The New Age of Marathoning: Short Loop 🔁
Photo: Johnny Zhang | @jzsnapz
“Rockland Lake State Park: where the course ain’t short, but the loops are!” If you work for the New York State Parks Department and can get this slogan posted there, please let me know.
This past weekend, the McKirdy Micro Marathon took place at RLSP (gonna also try to make this acronym stick, sorry, y’all) about an hour outside of Manhattan and it proved something that anyone who has ever run in a major marathon already knew: they’re not set up to run your fastest.
There are bridges in New York, hills in Boston, downhills in London, turns in Chicago and Berlin, and U-turns in Tokyo. To get to the start of any of them requires a crack of dawn wake-up time, a long bus ride, and lots of standing around. The elites get bottles, but not everyone has a Bottle Claus. And if you’re trying to get any feedback from your coach, good luck hearing it!
These races are designed for tens of thousands of people, and they do not have the flexibility to say… change the start time depending on the weather, which is exactly what happened this weekend in New York. This past spring, on the same course, Trials of Miles organized a similar half marathon event, and athletes were told the race would be on either Saturday or Sunday for optimum conditions – and it was not official until two days before.
Consider the impact that pacing lights have had on the track these past few years. There’s a huge advantage to knowing exactly where you are supposed to be for a measured and even-split effort. On the roads, there are GPS watches, which when accurate do a good enough job, generally – except there are hills. What is the equivalent of a 5:10 mile split when there was a 50-foot net elevation loss?
On a pancake flat three-mile closed loop course, this is no longer an issue. Every lap, there was a board displayed for runners to see how their splits compared to where they needed to be in order to get the Olympic Trials Qualifier. With good weather, pacers, a big pack to run with, bottle support, stress-free logistics, and no inclines, things worked out really well!
Tsegay Tumay of Eritrea won the men’s race handily in 2:11:04, something he has done before as his personal best is 2:09:07, however, this was his fastest since 2019. But it’s what happened behind him that was remarkable: 32 American men ran under the OTQ standard of 2:18:00 and 27 for the first time.
Calli Thackey won the women’s race in her debut, running 2:22:17 to jump immediately into a tie at the number two spot on the Great Britain all-time list. The four-time All-American at New Mexico had just finished 7th at the World Championship Half Marathon. Following her through the tape was a cohort of 12 American women who broke the 2:37:00 mark, 10 of whom did not previously have a qualifier.
Between the McKirdy Micro, the Marathon Project, the INEOS 1:59 Challenge, and other elite-oriented races, there is proof of concept. These “bubble” events create fast times. As standards get more difficult, these time trials will become increasingly more common and the cycle will become self-perpetuating.
The top athletes in the world will continue going to World Marathon Majors because of the big appearance fees and prize money… until they start getting passed over for Olympic team selections because some dude ran 2:01 in a vacuum rather than 2:03 in Berlin. Can you imagine how fast Kelvin Kiptum or Tigist Assefa would have run had they not had to go over even the smallest speed bump, make a harsh turn, or worry about taking tangents?
When theorizing with a friend about this dystopian future he said, “I can not wait until we can focus on just racing again!” I hear that. It sort of feels like I am getting close to that place on the track – being the 12th-place finisher in a time that I used to consider fast just doesn’t impress me anymore.
My qualms with marathon running are more about the dispersal of talent rather than the disjunction of courses. And maybe if chasing fast times puts the fittest athletes in the world on the same course on the same day in head-to-head matchups, then that’s worth giving up running past national monuments through screaming crowds to do so? But city marathons are special because it’s the one sport in which forty-thousand people get to compete against the elites, right? And those participants are the ones funding the whole thing!
Maybe the problem is having time-based qualifying standards that force athletes to stop competing with each other, and only with the clock. Is there another option?
The College XC Roundup: Wisco + Pre Nats 🌲
Photo: Andrew LeMay | @lemay.photo
That insatiable craving every diehard harrier fan feels, that drives them to scream, “ME WANT NUTTYCOMBE!” has finally been met. That’s right. The NCAA cross country season had its mid-season opening day in Madison on Friday. It wasn’t the official preview of the national meet course – that was the next day in Charlottesville – but with both meets behind us, the hype is building and the storylines are being written.
