Monday, May 28, 2012

Marathon man

Another Buffalo Marathon (and half-marathon) is/are in the books, and another story covering the event has been published.

What's it like? The word that comes to mind is "helpless."

For starters, there's one question that comes up constantly when I tell people who don't know much about running that I'm going to covering the marathon. It's a form of "Are you going to run in it too?"

Well, no. Not only is it too far for me, but in order to talk to the winner at the finish line, I'd have to win the race. This would be, um, less than likely.

This is a massive event. There are were about 5,200 runners lined up at the start. They took off and ran more than 26 miles around the streets of Buffalo. That is a lot of territory. There's always something going on somewhere, but it's impossible to be everywhere at once. It's also unwieldy, in that you don't know what can go wrong. I compare it to a wedding, as it will plow ahead from start to finish even if there are things that happen that don't follow the plan.

For example, there was the train a couple of years ago.

The route crossed some train tracks at around eight miles at that point. Sure enough, somehow a long train came rolling through during the race in spite of many efforts beforehand to insure that nothing of the sort would happen. I asked around to find some people who had been stuck on the wrong side of the tracks in order to get first-hand information and some quotes. Some were unhappy to the point of anger because they might not be able to set a personal record; some just shrugged shoulders and said "stuff happens."

Then there was the time I saw a friend sitting on a curb looking by the finish, looking angry. When I asked what the race was like, he went into a rant about something about the course that had messed everything up. I couldn't even understand him, he was so angry.

Turns out that the leaders had gone along the path on the waterfront and reached LaSalle Park. The traffic volunteer had told them to go left, when they should have gone right. The mistake was corrected quite quickly. But you still had the sight of the leaders going in one direction and some others going in the other ... when that part of the course was supposed to be a big circle. By the way, it didn't make one inch of a difference because they were all covering the same distance ... but in different ways.

Last year, a half-marathoner who was leading was pointed in the wrong direction at the halfway point. He was sent up the marathon path instead of back to the half-marathon finish line. Confused, he eventually turned around and walked back to the finish line -- crossing the wrong way. It's always, or at least often, something.

A new wrinkle came up for me this year. A runner had signed up for the full marathon, got a little tired after 10 miles, and decided to call it a day after 13.1 miles. But he didn't tell anyone when he crossed the finish line, and his chip thought he was a marathoner. This has happened in the past, but it is tough to catch people in the mob in the finish area. So ... his name went in the newspaper as the fastest local finisher of the marathon. He wrote me afterwards to explain, which was appreciated. The race committee, meanwhile, is working on solving that particular problem for next year.

There is at least plenty of drama at the finish line, where I hang out. I chatted with some friends who handed out the medals, and they pointed out you see practically everything after a morning of watching people finish. There is sheer elation in many, as they check off something on their bucket list or prove a point to themselves. There's also fainting, crawling and vomiting.

A fact of life about marathons is that the East Africans -- Kenya and Ethiopia -- usually dominate men's races. That's been true in Buffalo for the last eight or so years. The women's winners have been a little more diverse here, although in the big international events the Africans are still the best. Many top runners come to the United States and run for a living here. A Buffalo winner a while ago had run a marathon in Pittsburgh a couple of weeks before. People like that usually are supporting a large extended family back home, so they run and run and run. It must be difficult to know you are a small injury away from cutting off all income to the folks in Africa.

There's also a language barrier involved in interviews, since English has been a second (or third...) language to many winners. That makes trying to get a good question understood difficult, let alone a good answer in reply. A couple of years ago a local woman was the surprise winner; she never realized how happy I was to see her.

There's one little secret involved with covering a marathon, though. Every single runner is a story, and a good one. Some people are running to raise money for a charity. Some run to cap a weight-loss project. Some run to improve self-esteem. Some run to show that dirty rotten ex-spouse something. Some want to run marathons in 50 states. And so on down the line. This year I talked to a soldier who flew in from Alaska after a tour of duty in Afghanistan to see his wife try to break 1 hour, 45 minutes in the half-marathon.

It's all great theater. As a reporter, you can't ask for more than that.

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Monday, May 21, 2012

Not my idea of fun

A snowplow operator can be busy in Buffalo, but I don't think he'd want to trade with the guys at Glacier National Park. Here's the driver's view of the first plowing of the main road through the park:

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Wall

Every newspaper and magazine should have someone in charge of keeping track of anniversaries. It's a natural tie-in for stories. Wow, it's been 25 years since that happened? Already? Can we find someone who remembers that event from 50 years ago? And so on.

