Mailbag #4 — It’s the off-season! 📬
Photo: Justin Britton | @justinbritton
I loved your discussion following the McKirdy Micro regarding the implications for the future of qualifying for the Trials. What do you think of USATF offering to guarantee qualifying spots to the top few at mid-tier races? This could help with development and make some of these races more fun to watch.
First off, I just want to thank you for understanding that my piece a couple of weeks ago was not a complaint, but a recognition of potential implications if this trend subsists. Many countries select their Olympic teams based mostly on personal bests and therefore it is in the interest of athletes to find the fastest course possible. We have seen this indoors with certain tracks and the impact it has had on the descending order list – the same thing will happen to the Olympic standard in the marathon.
The Japanese system is very similar to your suggestion. That third Olympic spot is up for grabs after their Trials, however, the needed time cannot be run just anywhere. There is a small list of eligible races where it must be done. I have endorsed this idea for all track meets and think it should extend to road races so that World Athletics greatly reduces the number of possible races where qualifying standards and ranking points can be earned. My reason is not so much about fairness as it is about increasing head-to-head competition. If there were only 25 races each year that would officially count, then we’d see more overlap among top athletes.
In terms of entertainment, a short course loop has infinitely more potential to be fun to watch and elite-focused for viewers than a non-major being broadcast on a local TV news channel sharing human interest pieces, interrupted by commercials for regional furniture store chains.
Faith Kipyegon and Sifan Hassan forsake all other events in Paris and compete only in the 800. It’s the only event in track and field with Sydney, Femke, Athing, Mary, and Keely all in it, as well. Everyone is healthy, conditions are perfect, and it's an honest race. Who's winning and what's the winning time?
The downside of having so many events in track and field is that every event is inevitably a bit more watered down than it would be if there were fewer. At a post-race event this past year, there was a spirited debate among some of my friends about how if needed we would narrow the entire sport down to just a few events.
My strategy was to discover who is the best at running fastest short, medium, and long, jumping high, jumping far, and throwing far. Sorry Mondo, but I feel good about his athletic potential elsewhere. If there was only the 100, 800, 5000, high jump, long jump, and shot put, then every talent would likely be able to find their niche.
All that is to say, I believe Athing Mu is legitimately the most talented 800m runner in the world. At her best, you could line everyone up in 2024 and if she is firing on all cylinders then no one is beating her when she runs 1:53 high.
I think Femke would be a long-term better 800m runner than Sydney, and that’s based mostly on 200m/400m times. Sydney ran 22.39 in 2018 and hasn’t competed in one since, whereas Femke runs it regularly and has a best of 22.87.
Photo: Justin Britton | @justinbritton
Why does Athing Mu run on the outside of lane 1? Why would anyone do that from a strategic perspective? Why why why??
With all the angst about the track Trials in Eugene, could championship track races be held in football stadiums with temporary tracks moved in?
As a rule, I am against temporary tracks as they feel slower and always look like they’re falling apart. And while many football stadiums do have permanent tracks around them, they’re often more narrow because of the shape of the field. There are of course some exceptions, however, many stadiums have an issue with the positioning of field event runways and rings that disqualify them from eligibility. There is currently no US football stadium on WA’s list.
Who is the most underrated North American male marathoner right now, and why is it Cam Levins?
I mean, he’s the North American record holder, fourth at Worlds last year, and fifth in Tokyo this year. Who would anyone even argue is better right now?
How do you hold down a full-time job and this job with all the travel and oh yea, wife and kid?
My wife is extremely supportive of me staying involved in running and is willing to sacrifice a lot of her own time to make it possible. This (whatever “this” is) would be considered my biggest hobby and although writing The Lap Count every week brings some stress, it is sustainable and overall brings me deep happiness. CITIUS could be my only thing if I wanted it to be, but I also like my “real” job. All that said, I’m sure it’s occasionally obvious in certain newsletters when life is extra busy.
I'm a road race fan trying to get into XC and T&F. What are the top three things I should know to start this new obsession??
Welcome! You are likely not going to figure it all out in one season, but this newsletter and CITIUS’s social media will help. For the most part, I would suggest finding the athletes you enjoy cheering for and following them.
Do not try to follow cross country closely. The NCAA meet is November 18th in Charlottesville and World Cross Country is March 30th in Serbia. Besides that, it’s probably not worth the effort.
Here is the Diamond League schedule. This would in theory be the 15 best regular season meets of the year and you can watch them on Peacock. Aside from that, I’d focus on the Millrose Games (2/11) and World Indoors (3/1 - 3/3).
In track, everyone is basically just trying to qualify for the Olympics. These are the standards and this is how you’ll figure out who has it. Each country has its own selection process (the US Trials are 6/21 - 6/30).
