The Heat Is On In, and For, L.A.

If you’re a baseball fan, Spring Training is merely a platter of crudités to hold you until the real feast of the regular season begins next month.

If college hoops is your preference, you’re still a week away from your TV watching smorgasbord of the opening rounds of March Madness, which will culminate in the Final Four crescendo just about the time of baseball’s first pitch.

But if you’re a fan of running, it might be hard to find a weekend that rivals this one, whatever aspect of the sport you favor.

Like track and field? There are indoor championships galore, from the New Balance High School Nationals at New York’s 168th Street Armory, to the NCAA Division I championships at the University of Arkansas’ Tyson Center, perhaps the best venue in the country to stage and watch a track meet.

If your taste tends more toward competition on asphalt, there’s no shortage of high-level races this weekend either.

It began this morning in Jacksonville, FL, where the Gate River Run crowned the USA 15km champions, with Ben True making it three in a row and Amy Hastings taking the women’s crown to prove her preparations for next month’s Boston Marathon are right on schedule.

LAMarathon

Tomorrow, the action is centered on the two biggest cities on either coast. Shortly after 7, the United Airlines New York City Half gets underway, sending more than 20,000 runners, including some of the world’s best, through the streets of Manhattan on a route that runs from Central Park in Midtown, down the West Side, beneath the Battery at the lower tip of the island and finishing at South Street Seaport on the Lower East Side.

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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