Monday, 3 September 2012

Ryan Hall

Sometimes the mainstream media can surprise me. Here, for instance, is a piece on Ryan Hall by the New Yorker written in 2008 on the eve before his Beijing Olympic appearance. It goes into some depth. With a long article like this, you can savour the details a simple bio piece would skip. 

I was trying to recall what he had done by August 2008, and I forgot his sub one hour half marathon PB was set in 2007, almost five years ago. How time flies. Now with two Olympic appearances under his belt he's been at the top of American running now for quite a while.

I liked the comparison between boxing and marathon preparation. Months of work goes into one day of pounding. And if a marathon goes bad you wait until next season, which is at best four months away. Consider Dylan Wykes, who redeemed an early drop out of a January 2012 marathon with a 2:10 Rotterdam performance in early April that year. By contrast swimmer Michael Phelps just had to wait a couple of days to make up for an early fourth place race finish in London.  

The New Yorker piece also has the tired nods to altitude training and VO2 max improvements, but thankfully avoids letting them take over the article. It points to the slowness of modern marathoners, and their transformation from being competitive events to ones of participation.

I am reminded by this article that marathons are firmly inside the realm of "stuff white people like", i.e.
The average participant in the ING New York City Marathon has an annual household income of a hundred and thirty thousand dollars. The people who read Runner’s World have a median income virtually the same as that of the readers of Forbes.
Obvious when I think about it, perhaps, but nevertheless jarring. But I'm glad I wasn't the only one to be surprised:
when I was at lunch with Ryan and Team World Vision organizers, somebody mentioned that marathoners tend to have high incomes. “Really?” Ryan said, his eyes wide. “I didn’t know that!”
Thinking about this leads me to as why better sports funding would lead to faster times. How might extra money make the elites go faster? As already shown for education and health care systems around the world, funnelling more dollars does not necessarily get you better results. In running, once you can afford shoes, a watch (and maybe some local means travel), little else is required besides willingness. Training itself is cheaply managed and should occupy at most a notebook or simple spreadsheet.

The 'new wave' of fast american running is impressive, yet in terms of speed they only just catching up to where people were decades ago. This is not a question of sport science for little technology-wise has changed. Consider this short New Zealand film made in in 1979 that surprisingly does not seem much dated. Mileage is at the core of the discussion, of course; people ran farther after Lydiard's coaching, and we have just now returned to that same mileage. For the time in between people ran exactly as much as they were told to; no more and no less. The article's discussion of Hall makes it clear that he runs because he likes it (and wants to win). What if he had been told 20 years ago he was running too much? Would he have reached the same level? I would guess not.

I digress from the article to say something about mileage. Perhaps the article just got me thinking about to the question of running volume for the sheer joy of it. From his own mentor Terrence Mahon,
He grew up in a small town where he didn’t have any competition,” Mahon explained. “He lived on top of a mountain. They didn’t have a track program until his dad started it for him. That’s the habit—he never understood what it was to share the pace. For his survival, he had to be internally motivated.”
It seems that Hall simply felt strongly enough about his passion (as channelled through religion) to run on his own. Good coaching came later. More should embrace this self-discovery element that comes so easily in running. Other sports need to work hard to gain this same cult-level status. The US football craze did not happen by accident; it was organized like nothing else on earth. No-one discovers a love for football, or hockey, or any complex game all on their own; it must be developed within an organized (and funded) association. Running -as a sport- is no different, but with running as an activity is first and foremost a time of self discovery. It is perhaps why rural runners do so well; realizing that external competition comes second to self-driven ambition. Indeed, most training comes from kids who are released to the outdoors then find the joy for themselves. Not every child will enjoy it for long, but conversely who knows how many talents have we lost to over-organization? Let the money, training, and all that other stuff come later, and slowly.

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