Sports Illustrated recently devoted a good share of a recent issue to the 40th anniversary of Title IX. That's the law that essentially said that colleges that receive federal funds had to give equal financial support to women's activities.

Having gone past my own 40th anniversary a while ago, I remember the pre-Title IX days. It wasn't pretty. Any young girl who actually liked running around a bit was called a "tomboy," and not exactly encouraged. I suppose tennis was all right, and maybe figure skating -- and who could afford that? -- but otherwise the landscape was rather barren.

What I remember about those days is the wall that sports represented between males and females. Guys played sports, talked about sports. Gals didn't. Period. As a sports fan growing up (there's an understatement), I was always a little sad that the wall was up between the sexes. I more or less figured that anyone who didn't understand the appeal of sports at some level would have trouble understanding me.

But here's my favorite "good old days" story along those lines of what it was like back then:

I was a senior in high school in 1972-73, and the girls' basketball team had a home game. I think it started at 4 p.m. Meanwhile in the other gym, boys' intramural basketball was taking place with games at something like 3:45 and 4:45. On this particular day, my team had a late game.

With little to do for an hour, my teammates and I walked to the main gym and discovered a girls' game was in progress. So ... we walked in and sat on the bleachers. Once we figured out this was our school playing, we started cheering. Trust me, we weren't being rude -- merely enthusiastic.

After a few minutes had gone by, the Clarence coach walked over to us and said the other team's coach was complaining that our cheers were upsetting her girls. She wanted us to hold it down. We did; our applause became lighter and our voices lower. It didn't help. In the next timeout, the Clarence coach returned and asked us, politely and almost sheepishly, to leave. She knew we weren't the offensive party here.

Title IX had been on the books for a short time at that point, not long enough to make a difference in any way yet. But eventually it did. Not only did women start participating in more sports, but they also started rooting for teams and individuals. I'd like to think everyone found out how much fun they were missing.

The argument goes on. A California legislator recently made news by attacking Title IX in front of soccer star Brandi Chastain, making himself look uninformed, outdated and rude all at once. Nicely played.

Still, we've made a lot of progress in 40 years. Can't wait to see where we go from here.

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Not this Mother's day

I suppose that this day is supposed to come with sadness for me. After all, it's my first Mother's Day without my mother around. And at some level, that's true.

But on the other hand, I can't help but smile a little at the thought of my mom on this particular day.

For my mother absolutely hated Mother's Day. Mom had her quirks and odd reasonings when it came to likes and dislikes -- I never did understand why she hated Tampa Bay's sports teams -- but Mother's Day was in an entirely different class.

It became a ritual for us. I'd call her up at some point during the second Sunday in May and say as sarcastically as possible, "I'm just calling on your favorite day of the whole year." She's laugh, and say something silly in response. And that would be it. No cards, no flowers, no gifts, no dinners out when we lived in the same area, etc.

This was a distinct contrast to Father's Day, when Dad got up early, played golf, came home, opened gifts, watched the U.S. Open on television, and had one of his favorite dinners. Come to think of it, the gifts were the only unique part of the day, since otherwise that was a pretty typical Sunday for him.

By now, you probably are wondering what Mom had against Mother's Day. She said she hated the hypocrisy of it.

According to her, she saw too many people who would show up at the door on Mother's Day, and not visit that same door the other 364 days of the year. In her world, she would prefer to be treated well for the entire year.

Come to think of it, she might have had a point there.

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Out of the shadows

My friend Catherine Artman wrote this tribute to a late actor recently, and wasn't sure where it could go. She asked if it could go here. I thought about it and said, why not? I always like presenting different viewpoints. I remember other kids talking about "Dark Shadows" when I was a youngster, but was too busy watching "The Three Stooges" to notice.

I got to see Jonathan Frid in person before he died.

I Iived in Buffalo for years, and the actor, who played the vampire Barnabas Collins on "Dark Shadows" from 1967 through ’71, lived in nearby Hamilton, Ontario. Do you think I ever crossed the Canadian border and stalked him? No, I did not. I waited until he made a public appearance, and then I paid money to see him recite poetry.

