Down to a science
Medals rare for U.S. marathoners, steamy Athens could be different
Posted: Friday May 14, 2004 3:22PM; Updated: Tuesday May 18, 2004 10:11AM
Try as we might, it's at first hard to fathom an American marathoner leaving Athens with a medal this summer. Olympic glory in the sprints and a smattering of field events, especially the big boys in the shot put, perhaps. But Uncle Sam's distance runners just aren't up to world standards.
So why even suggest it might be different come August? Well, the answer may be found in what scientists describe as climatic heat stress. This is a nasty bagful of stuff cooked up by an Athens summer, like steaming temperatures, humidity, glaring sunshine and thickly polluted air.
Think Southern California in August, with the mercury touching the mid-80s when the race starts in the late afternoon. Then, imagine a 26.2-mile trek into the heart of Los Angeles over a course with steeper hills than runners climb at the Boston Marathon.
We're talking about great equalizers bound to slow the pace. And no country has sunk more sharp minds, money and science into calculating the fastest way to get its runners from the sleepy village of Marathon into bustling Athens. Some of this insight was shared during a marathon team summit last weekend in Chula Vista, Calif.
"The Athens marathon is different because it is not just how fast you can run,'' said Dr. David Martin, one of the country's leading sports physiologists and author of The Olympic Marathon. "It is how well you can manage the environment. And to my knowledge there is not a country in the world that is doing what we're doing in terms of preparing its athletes. We're essentially running a national training camp. Bringing in the best minds in the country, in terms of humidity, hills, altitude, nutrition, energy, pace -- all together in one place, having spent hundreds of hours working together as a team in how to cope with the environment and conditions.
"We've seen the course. We've done our homework. The athletes also have done their homework. For both men and women, the three major players who ought to be on the team are on the team. It is not a fluke. And it is athletes who want to run the marathon. It's not athletes who are saying, 'Well, I'll go if I don't make the 10,000 meters at the Olympic Trials.' These people are focused on the marathon.''
But what they've qualified for sounds like pure hell -- a tough course and brutal conditions. So taxing that at the last international race over the Athens course, the 1997 World Championships, not a single runner among the top 30 finishers in either the men's or women's field clocked a personal-best, and the dropout rate was nearly 33 percent.
But if you're going to be geeked for a marathon, this is the one. The long-distance footrace debuted at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Fast forward to this summer, and runners will again pound the historic route in what figures to be a showpiece event of the Athens Games.
Can you think of a more historic sports setting?
The marathon course is likened to Boston, which, to no one's surprise, was conceived by athletes returning from the 1896 Athens Olympics. Only the original is an even tougher, net uphill trek. Athens brings a series of rolling hills, much like Boston, with the equivalent of a five-story climb every mile from the 16.2 to 19.8 mile mark, followed by a long, steady, downhill run to the finish that has the potential to tear up the quads.
"They said it's a fairly polluted place, but I think the temperature is going to be more of the issue than the air quality,'' said Alan Culpepper, who captured the marathon trials in 28 degree weather last February in Birmingham, Ala. "If it were a race where we were going to set the world record, then obviously that would be a factor. But under conditions that are going to exist [a record] will be the last of everyone's concerns.''
For Americans, the goal is simply to have someone on the medal stand. Frank Shorter won the last men's medal at the 1976 Montreal Games, while Joan Benoit Samuelson ran to gold in the inaugural women's race 20 years ago in Los Angeles.
The Greeks want only for the races to come off without a hitch -- the women run Sunday, August 22, with the men a week later in what will be the closing event of the Games. Until then, there'll be no off-days as workers go about widening from two to four lanes the route Pheidippides covered 2,500 years ago to bring Athens news of great victory against the Persian Army.
Dr. Martin drove the course for six hours in late October and left Athens confident that the highway project would be completed by the Games. The IOC inspectors declared plans for the Athens Games on schedule this week, and the roadwork is likely to be finished by mid-June. What ought be remembered is construction in the main Atlanta stadium delayed official marking of the 1996 marathon course until a month before the Games.
"It is the marathon -- it must be ready,'' Martin said matter-of-factly.
And the same might be said of the American charges, if they can master the elements.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.