Good morning! Last Friday in Boston, Ethiopians Dejen Gebremeskel and Hagos Gebrhiwet ran 5000 meters in 12:59.89 and 13:00.2, respectively, essentially punching their tickets to this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio. Ethiopia doesn’t have a trials race and instead selects their team based on who’s run the fastest this season. I didn’t think I’d really care about this odd event that had only three finishers but my curiosity led me down a weird rabbit hole that spurred some tangentially related thoughts I’ve attempted to string together for you this week. Hold on tight!
- “Remember when low (and sub) 12:50 5000m times were a somewhat regular thing?” is what I tweeted on Friday night. In case your memory is a little foggy, here’s an all-time best list for your reference. The 12:50 barrier has been broken exactly 26 times in history and only six (6) of those performances have occurred after 2010. In fact, all six of those most recent marks happened in the same race—July 6, 2012 in Saint-Denis, France—and, coincidentally, Gebremeskel won that race in 12:46.81 and Gebrhiwet—18 at the time—finished second in 12:47.53. Gebremeskel, who was 22 in 2012, ran 13 seconds faster that day than he did in Boston a few days ago, which for those of you who have never raced 5000m on the track, equates to an eternity. Why is that 1-plus-second-a-lap discrepancy important? One, we haven’t seen a 12:46 or anything close to it in four years. Two, when you take a look at the history of the event, particularly the progression of the men’s world record, a few things will jump out at you. More on all of that in a bit.
- When I started running in high school and began digesting every piece of running-related reading material I could get my eager paws on, I came across an article by Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden entitled “Distance Thunder” that anyone who has even an iota of interest in track’s current doping scandals should read (or re-read). Various anecdotes from Layden’s piece have struck a chord with me at different points of my life. For instance, when I was a young, hungry high schooler just getting into the sport, I got fired up by Bob Kennedy’s admission that “When I'm running at these paces, I'm on such an edge that if I went one half-second faster per lap, I'd feel like I was going to collapse” along with Layden’s closing paragraph, the last two sentences of which I had written on the cover of one of my notebooks in permanent marker: “Somewhere a young boy is hearing of this and training for his own future. In Kenya. Or in Ethiopia. Or perhaps even in the United States. The message should be clear: Whatever you are doing, do more. However fast you are running, run faster.” Later in life, revisiting Layden’s piece became less about inspiration and more about revelation. I became more interested in the off-a-cliff progression of the men’s 5,000m world record, which dropped from a believable 12:58.39 by Said Aouita in 1987 to a still believable 12:56.96 by Haile Gebrselassie in 1994. Then, between 1994 and 1998, Gebrselassie, along with Daniel Komen of Kenya, chopped over 16 seconds off the mark, lowering it to an unbelievable 12:39.74 (Komen, 1997) and then 12:39.36 (Gebrselassie, 1998). Almost six years after Layden’s piece was published, the otherworldly Kenenisa Bekele chopped another two seconds off his countryman’s mark, leaving the world record for 12-1/2 laps of a 400m track at a mind-boggling 12:37.35 (22 seconds—or almost 2 seconds a lap—ahead of what will likely land Gebremeskel on Ethiopia’s Olympic team this summer, for those of you scoring at home). It’s also worth noting that Bekele, who also holds the 10,000m world record of 26:17.53, ran the second 5,000m of the 2003 World Championships 10,000m final in a silly 12:57 and change. Think about those numbers for a second. Why has no one come close to touching those kinds of times in recent years? In his piece, Layden mentioned a theory that, in retrospect, is hard to argue. “EPO is a banned substance, but there is no reliable test for it,” Layden wrote at the time. “One popular theory is that once a test for EPO is developed, distance records will level off as athletes stop using it en masse.” In a sport that should be pretty black and white, there’s sure a lot of gray area that still needs explaining.
- So does that leveling off of times in recent years mean that Gebrselassie, Bekele, Gebremeskel, Gebrhiwet and others were using EPO when they were ripping around the track at warp speed? Damned if I know, but I’m suspicious—and with good reason. To my knowledge none of the aforementioned athletes have ever failed a doping test in or out of competition, but then again neither did Lance Armstrong and, well, we all know how that turned out. From the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, I personally believe track was every bit as dirty as cycling was revealed to be. Any otherworldly records set on the track or roads during that time period are suspect, in my opinion.
- Further, does that leveling off of times in recent years mean EPO isn’t being used as rampantly in track anymore? Recent news suggests otherwise. Jama Aden, the Somalian coach of Ethiopian rocket Genzebe Dibaba, was arrested in Spain on Monday when police found 60 used syringes of EPO and other banned substances in his hotel room. Dibaba, who has been injured of late but has recently broken world records that were previously held by known dopers, has never failed a doping test. But as Race Results Weekly’s David Monti Tweeted yesterday, “It's never a good sign when your coach gets arrested…” Aden has always been an interesting cat but I never really paid close attention to him until Dibaba started breaking records and details of previously unheard of workouts—such as 6 x 800m in 2:04, 2:03, 2:04, 2:03, 2:02, 1:58 and 4x1500m in 4:06, 4:04, 4:03, 4:02 with 4-5 minutes recovery between reps—started popping up around the internet. As someone who ran similar track times to Dibaba’s when I was in college, those sessions left me shaking my head in disbelief, much in the same way the 15 x 400m session Layden describes Gebrselassie doing during his heyday did years ago. Make of that what you will.
- Aden got nailed in Spain, which has long has an association to doping in track and other sports, particularly cycling, where according to admitted doper Tyler Hamilton in his book, The Secret Race, “racers used to say you could tape EPO syringes to your forehead and you wouldn’t get busted in Spain.” Fortunately that no longer seems to be completely true but yesterday’s news is evidence that athletes and coaches can get what they need—and mostly get away with it—in Spain. For those outside of insider track circles, athletes quietly passing through Spain between competitions is not uncommon practice but usually leads to the raising of a curious eyebrow or two.
- It seems that Mo Farah’s circle of trust is a little tangled. He appears to have weathered the Alberto Salazar negative PR storm of last year just fine at this point, all the while he was busy running workouts in Ethiopia alongside busted doper Hamza Driouch under Jama Aden’s watchful eye (and Salazar’s blessing, presumedly). UK Athletics insists that Aden was merely holding a watch and yelling splits at Farah. David Torrence, on the other hand, trained briefly with Aden's group, where “he was repeatedly encouraged to take injections of ‘vitamins,’ but refused.” Torrence ultimately spoke up about what he saw and was asked to do. Note: Driouch claims Aden shot him up with injections three times a week for “recovery” and told him to keep quiet. Further, it’s worth keeping an eye on letsrun.com this week, as they purport to have more on the Mo/Alberto/Aden relationship that isn’t being reported. I’m also curious about John Cook’s connection to Aden, whom he allegedly mentored over the years. Cook also worked for the Oregon Project from 2003-2005, and had some things to say last year when Salazar, the group’s coach, was accused of wrongdoing.
That’s it for this week. I didn’t even get to Seb Coe’s presidential nomination assistance program or his apparent inability to open email attachments, but I’m not worried about that ongoing circus act going away anytime soon.
Sorry to those of you who like the variety show version of the morning shakeout. Back to that format next week, I promise. In the meantime, if you have thoughts on what you’ve read here, please share them with me by replying to this email or Tweeting in my direction.
Thanks for reading,