American marathoners bring home Olympic hardware for a change
Posted: Tuesday August 31, 2004 2:19PM; Updated: Tuesday August 31, 2004 2:19PM
Let's flash back to lunch last month in a Chinese restaurant, just up the street from the CNN Center in Atlanta. I was sitting with a good friend, Dave Martin, Georgia State physiology professor and maybe the sharpest mind anywhere when it comes to the subject of distance running. The conversation turned to the Olympic marathon and Dr. Dave, as he's known in running circles, bluntly predicted great things for the Americans.
"It really looks like there should be no excuse for not having a medal," Martin offered.
I'm thinking the guy had lost it or downed a few cold ones before I arrived. Or maybe as USA Track and Field's marathon development chairman, he'd been blinded by his allegiance to the program -- which isn't like the always rational Dr. Dave.
I still couldn't buy his hell-bent enthusiasm until Deena Kastor started picking off runners who were wilting in the Athens heat en route to a bronze medal in the women's marathon. As improbable as that was, Martin had me thinking he was either a genius or the luckiest guy alive when American Meb Keflezighi ran to silver and Alan Culpepper came home 12th as the Games closed Sunday with the men's marathon.
Having tuned into Boston, New York and every other important marathon, I'd seen Americans fail miserably trying to match strides with the African distance runners. Nothing figured to change after Khalid Khannouchi, one of the world's elite marathoners who gained citizenship in recent years, came down with an injury that kept him out of the U.S. trials.
And yet Kastor and Keflezighi gave the U.S. its first pair of Olympic marathon medals ever after their ridiculously grueling runs from Marathon to Athens. The last American marathon medal was won by Joan Benoit Samuelson at the 1984 Olympics. Before that, Frank Shorter won gold in 1972 and silver four years later in Montreal.
So you would hope what transpired in Athens proves to be an incredible boost to distance running in this country. It's a clear sign of a competitive resurgence. And perhaps more importantly, with Olympic officials moving to fund sports based on ability to produce medals, it'll keep the money flowing awhile longer.
After the embarrassment of qualifying just a single American male and female marathoner for the Sydney Games, Martin spearheaded the effort to bring an academic approach to the Athens preparations. In May, he secured an $8,000 grant from USATF to conduct a two-and-a-half day seminar for the six marathoners who had qualified for Athens and their spouses in Chula Vista, Calif.
Experts were brought in to lecture about coping with Athens air pollution, heat and humidity, hydration and nutrition, as well as handling the rolling hills. Runners were given a virtual tour of the course. They were told that housing had been secured for their spouses during the Games.
Martin's orders were quite simple -- win something.
"I was told to be focused on putting athletes on the podium, because the USOC is going to pay us money for medals," says Martin, co-author of The Olympic Marathon: The History and Drama of Sport's Most Challenging Event. "So you better produce. Don't just have fuzzy clinics where everybody sits around and says, 'Gee, isn't it neat to have a clinic.'"
That wouldn't be his style, anyway. Martin can't sit still for too long and isn't into mindless small talk. Having covered the sport for more than 10 years, I can't recall a marathon or major meet that he hasn't worked, and I've often seen him lugging around equipment to gauge the climatic conditions and the accompanying stress on athletes.
It was his expertise on climate and hydration that helped set the preparation and strategy for Athens, which was take it slow and not push the early pace. If anything, he saw the hellish conditions as a great equalizer, tipping the scales in favor of the smart but not-so-swift athletes.
And when Culpepper groused about the stiff competition Americans faced, with 190 Kenyans having clocked times of 2:20 or faster, Martin captured the positive, telling him in his mischievous fashion: "Look, we have that problem solved, because there are only three of them in the Olympics. We got 187 of them out of the way for you."
Watching the Games, you couldn't help but marvel at the sacrifice put in by the marathoners, some of whom logged as many as 160 miles a week, running twice and sometimes three times a day. But when you know them personally, you also feel good for the coaches and support staff that put their reputations on the line. In this case, people like team coaches Julia Emmons and Bob Larsen, as well as Georgia State professor Dan Benardot, who with Martin oversees the Laboratory for Elite Athlete Performance at Georgia State and developed the Athens hydration strategies.
The day before leaving for Athens, Martin told me: "I really think we have never prepared our runners as well as we have this year. If they all DNF, so much for preparation. We will have proven that preparation ain't worth a crap."
To the contrary, like the athletes' themselves, the Athens preparation shouldn't be underestimated.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.