The force that through the green fuse drives the flower Drives my green age.... The force that drives the water through the rocks Drives my red blood.
With two miles to go in the women's Olympic marathon, if Francie Larrieu Smith has run strongly, she may get the chills. Physically, this will mean she has sweat away almost all her body's available fluids. Flirting with heat exhaustion, oddly, one can feel cold. Emotionally, however, she may be shivering because, by hanging on, she will be moving up. Some of the leaders will be faltering, having misjudged the course, the pace, the conditions or themselves.
Those last two miles wind ever uphill. As she runs, Larrieu Smith will feel torn, fought over. Her mounting fatigue will scream the one thing it always does, and her eyes—"You're catching them. They're human up there"—will suggest the opposite. In these final miles, she may feel that the race is forcing her to pit her ambition against her distress, her dream against her pain.
If so, she will be well positioned. No runner alive can bring greater steadfastness of dream to the race than Larrieu Smith. This is not simply because she is now 39 and still running 23 seasons after setting her first American record on the track or because she has made the U.S. Olympic team for the fifth time. No, it is because the force that drives her red blood drives it more powerfully than ever.
In April 1991 she ran 10,000 meters at the Texas Relays in 31:28.92, breaking Mary Decker Slaney's American record of 31:35.3, which had stood for nine years. Then Larrieu Smith placed second to Portugal's Rosa Mota in the 1991 London Marathon with 2:27:35, a good time considering that she and Mota were fighting a head wind for the last 13 miles. "She can do two and a half minutes faster," says Larrieu Smith's coach, Robert Vaughan. That puts her under Joan Benoit Samuelson's Olympic record of 2:24:52.
There is no precedent for what Larrieu Smith has done. In January she earned her spot on the Olympic team when she finished third (2:30:39) in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston. "I'm really the first woman I know of who's going to hit the over-40 masters' circuit who came up as an age-grouper and never quit," she says. To see her run is to demand, How the hell can this be? What has allowed Larrieu Smith alone to surmount the injury, defeat, distraction and boredom of three athletic lifetimes?
She started with good raw material. When Larrieu Smith was 11, one of her older brothers, Ron Larrieu, placed 24th in the 1964 Olympic 10,000, won by a fellow American, Billy Mills. Two years later, Larrieu Smith gave herself to the straightforward dream of going to the Olympics and winning a medal. That dream remains unfulfilled. She has made four other Olympic teams, but her best finish was fifth in the Seoul 10,000.
When she was a shy and willowy 16, Larrieu Smith tièd an American 1,500-meter record of 4:16.8 and so spent the summer of 1969 representing her country in meets in Europe and Japan. Loving ferocious running but sensitive to her culture's ambivalence toward it when it involves women, Larrieu Smith had a choice to make. "That summer matured me," she says, recalling the postcompetition efforts of certain amorous weight men to render her tipsily pliant. "I escaped those guys, but they showed me I was attractive, and when I went back to high school, that freed me to not care about rah-rah social popularity. I had more fun that year, not trying to fit in but just being myself."
For the next 10 years Larrieu Smith was the U.S.'s dominant female miler. A funny, practical vagabond, made happy with a good breakfast and a resilient track, she set 11 world indoor records and 36 American records, indoor and out, at 1,500, the mile, 3,000 and two miles. "At the Garden they used to time me at 1,500 and then 120 yards later at the mile, so I'd get two world records a meet," she says. "I have no idea how many times I did that." Although she was eliminated in the semis of the 1,500 in Munich and Montreal, in all other races between 1972 and '76, she never lost to another American.
Traveling with the ready-for-anything Pacific Coast Club of Dwight Stones, Steve Smith, Kate Schmidt, Al Feuerbach, Jim Bolding and Debbie Brill, Larrieu Smith spent the '70s nodding off in hundreds of taxis and trains, coming gloriously awake in hundreds of stadiums, outkicking hundreds of hometown favorites, cooling down while carrying hundreds of bouquets. She cannot now glance at a European skyline without being mildly stricken with the nights she owned Stockholm or Zurich, Berlin or Budapest.