Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Manchester Road Race Report--A "Fantasy" Race

I'm actually a little embarrassed about it, but I had a "fantasy day" race at Manchester on Thanksgiving Day, running 30:47 and winning my age-group, the 60+ division. Before the race, I had been expecting something in the mid-31:00s and had said that anything under 31:00 would amount to a fantasy race. I'm chagrined about my effort, because I think I ought to be able to come closer to predicting my times. And when I run something faster than predicted, I feel that I sandbagged a little. In this case, however, I'll take the result; it was certainly hard earned.

After popping a couple of caffeine pills 40 minutes before the start, I went out in 6:00 flat for the mile. Too fast. My 27-yr-old nephew Jeff went around me at the 800, noting, "Either I'm running too slow or you're running too fast." It was the latter. After the mile, I basically suffered all the way to the finish, but apparently I managed to hold together reasonably well.

I've been thinking about winning an age-group award at Manchester for a long, long time. When I was a high schooler in CT, I won the high school division at Manchester, and I won the open division a bunch of times, but I never came remotely close to winning an age-group award. My friend Ray Crothers did achieve the one-race Triple Crown at Manchester, winning in the high school, open, and masters divisions. My victory Thursday in the 60+ division wasn't the equivalent of winning a 40+ masters title, which Ray did, but I'm going to consider it my own little mini Triple Crown just the same.

Don't get the wrong impression. I didn't do anything very special. The Manchester course record for 60+ is the 27:58 that Joe Fernandez ran in 1991. My time was almost 3 minutes slower. Fernandez came back 8 years later in 1999, when he was apparently 70, and set the record for 70+ at Manchester with an amazing 31:44. When you look at the top level of age-group records, you can only shake your head in astonishment.

I'll never be as fast as Fernandez and many others, but at least I can hope to keep on keeping on. I've run 44 Manchesters in a row now, so I'm still inching my way along to the 50-straight mark. That's how many Charlie "Doc" Robbins ran consecutively before he retired from racing. Speaking of Doc, we had a great "Barefoot Warmup" in his honor at Manchester, despite the cold, wet roads. And his daughter Barrie finished third in her 60+ age-group. Here's a link to the Hartford Courant story about the Warmup.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Charlie Robbins Barefoot Warmup

Here's the last reminder about the Charlie "Doc" Robbins Memorial Barefoot Warmup that will take place before the Manchester Road Race 5-Miler on Thanksgiving morning in Manchester CT. The Barefoot Warmup will begin at 9 am just north of the intersection of Main St. and Charter Oak St. In other words, we'll be at the .4 mile mark of the road race course, just before the sharp left-hand turn.

I'll be there in a red and black checkered CPO jacket just like the one Doc often wore to cross-country practices when I was an undergrad at Wesleyan University, where he would join us for Wednesday afternoon practices (rather than going golfing like all his other M.D. colleagues.) I'll be holding my race shoes high overhead in my hands, and spanking the road with nothing but my naked tootsies. I hope you'll join me and do the same.

Once we've got a decent group together, we'll jog barefoot up Main St. toward the start line. I'm told there are photographers and video crews interested in getting
a few shots, and I'm sure Manchester's always friendly spectators will appreciate what we're doing. Also, while I'm not positive about this, I think we'll probably set a world record for a Barefoot Warmup. Given that I've never heard of one before.

I know this all sounds a little silly for a memorial. But the moment I came up with the idea, I felt that it was perfectly right for "Doc." He was a little impish, after all, with that sly grin and twinkling eye of his. And his family and the Road Race Committe have been fully supportive from the beginning. Manchester was "Doc's" home, and the place where he ran 50-straight Thanksgiving Day races, winning twice, and delighting us all for so many years with his barefoot prance around the classic Manchester loop.

So we'll warm up the way he did (it's cool to wear a pair of thick socks, if that will make you more comfortable), and we'll have some fun, and we'll remember the Good Doctor who taught us that the simple way is often the best. We'll do one big loop up near the start area and back, or maybe two if we're enjoying it too much.

And then we'll be finished just 10 to 15 minutes after we started, giving everyone plenty of time to lace on their racing shoes, strip off their sweat clothes, and head up to their appointed positions at the start line. I hope you have a great race.

I know I will. Because I'll be thinking about Charlie Robbins the whole way around, and that pretty much guarantees that I'll be running with a big smile on my face.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Three Days And Counting

My big Thanksgiving Day race in Manchester is only 3 days away, so it's time to take stock, and I have to admit that everything has gone just fine. In other words, I haven't planned well. As every veteran runner knows, there are two key parts to a successful training plan: Do lots of solid workouts; and invent plenty of excuses--excuses that you'll be ready to bandy about after a disappointing performance.

I've failed miserably at part two: no injuries, no missed training sessions, no excuses.

Unfortunately, this doesn't mean I'm going to have a great race. I've trained well, but I don't seem to have gotten much fitter and faster. This is part of the mystery of training: Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

Last April, prior to the Runner's World Half Marathon, I could feel my training come together a week or two before the Half. I knew I was ready for a good race-day effort, and that's what I got: a 1:28:30 half marathon, my best in a number of years.

