Blog #5 – February 12, 2015
Every year the New Balance Grand Prix just seems to get better and better. The buzz, the excitement, the pure energy of Olympic athletes running a furlong track, 200-meters, for a 1000 meters, a mile, or even 3 kilometers…it’s all here.
To be honest, I don’t attend many professional or collegiate track meets these days. When I was younger, there seemed to be one every weekend.There were trips to Millrose, the Big East Champs, Penn Relays, and invitationals at Harvard and B.U.. as well as four years of collegiate trips to Philadelphia, Gainsville, Syracuse, Lehigh, Fresno, and throughout most of New England. Now my indoor track sojourns move between Middleborough, Massachusetts and Boston. Instead of a maroon college van, I now ride the yellow Bluebird with my boys and girls’ track teams back-and-forth from the Reggie Lewis Center, usually late into school nights and that’s about it.
However, I gladly drove into Boston for back-to-back nights last weekend at The Reg for my favorite meet of the year.
I had my first opportunity to experience the New Balance Grand Prix event almost six years ago, when New Balance took over the elite track meet. That night Nick Willis smashed the sub-4 mile and I later sat down and had dinner and a beer with him and other athletes at the same table at a local restaurant. Last year, a then un-sponsored Leo Manzano took the time to talk about his future in the lobby of the Lennox Hotel. The meet has featured Matt Centrowitz, Galen Rupp, and a battle between double-Gold medalist Mo Farrah and one-shoed Ethiopia star, Dejen Gebremeskel in brilliant 3000 meter race.
Over the last few years, I’ve had an inside look with what NB has done with meet, turning it into a major international track and field showcase in Boston, importing foreign Olympic athletes as well as US Olympians to compete. NBC Sports rolls in full force with multi-cameras, Tony Reavis, and a live Saturday night broadcast. Besides the Boston Marathon and possibly the Falmouth Road Race, I’m not sure of any other event that attracts so many top-notch elite runners in Massachusetts. I’m also unaware of track and field in New England that brings more excitement and buzz to the sport.
New Balance has also done something else: introduced and promoted elite track and field to young athletes and brought in new and old fans to the sport. As a high school coach who had our final dual meet of the season on the Friday before this Saturday night meet at RLC, my kids were in awe of the European-style championship with banners of the giant color images of Jenny Simpson, Brenda Martinez, Kim Conley, and Emma Coburn. They had the opportunity to perform on the very same 200-meter oval as these athletes. Even though some didn’t attend the next night, I witnessed a plethora of Tweets as they watched in on NBC at home.
And the adult fans love it too. The capacity crowd sounds its approval when any runner makes a move to the front of the pack or challenges a World or American record on the massive video screen looming in the end zone of Reggie Lewis Center in Boston. The meet has sold out for consecutive years, not just stands filled with high school kids but pure Boston track fans – former runners, coaches, collegiate runners…they are all here. Sure, the times are smoking fast: American Records, Master’s World Records… we saw that live and on NBC Sports this past Saturday night. However, for me it’s about the personalities: elite professional athletes who just get it.
There may be barriers around the track but the connection between competitors and spectators is strong…there is access and little separation unlike other professional sports. You are feet away from Olympians and they run to you for high fives, congratulations, and photos, displaying how much they truly appreciate the American fans, the Boston fans, who are buying the tickets and cheer them on. They get it.
Personally, I’m lucky. I am one of the few in my circle of friends who did not enter the running / shoe industry. However, for the last six years, I’ve been invited to spend the evening with the New Balance crew and have appreciated every second of it. As a former distance runner and current high school coach, the inside look at this world is pretty fascinating to me.
Most of these athletes have come to snowy Boston from places like Eugene, Boulder, Flagstaff, Big Bear, and Los Angeles. They are on the track circuit, many off to the Armory in New York City next week fro the Milrose Games, others are coming back to Boston for the USTAF Championships at the end of the month. All of these athletes chose track over the US X-C Championships in Boulder this weekend. They are fit, they are fast, they come to Boston to run hard.
Some of the most accessible folks included U.S. Olympian Bernard Lagat. I caught him cooling down after his Master’s World Record 3K in the practice gym at Reggie Lewis. He had just finished and had a minute for a quick word and a photo with his famous smile. There was legendary Coach Ron Warhurst of Michigan who has coached a number of sub-4 minute milers and continues to guide New Zealand Olympian Nick Willis and OTC runner and Pre look-alike, Will Leer. Later, Leer, Emma Coburn (AR Record Holder in the Steeplechase), Irishman Ciaran O’Lionaird posed for photos with me at the after-party at the Lennox Hotel and took a minute to talk to a high school coach like myself. There just normal folks with extraordinary talents, out there trying to make a living as professional track athletes – not an easy gig. Their focus was less on beer and more on NYC next weekend and beyond.
Outside the window, down on Boylston Street, another snowstorm begins move in and cover up the Boston Marathon finish line yet once again. However, the mood is merry inside Solas, an upstairs pub at the Lennox. After a fast night of indoor track and field performances in Boston: both runners and spectators are satisfied.
Personally, I can’t wait until next year for the New Balance Grand Prix.
Coach Atwood (CoachMikeAtwood@me.com) is currently at work on his untitled book project on coaching distance runners. He has also published a short story collection, HiStory of Santa Monica: Stories available at http://www.historyofsantamonica.com, and Amazon.com. For ideas on distance training, check out CoachAtwood.com. He is the head indoor track and field coach at Middleborough High School, mentors the Wampanoag Road Runners, and has helped many high school runners realize their success with individual coaching.