Posted: Friday October 7, 2005 12:11PM; Updated: Friday October 7, 2005 6:38PM
On a humid night in Raleigh, N.C., Jennings ran 4:02.81 in a race that was twice restarted after runners fell on the first turn. It was a terrific performance but still not a sub-four. In the oppressive twilight that followed, Jennings was a whirl of energy. "We can do this!'' he shouted at his peers.
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Even then, Jennings was a delightfully odd duck. He could rave on about yoga and diets, and when he ran, it was in a fast shuffle that looked like a marathoner's, only much faster. He went to Stanford and helped coach Vin Lananna's Cardinal win NCAA titles. At the 2000 Olympic trials, Jennings made a crazy, bold move with 600 meters to go in the 1,500-meter final and, wouldn't you know? He held on and won the race. Afterward he entertained writers with a re-creation of the beat he heard pounding in his mind as he ran the race, befitting his musician's spirit. Gabe was eccentric. Gabe was cool.
A year later Jennings crashed out of the opening round of the 1,500 meters at the World Championships in Edmonton, and then, in the mixed zone after the race, told writers that he could beat the best in the world, bragging far out of proportion to his resume.
"I'm on the same plane as these guys,'' he said. "I see fear in their eyes. I own Hicham El Guerrouj. In two years I'll be whipping all their butts.''
It was funny listening to him, but a little uncomfortable too. We printed his quotes and reminded our readers that El Guerrouj was the world record holder and probably the great miler in history. (Three years after Edmonton, Hicham won both the 1,500 and 5,000 meters in Athens). Was Gabe Ali or was Gabe delusional?
In the short term he was the latter. After Stanford, he took a bike journey to South America and suffered beatings and robberies that he detailed in journals he kept. He became a curiosity in the running world, not an athlete. Last year he went to Kenya and began training hard again. He felt himself getting fit.
"I went to these meets where they had five heats of the 1,500 meters with 30 people in each heat and I'm the only white guy in the whole stadium,'' said Jennings, beaming. "I could hang with any of them for three laps and then it was over. But I figured I'd come back home and blow everybody away at the trials.''
He didn't. Back home at the Cardinal Invitational in Palo Alto last May, Jennings won an unseeded section of the 1,500 meters in a slow 3:43.83. More than 40 American men ran faster in '05. "I was wrong,'' says Jennings. "I wasn't ready. Three-forty-three. What can I say?''
In September Jennings went to Mammoth, where he and Dobson share a Spartan condo subsidized by USA Running. One day last wee they ran together through a series of scorching intervals.
"Felt good,'' said Jennings. Larsen, listening to Jennings talk, marveled at his talent, his ability to get in shape fast.
"But he's got to put in the hours and the miles,'' Larsen said.
It's important to say that Gabe Jennings could be terrific for U.S. middle-distance running. Not because he sees the world sideways (although that's not a bad thing), but because he has -- and has always had -- the talent to help do what Webb is presently doing alone: compete against the best in the world.
A couple years ago I talked at length with about Jennings with Lananna, who now has taken over the storied -- and faded -- Oregon track program. He knows Jennings far better than Larsen, but his words were similar. "He just needs to do the work, physically,'' said Lananna.
Now Jennings is standing by the side of a cold, mountain stream, barefoot and smiling. He will be 27 in January. The young boy who ran that hot night in North Carolina, the wise kid who said the wrong thing in Edmonton -- they're buried somewhere inside his soul. But the runner who loves his sport, he's still there. He doesn't have a shoe contract or a job. He seems to have the passion to try again, and he is not yet too old.
"This is perfect here,'' he said, surveying the mountains, the sky. "This is just running.''
He is lifting weights, doing his core work, mixing distance with threshold training. He is thinking long-term, but working day by day.
It's tricky at this point to bet on Gabe Jennings. There is a history betting big against him. But you see the face, you look in the eyes and you remember the promise from almost a decade ago. That promise is still worth fulfilling.