(This is 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)
May 1997 (retitled in the magazine). How you ask the question hints at how you want it answered. If you ask, “What’s wrong with U.S. marathoners?” you expect to be told with alarm that they’re dropping farther and farther behind the rest of the world, and why. But if you ask, “Is anything wrong with them?” you want to be told with a shrug that nothing is seriously amiss here.
Lots of runners asked this both ways after last year’s Olympics. In Atlanta the first U.S. man finished 28th, the lowest-ranking team leader since 1956. The women did better, but none has had a single-digit finish at the Games since Joan Benoit won in 1984.
Ask me if what’s wrong here or if anything is wrong, and I’ll answer the same way: No, nothing serious. Much more is right. Here’s why:
The focus of leading Americans has shifted. The best potential American marathoners aren’t running many, if any, marathons – at least not yet. They are sticking with track and cross-country, and possibly laying the groundwork for future marathon success.
The shift in focus occurred in the mid-1980s when road running became fully professionalized and there was more money to be made from competing in lots of short races instead of a marathon or two each year. It also occurred because the emphasis in training shifted from “quantity” (marathon-level mileage) to “quality” (more suited to 5K’s and 10K’s). And it occurred as marathons came to be seen in this country as big fun-runs, hardly worthy of a “serious runner’s” efforts.
Marathoners are aging – and slowing. A generation gap affects U.S. running in general. Track and cross-country are largely young-people’s sports in this country. Road racing appeals more to the older age-groups, particularly the folks who began running for fitness as adults and graduated into low-key racing.
Many young athletes see the roads as a place where their parents and grandparents gather. I don’t detect any lack of commitment among the young, only some reluctance to mix with the road racers they see as generally uncommitted.
The U.S. leads the world in the statistic that counts most – participation. It’s nice to cheer for top finishers from the “home team.” But it’s far greater that we can say, “We have 10 (or 20 or 50) times more marathoners in the U.S. than any other country has.”
If the marathon has become a survival test (a term I prefer to “fun-runs”) for most of its runners, fine. These people pay the bills and keep the events healthy.
However, the athletes who take the marathon seriously – who still treat it as a race to be won or run as fast as possible – must tune out the survivalist ethic. They must ignore the how-fun-it-all-is stories that fill the running media and return to the time-tested formula: train hard, race hard.
The overall trend in marathon training is toward lower mileage and more recovery days, but it can’t be that way among the best marathoners. The old Arthur Lydiard formula of 100-plus miles per week still applies to them. The best runners still go at least 20 miles in their long runs.
Great Americans will rise again. Between now and, say, the 2000 Olympics American probably will not produce a great wave of marathon stars. After all, the country never has done this before. It was always just one, two or three at a time.
We’re overdue for the next one, male or female, but he or she will surely appear when the right people start doing the right marathon training. You can’t have a pyramid of runners so wide at the base as it is in the U.S. without it pushing someone to a high peak.
2018 Update. Three years after this article appeared, American leaders hit bottom when only one man and one woman marathoner qualified for the Sydney Olympics. They’ve climbed back, way back – to winning Olympic medals (starting with two in Athens), and Boston, New York and Chicago titles after long national droughts.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]