Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Six Quick Takes as We Head Towards Olympic Track

Will the Mo-bot win the 10,000?
1. Looking for someone to follow on Twitter? That person is Tim Layden @SITimLayden. He is churning out great, nuanced stuff on track and field as it happens. His interview with the head timer of the  Felix/Tarmoh heat became part of the story, as after Tarmoh read it, her attitude towards the run off changed.

2. After watching a few days of Olympic swimming, I am always impressed with both the similarities and differences between swimming and running.

  • First, in swimming, time is always important. Final fields are determined strictly on time, and it's possible to win a preliminary heat but not advance to the final. This means that swimmers must swim close to a full effort in every heat. If runners were required to do this, they would be destroyed by the heats, as it would be impossible to recover from a series of close to 100% efforts.
  • Relatedly, another difference between swimming and track is the literally unbelievable (at least from a running perspective) ability of these athletes to recover. Last night, Missy Franklin won the 100m backstroke, breaking the American and Olympic records, only 10 minutes after racing in the 200m free. The 200m freestyle takes roughly as long as an 800m running event, and it would be impossible to imagine coming back 10 minutes after a world class 800m to perform at an elite level. I'm not sure what this means -- but here are two hunches. First, the amount of time swimmers spend training is tremendous, and this must be related to their ability to recover. We runners know that reduced recovery times are one of the benefits of high mileage. Second, it also shows the extent to which running is not only an endurance sport but an impact sport. So much of what we deal with in running is a matter of balancing a high volume of training with reducing the impact of training. Alter-G, anyone? This suggests that most runners could benefit from some form of cross-training that reduces impact.
  • Tactics. Watching swimming reminds me just how important the tactical nature of track running is. This is easy to forget for us hobbyjoggers who get pulled into chasing PRs. At the top levels of the sport, track is not about time, but about competition. This is something that I hope NBC understands and attempts to portray in their coverage. Track racing is all about rhythm and disruptions of rhythm, surging, positioning, kicking. In swimming, at least to these layman's eyes, the winner of the race is always the fittest. In track this is not always the case.
  • Bodies. One thing that is striking about the Olympics is the wide variety of athletic bodies. Swimming bodies are so different from running bodies. Theirs are--for the most part--heavy, flexible, powerful, undulating. In this way, they mirror the medium in which they do their work. Runners' bodies are stiff and angular, and to my eye they always betray the fact that runners tread line a thin line between injury and health. They are simultaneously strong and fragile. Swimmers just look strong.
3. My achilles tendons get sore just watching these gymnasts. Holy tendinitis, batman!

4. I find myself embracing my Americanism more than ever in these games. Usually the nationalism of the Olympics is a turn-off, but I am so excited by the current field of American distance runners that I am putting my snooty cosmopolitanism to the side and cheering lustily for our American side. Cool side note: cheering American these days is pretty compatible with liberal cosmopolitanism: Go Lagat! Go Shalane! Go Lomong! Go Rupp! Go Uceny! Go Leo!

Click on this picture to enlarge and check out the veins in Rupp's legs.

5. This brings me to the opening ceremony. I loved it. To me, it was a long commentary on the blending of cosmopolitanism and place that is characteristic of the 21st century. Seems to me that Danny Boyle was making the point that what is unique about London is what it has in common with the rest of the world, that is, it has a long local history that leads into and funds and puts special twists on the way in which globalization happens there. I thought the lighting of the torch was simply spectacular and consistent with the theme. Instead of looking backwards to a provincial hero like Bannister, it looked forwards and outwards, with the yet-to-be-known young athletes setting off many torches. He gave us a symbol of the sort of unity that the 21st century is aiming towards: that unity in difference, a world that comes together through accretion and spontaneous connection, but is no less together. Cool stuff. And even cooler since folks from the British Isles like Shakespeare and Joyce and Hobbes and Locke and Hume have been pointing in that direction for centuries.
Hobbes' depiction of the Leviathan shows a state in which individuals are still individual.

6. Drugs/Technology/Cheating. Beneath and behind all of these great performances will always lie a dark specter. When seeking efforts and accomplishments that are too good to be true, we will find efforts and performances that turn out to be too good to be true. It's unavoidable. What should the appropriate response to cheating in the Olympics be for the 21st century fan? I think we need to avoid extremes of judgment. We can't let our cynicism about cheating prevent us from being truly inspired by the performances that we see. On the other hand, we can't let our desire for cheap inspiration cause us to turn a blind eye to the things that threaten the health of athletes, the field of fair play, and the spirit of open and friendly competition that is what we love about sport. 

