Crossing the Finish Line

In the nine and a half decades since Teddy Roosevelt was president and the Ford Model T was introduced, only two American men -- both of whom, as it happens, live in Boulder -- have won gold medals in international marathon competition.

Most people, non-runners included, could peg the first of the pair without a lot of mental exertion. Frank Shorter, the cerebral, light-footed distance man who put the town on the running map, quit competing years ago, exiting with gold and silver Olympic medals on his chest, and his name, like only a handful of American athletes before him -- Ali to boxing, LeMond to biking -- practically synonymous with his sport.

Mark Plaatjes never enjoyed that sort of recognition. Yet at his best, Plaatjes ran faster than Frank Shorter did in either of his Olympic victories. He became Shorter's sole heir at the 1993 World Championships, when his come-from-behind victory gave the U.S. its first gold medal in the marathon since Shorter's dramatic performance in Munich two decades earlier. No American marathoner had won a gold medal for 64 years before Shorter did; none has won one since Plaatjes.

Indeed, Plaatjes's best recorded times for the 26-plus-mile contest would have won any number of Olympic medals over the past twenty years. The tragedy -- and the explanation for his near-anonymity outside the running community -- is that he never got the chance to compete in the Games, a glaring omission the running world is poorer for.

The reason had little to do with the nuts and bolts of covering 26.2 miles, for Plaatjes was always focused, always prepared. "Mark was not the smoothest runner I've ever seen," says Amby Burfoot, the winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon and now the executive editor of Runner's World magazine. "But he was extremely aggressive, and one of the hardest-working runners out there."

Rather, his absence from the Olympic Games had everything to do with politics. As the son of a black father and Portuguese mother, Plaatjes was considered a colored man under the unyielding rules of race in South Africa, where he was born and spent his childhood. Still, he managed to win the first of what would be three national marathon titles at the tender age of seventeen. His talent caught the attention of U.S. collegiate athletic directors, and in 1981 Plaatjes won a scholarship to the University of Georgia. He stayed in Athens for only two years -- he still holds that school's 10,000-meter record -- before returning home to be with his family after his father's death.

He finished his education back in South Africa, earning a degree in physical therapy. And he kept running, faster and faster. In 1985, in Port Elizabeth, at the age of 22, he covered 26.2 miles in an astonishing two hours, eight minutes and 58 seconds.

Internationally, however, Plaatjes's place of birth was heavy baggage for a distance runner to carry. South Africa's system of apartheid made the country an international pariah. This was especially true within the sporting world, where South African athletes were banned from competing in most high-profile events, including the Olympics and World Championships.

The boycott denied Plaatjes an opportunity at the 1984 Summer Games. In 1985, when organizers of the Boston Marathon asked him to compete in that prestigious race, apartheid protesters forced them to revoke the invitation. In 1988, the Olympic Games were again off limits for South African athletes.

That same year Plaatjes sought asylum in the United States, a decision he says was based on his young family's best interests, not his career's. After a brief stint in Illinois he settled in Boulder, which, thanks to Shorter, had become a mecca for runners in training.

Despite his new address, international track-and-field officials ruled that Plaatjes would have to wait five years before he could compete under American colors. The wait turned excruciating when, in 1992, South African athletes were at last permitted to compete in the Olympic Games. This time around Plaatjes was a man without a country. No longer a citizen of South Africa, yet still a year away from the end of his U.S. waiting period, he could only watch again as a third Olympics passed him by.

He ran where he could, though, and usually was among the top finishers. In 1991 he won the Los Angeles Marathon, covering the course in two hours, ten minutes and 29 seconds. It would be nearly a decade before anyone again ran the L.A. race at that speed.

On July 24, 1993, Plaatjes officially became a citizen of the United States. The World Track and Field Championships were held exactly three weeks later in Stuttgart, Germany. It was Plaatjes's first international competition and, after nearly a decade of waiting, he wasn't about to waste it.

For the first half of the race he hung with a sluggish pack. When a Namibian runner named Lucketz Swartbooi broke away at eighteen miles, Plaatjes wisely elected to conserve his energy. One by one, challengers seeking to stay with Swartbooi fell back. With barely a half-mile left in the race, Plaatjes finally made his move, passing the Namibian and finishing fourteen seconds ahead of him to take the gold.

"I'm an American now, and this race was for America," he said following the race. "But I have always felt pangs of conscience over whether I should have stayed [in South Africa] and helped things change. I hope people there feel this is the victory of a native son and might be inspired."

"It was definitely the most significant victory of his career," says Burfoot. "It was a great run, and with it coming right after his citizenship came through, it was just the most wonderful timing."

But the victory seemed to take the breath out of Plaatjes. Although it would be wrong to say that he disappeared after his gold medal -- he still ran races, won occasionally, finished in the top ten plenty of times, and covered ground at a pace that would leave most people breathless in half a block -- his times climbed. Injuries, which had never seriously plagued him in his first decade of running, began piling up.

In 1994, running in the Korean Marathon, he fell and severely pulled a hamstring. In February 1996, his first opportunity to take a run at the Olympics, he failed to make the U.S. team after he was forced to drop out of the race with an inflamed pubic bone and tendonitis. The following spring, he left the Boston Marathon after eighteen miles.

