Yes, I get it, everyone’s doping and no one cares. About doping. But there’s a huge disconnect between what is happening at the top level of the sport and what is happening in my hometown, and I would guess, other people’s hometowns too. Which is running. Competition. Running races is fun and people care about it; it’s not smarmy and tedious—see the difference?
To remind myself why I like running/racing, I toddled on over to Minneapolis on the evening of May 12 to spectate (my excuse for not running is that I had to devote 110 percent to observation and I’m sticking by that) the TC 1 Mile, where waves of runners in categories like friends & family, team circuit, open, masters, all covered a mile of pavement. USA Track & Field selects one of the many road miles staged around the country to be the US 1 Mile Road Championship, and this was the Twin Cities’ sixth time as host. As such, the last two races of the evening involved sculpted pros showing how it’s done, and some sweet cash—$5,000 for the winner and a bonus $10,000 for anyone who wanted to set an event record.
Giddy in the out-after-dinner light, with electric grass and neon sky and the turgid Mississippi River framing the scene, pink-tongued dogs and pink-cheeked children caromed around like pinballs. The corporate category streamed past, working it (ha), hurried along by the next wave of more competitive runners who took to Second Street in their team kit. I was impressed with the warm-ups, springy and optimistic, game faces on.
While the team runners were able to execute their plans and hit splits with a fair degree of accuracy, all competitors from cubicle dwellers to coltish grade schoolers to stringy septugenarians understood this was a race. One should launch off the line at a pace that leaves no question as to what you’re doing. The middle part is for coming to grips with the full 1,760 yards—a shocking distance, really—and for easing back a bit, out of view of fans. This is also an ideal time for assessing weakness in one’s competitors. Even a rank amateur quickly learns the power of a confident move, and lifts his knees higher, pumps his arms more vigorously as he blows by an unsuspecting victim: It will be definitive, withering, absolutely without redress. And finally, every miler knows it’s all about the kick. Clearly, some had been sandbagging, but can you blame them when a world record is not on the line? It’s a matter of delivering what your public desires—a sudden activation of the jets and resultant crowd-pleasing, eye-popping, Red Sea-parting, totally ill sprint that mows down at least 29 hapless competitors. That, my friends, is running.
Comments from the curb were various: “There’s mommy; no, this way,” “Make it hurt,” “Where were you last Thursday?” “Go now!” “You own him!” “You’re a boss!” “Is daddy winning?”
Being fairly marinated in malfeasance at track’s international level, the atmosphere at local races stands in refreshing contrast—ridiculously upbeat, honest, authentic, not overly serious. Not a discouraging word was heard (though the skies were partly cloudy). This dreck does not reflect what is going on in the sport at the local level, which is where most people experience running.
Minneapolis/St. Paul has had a particularly strong, active running community since the 1960s, a culture that’s produced a raft of Olympians and world class runners—Van Nelson, Buddy Edelen, Ron Daws, Bob Kempainen, Steve Holman, Janis Klecker, Carrie Tollefson, Shani Marks, Steve Hoag, Mike Slack, Garry Bjorklund. That’s off the top of my head. A proud bit of Minnesota running lore includes the fact that in 1969, Garry Bjorklund ran the fastest high school mile in the country that year—4:05. The number two spot was held by a kid from Oregon, Steve Prefontaine.
And in 1971, Prefontaine, Bjorklund and Mike Slack finished 1-2-3 at the NCAA D1 cross country championship—freak flags, mustaches, and grade A running. Here’s a Steely Dan-accompanied report of the race ...
Not sure if expressive hair has anything to do with it, but stand-up, shout-out racing was fully in evidence in Minneapolis as the professional women took to the street, sleek and spectacular. Three of the field of thirteen—Heather Kampf, Gabriele Grunewald and Maddie Van Beek—are native Minnesotans who’ve taken running all the way to the international level. Kampf, the defending champion, looked the part, leading from the gun in signature long-striding fashion. Having opened a slight gap at the halfway point, she made a quick check over her shoulder to see who was coming, and powered to the finish in 4:34.2. This was her fourth 1 Mile Road Championship, and another in a streak of victories that have crowned her the Queen of the Road Miles.
A knob-kneed girl, wearing her bib number from a previous wave, leaned out into the street to see the start. She laughed as the women swept by, then turned and ran, fast, watching her pink court shoes flash across the park to watch the final stretch. She was a runner and they were runners; she knew exactly what Kampf was feeling as she flew through the finish tape. Kids swarmed around the champion as she jogged back, high-fiving. The primary school runners hopped and jostled to get close, comparing Kampf’s pared down, colorful racing flats with their own tools of the trade.
Go out and get some exercise.