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

Sun, 17 Oct 2004 12:02:40 -0400

Young Milers

RUNNING COMMENTARY 541

(rerun from October 1999 RW, with updates)

Two phone 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?" The reporters referred to the boys who run metric versions of the old mile and two-mile, now 1600 meters and 3200 meters, in times that compare poorly with those that led the nation 20 to 30 years ago.

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

Jim Ryun held the national high school mile record for 35 years before Alan Webb finally broke it in 2001. Jeff Nelson's two-mile mark has stood since 1979. Webb's and Nelson's times also stand as records for the slightly shorter 1600 and 3200 meters.

The girls' marks at those distances have been around awhile too. Kim Mortenson set the girls' 3200 mark (which is far superior to the best two-mile) in 1996. 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 tend to be overlooked in such discussions. The sportswriters, both male, who called for my comments asked only 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 train as hard now?

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

I meandered through a half-hour of possible explanations with each of 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 the magazines and books, and might 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. By its anaerobic nature 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 when commenting on how today's best aren't as good as yesteryear's leaders.

The problem isn't so much with these runners as with the athletes who aren't there on the track with them. Kids 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 race 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 a new year-round cycle.

A related problem is doubling in the 1600 and 3200 track meets (and sometimes tossing in an 800 or a relay leg). Teams encourage their best runners to compete the most so they'll score extra points. 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, the mid- to late 1960s, they had Gerry Lindgren and Jim Ryun, Marty Liquori, Steve Prefontaine and Rick Riley who all competed internationally in their teens. With the recent exception of Alan Webb, this 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 only one 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. They waited a bit, and their times came.

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