It’s not exactly a new plot line that the dynastic Northern Arizona men would come in as the top-ranked team in the country, then proceed to run away with it (they’ve won six of the last seven NCAA meets).
But from an individual standpoint, pre-race odds would have listed the top two returners from last year's meet, Nico Young and Drew Bosley, or the 5000m and 10,000m outdoor champion from Stanford, Ky Robinson, as favorites. Instead, it was Harvard’s Graham Blanks who finally made the hard move to break open the much too-large pack to earn the biggest win of his career.
Meanwhile, had you predicted a few years ago that the Northern Arizona women would be taking down the top-ranked NC State Wolfpack to win at Nuttycombe – not just in 2023 but ever – then we’d have put you on the next bus to crazy town. But the Lumberjack women’s rise continues, thanks to this incredibly useful thing in cross country called “depth.” Now, before Raleigh readers write to me about how “The Last Dance” is not over because they were missing a key piece or two – I agree.
And I also agree that what happens five weeks before the national meet is not always what’s going to happen at the national meet. That said, the intrigue of another Katelyn Tuohy-Parker Valby showdown has clearly been elevated significantly. The rivalry on display on the course, but maybe more so between their fan bases is honestly cult-like. The degree of support for these two athletes is basically at a fever pitch that has historically only been reserved for the likes of Franz Liszt and Taylor Swift.
Here’s your obligatory reminder that times in cross country are all relative and DO NOT MATTER… but Valby ran 19:17 to win by 12 seconds and to set a very difficult course record on a rainy day. She is fit! And five weeks is also a long time. (Nuttycombe Results)
Photo: Johnny Pace | @pacephoto
The XC Pre-National meet didn’t have the same star power as its Wisconsin counterpart, but it did introduce us to some new names to watch. Ben Shearer’s 14:07 5000m personal best didn’t put him on my radar coming into this one. But cross country isn’t track, and I won’t make that same mistake again: he led Arkansas to a dominant victory. The Razorback men posted just 35 points and moved from #21 to #8 in the national polls as a result.
The BYU Cougars have proved why they’re pretty much always projected for the podium these days, as they scored 32 points with Carmen Alder running away with it early. She was 203rd in her one NCAA XC appearance and now look at her! Who’d have thought? Probably Coach Diljeet Taylor! (Pre-Nats Results)
The Grand Marathon Championships🇯🇵
There were only 55 men and 18 women who finished the Japanese Olympic Trials. Part of those diminutive figures is due to the difficulty of actually qualifying, and then there were four athletes who were disqualified for not meeting the cut-off times on race day. That’s right – if you are too slow, then you are done and presumably a man in a porkpie hat uses a giant wooden cane to scoop you off the course like it’s an old-timey vaudeville performance!
I digress. Back to the battle for the Olympic team. Five years after stealing the show at the 2018 Boston Marathon, Yuki Kawauchi almost pulled it off again in a Tokyo downpour of. With a blistering 14:45 opening 5K, no one dared to run with the Citizen Runner, which honestly seems a bit disrespectful! Yuki ran 2:07:35 THIS year – no one wanted to cover his move?
Well, at 35K the peloton’s patience paid off and they caught up to him. Kawauchi latched on and would hold on to a fourth-place finish. Ultimately Naoki Koyama (2:08:57) and Akira Akasaki (2:09:06) broke away and secured their places in Paris.
On the women’s side, there was a huge swarm of 2:21 to 2:22 athletes gunning to make this team and it seemed especially wide open with the absence of Hitomi Niiya, who had run 2:19:24 earlier this year to win Houston. Despite her relatively modest personal best of 2:25:02 coming in, Yuka Suzuki embraced the moment and the elements to break the tape in 2:24:09 with Mao Ichiyama (2:24:43) behind her.
