- October 31, 2006 at 5:17 am #5699
BOULDER, Colo. — Here at 5,430 feet, all roads lead to a finish line somewhere. They just rarely converge.
As the major marathon season hit its fall peak, professional distance runners from Kenya, Japan, Romania and Tanzania, as well as the United States, were pounding the dirt roads in Boulder for a high-altitude boost.
Long a popular haven for elite athletes, the area boasts 300 sunny days a year, 400 miles of trails (including Magnolia, which soars to 8,600 feet), more massage therapists than muscles and a fervent outdoor culture.
But this is no running utopia. Instead, Boulder is an example of the fiercely competitive sport of road racing, in which runners train in quiet isolation, passing one another occasionally on hills while guarding their strategies.
Competitors from around the world may come here, yet the various camps operate in their own universes. With schedules dictated by agents, runners compete not just for the podium, but for a relatively small pool of resources, shoe contracts and race appearance fees. It is a scene that is more clannish than collegial.
Consider one typical brisk Boulder morning in early October. Dathan Ritzenhein, 23, the United States’ latest prospect, prepared for his marathoning debut in the New York City Marathon on Nov. 5 by repeating 10 hill sprints. Alan Culpepper, 34, a fellow 2004 Olympian and University of Colorado alumnus, was running a suburb away.
“The marathon will be the first time I’ve raced Alan since my senior year in high school,” Ritzenhein said Oct. 9. “We live that close and we’re in the same sport, but our paths don’t cross. It’s kind of strange.”
Elsewhere, Japanese women peeled off matching cinnamon warm-ups and embarked on runs from the Boulder Reservoir. One of the women wordlessly passed a group of Kenyans on a 25-kilometer training run.
The Kenyans’ German coach, Dieter Hogen, barked encouragement, and the former marathon champion Uta Pippig echoed it, shouting, “Keep a good rhythm, guys!”
Hogen had once led Pippig out of East Germany and eventually to Boulder, coaching her to multiple marathon titles in the 1990s. She was barred for two years for failing a 1998 drug test that was later ruled inconclusive, and now she helps runners in Boston and Boulder.
Hogen runs a camp, Camp KIMbia, in operation since 2003. It may raise eyebrows for its isolation, but only a few miles away Anuta Catuna of Romania was showing off her new house and pointing to one across the road that belonged to the 2000 Olympic women’s champion, Naoko Takahashi.
Catuna, the bubbly 1996 New York champion who is trying to become a United States citizen for the 2008 Olympic trials, trains and socializes with other Romanian runners living in Boulder.
To old-timers, segregation is an unfortunate development.
“I think all these guys are doing a disservice to each other,” said the South African marathoner Mark Plaatjes, who owns the Boulder Running Company, a small chain of shoe stores, and a physical therapy business. “They are missing out on the collective knowledge, the experiences.”
Frank Shorter, the American marathoner who popularized the sport by winning the gold medal in the 1972 Olympics and the silver in 1976, was the first to settle in Boulder.
“It was the only city with an indoor track at 5,000 feet,” he said in a telephone interview. “There were 10 committed runners in town, but I was the only real athlete training.”
Shorter set the pace. In 1987, Plaatjes came to raise his children without apartheid and to run with other champions: Steve Jones of Wales, Rob De Castella of Australia, Arturo Barrios of Mexico and Priscilla Welch of England.
“We used to meet at each other’s houses; there would be 30 guys and 20 countries represented,” Plaatjes said outside his store. “We’d go out for a run, beat each other up and then drink a beer afterwards.”
Collegiality now thrives in Boulder during the afternoon when the Africans drink chai together. Teamwork is paramount in daily chores or on the course, whether they train to set the pace or to win.
“It is very good to be in a group, because in training you need to simulate running,” said Thomas Nyariki, wearing sunglasses during an interview to protect his right eye, which was blinded in a 2003 carjacking in Kenya. He will race New York, having won the city’s half-marathon in August.
Hogen runs his camp with wry humor and unwavering discipline, coordinating runners’ workouts according to their marathons: Chicago, New York, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Dallas.
The runners leave their families behind and immerse themselves with Hogen, “because of his experience; he knows how to train hard,” Nyariki said, adding, “We go two weeks hard, one week easy.”
