Bookmarkable running moments of 2021
Liars, cheaters, inept and corrupt media representatives, and dilapidated Instagram narcissists weren't the only fun things on display in COVID-19's first full year
I apologize for the mission creep, but I found myself inspired by the annual inevitability of treating a soon-to-be-completed calendar year as a discrete chronicle of human endeavors in a particular realm, as if this is any more inherently illustrative than examining the period spanning one July 8 to the next. In more readable words, I made a 2021 list. Actually, two lists, but the other one’s banned, or at least embargoed until I can punch my way out of another psychological meth lab.
Some uniquely remarkable things have happened in the competitive running world in the past twelve Earth months—happenings that belied the sad reality that almost no one in the United States even intends to cover distance running competently anymore, let alone manages to avoid flubbing almost every story. This is commensurate with the fact that running, as a public “thing” available for narcissistic twits to latch into, needs to go the way of the passenger pigeon, leaded gasoline, and MySpace.
I’ll get to my vision early next year of how that winnowing of the lowing herd can be accomplished without sending too many of us to the bread lines, assuming I even elect to go through with the scheduled December 31 transition. And before that, I will have one more end-of-year review focusing on the usual pratfalls, grifting, whining, showboating, chicanery, fraud, dissembling, and other hollow-headed antics of the various disposables, detestables, despicables, and of course deplorables who have shown the world their unwashed asses in 2021.
But today is all about rainbows and sunshine; I’m trying to shift, on grudging occasion, to a more positive take on things, even if this requires operating within a hilariously delusional framework and ignoring almost everything everyone says and does.
In recent weeks, some good things have happened in the small human-life webs sharing strands with my own. This is the time of year for early college acceptance letters to go out, and every year it seems that a kid I’ve been working with for a few years, and whose family I’ve gotten to know well, gets good news on this front. There was that again lately, plus an unexpected 15K PR by one of my good friends and longtime local clients who has had a very trying year overall. My friends are ballers. Personally, I always seem to get at least one unanticipated end-of-year backrub or foot-rub for every unexpected seasonal kick I receive to the head or groin—I speak mostly in metaphors here—and every day is an exercise in reminding myself how much better I have it at the end of every day than the millions of people out there with more urgent responsibilities, shittier luck, or a total absence of personal ethics or a social conscience.
I am accounting here for the fact that 2021 was the first full year of the “superspike” era. While Nike debuted its ZoomX technology in late 2019, Adidas, Puma, New Balance, Saucony, and other companies needed time to catch up (and almost surely haven’t fully done so, at least with their answers to Nike’s Vaporfly/Alphafly road-first models—another topic for another time).
The obvious but hard-to-quantify boost to performances means that I am not inclined to approach orgasm over individual records set this year unless there appears to be something clearly unusual about them—some noteworthy element extractable from the background noise of killer technology, including the kind that operates at the cell-surface-receptor level.
This is a short, if detailed, list. I didn’t seek to reach a number; I just scrolled back mentally and with help from a few websites and decided when I had accumulated enough items of real interest. I therefore left a lot of things off, but I’m more interested in whether the things I see as worth diving into further are as enticing to the rest of the world as I find them.
Some impressive stuff that verifiably happened in 2021:
Forty Japanese men running under 2:10:00 at the Lake Biwa Marathon. In the swan song of this event, five Japanese men run under 2:07:00, 15 broke 2:08:00, 26 dipped under 2:09:00, and a total of 40 broke 2:10:00.
Where to start? The United States, which has over two and a half times Japan’s population, has produced a total of 3, 5, 8, and 21 men under those same respective time barriers on legal courses. If only U.S.-born athletes are counted—Japan isn’t known for its accommodating immigration policies or its military-sponsored running teams—those numbers drop to 2, 3, 4, and 16 (counting Alberto Salazar, an American whose first view of the world was in Cuba, as U.S.-born). Seven of those 21 sub-2:10:00 performances came in a single race in December 2020.
Japan doesn’t seem to possess more raw human capital—i.e., talent—than the U.S. does, an argument I would not make if the citizens of Japan were ethnically, say, Ugandan. [Note: Newsletter recipients were treated to the nonsense term “ethically Ugandan.” Sorry!] It seems that they treat the marathon as something to excel at in its own right and apart from serious financial incentives or an element of a greater career involving tracks and cross-country courses. Vitally, they don’t have an NCAA system.
