Sole Man

A Colorado dark horse boosts America's marathon hopes.

America, some critics have noted recently, is falling behind its rivals in the developing world. Our dependence on technology and a decadent ease of living have dulled this country's once-sharp competitive edge.

They are speaking, of course, of the depressing plight of the American marathon runner.

Once the swift pride of the Western world, our distance hoofers are now the cabooses of the track. In 1972, Boulder resident Frank Shorter galloped away with the Olympic gold medal. Four years later, he returned from Munich with the silver. (It should have been gold, but a steroid-packed East German pulled away in the final miles.)

Alan Culpepper is set for the long run.
Tony Gallagher
Alan Culpepper is set for the long run.

Regrettably, that shining moment during the Ford administration marked the sunset of the great American distance runner, who in the intervening three decades has plodded behind his faster competitors from Kenya, Ethiopia and the Far East. In fact, the lead pack is nearly out of sight.

America's best marathoner is Khalid Khannouchi, a Moroccan who became a naturalized U.S. citizen five years ago. For a spell in the first part of the 21st century, Khannouchi was the fastest distance runner in the world. His personal best of two hours, five minutes and 38 seconds, which he achieved at the London Marathon two years ago, stood as the world benchmark for the 26.2-mile event until two Kenyans smashed it last fall by nearly 45 seconds.

Now the bad news: Khannouchi is in a class by himself. His top finishes are a good three minutes swifter than his closest countrymen, and usually more. Behind him, the rest of America's long-distance marathoners recede quickly.

The top U.S. marathoner of 2003, Meb Keflezighi (an African native), boasted only the 84th fastest time in the world. American runners have achieved the now-accepted world-class standard of two hours and eight minutes precisely thrice -- and most recently an entire decade ago. Indeed, discounting Khannouchi, U.S. marathoners have broken the two-hour, ten-minute mark only four times since 1990. Shorter's gallops, back in the days of disco, were faster.

The news only gets worse. In 2000, track's international sanctioning body set the benchmark to qualify for the Summer Games marathon at a modest two hours, fourteen minutes. At the U.S. trials that year, only a single American was able to complete the course that hastily; a half-year later, he dawdled through the Sydney course, finishing 69th. At least expectations were low: Not only has no American man won the Olympic marathon since Shorter's last run, but no Yank male has even breached the top ten.

The U.S. Olympic Men's Marathon Trials for this summer's Games were held February 7, on an uncharacteristically chilly day in Birmingham, Alabama. In an effort to include more runners, the qualifying cutoff to earn a trip to Athens had been hiked to two hours and fifteen minutes. Depressingly, Khannouchi, the United States' best hope to recover its lost long-distance dignity, was nowhere to be found: A nagging leg injury kept him out of the race.

Given the weight of history, you'd think American distance runners' shoulders would sag. But Lafayette's Alan Culpepper has the standard marathoner's build: famine-thin frame dangling off clothes-hanger shoulders. Because of his romp in Birmingham, this 31-year-old beanpole will drag U.S. distance-running hopes to Greece in late August.

Waiting out several rabbits, Culpepper took the lead in the 22nd mile. Keflezighi matched strides with him over the next three miles, but it was Culpepper, racing in a T-shirt and black watch cap, who proved the stronger runner, pulling away in the end to win the trial by five seconds. (Two weeks ago, Boulder resident Colleen De Reuck won the U.S. Olympic Women's Marathon Trials, thereby placing the distance-running hopes of the entire country squarely along the Flatirons.)

It's difficult to say whether this was a typical outing for Culpepper. Remarkably, while he'd entered the trials as the odds-on favorite, the race was only his second marathon. Yet, as was the case with Ralph Ellison and Macaulay Culkin, his debut had been so noteworthy that people expected great things from him.

A 5,000- and 10,000-meter specialist at the University of Colorado, where he graduated in 1996, Culpepper didn't enter his first marathon until 2002, in Chicago. He finished sixth, behind the usual complement of Khalids and Kenyans. Yet his two-hour, nine-minute, 41-second run tied him for the fastest American marathon debut ever. Culpepper had already made a considerable name for himself in middle distances; the performance in Chicago now made the distance world sit up and take notice, too.

"Anybody who debuts at 2:09, you have every reason to believe that, with a couple years of training, he has a 2:07 in him," says his former coach at CU, Mark Wetmore. "And that's a gold medal in any Olympics."

As with many prodigies who seem to come out of nowhere, however, Culpepper's explosion onto the marathon scene was actually the culmination of careful planning and hard work. It was hardly a surprise to anyone who follows running.

"I remember when Alan was still at CU," recalls Mark Plaatjes, a former world-class marathoner who lives in Boulder and helps train distance runners. "He'd do long runs with me back then; he's been running 22, 24 miles forever."

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