I just read an article at Japan Running News about an 18-year-old Kenyan named Paul Kuira who ran 27:51.92 for 10,000 meters on June 1st. Considering that was the same weekend that German Fernandez ran his amazing 4:00.29/8:34.23 double, it's worth considering the difference between what some of the elite foreign high school students are doing in their training/racing.
To put this in context, I saw a thread at Dyestat debating which performance was more impressive, German's double or Chris Derrick's 13:55 5k from the Arcadia Invitational in April. Both are obviously very impressive, and while I lean toward German's, the answer obviously doesn't matter. After all, they may have been the best performances by American 18-year-olds, but not by 18-year-olds overall. Kuira accomplished Derrick's feat twice in the same race!
As a rule, American juniors don't perform at a world-class level. The only performance I can think of by an American that rivals elite runners is Alan Webb's 3:53. That's gotta be among the best junior times ever.
But why are American's slower? First off, most Americans don't train long or hard enough. Foreign elites often start training much earlier than Americans. Most Americans don't start, let alone get any real sophistication in their training, until high school, and then they have to build into it. (That's one thing that makes German's performance so good, actually. He's spent much of his young career injured. So he's not running that double off of years of consistent hard work.)
I don't think it's talent, either. Africa may have more great talents, but the best in America should be comparable to the best in Africa. What I do think happens to American high schoolers with a lot of talent is they benchmark their progress against previous Americans, not "the fastest junior performances ever." Times like Dathan Ritzenhein's high school record in the 3,200 meters become myth, legend. And America's best treat them as if they are the outer limit of a high schooler's ability. Do they even know what the all-time top ten times run by juniors are?
Could a focus on the American records actually be acting more as a barrier for Americans than anything else? When Augustine Choge can run 7:28.78 for 3,000 meters at age 18, shouldn't Americans be aiming a little higher? At the beginning of the year, my guess is that German set a goal to break Ritz's record. Not to break it by 10 or 15 seconds (which is what the record should be by now). That's just a hunch, though. I'm sure his thoughts have changed since Saturday.
One of the ways we establish self-efficacy--the belief in what we can do given the effort we put into something--is by looking at what people we relate with have done and then basing our performance off of that. It's the classic, "If he could do it, I can too." But mental barriers can get created as a result. When we see a performance by someone we don't relate to (say, 18 year-old Kenyans), we may believe we can't achieve it, even if we work hard. And when we only focus on a small subset of performances (American juniors versus ALL juniors) we can establish a mental barrier that limits us from seeing even greater performances as being possible.
Foreign runners don't have that problem. They don't see an 8:41 3,200 meters as anything more significant than a fast time. It's a stepping-stone time. They won't aim for it so much as aim past it. A select few Americans (Webb, Rupp, Granville, maybe Ritz and now Fernandez?) are able to get past the very idea that those times are the limit for high school runners. Most elite juniors, even if they have the physical ability, don't get past that mental barrier until they enter college and see older, more experienced runners doing it consistently.
Who you compare yourself to matters. If you want to be the best, you need to compare yourself to the best. And not just the best in your town, state, or even country. Sites like Dyestat and MileSplit have expanded runners' horizons. They have shifted the context within which high school runners understand their sport from a regional to a national focus. It's no exaggeration to say that those sites have directly contributed to American runners getting faster. Now we need a site that provides the next level of context: a global context.