Hogen founded the KIMbia (“to run” in Swahili) management company with Tom Ratcliffe, an agent based in Boston.
“These guys all have real good backgrounds,” Hogen said, explaining that he chooses runners who were not necessarily famous but had success at shorter distances. “They come with the thing you want to see — a commitment to working hard.”
This year at Hogen’s camp, as many as 18 men and 2 women from Kenya and Tanzania have shared four apartments, which include facilities for physical therapy and laundry and, in one concrete backyard, a hot tub that overlooks an office park.
The athletes usually train twice a day. In the afternoon, they make their sugary milk tea in a spaghetti pot, watch television and play checkers in a living room decorated with prize plaques. At night, they cook ugali, a Kenyan stew poured over a cornmeal mixture.
Hogen said the camp had no secrets, and pointed out that it was featured on a Web site by a freelance writer (chasingkimbia.com). But the camp raises questions among some in Boulder because of Hogen’s connection with Pippig.
“The case was dismissed; they couldn’t prove anything, and that was the end of the story,” Pippig said, referring to her 1998 drug test. “And believe me — I couldn’t work with anyone if I did it.”
She added of the Kenyans, “For these guys, drugs play no role.”
Shorter, the former chairman of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, said Hogen’s camp raised a general concern that foreign athletes went to Boulder to dodge testing.
“My only question would be: How often are the Kenyans training in Boulder tested?” Shorter said, urging marathon directors to control prerace testing. “You have to set up a system so you don’t have to be suspicious.”
Ratcliffe said his athletes were clean. They register their whereabouts with the International Association of Athletics Federations and can be subject to random testing by USADA and the World Anti-Doping Agency.
“I would love for them to come every day,” Ratcliffe said. “People see East German intrigue, but it’s just not the case.”
Ritzenhein said that distance running was not “that dirty of a sport,” and that no American distance runners used drugs. He said that he spoke of the topic daily with his Boulder teammates, the twins Jorge and Ed Torres (the three helped Colorado win the N.C.A.A. cross-country championship in 2001) and Jason Hartmann, a high school teammate from Rockford, Mich.
This year, the New York Road Runners donated $240,000 to support running camps in the United States, including $115,000 to one in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., where the Olympic medalists Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor train. Ritzenhein’s coach, Brad Hudson, a former distance runner at Oregon, received $45,000 for his Boulder Performance Training Group.
On training runs, Hudson follows Ritzenhein in a tan 1983 Volvo he bought last summer. Hudson does not accept money from Ritzenhein, he said, to eliminate conflicts of interest with sponsors.
But the allocation, filtered through USA Track and Field, caused some resentment. Steve Jones coaches a young group in Boulder that was not financed. He said he was frustrated because Ritzenhein already received sponsorship from Nike.
“I believe we need to work within reality,” Mary Wittenberg, the chief executive of the Road Runners said in a telephone interview in late October. “We are best served in funding kids coming out of college who have the best shot of winning gold medals. We’re beyond being just the best American now.”
America’s past looms in bronze at the base of Colorado’s Folsom Stadium. Every May, nearly 50,000 runners from around the world pass by a statue of Shorter on their way to the finish of the 10-kilometer Bolder Boulder. Shorter was a co-founder of the race in 1979, and it defined the city as an outdoor Mecca.
Alpinists, triathletes and mountain bikers train here, though perhaps not to the extremes of the running cult Divine Madness, whose members pool their earnings, live ascetically and run ultra races. “We’re not all like that,” Culpepper said.
Children seem to have inherited the running genes; Boulder High School’s cross-country team fielded 135 boys and girls for the second consecutive year.
Stickers convey Boulder’s maximum heart rate: “Don’t Die Wondering” and “Remember to Breathe.” The Go Fast energy drink truck rumbles through downtown.
Running utopia is not yet here. Mark Wetmore, the coach of the nationally ranked Colorado cross-country teams, limited the stadium’s public track hours to preserve its surface four years ago. With no central meeting place, elite runners do track work at different high schools. This makes Plaatjes dream.
“I want to buy a plot of land and build a clubhouse and have a training room, with trails out back,” he said. “A facility where there is a bar and a sitting area, like in Europe.
“I know this sounds corny,” he added, “but I really think, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ ”
But will they come at the same time?
- November 1, 2006 at 12:35 am #21956
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