This isn’t a scorning of what the U.S. has done or the work today’s marathoners are putting in. It’s an appreciation of what the Japanese have done, because it seems incredible. If a sizable group of Americans had the same maniacal commitment to excellence in this single realm, and the same forswearing of excuse-mongering in even excusable forms, the U.S. would probably have about as many sub-whatever marathon runners, per capita, as Japan does. I doubt the incentive for this to occur will ever be created, but as someone who has spent most of his running life pondering this discipline above all others in footracing, I keep hoping for some weird athletic-cultural shift so that one serious marathoner is created for every five bloated, lipstick-smeared American influencers.
Michigan high-school senior Hobbs Kessler’s 3:34.66 1,500 meters. Thanks to the pandemic and perfect comic timing, Hobbs Kessler went from an unknown to a superstar in one track race. After setting a 1,600-meter personal best of 4:21.17 indoors in February 2020 as a junior, Kessler trained through the canceled 2020 outdoor track season, enjoyed a great 2020 cross-country season, and then banged out a 3:57.66 indoor mile on February 7, breaking Alan Webb’s U.S. high-school undercover record.
That game-changer set Kessler on a path to try to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 1,500 meters. Needing a 3:35.00 to make the cut—the equivalent of a 3:52.20 mile—Kessler crushed a 3:34.36 at the Portland Track Festival on May 29, not only breaking Alan Webb’s national high-school record from 2001, but also bettering Yared Nuguse’s two-week-old U.S. collegiate record time by 0.02 seconds. Fucking seriously?
The commentators in this video took 50 seconds to realize what Kessler had done after he’d done it, so enthusiastic was their post-race fellating of the uberfellatable Craig Engels. And even then, they only noticed because a wide-eyed Engels had begun congratulating a more stoic Kessler on the track.
While Kessler was a whole competitive level under Webb’s record (3:38.26), Webb ran that time en route to his much-remembered 3:53.43 mile at the 2001 Prefontaine Classic. Still, Kessler is the better prep 1,500-meter/mile runner by something like two seconds, maybe a little less.
It seems straightforward to assume that Kessler has the ability to do things Alan Webb never did, because Webb was unfortunately a classic head case, with occasional remissions and exacerbations. That’s not to say that Kessler has already shown nerves of steel that are incapable of bending in the face of future stresses; it’s to say that it would be harder to do less with more talent in key situations over a long, generally healthy career than Webb did.
It’s possible that we’ll see Hobbs Kessler in three or more Olympic Games. He’s plainly that good.
C.J. Albertson’s attempted theft of the Boston Marathon. In January, I mentioned Alberton—whose 50K world-record time of 2:42:30 from November of last year was broken in May by Ethiopian Ketema Negasa—in a post about how determining equivalent performances across different distances in a different exercise in the superspike/superflat era. I also had this to say after his effort at the Boston Marathon in October:
A long-dead version of me would have been awed enough by C.J. Albertson’s race in Boston to write a whole post about it. It’s not so much that he hung on to run 2:11:44 for tenth place after leading by an improbable amount early on and passing through halfway on 2:08:16 pace; given sufficient raw endurance and resolve, plus the kind of leg-resilience a pure rhythm-and-strength guy like Albertson possesses, the result on paper is “just” a guy who probably could run 2:09+ with better pacing having a good-but-not-great-day, the hard way. The truly remarkable thing was him falling back to 15th with a mile to go, after the field caught him near 30K, and running that last mile in 4:52 to move up five places—and into the final prize-money spot, making that crazy extended lunge worth $5,500. That kind of resurgence almost never happens in the kind of marathon Albertson ran, where the only late-race option after a slow-motion crash is harm reduction. It was something to watch.
What a keener set of observations would have included is that Albertson, a Brooks athlete, wore a Hyperion Elite 2 racing shoe on his trip from Hopkinton to Boston. I have to assume Alberton has played around with different ultra-recent racing shoes representing the spectrum of brands. And every runner, even at the elite level, responds to a different high-end shoe at least somewhat differently.
But from what I have been able to gather, and this research is barely in a pre-pupal stage, none of the imitators of Nike’s top racing models have been able to emulate the advantage Nike’s shoes generally provide. It’s one thing to have the right elements in a shoe, but another to have them integrated in just the right way to do the dynamic conservation job the shoe is supposed to.
Clearly, every shoe company that sponsors world-class runners was going to rush competitors to Nike’s track and road shoes to market in 2021, or at least onto the shoes of its own athletes, preferably before the Olympics. This doesn’t mean that all of them are slipshod, but taking stock of all of the engineering and market forces in play here, I have to wonder—and I’m stealing this idea from someone who won’t mind—if Albertson might be considerably richer today, with a significantly faster time, had he raced the Boston Marathon in the best shoe theoretically available to him.
