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

Thu, 1 May 2003 08:32:58 -0400

U.S. Males


As a longtime American man, I feel the need to speak out on the state of America's male marathoners. A flurry of stories took on this theme at Boston time, on a dubious 20th anniversary there. Most of the reports were negative.

Greg Meyer had won there in 1983, as no U.S. man has done since then. Woeful are we, sang a chorus of reports.

An e-mail buddy sent one of the stories he'd read. George Beinhorn didn't ask for my comments, but he got them anyway. The persistent criticism of American men troubles me, I told George.

Sure, the statistics speak poorly of them. American men are not winning the big U.S. marathons as they did in the 1980s, and not just because the international fields here are so much bigger and tougher. The Americans aren't even running as fast in depth as they did 20 years ago.

In 1983 Meyer, Ron Tabb and Benji Durden went 1-2-3 at Boston, and all three broke 2:10. Dozens of U.S. men went under 2:20 that year.

This year at Boston none came within seven minutes of 2:10, and only one broke 2:20. But neither did the Kenyan winner run faster than Meyer's time, and only 13 of the world's runners could break 2:20 at Boston. Rather than simply point accusing fingers at the Americans, the better question might be: Why the declining depth overall at Boston?

The facts in these "American men suck" stories don't lie. But they also don't tell the whole truth, starting with the Big Fact -- the man with the two fastest times in world history is a citizen of this country.

Khalid Khannouchi is a footnote in the disappearing-Americans stories: Oh yes, him. He's not really one of us because he wasn't born here.

No, he wasn't, but Khannouchi came here from Morocco as a teenager. He grew up as a runner in this country and did nearly all of his training for the record races here.

Eddy Hellebuyck was already an Olympian, for Belgium, when he gained U.S. citizenship. In stories from Boston he became an example of what's wrong with Americans: A 42-year-old was the leading U.S. finisher? Shameful!

Hellebuyck really is an example of what's wrong with reporting. We should celebrate him for breaking into the top 10 as a master.

His case underlines another unfortunate fact about Boston. He was one of the few top American men, maybe the only one, talked into racing here (and supported financially in the attempt).

Good as he is for his age, Eddy isn't close to being the best American-other-than-Khannouchi now competing. Alan Culpepper ran faster at Chicago last fall than Boston's winning time.

Alberto Salazar-coached Dan Browne won at Twin Cities. Meb Keflezighi, born in Eritrea but entirely U.S. trained since high school, debuted at New York City with 2:11.

These runners don't race wherever they can. If Boston wants the best American men to come, it must entice them back by giving them convincing reasons to run here and not somewhere -- or nowhere -- else.

This isn't easy. Boston's name isn't as magical to this generation of marathoners as it was to the runners their fathers' age. Other races now bid for them. As track athletes as well, most of them carefully ration their road racing -- especially as they save their legs for a new track season at Boston time.

After Eddy Hellebuyck finished at Boston this year, the wait for an American man was long. Next came Ken Pliska, a 37-year-old from Massachusetts. He placed 18th, outside of 2:30, behind the first four women and just ahead of Marla Runyan.

This isn't criticism of Pliska but praise. I dare say he came to Boston without any insistence or assistance from race organizers.

For stories to compare his result unfavorably with past winners Bill Rodgers or Alberto Salazar or Greg Meyer is unfair. Ken Pliska ran the best he could that day. It's not his fault that faster American males stayed away.


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