Someone recently told me they thought watching people run around a track was boring. It is unless you know who these people are or what this particular race means to them: maybe it's a comeback after years of injury, or another shot at breaking through a long plateau, or a chance for him or her to prove something. And the athletes all know each other, so there are friendships and rivalries and scores to settle.
With so many players it is easy to get lost, so I'm gonna be the "last time on..." that you get at the beginning of your favorite TV show and let you know what you have missed so far. The best way to do that is to highlight some of the most vibrant personalities in U.S.A. Track and Field:
Galen Rupp: The Prince
If his coach Alberto Salazar was the King of American distance running, then Galen Rupp is the Prince, a spiritual son and heir to the throne. Salazar told a 15 year old Rupp that he saw in him the potential to compete at the highest level, and since then his career as been an almost uninterrupted parade of staggering accomplishments: he ran 13:37 for the 5 K in high school, was a five-time NCAA Champion in college, won a silver medal for 10000m in the 2012 Olympics, and currently holds American records in the 3000m, 2 mile, 5000m, and 10000m. Not a bad for only 28 years old, right? Now that he has essentially conquered the American field, he's set his sights on trying to beat the seemingly unstoppable Africans at the international meets.
Bernard Lagat: The Professional
Emma Coburn: The Comeback Kid
Wait, is this a model? No, she is a real runner, she just actually looks like this. Emma was the star 3000m steeple-chase runner at the University of Colorado and upon graduation instantly signed with New Balance, but right after she got injured and missed her first year of competition as a pro However, she came back in a big way by crushing the field in her first Diamond League race of 2014. Everyone is excited to see what she can do now that she is healthy again and ready to compete.
Matt Centrowitz, Jr.: The Boy Wonder
He's the guy in the front, which is a place he's used to. In 2011 at just 21 years old, he won the NCAA championship at 1500m, then won the American Championship, then earned a bronze medal at the World Championship. Centro really cracks me up: he talks constantly, bragging, joking around, trash talking, so much so that his teammates at the Nike Oregon Project like to set the pace of their group runs just fast enough that he will finally shut up. He kicked off the 2014 season by dominating the USATF High Performance Classic 1500m.
Katie Mackey: The Rising Star
Brenda Martinez: The Underdog
Out of college no professional team wanted her, so she spent a year trying to figure out where to run and who would train her. Eventually Joe Vigil agreed to coach her which turned out to be a solid investment because last year she grabbed a bronze medal in the 2013 World Indoor Track and Field Championships (an inspiring race that I got to watch live: other runners went out too fast and faded, but she was smart and saved just a little for the end and ended up catching enough people to get a medal.) Martinez is so tough: she races competitively at distances ranging from 800m to 5000m which is an incredible spread that shows her true athleticism.
Will Leer: The Lumberjack
Although he is clearly the most robustly hirsute professional runner, I think the nickname "Lumberjack" fits him for more than just his hair. He has this nervous, wild energy during interviews (he casually swore while talking to Flotrack one time, which I thought was pretty funny because, surprisingly, you don't hear a lot of salty language when athletes talk to reporters.) Also, he doesn't run quite like other track runners: instead of a smooth, effortless stride he takes powerful, deliberate steps, as if his legs are devouring the track underneath. Good in college but not a standout, he has steadily made improvements in the handful of years since and after winning both the 3000m and the mile at the 2013 U.S. Indoor Track and Field Championships, and then winning the 2014 Wannamaker Mile, there is no doubt that he is one of the best middle distance runners out there.
Katie Mackey: The Rising Star
Katie is so off the radar that she doesn't even have a Wikipedia page, but she was the top American at the highly competitive Payton Jordan Invitational 5000m with a P.R. of 15:04 (I dare you to watch this interview and not love her.) She is a 1500m specialist, but if she is flirting with 15 minutes for the 5000m that puts her in serious contention in the longer events. Equal parts ebullience and sincerity, Katie Mackey truly lives the motto of her sponsor, Brooks: Run Happy.
(Perhaps her enthusiasm gets the better of her sometimes, like in this relay in the Bahamas where she just plowed head-first into an Australian runner during a hand-off. I don't mean to put her on blast, because she came back and helped her team get second place, but the Jennifer Lawrence move was pretty funny. Maybe that's part of her charm.)
You might be wondering how to follow the 2014 season because ESPN doesn't cover a lot of running, but there are a couple of websites with great content:
USATF.TV: Live coverage of many U.S. Track and Field events and interviews.
Flotrack.org: Some live events, but mainly behind-the-scenes material like interviews, special documentaries, workout videos, and links to interesting videos on other sites. An indispensable place for all things running.