In 2009, Frid headlined a "Dark Shadows" convention in Elizabeth, N.J. I was in the area that weekend, accompanying a friend who had a Manhattan trade show to attend.

While my pal went off to the International Gift Fair to play with the latest toys, I drove to a hotel in Elizabeth to gawk at 1960s TV actors. It was the perfect arrested-development weekend.

Frid, who was 87 when he died this past April 14, still had the self-effacing charm and wonderful voice I remembered from the TV show.

I'm not happy that Barnabas is being portrayed in Johnny Depp's new movie as Jack Sparrow-meets-Austin Powers. But I'm glad the movie was made, because it keeps "Dark Shadows" alive — or undead, at least. It reminds people of the ’60s series and related ’70s movies, and even the brief 1991 TV revival, and it gives a coming generation a new layer of "Shadows" material to build on. I don't have to like what Depp's movie does with Collinwood's characters to appreciate that it supports the motto of fandom: “ ‘Dark Shadows’” forever!”

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Sunday, May 06, 2012


The noise is getting louder by the week, it seems.

Junior Seau committed suicide last week, according to analysis by the authorities. He played 20 years in the National Football League, and he's the latest former NFL player to end his life that way.

Such stories have come up in professional sports every so often. More common are stories about ex-players who have physical and mental issues that at worst may have a connection to their playing careers.

Put another way -- the leagues that run contact sports in this day and age have a huge problem, and it seems to be growing.

This is nothing new in a sense. Boxers have been beating each up for more than a century, and few come out of it unharmed. Ever hear of the phrase "punch drunk?" Muhammad Ali has received plenty of publicity for his health situation, but Joe Frazier could barely talk near the end of his life. The list goes on and on.

But my guess is that we tended to devalue those situations in something resembling snobbery. The boxers -- traditionally men from the bottom of the economic ladder -- knew what they were getting into when they signed up at the gym. They were well-paid, relatively speaking and in at least a few cases (darn few, actually). People have the right to bring harm to themselves if that's what they want. If you've noticed, boxers don't have a union trying to get members permanent health care, so they just had to live with the after-effects of their chosen profession. You could make the same arguments about wrestlers, who take a beating even if the results aren't on the up and up.

But now the effects seem to be spreading, perhaps as the athletes get bigger and stronger. The hockey players of today are far bigger and faster than the ones of 50, 60 years ago. Their collisions are therefore bigger. Throw in fighting, and its easy to see why long-term medical problems there are becoming an issue.

Then there's football. Linemen almost have to weigh 300 pounds these days to play pro -- and in some cases, top-level college -- football. Those collisions are getting worse as well. Someone described each play as a car accident in terms of a physical toll. Play 10 years, and that physical pounding more than adds up.

The pro sports leagues have a problem. They have to make the game safer for the participants, for the present and the future, if only to avoid an endless string of lawsuits. They have to act so that players aren't considered completely disposable commodities, thrown in the discard pile when the leagues are done with them. But they have to do that while realizing that contact is an essential attraction to part of the fan base.

It's going to be a difficult balancing act. Get used to it, though -- sports executives will be trying to walk that tightrope for years to come.

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Thursday, May 03, 2012

Losing streak

The Buffalo Bandits lost a game this afternoon.

In 1999.

Allow me to explain.

I received an email from Jeff Baker of the Bandits' public relations department today. He said he was working on a statistic and had found a problem with a fact from the past. It seemed the goals scored by the Bandits in 1999 had two different numbers, depending on whether one turned to the Bandits' media guide or the National Lacrosse League's media guide. They were two goals apart.

When Tom Borrelli died and I took over his duties of covering the team, Karen Borrelli gave me the pile of Bandits and NLL guides from his collection. So, I went back game by game and tried to find the problem.

In Game 11 of the season, the problem revealed itself. In the Bandits' guide of 2000, an April game in 1999 against Rochester was listed as a 15-13 win. However, the league guide had it as a loss. The league also had Buffalo's record as 4-8 instead of 5-7. Since the wins and losses add up correctly in the league standings, I could only conclude that it was the Bandits' guide that was wrong.

So ... Buffalo lost the game and thus finished that season with a five-game losing streak. That was the team record until this year, when the Bandits dropped six straight.

You know you are having a tough day when your record takes a loss 13 years after the fact.

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