To me the greatest travesty of doping is that it undermines the simple idea that sport promulgates: our competitive struggle against each other can, when done the right way, lead to greater things than individual glory. What makes cheating wrong is not simply that it breaks established rules. It's that it doesn't respect the reciprocity of competition. It's that reciprocity and the equality that it entails that makes winning meaningful. After all, if the participants in a contest are not equally matched, winning is not winning at all -- it is simply the bald exercise of power.

It's a great time to be a track fan.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Running as Work and Play

Common sense tends to oppose work and play. We associate play with something like entertainment--momentary immersion that may be satisfying temporarily but doesn't lead with necessity in any direction. We consider play valuable in itself, but a waste of time in terms of other life functions. We associate work with something like drudgery--boring or painful labor in pursuit of a distant but necessary end ($). We consider work to be a hardship in itself, but valuable in terms of other life functions.

This way of considering play and work leaves little space for dignified human activity. It divides life into moments of distracted entertainment that lead nowhere and periods of unsatisfying labor carried on under the compulsion of ends that are external to the activity itself.

In Democracy and Education, John Dewey rethinks the relation between play and work. He asserts that both play and work seek results; both are oriented towards ends. The primary difference between the two forms of activity is the proximity of the ends that they have in view. The ends of play are proximate and more easily achieved. Play feels freer and more plastic because the proximity of the ends of play allows the free and imaginative selection of multiple means to those ends. The ends of work are remote and require more rigorous planning. Discipline and effort are more central characteristics of work because the more remote and precarious nature of its ends requires careful and deliberate selections of the means to that end as well as discipline to apply those means over a longer period of time.

Therefore, for Dewey, play and work are not opposites but lie on a continuum that is determined by the proximity of the ends of the activity. Play is freer and more spontaneous due to the fact that the end achieved is clearly in view. Work requires discipline and effort due to the fact that the ends it pursues are distant and sometimes in doubt.

As runners know, one of the strange and compelling things about running is its status as somewhere between play and work. We get the satisfaction of both work and play.

Each run is a type of play. Its ends are proximate and can be fulfilled freely and in a variety of ways. We can choose our route, choose to do a workout or an easy run. We can choose to run alone or with a group. As we run, we can choose almost anything to think about, to chat about, to watch. We get to feel the weather, the strength in our legs, cleansing sweat. All of this is very much like play, as each run -- especially for the experienced runner -- is like a jazz orchestra of sensation to be enjoyed. As in all play, each run itself surprises us with its freeness and spontaneity. We return home more often than not with more energy than we left, having experienced true recreation. This is the proximate end of each run, the play function of each run.

Equally, however, running gives us a chance to do work. When we choose a goal in running, we are usually careful to place it just beyond the known horizon of our capabilities. We make sure, in other words, that the goal is sufficiently remote. We want goals that are difficult, ones that can't be captured spontaneously or freely but have to be achieved through choices, effort, planning, and intelligence. Just as much as we talk about running being something that we enjoy and do for fun, we also talk proudly about the sacrifices we make for our goals, the pain and the grind of training, and the way in which we are tormented by our lack of achievement.

Louis Armstrong at work/play.
To my mind, it's this peculiar balance between play and work that makes running such a satisfying human activity. When our running is going well, we find a kind of synergy between the play and the work. The proximate ends of each run feed into the longer-term and more remote strategies of training. Of course, this balance is not easy to find. New and experienced runners alike can fall in the trap of thinking of running solely in terms of the work function, as drudgery towards a certain end. This way of thinking about running usually leads to being unable to satisfy that end, as the distant goals of training are too remote to provide for the deep immersion and serious absorption in the run that is both the mark of play and a requirement for achieving one's longer term goals. On the other hand, if we see running only as play, as a type of entertainment with no other end besides fun and frivolity, it seems to lose a different sort of depth. We become unable to relate it to the other aspects of ourselves or connect it to other life projects. It becomes mere entertainment and hollow escapism.

There are, of course, wider lessons to be drawn. Running can teach us that work and play are at their best together. The best stretches of life flow with a rhythm in which the proximate ends of our activity sustain us and direct us towards the more remote ends.When these rhythms are out of whack, life feels like stretches of mindless drudgery interspersed with empty interludes of entertainment. Play feels like wasting time, and work feels like pure sacrifice, only externally related to what we want to get out of life. If we can find an interactive balance between work and play, we can avoid such a divided and empty life.

Dewey comments that finding ourselves in such a divided and empty state is the sign of life under conditions of coercion. Freedom, on the other hand, is something like a state of harmony between our proximate ends and our more remote aspirations.

