by: Emory Mort, Guest Editorial
June 18, 2015
Arriving at the Portland Track Festival on Saturday night, it didn’t take long to recognize that this meet was not only loaded with top US-based talent, but also loaded with tension. I immediately noticed to my right, talking with a member of the UK media was Adam Goucher, who together with his wife Kara, had come forward publicly to journalist David Epstein, joining more than a dozen others in making recently-published allegations against Portland-based Nike coach Alberto Salazar. I expected that within an hour or two, Kara would be racing a 5,000m against Jordan Hasay, one of the current stars of the Gouchers’ former distance running stable, the Nike Oregon Project.Unlike many top-caliber professional meets, such as the Pre Classic held at Hayward Field two weeks before, the Portland Track Festival combines the cream of the coaching and competitive crop with a fantastically informal atmosphere. On the infield mingled the competitors, the coaches, the media, former stars, friends and family of all aforementioned groups… basically anyone except for the three-or-so “men of the moment”, men whom multiple British media outfits had hopped eight time zones to speak with. Briton Mo Farah, coach Alberto Salazar, and Salazar‘s longtime focus Galen Rupp would – as best as I and those I spoke with could tell – fail to make an appearance at the meet.
But as I entered the facility (by simply walking out onto the track), my focus was more directed towards who exactly was attending. I noticed the other star of the ProPublica and BBC piece, University of Houston and professional coach Steve Magness, lounging with Ryan and Sarah Hall. Sarah Hall, a remarkable all-around distance performer now coached by Magness, would run the 10000m later that night. Kevin Hanson was there with Desi Davila who would lead Hall and others through the 10,000m wire-to-wire, brilliantly rabbiting herself and a group of athletes to USATF qualifying times with her fantastically crisp stride that has carried her to such heights in the marathon. Mark Wetmore was there along with a slew of top college coaches from the ‘Cuse to the Cardinal. Then there was former NOP member Alan Webb, miler-turned-triathlete with a black sling on his right arm. At times on Saturday, Webb chatted up current and former members of Jerry Schumacher’s Portland- and Nike-based Bowerman Athletic Club group. The group most directly connected to and rivaled with Salazar‘s were scattered around the facility, betrayed by the presence of cheery red singlets: Shalane Flanagan in Bowerman red warming up for the 5000m, Chris Solinsky with Wiliam & Mary, Evan Jager in street clothes. Seemingly, if we wanted a full ProPublica Party (minus the implicated), all we were missing were “the Johns”, meaning, of course, John Cook and John Stiner.
In what would be a theme of the weekend, Portland’s more beleaguered home team, the ones wearing black kits with winged skulls, were both sparse and isolated. Their presence could be marked by its unspoken, but felt, intensity: they both intensely repulsed attention and approach, while the slightest hint of verbal availability would invite an equal-and-opposite swarm of fuzzy microphones, video equipment, and delicately phrased questions on whose answers a bevy of lawsuits and investigatory bureaus hinged. At more than one point during the weekend, I heard at least two different people wonder if Alberto was hiding in the trees watching the meet. Not, like, among the tree trunks, but up in the high fir branches. Down on the ground, upon my arrival on Saturday, the lone black uniform belonged to Jordan Hasay, with two long, golden braids bouncing on her deeply tanned back to the rhythm of her determined warm-up stride. Her coach was there, in the form of Salazar‘s now-assistant Pete Julian, whose own professional running career peaked in the late-90’s, and who now wears, of course, black.
By evening’s end, Hasay and Julian would exit without a desired performance either on the track or off. Hasay, who has seen the man guiding her career since at least the end of her university stint at Oregon become pricked by the needles of scandal, ran a comeback race that seemed eerily fitted to the current drama. Not only is her 15:45 evidence that her fitness falls short of where it needs to be to contend in next week’s USATF Champioinships, but she also spent the final lap being reeled in and passed by none other than the 37-year-old marathoner and ex-NOP’er whose allegations and hand-scrawled Cytomel canister threaten to crack (if not crumble) the swoosh’ed castle in which she currently plies her craft. After the race, Hasay walked alone around the track towards her gear and coach. Media members, for various reasons, let her be.
Women’s 5000m: Emily Infeld Finally Getting On-Track in 2015
The women’s 5000m separated into three groups early. The top group, comprised of BAC stars Emily Infeld and Shalane Flanagan along with an ambitious Brie Felnagle, would go on to dominate the race. Infeld eventually turned on the jets to both smoke her beloved training partner Flanagan and run a major PR of 15:07, marking herself a top contender to make the US World’s team in either the 5,000 or 10,000 this year. In the second group ran Hasay, who outlasted many in her group while also being overcome by the grinding-it-out, come-from-behind Goucher, the biggest star of the race’s third group.
