Random thoughts, news and views from this weekend’s NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships…
Louisville was a good host. Maybe not as good as Indiana State, hosts of nine of the last ten championship meets, but better than I expected. The course wasn’t great for spectators, but there was a big video board right near the start/finish area. The much-discussed narrowing of the course about 400 meters after the start turned out not to be that big of a deal. Good hotel space conveniently located near the course was easy to get on short notice (and not too expensive either), which is a much better situation than in Terre Haute, a city less than 1/7 the size of Louisville. I thought parking would be a nightmare but it turned out OK. Media coverage could be better, but that’s a by-product of holding it in a bigger city; in Terre Haute, this is the only show in town that weekend.
The anatomy of a rumor has many parts. As no doubt you’ve heard, the women’s team results were all screwed up for a little while. Delta Timing flat-out missed some top finishers from Oregon and Florida State, which initially threw the team title to Providence. While waiting to interview the Michigan team (which I never did get a chance to do), a UM parent came up and said that runners from Oregon and Florida State had been disqualified. I wouldn’t have given this any credence, but then UM coach Mike McGuire walked up and also said some runners had been DQ’d. I put faith in the words of a guy who’s been working at the top end of the sport as long as he has. So I tweeted out what I’d heard, and it got taken to be a bit more meaningful than I’d intended.
We now know that no one was disqualified. McGuire must have misinterpreted the missing runners from Oregon and FSU as to be because of a DQ, when it was just a screw-up by Delta Timing. I was the mouthpiece for that misinterpretation.
Gallup and Delta Timing have something in common. The venerable company’s polls were dead wrong in the leadup to the presidential election, more wrong than any major polling firm. Their mistakes were based on turnout assumptions that were pretty clearly in error even before the voting took place, and the result was severely damaging to the Gallup brand. Delta Timing’s embarrassing goof-up on Saturday was different in that there were no methodological errors except, as told to me by Delta employees, they may have had too many chips on athletes because the two in question were never read. Results went up on the scoreboard long before anything could be considered official; finishes according to chips are preliminary, but only video reading is final and obviously takes a while. Both companies are dependent on their reputations of reliability. Gallup’s black eye is deserved, Delta’s is simply a hazard of getting information out quickly.
Lawi Lalang is not the same guy he was a year ago. The sophomore from Arizona tore up course records last year and no one came close to him. He followed that up with a record-breaking indoor season, but his outdoor season was a little more ordinary. Whereas his only loss from September through March was to World Indoor champion Bernard Lagat (and then only barely), he didn’t win a single outdoor 5k. While he returned to his winning ways this year in cross country, when push came to shove on Saturday he got left behind.
None of this is meant to cast aspersions onto winner Kennedy Kithuka, who ran one of the best collegiate cross country races of all time. 28:31 for a rolling 10k on grass is amazing. He was good over the last two years at Wayland Baptist, but has clearly stepped it up since transferring to Texas Tech.
Attitude is everything. On Sunday morning, Chris Nickinson of RunnerSpace.com tweeted the following:
Common thread among #ncaad1xc women’s team champs last few years – All have mentioned their fun, relaxed team atmosphere.
At the time I didn’t even think about the flip side, the implication that teams which come up short of their expectations might not have a relaxed team atmosphere. (As an aside, it sure seems to me that the teams with more than one or two way-too-skinny runners never have any consistency, and I can’t imagine life is all that much fun for them.)
I replied to Chris with my observation that a relentlessly positive attitude is essential for distance running success. In all of our overanalysis of Kenyan runners and what makes them so good, one thing that gets overlooked is the cultural norm of a positive outlook. Setbacks are usually seen as temporary and success is always possible, even if not immediate. At the highest levels of distance running, perhaps the primary function of a coach is to keep that positive outlook, either by force of pure charisma (Lydiard, Cerutty, Igloi, et al.) or by setting an example. No surprise then that Texas A&M assistant Wendell McRaven favorited my tweet about a relentlessly positive attitude, since he’s always saying nice things about his athletes and pumping them up. It seems to work—and even if it doesn’t, what’s the harm in making a kid feel like a million bucks? That’s how Sparky Anderson always approached things, and he seemed to have very little clubhouse strife given the tremendous amount of talent on his teams.