It's not hard to see the value of Dewey's conceptions of freedom and coercion today. The connection between our distracted forms of play and our collective anxiety about the more remote ends and directions of society seems too obvious to ignore. Is it any wonder that as the value of work becomes further and further reduced to external economic ends that we find it more and more difficult to concentrate? Should we be surprised to find our forms of play diminished to launching angry birds on computer screens when the ends of work bear no relation to our day to day living?

If, as running shows us, humans are at their best when their work and play are fruitfully mixed and interactive, why do we continue to oppose work and play?  Such a philosophy drives us to distraction in the short term and undoes our ability to take satisfaction in the long term projects of our lives. A dignified and joyful life will always require the balancing of remote ends with proximate ends. Running shows us that such a balance can be found -- and lost -- and also regained again.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Race Report: Crazy 8s

Kingsport used to host NASCAR races at the Speedway
Kingsport, Tennessee is probably the last place that you would believe the world's fastest 8k is run. This is NASCAR and football country. Distance running, as a spectator sport, is practically dead in the U.S. It's written off as boring. Dominated by nameless Africans. We are told again and again that it lacks the violence and commercial breaks necessary to be interesting for the American fan. But race director Hank Brown has somehow figured out a way to bring out the whole town of Kingsport to watch these nameless Africans fly around the streets of this small northeast Tennessee town.

Crazy 8s is a night race, with a start time of 9:58pm, so it's either stay the night after the race in Kingsport or drive back in the early hours of the morning. Though I am nowhere near the level of the truly elite runners in this race, the race was kind enough to give me a hotel room and free entry for the race. The accommodations were far from luxurious, and the hotel was mostly empty except for me, my wife, and the 20 or so runners from Kenya, Morocco, Ethiopia, and Uganda that would be racing that night. Hanging out in the hotel provided a brief window into the world of these runners. It's certainly not a glamorous life. As far as I could tell, they spent the day exactly as I did: lounging in their hotel rooms, watching tv and fiddling with their phones, trying to conserve energy. 

 They had all gathered for a chance at an unusually deep prize purse: the winner would receive $5000, and 2nd through 8th would also receive money: $2500, $1500, $1000, $800, $600, $400, and $200. But of course, this meant that the other 12 guys would receive nothing. The winner would receive enough money to fund his training for perhaps 4 or 6 months? Who knows? The runners also had agents, who I assume would take a percentage.

This was no free lunch. In order to win the $5000 the Ethiopian winner Tilahun Regassa would have to run 22:15, 12 seconds off the world record -- a stunning 4:29 pace. Kenyan Shadrack Kosgei was second in 22:28, while former NCAA champion and Liberty University product -- and current Nike OTC member -- Sam Chelanga arrived third in 22:33. The first runner out of the money? Patrick Chiptoek. He could only manage 4:41 pace -- 23:11 for 8k. That earned him 9th place.The man that outkicked him for 23:10, Birhanu Gedafa, would win $200. How long would that money last?

Running is not an easy way to earn a living.

Having all of these great runners show up creates a great atmosphere for racing. Before the start, I ran strides right beside them. I recognized Chelanga's Nike OTC jersey, and wished him luck. He slapped me five, and we headed toward the line. While the anthem was played and a Christian prayer intoned (we were in Kingsport, after all), I stood on the line packed in behind some of the very best nameless runners in the world.

When the gun fired, they were off instantly. They pulled the rest of the field out in a blur down the first straightaway. Everyone was excited -- there were kids and grandmothers and all kinds of people sprinting in front of me. I let myself be carried along, as I wanted an aggressive start myself. I had come with my own mission in mind. Not to challenge these incredible Africans, but to chase a ghost from previous life.

The last time I ran this race was 16 years ago, at age 19. I was really fit then, coming off my first summer as a college runner. I ran 26:07. I knew that it would be tough to beat that mark, but I figured I ought to give it a good swing. It would require 5:14 pace. My best recent 5ks had been run at about 5:05 pace, but they were on the track, and I had actually done some specific training for them, so I knew it was unlikely. Still, I had run well lately, and thought why not give myself a chance to surprise myself.

After 400m or so, the race settled out -- the elites were already way out front, cruising. I settled down into an aggressive rhythm. We careened through neighborhood streets lined with candles, and everyone was sitting out on the sidewalk in lawn chairs, drinking beer and enjoying the show. The darkness made it a little hard to judge pace, but I was happy to see the mile marker swing into view earlier than expected. Out in 5:11. I was running by myself, but there was a pack about 10s up on me that had come through the mile in 5:00. I focused on them, hoping one or two would crack and I would have some folks to run with.