Old Centerville Rd in Tallahassee
What are the places to train in the USA?
People are going to say Flagstaff and Park City because they’re the best spots at altitude. For sea-level goers like myself, the dream is to winter in Tallahassee, Florida, for the endless pine forests and dirt roads that surround it, and summer in Bar Harbor, Maine, near Acadia National Park’s miles of pristine and rolling carriage paths.
Why are NIL athletes not wearing their sponsor’s spikes in XC? Is it related to the team they are on?
Yup! You may be getting paid a few thousand dollars by some other brand to use your name, image, and likeness, but the University of Texas is in the middle of a 15-year deal with Nike that’s worth $250M and that’s always gonna win out. And since your university is paying your scholarship, you’re not going to be allowed to wear anything else while in that jersey. That also means that athletes can’t even vlog for their sponsor mid-conference meet trip, and good luck getting approval from the athletic department to film a workout video on campus!
Is cannabis still banned? Asking for a friend.
In competition, yes. Out of competition, have fun! As noted in this Molly Seidel piece, “People would be shocked to know how many pro runners smoke weed.”
What were the most notable performances during conference weekend? Do you have any early predictions for NCAAs now that you’ve seen mostly full squads?
I can’t believe the Harvard men lost to Princeton, again! That’s a 51-year drought and as the 6th-ranked team in the country, it seemed like this would be Crimson’s year. He did not have to beat any contenders to do it, but Graham Blanks made the individual win look so damn easy that I do think he’ll win in Charlottesville. The key will be the NAU guys keeping the gas down for him to take the sting out of Ky Robinson’s kick.
And while the Lumberjack men – of course – won the Big Sky meet with ease, my gut says they do not win their seventh title in eight years. Following the disappointment of losing last year on a tiebreaker, Oklahoma State loaded up with a couple of freshmen from Kenya and dominated the Big 12 meet with 25 points in a field that included then #3-ranked BYU, #6-ranked Texas, and #17-ranked Iowa State.
The two-time defending NCAA champion Wolfpack of NC State won the ACC meet 37 to 80 over Notre Dame who was ranked #8 in the country. The key to defending against the rapidly progressing Northern Arizona women, who went 1-7 in their conference meet, will be health. Twice a top ten finisher at NCAAs, Amaris Tyynismaa dropped out after 5K at ACCs, and multiple time All-American Samantha Bush was 11th after not finishing at Nuttycombe. It’s unbelievable how much will change in the next three weeks and we’ll soon look back and pretend we saw it all along.
What would you do if you saw a person wearing a Citius Mag t-shirt out on the street versus at a track meet?
My hope is that when someone is seen wearing Citius merchandise out in the wild, one of the other dozens of track fans would recognize it and be like, “That person also does not understand how the world ranking system works!”
Photo: Johnny Zhang | @jzsnapz
What's your prediction on the future of Bowerman Track Club with the latest departures from the team?
The current crop of runners will bridge the gap until the current crop of Oregon athletes graduate and it will essentially become a feeder program. One of Jerry’s big things is that he’s always wished he was able to develop talent at a younger age rather than just inheriting them when they’re 23 years old. Expect him to also take on a local high school team soon!
What is your "dream trade" (an athlete from one group/coach moving to another) in professional running? [Mine is Moh Ahmed to Ritzenhein to train for the marathon.]
I would love to see an athlete traded to a team that doesn’t really line up with the way they do things. For example, what if Galen Rupp joined NAZ Elite? He’s operated in relative secrecy his whole career with no social media and only a handful of interviews outside of press conferences and mixed-zone appearances. Wouldn’t it be fun if he joined the most transparent team possible and had to start sharing all of his workouts?
Also, I think if Shamier Little ever moves up to 800 then she’d do well on the OAC and be a great recurring guest on the Coffee Club.
How does track attract more non-endemic sponsors to the sport like car companies or banks?
A bigger audience helps! There is obvious interest from shoe and sports apparel brands because it’s an effective way to talk directly to your target audience – they’re the ones buying the product. For really big sponsors with a more general marketing strategy, the few hundred thousand fans that tune in to watch a track meet are not worth the time or effort.
In a lot of the major sports sponsorships, there are additional affiliate benefits that are included in the package. It’s not just a logo on the field, but VIP tickets or box access where a Fortune 500 company can entertain their clients. That’s not really a sought-after commodity in track since stadiums are empty.
On a smaller scale, I think the CITIUS partnership with OLIPOP demonstrates potential value in track – brands can benefit from having deep engagement and trust in a niche where there is significant brand alignment. No one at OLIPOP thought, “how do we get in front of track fans?” But our audience’s demographics: younger, skewing college educated, health-conscious… now that’s more interesting!
