The 100: A Personal Poem

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Beer and An Analogy

Writing this and sipping a Stone RuinTen, indeed a “recklessly hoppy” triple IPA.  I like it a lot.  There’s a lot going on: starts with a sweet little lift-off and lands grapefruit and malty pine, pursuing a bitter, satisfying end.  Like most big beers (or endurance events to strike the obvious analogy), it’s a journey (but a reckless journey?).  Rob Krar had himself quite a journey last weekend, as did hundreds of other Western States 100 runners.  Congratulations to them all.

Let’s recap the Saturday had by Krar and some of the other elite men; hopefully, as a result, let’s enjoy whatever perspectives we may garner from analyzing the events, the aftermath, and the complicated yet sublime mathematics of this treacherously progressive ultra-running narrative.

The Race

As we previously surmised, this was all about Rob Krar.  My simple deduction proved terribly prescient :).  Who can go sub 15:00, flirt with 14:45?  There was no evidence to suggest anyone could stay with Krar.  That was simple deduction.  The ONLY question concerned the CR.  That was certainly my approach.  I wondered what business Krar would have at the race, having already won in historic fashion (2nd fastest time).  He had to be targeting the CR.

The twitter coverage was solid and I proceeded to walk and run around all Saturday glancing down at my phone for updates.  He had isolated a couple of foreigners. . . oh and there’s Seth Swanson lurking AGAIN. . . Bowman hanging tough top-ten, Magdalena Boulet doing work!  Everything was rounding into form.  Go ahead and drop these boys, Rob, and finish this thing.  All seemed predictable, all seemed right with the way this should go.  I had flashbacks to one of the greatest Saturdays of all-time (and I’ve had a lot of great Saturdays): Roes’ 2010 masterpiece (which is still probably the sickest of all and I’ve only been around for a cup of coffee.  Sorry, but that race, with all of the celebrity and upset dramatics. . . holy shit – remember too how Mackey paced him to the track which included an absolute ambush of the punch-drunk Krupicka?! Ahoy!).

Sure enough, Krar makes his move.  He’s under CR pace.  It’s just a matter of time.  The weather is actually facilitating a bit, behaving, if you will.  You all know how it ends.  He misses the CR by a couple of minutes. 14:48. Wow.  I’ve pointed-out the athletic significance of what’s to unfold at The Championships, especially as it concerns the world #1 and #2.  But this type of 100 mile theatrics, the stuff we’ve seen at these big ultra venues (despite my criticisms of the distance), is so impressive.  Mind-boggling.

And yet: I was a bit stunned, actually.  What happened?  No CR.  I texted a friend something along the lines of Krar must be a little disappointed, don’t you think?  I never heard back from this friend.

The Aftermath

This type of racing is hard to penetrate.  I know I can’t, but I try without turning my life and the people I love into some kind of stray-cat fight.  I certainly appreciate the distance and the mountains,IMG_1517 but can’t begin to wrap my thin brain and heart around such an intense life-death-and-rebirth.  I’ve had smaller versions of such loss and triumph, despair and ecstasy; we all have. But racing that intensely in such conditions is almost reckless, or, indeed reckless.  (Oh, Swami’s.  A must have.)

My disappointment was so short-sighted, even a bit obnoxious.  I had taken for granted so much story, so much commitment and focus and fitness and sacrifice. . . I was a bit embarrassed to have even felt that tinge of disappointment.

What sealed this reflective truth were the post race interviews and recalling what I already knew (and overlooked) about Krar.  He was euphoric after the race.  He talked of being in a great place in his life, with his beloved, with his profession, and his commitment to racing.  AJW’s short but heart-felt interview at the finish was pretty telling.  Krar articulated all of those emotions with succinct profundity.  He also said a couple of times that he gave the race everything he had.  This seemed directed at the CR question.  AJW, like all of us, asked if the CR played into his approach and strategy.  Krar deflected.  The heat was a huge factor going in and he raced with everything he had that day.  Well said.  I STFUP.  I really liked AJW’s characterization of Krar: he raced with a certain aplomb, with a class and humility that spoke to his style and dominance.  Great stuff.  Krar building the discourse, expanding the community’s reach, and adding to its soul and. . . its refinement.

The 2015 Western States 100 was Rob Krar’s personal poem.  More than the race itself, this seems to be about Krar himself.  He’s in a great stride aside from WS100.  This is just good news and it has overshadowed the race, I’m afraid.  I learned a lot from watching and following these events.  I learned more having watched and thought about it than I have many a sporting event.  I am truly stoked for Krar.  He does have style and insanely polished ultra racing skills.  What a joy to watch (even more so, oddly enough, in retrospect).  What a champion.

