One of my favorite professional runners, David Torrence, added his two cents to the debate over track and field this week. I need to preface this post with a little back story on just what makes Torrence one of my favorite athletes. Torrence became one of the favorite runners of my college team after we watched and heard the story of his journey from unattached post collegiate searching for his first contract to one of our country's best milers (by end of season rankings alone, his 3:33.23 is the 2nd fastest in the country this year and has won several national titles in the road mile). David is an incredibly accessible athlete who takes the time to get to know his fans and interact with them. At the 2011 New York Diamond League meet, my Lafayette teammates and I were lucky enough to meet David after witnessing his first victory in the Diamond League. He was incredibly grateful for our support at the meet and did more than just pose for the customary athlete photo-op. David further cemented his favorite athlete status two summers ago. My friend Matt and I were in San Francisco, Torrence's training base and home. We sent out a tweet to him asking to set up a downhill mile in the hills of the city (although since Budweiser had become the official drink of Matt and Josh's West Coast trip I don't know how well such a race would have gone). He responded to us right away trying to set up a place for us to race a mile downhill. Alas, my noob status on Twitter caused me to miss out on his direct message (who knew the direct message feature could be used for more than sending explicit pictures?). I made up my blunder to Matt later in Eugene when Torrence was gracious enough to share several pitchers with us at the Wild Duck. I believe the highlight of the trip for Matt will always be discussing South American politics and economics while slightly inebriated with a professional runner.
Torrence's comments on letsrun.com came in response to Runner's World columnist John Bingham calling on elites to show more interest in the back of the pack runners like himself and do more in general for the sport. Certainly, Bingham believes that would make them beloved by their waddling, tutu wearing brethren. I do not believe there could be a more misguided opinion. Torrence is just one of many professional track and field athletes who does an incredible amount of work to interact with his fans. Duane Solomon flooded my Twitter feed yesterday retweeting possibly every person who tweeted about meeting him at a cross country meet. Could you imagine LeBron James trying to set up a pick up game with two random fans and then meeting up with them in a bar?
So, no, Mr. Bingham, track and field's problems will not be solved by having professional athletes wait for everyone else to finish their 5 hour marathon (sorry if I sound snarky here, but a marathon is a race to me, not a bucket list item). Many athletes in the sport set up races where they live and make appearances at local running stores and running club meetings. Yet, they still go unrecognized in almost every city in America (except for Eugene - a city in which I did not see a single person with a waist measurement exceeding their inseam. Could it be possible that the sport is embraced there because the people are actually in shape?).
The answer is not simply sending our runners out to cheer on the average Joes and hobby joggers, because to most of them, David Torrence is just a skinny dude with a beard who maybe looks like he runs fast (or at least really cares a lot about looking like a runner with all those matching warm ups and fancy shoes). What really needs to be done first is to build the athletes we in the sport (and I'm talking track and field here because road racing is an entirely different beast) follow and root for into figures that the average person would recognize or feel excited about meeting. I don't really know how that can be done in our football obsessed nation where a man pushing 400 lbs. is considered more athletic than a runner like me, but since the only way we can get there and improve the sport is to try. David Torrence asked his followers to contribute using #investinUSAtrack and here is my best attempt at investing in the sport that means so much to me.
1. Ditch the meters. We run miles here in the good old US of A. I know everyone else in the world uses the metric system as does the sport's governing body. However, if you want to be relevant in the US, you need to use units that most fans understand. Yes, I know that 5,000 meters is 3.1 miles and that a 12:55 5k is 4:09 per mile, but if you race 3 miles instead, many more people would understand that a time of 12:30 is absolutely hauling ass.
2. Add more domestic meets. If you are a fan of professional track and field in the USA you have two or three chances to go to a really big meet each year. There are two Diamond League meets and a national championship as well as several small indoor meets. That's it. If you don't live anywhere near Oregon, your best bet is to go to New York City for its Diamond League meet. That's great for me since I live on the East Coast, but for most fans of the sport there are absolutely zero opportunities to attend a professional track meet. Contrast that with the fans of a professional baseball team. Those fans have 81 chances to see their team play every year. We are never going to see 81 elite track meets in a season, but we have got to get away from sending our athletes to Europe every summer.
I believe adding more big races on native soil is the number one way to grow the sport in this country. NBC and ESPN are never in a million years going to pay big money or use resources putting together a broadcast for a meet in Doha, Oslo, Monaco, or Rieti no matter the quality of the field. I realize these are all very good meets, but if they are not happening on US soil, casual fans do not care. Give more people a chance to attend a meet and I believe they will become more interested. They need to see and experience the speed and feats of raw human strength track and field athletes are able to push their bodies to. Live sports of any kind are always fun to watch for any red blooded male. Domestic meets are also a great opportunity for young fans to discover the sport. Track and field is one of, if not, the most participated in sport in high school athletics, but most of those runners will never have a chance to attend a professional meet. As a high schooler, I could not have named five professional distance runners and I was 3rd in the state my senior year.
The European meets work well because travel is so much easier between cities and countries thanks to their rail system (Eisenhower really screwed the pooch with that Interstate system). Europe also has better stadiums for track and field given that many of their track stadiums also house soccer teams. You cannot have a track meet in a 65,000 seat football stadium which we are so fond of in this country, but the small stadiums in Europe are perfect for hosting track meets. We cannot either host meets in this country at small college tracks with basic metal bleachers. That does not look professional; it looks amateurish. The MLS has taken off with numerous soccer-only facilities. These types of stadiums would be perfect for hosting track meets if a track could be squeezed in.