I am in active conversation with a major non-running brand about coming on board in 2024. Our growing follower count isn’t really the main selling point, but our flexibility to be creative when integrating and creating content is. We’ll see if it works out!
The ruthless Long Island shark in me wishes we had some financial data on all of you! (Maybe something to include at the end-of-year survey for newsletter readers? It’s a good stat that 67% of this newsletter’s readers are under 35.) Ultimately, brands are motivated by money, not altruism, and if you can point out that you’re delivering them an audience that aligns with their goals, that’s what makes partnerships happen outside of the most obvious ones.
Right now, I can’t find any publicly available information about the demographic information of who is watching or participating in running. If I was World Athletics, USATF or a World Marathon Major, then I’d commission a consumer insights company to do a survey. I’d hope they already have, and if so, please share the findings with me! That’s how you can get sponsors that don’t sell shoes.
Did they change the start time for the Olympic Trials marathon?
There are active negotiations going on right now between the athletes, USATF, NBC, and the local organizing committee. There are a lot of parties involved, though I would expect that Orlando would rather shut down some of its major roads in the morning as opposed to in the early afternoon.
No one has asked me my opinion, but I like 10 AM. That would allow east coast running fans time to get their miles in first, but most importantly allow the west coasters to wake up. Athlete safety is important, but it’s still supposed to be a professional sport for spectators and that feels like a compromise. Also, the CITIUS setup for our alternate commentary is going to be ideal for Bloody Mary consumption and I’d be afraid of who of you out there would be looking to get down to business earlier than that in the day.
Here is a letter sent from the USATF AAC to the local organizing committee.
Who is the biggest underdog you think can qualify for the Olympics?
Joel Reichow. Odds are you don’t even know who he is, but he just ran 2:10:37 in Chicago and his trajectory is insane. Minnesota Distance Elite is the most underrated team in the country and it’s not even close.
What are you looking most forward to in New York this weekend? Any major storylines that we should be paying attention to?
Admittedly, when a bunch of studs dropped out a couple of weeks ago, I thought this year’s race was going to be a wash. Part of that is because a lot of top Americans are not running, since the Trials are getting closer. If you run New York, then take two weeks off and get right into the Trials build, then there are just under 12 weeks to prepare. That’s doable, but there isn’t much room for error.
Then I took a closer look at the start list and I realized just how deep this race was from an international standpoint. With a smaller American field, the appearance fee money must have opened up a bit. You can subscribe to the CITIUS MAG newsletter for a more comprehensive preview of what to watch for, but here are a few highlights:
Tamirat Tola has won the World Championships, earned bronze at the Olympics, and has twice been on Major podiums. With a 2:03:39 best he is the top seed – does he finally win one?
Abdi Nageeye has been super consistent the last six years and would be the 2020 Olympic champion had it not been for the existence of Eliud Kipchoge. He was third here last year, but also has never won a major…
Shura Kitata (London 2020) and Albert Korir (New York 2021) represent the dudes who have done it before. I say this with all sincerity, the thing I love about these two guys is that their running form is… pronounced. You can spot them from a mile away and it’s just a reminder that an important aspect of being a good marathoner is being tough as nails.
There hasn’t been a North American man win the race since Meb Keflezighi in 2009. Could Cam Levins be THAT guy?
Can Elkanah Kibet, Futsum Zienasellassie, Nathan Martin, Reed Fischer, Tyler McCandless or one of the other Americans assert themselves into the conversation ahead of the Trials? Also, it’s not an outlandish possibility that one finishes in the top five to unlock that third Olympic standard spot.
Okay, I know I just gave the guys five bullets but the women’s field is way more loaded and it shouldn’t take much to show you why you should care about this race. Brigid Kosgei, the former world record holder up until a month ago, is here. Letesenbet Gidey, the half marathon world record holder, is here. (Do you remember when her 2:16 in Valencia for a debut was kind of disappointing?) Peres Jipchirchir, the Olympic champion, the 2021 New York, and 2022 Boston champion, is here. Do I still need to introduce Hellen Obiri? Because she is here. Sharon Lokedi, the defending champion (representing UA!) is here. The ageless wonder, Edna Kiplagat, who has won four Majors and podiumed in ten, is back in the Big Apple. This is such a good race!
American fans can look forward to welcoming back both Molly Huddle and Kellyn Taylor to the marathon after some time away to support their growing families.
And most importantly, the weather forecast is looking better than last year! May the athletes competing suffer a better fate than I did in the heat.
The Athlete’s Voice: Isaac Updike 🐟
Photo: Justin Britton | @justinbritton
I am hoping to use this platform during the off-season to provide elite athletes with some space to share their stories. In the first edition of what we are calling The Athlete’s Voice is UA Mission Run Dark Sky Distance’s Isaac Updike, who represented the US at the 2023 World Championships in the steeplechase.