Olson

I suppose you have heard about Timothy Olson.  Not that he is a two-time champion of WS100.  Rather, the fact that he has been struggling on the racing circuit since 2013.  Among his struggles include a very tough finish at Hardrock last year and his DNF this last weekend at TNF Lavaredo Ultra Trail.  I got a text from a pal with the now infamous Facebook blog from Olson about his DNF. My friend, I suspect knowing my views on these mammoth distances, is quoted as saying “another one bites the dust.”  Olson’s struggles don’t sound good at all in terms of his ability to compete in these kinds of mountain ultra races.  This is bad news.  When I published my latest 100 miler commentary, I honestly had no idea Outside Magazine was going to publish its expose on the sport two weeks later.  Sure I feel validated to certain extent, but this is bad news.

One can not deny that runners are falling apart in these extreme conditions.

Look at what went down at WS100 this weekend in terms of the carnage.  DBo might be at a kind of crossroads himself.  He heatstroked at a shorter off-road event this spring, and has had a few other tough, grueling finishes to go along with his successes.  His DNF Saturday might just be a “bad day” scenario, but this too could be a sign of something more.

I have another perspective on Krar’s win.  He knew.  He saw the life of the desperado, the line one crosses toward pursuing the “dreams” of these insane endurance events.  I happen to think he chose not to cross that line.  Granted, he would have probably crushed Olson’s WS100 CR; but Krar has to have some, even subconscious, understanding of what is at stake on these stages, in this sport.  Along with the triumphant victory laps around the proverbial and literal tracks, we’re made to hear harrowing stories of premature demise.  I’ve chronicled this unfortunate pattern at length.

Rob Krar, at the 2015 WS100, showed us how to dominate in style without (hopefully) falling victim to such history.

2015 Western States 100

Looking at the “deep” field for this year’s WS100, I suppose this overused adjective is evidence of the community’s optimism, hoping for an amazing competitive event that craters common sense with the insane high-end endurance exploits of these elite men and women.  The other rationale for the use of “deep” is the general unpredictability of this kind of event.  Hell, anything can happen on those trails, in those canyons, and in that heat.  So, looking at the names, their race resumes, etc., one assumes it’s up for grabs.

Before I say “however” and boil this race down, this is, indeed, a very unpredictable affair.  Looking at the weather, there will be massive carnage in such heat, at the front, all over, dreams shattered, sponsors freaking-out at their athletes’ failure to endure and represent. . . okay, that’s a bit dramatic.  Actually, that’s a scene from the up-coming movie Ultra Rules, being produced and directed by Elevation Trail.  Stay tuned for that.

Anything could happen.

However, this is all about Rob Krar.  I said recently that he’s the next vanishing act of the 100 field. He’ll follow those others who’ve notoriously walked the plank, disappearing into a mountainous mist of catastrophic injury and fatigue. I said, “The way the theory goes […] Krar is in the last stages of his dominance. He will get CR at WS100 this year and that just about ought to do it. Check please.”  Part of me wanted to revise that and say he might be an outlier, a guy with the perfect ultra career.  Hear me out: he’s closing in on 39 years, so if in fact he is nearing the end (age alone makes this hard to deny), what a career!  Pops-up by smashing the R2R2R FKT, then proceeds to wreak havoc on some of the bigger stages against the world’s best. All that’s left is a couple of closing acts, maybe an encore and then he’s off to pasture in Flagstaff or beyond.

This scenario seems difficult to deny.  I simply predicted that this Saturday is one of these closing acts.  He finishes second to Olson in ’13 (his first 100), and comes back and wins in ’14, flirting with Olson’s CR, but coming-up a little (~7 min) short.  Yet he’s back for 2015 States.  What does he have in mind?  Even iRunfar practically laughed when they asked what he was doing back in Squaw Valley after winning last year.  It’s not like this guy (or so one might have thought) is some kind of Western States groupie.

This is all about Rob Krar.  Here’s a question?  Can anyone run 14:40?  Ryan Sandes has a 15:03, so the South African shows some potential winning pedigree, but if Krar, who smashed the Canyons 100k specifically as a training run for his master plan, goes definitively sub 14:50, this is all about Rob Krar.  Granted, D’Haene could be able to hang late, or certainly one or two others might possess enough madness in the torrential heat to surprise us, but if Krar is at all having a decent day, this is all about the WS100 CR, which is the only reason he might have tweeted #seeyouinsquaw.

The only pause I have in completely buying-in to such a foregone conclusion – that he is on a hara-kiri mission to break Olson’s CR – is the wear and tear of the 100 I have talked about at length.  In my earlier diagnosis, recounting his 2014, I referenced his diet of 100 milers and actually left one out: Leadville (which I wrote about).  It’s my sense he has lost that 50 miler type speed he once possessed, that must’ve sent chills through out the sport.  But that was then and this is now. He’s gone long and he’s not looking back.  Did he do too much?  Has he begun to walk the plank?