3. Increase the emphasis on winning. The "A" and "B" standards have got to go. They turn most meets and races into boring rabbitted affairs. Who could possibly forget the Oxy High Performance Meet or the Peyton Jordan Inivte? These races are great to serious track nuts like myself who will sit in front of their lap top to watch a live stream, but they hardly register on the national scale.
It is difficult to run 13:00 for 5k without someone sacrificing themselves to make the pace fast and still try and race well. Look what happens in championship races - no one knows how to race once the rabbits are gone leaving us with what are essentially one lap races. We have become so focused on fast times that winning sometimes becomes secondary. Would training suffer if athletes were forced to race more often? Probably, but there is something to racing yourself into shape, and if the emphasis is on winning, then time won't matter so much anyway.
Instead of standards to hit, points could be accrued towards world championships and Olympics. I love the idea of giving an automatic "A" in the 10k to the top 15 guys at World Cross. It makes guys want to run it. Runners could earn points by finishing in the top 5 or 10 in meets with quality fields. I am not certain what determines a quality field - for example, a 5k race in which the mean PR of the runners assembled is below 13:15 could qualify as a quality field. Runners in this race could then earn points towards qualifying. This would allow runners to race to win, not hit a time.
4. Be more open to talking about your training. You're not guarding the secret formula to Coca-Cola. You are doing workouts and running 70-130 miles a week. See, I follow the sport extremely closely, and yet I still have hardly any idea exactly what it is you are doing. If just a handful of professional athletes would openly share their training like Donn Cabral does, everyone would benefit from it. I know I would benefit from being able to read the training logs of marathoners like Ritz and Teg. High schoolers and their coaches who want to understand what they should be doing could learn and get better and the average person could see just how hard you are working and grow in respect of the sport. They would see just how exceptional professional athletes are and have slightly more respect for a 2:10 marathoner.
Your racing results will not suffer, and if someone beats you it will not be because your training is posted somewhere online. It will just be because they are better than you.
5. Show some personality. This one is directed at you Galen Rupp. You know what I'm talking about. You have interests outside of sitting in your altitude tent playing Fifa. Or actually, maybe you don't. But I'm sure there are plenty of other runners who do but we just don't know it. Don't be a monk, post some goofy pictures of your Settlers of Cataan board a la the Schumacher group or make some ridiculous bets like shaving an eyebrow like Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson did. If you get around to reading this Andrew Wheating, please bring back your Behind the Stands videos. Guys like Torrence and Nick Symmonds have this nailed.
6. Start a league. Track and field needs a real, centralized league. Track and field is a team sport at every single level of the sport except the professional. We grow up competing on a track team starting in elementary school, through high school and college - why does it have to stop there? The Diamond League is an after thought. It doesn't even have a sponsor anymore. Guys go all over Europe and run fast times at random meets that are not part of any bigger league. It's awesome to run 3:33 or 13:10, but it is almost impossible to keep track of when the races will be run and where your favorite athletes will show up to compete. The PGA Tour could be a great model. It ties far flung tournaments all over the country into a circuit.
Starting a real league could go hand in hand with number two on this list. A domestic American track and field league would be awesome. Instead of guys running for Nike, they could run for New York, Boston, or Portland. Let the runners put their names on their jerseys and sell them. We would no longer have to watch a few indistinguishable guys in light blue Nike or red adidas kits lope around the track. Team Schumacher vs the Nike Oregon Project could finally really throw down and use real team tactics against each other in a race. How awesome would that be?
This doesn't just have to be an Americans only league either. We have Dominicans and Europeans filling our baseball and basketball leagues. Bring in athletes from all over the world to fill out the teams. A league like this would be an incredible stride for track and field. As it exists now, track and field is relevant to the majority of the world every four years when the Olympics roll around. I love the Olympics as much as anyone, but they hinder the sport immensely. Imagine playing the Super Bowl every four years.
Having a real league with teams would also help athletes take their fate out of the hands of the shoe companies and the national governing bodies who wield all the power. There could be a union of sorts to protect the runners. If you get a contract from a team with a general manager and a president instead of a company with a CEO there will be significant benefits in terms of stability and financial backing.
Seriously, if the WNBA can still exist, a track and field league can exist.
7. Be Creative. This is really the final point I can add. There are so many things you can do to make people running in circle around a field more interesting. The Olympic Trials in Eugene was an incredible experience and I never once felt bored in the stadium. Fans were into the races, the festival atmosphere was great, athletes were accessible. This could be replicated easily at other meets. Why not have novelty races every once in a while in a non Olympic year or have a road race finish on the track as part of the meet and broadcast it on the screen in the stadium? I saw a great race on Flotrack in which runners raced a 5k, but whoever was in last place at the end of each lap was pulled off the track. Imagine what an epic race that would turn into if you got the country's 12 best 5k runners in a race like that. Use all that body tracking technology that is being developed. Monitor heart rates during races and put it on the big board. It would be awesome to watch that as sprinters are held in the blocks or a chase pack gains on a lead runner who went out too fast. The sky is literally the limit when it comes to ways to make professional track and field meets fun for even the casual fan.
Who knows - maybe track and field will always be a niche sport in this country. We are after all the land of the super size Coke and the Dallas Cowboys. Those of us who care about the sport cannot let that stop us from trying to think of any possible idea to grow the sport. Track and field is a wonderful sport and it has done so much for me in my life. I hope somehow I can return the favor.