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.)
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."
"He has a mind that is the mind of a marathoner," adds Amby Burfoot, executive editor of Runner's World magazine and a former top distance runner himself. "He is a student of the sport."
For the half-dozen years following college, Culpepper concentrated on shorter distances. He won U.S. cross-country (twelve kilometers) and 10,000-meter championships in 1999 and 2003. Yet last year's world 10,000-meter championships were an eye-opener. The lead pack ran the last half of the race faster than Culpepper's best 5,000-meter; he finished fourteenth.
The moment seemed ripe to try something new. Culpepper had always felt the pull of the greater distances. Besides, marathons offered the opportunity for more money and more exposure. "I felt like I'd always wanted to try one," Culpepper says. "And over the years of training, I thought I could do it."
Culpepper is among the most versatile elite runners in recent memory. He is, for example, one of only fifteen Americans to have posted both a sub-four-minute mile (three minutes, 55 seconds), as well as a world-class marathon mark, in the past thirty years.
An extremely efficient runner, coaxing much work out of little motion, he is often described as "patient." That refers both to his running style, in which he maintains a calm mind and steady pace, as well as his career path, which has been marked by deliberation and methodical, long-term planning.
He races infrequently, participating in half as many contests as his competitors. But he trains with a combination of diligence and self-awareness. This approach has, for the most part, kept him hurt-free -- an obvious but crucial component to success in the marathon, where a nagging cycle of injury and recovery ends as many careers as do slow times. "The best route to success in the marathon," notes Wetmore, "is uninterrupted training."
Culpepper also puts in his miles. Back when Shorter and Bill Rogers, the other American marathon demigod, were running away with races, both men routinely trained at distances most bicyclists would find tiring -- up to 170 miles a week. In the twenty years following, many U.S. runners tried to make up for the roadwork with diverse workouts, convincing themselves that less was more.
"Physiologists will say that there's no difference between running eighty miles a week and 120 miles a week," says Burfoot. "But if you're a marathoner, you have to believe at some level that miles matter. And all the good runners today are putting in at least 120 miles a week." The top Kenyans, the world's best distance runners, run ungodly distances to prepare.
Most days Culpepper runs alone, on the trails around Boulder County or through the neighborhoods around his sprawling new-urbanism home in a development in rural Lafayette. "I always have to keep it different," he says. Unlike most elite track athletes, he has no coach, no agent, no special mentor. Although he consults half a dozen runners and coaches, he ultimately relies on no one but himself.
Mondays are easy days. Shayne, Alan's wife of six and a half years and a world-class middle-distance runner, gets to go out first; the birth of their son, Cruz, two years ago means they must take turns. When Shayne returns, Alan leaves for an eleven-mile cruise, at a six-minute, fifteen-second-per-mile pace. The afternoon brings another run, maybe a half-dozen miles, at the same relaxed pace.
Tuesdays are timed workouts, perhaps three-kilometer repeats or hill work -- "never fun, always hard," says Alan. Alan and Shayne usually get a sitter and go together, but they never train with each other. Their paces are too far apart. Besides, he says, "it's our own time -- to be with our own thoughts. I think about a hundred different things while I'm running."
Wednesday is for medium-distance runs, an hour and a half in the morning -- fourteen or fifteen miles -- with another six or so in the afternoon. Wednesdays are as close as Culpepper gets to a social run. He'll meet up with local elite runners like Scott Larson and fellow CU alum Adam Goucher -- guys who can keep up.
Thursdays are a repeat of Monday, Fridays a mirror of Tuesday. Sundays are for long distances -- twenty miles, at least. And fast, too -- a five-minute, forty-five second-pace. As a race day approaches, Culpepper increases his workload, piling on the miles.
Culpepper first knew he was a good runner in elementary school. After sixth grade, he decided not to go out for baseball and run track instead. By ninth grade, he was running as fast as local eighteen-year-olds. "I knew back then that I wanted to run at the Olympic level," he says. His coach tried to get him to develop in a sensible way. "There'll be time for that," he'd say, adding, "You're going to dominate in fifteen or seventeen years."
At CU, Wetmore pushed him hard. "I learned a lot about my physical limitations," Culpepper says. He recently told Runner's World: "My hardest workout ever was probably some eight years ago, when I was a senior in college. It was a 19-mile long run on Magnolia Road, which is a dirt road around 8,000-foot elevation and rolling hills. I averaged 5:40 per mile for the full distance. In college, our long run was a significant workout, and I would get pretty nervous the night before the run. The rest of the day, I was resigned to my bed. Unfortunately, I could not sleep because my heart rate was around 120 bpm."
He finished 24th at the national cross-country championships his senior year. "I should've been the top one or two in the country." But he adds, the experience was useful: "I'd never pushed to see how hard I could train. I learned how not to go over the edge."
These days, the job of running fast has earned him a comfortable, even relatively grand life. His house is large and nicely located. He has been sponsored by Adidas since he graduated from college, and he has become a recognizable-enough runner that he earns fees just for showing up at races.
A couple hundred spectators might show up at a 10k championship. By comparison, the marathon is a marquee run, and the rewards can be handsome. A win at a prestigious marathon can be worth more than $100,000. Culpepper's Birmingham victory earned him $85,000 and a trip to Athens.
After the trials, Culpepper took three weeks off from training. "I don't even skip across the street," he says. The respite was a mixture of recovery, relief and restlessness. "I don't miss the training at all. But food doesn't taste as good, and I don't sleep as well." On March 1 he started running again. It will take him another two months to get into marathon shape.
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The last Olympic Games Culpepper attended ended in tears. He arrived at Sydney in the best shape of his life. But five days before the 10,000-meter run, he came down with a bad cold. His chest tightened by congestion, he finished last in his heat and failed to qualify for the event's final. This trip, he says, he'll be more careful: Instead of staying in the Olympic Village, he's booked a private hotel room.
And, despite the dismal U.S. record in recent years, this summer's Athens marathon actually gives American runners reason to hope. In contrast to autumn in Chicago, New York and London, where cool temperatures have resulted in many of the world's fastest times, Greece in August means this competition could be more a test of survival than speed.
"It's going to be hot, humid, nasty and polluted," notes Plaatjes. "When the conditions get that terrible," adds Burfoot, "you throw out all the rules. Anyone can win."