Lessons From Across The Bay

Last weekend, I had the privilege to attend and compete at one of the biggest weekends of distance running on the west coast: the Mike Fanelli Track Classic at Chabot College in Hayward, California. The meet, formerly referred to as the San Francisco State Distance carnival, and still known as the unofficial “Stanford spill-over" meet, transitioned from its traditional two-day schedule to a longer three-day agenda. The Thursday section featured a distance only schedule, starting with eight consecutive heats of the 3000 meter steeplechase.

Light rain, which had alternated on and off during the steeple races, finally finished as dusk began to settle onto the track. The main event of the evening was about to take place.

At 6:15 p.m, the starter’s pistol went off with a piercing bang, signaling the start of the first heat of the 10,000 meter run. Over the course of the next four hours, nearly 170 runners, spread over seven heats (four men, three women), battled over 25 laps to secure fast times and test their grit. As a competitor, it was probably the toughest and most humbling race I’ve ever been a part of.

But as I watched the other 10k’s from the bleachers, I saw what had to be among some of the best and most exciting examples of distance running that I have ever witnessed. The numerous heats of 10k's displayed a variety of race tactics, impressive top-tier talent, and countless fast performances. For the true distance running fan, it was the best event of the meet.

So, why is the IAAF eliminating this event from the Diamond League schedule?

In a stunning decision, the IAAF and President Sebastian Coe announced a drastic restructuring of the DL circuit. Starting in 2020, meets will be organized to stay within a 90 minute broadcast, and the longest track events, the 5k and the 10k, will be eliminated. This will leave the 3k as the longest contested event on the circuit. The decision to cut these events in favor of abbreviated distance runs and a “faster paced” broadcast schedule will lead to a ripple effect among long distance runners at every level of competition. It shows a lack of understanding as to why the current state of television broadcasting for track and field is failing as well as a misunderstanding of the steps needed to revitalize it.

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Chabot College’s track and field stadium is about as far away from the cavernous Diamond League stadiums of Europe as possible. Nestled in Hayward, CA, the track lies about 20 minutes across the bay from Palo Alto, making it a prime spot for teams looking to run athletes that didn’t quite make the cut for the Stanford Invite. The junior college stadium probably holds no more seating than your average high school football facility. Despite this, the meet still attracts superb competition, due to its proximity to Stanford. Athletes, ranging anywhere from local junior college runners to Division I and post-collegiate studs, compete together in various seeded heats.

The 10k, especially, seems to attract its share of talent to Chabot year in and year out.

In fact, just last year, a world lead was set as Mauricio Gonzalez ran a blazing 28:13, eclipsing every time set across the bay in Palo Alto in 2018. This season, Gautemala’s Mario Pacay ran 28:29.5, edging out Geoffrey Kipchumba of the American Distance Project by an excruciatingly close .41 seconds. That difference is about the amount of time it takes for the human eye to blink.

For Kipchumba, the race gave him a solid qualifying mark for this summer’s U.S. Championships. Behind him, the next American, Tim Rackers of Boulder Track Club, missed the standard by an agonizing 1.97 seconds (28:41.97). Still, it was a phenomenal opportunity for an underdog American to earn himself a trip to the country's biggest championship meet.

Yet, outside of the times, the energy and delivery of these high-profile races set the tone for what was an outstanding evening.

The wind, which had been blowing steadily throughout the early and late afternoon, finally died down as the fastest of the heats got set to go. Teammates, coaches and miscellaneous fans occupied the infield for most of the night. They yelled words of encouragement to athletes as laps continued to pile up and fatigue began to manifest. I overheard a coach from UC Davis yell at one of her athletes warming up to relay a message to his teammate currently racing with the top group.

“Tell him if he hits the standard, he won’t have to race another one until regionals!”