Almost every time I race, an announcer mentions that I grew up in Alaska and that I ran in the NAIA.
These things are both true, and they do inform how I show up on a startling line. But when people hear those facts, they make certain assumptions about how I show up on the track: with a chip on my shoulder, eager to prove I belong.
Looking back, it’s easy to say that I didn’t have the same opportunities as others. But the reality was, at the time, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know anything! And I sure didn’t know what I didn’t have.
For those who don’t know, I grew up in Ketchikan, Alaska. It’s the southernmost town in Alaska, on an island in a dense, old growth temperate rainforest. It’s a cruise line stop, and people usually work in the fishing or logging industries. I grew up playing in the woods with my friends and throwing fishing nets in the trees to climb around on. In a town of 8,000 people, you’ll find that kids play just about every sport, and I was no exception. I grew up playing basketball, soccer or futsal (basically, a variation of indoor soccer), and baseball.
In 6th grade, I remember a girl named Carmen told me I should try out for cross country in the middle of a game of tag. I promptly ran away, ignoring her suggestion all together. I like to say my running career finally started when I didn't make the cut for my 8th grade middle school basketball team. Cross country it was. I remember showing up to practice without running shoes one day, and having to lace down my Etnies skate shoes and run in them. It wasn’t something I was serious about. It was just another chance to hang out with my friends and be on a team.
I think this was a foundational aspect of my relationship to running and sport. I approached running around the mindset of being on a team. Yes, you are running your own race, but you are all out there together and can help push and encourage each other.
In Southeast Alaska, you travel a lot via overnight ferries. We’d pack onto the ferry with our team and pick up other teams along the way. That meant by the end of a ferry ride there were sometimes upwards of 100 kids from various towns all intermingled on the ferry. We’d bring sleeping bags and sleep all over the ferry, play cards, and eat in the ferry’s cafeteria.
Once we got to the town where the meet was held there were two options: either we were sent off in groups and housed by local families (that usually had a child in cross country, as well) or every team would stay in the local school for the weekend. We’d roll in and take over the gym floor. As you might imagine, these were essentially 100-person slumber parties. We would inevitably gain access to a projector for movies or horse around with any gym class equipment we could find. So you know, we were super well rested and prepared to run hard on meet day.
It’s funny how now, we try to control even the smallest variables. That wasn’t how I learned the sport, though, and it wasn’t how I first learned to love it. So in a lot of ways, I think I still carry that attitude with me. While I’m diligent with training and nutrition and recovery… if my bag gets lost or I have to skip a day of practice because my knee hurts, I know I’ll be okay.
Running is still about community and connection. And clearly I run to see how far I can push myself and find what my athletic peak is – but that wasn’t why I started. I don’t feel like I carry the same weight of expectations as others in this sport. I have big ambitions, but I won’t fixate if on the day, things don’t go to plan. I can learn, move on, and be ready for another day.
A good example of this would be in the 2021 Olympic Trials. I had a good year leading up to it and made the final, coming in as a top contender for an Olympic spot in the steeplechase.
The race was not ideal and I ended up finishing in fifth. After the race, I found my partner, Justine, who made the Olympics in 2016 for France, crying because I hadn’t made it. When she asked if I was sad, I simply replied, ‘It sucks I didn’t make it but I ran as hard as I could out there.’ Why would I be sad? I had the best year I’d ever had!
I think that’s the first time we realized how differently we grew up in the sport. For Justine, she felt pressure and expectation and it was more about the outcome than the process. I never felt any pressure to run, or to compete in sports to gain a scholarship for college, or get into an elite development program. To be honest I’m not sure I knew those were even options to strive for until they were right in front of my face.
For better or for worse, because my awareness of what I could do in the sport grew so much later, I’ve been able to really enjoy the day-to-day. In some ways, I’ve been fortunate to be naive. Each year I learn more about what’s possible, and dream bigger for myself. I know how to be diligent and work hard, and it’s like I’m unlocking new levels of the game with every accomplishment or opportunity. When I first started running across the muddy trails of Ketchikan, I didn’t even know professional track was a real sport. Pretty cool that I’ve traded hopping over logs for hopping over steeple barriers on tracks around the world.
It is easy to look back on how I got here and assume that I was driven by the notion that even though I didn’t have the same resources from the start, I could succeed anyways.
But the reality is that my scope was different from most people’s. I was not someone who was a “have not”. I was just someone doing their best in the only context they knew, until the context changed and it was time to grow. I’ve adapted with my running, but my mindset is still the same: make it work and have fun hanging out with your friends. There are many paths towards success, and we get to decide what that looks and feels like for ourselves.