Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Wed, 2 Feb 2000 08:42:39 -0500

National Treasure

(from RC 292)

Much of the whining and opining over what's wrong with American distance runners has a blind spot. It focuses on the marathon and overlooks track, focuses on men and overlooks women, focuses (dare I say it?) on white runners and overlooks non-whites.

Specifically the runner most often overlooked, the most dramatic exception to the rule of non-success internationally, is Regina Jacobs. She's one of only two Americans in the 1990s to win a World or Olympic track medal at any distance longer than 400 meters, and she has done it at each of the last two World 1500s. (The other medalist was also a woman, Lynn Jennings in the 1992 Olympic 10,000.)

Jacobs could become the country's first woman Olympic medalist in the 1500... or the first in the 5000 (where she holds the U.S. record)... or even the first since 1984 in the 800 (where she has run 1:58 without specialized training). She could set records in the 10,000 if she ever runs any. A recent 1:15 half-marathon that she called "a training run" hints at vast potential on the roads.

I'm as guilty as anyone of not praising Jacobs enough. This is my first writing about her.

We'd never met until we sat at the same table at a news conference to introduce the Millennathon, a January event in Oakland, California. She had arrived with her husband-coach Tom Craig, coming straight from a gym workout.

They live in Oakland, a city with a large black population. Regina thinks of herself as African-American, but she could be anything she wants.

The last name could be Jewish. In appearance she could be Arab, or Asian Indian or Native American, or dark white or pale black.

She's equally at home in all cultures and has chosen Oakland as home. She agreed to help the Millennathon promote a kids' running program here. Her special interest is building a public track in the city.

"I can go anywhere to train," she said. "But the kids of Oakland -- some of the best runners in the state -- don't have that option.

"Their tracks haven't been resurfaced for over 20 years and are like running on a potholed street. We really need a state-of-the-art track that everyone in the city, from top athletes to joggers, can use."

Millennathon spokesman Bill Rodgers, spoke next. Then came my turn. I called Bill and Regina "national treasures because they are so rare."

This isn't just because of how fast they run. Lots of people can run fast.

But by its nature world-class running is a selfish activity. Well, that's kind of a loaded word, so let's say necessarily self-centered instead.

Many runners at this level appear in public only at racetime, and at other times they hide in their hotel rooms or back home. I'm not criticizing them but only saying that Bill and Regina aren't hiding out. They find time to give back to the sport in ways beyond what their professional contracts require.

Appreciate Regina Jacobs' racing while you can. She's almost 37, and there can't be many big years left.

Maybe only one. But she'll remain a treasure long after her last fast race is run.


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