By October 1997, on the eve of the Chicago Marathon, he was forced to acknowledge, "I haven't run fast for a while."

The marathon is a race that can taunt aging runners. More than other distances, the long run rewards experience and strategy, and so the sport is capable of tolerating athletes who would be considered years past their prime in other athletic events. Carlos Lopes won the 1984 Olympic marathon gold medal in Los Angeles at the ripe old age of 37. A year later, in Rotterdam, the 38-year, 62-day-old Lopes covered the distance in an astonishing two hours, seven minutes and twelve seconds, one of the fastest times ever.

Yet stripped of strategy and guile, the race is a punishing endurance test; the mind cannot carry the legs. The modern version has become a contest of stunning swiftness, too. Top professional athletes today cover the distance at ungodly speeds, consistently stringing together mile after mile of times that for most people are unattainable even in a single-mile increment.

Still, as the Olympic trials approached this past spring, Plaatjes felt as strong as he ever had. "I thought I was in good enough shape to run a 2:10 if everything went right," he says. In fact, about two and a half weeks before the contest, "I had one of my best workouts ever" -- a series of one-kilometer sprints, in which he averaged a blistering two minutes and 42 seconds each.

The following day, though, was a disaster. When he went out for what passes as an elite runner's recovery jog -- about seven-and-a-half-minute miles -- Plaatjes's pulse rocketed to 180 beats a minute, a good forty beats faster than it normally would throb at that pace. He rested for ten days straight, trying to coax his body back up to the plateau a world-class runner inhabits.

A professional runner, who relies on nothing but his body and his mind to win, balances on a razor line during his career. His feet and his legs and his lungs are his only equipment, so when he is required to shave an extra second or ten off his time, he can only look inward. He must continue to drive himself up a conditioning slope until he arrives at the precise peak of fitness. But it is an extremely narrow ledge. If he settles below this point, he has stopped short of his potential. If he crosses over it and falls off the other side, his body rebels out of proportion to the mistake and relinquishes huge chunks of gain.

"The key is knowing that line, trying to maintain your spot there," Plaatjes says. It had been one of his strengths during his twenty-year career of competitive running that he always respected the line, never crossed it. This time, though, "I made a mistake," he admits. Even after the week-and-a-half respite, when Plaatjes went out for another slow run, his heart rate again climbed well past the point it should have for a man of his strength and conditioning.

As he ages, every athlete begins to notice signs that it could be time to quit. Some are better at acknowledging them, and they retire with pride and grace. John Elway managed this; so did Jackie Stewart. Michael Jordan finally did, too, after a false start. Ali struggled with his personal signs, ignoring his slowing hands and feet at the expense of his head and body. The sport of running is particularly brutal in delivering these signs. There are no teammates to pick up the slack for you when you lose a step, no rope-a-dope to try when your legs weaken. The stopwatch never lies.

Then there is the pain. It accompanies all runners at one time or another. Plaatjes had run with it before, too, although he was never at his best when it was around. "I've always been the type of runner that to race well I had to feel well," he says. "I've trained with guys who while doing hill work will get to the top of the hill, keel over and vomit, and then go again. I've never been that kind of runner." He'd also never crossed the line into overtraining -- a tired kind of pain that can make you feel old quickly.

On May 7, at the Olympic trials in Pittsburgh, Plaatjes was nursing a sore hamstring, and he found himself covering the opening miles of the race laboriously. He struggled to condense his mile times into less than five minutes and thirty seconds -- a crawl for a man who at his peak tended toward the lesser side of five minutes. But he couldn't summon the energy and so, with the race not a fifth over, and without fanfare or ceremony or a press conference, he simply stopped. For good. "I felt gimpy," he said after the race. "I felt old, is how I felt."

Today he confirms, "There will be no more competing." But unlike other athletes who quit their sports, runners rarely slow to a walk altogether. "I'll run until I can't run anymore," Plaatjes says. He also plans to try skiing and inline skating, two sports he has had to avoid over the years for fear of injuring his valuable legs.

A race -- particularly a long one, such as the marathon -- is the sum of many parts. Runners train with the hope that all of those parts fall together on the day of the race. Yet despite all the training and pain, it is truly a rare event when they do.

Fifteen years ago, as Plaatjes sped through Port Elizabeth to his personal record of 2:08:58, the most extraordinary thing about the race was that as the miles went by, he kept feeling stronger. "I ran my last kilometer in 2:42," he recalls. "I had so much left that when I got onto the track, I saw I needed to run the lap in 48 seconds to break the record -- and I ran it in 43."

With so much energy unexpended, he found himself wondering what would happen if he gave it everything. If he could run this fast without exhausting his reserves, what kind of race was he capable of? "I'm only 22," he remembers thinking. "I'll do it again."

Despite the great and memorable races -- Los Angeles, the '93 World Championships -- it would never happen again. "I don't think I ran my best marathon," he says. "I never really got to red-line it. It was always something -- my training, an injury, the wrong race or the wrong course. It just never came together like that again."

So running fans can now only imagine: What if it had -- in Los Angeles or Seoul or Barcelona?

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer