Double is back in play for Felix, but the particulars remain a mystery
LOS ANGELES -- From the lobby lounge of the health club where she does weight training, Allyson Felix pointed an accusing finger toward the street. "Right out there,'' she said, wagging the digit. "Right out on San Vicente Boulevard.''
It is a wide, suburban thoroughfare, two lanes in each direction, weaving its way from the western edge of the L.A. suburb of Brentwood, through Santa Monica, past the storied Riviera Country Club, all the way to within a few yards of the Pacific Ocean.
It was here that Felix, 26, trained like a middle distance runner through much of the winter and early spring of 2011. She and other members of coach Bobby Kersee's group would run on the sidewalk, and Kersee would drive alongside, shouting something that can politely be called encouragement. Sometimes they would run to Bundy Drive (the street on which the Simpson-Goldman murders took place 18 years ago), sometimes they would run to 26th Street and sometimes they would run all the way to the salt water. And then back, as much as 3.5 miles total. Kersee had spray-painted mile markers on the trees. "I don't know how he gets away with these things,'' says Felix. The road sessions went on for two months, and the purpose was clear: To make Felix ever stronger, to infuse speed endurance into her 125-pound body.
Jump ahead now a few months to a warm, early September night in Daegu, South Korea. Felix is running the final of the 200 meters at the biennial World Track and Field Championships. She has won gold at the previous three worlds, but not this time. Two-time Olympic gold medalist Veronica Campbell-Brown runs a solid race and wins the gold medal in 22.22 seconds, amid the same persistent headwind that slowed sprints throughout the championships (in this race, 1.0 meters per second). Carmelita Jeter of the U.S., the reborn, then-31-year-old who has already won the 100 meters, holds off Felix for the silver, 22.37 seconds to 22.42 seconds.
Felix does what she often does after defeats (including her two silver medals behind VCB at the '04 and '08 Olympics) -- she cries alone. It had been a very tough worlds for Felix. Her 200 bronze had been preceded by a silver medal in the 400, a race in which she ran a personal best of 49.59 seconds but came up a stride short of 28-year-old Amantle Montsho of Botswana in a stirring, head-to-head stretch run.
Felix's attempt at the Daegu double had been part of a long-term plan, with the goal of doubling in London a year later. But on that night, Felix, physically and emotionally spent, expressed severe doubts.
"I feel like this was the year to try something," she said after the worlds 200."Next year I'm going to be more focused on the 200. I'm not so sure about the double, because that 200 is very important to me. There will be a different mindset next year. I'll talk to [coach] Bobby [Kersee]. It's always different in an Olympic year, everything bumps up a notch. But my biggest thing is that 200."
A day later I caught up with Kersee and he had already talked Felix in off the ledge. In the media mixed zone after the 4x100 relay, Felix was back smiling, accepting that a double might be in play.
Which brings us back to San Vicente Boulevard on a sunny spring afternoon. Now the double is indeed back in play.
"I definitely want to do two events,'' says Felix. "And one of them is going to be the 200.''
Whether the other event will be the 100 or the 400 is possibly the most intriguing pre-trials question in U.S. track and field (along with: Does Alan Webb have a comeback in him? And: What's up with Tyson Gay?, among others).
But while the answer to that question is nearly upon us (the trials begin June 22 in Eugene), the process building to that answer has been unfolding much longer. In the weeks following Daegu, Felix repeatedly watched her races from those championships. It was anything but a pleasurable exercise.
"I hate to watch races that don't go well,'' she says. Mostly she watched the 200 meters. "The 400,'' she says. "I could see that I made bad choices in that race. I got out and then I relaxed too much. Bobby talks about floating and maintaining. I floated, but I didn't maintain. And then I ran out of room.
"But the 200,'' says Felix, and here she twists her face as if to describe something painful. "It was very weird for me to be in a race and feel like that. It's strange even to watch it. My speed just wasn't there. I reached for that extra gear and it wasn't there. That's my signature thing, that extra gear. That's what I do.''
