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Distance Thunder
Tim Layden
July 20, 1998
In races of 3,000 meters or more, no record is safe from the otherworldly onslaught of Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie and Kenya's Daniel Komen
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July 20, 1998

Distance Thunder

In races of 3,000 meters or more, no record is safe from the otherworldly onslaught of Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie and Kenya's Daniel Komen

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Although their record binge may be dismissed as the product of some faceless African invasion, that is simplistic at best. Africans have been running international distance races—and setting records in them—since the '60s. Now three things have changed: economic opportunity, racing style and training philosophy. Komen's sport has no more in common with Kip Keino's than Barry Sanders's has with Paul Hornung's.

Keino and his peers ran for free. Henry Rono, the great Kenyan who set records across a wide range of distances in the late '70s and '80s, ran for peanuts. Komen's income last year approached $1.5 million, and he and Gebrselassie each can earn as much as $50,000 for appearing in one race. McDonald, a 41-year-old former British runner, was the first agent to mine the wealth of talent in Kenya, beginning in 1990, and he remains the most successful at it. "The pool was enormous, so it was a matter of motivating the running population," says McDonald, who regularly attends all-comers meets in Kenya in search of future stars. "The motivation is money and the opportunity to live a better life." Komen has bluntly said that he runs "for the money," and Kennedy, who is also represented by McDonald and trains for much of the year with Kenyans, likens the Kenyan running dream to that of the inner-city American youth who strives to win a basketball scholarship or play in the NBA. The competition to attain this dream is predictably fierce. "The Kenyan dropout rate is very high," says Baumann, who has spent five consecutive winters training in Kenya.

Races beyond a mile were once sit-and-kick chess games. Now they are sustained agony, with each man clinging to the racer in front of him. "It's just bam, ticking off fast quarters right from the start," says Mark Nenow, who holds the U.S. 10,000-meter record of 27:20.56, set in 1986 and now nearly a minute off Gebrselassie's world record. In establishing that mark, on June 1 in Hengelo, the Netherlands, Gebrselassie ran 24 consecutive laps between 61 and 65 seconds and then kicked, tearing home in 58.1 for the last 400.

Such brutal racing requires tougher preparation. Martin Keino has listened to his father's war stories. "The training is much more difficult now than it was 20 years ago," he says. Kenyans were once famous for running endless 400-meter intervals. In the days before winning the 5,000 at last year's world championships, Komen did the following session: 1,600 meters in 3:55, 1,200 meters in 2:54, 800 meters in 1:56 and 400 meters in 56 seconds, with a three-minute rest between each run. Says McDonald, "The old philosophy was that you trained in a comfort zone and counted on the adrenaline of the race to make you run faster. That doesn't work. You have to train as hard as you want to race, or harder."

Gebrselassie often runs 400s. Tons of them, and at a killing pace. In preparation for his 10,000 record, he would run at least 15 400s in 56 seconds each with a one-minute recovery in between.

As with most dramatic improvements in track and field, the drop in distance times has been viewed by some as the product of performance-enhancing drugs. The performance enhancer of the moment is said to be EPO (erythropoietin), a genetically engineered substance that stimulates the production of red blood cells and thus mimics blood doping by increasing the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Without mentioning EPO, former U.S. 10,000-meter record holder and three-time New York City marathon champion Alberto Salazar voices the skepticism of many observers. "I believe that there can always be that one great person, that Superman who can run 45 seconds faster than Henry Rono," says Salazar. "But all these people running so fast? That's incomprehensible to me."

EPO is a banned substance, but there is no reliable test for it. One popular theory is that once a test for EPO is developed, distance records will level off as athletes stop using it en masse. The model sport for this theory is the shot put, in which the top 21 throws in history were all made before 1991, when testing for that event's then drugs of choice (mainly anabolic steroids) became more effective.

But assuming Gebrselassie, Komen and the rest of the elite distance runners are in fact clean—and they say they are—expect them to go ever faster. Komen believes he can soon run 12:24 for 5,000 meters (just under 60 seconds for each of 12½ 400-meter laps), and Gebrselassie says of his latest 10,000 record, "It is not so fast. It was not so hard to run."

Somewhere a young boy is hearing of this and training for his own future. In Kenya. Or in Ethiopia. Or perhaps even in the United States. The message should be clear: Whatever you are doing, do more. However fast you are running, run faster.

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