The Sport of Running by Neal Whitten

Over the past few months there have been two important USATF U.S. Championship events and one Global World Championship, held on U.S. Soil. One was the Olympic Marathon Trials which selected the 6 member team (3 male and 3 female) to represent the USA in the Marathon this summer in Rio de Janeiro. Another was the U.S. Indoor Championships, which selected all the members of the World Indoor Track Championship. The World Indoor Track Championship was held between 3/17-3/20 in Portland, Oregon. I'm going to ask you a few questions, specifically about the U.S. Championships. See if you can answer them without using Google, answers will be at the end of this article.

  1. Who won the 2016 Men's USATF U.S. Olympic Team Trials Marathon?
  2. Who won the 2016 Women's USATF U.S. Olympic Team Trials Marathon?
  3. Who is the male 2016 U.S. Indoor Champion at 1500m? He was also the U.S. Indoor Champion in the 1 mile in 2015.
  4. Who is the female 2016 U.S. Indoor Champion at 3,000m? She was also the U.S. Indoor Champion in the 1 mile and 2 mile in 2015.

How did you do? If you got more than one of these questions right you are probably a pretty diehard fan of professional track. If you didn't get many, or any, of these questions right, you fall within the vast majority of people in the world. The sport of running is not followed very well, even by avid runners who you see every day on the roads or on weekends at the local road races. I define the sport of running as the elite competition. Those who are in the top 8 at the Crazy 8's qualify; the other 2,980 participants who don't finish in less than 23 minutes (male) and 26 minutes (female) are not. We occasionally will see some of the elites coming over from ZAP Fitness to participate in some of our local races, but not often, and usually only if there is some money involved.

People I talk to regularly at the local road races love to talk about pro football, baseball, basketball, and even NASCAR. Who scored 35 points, who hit 2 homeruns in one game, who threw 3 touchdown passes (or interceptions) last weekend, or who wrecked who seem to be topics of mass interest. However, very few of those I talk to are interested in professional/elite running. Very few of my running friends want to talk about who ran a marathon in 2 hours 2 minutes and 57 seconds, or which U.S. runners have a chance to break 13:00 minutes for 5,000m this year.

So why is there such a strong following for sports, or activities, other than running? I have some theories, in no particular order:

  1. Watching professional/elite running is boring - I can almost get on board, no pun intended, with this theory, but I have to tell you, watching the two big breaks in the U.S. Men's USATF U.S. Olympic Team Trials Marathon was exciting. Even so exciting that I was pulled away from a family event to watch it happen live on TV. This was a race that was just under 2 hours and 12 minutes. That makes it one of the longer events to watch, but it was very exciting to watch the strategy and tactics play out when somebody decided to throw in a 4:50 mile at about mile 17 to break the race open and then another person throwing in another 4:50 mile at about mile 20 to finish it off. Watching a 5k that lasts less than 13 minutes and the first 5 places are decided within 2 seconds is also a thrilling event.
  2. Watching professional/elite running points out our own weaknesses as runners - I think this one is highly likely, even though most wouldn't admit it. It is a little depressing to realize how hard running at a professional/elite level is and that I'm not capable of achieving it. It is mind boggling how much work these professionals/elites put in. They are also gifted with genetic talent which you don't get to pick. As a runner, I know what I experience with my level of effort, and it is obvious what I'm lacking: dedication, willpower, pain tolerance, sacrifice, etc. in addition to a severe lack of genetic talent. When watching football, baseball, etc. I don't really know what it would take to get to that level; I haven't tried to get better at those above the level of not making myself look foolish playing intramural league sports in college. I can't really relate to those who are great at other sports because I haven't been there trying as hard to be as good at baseball or football as I have at running.
  3. Professional/Elite running on the world stage is full of nameless foreigners - this one also has some validity, but is easy to counter argue. There are numbers of East African runners who are really good. The names can get confusing, because many are descendants of the same tribe and have similar names. Many of the good runners in a number of European, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries were born in East Africa. Even the U.S. has several of its best athletes who come from East Africa and have become citizens. If I had asked questions at the beginning about the winners of the World Indoor Championships, even fewer people would have answered correctly. Do you know what event Yomif Kejelcha won? However, if you watch the Olympics, you know that pulling for your own country is a source of pride, excitement, and gives you something to cheer for, even if you're not completely up to speed with all the other competitors. Also, it gives me motivation to study up on the "competition" to see how the U.S. stacks up. For quite a long time now the U.S. hasn't been as strong on the distance side, defined as 800m and longer races, as many of the East African nations. However, the U.S. seems to be making some headway in the distance events as of late and that is exciting to watch. No matter where you're from in this world, you can find somebody you can root for. It is truly a global sport.

In conclusion, I ask that you consider giving the sport of running a chance. Challenge your preconceived notions about the sport; it is more than a fitness/social activity. There are even training groups/teams you will find yourself gravitating towards liking or disliking as the case may be. It is harder to find live on television than football, basketball, baseball, etc. However, you can find information out there to read about it, find results, and even to watch on the internet if you look. After you've watched or read up on it some, please feel free to talk to me about it. I'd much rather talk about Ajee Wilson's silver medal performance than who won the Bristol NASCAR race.

Here is a link to watch the 2016 U.S. Men's Indoor Championship 1500m race, I think you'll find it exciting, even with a few seconds of pole vaulting included:

Answers to the questions at the first of the article:

  1. Galen Rupp
  2. Amy Hastings Cragg
  3. Matthew Centrowitz, Jr. (a.k.a. Matt Centrowitz or Centro)
  4. Shannon Rowbury

P.S. I didn't go look up all the other U.S. Championships or Global Medals that this group has won. For example, Galen Rupp is something like the 7-time defending 10,000 m US Outdoor Champion, 2012 Olympic Silver Medalist at 10,000m along with a number of other U.S. Championships and U.S. records, including the U.S. Men's 10,000m record: 26:44.36. And yes, that is timed to the nearest 0.01 of a second!

April 2016