This fall I figured I'd (1) train harder, (2) lose a few more pounds, and (3) get faster. I achieved numbers 1 and 2, but number 3 never happened. Like I said, the mystery of training. I've had workouts such as 6 x 800 in 3:03 (on a slightly downhill treadmill) and 4-mile tempo runs at about 6:45 pace, but I was expecting more. Not much more, just a nice little breakthrough at some point.

It didn't come. Still, I'm determined to run to my limit on Thursday. Here are my times for the 4.75-mile course the last 4 years, working backward from last year, 2005--32:20, 31:03, 32:15, 32:31. My new division, the 60-69 division, has been won with about a 31:40 the last couple of years.

Since a personal Blog is nothing if it doesn't get truly personal, I'm going out on a limb here to predict what I'll run on Thursday. These guesstimates assume that the weather isn't a big negative factor: Good Day (31:40), Great Day (31:10), Fantasy Day (sub-31:00). Anything less than the Good Day 31:40 would be a real disappointment. Especially since I don't have any excuses at the ready.

The Fantasy Day result is the one I thought I could achieve 2 months ago. Now it seems largely out of reach. But that's why they hold the race, isn't it? To see how far we can stretch ourselves.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Charlie Robbins Remembered By Ted Corbitt

The great American marathoner, Olympian, ultramarathoner, Road Runners Club organizer and course-certification pioneer (and that's only a beginning, but whew!) Ted Corbitt traveled to Middletown by several buses in late August to attend a rememberance get-together for "Doc" Charlie Robbins, who died at age 85 last August 10. With him, Corbitt carried 5 typed pages of his memories of Robbins. He gave these to Robbins daughter, Barrie, who sent me a copy. Herewith, some excerpts:

*** Had there been no World War II, Dr. Robbins, a talented national marathon champ, would have made an Olympic Team. With training and remaining injury free, he might have made two or three Olympic Teams.

*** Charlie did not exploit his gifted talents fully, but he did cop 11 National Championships>> 5 x 20K; 2 x 25K; 2 x 30K; and 2 Marathon Championships. He was inducted into the Road Runners Hall of Fame in 1974.

*** He was reported to be a light trainer, meaning that he did not train hard and long enough to develop his talents fully. He had the potential to become the first American marathoner to break 2:20, but he would have had to train his body to hold a sub-5:20-pace past the 20-mile mark.

*** An early newsletter of the New York Road Runners Club recorded Doc Robbins as the first person to advocate co-ed road running.

*** Some time in the 1950s, Doc Robbins and two friends had just started a workout from a park near Yankee Stadium, laughing and gabbing as they ran, when a cement truck driver pulled up next to them and yelled, "Why don't you bums go get a job?"
The runners were Herb Benario, a Ph.D. college professor; Aldo Scandurra, an already well-to-do electrical engineer working on his Ph.D. dissertation; and Robbins, an M.D.

*** While most runners do some sort of warmup, Doc Robbins tended not to bother. He preferred to just stand around talking.

*** At one National Championship 20-K, Doc Robbins apparently decided to have some fun, so he started the race from a crouch start like that used by sprinters. Robbins won the race, probably the only National road race championship for a crouch-start runner.

*** Charlie had one quality that's rare among the great champions: He enjoyed running even when there was no hope that he could win. When Charlie was not in good shape, he often raced anyway, purely for the run of it.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Manchester Road Race: "The Charlie Robbins Barefoot Warmup"

I hope you'll join me for a lowkey--he wouldn't have done it any other way--"Charlie Robbins Memorial Barefoot Warmup" at about 9 am on Manchester Road Race morning in Manchester. We'll gather at the south end of Main Street (at the corner of Main and Charter Oak Street) and jog barefoot up toward the start area and back.

This unofficial Memorial Warmup has been approved by the Manchester Road Race Committee. They've even volunteered to have special crews sweep the street clean for us. They ask only that we start at the south end of Main Street, and that we're finished early enough (like 9:20 am) for everyone to make their way to the Start (10 am) in an orderly fashion.

I'd suggest carrying your race shoes and socks in your hands as we do this Warmup. That's what I'm planning to do. I'm also thinking of wearing old torn khakis and a Navy CPO jacket of some kind. And maybe thick, black framed glasses such as those Charlie wore. But I'm blind and lousy at costumes, so I'm not sure I'll be able to pull this off.

As you can tell, I believe this Memorial Warmup should be a fun remembrance. We don't need any speeches. Doc wasn't a big talker, after all. He let his feet do the talking, and we should do the same.

I'm sure several members of Doc's family will join us. I haven't talked to Bill Rodgers yet, but I will. And I'm hoping he'll be there too.

See you Thanksgiving morning.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Rating Sports By Drug Effectiveness

This post is basically a restatement of the previous one. It's a writing experiment of sorts. There are many ways to say the same thing, after all.

The last post tried to make the point that drug-use in a sport is related to the effectiveness of drugs at improving performances in that sport. In other words, if blood-doping doesn't improve running performances, then no runners will blood-dope, and distance running will have no drug-related issues. If blood-doping works, then runners will be tempted to try it.

