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

Sun, 8 May 2005 08:14:17 -0400

When Times Were Better

RUNNING COMMENTARY 570

America's top marathoners -- Deena Kastor, Meb Keflezighi, Alan Culpepper and several others -- have run wonderfully the past two years. But as a group today's runners still have some catching up to do with those of the early 1980s, our greatest generation.

Only one man, Khalid Khannouchi, has run faster than Alberto Salazar's time from 1981. Only one woman, Kastor, has bettered Joan Samuelson's 20-year-old PR.

Looking deeper, five of the top seven fastest-ever U.S. men ran their best times at least 22 years ago. The second- and third-ranked women ran their fastest in 1983 and '85.

American marathoners peaked in depth of times at two races: for men the 1983 Boston, for women the 1984 Olympic Trials. Compare those runners with today's.

At Boston 1983, U.S. men Greg Meyer, Ron Tabb and Benji Durden all broke 2:10 (while placing 1-2-3). Twenty-one Americans ran under 2:15 that one day. In ALL races during 2004 the sub-2:10 count was again three, but just 11 runners went under 2:15.

The women's high-water mark came in 1984 at their first Olympic Trials. Far more runners broke 2:40 in that race than did so all of last year (31 versus 18).

What happened? Yes, the outside competition got tougher, but Americans don't have to beat the world to run fast times. Why can't they even outrun their countrymen and -women from a generation past?

One reason (among several that I name in an upcoming Marathon & Beyond column) is money. The professional era, 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, often at other distances than the marathon.

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 are slower now than they were before the race went pro in 1986.

The best in-depth year for Boston's men predated the professionalism. That was 1983, when 83 runners broke 2:20. The majority were American.

Only 16, from all countries, ran sub-2:20 this year (just three of them from the U.S.). But those 16 drove away other pros with little chance to cash in.

The women's counts are skewed by the fact that the marathon was still a developing event for them in 1983, not yet run in the Olympics. Still, eight of the nine women who broke 2:40 at Boston that year were Americans. This year's 10 sub-2:40s included no one from this country.

Boston 1983 paid no appearance fees or prize money, and helped very little with anyone's expenses. Few runners had shoe contracts or ever earned anything for their running. Most of them invited themselves to Boston and got there on their own, with money earned by other means than running.

These 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.

This isn't a call to end big-money racing, which is with us to stay. It's simply a reminder that some marathons are 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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