OK maybe it isn’t all the USATF that is broke, but the distance races at this years USATF National Championships really brought into painful clarity what’s wrong with distance racing at the elite level in America.  In case you missed it, and you probably did because it got less than a 1 share, the USATF National Championships were on NBC this weekend.  One of the highlight races was supposed to be the men’s 5000 meters.  A few days prior on Thursday night was the 10,000 which had 25 runners including defending champion and Olympic Silver Medalist Galen Rupp.

Here are the results of that race.

Top 10 at USATF Nationals 10,000 m
Top 10 at USATF Nationals 10,000 m

In case you are wondering the A standard for the 10k is 27:40 the B standard is 28:00 and Galen has run as fast as 26:48 but I’m not going to even bother discussing that race.

The 5000 meter had 18 runners entered.  Half of them didn’t start, mostly because they qualified for the IAAF World Championships in another event like the 10k, 1500 or steeple.  So we were left with a field of 9 runners.  I’m not even going to talk about the issue of the USATF not putting in other qualified runners who were ready and willing to take the place of people who dropped from the race (but you can learn more about that here).

I flipped on the TV just as the race started and was treated to an opening lap of 82 seconds.  No that isn’t a typo, 82 seconds… and it didn’t get any better from there.  This field which includes 2 Olympic medalists, world champions and American record holders in distances from 1500-10k proceeded to treat us to lap after 75 second lap of absolute tedium.  They were running the same pace as the leaders of most of the local road races here in Rochester.  And they didn’t just do this for a lap or two, they came through 2 miles in 10 minutes 22 god damn seconds.  I’ve split 10:13 for 2 miles in a 5k!  They were not taking it easy because of the heat (which wasn’t crazy BTW only 81 degrees at the gun with a 5-10 mph breeze), they were literally jogging.  Just how slow is 5:10 pace for these guys?  To put it in some perspective, 2 of the guys Lagat and Rupp have run 4:40 pace for half marathon.  So 30 seconds slower than the pace they race for back to back to back to back 5k’s.

Lagat leading the charge with 75-80 second laps.

Now I know that the goal of a race is to cross the finish line first.  You don’t get bonus medals for how fast you run or for how much you beat the next guy by.  I also know that 6 of these guys broke 4 minutes for the mile during the last 1 mile of the race.  But as a fan of the sport I don’t care about any of that.  I look at these finish times below and I feel nothing but contempt for these runners.  I want to see excellence, I want to be blow away by their abilities, I want to see that stupid and cliche 110%.  This is America, not some mamby pamby European country were we play 90 minute soccer matches to draws so we can get a point and advance to the next round.

Top 9 (there only were 9) USATF men
Top 9 (there only were 9) at USATF Nationals 5k

In no other professional sport would we tolerate this.  Could you imagine the uproar if 2 NFL teams agreed to not play their starters for the first 3 quarters of the Superbowl so they would be fresh for the last few possessions of the game?  What if Lebron and Tim Duncan walked up and down the court for the first 40 minutes of game 7 of the NBA championships so they could really lay it all out in the final 8 minutes?  And there in lies the problem… this isn’t the Superbowl of running, it isn’t the World Championship, it is nothing but a qualifying round for the top few runners in the country.  They simply don’t care about anything but advancing to the World Championship, and that is fine for the athlete, but not fine for the fans when the USATF is trying to sell this as an important meet that they want us the consumer to buy.  No one is glued to the TV to watch Nadal take on the 124 ranked tennis player in the world at the opening round of the French Open.  And even fewer people want to watch Rupp and Lagat jog around in circles for 10 minutes and 22 seconds before deciding to actually put in some effort.  They should just call it the IAAF World Championship qualifier and spare us all this National Championship garbage.

In many events, and for many athletes the National Championships are a big deal.  Unfortantely elite running might have more of a gap between the people at the top and people at the bottom.  You have guys at the top like Rupp making millions between appearance fees and sponsorships, and then guys at the bottom making nothing off of running.  Even in baseball were some players make $25 million a season, the lowiest rookie is still earning $500k a year.  Some of the atheltes (many to most of the atheltes) participating this past weekend are barely scrapping by working part time jobs (or full time jobs) and training like mad men (or women) in their free time.  To them to win the National Championship would mean everything in the world, but to the top few distance runners it means a bonus from thier corporate sponsor and a ticket to the World Championship.

I would much rather watch (or participate) in a race like the Bergen 5k where not only do our local guys run faster, but they bust their ass doing it.

2012 USATF Niagara Road 5k Championships at Bergen.
2012 USATF Niagara Road 5k Championships at Bergen.

So congrats Lagat and Rupp you are going to Moscow this August.  I’m going to a little town in Western New York to see some true competitors.