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Resurgence of the American Marathoner?

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The following post was written in reply to a thread concerning an article written by a sportswriter who postulated that American Marathoners are experiencing a resurgence after many years behind the world’s elite runners.


I agree with part of what he wrote. It is true, as the author of the article said, that American marathoners have slipped a lot in the last 15-20 years from the "glory years" of the 70-80's and before, when American's were very competitive....even dominant at times. And the “slip” has not just been at the elite level, but at the second tier and mid-pack levels, as well. Not only has the average American marathoner’s time slowed (from about 3:45 to about 4:15), but fewer marathoners are running 3:30 and faster. Thus, the easing of the Boston Marathon qualifying times in order to keep the field from shrinking.


However, with the exception of Deena Kastor, I don't see as much of a sign that elite American runners are rising from the "dark days" as the author does.


Yes, it is true that America now has two truly world class runners on the men's side who can compete with the best international runners in Meb Keflezighi and Abdi Abdirahman. However, both are naturalized American citizens.....Meb is an Eritrean who migrated to the U.S. at age 12 or 13 and Abdi is a Somalian who grew up in Kenya before migrating to the U.S. while in high school. Although both matured as runners in the U.S., both also spent their base formative years in their native countries where the cultures are very different than in America. That sets them apart from the typical "homegrown" American runner in much the same way as did the only other great American male runner of recent years, Khalid Khannouchi of Morocco, who didn't immigrate to the U.S. until he was already a world class runner of 20 years old and didn't become a naturalized citizen until age 28.


Meb and Abdi made an excellent and competitive showing at the NYCM in finishing third and fifth, although Abdi’s time was not sub-2:10 which is the mythical “barrier” to truly compete with the best of the best. The other two Americans to crack the top-20 at NYC.....Matt Downin who was 11th in 2:14:28 and Peter Gilmore who was 17th at NYC in 2:16:39, both of whom are homegrown runners.....ran times that were basically pedestrian among elites. Their performances were competitive on a national level in the U.S. today, but they don t come anywhere near making the top 100 all time performances by Americans. And their times were no better than second tier “also rans” among elites.


The only American male runners who have really been competitive on the international level over the past 20 years are the three naturalized Americans....Khalid, Meb and Abdi. However, to suggest that they represent a resurgence in competitive American running is like saying that, because the New York Yankees have essentially dominated the sport of professional baseball for most of its existence, then the state of New York must produce the best baseball players in the country. It's easy to be competitive when some of the best athletes in a sport are "imported" and not homegrown.


Before someone accuses me of being a xenophobe, as happened a few years ago when this subject was discussed on these forums, let me say two things:


1) I have spent extensive time abroad, including living in Iran for over four years and Ireland for two years. In addition, I have accrued a few more years on more than 30 trips to Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Venezuela and a few European countries for business purposes. I have vacationed in Portugal, Spain, France, Germany, Amsterdam, England, Switzerland, Austria, Monaco, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia (now Croatia), Cypress, India, Hong Kong, and several Caribbean Islands. I am comfortable with foreigners and do not fear or resent them.


2) I accept and applaud Khalid, Meb and Abdi as American runners. It doesn't matter if they are naturalized or were born here....they are Americans. I am as proud of their accomplishments representing America as anyone is. I am very glad that they run under the Stars and Stripes banner.


However, I don't think that their representation of America on the international running scene indicates that American runners have turned the corner, as the author of the referenced article suggests. Yes, those three specific American men are having success....and I am happy for that. However, the question still remains, "Can American runners regain world class competitiveness without relying on immigrants?" Can we change our culture so that we "grow our own", as we did before 15-20 years ago?


One sign that the answer to the above questions might be "yes" is Deena Kastor. She is truly a homegrown, 100% American product. She not only holds the American women’s record in the marathon, but she has run four of the 12 fastest marathons run by an American woman. Joan Benoit Samuelson has run five of the other eight. Between them, they hold nine of the fastest 12. They are also the only two American women marathoners who appear on the top 200 all time world best marathon times (Kastor 20th and 25th; Benoit Samuelson 22th, 46th and 152nd). And Deena’s American record is just six minutes slower than Paula Radcliff s world record, which was a 2-minute aberration in itself.  I think that clearly places Deena among the best runners who has ever toed the start of a marathon.


However, the question is, “Is Denna just an aberration or is she a sign that the pendulum is swinging back the other way, at least for American women?” I don't know, but I suspect the former. Although, it could be that Denna is a product of the Title IX requirement for equal opportunity for girls in sports programs in American schools. Couple that with the fact that there is still very limited opportunity for women, as opposed to men, in professional sports and she just might be a sign that American women’s running is entering the phase where American men s running was in the 70s. If so, then that might make her more than just a one-of-a-kind phenomenon and we might be able to look forward to other Deena’s emerging from the masses.


On the men’s side, there have been only five sub-2:10 performances by homegrown Americans in the past 20 years:


1994 - Bob Kempainen in 2:08:47, which is the all-time fastest by a homegrown American. (His second best time was 2:11:03.)


1999 - David Morris in 2:09:32


1997 - Jerry Lawson in 2:09:35 (Second best time 2:10:04; Third best time 2:10:27)


1989 - Ken Martin in 2:09:38 (Second best time 2:11:24)


2002 - Alan Culpepper in 2:09:41 (Second best time 2:11:42)


Does anyone relate any of these guys to being among the best of the best ever internationally? How about nationally? Between the five, they have only 10 of the top 100 times run by American marathoners. More than 70 of the top 100 were run before 1985 and at least 7 more were run by naturalized Americans in recent years, including Khalid s three fastest by an American. For the most part, each of the five who ran sub-2:10 in the last 20 years had a once-in-a-lifetime performance, then faded. Jerry Lawson hung in there around the 2:10 level longer than the others (four years), but was never really an influence on the international scene. Alan Culpepper is still relatively young for a marathoner (33 years old, winner of the 2004 Oly Marathon trials and 12th in the 2004 Oly Marathon) and could still rise to the occasion....for instance, Carlos Lopes of Spain won the 1984 marathon in LA at age 36, but that was (barely) before the Africans arrived on the scene.


The bottom line is that, except for Deena, no homegrown American marathoner, male or female, has come along in the last 15-20 years to be truly competitive with the American marathoners of the 1970s-80s, much less on the international scene.


All of this concerns elite runners. However, the difference between American runners of 20 years ago and those of today is evident at all levels. This was discussed extensively four years ago in a thread that I initiated on 12/20/01 with a post titled “The Decline of the American Marathoner “and continued on 12/31/01 in another thread that I initiated with a post titled “Why has the American Marathoner Declined?”. If anyone is interested in those posts, which go into my thoughts on this subject in much more detail, they are under the Pot Pourri section of my Running Page.