Crossing the Finish Line

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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.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer