"The talents come from the rural areas where people are very poor," says Lange. "The girls live in a boarding school. They train in the morning, eat breakfast, go to classes, take a nap after lunch, train again from 3:30 to 6 p.m., eat dinner, do homework and go to bed. They go home once a year for the spring festival. If one child has problems and drops out, there are 20, 30 waiting to take her place."
The sheer youth of these devoted bodies apparently allows them to adapt in ways that more mature physiologies cannot. "Only this makes the training volume possible," says Lange. "They reach a high level at an early age."
And they get used to severe speed and stamina conditioning. "The bird does not fly well when one wing is lame," says Lange. "What the runners are doing is keeping both wings strong by training underdistance and overdistance, in addition to their competition distance."
Ma also shifts runners between altitude and sea level as many as six times a year, sending them to heights of 10,000 feet. Nor does Lange discount traditional Chinese medicine. "With acupuncture you can very precisely eliminate the spreading of pain," he says, "and they surely can put herbs and ginseng to good use."
Lange's observations are supported by David Martin, a professor of physiology who is sports medicine director of USA Track & Field. "In Stuttgart [site of the World Championships], I watched them carefully," he says. "These women look fit and healthy and well fed. They are not excessively lean. They smile. In China the professional opportunities aren't there for women. If you're a poor peasant girl selected to train for the glory of your province and country, given the best diet, coaching and medical care, you train and train as hard as you are told to train in high, clean air. And if you don't break down, you compete in the national championships in the greatest stadium in the greatest city in China, where all the people are cheering you just as your coach told you would happen, and it is a glorious feeling, and at that moment there is really no limit to your possibilities."
If Lange and Martin are right, women's distance running may have been forced into a new age, one in which preadolescent she-children train all day, as they have done for years in gymnastics and swimming, and in which if you don't start early, you never catch up. If that is the future, the Chinese breakthrough requires the rest of the world to face the probability that, regardless of the melancholy prospect that a generation of runners has been made obsolete overnight, these incredible performances are legitimate.