At a press gathering three days before Sunday's New York City Marathon, Deena Drossin, who had never competed in a marathon, announced her plans to finish the race in 2:24:12. That meant that Drossin, a 5'4", 105-pound runner from Alamosa, Colo., expected to beat the nine-year-old course record of 2:24:40 set by Australia's Lisa Ondieki and shatter the U.S. women's New York mark by more than 3� minutes. No one laughed.
Drossin, 28, a two-time U.S. champion at 10,000 meters, has the sort of determination that keeps her rivals glancing back. At the 2000 World Cross Country Championships, Drossin swallowed a bee, was stung, passed out, got up and finished 12th in a field of 100. Her proclamation had marathon organizers reminiscing about Alberto Salazar's saying, before his marathon debut in the 1980 New York race, that he would finish in 2:10. He won in a course-record 2:09:41, and a star was born.
"Deena has Salazar's confidence, and it's great to see," New York Road Runners Club president Allan Steinfeld said last Saturday. "This race is the most important event in marathoning, and if we're going to take this thing to the next level, we need someone like Deena to capture people's imagination."
"This thing" is the push that the U.S. is making to pull marathoning in America from its nearly two-decade malaise. Despite her prediction, Drossin finished seventh in New York in 2:26:58, 2:37 behind the winner, Kenya's Margaret Okayo. (The top U.S. men's finisher, Scott Larson, came in 13th at 2:15:26, nearly eight minutes behind winner Tesfaye Jifar of Ethiopia.) "I'm ecstatic," said Drossin. "I didn't run 2:24, but to debut with the course record for a U.S. woman—I couldn't ask for anything more."
Drossin was also happy to have earned $61,000 and to have won the U.S. championship. Usually, USA Track & Field designates a lower-profile marathon for its annual championships, but this year it chose New York (the first time for the men and the first since 1978 for the women), hoping to lure Americans to the big stage. New York's big cash prizes, high profile and punishing course attract many of the best international runners. Their presence, in turn, usually causes the top U.S. marathoners to stay away, because they have little chance to earn money against the leading foreigners, who years ago left Americans far behind.
The well-chronicled U.S. decline may have reached rock bottom last year. The U.S. Olympic trials were held for the women in February 2000 and for the men 10 weeks later, and when the trials were over, no runner had met the Olympic qualifying standard. That meant that the U.S. got to send only one marathoner of each gender to the Sydney Olympics, the same token entry that the IOC affords countries such as Angola and Liechtenstein. Says Steinfeld, "We were appalled."
The failure inspired Running USA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving running, to establish a training program for distance runners, which began in July 2000. Drossin participated in that program, as did Milena Glusac, who was second among U.S. women on Sunday. Moreover, in the wake of the disappointing 2000 trials, Fila set up another camp and brought in Gabriele Rosa, the famous Italian trainer, to introduce U.S. runners to his notoriously brutal training program that has been so successful for Kenyan marathoners.
"It's impossible that a country as large and with as many resources as the United States does not produce champion marathoners," says Rosa. "We think we can change that."
While those training programs were getting under way, Road Runners organized New York's bid for this year's U.S. championship and attracted top-flight American runners the usual way: The club jacked up cash prizes for the race to $514,000, almost double last year's purse. It also altered the course to eliminate a short but steep incline at the 23-mile mark.
The result in New York for both American men and women will not lead anyone to abandon the long road to recovery. "Are we going to produce an Olympic medalist in 2004?" asks Basil Honikman, executive director of Running USA. "Not likely. Might we produce one in 2008? That's our goal."