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

Tue, 17 Jul 2001 08:48:13 -0400

Living the After-Life


A slight middle-aged man, sitting in front of me at the NCAA Track Championships, looked vaguely familiar. He wore an American-style baseball cap pulled low over his thin face.

When he spoke to a seatmate in Arabic-accented English, recognition finally clicked in: Said Aouita. He had come to Eugene for the Prefontaine meet and stayed another week to see the collegians run.

For those who don't remember him, his name is pronounced "Sah-EED Oh-WEE-tah." The Moroccan was first under 13 minutes in the 5000 and a close second under 3:30 in the 1500. That was in the mid-1980s.

Now 41, he sat thoroughly engrossed in the NCAA meet, scribbling copious notes in his program. He sat almost completely unnoticed by the crowd around him and seemed content in his anonymity.

That's how it should be. Aouita had his time. Now it's someone else's turn at the glory -- including the current Moroccan-born world record-holders he inspired, Hicham El Guerrouj and Khalid Khannouchi.

Runners fast and fortunate enough to reach the top get to spend only a few years there. Most of them peak in their late 20s and early 30s.

Then where do they go? What do they do with their next 50 or 60 years, after the cheering stops?

A lot more little-noticed ex-great runners than celebrated current ones now roam the world. The same week I spotted Said Aouita in Eugene, I saw three more past greats at the Steamboat Marathon in Colorado.

Lisa Rainsberger was there. You remember her as Lisa Weidenbach, who, three times in a row between 1984 and '92, missed the Olympic Marathon team by one place. Her serious racing years are long past, but she does little looking back with regret.

"I'm living in Colorado Springs and training marathoners there," she said. "We brought 40 of them to this weekend's race."

Lisa, now 39, pointed to her young daughter, Katie. "This is my medal," said Lisa, who had a difficult pregnancy with her first child.

"And this is my second," she added, pointing to her growing belly. "It's a boy, due this fall."

At Steamboat a bearded mountain-man of nearly 50 stood in the chutes, directing traffic. Not one finisher in a hundred knew him as Benji Durden. He made the 1980 U.S. Olympic team-to-nowhere, then ran a 2:09 marathon and reached the first World Championships in '83.

"I haven't raced in years," he said, "but I'm at a race almost every weekend. Last year Amie [his wife] and I handled 46 events."

One of the runners Benji guided into a chute at Steamboat was running under an assumed name. The announcer read it without commenting on her true identity.

I'll honor her wish for anonymity by not even giving the name she ran under in Colorado. One of America's all-time greats, she ran a 43-minute 10-K this day.

She seemed to be thinking: I like being out here running and don't mind doing it slowly. I just don't want to be singled out for it.

Old Johnny Kelley, who won two Boston Marathons in his youth, then ran races for another 50 years, has said, "It's not what you once did that counts but what you keep doing."

The ex-stars I saw this month all appear to be living well in their athletic after-life. They keep running, keep working, keep watching the sport -- only in a quieter and less visible way than before.

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