Long and Strong
Distance runners young and old stole the show at the U.S. track and field nationals
Last Saturday afternoon, Alan Webb, 18 years old and nine days removed from his high school graduation, jogged through a thicket of fans outside Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., and headed to die 1,500-meter final at the U.S. track and field championships. Heads snapped around. Grown-ups and teenagers whispered, That's Alan Webb. Such was die tone of the weekend, as distance runners—young and old—snatched the spotlight from America's swaggering sprint corps. The reasons for the turnabout were both uplifting and disappointing.
The uplift started with the kids: Webb, whose high-school-record 3:53.43 mile at the Prefontaine Classic on May 27 turned him into one of the biggest names in the sport—and, perhaps unrealistically, the favorite in the 1,500 at nationals—finished fifth in the final. He never got close enough to threaten and said, while getting a consoling neck rub from his girlfriend, Clara Horowitz, "I don't know what happened." Most likely, what happened was that a nine-month season and a chaotic 28 days finally left him with an empty tank on a big stage. Yet even in finishing fifth, Webb energized his event "People want to watch him; it's that simple," said 1996 and 2000 U.S. 1,500-meter Olympian Jason Pyrah.
More quietly, Dathan Ritzenhein, who also graduated from high school last month, finished a solid 11th in the 5,000 meters in 13:44.70, missing Gerry Lindgren's 37-year-old schoolboy mark by .7 of a second. Coming a year after Stanford undergraduates Gabe Jennings and Michael Stember made the Olympic team in the 1,500, the performances of Webb and Ritzenhein give further reason to believe that U.S. distance runners are emerging from their long slumber.
The old guard roused itself as well. In front of Ritzenhein, Bob Kennedy, 30, who has 14 of the 15 fastest 5,000s in U.S. history but who nearly retired last year after a back injury scuttled his Olympic chances, won after a terrific battle with Adam Goucher. At the finish Kennedy, who ran 13:28.72, threw his arms into the air in celebration, an uncharacteristic outburst. "I'm closer to the end of my career than the beginning," Kennedy said. "This meant a lot."
In a cold drizzle on Sunday afternoon, Maria Runyan, 32, who barely a year ago was primarily a curiosity because of her legal blindness and her oddball conversion from heptathlete but who is now respected as a world-class runner, won the women's 5,000 in 15:08.03. Close behind her, 37-year-old Regina Jacobs took second, an hour after winning the 800 and a day after out-kicking Suzy Favor Hamilton, 32, in die 1,500. Jacobs completed the first women's 800-1,500 double since Kim Gallagher's in 1984.
Alas, the distance heroics couldn't hide the weakness of the sprints. Maurice Greene ran only one round of the 100 meters, a protest against USA Track & Field's rule that defending world champions, though already guaranteed a wild-card entry to the worlds (to be held in Edmonton from Aug. 3 to 12) by die international federation, must compete at nationals to earn a spot on the U.S. team. Greene's 9.90, die fastest time in the world this year, was scintillating, but only a small Thursday-afternoon crowd witnessed it. Marion Jones, with a wild card into the world championships 100 but not into the 200, won the latter on Sunday but sat out die 100.
Others who did show up ran slowly. Shawn Crawford won the men's 200 in 20.54, the second-slowest winning time since 1976, in a race that suffered from the absence of Greene and 2000 Olympic trials winner John Capel, who was drafted by die Chicago Bears and is preparing for NFL training camp. Antonio Pettigrew took the 400 in 45.08 to become the first U.S. champ since '84 to run slower than 45 seconds. The unimpressive times can be partially explained by the cool, damp weather and post-Olympic malaise, but they also underscore a lack of depth behind Greene and the retired Michael Johnson, who made a brief Sunday appearance on the Hayward infield, surely comfortable in the knowledge that he could have won his usual 200-400 double in street clothes and loafers.
Still, as the buzz around Webb all week made clear, things should be all right—at least in the long run.
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