Here I am, just after finishing. 
The second mile was a blur -- more neighborhoods, some hippies beating a fast rhythm on bongo drums -- I still felt good and hit two miles at the top of a little hill in 10:25. I had even made a little progress on the group in front of me. The next two miles, though, I would pay for my aggressive start, as they were long and generally uphill. Halfway through the race, we came by the starting line, and my wife's cheers perked me up a bit, but I was starting to fade into the negativity of the middle of the race. I knew I was running too slow to beat my former 19 year old self, but I took solace in the fact that the group in front of me was fading, too. The third mile was 16:00 -- a 5:35.

In the fourth mile, I caught one runner who had dropped off the pack in front of me, which gave me a little burst, but I was suffering pretty good. So much so that I don't remember much about this mile, other than just trying to avoid negative thoughts and trying to keep from slowing down. The mile markers that had come so quickly early in the race, now seemed like they would never come. This mile was almost entirely uphill, and I hit the marker in 21:35, another 5:35.

Fortunately, just after that marker, the course rolled back downhill and towards the main crowd. I got back into a little bit quicker rhythm and tried to relax and enjoy the rest of the race. I was already well beaten by the ghost of my former self, but I could still finish strong, maybe under 27:00... down the final stretch, we turned up a little rise, into the stadium and into the long finish chute lined with spectators. I watched the clock turn just to 27 minutes as I crossed the line. Final time of 27:01, 33rd place. Not quite what I wanted, but not so bad either for a July race in the middle of summer training. I felt fit, but it was hard to hold onto the fast pace that I wanted. I hope I am fit enough 16 years from now to take a shot at that time!

Either way, I definitely want to come back to this race -- and more than once every 16 years. It really is perfect for fast running. I love the night start, and the atmosphere of the race is great for running fast. I wasn't really ready for the climbs over the second half of the course, but that probably had more to do with going out fast than anything else.

Finally, one thing that was really striking was the contrasts and commonalities between the folks of Kingsport and the African runners that had been brought in to run. If a race can be successful here, it seems like it would be easy to draw spectators in any town. I thought also about the fact that these African runners--many of whom didn't speak English--ended up in this small town. What did the Kingsport people think of them? Does an event like this lead to more understanding between America and Africa or less? Watching these truly elite runners cruise through the city it's impossible not to notice how deeply different they are than the people watching them, almost as if they are an alien life form. Is it this that provides the spectacle of the race? Is that a bad thing? I'm not sure what the answers are to these questions.

Here's some good footage of the race leaders (and your humble blogger comes into view at about the 2:40 mark.)

Then, there are questions from the other side: how can these runners possibly stretch their winnings into a way of life that extends beyond the 5 years or so that they compete? What's the end game for these runners? What will they do when their racing days are over? How will they remember Kingsport? Just as another hotel, another race?

I do know that it was really cool to run behind these runners, and I could feel the energy that their talent injected into the race. I wish that there was more opportunity for these amazing athletes to earn a living and to compete on a more regular basis. I know that the influx of African runners has, in part, diminished the road racing scene because it makes it so difficult for American born runners to win (the first American finisher was Christopher Clark, a Zap runner, who ran 23:58), but their greatness as runners is so obvious that it seems to me to transcend questions of nationality or race.

At any rate, I think that Crazy 8s is a great model for racing, and I hope that more RDs will follow suit, thinking of a race not just as an event for runners, but as an event for the whole community. Recruiting tremendous athletes like Regassa and Chelanga can bring an energy to the event that is infectious.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Décadent et Dépravé: Living Large at the Tour

[Editor's note.] There has been some confusion about the reality of Dr. RVT after his last piece. I'm getting sick of the strung out groupies knocking on my door at 2am. So, let me make this clear. I can't say more, but I can assure you that RVT is fully real, and that I'm not him. 

I was able to convince him to take some time out from his roaming in France to respond to the Letsrun message board junkies and give us his scoop on the tour. The fax came in this morning.

* * *

Boyo, was I in for a kick-in-the-nuts surprise when I emerged from my night out in Metz with Bob and Phil only to find the Letsrun message board playing host to the selection committee for the National Book Award and the Booker Prize.  I had a bad enough headache from the absinthe that Phil foisted upon me, claiming it was a real "panty-dropper" for the ladies traipsing after him on the Tour de Farce.  At his age, he better be glad Le Dopage Controlle doesn't come after his Viagra supply.

Now I had to read this drivel from the board posters who had all run a sub-four mile AND won the Pulitzer.  I was hurt to the bone.  But Thomas Pynchon once told me, "Pearls before swine, son." Or shark meat before minnows is more like these clowns.  To call them pigs would be a compliment.