Both Hasay and Goucher hoped for faster times. The Oiselle-sponsored Goucher stepped down from her 2016 marathon focus to try to get a USATF qualifying time, but failed. Hasay is returning from injury that derailed the momentum of by far the best indoor and perhaps the best-ever season of her professional career.
But distance fans eyeing the best-of-the-best should be highly encouraged by the form of Schumacher-coached Infeld. So far in her career, her road credentials have outpaced her track performances. Looking at her results, Infeld is a beast on the roads, having run sub-32:00 and 15:20‘s in top US road races, to go with her solid track speed. But now that her 15:07 at PTF lowered her lifetime track PR by 21 seconds (old PR 15:28 from 2012), it’s not unreasonable to project a healthy Infeld to progress into the sub-15:00/sub-31:00 echelon in a hurry. She may not run those times right away, given her aptitude for non-time trial competition, but her place outcomes could soon put her firmly within the ranks of America’s elite. According to her post-race interview, injuries have consistently derailed her at key times, but not this year. With Shalane and Goucher aging and making bank on the roads, the just-turned-25 Infeld – who also ran her first track 10,000m in 31:38 this year – is in the hunt to be the next big rival for America’s current alpha woman of the road 5k/10k circuit: Molly Huddle, also known as “she of the 14:50 American 5k road record”.
Speaking of Top Echelons… Jager, Rowbury, and Levins
I can’t pretend to be a track and field historian. My in-depth, in-person knowledge of the sport spans back maybe a decade, and is heavy on USA performances. But in that decade, I’ve seen Webb run his 3:46 AR mile, Solinsky run 26:59, Hall run 59:40’s in Houston, Jenny Simpson win gold, Shalane win silver, and US women’s mid-distance become a juggernaut.
And now I’ve seen Jager – perhaps the closest individual Schumacher has to a golden boy – run 3:32.97. It was simply astounding to witness, even without knowing I was watching what would go down as the fastest a USA born athlete had ever run on American soil.
It’s no secret that Jager is going to challenge for a medal in the steeple, if healthy, in Beijing ’15. He just ran 8:05 at Pre, losing to three of Kenya’s best. He can seemingly run sub-8:10 with his eyes closed at this point. But 3:32 shocked everyone, himself included. Whatever various conversions will say, he probably breaks 3:50 if the race is a full mile. Even the timing system seemed a little shocked. At first his time was 3:33, then it recovered from its stubborn glitch to register Jager’s nearly 4-second PB.
Having seen Rupp and Lagat running 5000m at Pre, and knowing Ben True just became the first American male to win a DL 5000m while Centro ran 1:44, I think Jager would give anyone a run for their money at any event from 1500-5000m at USAs.
But while everyone was caught up in the grandeur that is 2015 Evan Jager, Shannon Rowbury was “knowingly making impressive statements” on the track, and perhaps saving Salazar‘s head from exploding while he presumably watched the FloCast stream a few miles away in Portland’s west hills. A few minutes before Jager’s history-warping run, Rowbury barely missed her PR in charging home 2nd in heat 1 of the women’s 800m in 2:00.53. Maybe 10 minutes later (I heard 12, but since I’ve gotten no confirmation of the exact time, I’m rounding down for effect), Rowbury toed the curved line for the top heat of the women’s 1500m. As one might if they just ran basically their PR for 800m 10 minutes before, Rowbury sprang from the line and assumed a race position towards the back of the field for a few laps. But, by the end, as the interviews with Jager were winding up, Rowbury was winding up to charge down the finishing straight to finish a close 2nd in 4:07.
As a sidenote: Rowbury’s on-track performance, and her subsequent openly defiant media interaction, had to be a bright spot in what could not have been a fun weekend for Alberto Salazar. For one, he is apparently trying to put the finishing touches on what seems like an awfully tricky project: no, not joining Farah’s agent Ricky Simms in proving that Mo has a hard time hearing his doorbell when anti-doping agents ring it, but how to document his assertions that every “evil report” aimed at him is coming from a group of 17-or-so “foes” who are “knowingly making false statements”. For another, his biggest rival’s golden boy Evan Jager crushed his own golden boy’s 1500/mile pb (3:34-mid) and stole the show among close observers at the meet. And for another, Cam Levins innocently and unnecessarily added fuel to the already roaring NOP fire when he got tongue-tied into saying on camera that he was diagnosed with asthma after leaving college, and now uses prescription asthma meds (more on that below).
