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

Sat, 22 Sep 2007 05:51:33 -0400

Golden Agers

RUNNING COMMENTARY 694

(rerun from September 2005 Marathon & Beyond, with statistics updated)

John Steinbeck was the first novelist I ever read without a school assignment hanging over me. He remains my favorite.

Great novelists speak truths to the reader through their fiction. In Sweet Thursday, Steinbeck's little-known sequel to Cannery Row, he writes, "Looking back, you can usually find the moment of the birth of a new era, whereas when it happened it was one day hooked on the tail of another."

There were signs then of times changing, he says. "But you never notice such things until later."

My introduction to Steinbeck came in spring 1963. That same summer I traveled from Iowa to California, to the land that Steinbeck had once walked.

My purpose wasn't to follow his paths but to polish my track-racing skills. Northern California was one of the few places you could do that in summertime, the off-season back then.

Life had other plans for me. One was the unplanned discovery of road races, which would lead to marathons and beyond. The other surprise was a bottom-of-the-staff job at Track & Field News, which would lead to all the jobs I've ever held.

The first issue of Track & Field News that I worked on told of Buddy Edelen setting a world marathon record. This began the golden years that lasted through the Frank Shorter/Bill Rodgers years, then ended with Alberto Salazar's in the early 1980s.

The golden age for U.S. women started later and lasted a little longer. I date it from their first official Boston in 1972, won by Nina Kuscsik, through Joan Benoit Samuelson's Olympic title and American record of 1984-85.

Competitive U.S. marathoning, for men and women, tailed off in the mid-1980s. The sport as a whole fell into a funk at about the same time.

Half of the marathons founded in the running-boom years of the 1970s disappeared from the schedule in the '80s. Running books that had flown off the shelves before now languished unbought. Running stores folded by the dozen.

We runners who lived through those golden years could now see them as such, from the low side that followed the high. We also can see now that the end of a golden age isn't the end of everything. The sport has adapted and endured.


GOLD STANDARDS

Long gone, maybe forever, are the days when American marathoners could win almost everything. Oh, those were the days! They look better now than they did at the time because of what has not happened since the 1980s.

Frank Shorter won the Munich Olympic, and Joan Benoit (now Samuelson) won at the Los Angeles Games, plus twice at the Boston Marathon and once at Chicago. Between 1975 and '82, Bill Rodgers won Boston and New York City four times each, and Alberto Salazar won three New Yorks plus a Boston.

Then almost all of this winning stopped. At that most American of marathons, Boston, the last U.S. winner was Lisa Weidenbach (now Rainsberger), in 1985. The last man to win there was Greg Meyer, in 1983.

The world grew much tougher. Kenyan men, a minor marathon force in the 1980s, rose to power. Their African neighbors, the Ethiopians, responded by adding strength in numbers of their own. Women's talent, once centered in western Europe and North America, spread worldwide -- especially to East Africa, Eastern Europe and the Far East.

Big marathons in this country are much more international now than they were 20 year ago. They're usually much faster at the front.

Even if Americans ran as fast as they did before, they wouldn't win as often because the fields are so different. But we can compare the times from the two eras because miles and minutes haven't changed in length since the 1980s.

Only one man, Khalid Khannouchi, has run faster than Alberto Salazar's time from 1981. Only one woman, Deena 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 day. In all 2006 races, and not just Boston, the sub-2:10 count was again three, but just 13 runners went under 2:15.

The women's high-water mark came in 1984 at their first Olympic Trials. More of them broke 2:35 there (10 runners) than ran that fast in all 2006 races combined (nine women), and far more broke 2:40 in those Trials than for all of last year (31 versus 16).

What happened? Yes, the outside competition got tougher, but Americans don't have to beat the world to run fast times.

Why do they seldom even outrun their countrymen and -women from a generation past? I'll offer some guesses in RC 695.

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