I escaped Eugene alive, changed planes in time to drop my package off at my editor's doorstep before dawn, and boarded another flight to the Debt-Crashing Continent.  Why do we imagine that Greeks, Italians, and Spanish citizens want to buy into an austerity program?  That's like asking an Italian to move out of his mother's house. Or demanding Letsrun posters stay away from the screen while they are salaried to be bankers, accountants, or real estate agents.  If their bosses knew what they did with their time, there'd be hell to pay.

My editor, who has a real Ph.D. instead of my mail-order one, sent me over here to discover what all the French fuss was about and to investigate how and why cycling culture drives Europeans purple with passion.  I didn't relish watching fat, thong-clad men running alongside riders on the steep climbs, but the bare-chested babes begging for photo ops settled my stomach.

If we are discussing body types, I found out that professional cyclists are mutants.  These guys are hummingbirds.  I thought distance runners were skinny, but Euro-riders make pro runners look like Sumo wrestlers.  They sip on negative-calorie soup to suck weight to make them better climbers.  As my new drinking partner, Phil says, "They weigh less than a slice of bread."

TV calls the Tour entertainment; I call it NASCAR on two skinny tires.  Between crashes, a bike race breaks out.  Viewers love to see carbon fiber and flesh strewn across the road after a 45 mph road rash slide.  The slower paced pile-ups create even more spectator pleasure: cracked collarbones, riders hurling busted bikes over guardrails in disgust while they wait for a team car to hand deliver a replacement ten grand machine.  And we thought the One Percenters were spoiled?

I may have suffered a flesh wound from the message boarders’ troglodytes jabs, but nothing compared to the poor bicycle racers I witnessed yesterday.  There was so much blood, skin, and Lycra on the Tarmac that the French police -who call themselves Gendarmes or something like a Frog liqueur - thought they had stumbled upon a crime scene.  Fellow scribes called the crash carnage the "Metz Massacre."  Speaking of journalists, if I hear the word "carnage" fall from Paul's lips once more on television, HE is buying the drinks during the Time Trial.  We have a bet.  Listen carefully on what used to be OLN, the Only Lance Network, to see if he can muzzle himself.

The scene in Metz.
But let’s be clear: these guys ARE good! If we had Phil, Paul, and Bob announcing the Pre meet or the Trials, Matt Taylor wouldn't have to be writing articles on saving US Track and Field. Instead of "Rupp pulls away", we'd get "Galen injects a needle of pain through the rest of the suffering field."  Brit soccer - excuse me, world, FOOTBALL- commentators are just as worthy, but more on that when the Kraut Customs office releases my piece on the Champions' League Final.  Some grumpy German with a grudge didn't like the way I had bashed his babies at Bayern Munchkins after underdogs Chelsea buried the stormtroopers.

Anyways, the main reason I jetted over here was to take an inside look at the sport that INVENTED performance enhancing drugs.  Let's go back to the 1920's when a French rider faced journalists and threw a handful of pills on the table and shouted, "You think we ride on bread and mineral water alone?!" Climbers once smoked cigarettes, believing it opened up their lungs.  Now every Olympian has a Theraputic Medical Exemption to use an inhaler full of the bronchial dilator Ventolin.  Let's move on to the Sixties when British sensation Tom Simpson died while climbing the moonscape of Mont Ventoux: an autopsy revealed killer levels of Brandy and amphetamines in his system.  The prevailing wisdom was that the booze enhanced the speed's effect.  Jaysus !

These uneducated guinea pigs -- most Euro bike racers didn't do school -- sacrificed themselves for the sport, literally. The died in their sleep in hotel rooms from aneurysms, cardiac arrest, and blood clots during the 90's, overdosed on too much of a good thing.  Then runners got wind of the fun.  Spanish marathoners keeled over on the side of the road during training runs. Along came micro-dosing and all was well again.  All you had to do was keep your hematocrit below the upper norm of 50 and you were free to ride. Dose it up, stay out of racing for two weeks for Health Reasons. Take care of the problem, come back in a fortnight, and race your balls off.

Science has improved and the testing police nerds are thinking they are ahead of the doping curve.  I seriously doubt it.  One of my former runners works in a Cambridge Bio-Tech lab and told me they are working on a new drug for cancer patients. Is it any surprise that performance and sickness are so closely linked?  It's no surprise to me.  Fate has given me the curse and opportunity to look death in the face and say fuck off, but I'm not ready to talk about that just yet.  Anyways, this new drug encourages the body to make more of it's own EPO and ALSO strengthen bones.  Tell me, please, what would be a better bike racing recipe: more red blood cells AND fewer broken collarbones?!

