Thursday, September 6, 2012

Hall and Uceny: A study in DNFs

I was recently published in Pure Outdoor Adventure Magazine detailing two high-profile DNFs in the Olympic Track and Field events.  Read that article here.

EDIT:  Article was taken down so here is the text.

In the last few days of the Olympics, there were two rather high-profile athletes who did not finish their respective track and field events. Prior to these DNFs, Americans were experiencing a resurgence in distance events on the track.  Galen Rupp garnered the U.S.’s  first medal in the 10,000 meter in decades. Leo Manzano took a silver in the 1500 meter, shocking as many as Rupp did. Bernard Lagat just barely missed a bronze medal in the 5,000 meter as did matthew Centrowitz in the 1500meter.

Morgan Uceny was in the thick of the hunt for another medal for the US with one lap to go in the Women’s 1500 meter.  Then disaster struck.  Clipped from behind or simply tripping in the thicket of runners, Uceny went down in a heap.  One year earlier, in the world championships, Uceny had also taken a tumble. Seemingly overcome by this double amount of ironic failure, Uceny could do nothing but pound the track in dismay. I, on the other hand, stood, screaming at the TV “Get up! Go!” 

With one full lap to go, and the way Uceny landed, it looked like she could have easily rolled into a run again and took off after the pack. Now, I know that is easier said than done, especially with just one lap to go and the group of runners about to begin their final kick, but it is far from impossible.  (Don’t believe me? Check out this 600 meter indoor race from the 2008 Big Ten Championship.  I could tell you what is about to happen and you wouldn’t believe me anyway so I would rather you just watch.) Even when the runners completed their final lap, Morgan was still on the ground, distraught.  When asked later why she stayed on the ground she mentioned as soon as she fell she knew it was over.

A few days later, in the men’s Olympic Marathon, the U.S. had its slight medal hope decimated just about 10 miles in when, in the span of just a few meters, both Ryan Hall and Abdi Abdirahman pulled off of the race course. While the third member of the U.S team, Meb Keflezighi, would run one of the most inspiring second halfs in Olympic marathon history, closing from about 20th place at the half way point to a fourth place overall finish, talk was about both Ryan and Abdi’s DNF. Actually, for some reason, most of the talk was about Hall. 

Messages boards and facebook comments from runners of considerably less talent questioned his heart, his training, his mindset. “*I* would NEVR give up, even if it took me seven hours to finish” was a typical comment. A few more comments talked about how Hall had let down his country, should not have stepped on the course if he wasn’t ready to give his best and, in the best use I have ever heard of the following phrase to really encapsulate what was said next, blah, blah, blah.

Granted it is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease and I am sure there was an overwhelming majority of people who felt exactly like I did – that Hall had given it his best shot and stopped when he had to out of necessity. But these people appeared to be, for the most part, silent in his defense.  No surprise here that people don’t stick up for their convictions when a more vocal minority get all up in a tizzy.

The thing is, Hall’s DNF seems infinitely more defensible than Uceny’s. Hall stopped, not because he wasn’t going to win the race, but rather because he wasn’t even halfway done with an event that would go on for another hour, and he was already feeling the pains in his hamstring. Having never not finished a race before in his life, here he was realizing that continuing on could possibly add a long-term injury from which he may never recover. Uceny wasn’t injured, save for a bloody knee from hitting the turf. She could have easily hopped back up and continued on. Or at least it looked like she could have done so.

Please note, however, while I said Hall’s DNF was more defensible than Uceny’s,  I still think there is much to be said for Morgan hitting the turf and staying there. By that I mean, very, very (very) few of us have reached the pinnacle of our sport the way Hall and Uceny have. Moreover, after reaching that pinnacle, they were then confronted with split-second decisions which could have an impact on not only their immediate racing and vocational lives but also long-term as well.  

Both made decisions that seemed best suited for them at the time.  Hall’s was made, seemingly, more by his head, where Uceny’s was made out of the anguish of her heart. But they were their decisions. Even though I was screaming for Morgan to get up and run, I wasn’t doing it because she wore the red singlet of the United States.  I wasn’t yelling at her because she owed me anything. I was trying to verbally pick her up and get her moving toward her dream. When a few days later, I saw Ryan Hall pull over to the side of the road, it was far less dramatic and therefore there was no screaming. But the feeling I had for him, and the desire for him to be fine and just get going again was exactly the same.  “Come on. Oh no. No.” were my words this time.

Nevertheless, the end result is the same for both runners. DNF. I wrote about a DNF a few months ago and how sometimes it is a wise decision. Without a doubt I think Hall (and Abdi’s) decisions were wise given the damage which could have been done by continuing. I am bummed Uceny was put in the position she was where her body and mind made the decision for her. I think that if she had gotten back up, and still finished last, she would have become the darling of the games. Instead, we are reminded of Mary Decker Slaney hitting the ground way back in 1984 and both of those images sting.

We hold our athletes up to pretty impossible standards for the most part.  We turn on them for the most random and inane of things, almost exactly in the same way that we exalt them. To be clear, while I “get” Hall’s decision more, I can absolutely understand where Morgan was coming from.

More accurately, I understand as much as a person who will never run in the Olympics with the weight of a nation, after four years of training toward one specific race, decided in just a mere four minutes, can possibly understand.

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