I suspect he will win in epic fashion, but of course anything can happen.

That’s what I’m watching for on Saturday.  There are many great runners, men and women, taking huge adventure to those storied California trails.  If Varner is healthy, who knows what he might do, and personally I’m pulling for DBo.  But, in the end, this is all about Rob Krar, chasing his WS100 CR, chasing his demon.

European Tennis and (a little) American Mountain Running

Let’s start with the grass, then move-on to the harder stuff.  I stated the obvious in a previous post that Roger and Andy, though each a little tight out-of-the-gate at their respective Wimbledon warm-up tournaments, were finding good form. They both came away victorious, Roger actually claiming his eighth Halle, Germany title (Gerry Weber Open).  The Swiss continues to pile-up the career wins, gliding into the sunset with his balletic tennis that still dazzles to the day.  His athletic prowess transcends the tennis court, so I encourage anyone interested in the human race, what its capable of athletically (beauty), to sit and watch the Fed Express for a set or two.

Who did Roger beat in the final?  Andreas Seppi, of course.  I mentioned Seppi is in good form and I actually gave him a slight shot to beat Federer last Sunday.  Although he did beat Roger in the 2015 Australian Open in four sets, I think the Italian will have trouble surprising people like he did Roger in Melbourne back in January.  Of course, Halle is best of three and we’ve already pointed-out that Rog is still world class in that particular format.  None the less, great tournament for the Italian, who’s got a nice athletic grit to his game.  I’m a fan.

Andy Murray took care of business at the Queens Club Championships, beating the lanky South African Kevin Anderson in the final in straight sets.  Anderson had a solid run, taking care of Wawrinka in two tough tie-breakers (Stan perhaps still a bit tipsy from his Rolland Garros celebration) before taking care of the tough Spaniard Garcia-Lopez and the veteran Frenchman Simon in the semi-final.  Murray looks ready to make another deep run at the much anticipated Wimbledon Championships fortnight that begins in less than a week!

As far as a quick bit of prediction for Wimbledon, let’s just say that the usual suspects will probably keep us entertained. This is definitely a major that Roger can still win.  He has seven Wimbledon championships, equaling Pete Sampras, and was runner-up a year ago to Djokovic, so figuring he has a decent shot is not out of the question.  With Nadal struggling (fading), the Murray/Federer/Djokovic threesome looks to be obvious favorites, with Djokovic almost certainly in the best position to win and secure his second major of the year, his third Wimbledon and ninth career major.

However, was the 2015 French a microcosm of Djokovic’s career?  He comes-out hot, wins with ease (5 of his 8 majors are Australian Opens, the first major of the year) and seems to fade.  He has yet to master the clay (tough for most players), has 2 at Wimbledon and a single US Open.  That’s a bit of a pattern.  His spring was amazing, winning in Melbourne, Indian Wells, Miami, Monte-Carlo and Rome.  Dominant tennis.  The loss at the French I have already put in perspective.  Let’s see if he can turn this pattern around and FINISH strong, winning on surfaces that suit him just fine.

As for any possible dark horses, I don’t see Stan having a similar run in him.  I could see Nick Kyrgios making things tough for a lot of players although he has apparently just split with his coach Todd Larkham. Not sure how that will affect him, but his big serve and sensational though erratic game can be a huge threat out there.  With Tsonga hurt and Dimitrov is some kind of slump, the grass will be ruled, in my estimation, from the top.  I don’t see the likes of a Berdych or Nishikori (guys in the top five or ten) being able to challenge the big three on the famed lawns of Wimbledon.

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A quick shout-out to Joe Gray for his American record at Mount Washington.  That sub 1 hour club is a who’s who of American mountain running, which seems to make MWRR a true mountain running crucible.  Gray, Blake, Canaday, Gates, and, of course, Carpenter.  Wow.  IMHO, there’s at least one version of your American MUT Rushmore (mine, at least, which doesn’t include the zombies of the 100 miler variety – ha).  What a fantastic venue and history.  Having said that, Jono Wyatt’s 56:41 seems just ridiculous.  What a shame Carpenter and Wyatt weren’t able to tangle.  Granted, Carpenter has him by about seven years, but truly, needless to say, legends in our midst.  And looks like Gray is establishing his own similar kind of mountain dominance for the ages.

I suppose I might fancy some predictions for Western States, but I’ll save that for the next couple of days.  I’ll most likely update the NBA off-season with respect to the Bron Bron Phenomenon, as well.  The writing is on the wall, folks.  Don’t be surprised.

