“I am so sick of hearing about the East Africans. Their time is over. This is our time.”
Yes, blatantly stolen from Kurt Russell’s Herb Brooks in “Miracle.” Don’t get me wrong, I have enormous respect for the Africans’ athleticism and motivation, and watching their running is nearly hypnotic it’s so perfect. But really, how great would it be to see an American flag draped across the winner of a Marathon Major (like it was on Meb a couple of years ago), or even the Olympics?
Here’s the thing. There’s only one NFL, and aside from the extremely rare walk-on, if you don’t get drafted out of college then you’re not playing pro football. Sure there’s the arena league and a few full-contact regional and local leagues, but that’s not the same as “any given Sunday.” Similar situation in hockey, except in that sport (especially in Canada) you have to decide early on in your high school years whether you’re going to make the push to develop into an NHL draft prospect. By the time you’re 18, your fate may already be decided. Likewise NBA. In both of these sports if you don’t make the big leagues here you can go play in Europe (especially if there’s a lock-out going on), but what kid growing up dreams about playing for (six-time Euroleague champion) Panathinaikos?
Then there’s running. Just about any given weekend, in any given town or city across America, there’s sure to be a 5K, 10-Miler, or marathon taking place somewhere within driving distance. In the spring and fall you usually don’t have to go much farther to find an open track meet. Nearly any one of these events could be where a young runner qualifies for the US national championships, a national team, or even the Olympic Trials. Most college athletes would give just about anything for the opportunity to continue playing their sport at a satisfying competitive level after graduation. Running offers these opportunities almost every week. So why do some many runners hang up their spikes on the last day of their final season, and what has that done to the state of American distance running and our prospects for reclaiming the podium at the Olympics and major marathons? Many runners do not peak until they are in their mid- to late-20’s, so how many potential world-class athletes are we losing when graduation day equals retirement day?
If we want to have more runners competing at the world level then we need to keep my runners competing – not participating, competing – in races at the local level. The first thing we need to do is find out why we lose so many runners after college, and stop the outflow. Then we need to offer these athletes the opportunity to be competitive, professional athletes. The current system is not working, and we need to increase and expand the prize money, sponsorships and support available to aspiring athletes. Given the current state of running in America, all these changes will have to come from local, individually-initiated grass roots efforts, until a large-scale critical mass is reached. So get active, get involved, stay tuned, and as always, keep running.