(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.)
June 1996. With 2½ hours to fill, commentators on the recent Olympic Marathon Trials telecast were bound to let slip a few silly comments. I forgive most of them, having made some of those myself on TV.
But I can’t let one recurring theme pass. I’d hate to think that all viewers would accept it as truth because they heard it on national television. And will hear it again at the Track Trials in June, and again at the Games this summer.
Fourth place is the worst place to finish when only three places count, the commentators would have us believe. It’s off the team.
Fourth will be out of the medals at Atlanta. The runner who finishes there will be pitied as a nowhere man or woman.
This is a variation on the theme that an old coach of mine failed to teach me: “Second place ain’t worth a damn.” Another twist showed up recently as T-shirt philosophy: “If you can’t win, don’t play.”
NBC showed women in midrace at the Marathon Trials. They were on pace for the 2:30s and 2:40s, yet a voice from the booth melodramatically pronounced, “It’s all over for these runners.” He led viewers to think that anyone in a spot beyond third had given up and was just running out the clock.
We’re told that when only three places score, fourth is nothing. Lisa Rainsberger occupied that spot at every previous Women’s Marathon Trials. She said before the 1996 race that if she was running fourth again and couldn’t move up a spot, she’d “stop and tie my shoe” to let someone pass. “I’m through with fourth,” she claimed.
Looking back, though, Rainsberger might have preferred fourth to her actual 19th. For one thing, her payday differential would have been $16,500.
Fourth isn’t the worst place to finish. It earned Gwyn Coogan and Steve Plasencia hefty consolation prizes of $18,000 and $20,000 at the Marathon Trials.
But money aside, fourth isn’t a bad place to be. The runner there isn’t the first and biggest loser.
No race, not the Olympic Trials or any other, ranks runners this way. No race ends when the third runner crosses the line.
Fourth is still a better place than fifth, which beats 10th, which beats dropping out. Setting a PR is still a victory, wherever it places.
The fourth-placing marathoners aren’t tragic figures. Coogan had gone to an Olympics already in her better event, the 10,000, and could do it again. Her husband Mark will go as a marathoner.
Plasencia has already run in the Olympics twice. In 1992 he placed fourth in the 10,000 Trials and still went to Barcelona because someone ahead of him didn’t run the qualifying time.
Some marathoner could get hurt between now and August. Remember, fourth place also means first alternate.
Before the Marathon Trials, the 39-year-old Plasencia said, “Obviously it’s a mission [to make the team again]. But at this point in my career, it’s also a lot of fun.”
After running 2:14:20, faster than any American his age or older has ever done, he added, “I ran well. There were a lot of good runners behind me [including two 1992 Olympians, a world champion and a world record-holder). The guys in front of me were just better runners today, which doesn’t mean they’re better every day.”
NBC-TV would have us believe, “Nobody remembers who finishes fourth.” But Gwyn Coogan and Steve Plasencia won’t be forgotten runners – any more than Lisa Rainsberger was after her three straight fourths, or Keith Brantly was for his two fourths before he made the team this time.
Placing fourth wasn’t the end of their worlds. Nor was it for Kenny Moore (Munich Olympic Marathon), Steve Prefontaine (Munich 5000) or Don Kardong (Montreal Marathon). Remember them?
2018 Update. Twenty-two years after this column appeared, Moore and Kardong still rank among the best running writers ever. Rainsberger is mother to an All-American college runner, Katie. Prefontaine has a track meet, a book and three movies dedicated to him.
[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.]