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Lastly, I certainly hope Dustin Johnson keeps it together after that epic collapse.  I think he’ll be fine.  Just keep your nose clean, buddy.  St. Andrews is right around the corner.

Cheers!

Warriors Want to Come-out and Play and Tennis, Yup

First of all, with all of the celebration and dust settling in the Warriors’ and Cavs’ respective camps, a lot of stories are rolling out.  On the Cavs’ front, wow.  What’s funny is that some of this seems to be presented as news, such as the Blatt “controversy.”  In the end, the point of my previous article is that Lebron’s basketball character, the narrative that’s really under pen, is shaky.  Great talent, but some of that talent is either embellished or undermined by his shenanigans and/or inability to close the deal.  That’s my point.  A lot of interpretation going on while a lot of this argument is being written.  Bizarro.  And certainly I am aware that he has hit last second shots.  We’re beyond the micro analysis at this point.

In the Warriors’ camp there’s stuff like this; such consistent smack talk toward Lebron from other players, Iguodala, Thompson and Green, et al, seems pretty revealing in today’s smoochy kissy universe we’re living in.  I absolutely see where they’re coming from.

In tennis, the grass season is greener in Europe right now and the tennis has been pretty much blowing-up since we turn toward the build-up to Wimbledon.  Murray and Federer are shaping into some decent form for now at their respective tournaments (Queens Club and Halle, Germany).  Each had a sniff of trouble in their opening matches (Murray’s tough 2 setter with Y. Lu and with Federer facing a match point to Kohlschreiber).  Nadal, after winning a grass court tournament last week, lost in the first round at Queens.  This, I’m afraid, is more accurate with respect to his overall game/grass game.  Other names out early at Queens Club: Dimitrov, Raonic and Wawrinka.  Raonic’s game is just awkward.  He’s too big and just hasn’t quite made that next jump, nor do I believe he will.  Played some good tennis this spring but I just don’t see enough of that consistent excellence.

The only thing I’ll note in Germany is the continued quality play by Andreas Seppi.  I like his game a lot.  He can go five sets with almost anyone and is still alive.

Wimbledon begins June 29, so here we go.

The Bron Bron Phenomenon

Here’s the thing: with the NBA playoffs behind us, in this aftermath of a tremendous run by the Warriors and another devastating blow to the city of Cleveland, most people caught in the fierce current of the mainstream have fallen for Lebron James.  Head-over-heels.  He’s a great athlete; that is undeniable.  But the surrounding froth and standing Os have become really pretty delusional and romanticized.  The question has two possible built-in answers: is he legend or myth?  I want to look at the side few are on because I contend that this is another case where there’s an important gap to recognize between myth and reality.

Let’s take a step back and look at the bigger context of the Bron Bron Phenomenon.

Do the numbers lie?  His statistics during the finals have been recited by most fans (casual and supposed expert).  He averaged nearly a triple-double.  These are enormous numbers, no one could ever do that, he carried that team further than anyone ever could, etc. etc.  In reality, he shot below 40% from the field and below 30% from the 3.  Those are awful percentages.  That has to be brought to bear on his preternatural production.

We would need game film and play-by-play analysis, I’m afraid, to really flush this out, but these numbers are fluffed, padded, whatever you want to call them (despite being not very efficient in the first place).  Cleveland AS A TEAM played well during most of the playoffs and through the first three games of the finals.  If we look at that film, we would see much better ball movement, and role players playing well (along with James’ undeniably huge efforts).  But the series became very quickly Lebron vs. Golden State.  That the rest of his teammates are so shit, so bottom of the barrel NBA talent is just a big-time over-statement.  The injuries hurt the Cavs, no doubt.  But I’m not buying the story that Lebron had no one to rely-on, so he had to do it all by his lonesome.  That’s more a flaw in his game than it is his teammates (all of them) are crap.  We have ridiculed Kobe for this same style of play.  Why does Lebron get such a huge pass?  The Cavs were suddenly standing around watching Lebron.  Design some plays, make a cut to the rim.  Standing around not only killed the Cavs’ offense, but gave Golden State a huge break on D.  Only the guy covering Lebron had to work.  What about the rest of the bench?  Why did he recruit Mike Miller and the Matrix?  That it was Lebron vs. the Warriors (OMG, amazing, super-human!) is over-blown bullshit.