Below I rate various sports according to the degree to which doping (primarily steroids/testosterone/hgh, or blood boosting of various sorts, including EPO) will improve performance in the sport. The top score is 100, which I have arbitrarily assigned to weight lifting. The lowest score is 0, which I have arbitrarily assigned to table tennis. All other sports fall somewhere inbetween. The higher a sport's rating, according to this system, the more likely that the sport will have doping-related problems. (The amount of money involved in a sport also influcences drug-use, with bigger-money sports attracting more drugs, but I don't want to deal with the $$$ effect in this column.)

This is not a scientific ranking, and I am providing no explanations, as that would eat up too much space. You're invited to give your own ratings and explanations in the "Comments" section.

Rating Sports According To The Degree That Drugs Improve Performance In The Given Sport

Weight lifting: 100
Bicycling, multiday events: 90
Shot: 90
Running, sprints: 80
Running, distance: 80
Bicycling, one-day endurance events: 70
Running, mile: 70
Crew and Rowing: 70
Football, linemen: 70
Boxing: 60
Bicycling, sprints: 60
Swimming, sprints: 60
Swimming, distance: 60
Baseball, batter: 50
Javelin: 50
Sumo: 50
Speed Skating: 50
Football, backfield: 40
Baseball, pitcher: 30
Soccer: 30
Basketball: 20
Hockey: 20
Pole vault: 20
High jump: 10
Golf: 10
Archery: 10
Tennis: 10
Golf: 10
Figure skating: 10
Yachting: 10
Equestrian: 0 (unless the horse is doped)
Table Tennis: 0

Please use the "Comments" to add new sports, and/or give your own ratings and explanations.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Why Runners Take Drugs, And Fail Doping Tests

Some friends who've got a better pulse on the track world than I do began telling me several weeks ago, after the Floyd Landis and Justin Gatlin escapades, that more big names were going to fall. They evidently knew something. Marion Jones and LaTasha Jenkins have since failed doping tests, at least if we're to believe reports of their "A" sample results that have been widely circulated. I don't know if there are more to come. Several big names are in play, among the track gossip crowd, but who really knows?

I do know one thing, however. It would be wrong to assume that track is an unusually "dirty" sport, certainly not in the sense of betting and street drugs and broken arms and unsavory characters. The opposite is much more true. Track and road running are probably the most uplifting sports anyone can think of. Craig Masback and his friends aren't making this stuff up. It's the truth. Just consider all the youth events, and the charity fund raising, and the middle-agers fighting the $100 billion obesity epidemic, and the old farts who are absolutely astounding in their determination and achievements, and the unbelievable support for women on the playing field.

Track and field and running in general are the ultimate, mass participation, good-for-you and good-for-your-community sports.

So why do so many big-name track athletes apparently take drugs? And fail doping tests? That's simple. Because drugs work better for runners than they do for athletes in other sports. The payoff is direct and immediate.

Imagine for a moment the world's best table-tennis player. Now imagine that player on steroids. Is he any better? No way.

Or imagine Michelle Wie, the slender, long-hitting golf prodigy. Now imagine Wie on EPO. Is she any better? Not a chance. On steroids then? Would more testosterone help Wie or Tiger Woods hit the ball farther and straighter? You might be able to construct an argument for this one, but I don't think you'd gain many supporters. What Wie and Woods both have isn't something that would be improved by thicker muscle fibers or more red blood cells.

However, a sprinter with more powerful muscle fibers, courtesy of steroids, will almost certainly run faster. If you don't believe that, I give you Exhibit A: Ben Johnson, 1988. A distance runner with more red blood cells (thank you EPO), in balance with his total blood plasma, will almost certainly run faster for longer, which is what we distance runners breathe and sleep and train and eat to do.

Runners are pure physiology textbooks on legs. We don't swing bats or clubs, we don't throw or catch various spheres, and technique is essentially non-existent. Who doesn't know how to run? We learn it shortly after learning to toddle, right? (Funny aside: After Gerry Lindgren won the 1967 NCAA XC Championships in frigid Laramie, WY, I heard him explain to several reporters that his success was based on the fact that he was a left-footed runner. "I always lead with my left foot," Lindgren said. Let me tell you, the pencils were moving fast, the reporters' notebooks filling with this startling information.

Imagine a blind runner. Could he be the world record holder for 100 meters or the marathon? Physiologically, the answer is certainly yes, though certain practical issues would have to be overcome. Try to name another sport where a blind person could become the world's best. (I'm sure there are some that I'm not thinking of right now, but I bet there aren't many. Oh, sure, weight-lifting. Pure physiology. Pure steroid world.)

This isn't to make excuses for runners who take drugs. There are no acceptable excuses. But I would like people to understand that the seemingly large number of drug offenders among runners doesn't mean that running and track/field are dirty sports. They aren't; they're the exact opposite--fresh, open-to-all, extremely exciting and rewarding sports.

But they're also sports wherein, if you choose to take drugs, you'll likely improve. The payoff is more direct and more immediate than in other sports. For some, unfortunately, the temptation is therefore irresistible.