Maybe he did. But I really want this guy to start beating more people, so it would be nice to know for certain.
I won’t revisit my review in this space, but will reiterate if Gidey is doped, good. She and other standard women should be able to use all the drugs they want with absolute impunity for as long as this is allowed to continue. I doubt anyone thinks she’s running clean anyway, as no one ever seems to drug-test Ethiopian distance runners.
That said, this is probably a demented arms race the sport could do without, my own amusements and bemusements notwithstanding.
Dathan Ritzenhein introduces the On Athletic Club: Ritz is among a small number of runners I interviewed more than once, and each time, he struck me as someone who managed to think both sanely and recklessly about becoming the best distance runner possible. And that was when he was a lot younger. Despite what he achieved, he beat himself severely as an athlete and seemed to be coming back from injuries almost continually for a while. He also took the best advice given to him along the way, and he didn’t always get good advice. He knows the good from the bad, and the ugly kind of good from the preening kind.
I think he has a great deal more to offer to his eleven runners than his credentials and experience alone suggest. It’s just a feeling, but Ritzenhein could be building something world-class right here in Boulder, traditionally more of a hoedown-and-monster-truck town than an endurance mecca. The thing is, I’ve never seen a more hungry-looking cluster of bearded men anywhere in my life.
All things Athing Mu. Despite the number of hours I’ve spent watching people move their legs on screens, Athing Mu remains one of the few whose stride is so close to perfect that her splits are hard to reconcile with what I’m seeing. I don’t mean “She looks fantastic all the time”; everyone’s stride ultimately falters. I mean that she somehow manages to cover ground at a phenomenal rate when she appears to be out of gas.
Several times, I have rewound portions of Mu’s races and tried to figure out how she split a 200 under 30 seconds when she looked like she was running around 5:00 pace at best.
Mu won’t turn 20 until June. If she stays healthy, the career numbers she will ultimately put up will be dangerous to the unguarded eye.
Molly Seidel’s bronze medal in the Olympic Marathon. We all have some movies we like watching endlessly despite and ultimately because we can recite every line—films we insist that every one of our friends view for the first time in our presence just so we can ruin the experience for them with spastic embellishments and spoilers.
The video of the 2021 Olympic Women’s Marathon became the running version of that the moment it was over. Molly
HuddleSeidel’s silver medal seems as improbable now as it did before the race started, and what she did represents a lot more than one person cheerfully giving her personal demons a public flogging. She is a stark reminder to everyone who lines up against “superior” competition of how little form charts can mean in distance running in long races, ugly weather, or both. The Olympic Marathon virtually always includes both.
The media’s galactic botching of Shelby Houlihan’s doping ban. Despite all four links in the previous sentence leading to my own bellicose condemnation of practically anyone with an opinion, I’ve decided that it was a heartwarming thing to see so many committed journalists willing to courageously dispose of their duties. Despite an obvious hankering to tell the truth, they broke form so they could properly advocate for the beleaguered American Houlihan as well as the kind humanists running the company that took her to the top level.
I forgot that it’s okay to call yourself a reporter these days no matter how spinelessly you behave on exactly those unanticipated occasions that rigor and courage are demanded. I’m sure that Nike’s irresistibly throbbing corporate cock, despite an average age in the sixties or beyond, tastes a lot yummier that I will ever know.
2022 should bring a similar array of invertebrate dishes to the buffet of running coverage.
Wait. Which list is this? Last time I looked, there was a bong sitting right here, not a dog.
My own recent snot rocket. Sometime in November, a good month for me as I recall, I attempted to fire a right-nostril snot rocket to the side of the Wellman Canal Path at an angle of approximately 45 degrees to my line of motion and 10 degrees to the horizontal. This was about five minutes into a run, before which I had consumed what I believed to be a typical combination of heavily creamed coffee, gummi bears, and over-the-counter drugs. I saw the “rocket” extend in a string, and instinctively inhaled so as to release the unwanted biomass and complete the grim transaction.
Instead, a wondrous, awful thing happened. When I inhaled, the entire snot-rocket shot back into my nose without even touching the sides of my nostrils, like a lizard’s tongue. It was like expertly snapping a ghastly two-foot-long whip without even knowing I was doing so.
I’ll never manage that again despite vowing to constantly try; it will stand as the one instance of a precise feat in all of recorded history, a genuine singularity.
However many cool things that was, I’ll be back before the year is out with another summary-style post before the end of the year, though I won’t say which one.