Sure there were the injuries.  The-injury-to-Love excuse is not a huge mystery.  His loss was crushing?  He was ineffective all year.  He and Lebron (this is common knowledge) did not get along and Love played like crap all year, lost.  Lebron forced that trade (common knowledge) before the season began (Wiggins for Love) and then alienated Love.  Lebron orchestrated a lot of deals, we can be sure.  That injury was a loss, but look at the bigger picture; Love was not a critical cog in that machine; Lebron made sure of that.  The Irving injury?  Tough loss for sure.  But none of this discounts the fact that the Cavs had enough pieces to win that series.  In the end, Lebron managed and coached that team (this is well documented), so he needs to take more responsibility than he is.  Period.  His presence in Cleveland, especially now, is too inflated.

The only time Lebron James has had success in basketball (championship success, this is not summer YMCA fun ball) is when he’s had people around to hold him accountable.  In Miami he was told to get into the post because he’s such a big body, and could dominate down there; Miami had stars who could make plays elsewhere.  Pat Riley, Dwayne Wade and even Spoelstra forced this accountability and they were finally (after getting embarrassed by Dallas in 2011) able to win two titles (before getting embarrassed by San Antonio).  In Cleveland?  David Blatt and Kyrie Irving balance the power.  Who can say no to him in Cleveland?  Watch Tristan Thompson get a max contract this year.  Why?  He is a solid power forward who had a good playoff run.  But he’s Lebron’s friend; they share an agent and Lebron has said that Thompson should get a max or near-max contract.  He’s holding the franchise hostage.  This is not healthy.  That’s a reality.

In other words, too much Lebron (“I am the best player in the world”) ethos, which means an unchecked guy who is trying so hard to write the ultimate basketball narrative, being general manager, coach, captain, the man, the savior.  Doesn’t work.

More on the inflated numbers, which, again were derived from total isolation ball that yielded terribly inefficient numbers. The NBA is a much softer league now compared to much tougher styles of play 10-20 years ago.  The league is now perfect for a guy with Lebron’s skill-set.  He is a very well-rounded player, can play great on both sides of the ball, but given his size and the rules that now permit no hard fouls, no hand-checking, etc., he gets a free pass.  If you are stumbling into NBA spectatorship now, you have no idea the differences in the game.  In the 70s and for the next 30 years, the game was brutally physical.  Elbows and forearms were common defensive strategy, guys got worked going to the rim.  Go watch some video, read some accounts.  The game is softball now by comparison.

This is a huge advantage for a guy like Lebron, especially if he shoots thirty or forty times.  He’s going to pile the numbers.  But they’re inflated.  This reality is totally overlooked.  Look at the bigger picture.

More on this ultimate basketball narrative: the Bron Bron Phenomenon.  More numbers: 2-4.  An interesting dichotomy to this story is that alongside all of the fanfare for Lebron James, history could be much harsher on his legacy.  As a culture, we love winners.  Many of us think of Lebron as a winner, still.  But he’s stacking-up the losses where they really count.  He is an unbelievable three-point shot by Ray Allen and a Spurs’ choke-job away from being 1-5 in the finals.  That’s a fact.  But let’s look at the 6 finals.

I think there is some belief out there that James is unlucky.  Let’s put two of his finals in that category, his first in 2007 and this last one in 2015.  The motto for both, I guess, is his team was not good enough to win it all.  Two more were embarrassing losses where he was on a team that had plenty of talent, no?  If you go back to 2011, he was terrible, despite this talent.  There was a take-away from that experience that Bron Bron was a choke, couldn’t score/win in the big-time.  Tough to explain that away.  Then you have his two finals wins where he was with the Big 3 of Miami.  He didn’t “run out of talent” with that team.  Many observers see Dwayne as the finisher of those teams.  But Lebron was definitely more successful those two years.  He confirmed his greatness, indeed.  That’s a slightly more analytical approach at making sense of his 2-4 record in the finals.  I don’t think that really makes him look so dominant and most people, in the end, will not parse the experience as such.  They’ll just see 2-4.

Ah, but he’s going to win next year and 2-3 more championships after that when everyone is healthy!  Go back to the Lebron-as-owner-general-manager-coach-team-captain-go-to-player-is-totally-unhealthy-and-LOL-destined-to-fail theory above.  There is no guarantee that the coaching situation will improve and it has to (will they bring in a real coach that can actually design plays and be able to push back at Lebron’s control?).  Quick aside: you can’t blame Blatt and give Lebron carte blanche.  Those two points are incongruous.  Lebron brought-in all of his boys (Mike Miller and Shawn Merion, James Jones) and they really had no effect.  Will Irving stay healthy?  What’s going to happen with the roster? And what about Lebron’s contract?

Aside from all of that, this just in: he is on the decline.  If you think Lebron will continue to be so effective (which hasn’t been that effective if you look at all the numbers), you got another thing coming.  He puts a lot of wear and tear on that body.  He has played a lot of basketball.  You think he’s going to be “the best player in the world” in two years?

