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

Sat, 29 Sep 2007 05:49:07 -0400

Old Gold


(rerun from September 2005 Marathon & Beyond, and continued here from RC 694)

Three key factors made the golden agers of U.S. marathoning faster in depth than any group of Americans in the past 25 years: (1) they didn't wait too long to start racing marathons; (2) they ran with abandon, and (3) they raced mostly for free.

STARTING "TOO SOON." An old idea, which should have died in the golden age, has taken root again in recent decades. It's the myth that marathoning is a refuge for aging and slowing runners -- that it's their parents' and grandparents' event, not one for a young speedster to try.

Young runners are urged to wait. Exploit their speed first, because the marathon will kill it. Once a marathoner, there's no turning back to the track.

Oh, no? How about Billy Mills? He qualified for the 1964 Olympic Marathon before making the 10,000-meter team, and ran the long race in Tokyo after winning the short one.

Alberto Salazar set American track records for 5000 and 10,000 meters after running his world-best marathon. Frank Shorter placed fifth in the Munich Olympic 10,000 -- a week before winning the marathon there.

Shorter and Bill Rodgers both qualified for the 10,000 at the Montreal Games (but neither ran that event there), after going 1-2 in the Marathon Trials. Joan Benoit ran internationally in cross-country and track while in her marathon prime.

These five runners are venerated elders in the sport now, but were in their 20s during their golden ages. Mills turned 26 in his golden year. Benoit won her Bostons at 21 and 25, and her gold medal at 27. Shorter was 24 when he won at Munich.

Rodgers won his first Boston at 27, and another plus two New Yorks before his 30th birthday. Salazar debuted in the marathon as a 22-year-old and ran his fastest race at 23.

Back at the dawn of this golden era, Buddy Edelen set his world marathon record at 25. The average age of the best Olympic team in U.S. history (1-4-9 at Munich) was 26.6.

Cathy Schiro (now O'Brien) holds the record for youngest Olympic Trials marathoner. She ran the 1984 race at 16, then made the next two teams while still in her early 20s.

Young talent still pours out of the high schools and colleges every year. The pool of athletes capable of running fast times in big marathons has never shrunk; only the wish and the will to do so when their speed runs high.

RUNNING "TOO MUCH." The golden age of marathoning had its roots in the distance-training revolution of the 1960s and '70s, Arthur Lydiard's 100-mile weeks. Training big miles on the roads naturally led to racing them there.

One reason the golden era ended in the 1980s was the turn away from distance. The buzz word became "quality" -- fewer miles, faster. Runners who avoided "junk miles" rejected road races as inferior to the "real" running that centered on the track.

Even the marathoners ran less. They bought into "scientific" reports that mileage beyond certain arbitrary maximums -- 50, 60, 70 -- was wasted.

Two oddities here: first, the best 10,000-meter track time by a U.S.-born runner is stuck at the 27:20 run in the early 1980s by Mark Nenow, a high-mileage trainer.

Second, the same runners who praised quality miles also shied away from those highest in quality. They didn't race as often as the golden agers. "Quality" was another name for caution: less running, less racing.

This is a way to run pretty well for a long time. But truly great racing might require risking doing too much training and racing. The trade-off often is a shorter stay at the top.

The best of the golden agers ran as if there were no next year, and sometimes there wasn't. Careers often were as short as they were spectacular.

In 1972, Frank Shorter ran three marathons within five months. The second was his Olympic victory, the third his PR. In 1984, Joan Benoit's winning race at the Los Angeles Games came just three months after the Trials.

Three of the country's world-record marathoners -- Buddy Edelen, Alberto Salazar and Benoit Samuelson -- each ran in only one Olympics. The 1964 Trials triggered an injury from which Edelen never recovered. Salazar's many big efforts had drained him physically before the 1984 Games.

Benoit took her chances in 1984 and got away with it. She ran the Trials less than three weeks after knee surgery, but her best racing lasted only one more year.

America's best native marathoner (read: not Khalid Khannouchi) never to make an Olympic team was Dick Beardsley. The 1982 Boston was his fifth marathon within a year and 10th within two years. He PRed in seven of those races, but lost his shot at the 1984 team to an achilles injury.

You couldn't accuse any of them of being too cautious. They all trained long and raced often.

This wasn't the way to stay on top for a long time. But it was their way to get there for a little while.

They made their choice. That's why we remember them so well.

RACING "FOR NOTHING." You could ask, "Why aren't more American runners upfront at the big marathons anymore?" A better question would be, "Why aren't the best of them there at all?"

The main reason they don't show up in any numbers at Boston, Chicago and New York City is money. The professional era in this country, which took hold here in the 1980s, hasn't been kind to Americans.

As amateurs, they would run anywhere they could afford to go. As pros, they don't often go where they won't be paid. Without another job, they must get paid for their running.

The biggest races buy the best talent, and it usually isn't American. U.S. runners unable to earn travel expenses and unlikely to win prize money look for other races to enter.

Take Boston as an example. Its invited field, recruited worldwide, isn't huge but it hogs the prize money. This scares off the lesser pros.

Boston, like other wealthy races, is fast at the front but has thinned at the top. Times right behind the leaders have slowed since the golden age.

The last year before Boston went into a steep but brief decline, and then turned pro, was 1983. That year 83 men broke 2:20, and the majority were American.

Only 12, from all countries, ran sub-2:20 in 2007 (just three of them from the U.S.). But those 12 drove away other pros with little chance to cash in.

Boston 1983 paid no appearance fees or prize money, and helped very little with anyone's expenses. The peak race for women, the 1984 Olympic Trials Marathon, paid some travel costs but nothing extra to its leaders.

Few runners back then had shoe contracts or ever earned anything for their running. Most of them invited themselves to Boston and the Trials. They got there on their own, with money earned by other means than their running.

Marathoners didn't have to or expect to finish "in the money" because there wasn't any. Their payoffs weren't monetary but were (as, ironically, a credit-card ad says) priceless.

I'm not calling for an end to money racing, which is with us to stay. I am saying there are some marathons worth running for free and even paying to get there. America's amateurs still know this, and the pros might profit from relearning it.
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