The third-place finishers, Suguru Osako and Ai Hosoda, are left twiddling their thumbs in purgatory, waiting to see if they make it or if someone else runs fast enough to boot them from the hot seat. I am officially out on this system. Maybe it results in a more competitive team being sent to Paris, but a trials event that doesn’t directly decide all Olympic representatives for a country are a real drag, from a storytelling standpoint.
LA2028: The Summer of Sports! 🏟
Actual photo from the 2028 Olympics
The Los Angeles Olympics will now feature a handful of new sports: baseball, softball, cricket, squash, flag football, and lacrosse. Add this to the grab bag of skateboarding, breakdancing, and the mixed-gender 4x400, with e-sports and pickleball on the horizon, and I’m left feeling a bit like Steve Buscemi wearing a backwards hat.
But several of these sports aren’t actually new to the Olympics entirely. Lacrosse was in the Olympics in 1904 and 1908, and it was played between just the United States and Canada. Baseball has come and gone, but was last played as recently as in 2020 – with minimal participation from the sport’s stars due to MLB restrictions. This will be the first time squash will be featured, and also the first time anyone outside of a middle school PE class pretended to take flag football seriously.
In fairness, cricket is a reasonable addendum. It was last played Olympically in 1900, but it has become a phenomenon in the years since. There are an estimated 2.5 cricket billion fans, globally. The 2032 Games are in Australia, and with the opportunity to more deeply engage with Indian sports fans before the world’s largest country potentially gets the 2036 Games, it makes sense.
Ratings have been steadily declining across the Summer and Winter Games since 2012 and this is quite clearly an attempt to reach aloof 12-year-olds. But the stuff Gen Z actually cares about is TikTok, sustainability, and human rights — none of which are synonymous with the Olympic movement. (Might I suggest a return to a concept from the Olympics of the 20s, 30s, and 40s: including “town planning” as an event?)
Hopefully, these additions add to the appreciation track and field receives. There’s continuity and history there, and not much in the way of rules to learn in order to appreciate it. And for existing fans of the sport, new events don’t detract from our interest in knowing who is the best in the world – all of the additional noise is secondary. (That’s what makes the World Championships special. – It’s just like the Olympics, but better.)
Meet HOKA NAZ Elite’s Coach Jack Mullaney 🏔
The HOKA NAZ Elite squad had been without a head coach for a few months, and yet the performances were going so well that you likely wouldn’t have known. That was in large part thanks to interim and still-assistant coach Jenna Wrieden, and executive director Ben Rosario, who successfully steered the ship while temporarily without a conventional captain.
And when the results of the long search was finally announced to be Jack Mullaney, I admittedly did not know who that was. There is a tendency for brands to hire former professional athletes, which is a reasonable enough strategy, given their obvious expertise and experience. But there must have been something about Mullaney that made him the best fit for the team and so I reached out to learn more. He did not share until the end of the call that he is a day one newsletter subscriber!
Congratulations on the new role! What's the one thing that you're most excited about whether that's team-wise or maybe even on a personal level because I know this is a big move for you?
I think the biggest thing is I'm really just excited about being able to work with a group of awesome human beings. At the professional level, everyone's a really good athlete. But what continues to impress me as I meet with the athletes, the staff and the board members associated with the team, is that everyone is just a genuine, good person. And when you're around good people, that sows the seeds for success – I'm just really excited to work with them. It makes me feel like anything is possible.
And as it relates to the team, I think if you zoom out and look at the history of NAZ Elite since its inception in 2014, it's been this steady growth over time. And we're at a pretty cool place right now – we’re the best that we’ve ever been, and I'm really excited to join the team at this time.
You spent seven years at the University of Portland, and therefore you're probably heavily influenced by Rob Conner, if that's fair to say. My antiquated understanding of his training is that it’s built on high mileage and long intervals. Tell me if I'm far off on that! How would you describe your coaching philosophy?
I owe so much of my career and just opportunity in the sport to him. There's nobody that I've been around who's more authentic and true to who he is. To everybody, he’s the same person – he’s the same to our athletics director, as he is to me, as he is to the athletes. And I just appreciate that about him so much.