Doped up or not, today's race made history and I'm a sap for that kinda stuff.  A Kenyan won the mountain climb finish stage!  Okay, he was whiter than a Twilight movie heartthrob, but still his victory gave hope for Africa in cycling.

Johnny Hoogerland found a fence in the 2011 tour.
 Amidst all the fan fervor, I find myself wondering if the distance running world could benefit from embracing the cycling notion of SUFFERING? Do we ever hear ourselves talk in a positive way about the notion of a racer hurting like suffocating cat with a plastic bag over it's head? When a runner is hurting in anything from an 800m to a marathon, we rightfully remark, "Stick a fork in 'em, they're done." The competitor in question has usually gone out stupid fast or is simply in over their dreaming of miracles head.

 But, damn, there is something flat fucking romantic about these breakaway riders in cycling just hanging on for dear life. In our big city, big money marathons, we hire metronome pacers. Same with some track meets with reliable rabbits. Everyone, including my cynical self, roots for the upset. Yet, in America we like to compartmentalize our runners in PR boxes. how DARE Bumbi challenge Rupp to the line in the qualifying rounds?! Why won't we allow an athlete to dream, to go for it, and maybe pay the price in doing so? Oh, and how we whine about contact during a race: Bumbi clipped Rupp's heels, oh no! It's not a fucking time trial, with every runner getting a separate start in a protected space with no one else allowed to enter the force field. When racing in Europe, if you pass a runner, he either elbows you in the ribs or punches you in the kidney. If for some odd reason he doesn't, you need to apologize at the finish and ask him if you offended him.

 We all wish it wouldn't, but real racing hurts. You wouldn't know that Stateside, though. I fully expect the next issue of Jogger's World's cover to proclaim "Get Faster By Sitting On The Couch". You'd think we were lazy Greeks, hoping for a VO2 bailout. I suggest a call to arms where we get our rocket launchers and flame-throwers and knock out the helicopter and lawnmower parents. If we encouraged ourselves to risk the fire, we might find ourselves finding life.

 Frankly, the way these bike racers struggle in pain and deplete their cellular resources, I can hardly blame them for seeking "medical support."  Holy feck, these guys are killing themselves.  It is not uncommon for a rider to face death on the road.  Almost every year, some pro will smash headfirst into the pavement, busting his skimpy helmet to bits and never wake up.  They are pushing the physical and metabolic envelope and giving it Large.

And isn't this what we all want to do?  Live life Large.  We take care of our aging parents, we witness the struggling elderly lift their walkers up the curb, and we hope we can make the most of our active time before we, too, fade into that unenviable state. We rage against age.  Wanting to be heroes, we venture to venues like Eugene and France to bathe in the Fountain of Youth that gives us hope, gives us joy, and gives us life. Large.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Fear and Loathing at the Olympic Trials

If Dr. HST were an athlete, he'd have been a distance runner.

This piece is based on some true events. However, it has been fictionalized. The “facts” in this piece have no bearing on any fact, living or dead. Read and draw conclusions at your own risk. Some assembly required. Batteries not included.

[Editor’s note:] I woke this morning and found a thick manila envelope jammed under my front door. Across it was scrawled: 

“Still alive. Here’s the report as you ordered. Pay me in Vegas.”  --Dr. RVT. 

I thought there must have been some confusion, but I opened the envelope to find some ragged and coffee-stained papers. I knew they had found their way to me for a reason. This is what they said.

* * *

I was ten kilometers from Eugene when the lactic acid began to take hold.  I was used to the stuff inside my body during track sessions, but this was something wholly other.  A nefarious doctor from the suspect and secretive Oregon Project had procured some tabs of an extraneous lactate drug, ostensibly used by athletes to help their muscles tolerate the onslaught of extra milli-moles attacking their body under oxygen debt, but as a rumored bonus the stuff could get you high as an Occupy Wall Street stoner.

The excitement of the Olympic Trials had gone to my head and I was dizzy with anticipation of the debauchery and decadence that lay await in Tracktown, USA.  This sleepy university town would soon be teeming for ten days with thinskin anorexic and manorexic runners, roided-up raging sprinters, and elephantine blobs who threw things flat, round, and spear-like.  It wasn't going to be pretty, and the Evil Empire of Spin, Nike, would have to clean up the mess after the drooling rabid fans left town.

