The irony was lost on absolutely no one that on National Running Day, ProPublica and the BBC went public with allegations and evidence that the Nike Oregon Project and Coach Alberto Salazar have been bending or breaking anti-doping regulations for years. It struck me as an odd juxtaposition: National Running Day seems like a silly but harmless exercise in trying to raise the profile of running by a millimeter or so, and to have it in any way associated with the potentially earthshaking story of ethical lapses at NOP felt a little bit like having the FDA discover an international plot to sell Cannabis-infused brownies at elementary school bake sales.
In any case, when the story broke, the running community took to its message boards, blogs, and Twitter accounts with their responses, and these included everything from well-informed analysis to wild speculation, from attempts to downplay the lack of substantive proof of guilt to essays of passionate condemnation, from expressions of disillusionment to righteous indignation to cruel mockery. The story raged like a fire, with everyone anxious to know who and what would be consumed.
But it’s worth remembering a few other things that happened this week:
On Monday, obituaries ran for Pat Peterson, who was one of the top marathoners in the United States in the 1980s and who died at age 55 from pancreatic cancer, leaving a wife and four children. I remember watching Peterson run in the 1988 Olympic Trials Marathon Trials, held on the Waterfront Marathon course in New Jersey. Peterson had an unusual gait, swaying form side to side as he ran, but he was very tough and very good. The 1988 race was supposed to be his greatest moment, making the Olympic team on his home turf. But he suffered stomach problems that day and ended up dropping out. I’ve always felt that he was the best man in that race, eventually won by Mark Conover, and consider it a tragedy that he wasn’t able to show it on the day. Reading his obituary, I felt that the sport had lost a very good, very humble man, who had been a wonderful example of a citizen runner who trained while holding down a full-time job. (Pat Petersen, a Former U.S. Marathon Record Holder, Dies at 55)
On Wednesday, Runner’s World reported that the University of North Carolina-Wilmington would continue its track and cross country programs for at least another year. The sports were scheduled for elimination, but 766 donors combined to raise $255,781.59, meeting the minimum $250,000 required to keep the programs afloat for 2015-2016. (UNCW Saves Its Track Teams, For Now)
On Thursday night, Grant Fisher became the seventh high school boy (and sixth American high schooler) to run a full mile in under four minutes. Fisher accomplished the feat by running 3:59.38 at the “Festival of Miles” in St. Louis. His time exactly matches the time Matthew Maton ran less than a month ago. It’s the first time in history that two American high school boys have run sub-four in the same year. Fisher, a converted soccer player, has now won the Footlocker Cross Country championship twice, won the Adidas H.S. Dream Mile as a junior, and run sub-four. He becomes the fourth U.S. runner to break that barrier before being 18 years, 2 months old, joining Marty Liquori, Alan Webb and Jim Ryun as the only other to do so. (FloTrack coverage of the race)
On Thursday night, a high school coach named Steve Lane who started a low-key local track meet in honor of one of his athletes who died far too young, presided over the eighth running of that event. Although held on a humble community track that has no stands, the track in the middle of Concord, Mass., was ringed by enthusiastic running fans from around the Boston area who paid no admission and got to see dozens of professional runners race very fast on a cool, windless evening that was perfect for distance running. The professionals were there because Hoka One One had signed on last year as a sponsor, and offered enough prize money to attract national caliber athletes. The women’s 5000m was won by seven-time NCAA champion Abbey D’Agostino. The men’s mile was won by multiple-time NCAA champion Robby Andrews with a kick that was a thing of beauty. In addition to the professional races, there were races for kids, high school runners, open and masters runners, and those who had never run a timed mile in their life. The kids and local heroes got to mix with the pros and everyone had a great time. After winning the mile, Andrews said it best when he thanked the crowd for coming out. “What a great evening for running,” he said. (Full Recap of Adrian Martinez Classic)
So if you ask me what I think of the ProPublica story and the guilt or innocence of Salazar, Rupp, and the NOP, here’s what I say:
Running is a community, and maybe even a family. It is one of the most popular fitness activities for millions of people. It is one of the most popular sport for high school age athletes. It is one of the foundational Olympic sports, contested in almost every country of the world. It is a sport that allows kids and old farts to compete in the same races with legends. It is a sport where professionals show up to tiny tracks and thank tiny crowds for a great night of running.
To me, it doesn’t really matter whether NOP was over the line, or on the line, or just shy of the line that separates the illegal from the merely unethical. To me, the actions of Salazar have created a distance between his athletes and the rest of the running community. The hyper-competitive, take advantage of every loophole to gain an advantage mentality runs counter to what I love about the sport of running. I’m not a better person than Salazar, but I do have different values, and I have such a deep regard for the “family” that I have found among runners that I would never want to do anything to endanger my relationship with that family.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to win. There are choices to me made, though, about what you do to win, and whether those choices strengthen your community, or leave you victorious but alone, uncomfortable and unwelcome at the family table.