I certainly have taken some things from him. But I also learned a lot from Ian Solof, the women's coach at the University of Portland. I’m a reader, I’m big into coaching education classes, and I have a network of coaches that I talk to about training.
I would say that for me, and especially at this level, it's a lot more about tailoring the training to the individual and understanding what has worked well for them in the past, what their physiology would indicate would work best for them now, as well as what, if any, limitations they might have. So it's not about a system for me as much as it is about the individual.
A unique aspect of the NAZ Elite program is that you kind of have three coaches now on the roster so you have great resources in Jenna (Wrieden) and Ben (Rosario), as well. But for a lot of the athletes this is their third or fourth coach in a pretty short period of time. How do you make it a smooth transition at the most important time of a lot of the athletes’ careers?
My top priority in starting here is to build connections with the athletes and really earn their trust. And you certainly don't do that by coming in and making a whole bunch of decisions right away. I want to come in and talk to athletes and observe for a little bit and figure out the things that are going well before making any decisions.
And to your point about having Jenna and Ben on staff, I think that's a huge advantage for us because it's not just my expertise that we're pulling from. It's going to be a real collaborative effort. Jenna and I are going to be very aligned moving forward in terms of coaching the athletes. And we want it to be so that whether I'm at a workout, or whether she's at a work out, what the athletes are getting is going to be something very similar because it's flowing from a very aligned thought process.
You kind of touched on this in the idea that you're coaching to the individual, rather than employing a specific system. And in the team’s press release announcing your hiring, you said something to the effect that you can coach the modern athlete, and that you're up to date with all the latest training methodologies. Explain all that like I'm five years old. What training methodologies are you most keen on, and how is coaching today different than it would be, say, 10, 20 years ago?
I can't necessarily say how it was 20 years ago because I wasn't coaching at that time and I wasn't an athlete either. I was ten years old! But I think I think now, athletes, more than ever, want to take an active role in their training process and they want a collaborative approach when it comes to determining the training that works best for them, rather than more of an authoritarian structure that's maybe been more common in the past. And that certainly doesn't mean that that was the case for everybody.
As for certain methodologies, I think I would consider myself a student of the sport. For instance, obviously threshold training is something that's become very popular and I don't think it's something where you should just say, ‘oh, because it's popular, that's what we have to do.’
I think it's my responsibility as a coach to do the research to see what the merits of it are and if there could be some benefit for a particular athlete rather than simply adopting it as a religion. But that would apply for anything that becomes popularized, or even for training methodologies that maybe were around 30, 40, 50 years ago, that have fizzled out. I think it's my responsibility to continue to read and research so that when an athlete comes to me, I can pull from a variety of different ideas and approaches to find one that works best for them.
My longtime coach, Frank Gagliano, was a football coach previously, and he was not a runner. Your background is really unique in a similar way – did not compete in college and yet, you know, now you're coaching one of the best distance squads in the country. When did you think that you could make a career out of this?
I feel like we can leave a lot on the table as coaches if we're only sourcing the running world for our inspiration, for our approaches, for the things that we value, for our philosophies. I was a musician growing up, and I played a variety of different sports and I worked a job in the business world straight out of college for a little bit. And So I've always tried to see my background as a strength rather than as a weakness. I didn't run 27-flat. I didn't make the Olympics as an athlete or shoot, I didn't even run Division One in college. And that's okay.
As to your question about when I first believed that I could coach at this level, it happened over time. Going back to Rob Conner, one of the things that he told me when he first hired me was, ‘there's a lot of things that this program does well at Portland, but there's some gaps – your job is to fill the gaps as best as you can.’
And so I just started trying to fill the gaps. One of those was in the weight room. So I learned as much as I could about strength training and implemented a regular strength training program for our team. Some of the things that we do from a cultural perspective were ideas that I generated, and over the course of time I started to pick up more and more things and it got to a point where we had some athletes graduate from the program and ask if I would coach them post collegiately. And once I started to do that, and I was trying my hand at coaching them directly, writing their training and that sort of thing and having some success with it, that's when I started to believe that I could do this at this level.
I know we've never spoken before, but I'd come run for you. You won me over.