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Olympic Sports
Tim Layden
June 07, 1999
Stretching Out U.S. 5,000-meter king Bob Kennedy is eyeing longer distances
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June 07, 1999

Olympic Sports

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Pre-Fab
Twenty-Four years after his death in a car crash, Steve Prefontaine (right), the legendary Oregon distance runner after whom the Prefontaine Classic was named, remains a hero to many American distance runners—and for good reason. Were he running today, he would be beating most of them. Here's a look at Pre's best times (all but the 1,500 and the mile were U.S. records) and how they would have ranked him among American runners in 1998.

DISTANCE

PRE'S BEST TIME

1998 U.S. RANKING

1,500 meters

3:38.1, 1973

6th

Mile

3:54.6, 1973

4th

2,000 meters

5:01.4, 1975

2nd

3,000 meters

7:42.6, 1974

2nd

2 miles

8:18.4, 1974

1st

5,000 meters

13:21.87, 1974

2nd

10,000 meters

27:43.6, 1974

1st

Stretching Out
U.S. 5,000-meter king Bob Kennedy is eyeing longer distances

Bob Kennedy has never been sentimental. As he developed through the 1990s from an NCAA champion miler at Indiana into the only U.S. distance runner to keep pace with the seminal strides in training and performance made by African runners, he was relentlessly pragmatic. If you want to beat Kenyans, he explained many times, you have to train like a Kenyan, and preferably with Kenyans. That is what he did, and he gently chastised U.S. runners who didn't.

His performances have spoken far more forcefully than his words. His personal best of 12:58.21 in the 5,000 meters, set in 1996, is almost two seconds faster than that of the previous record holder, naturalized American citizen Sydney Maree, who ran his 13:01.15 in 1985. (The next-fastest runner on the American list, Alberto Salazar, is another 10 seconds back) Kennedy has run 15 of the 20 fastest U.S. 5,000s and 12 of the 16 fastest 3,000s. More to the point, he is the only American to have consistently competed with the Africans and the only one to have gained their respect.

At Sunday's silver anniversary Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., Kennedy, 28, made a small, emotional statement that underscores not only what he has done but also what lies ahead: He finished third in the 5,000 behind Luke Kipkosgei of Kenya and Pablo Olmedo of Mexico in a solid early-season time of 13:18.83—while wearing an old Athletics West club singlet borrowed from Salazar. Salazar wore the jersey in many Hayward Field races and in two of his three New York City Marathon victories in the early 1980s. "It was a little piece of nostalgia, in keeping with the spirit of the 25th Pre," Kennedy said after his race. "I hope the crowd appreciated it."

There was deeper meaning in the shirt as well: Kennedy has begun his withdrawal from the 5,000, the event he revolutionized for Americans. Last month in the Cardinal Invitational at Stanford he ran his first serious 10,000-meter race, winning in a very comfortable 27:38.37, the 10th-fastest time ever by a U.S. runner. "I owe it to myself to explore the 10,000 and even the marathon," says Kennedy. "I need to find out how good I can be in those races. With my training and my performances at 5,000,1 think I can be pretty good." There is little doubt that at his leisure Kennedy can break Mark Nenow's 13-year-old U.S. 10K record of 27:20.56 or that he will soon become to the 10,000 what he has long been to the 5,000: the standard by which all other American runners are measured.

It won't happen all at once. Kennedy will run the 5,000 at the U.S. nationals in Eugene in late June and, provided he qualifies, at the world championships in Seville in August. "I still believe I can run 12:50," he says. (The world record is 12:39.36, run by Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia.) Kennedy's plans for the Olympics are unsettled; he might run the 10,000 in Sydney, and a marathon could come within the next three years.

As superb as Kennedy's performances have been, his legacy may be in educating a generation of U.S. distance runners about the training necessary to compete with the rest of the world. Less than a second behind him in the Prefontaine 5,000 was 24-year-old Arkansas graduate Ryan Wilson, who sheared nine seconds off his personal best with a time of 13:19.60. Like Kennedy, Wilson trains with Kenyans. Like Kennedy, he trains harder than most U.S. runners trained through the late '80s and early '90s.

Of course the Americans who run the 5,000 will be more than happy to see Kennedy leave. "I run the five, so I think Bob's moving up is a brilliant idea," says Wilson. "I hope he loves it up there."

New Track Series
Jumping into The Race

In its desperation to retain an audience in the saturated sports marketplace, track and field has begun to explore new concepts. First there was the ill-fated Donovan Bailey-Michael Johnson match race in 1997. Then came this year's USA Track and Field indoor and outdoor Golden Spike series, which has shown signs of success (television ratings have been respectable) and failure (the May 22 meet in Edwardsville, Ill., drew a crowd of less than 500).

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