May 2003

PAULA RADCLIFFE HAS RAISED THE BAR—again!—in international women’s marathoning: that’s cause for great joy. Not so joyous is that she is also making light of the current standard of U.S. men’s marathoning. Road fans have been lamenting for years the apparent inability of the American system to produce many/any great 26-milers. Just how sad the situation is has been driven home by Radcliffe’s 2:15:25, a time which only three American men have beaten this year (none at London or Boston). Only a dozen ran faster all of last year.

For one reason why U.S. men aren’t making much of an impact, I posit that it’s because the runners we’re sending to the Olympics and World Championships are no longer people who have significant track credentials.

The following compilation gives the results of U.S. team members in every OG/WC since ‘64 (I started with ‘64 because previous to ‘63, the 10K wasn’t even contested in the NCAA Championships on a regular basis). As an arbitrary, yet simple, standard of track ability, I chose a top-8 (“scoring”) finish in the NCAA Div. I Champs. Here are the last 18 major international teams, with meet finish, and NCAA credentials:

1964 OG
5. Buddy Edelen (5—2M)
14. Billy Mills (5—5K)
23. Peter McArdle (import)
1968 OG
14. Kenny Moore (6, 6—St; 4, 8—5K)
16. George Young (AR holder—St)
22. Ron Daws (no score)
1972 OG
1. Frank Shorter (2—5K, 1—10K)
4. Moore (6, 6—St; 4, 8—5K)
3. Jack Bacheler (2, 5, 7—St)
1976 OG
2. Shorter (2—5K, 1—10K)
4. Don Kardong (4, 8—5K)
40. Bill Rodgers (no score)
1980 OG
dnc Tony Sandoval (8—5K)
dnc Benji Durden (no score)
dnc Kyle Heffner (no score)
1983 WC
18. Ron Tabb (no score)
39. Durden (no score)
dnf Ed Mendoza (7—10K)
1984 OG
11. Pete Pfitzinger (no score)
15. Alberto Salazar (3, 4, 6—10K)
dnf John Tuttle (7—St)
1987 WC
21. Don Janicki (no score)
dnf Dave Gordon (no score)
dnf Dan Grimes (no score)
1988 OG
14. Pfitzinger (no score)
29. Ed Eyestone (1—5K; 1, 1, 6—10K)
dnf Mark Conover (no score)
1991 WC
3. Steve Spence (no score)
26. Steve Taylor (3—10K)
dnf Brad Hudson (no score)
1992 OG
12. Spence (no score)
13. Eyestone (1—5K; 1, 1, 6—10K)
17. Bob Kempainen (3, 6—10K)
1993 WC
1. Mark Plaatjes (import)
33. Chad Bennion (no score)
dnf Hudson (no score)
1995 WC
10. Steve Plasencia (5, 7—5K)
21. Eyestone (1—5K; 1, 1, 6—10K)
dnf Paul Pilkington (no score) (7—St)
1996 OG
28. Keith Brantly (5, 7—10K)
31. Kempainen (3, 6—10K)
41. Mark Coogan
1997 WC
13. David Scudamore (no score)
56. Dan Held (no score)
62. Marco Ochoa (no score)
63. Jon Warren (no score)
dnf Don Janicki (no score)
1999 WC
24. Rod DeHaven (no score)
26. Eddy Hellebuyck (import)
34. Jonathan Hume (no score)
47. Steve Swift (no score)
dnf Brantly (5, 7—10K)
2000 OG
69. DeHaven (no score)
(no other U.S. qualifiers)
2001 WC
35. Josh Cox (no score)
38. Hellebuyck (import)
48. Mike Dudley (no score)
dnf David Morris (1—indoor 3K)
dnf Khalid Khannouchi (import)

Clearly, during the glory years of the ’60s and ’70s, U.S. marathoners simply had far better elemental track credentials than their counterparts of today. Their international placings certainly wouldn’t have been as high as they were if they had had to face the dynasties of the modern Kenyans and Ethiopians, but they were certainly better equipped to meet the challenge.

Track success is no guarantee of marathon success—would you believe that neither Haile Gebrselassie nor Paul Tergat have ever won a marathon?—but it’s certainly a good place to start. While current U.S. marathoners surely work their butts off, perhaps it would be a good generality to say one has to have at least the talent level to score in the NCAA (Steve Spence’s success notwithstanding) before there’s any real chance of an international breakthrough?