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

Tue, 1 May 2001 08:28:29 -0400

Getting Tough

RUNNING COMMENTARY 354

Racing doesn't get any tougher than this. In any year, any type of medal at the World Cross-Country Championships is the toughest in the sport to win.

That's because runners from many track events and all road distances meet here, where the split in recent years into long- and short-course races has done little to water down the talent pool. The Kenyans and Ethiopians run their best here, where the paths aren't smooth.

That path at the Worlds has rarely been rougher than this year's. It wound through Dublin (where the foot-and-mouth scare forced a late cancellation), to Brussels (which also opted out) and finally to the Belgian town of Ostend.

There the runners faced mud, high winds and near-freezing temperatures. Exactly what cross-country is meant to be, you might say, but not conditions where Americans thrive.

Cross-country at this level is an un-American sport. The Worlds are two seasons removed from the normal scheduling in the U.S., and even those fall meets offer little to runners not on school teams.

The best Americans avoid cross-country's European pro circuit. Apart from their World qualifying meet, they spend the winter on tracks and roads.

American runners have no reason to do well in this toughest of all meets. They could make all the excuses named above, and more.

One of them spoke for all when Matt Tegenkamp said, "I couldn't get into a rhythm, and my legs got really tired from running in the mud." This wasn't an excuse.

Tegenkamp finished fifth in the junior men's 8-K, and he wasn't even the top American. Dathan Ritzenhein placed third in this same race.

Lately the U.S. women have done much better at the Worlds than the men. The women's long-course (8-K) team won a bronze medal last year. Lynn Jennings was a three-time winner a decade ago.

This time the women did so-so. Deena Drossin matched her strong 12th-place finish of a year ago, but her long-course (8-K) team slipped to eighth.

For a change, the men excelled. They started by qualifying tough teams -- including all but one of the U.S. Olympians at 5000 and 10,000, plus a steepler from Sydney.

This group started by packing three runners into the top 20 (Brad Hauser 15th, Tim Broe 18th and Andy Downin 19th) on the 4-K course. The team placed fourth, or higher than any non-African country.

A different group ran the 12-K course the next day. The team's spiritual and actual leader was Bob Kennedy, now recovered from his Olympic-year injury and disappointment.

Kennedy finished 12th, with Meb Keflezighi one spot behind and Abdi Abdirahman in 15th. This team won its country's first medal in 15 years, a bronze.

The most exciting showing, though, came in the junior men's race because of what these results promise in years ahead. This was the first time the U.S. has put two men in the top five at in any World Cross-Country race.

Dathan Ritzenhein, a high school senior from Michigan, is the first U.S. men's medalist in any of the World events in 20 years. He and Matt Tegenkamp, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, led a team that placed fourth.

Ritzenhein said, "I had no idea what to expect because I had never been in a competition like this before. I thought I'd go out with the lead pack and if I died, I died. But I didn't."

He spoke what might be a new American attitude in meets like this. A runner needs to think like that to succeed where the racing is toughest.

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