as a sage observer of the sport. And yet, when in the course of the conversation we mentioned the old Vitalis Olympic Invitational, where Eamonn Coghlan became the first man to break 3:50 for the indoor mile, this young fellow was astounded at the fact that there had been a meet at the Brendan Byrne Arena, just across the Hudson in New Jersey. He also seemed equally shocked to learn that for years, the national championships, under the auspices of the AAU, then TAC, then USATF, had been held at Madison Square Garden. And when we told him that those meets were just part of a vibrant domestic indoor circuit that usually included two or three meets a weekend, running the course of the winter, it was as if we’d said Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy were all real, living people. Continue reading

This Ill Wind Blew a World Record Good

As yet another winter storm races across the country, canceling thousands of flights and sending panicked shopper out to strip the supermarket shelves bare of bread and milk, I thought back some three decades ago when a similarly stormy winter proved that, at least in the world of track and field, it was indeed an ill wind that blew nobody good.

Eamonn_Coghlan_iPhone4_WallpaperThe occasion was the Vitalis Olympic Invitational, held on the penultimate day of February 1983 at the Brendan Byrne Arena at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey. As any historian of the sport can tell you, that was the day the incomparable Eamonn Coghlan, the aptly named Chairman of the Boards, set the world indoor record for the mile, clocking 3:49.78 to become the first man to dip below the 3:50 barrier indoors. But if it hadn’t been for a snowstorm earlier that winter, Coghlan might not have achieved that historic feat, at least not on that day. Continue reading