Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Reasons Behind the Running Renaissance

With the "Miles Lists" 1600 meter compilation posted below and the 3200 meter statistics to be posted tomorrow, we're publishing Steven Paske's two-part investigation into what might be behind the recent resurgence in US high school distance running and last year's fantastic season of high school distance running in Minnesota.

Paske is a former Osseo High School and Marquette University runner and author of a novel about cross country called "Breaking Stride." Paske's newest book, "The Immortal," was recently e-published by For more information about all of Paske's writing, see

The Reasons Behind the Running Renaissance -- Part I
By Steven Paske

Minneapolis South’s Hassan Mead crossed the finish line of the 2007 Minnesota State 3200-Meter Championship in a time of 9:03.29. This effort was less than two tenths of a second off Jay Schoenfelder’s State Record and was fast enough to hold off 2005 Champion Rob Finnerty of Burnsville, who clocked 9:04.42. You would think that after closing in 4:22 on a windy day that Mead would have been ecstatic. The problem was he didn’t win. Winona’s Elliot Heath did, in a State Meet Record 9:02.65.

The phenomenon of three Minnesota runners essentially matching the old State Meet record in the same race is indicative of a growing national trend. Since 1999, high school distance running has gone through a renaissance that is coming ever closer to matching the success of the glorious 1970’s. The trend must be terribly evident to Finnerty, who despite running equivalent to 8:56 at the Nike Outdoor Nationals two weeks later, still finished behind Mead (8:48), and Heath (8:43), a Minnesota all-time best.

Nationally, U.S. distance running hit its low in the 1990’s. Four out of ten years didn’t produce a 3200-meter time below 9:00, and three others saw a best time of 8:58 or higher. Contrast this to 2004, when the 20th best time in the country was 9:00.3, or in which the 25th fastest time of 9:02.6 was faster than 1993’s best of 9:03.8. Similar results also hold in the 1600-meter, where as recently as 1998 the fastest time in the country was 4:08.7, a time that ten kids bested during the 2004 season.

The question becomes why has American high school distance running gone through this sudden resurgence? What accounted for the precipitous drop off that occurred in the late 1980’s and 90’s, and why are times coming back all of the sudden?

Was it the advent of the Internet, which coincided with this accelerated trend, which suddenly gave coaches and runners unlimited access to the training expertise of the likes of Lydiard and Daniels? Could it have simply been a few pioneers ramping up the mileage on their own, finding sudden success, forcing the crowd to follow if they wished to stay competitive? Perhaps a foreign influx of talent is the culprit.

In this article, my home state of Minnesota will serve as microcosm to try and better explain this surge in high-school distance running at a national level. During the past seven years, perhaps no State presents a more eclectic mix of circumstances to help explain the trend.

Its top runners are significantly faster than seven years back, the depth better, and the State Meet results have been affected by the talents of a significant number of Somali immigrants. Through interviews with top runners and coaches from both eras, I’ve tried to piece together reasoning behind the sudden distance running renaissance. Perhaps a closer examination of why young runners are currently running faster will allow American distance running to avoid another collapse.

The Internet:

Take a quick glance at the performance history of high school runners in the 1600 and 3200-meters, and you’ll notice an interesting trend. Beginning in 1980, the golden age of high-school distance running began its gradual end. It started with a drop off in two-mile depth and accelerated into tailspin that led to the decade of the 1990’s being by far the slowest since they started keeping good records.

In 1998 the tenth best time in the 3200-meter wouldn’t have cracked the top 50 in any of the last seven years of the 1970’s. Then in 1999 something happened. The top time in the nation crashed 13 seconds to its lowest point since 1985. The tenth best time plummeted nine seconds. Over 25 runners ran faster than the tenth best time the previous year. All of this occurred in the first year the U.S. Internet users cracked 100 million. In fact, U.S. Internet usage was a mere 38 million just three years earlier.

Type “training distance runners,” into Google and you will get more than 2.5 million hits. In seconds you can access websites, articles, and books with training advice from the likes of Sebastian Coe, Pete Pfitzinger, and Bill Dellinger.

Clearly the correlation between the advent of widespread Internet use and the sudden resurgence in high school times may be connected. Prior to the Internet a runner would have had to pick up a periodical, probably Runner’s World (not known for targeting the more advanced distance runner), for information about training outside of their coach. With virtually infinite amounts of training advice suddenly available, even a kid with a clueless coach now had the ammunition to improve significantly.

As part of the investigation, I interviewed the three aforementioned runners along with several other top Minnesota Harriers, including Edina’s T.C. Lumbar (9:06) and Lakeville’s Tyler King, rated number two in last fall’s cross country pre-season poll. When I asked about Internet usage no clear trend developed. Some used the Internet to look up results, some for training advice, and others tended to avoid it all together. There was however a quote from King that caught my attention.

“I think a big reason kids have gotten faster is that the Internet allowed your average coach to become much more educated about training physiology,” he said. "Suddenly they’re reading Daniels, Coe, and Lydiard. In the past, they’d have to buy the book or go listen to the guy talk to get the same information."

Piggybacking off of King’s theory, I distributed a survey at the Minnesota Cross Country Coaches Association clinic that asked various questions about Internet usage. Though the runners themselves hadn’t been as involved with the using the Internet to meet up for runs or for training advice, perhaps the coaches had. Again the results were muddled.

About one third of coaches said they used the Internet for training research three or more times a month. Another third said they used the Internet about once a month. The final third said they had never used the Internet for training research purposes. Of those coaches that said they had implemented some suggestions from Internet research, all of them said that their teams were either performing the same or slightly better than before they made the changes.

Not that there aren’t coaches who think that the Internet has had a significant impact. Nate Uselding is a former University of Wisconsin runner who has coached both Finnerty at Burnsville High School and Heath at Winona.

“Why is it that all the sudden we have a resurgence? Communication wise there is a lot more information out there and a lot more communicating and networking between coaches,” he says. “(With the Internet) the ability to find information is a lot easier."

Clearly the Internet has penetrated the running community somewhat, but the results of my interviews and survey did not produce the clear-cut answer that I would have expected. As a rule, the runners and coaches used the Internet in a limited capacity to research running and collaborate with others, but few admitted that it made much of an impact on their success. So if the Internet isn’t the reason for the recent running boom, what is? The answer may lie with the coach of a very successful Division III program in Minnesota’s north woods.

Tomorrow ... Part II: Might higher mileage training be the answer?

Photo by Gene Niemi. In racing order: Mead, Finnerty, Heath, Ryan Little, and Lumbar.

1 comment:

Chad said...

Great article, so far.

Personally, I think the Internet has help me. Just being exposed to people that are running 2-3 times as many miles as me, makes me re-evaluated my own notions of what's "high" mileage.

Also, I'd be curious to see see the correlation between the coaches using the Internet and the success of their program. If a coach is already successful there's really no reason for him to search the Internet. However, I'm sure my lame high school coach would have benefited from searching for Daniels or Lydiard articles.