I'd been sent on a scam of a journalistic assignment by the most powerful twins in the annals of Ivy League sporting history.  To protect their anonymity, I'll call them Wejo and Rojo.  The Winklevoss Wimps had nothing on these two.  C'mon . . .rowers get to sit down while they exercise.  The Brothers Johnson ordered me to send them readable reporting on such events as the hammer throw, the triple jump, the 200 meter dash, the pole vault, some hurdles and other events that got in the way of a track meet. A real Athletics event, as anyone with an SAT score higher than their 5k time knows, consists of 800m up to 10k and only deals with the gazelle-like specimens who breed like rabbits in the post-race bars.

Entering Eugene, I half expected there to be a Border Drug Control checkpoint to halt the traffic of PEDS gushing like a bleeding artery into town. Shady agents, control-freak coaches, and doctor Frankensteins were all queuing up to deliver their magic potions to athletes eager to make the coveted three Olympic spots. At the ubiquitous coffee shops, naive conspiracy theorists expounded upon the rumors of this or that Olympic aspirant using drugs to gain an unfair edge.  Those in the know laughed at such cloak and dagger pundits.  These java rubes were fools. If you opened your hungover eyes, you realized that those NOT DOING drugs would be summarily dismissed and sent home by the authorities for daring to play the game clean.  The Head of USATF would call these choirboys and nuns into his office and tell them to stop embarrassing the Dirtiest Sport on the Planet.

My employers had given me enough beer and running porn to keep me happy on their leash for a fortnight: stacks of Track and Field News, Athletics Weekly, and Jogger's World.  As I neared my hotel, I pulled my car over at a dumpster and hurled the entire lot into the bin. I needed more room for track groupies in my back seat.  As long as I wasn't caught with a live boy or a dead girl, this was going to be one helluva week.

The Brothers Johnson, my afore-mentioned bosses, ran a website for running junkies. Letsrun.com sounds like a platform for shiny, happy weekend warriors, but it was actually a haven for the seriously unwell. These addicts jammed the site's Message Boards with such pressing concerns as "Should I masturbate before a race?" and "Why won't Suzy Favor Hamilton give me the time of day?" It didn't take long before Web marketers and advertisers saw that they could exploit these hapless dreamers by shoveling performance-promising hyped products down their gaping throats. The Brojos made such a WallStreetesque killing that they could both sit back in their Texas lounge chairs and send errand boys like me into the fray of actual live events.

The 2012 Olympic Trials promised to pit the pissed-off pit bulls against one another in a blood bath of epic proportions.  Shoe companies were drooling over market share gains to be made if underpaid so-called professionals won while wearing their sweatshop products.  Agents hungered for newly-minted college grads who were stupid enough to believe they needed a manager to perform simple tasks like signing a prevaricating piece of contract paper or picking up a phone to call a meet director to enter Monaco.  Coaches with CEO egos spit blood through clenched teeth as they politely shook sharp claws with rival counterparts before returning to their charges to instruct them to rip the opponent's face off.

The United States of Gunmerica and its low IQ obsession with thug-populated sports such as football and basketball rarely turns the ADD-Tube to track and field. Every four year Olympic cycle, the gullible mondo oval faithful hope for a miracle American fan base to suddenly materialize ex nihilo.  Water into wine.  In Europe a Diamond League meet at Brussels might sell fifty thousand tickets in nano-seconds six months out from the date.  The US Mondo Miracle would require that Jesus show up in his track spike sandals and turn Americans into Europeans.  You can short that bet.

But to walk around the hippy streets of Eugene, you wouldn't know that the rest of America couldn't give a shiite about track.  The skinny hipster or long-legged wench next to you on the street remembers their mile PR before they can recall their blood type.  Chances are they know YOUR last kilometer splits during your last 5k as well.  Even the cop who gave me a ticket for leaving my car in someone's yard, said,  "Eugene ain't called Tracktown for nuthin' son."

Then there are the heroes.  Or at least the ones that the corporate shoe companies try to create.  Take Galen Rupp.  We all know of the Legend of Steve Prefontaine.  If you don't, go back under your rock. Or his, but more on that later.  Nike and U of O have been desperate to find a replacement.  They think they have found one in Prince Galen Rupp.  But that's the problem: Prince Rupp.  This baby-faced Bubble Boy is more Ponce than Prince.  While Pre ran with passion and grit, Rupp depends on science and pseudo-parent control.  The former's head coach, Bill Bowerman, was inventive and witty; the latter's mentor, Alberto Salazar, competed in his day with the admirable guts of Pre but now measures the pollen levels at Hayward Field in order to determine if Galen should wear his Darth Vader black protective mask while he races.  Bowerman once said,  "The perfect track spike would be the human foot with a ten penny nail driven through it." In contrast, Salazar trots out maxims like "We need to monitor our athletes' thyroid hormone levels so we can keep up with the Africans."  The Eugene faithful brook none of this nonsense.  They want desire.