Lastly, here’s the real tale of the tape: Lebron grew up in Cleveland and fortunately was drafted by the Cavs.  He made it to the finals and got beat pretty bad (sweep).  Must have thought this is pretty lame, so he went to Miami; and really pissed off a lot of people, especially in his beloved hometown.  Did pretty well in South Beach with his all-star friends.  He went 2-2 in the finals there, but then they got beat pretty bad (4-1) in 2014, so I guess he looked around, saw the thinning resources (and perhaps too much push-back from leadership) and went back to Cleveland.  This second abandonment got renamed the Lebron is coming home show.  And now he’s in Cleveland running the show, all by himself, apparently.

He is an all-time great.  But let’s not become foolish prisoners of the moment.

Athletic Stratification at the French Open

I have a candid and sometimes cantankerous approach to watching and commenting on sports; I might, at times, wish I was otherwise.  But I yam what I yam.  And this point-of-view has its benefits, as far as I’m concerned.  Not sure what put me in this particular position.  Obviously a love of sport helps.  But I know many athletes who couldn’t care less about sports, as strange as that sounds.  It’s like there’s something wrong with them.  I happen to love to analyze the events and people around sport and like sharing my insights: and there you have it.

Another factor that, for me, becomes pretty crucial toward one’s ability to speak reasonably on any subject, aside from his/her love and willingness to carefully observe, is some sense of objectivity.  If one can’t distance herself from the fanaticism of sport, one has less to add to a reasonable discussion.  Objectivity or honesty helps with flushing-out the truth; honesty could actually be overlooked as a harbinger of insight.  Without insight, one has little chance at a semblance of truth.  To put another way, just because you like something, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily right or good.

So be honest and do your homework.  Then, you might help us figure-out some of these ever-important questions of sport and life.

Determining the hierarchy in any sport amongst its athletes rings of significance.  When we were kids and everyone got a trophy, we soon realized this occurred because we were kids. Once we got our wits about us, we determined winners and losers.  That’s because this interest in winners and losers is inherent to competition, to the entire animal kingdom; once this is realized, hierarchy is born.  Granted, the brother and sisterhood of competition is important; athletes and fans can relish the sporting occasion and find stoke in the variety of events, traditions and beauty of the fellowship of competition.  Much of us get up each day with this kind of outlook, to lace them up and get after it with our fellow sporting folk.  However, once there exists a competitive structure in a sport and the sporting competitors and audience can determine levels of success, even a champion, then you find the existence of athletic stratification.  In professional sports, this is a popular discussion.  I know many of us do not care for professional sports, nor the discussion of this kind of stratification. Good luck with that.

Who wins and why?  Why does someone lose? What is the significance in the wins and losses?  What are the narratives that interest us as athletes and spectators?  These questions fascinate me in many sports.  We can learn so much of the humanity involved, transfer that to other experiences.  In other words, through this kind of analysis and discourse, we can transcend the world of sports.  Many don’t see that.  Many are bored, somehow, by this kind of interest in sport.  Again, good luck with that.

I have documented at length my views with regards to the sport of mountain (and ultra) running.  To bring that discussion up to speed: historically, many many inspiring individual performances in some of the most incredibly beautiful and mysterious places on earth showcase sheer athletic greatness IMHO, mountain running, if you can follow along, is more inspiring than just about any other sport in the world.

But there are certainly other sports. . .

This first installment will cover the recent shit that went down at Roland Garros.  It’s not trail running, but many of these athletes would certainly shred trail and the tournament is played on clay, so folks dirty their handsome little outfits now and then (Bjorn Borg actually trained running in the mountains during his tennis reign in the 70s ad 80s).  Men’s tennis is in an interesting place at this point.  What 2015 amounts to (or amountED to) is the year that Novak Djokovic separates himself from the big four who have dominated tennis.  Nadal, as of this writing, has fallen nearly out of the top 10.  That’s big news in tennis.  I need a separate post for his narrative; either way, he’s pretty much done.  Andy Murray remains a strong threat to reach a semi-final in any tournament and even win if things fall his way.  I would argue he’s not in the same class as the other three, for several reasons.

