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

Sat, 20 Apr 2002 09:17:56 -0400

The Greatest


April held the greatest back-to-back weekends in U.S. road racing history. At the level where the world's best running is done, that is. The level Americans haven't visited in a very long time.

One Sunday, Deena Drossin broke the world 5K road record. A week later, Khalid Khannouchi lowered his own world mark in the marathon.

Not that any of this made much news in the U.S. Newspapers and television little noted the work of Drossin because her 14:54 race at Carlsbad wasn't a marathon. Khannouchi didn't get enough attention because he ran his 2:05:38 in London, not in Boston.

Meanwhile, this country had no one near the front at Boston. Could that be because so few top U.S. runners are encouraged or invited to run there? And, if so, is this another case of fellow Americans giving up on them?

Their own country hasn't treated American runners too kindly since they peaked in the 1980s. That was when Joan Benoit won the Olympic Marathon... when Alberto Salazar was winning at Boston and New York City... when U.S. athletes still set world records.

The record-setting ended before the 1980s did. The last woman from here to set a world record at one of the four most commonly run road distances (5K, 10K, half-marathon, marathon) was PattiSue Plumer with a 5K in 1986. The last man: Steve Scott with a 5K in 1988.

Then the world changed. Road racing grew faster, deeper and more professional, with a greater worldwide spread of events and talent. More of the best track athletes raced on the roads.

Few Americans could compete for the big prizes and great paydays. As they fell behind, critics accused these runners of not working hard enough, not wanting to win badly enough.

There even were whisperings that America's runners were the wrong color. If they weren't born on the eastern edge of African and didn't run to school and back, they had lost before starting.

I've generally stayed out of the hand-wringing over what's-wrong-with-U.S.-running. I'd rather celebrate the strengths -- notably the participation levels that are the world's greatest.

But if an occasional American can rise to the top again, I'm happy to join in the cheering. And I'm just as happy to cheer for a naturalized citizen as one native born.

In different ways, Khalid Khannouchi and Deena Drossin are American success stories. They prove that the U.S. system can work for top athletes as well as for the masses of runners.

Some credit for Drossin's success goes to groups that, instead of writing off American athletes, set about building them a better support system. In the past few years the Stanford-based Farm Team, Fila's Discovery USA, the U.S. Army team in Boulder and Nike's Oregon Project all have given runners places to train together under good coaches.

No group has done more, though, than Running USA. It has opened four Team USA training centers since the Sydney Olympics and will have a fifth before this year ends.

Drossin trains at the center in Mammoth Lakes, California. She arrived there as the best American in the 10,000 and cross-country. Now she's one of the world's best runners at anything she races.

She ran a debut marathon of 2:26 last fall. She was a silver medalist at the recent World Cross-Country Championships.

Then came the Carlsbad 5K. She broke the record held by the only woman, Paula Radcliffe, to beat her at the cross-country Worlds.

As for Khalid Khannouchi, maybe never has a world record-holder gotten less respect going into a marathon. The thinking seemed to be: Your time has passed. Step aside now and let the real runners, track athletes Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat, take over.

Not only did Khannouchi beat the current Olympic and world 10,000 champions. He also broke his own world marathon record and became the first man since Derek Clayton (in 1967-69) to set back-to-back marks. The last American man to hold this record was Buddy Edelen, almost 40 years ago.

Don't tell me that Khannouchi isn't truly an American. He's as American as, say, Alberto Salazar (who was born in Cuba).

Khannouchi brought great genes when he came here from Morocco, but he didn't come as a ready-made athlete. Like U.S. Olympians Abdi Abdirahmin (originally from Somalia) and Meb Keflezighi (Eritrea), Khannouchi developed as a runner through the U.S. system.

It was never a bad system. Now it's getting better.

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