Perhaps as a result of running 2:00 and 4:07 within a 15-minute span on a warm breezy day, or perhaps because she’s really upset with John Cook, Rowbury allowed the walls of the Nike/U.Oregon/Salazar (call it the Winged Skull Swooshes – WSS’s?) defenses to be seriously breached by the media for the first time all weekend (As an example of the lockdown exhibited across the WSS’s, at the NCAA meet held Wednesday-Saturday down the road in Eugene, after an awkward exchange between University of Oregon head coach Robert Johnson and LetsRun.com’s Weldon Johnson about Alberto Salazar’s association with the Ducks, UO sports information employee Casey Johnson “declined to comment” on whether any NOP staff worked with the Ducks and told Weldon he could file a FOIA request. This despite another reporter saying he saw Nike Oregon Project sports psychologist Darren Treasure at the NCAA indoor meet and a guy who sure looks like Darren Treasure is in the photo to the right of the Ducks celebrating their national title on Saturday). If Rowbury had won either race – which she was very close to doing both times – Rowbury would have had to specifically deny requests to take questions from the media in the designated media area. She didn’t win, but the BBC and others wanted to talk with her regardless, and through some stroke of good fortune the interview was on. Simply put, Shannon, sporting hot pink lipstick and a nose ring hoop dangling between her nostrils, came off as righteously angry, needing to “clear her name” from slanderous accusations on social media, primarily from her ex-coach Cook who described his relationship with Shannon in the past as extremely close and now completely fractured, due to her deciding to join forces with Salazar. So, as many have noted, Shannon joined other NOP’ers in asserting that she wasn’t in the group when alleged gray/black area activity occurred, and that she hasn’t ever failed a test, and that she’s never seen anything that warrants an investigation. Unlike teammates Treneire Moser (who said she’s “not currently on thyroid medication”) and Levins (who said he was on asthma medication), Rowbury wasn’t asked about her own use of prescription drugs, or really anything specifically concerning allegations of Salazar operating as a sort of rogue, one-man pharmacist with his top athletes. She also was not asked about the various alleged “tiers” of athletes within Salazar‘s stable, and where she sees herself as sitting – Galen-level? Mo-/Centro-level? Chances are, we’ll be hearing more strategic “no-comments” as Shannon and other NOP’ers walk through the media tunnels of the future.
While Rowbury was rather shockingly transcendent, Cam Levins looked, for the second meet in a row, like the Canadian star he is. He ran a relatively low-key 13:20 in less-than-perfect conditions and with very little on the line, two weeks after smashing the Canadian NR with a 27:07 at Pre that he ran largely in no-man’s-land. With the 10,000 and his indoor 8:15 2-mile in the books, Levins is on pace to ascend to become the greatest distance runner in Canadian history, as he’ll potentially rack up every major national record from 3000m to 10000m, indoor and out, before he presumably tackles serious road racing.
That’s the good news. Unfortunately, Levins is also likely going to spend a bunch of time in professional purgatory, thanks to his being in the NOP, thanks to being coached by Salazar/Nike, and thanks to a growing swell of interest from USADA, ProPublica, the major news outlets of the UK, and a bevy of the top runners, coaches and agents on the US circuit in investigating the practices of those associated with his kit.
As Levins was leaving the track after his race, some media (I believe it was the BBC), stopped him for some questions. A meet official then shouted out that they needed to get off the track (the men’s 10,000m was about to begin, but I also thought the official was attempting to give Levins a chance to escape questioning), which prompted Pete Julian to say across the track to Levins, “Cam, you don’t have to answer any questions if you don’t want to!”
Julian said a similar message at least one more time. Cam seemed to consider both options, ultimately deciding to walk back to the designated media area to field questions, even as Julian and meet officials made it known, out loud, that he didn’t have to answer anything; that he could walk away.
As Levins boldly made his way back to the press area, I could imagine a roomful of Beaverton-based legal advisors dropping their shaking heads into their hands. I was feeling for Levins, who I imagined wanted to try to be transparent about his feelings, and defend himself and perhaps his beloved coach. He seemed to be both doing the right thing and the wrong thing.
From there, the rest is now history; filmed, transcribed, and delivered to the talking- and typing-heads around the sport. It’s not that Levins said anything terrible, but his utterances seemed to both throw a wrench in Salazar‘s self-exoneration project (seems to become hard to prove accusations of asthma medication use/abuse “knowingly false” when Levins has said both he and Rupp are on prescription asthma medication), and give that little bit of insight into how the NOP’ers seem to operate (i.e. allegers say things along the lines of, “You go to NOP and, surprise!, you get on asthma medication,” and here Levins is basically confirming that, at least in his relatively high-profile case, this is what happened).
It’s important that I stress that Levins may very well have adult-onset asthma, and his diagnosis and drug use may be perfectly within both the law and the spirit of the law. Once he mentioned his own asthma diagnosis, Levins pointed out to the media that he trained, (um, how should I paraphrase this?) ridiculously, epically hard in college, and may have damaged his respiratory system in the process. He was attempting to explain to the media that his affliction, given his lifestyle, is not uncommon. But, unfortunately, his now joins Galen’s and other alleged inhalers circulating around NOP practices and living quarters, either carefully and within the spirit of the rules and laws of the country (according to Salazar) or in a wantonly illegal and/or unethical manner (according to a sizable number of witnesses and concerned outsiders).