Lastly, the lovely Roger Federer.  The Swiss great has remained relevant despite his age and TWO sets of twins (the rule in tennis is that once a child is born, your game shits the bed).  At 33, he’s #2 in the world and continues to threaten the draw, especially in the best of three format.  Having said that, some might argue that since the majors are the most important part of the sport and that he has lost his ability to win in those best of five scenarios, he’s done.  We remind this critic that tennis has a fairly sophisticated ranking system designed around the play at several tournaments year-round.  He ranks #2 in the world based on that system.  He remains world-class given the eye test, as well.  I got to watch him recently in March semi-final action at Indian Wells, against Milos Raonic, the lubricous-haired Canadian trying to break into that exclusive top of the sport.  Raonic had dismantled Rafael Nadal in the quarters, which prevented me from seeing another Nadal/Federer match: boo hoo.  But Raonic embarrassed Nadal; I can’t get the image out of my head: Nadal playing ~15 feet behind the baseline, looking like he’s giving birth – an absolute mess.  In the semi-final, Federer toyed with the 6′ 5″ Raonic.  Just another tennis ballet.  FYI, the debate about the GOAT gets pretty clear if you see Roger play in person.  You begin to understand why, despite his brutal struggles against Nadal, the sport continues to declare almost unanimously that Roger is the GOAT.  His play is Michael Jordan-like (to this day I will argue that Mike’s greatness and popularity are in part because of his style.  No one was as beautiful sweating, making others sweat more, cry and kiss his ass).  Roger has that same grace that kinda blows you away (I know it sounds cliche). The fans love him. The sport cherishes Federer and fortunately for the sport, he’s still relevant.

Having said all of that, Djokovic has steadily established himself as the best in the game today.  His game evidences almost no weaknesses.  Best return of serve, most consistent ground stroke (either side), great serve, decent at the net, nasty drop shot. . . He has eight majors and counting.  Although he’s suffered some tough losses in major finals during the last 3-4 years, his time is now and he started 2015 off with his 5th Australian open.

Coming into the French, the world of tennis anticipated a Djoker clay coronation.  This is the one major to evade the Serbian; but he had earned his stripes, his game was virtually a top the world and all eyes were awaiting the inevitable. None the less, because of Nadal’s greatness on clay (9 French Opens – coming into the tournament he was, in effect, 70-1 on that the Roland Garros clay), the slaying of that dragon needed still to occur.  Djokovic’s career grand slam was not a slam dunk, so long as Nadal was in the draw (for those unaware, only 7 men have won all four majors, so this is elite company for sure).  Could the crafty, athletic Nadal rain on the Dkjoker’s parade?

Nadal’s dismal last year and a half (especially his 2015 campaign) left him with a lower seed;  in the end, he and Djokovic faced off in the quarters and this was controversial for some.  The tournament could’ve given him an exception, because of his success at this tournament, still granting him the 4 seed that would’ve ensured such big fireworks taking place in the semis or finals.  In the quarter finals?  Such was the case.  Djokovic destroyed him in straight sets.  It was interesting for a set, but then reality set-in on the Spanish champion.  Looks like clear sailing for Djokovic at this point – beat Murray in the semi-final and beat a tough Stan Wawrinka in the final (Stan had absolutely dismantled his fellow – Swiss mentor in the quarters and took care of Frenchman J. Tsonga in the other semi-final).  The stage was set, #1 vs #8 in the world. Djokovic had earned his time and place in the tennis record books.

But shit happens.  Athletic stratification is played out in the politics and economics of sport.  If Djokovic could win this final match, he’d enter that aforementioned elite group of career grand slammers.  Moreover, he’d have two of the four 2015 slams won with Wimbledon and the U.S. Open left – he would be an enormous favorite at both.  Furthermore, in the big picture of men’s tennis greatness, he would be writing a very interesting chapter in his and tennis’ historical narrative. Winning the French would give him 9 majors (the obvious benchmark for his sport’s superiority) potentially with the momentum to win the final two, finish 2015 with 11, a career and calendar year grand slam and, uh, holy shit.  Would be all-time.  He’d be the undisputed boss of the sport.  The time is now, Djoker, make a run at Roger’s 17 majors or Pete and Nadal’s 14.  Indeed, this was, I will argue, an historical moment, the 2015 French final, for so many reasons.

Indeed, shit happened.  He dilly dallied in his semi-final against Murray, and won in five sets.  It was played over two days because of rain delay (if he’d won the third set, he’d have been done, through to the final, and resting).  This makes no sense.  Part of Djokovic I don’t understand.  Coming into last week’s French final, he was 8-7 in major finals.  He’d blown some easy wins already, imho.  He lost to Murray in a US Open final that was just obscene.  Murray is not in the same class.  Marathon match that ends with Murray the victor.  Blew that one (although one of my childhood favorites, Ivan Lendl, was coaching Murray at the time, which made me almost pull for him; of course, Murray has since fired him which makes as much sense as the Scots game).  Djokovic also choked against Nadal on this very clay in a semi-final in 2013 (he ran into the net on a huge pivotal point that pretty much secured that loss) and a final in 2014 (his passivity at times is mind-boggling).  Unreal.  So he has this going for him, a refined ability to fail at these critical moments.

