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The Vanishing American Elite Runners

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5/12/00

In the 1970-80's, American runners were at the forefront of international marathon competition. Several Americans set world records. However, during the 90's, runners from other countries, particularly Africans, have surpassed Americans in international distance running competition.  But, it isn't just a matter of the rest of the world advancing to become more competitive and catching up to the Americans.  US distance running has been slipping in absolute terms.

In the history of marathoning, a total of fifteen sub-2:10 marathons have been run by ten American men.  Only three were run in the 1990's....2:08:47 by Bob Kampanien in 1994, 2:09:35 by Jerry Lawson in 1997, and 2:09:32 by David Morris in 1999.  And Morris trained for 3 years in Japan with Japanese coaches before running his!  The other 12 sub-2:10 races were run by seven different men between 1979 and 1989 with most coming in 1981-83.

An even broader look.....the fastest 50 American marathoners in history have run a total of 57 marathons in times ranging from 2:08:47 to 2:11:53.  Only 8 of these races occurred in the 1990's with all of the others between 1970-89....and 8 of those occurred before 1979.  Thus, 41 of them or 72% were run by 37 different runners (74%) during the 1979-89 "golden decade" of American marathoning.  After that, things went to hell in a handbasket.

Contrast that with the rest of the world.  The 50 fastest marathoners in the world have run a total of 52 marathons ranging in time from 2:05:42 to 2:08:07.  None were Americans!!  (That's not counting KK, the WR holder, as an American since he just became a citizen a few weeks ago and ran his marathon as a Moroccan.)  The slowest of the 50 was 40 seconds faster than the fastest American marathoner in history.  Of the 52 performances, 41 or 79% occurred in the 1990's with 36 or 69% of them coming in the last 5 years.

The picture isn't quite as dramatic, among American women.  That is to be expected because women marathoning didn't really take off until the late 70's.  But, the data still shows a similar trend in the 90's.  25 of the fastest 60 marathons by women occurred in the 90's.  And, several of those were run in 1990/91 by runners who carried over from the 80's, i.e., Joan Benoit-Samuelson, Francie Larrieu Smith and Lisa Weidenbach.  All of the other 35 performances (58%) took place in the 80's.  On the international scene, only 9 of the 61 world's fastest marathons by women (15%) occurred before 1990.

Bottom line.....throughout the 90's American elites as a group have slowed.  While the rest of the world, especially African, Japanese and Hispanic, is surging ahead, we are backpedaling.

OTOH, in the Masters ranks American elites continue to hold their own relative to international competition.  6 of the 10 fastest marathons by American masters men took place in the '90s vs. 5 of the 10 fastest world's masters marathons.  For the women, 7 of both the 10 fastest American and world masters marathon performances were in the '90s.  The masters who produced these results were open runners during the 70-80's.  Will we see the masters picture change in the next decade as current open runners reach those ranks?  I suspect that we will as today's running demographics carry forward.  That might be a discussion for May, 2010. :-)

I agree there are several factors in the emergence of underdeveloped nations on the running scene in the 90's.  I've discussed them here before.  Genetics might be a factor.  School's still out on that very controversial subject.  Certainly, there are cultural factors that have influenced the rise from Africa.  However, more than half (27) of these 50 world's fastest marathoners aren't from Africa....many not from underdeveloped nations.  They include runners from Japan, Korea, Spain, Australia, Portugal, Belgium, France, Mexico, Italy and South Africa.  (I counted South Africa as non-African because they were always there running well but weren't permitted to compete internationally until recent years.  Take out the South Africans and, still, 23 or 46% of the 50 fastest guys are non-Africans.)  Most of the countries that compete seriously on the marathon scene are represented.....but the US isn't.

At the local level, the trend in the US can be seen in several ways.  Slower finishers in the younger age brackets. More masters runners placing in the top 10% of fields, including winning races outright.  Increased popularity of shorter race distances.  In the '80s, 10k's were the most common race distance and 5k's were hard to find.  That has reversed in the '90s.....another manifestation of the "less is better" movement.

My concern isn't so much why Americans aren't keeping pace on the world level.  It's why are Americans running slower? Certainly, there are probably several pieces to the puzzle, but genetics isn't one.  Genetics certainly haven't changed in the US in 10 years.  I think the answers do lie in culture.  Big money sports siphoning off the better athletes is part of it....but, that's always been there.  I don't know if it's gotten that much worse in the '90's.  More "spoiling" of our youth is certainly part of it.  More of the "I want everything quick, easy and now" syndrome that is rampant throughout our society is probably a big part.  And that's where the "less is better" approach to training enters the picture.  It isn't the only factor at work in the degradation of American running at the competitive level.  But, I think it has to take a share of the blame.

The rest of the world continues to demonstrate that less is not better....if your objective is to compete with yourself and/or others to the best of your ability!  Certainly, there are very valid and satisfying reasons to follow the "less is better" philosophy.....but, being the best runner you can be isn't one of them.

There are those who simply can't run higher mileage due to time, energy or injury restraints.  And, I'm not trying to suggest that those who choose to run less mileage are slackers.  Heck, I'm one of those folks these days.  I freely admit that I haven't done everything in the last 3 years that comprise my second running life that I could do to be the best marathoner I'm capable of being.  That's why I'm still 15-20 pounds overweight and am running 3:57-4:10 marathons when I should be able to get to the 3:30-3:40 range.  Have I been a slacker?  The answer is probably "yes" in the overall context of not fulfilling my current potential.  But, I would answer a resounding "no" in terms of what I try to get out of each of my training runs and every race I enter.  It's just that my life has had other priorities the last 3 years.  But, I've still had some very satisfying race experiences in knowing that I got the most out of my abilities within the constraints of my self-imposed restrictions.

Jim2