The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

Will Improvements in Middle and Long Distance Net More US Medals?…

Nov 15th, 2009
5:03 pm PDT
Track and Field: 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics

Cross country season is always a good time to take a look at distance running. Especially this fall as for the first time in many years we’re coming off a track season where we saw substantial improvement among our middle and long distance runners.

2009 saw a resurgence in our middle distance women and our distance running men such as we’ve not seen in a very long time. Not that we haven’t seen individuals rise up on occasion. But, for me, I haven’t been as excited about distance running since Alan Webb burst on the scene as a high school senior in 2001! Webb’s breaking of Jim Ryun’s HSR in the mile with his 3:53.43 run at the Prefontaine Classic brought huge excitement and hope to US distance fortunes.

This season saw that same excitement magnified many fold as several athletes had break out performances. From three women going sub 4:00 in the 1500 to two men running sub 13:00 in the 5000 we saw middle and long distance runners stepping up and into global contention, joining a handful of vets to give us more depth than we’ve ever had at this level.

On the women’s side it was middle distance runners Maggie Vessey, Anna Willard, Christin Wurth Thomas, Jenny Barringer and Shannon Rowbury leading the way. On the men’s side distance runners Dathan Ritzenhein, Matt Tegenkamp, Bernard Legat, Tim Nelson, Galen Rupp, and Anthony Famiglietti at the forefront. Giving us an annual list that looks impressive:

5000 Men
12:56.27 – Dathan Ritzenhein
12:58.56 – Matt Tegenkamp
13:03.06 – Bernard Lagat

10000 Men
27:22.28 – Dathan Ritzenhein
27:36.99 – Tim Nelson
27:37.99 – Galen Rupp
27:39.68 – Anthony Famiglietti

800 Women
1:57.84 – Maggie Vessey
1:58.80 – Anna Willard
1:59.35 – Christin Wurth Thomas
1:59.98 – Hazel Clark

1500 Women
3:59.38 – Anna Willard
3:59.90 – Jenny Barringer
3:59.98 – Christin Wurth Thomas
4:00.81 – Shannon Rowbury

With the next major another year and a half away (Daegu, 2011), do we have enough time to translate this recent improvement into positions on the medal stand? On the clock these athletes are running times that can get them on the podium. But championship running is about “racing” and I think that is where we need to take the next step – learning to run our best under championship pressure.

After all in spite of running 136 sub 4 minute miles and 3:47.69, Steve Scott only stood on the podium once in his career – racing tactics leaving him short on several occasions. Same for Steve Holman who was consistently one of America’s and the world’s fastest milers during the 90’s never found his way to the podium. And though he broke the HSR and has dropped his best down to 3:46.91, Alan Webb is still in search of the podium. So, clearly, in distance running becoming a good tactician is as important as becoming fast!

With no medals at stake and rhetorically nothing to lose, I would hope to see all of the above racing frequently in Europe this coming year. If they never win a single race, being in fast “Circuit” races should help to sharpen their skills and prepare them for the tough, and often uneven paces, typically set by their African counterparts in major championships – the athletes that must be beaten if we have hopes of ascending the podium.

The European races can be tough, but it’s toughness that will be needed come Daegu and London! The one thing that I like about the current group of middle/distance runners above is that they are a gritty bunch – seemingly unafraid to try to stay with tough paces and mix it up in traffic. Most of their PR’s were set in tough races. And that is what gives me hope that they can indeed make a run at medals over the next couple of Majors.

So I’ll be watching the summer racing in 2010 very closely as this should be a key season for all of the above. Especially if we can get the same kind of improvement from them in 2010 that we saw in 2009. Similar improvement and we could see an improvement in medals from this part of our team in Daegu and London.

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