To make a long story short, he got into a bare knuckle brawl with Stan (the man or Stanimal) Wawrinka and it didn’t go well for the Serb.  The Swiss won his second major in 4 pretty decisive sets (he beat-up Nadal in the Australian Open in 2014).  Stan has been playing beneath Roger’s wing for a long time.  I love Stan’s game; his style is classic, the most lethal single-handed back hand in the game.  So watching him destroy Djokovic was bitter-sweet.  On the one hand, I like Stan; on the other hand, I like historical moments, how greatness manifests itself in competition, the rise and fall of dynasties, etc.  This was Djokovic’s opportunity to seize control of the game.  His passive (was he tired?) strategy against the hard charging Swiss was baffling to watch.  And that’s the complication here.  This was no fluke; congrats to Stan. We might say this was more about Wawrinka.  The problem there is that he’s 30, so sure he’s a worthy champion (no argument there – I’m a big fan), but a Djokovic win had enormous historical implications.  That’s just an objective truth.

We will continue to watch Djokovic’s very impressive journey; he has much, I would hope, championship tennis still to play.  Be that as it may, his place in the game seems, for now, to be amongst that second-tier, with the likes of McEnroe, Borg, Conners, and Lendl (Ha! there is no shame in that, I concede).  Yes, certainly, no shame at all in this; but Roland Garros 2015 was an incredibly historical opportunity.  This would’ve undoubtedly added to the enormity of championship character in the sport, to the discussion of all-time greats, to the sport’s athletic stratification debate.  Perhaps it was just too good to be true.

KISS

This is how I was going to start this blog: “I think most of us could agree that the pursuit of health defines the allure and significance of sport.  Fitness, competition, style, etc., all matter in our diverse discussions and manifestations of sport, but at the base of any and all sporting endeavors is the importance of health.  If we agree on that, then hopefully one can follow my logic.  I will concede to the intoxicated tribe of 100 milers that speak of spiritual growth and crazed but redeemable suffering via the mountain 100 akin, I guess, to the age-old adage what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.  But I speak strictly from a perspective of sport and competition, where the ultimate goal is to sustain health and competitiveness.  That is the issue here.”

But that’s just me over-complicating things, as I’m want to do.

Then I was going to talk about how I met Dave Mackey at Dean Karnazes’ house.  Footfeathers, Anna Frost, Ricky Gates, Miguel Heras, Greg Vollet, a quiver of more Salomon athletes, the Bay Area. . . a ton of good beer, laughs, push-ups, snoring. . .

Instead, I just want to reiterate how sad is the news of Dave Mackey.  GZ and the CO scene in general have been pretty clear about Mackey’s situation; nonetheless, the recent up-date is heart-wrenching.  What?  What?

At the same time, I suppose, there is life and the realization that things could have been worse.

The agent of discourse and debate in me was going to use this news (I was not aware the injury was sooo bad) as a way to underscore the kind of genuine tragedy that takes down such an athlete.  This is hardcore injury, death-defying crap happening on a normally routine navigation of steep mountain rock.  This is tragic stuff, but stuff we can almost. . . almost. . .come to expect from these kinds of athletes.  Recently I’ve caught news of a few base jumpers who have died during what, I suspect, was fairly routine exercise.  These kinds of things happen, unfortunately, when athletes do what they do.  Especially these kinds of athletes.

I was going to underscore how the destruction of recent 100 milers (elites feasting on this unsustainable race distance) contrasts greatly with this more natural kind of athletic tragedy.  Mackey has been doing his thing for YEARS.  He as feasted on trail and adventure for YEARS and YEARS.  This is not a 3-4 years and you’re done, dude.  Go to his blog and see the honors bestowed upon this gentleman of the mountain.  He is the model citizen of this particular extreme sport culture.  Take that to the bank.

And a gentleman, indeed. That’s what I met when I got a chance to talk to him in Karnazes’ kitchen.  The coolest.  Wise. He sobered me up.  Kinda slapped me around in a most refreshing kind of way.  I needed to be slapped.  Thanks, Mackey.

I was going to go on (in this blog) about how I once wrote (it’s in the archives!) regarding the future of ultra and would we see the likes of Carpenter and Mackey ever again.  The sense to this question was not necessarily in the kind of dominance each has sustained.  It’s that they sustained, period.  I might’ve thrown-in that they shied from the bigger distances and ran (dominated) more reasonable race types, but that’s pretty much beside the point.  Keep It Simple, Stupid.

I hope Dave Mackey blows our minds again, climbs the steps of recovery and rehabilitation as if they’re steps of the Dipsea, steps to another summit where he belongs.  Goodspeed, Dave Mackey, God willing.