Felix is convinced that she left her speed somewhere out on the concrete in the winter and spring.
"I knew even before the races at worlds that my speed wasn't there,'' says Felix. "I could feel that it was missing.''
Her performances in 2011 back this up. Her best 200-meter time of the year was 22.32 seconds, her slowest seasonal PR since she was a junior in high school in 2002 (22.82). She didn't run a single 100 meters. Kersee would explain to her that those runs to the ocean built strength and that strength remains. And that was fine with Felix, but she didn't like feeling slow and never wants to feel slow again.
"I went to Bobby and told him,'' Felix says, "this year we were going to focus on speed, speed, speed. He knew it already. But I went to him.''
This year Felix has spent very little time out on San Vicente.
"Maybe three weeks,'' says Felix. "And even then, we were mixing in track sessions.''
The early returns suggest that Felix's speed has been restored. She seldom runs indoor races, yet in February she ran a personal best of 7.10 seconds in the 60 at the Tyson Invitational in Arkansas. And then last weekend she opened eyes all over the track and field world when she ran a personal best of 10.92 in the 100 (her previous best was 10.93 in 2008) at a Diamond League meet in Doha, Qatar, in the process beating Campbell-Brown, 2008 Olympic gold medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica and two other Jamaicans who may or may not be past their prime: Kerron Stewart and Sherone Simpson.
Felix's performance lit a flame under the discussion of her options. If she can run consistent low 10.90s, she has a terrific shot at making the U. S. Olympic team in the 100. London is a different matter: Jeter has a PR of 10.64 and has already run 10.81 this year. Her gold medal 100 in Daegu suggests that she has learned to beat back her nerves in a championship setting, which, in theory, makes her the prohibitive favorite in London. But even Felix says, "There's Carmelita and there's a pack.''
Felix hasn't gone near a competitive 400 since Daegu and she hasn't said that she will run one before the trials. A year ago, she was clearly the best female quarter-miler in the U.S., and she might still be, but Sanya Richards-Ross continues to climb back from the illness issues that seemed to have possibly ended her career. If she can handle rounds (not a small factor, but Richards-Ross has come a long, long way), she will be a major threat in Eugene and London, as well.
Then again, it's the 200, stupid. It's all about winning that one Olympic gold medal that has eluded Felix, one of the most accomplished (and classy and generous) U.S. track and field athletes in history, with a gaping hole in her resume.
Therefore, reading Felix's schedule, it seems like she and Kersee are preparing for a 100-200 double. Maybe not, but it seems that way. The London gold might not be in play in the 100 (because of Jeter's presence and whichever Jamaican rises up and does what Fraser-Pryce did in 2008, which is destroy her PR). But both the 100 and 400 are before the 200, and while both are tiring, running a series of 100s will sharpen Felix for the 200 and running a series of 400s will dull her explosiveness. Remember what she said about the homestretch of the Daegu 200:
Another thought: Felix won't turn 27 until next November. It seems she has been running forever (I first met her at the track at Los Angeles Baptist High in the spring of 2003). She is like the Donald Driver of track and field. But she hasn't had major injuries, hasn't had surgeries and (seemingly) hasn't punished her system with steroids. She could easily make another Olympics, take her gold medal from London to Rio in 2016 and then attack the 400 meters. It's just a thought.
And of course, Felix could protect her London 200-meter chances best of all by running only the 200, but she said that's not happening (unless she fails to make the U.S. team in two events). And good on her for that. We are a nation that embraces risk, and by doubling, Felix is risking the one thing that will validate her career in perpetuity.
It's a decision unlike any other in recent U.S. track history. (Don't give me Michael Johnson; when he doubled in '96 he was a huge favorite in the 400, which came first. Likewise, Carl Lewis was a lock to put the 100 in the bag first in Los Angeles).
The trials are five weeks away. The Games five after that. There is still time to think. But this much is in the bank: All that speed that Felix left out on the sidewalk in Santa Monica, spread out from the 405 Freeway all the way to the beach? She's got it again.