That runner, Jordy Ceja (29:21), ended up winning the second fastest heat, running a personal best by over a minute and (likely) qualifying to the NCAA DI West Regional meet. Next to me, professional miler Robbie Andrews yelled encouragement to athletes who traveled all the way from Princeton to partake in the evening festivities. In the same race, Marcelo Laguera, the reigning DII cross country champion, ran the second fastest time in the nation for Division II (29:25) while taking down a slew of elite talent. Throughout the night, the press box announcer’s disembodied voice floated throughout the stadium, proclaiming changes in the races. A subtle uptick in splits, a split in groups, a surge within the pack. The announcer meticulously tracked and voiced all these essential moments.

Many athletes and fans ended up staying at the track up until the very end, when the last heat finished up around 11 p.m. or so. Overall, the delivery of the event left athletes, fans and coaches heading back to their hotels happy and excited for two more days of action.

This raises the question: if this venue is able to generate exciting racing and coverage for over four hours, with a smattering of collegiate and post-collegiate talent, why can’t the Diamond League, which contains the most elite fields and the most impressive stadiums, seem to supply quality broadcasts?

The problem lies not in the event, but in the way it is portrayed during broadcasts. If you can’t show drama and storylines effectively at the highest, most-elite level of competition, than there isn’t a problem with the event.

There is a problem with the delivery.

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For spectators, it is easy to read 10k runners more so than other racers. The ongoing completion of lap after lap slowly, but surely eats away at a runner’s will and mental fortitude. Spectators and coaches with well-trained eyes begin to see this strain earlier than others. You see it in the way an athlete’s shoulders start turning or the way their cadence and stride begin to falter. You see it in the way an athlete begins to lose the sense of calm usually seen on a distance runner’s face. With each lap, an athlete’s calm expression can shift to small winces and grimaces. If it gets bad enough, some athletes countenances will devolve to full-scale expressions of agony as they hit the metaphorical wall.

All of these little nuances become accentuated when viewed trackside.

You can hear breathing become more labored. You can see small cracks begin to form in groups, as what was once a large pack of 30+ runners shrinks into single file pockets. There is truly something remarkable about watching a group of individuals running as fast as they can for as long as possible. It is this trackside energy that I believe most contemporary broadcasts miss, and one of the reasons that most broadcasts seem to falter when they get to these longer events.

To an extent, there is an inherent amount of laziness to the way large-scale broadcasters approach the 5k and 10k. They do all they can to not highlight what makes these events unique, instead opting to show the bare minimum of each event while cycling through various field events in the middle. Broadcasters can, and should, do more to bring viewers closer to the action, even if they are oceans away viewing from a television or computer screen.

One way this issue may be addressed is with new techniques to make the viewer feel as if they are trackside. Cutting to more ground level camera angles will allow the viewer to pick up on more of the athlete’s expressions and shifts. Better microphone implementation that focuses on capturing crowd atmosphere and sounds from the track will further allow viewers to feel as if they are enveloped in the action, rather than just watching it.

Beyond this, there needs to be more done by commentators to bring energy to the event. Especially in the United States, there needs to be more attempts to bring in commentators that have experience with long-distance racing, and are able to accurately tell the story at each interval of the race.

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The IAAF’s decision does a great disservice to the many 5k/10k specialists throughout elite-level distance running, and lessens the amount of opportunities they will have to chase increasingly tougher championship standards. The 10k is an inherently different event than the 3000. Acting as if these events are one and the same cuts out athletes with a unique skill set. Boiling down all long distance events into an abbreviated non-championship contested race will ultimately do more to harm than it will to help it. It is a decision that seems exceedingly short-sighted and tone-deaf.

Of course, I will not sit here and claim to know all the solutions needed to solve track and field’s popularity issues, but I do believe the answer does not lie in labeling coverage of these unique events as a lost cause. If we really care about these events, we need to be willing to think outside the box in terms of how we deliver them to a general audience.

Maybe it’s time we took a look at a little “spill-over” meet on the west coast for some inspiration.