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

Thu, 06 Dec 2012 06:00:07 -0500

Golden Agers

RUNNING COMMENTARY 966

(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This long one comes, in two parts, from the September 2005 issue.)

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, Steinbeckís little-known sequel to Cannery Row, he writes, ďLooking 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.Ē There were signs then of times changing, he says. ďBut you never notice such things until later.Ē

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 wasnít 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.

Thatís where I wandered into road races, which would lead to marathons and beyond. Thatís where I took a bottom-of-the-staff job at Track & Field News, which would lead to all the jobs Iíve ever held.

My careers, both running and writing, seemed to have peaked early. Before age 30 my important PRs all had become permanent. Iíd edited my biggest-circulation magazine and written the books that sold best.

At 30, Iíd gone three years since my last marathon and looked unlikely to start again. Iíd lost a job when Nike shut down its magazine called Running, my books werenít selling, my marriage was ending.

As Steinbeck says, you canít see a golden age coming. You canít know what you had until itís gone. My golden age was gone, apparently for good. I couldnít have known how high a peak Iíd climbed until I looked up at it from the valley on the other side.

Everyone who has lived long enough can recognize a personal golden age. This old sport had one too. It ended more than 20 years ago, at least for American marathoners as serious competitors en masse.

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

The golden age for Americaís 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 Samuelsonís 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 1980s. Running books that had flown off the shelves 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 isnít the end of everything. The sport has adapted and endured, and so have we.

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 Marathon, and Joan Benoit (now Samuelson) won at the Los Angeles Games, plus twice at the Boston Marathon and once at Chicago. Between 1975 and 1982, 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. Womenís talent, once centered in western Europe and North America, spread worldwide Ė especially to East Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia.

Big marathons in this country are much more international now than they were 20 years ago. Theyíre usually much faster at the front.

Even if Americans now ran as fast as they did before, they wouldnít win as often because the fields are so different. But we can compare the times from the two eras because miles and minutes havenít changed in length since the 1980s.

By 2005 only one man, Khalid Khannouchi, had run faster than Alberto Salazarís time from 1981. Only one woman, Deena Kastor, had bettered Joan Samuelsonís 20-year-old PR. Looking deeper, five of the top seven fastest-ever U.S. men ran their best times in 1983 or earlier. The second- and third-ranked women ran their fastest in 1983 and 1985.

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 todayís.

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 2004 races, and not just Boston, the total sub-2:10 count was three, and just 11 runners went under 2:15.

The womenís high-water mark came in 1984 at their first Olympic Trials. As many of them broke 2:35 there (10 runners) as ran that fast in all 2004 races combined, and far more broke 2:40 in those Trials than for all of 2004 (31 versus 18).

What happened? Yes, the outside competition got tougher, but Americans donít have to beat the world to run fast times. Why canít they even outrun their countrymen and women from a generation past? Iíll explore some reasons in RC 967.

UPDATE: Khalid Khannouchi remains the U.S. marathon record-holder. Since this column first ran, only Ryan Hall and Dathan Ritzenhein have moved ahead of Alberto Salazarís 1981 time. No one except Deena Kastor has exceeded Joan Samuelsonís 1985 time.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Lulu.com. Just released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joeís Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehartís book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
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