 The night of the steeplechase final, they found it.

Floppy-haired, tongue-wagging Evan Jager lit up the night.  Running only his fourth ever barrier race, this talent broke away like Pre and dared anyone to chase.  Both jumbo screens flashed his innocently excited face as he rocketed down the finish straight.  The joint went berserk.  Several sharp curves up the steep hill overlooking the campus, a spirit must have stirred underneath that memorabilia-strewn rock.  Oh crap, I'm sounding like some sentimental codger in a rocker at a roadside Oregon gas station, but, DAMN, we all felt a buzz that's been missing for a long time.

Instantly, Jager had a gazillion wannabe girlfriends.  This is called social media.  I called it sick kinkiness when a power player in timing systems showed me a text from his nubile daughter. "I'm in lust with Evan Jager. I don't care if they stink from running in wet shoes, he can wrap his feet around my face." The after-party hit the afterburners when Jager walked in and his manager bought everyone Jaegermeister shots in Evan's honor. I hate that sweet stuff and had bad memories from an evil experience in a Tennessee bar one New Year's Eve, but what the heck, the Booze was free.  After a few of those pups, I worried I was suffering from triple vision, but it really WAS three blonde leggos hanging onto Evan's arms.  Hell, he deserved some fun.  A woman made her way through the packed bodies, patting our torsos, judging guys by their body fat percentages.  She told me she was a professor at U of O.  No wonder Animal House was filmed here.

During the day, after fans fought headaches by draining down the coffee that flows from sink taps in the Pacific Northwest, they prowled the streets speaking in TrackGeek:
     "Are you sure Wheating has the A and not just the B?"
     "Wurth-Thomas was a DNS but at least she wasn't DFL like Webb."
     "Did you see the way Lucas cratered at 4800!"
To the average American, we are speaking Portugese.  The unlucky girl I had picked up last night when Jager had scooped up every other bar bimbo, didn't speak TrackGeek.

"What does DFL mean?"
"Dead Fuckin' Last."

Nike likes to finish first.  Matter of fact, they prefer to be the only horse in the race.  On the last day of the meet, running retail market share rival Brooks shoe company hired a plane to constantly circle the stadium pulling a bright blue banner urging us all to "Run Happy."  The former CEO of Nike who recently tossed a puppet that title and crowned himself Emperor of the World, was not pleased.  He jumped out of his executive chair in the Nike Hospitality Suite and went apoplectic.  Foaming at the mouth, he screamed, "Who the hell allowed Bitch Brooks to pull this stunt; we OWN these Trials!  Get that thing outta the sky.  I'll buy the fucking air space!  Get me the FAA on the phone."

Then it got ugly.  The Emperor sent his slavish minions down to order the Meet Security goons to threaten those poor souls sitting in the Brooks block seats.  A Brooks regional manager told me he was scared shitless. "Those meatheads were gonna bash our heads in," he whimpered.  Booted outta the venue, they fled back to the fraternity house they had rented for the week. If there had been one more day, the Dark Knight would have sent his tanks into the streets to steamroll anyone not wearing his brand on their feet.

Actually, there almost was one more day.  USATF, who could fuck up a piece of string, managed to make mayhem of their own rules and needed a run-off to determine the last qualifier in the Women's hundred meters.  At one point the befuddled officials announced they would decide which fast femme would go to London by TOSSING A COIN!  Imagine what that numbnuts idea would have done for Track and Field's reputation in America? "Honey, let's find the channel that's showing the Trials Coin Toss." USATF constantly shoots their own sport in the foot but this time they almost amputated it.

I needed to go home.  My hook-up homey had left me when I couldn't get her a date with Jager, and my friend Glen Fiditch threatened to disappear soon.  But before I left this town, I had unfinished business. 

I drove slowly up the hillside curves, cutting through moist Oregon green foliage to Pre's Rock.  I waited for the crowd of pilgrims to climb in their cars and drive away.  A sole figure remained.  An older guy.  I thought, what the heck, it's never gonna be this uncrowded, I'll go leave my memento now.  As I left my trinket, the old codger asked where I was from.  Telling him, I returned the question and he said, "right here." When he gave me his name, I could tell from his voice and movements he had suffered some kind of stroke.  I then queried him on something I was always curious about.  "Who cleans up all this stuff.  I mean who sorta takes care of this makeshift memorial?"

"I do," he replied.
Mr. Shirley, you made my Trials.   
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