Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Wed, 16 Jul 2003 22:30:08 -0400

Fast in the Past

Running Commentary 475 -- July 19th, 2003

(rerun from July 1999 RC)

Two calls came within hours of each other. Both callers were sportswriters, one from my current home state of Oregon and the other from my early home of Iowa.

Both asked the same question: "What's wrong with today's high school runners?" They referred to the boys who run metric versions of the old mile and two-mile, in times that compare poorly with those run 20 or more years ago.

This isn't the view of an oldtimer who laments, "They don't make athletes like those when I was a lad." This is statistical fact in most states and nationally.

Jim Ryun has held the national high school mile record for 35 years. Jeff Nelson's two-mile mark turned 20 in May. These times also stand as records for the slightly shorter 1600 and 3200 meters.

The girls' marks aren't so ancient. Kim Mortenson set the girls' 3200 mark (which is far superior to the best two-mile, but slightly inferior to the fastest 3000) just three seasons ago. But Polly Plumer's mile/1600 record (4:35.24) has stood since 1982.

Girls have a shorter history in high school track than boys. And the sportswriters, both male, asked about the boys in Oregon and Iowa. Not only were the records old in those states, but few of today's runners could even crack the all-time top 10.

The reporters wanted to know what was wrong. Is it that the young runners don't work as hard now?

The answer isn't that simple. There is no single, easy answer.

I meandered through a half-hour of possible explanations with each reporter. My best guesses counted up to five:

1. TRAINING. This might be called the "fun-run factor." A generation of runners and their coaches have grown up exposed to the attitude that running can be a low-key, long-term activity that doesn't have to hurt. They see it at road races and read about it in magazines and books, and may take this approach to the track.

This is the way to enjoy running for life. But it isn't how to run at sub-4:10 mile or sub-9:00 two-mile pace. That type of racing hurts, and so must some of the training for it. The fun comes afterward.

2. TALENT. The young runners who do best today are in most cases doing exactly that -- their own best training and racing. Take care not to make it sound like criticism of them as individuals if today's best aren't as good as yesteryear's.

The problem isn't so much with the current kids who run as with those who don't. Some who once might have run track might now play soccer. That booming sport, little known in high schools a generation ago, now dips into the same talent pool as running.

3. OVERRACING. The seasons have stretched until they blend together. Cross-country now leads to indoor track leads to outdoor track leads to summer road races and back to... Top runners compete in the longest seasons, at the expense of the recovery breaks they need between seasons.

A related problem is doubling in the 1600 and 3200 at track meets (and sometimes tossing in an 800 or a relay leg). Teams encourage their best runners to compete the most often for extra points, and they can't run their best possible times when efforts are diluted this way.

4. HEROES. Young runners need someone to idolize. In the golden age of high school running, they had Gerry Lindgren and Jim Ryun, Marty Liquori, Steve Prefontaine and Rick Riley who all competed internationally in their teens. That doesn't happen anymore. Today's young don't relate as well to the country's top runners who usually are 10 or more years older.

Heroes can also be competitors. Runners need someone fast to look up to in their own races. A high schooler who can win in 4:20 lacks incentive to run 4:10 unless someone pulls or pushes him there.

5. PATIENCE. The better coaches encourage their runners to look ahead instead of racing themselves out in search of high school glory. This is a plus for the current U.S. system, not a minus.

We hear that no American high school miler has broken four minutes since 1967. We don't hear how many have broken through a year or two after graduation.

Gabe Jennings and Ryan Travis both ran 3:59 last year as college freshmen. They waited a bit, and their times came.


UPDATE. Two years ago Alan Webb gave high school runners the contemporary hero they've long needed. Yet no other boy has broken four minutes or threatened a high school distance record since this column first ran. Molly Huddle broke the girls' two-mile record last year, but the time is inferior to the old 3200- and 3000-meter marks.

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