She's home, for the long run
Boston Marathon legend Uta Pippig, now a US citizen, has put down roots in Concord
CONCORD -- She's 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 115 pounds. And she wants to lose five more. How obnoxious is that? Uta Pippig laughs. "That would be my ideal weight to race."
Even though she's got blond hair, blue eyes, a brilliant smile, and a runner's reed-thin build, it's difficult to dislike this perpetually upbeat woman. For one thing, she's not perfect. She has "ice cream days," and cheesecake is her guilty pleasure. In fact, she says she eats "right" for 300 days a year, then whatever she wants for the remaining 65.
This must be a "right" day, for she's sitting at the Colonial Inn in this historic town, sipping herbal tea, having already had some whole wheat toast and freshly squeezed lemon and orange juice. Dressed in black running tights and top, she's itching to go for her usual 10-mile run around her newly adopted hometown. She has been adhering to a schedule of 60 miles a week, less than half of what she used to do.
Pippig was once the darling of Boston, taking three straight marathons and setting a record 2:21:45 for the course in 1994. But it was her final win here, at the Boston Marathon's centennial celebration in 1996, that has become part of marathon lore. There she was, coming down the home stretch -- battling apparent menstrual cramps, accompanied by blood and diarrhea that trickled down her legs. Undeterred, she pushed on, took the lead in the last mile and won.
She grimaces as she discusses the messy finish. English is her second language, and she struggles to find the right words. "There is no word in the English language for becoming famous for something bad happening to you." She flashes a smile that became her trademark on the trail, along with the kisses she blew as she crossed finish lines.
The media handled the subject of her "women's problems" delicately, referring obliquely to menstrual cramps. The crowd applauded her grit, and women everywhere sympathized and shuddered.
But they weren't cramps at all. In fact, she wasn't even having her period.
"I had severe colitis," she says. For three months before the marathon, she had trained intensely at high altitudes, and had an inflamed large intestine. It had "calmed down," but flared up again just before the race.
"I was very nervous. There was a lot of pressure. This would be my third straight win," she says. After the awards ceremony and press conference, she went straight to the hospital, where she stayed for four days. As for her public plight, she says: "At the time, I blocked it out as good as I could. I didn't want to disappoint my family, my coach, and my friends. It would be my third straight win, and I couldn't give up." Though she was ranked the world's top marathoner and half-marathoner in 1994 and 1995, she still calls that last Boston win the climax of her career.
Those were also the years she ran with President Clinton, 3.5 miles along the Potomac. Runners, bikers, and walkers would pass them and say, "Good morning, Mr. President." Once, someone ran by and said, "Good morning, Uta." She laughs at the recollection.
At 39, Pippig is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. She's too old to be a real contender but too young to give up serious running. On July 3 she became a US citizen in a ceremony on the Esplanade attended by her parents and brother, who still live in Berlin. Fittingly, on the Fourth of July, she participated in a 5-mile race at Minuteman State Park, across from the Old North Bridge. She finished first among women, with an average 5:50 mile.
Why Concord? Her former manager had his office here, and she had visited often. She liked the peace and quiet, the proximity to Boston, and the running routes, and she took an apartment near the town center. Sometimes people will recognize her as she's running, but mostly she is left alone. She still has a place in Boulder, and divides her time between Colorado and Concord, with some travel to give seminars and speeches on fitness, training, and nutrition.
"Boulder is still my training space. There's still a chance I could come back and have some fun and some good races," she says. "But it has to come to me. I can't force it." She calls herself a semi-retired athlete trying to make a transition to a new career. "I have to admit I admire other athletes who have done that." Some of her colleagues are still working in the field, coaching or teaching. Others have become mothers, devoting themselves to family.
Pippig, who is single, would like to do both. "I would love to have children. I didn't have time when I was running and traveling. I'm involved in many children's events and races, and I really love those little ones." She is no longer romantically involved with her longtime coach and companion, Dieter Hogen, though they still work together in Boulder. The two left East Germany shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but because she was a member of the East German Army Sports Club, she was a deserter. A couple of months later she was granted amnesty by the German government.
That same year, 1990, she achieved one of her goals: She was at the starting line in Hopkinton, finishing second to Rosa Mota. In East Germany, her travel and racing had been restricted. "We had a huge camaraderie because we were depressed in so many ways," she says. "We did not have freedom of speech or vote, so we tended to be very close and helpful to each other." It was also in 1990 that she accomplished something she'd only dreamed of: running in the Unification Marathon, from West Berlin through the Brandenburg Gate into East Berlin. Pippig finished first.
As an athlete for the East German government, she had been given various vitamins and supplements and "this and that," performance-enhancing substances that were banned from the sport. "They would give you things and you didn't know what they were," she says. In 1986 she began training with Hogen, who agreed with her no-substance approach. "That was so freeing and good for me," she says. "I think because of that, I was a better runner."
But the banned substance issue would later dog her; in 1998, she was suspended from running for two years for failing a random drug test that revealed a ratio of testosterone-epitestosterone greater than that allowed by international standards. To this day, she denies using any illegal substance, and says the ruling sent her into a depression for which she sought medical help.
"It was a very dark time," she says. "I couldn't understand why this was happening to me. I was always fighting against drugs. I was always positive and outgoing. After this, I couldn't understand right or wrong anymore." She says she sought psychiatric help late, and advises others with depression to get help early. "It has to be cured, like an injury or a cold."
Pippig's test results were reviewed by Dr. Robert Barbieri, chief of obstetrics and gynecology at the Brigham and Women's Hospital, and an expert in hormones and the use of steroids. Barbieri found fault with both the test and the results. "The ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone is an extremely arcane approach to detecting variances, and it's not, in my opinion, very reliable," he says. "There are many medical processes that could alter that ratio, including bowel disease."
Pippig thinks politics played a role, too. She believes living in the United States, where she became a famous runner, plus her vocal criticism of the German Track and Field Federation alienated members and left her vulnerable to attack. She left the federation in 1999 and joined the USA Track & Field association.
Along with emotional injury, Pippig, like most other long-distance runners, has had her share of physical injuries. In 1997 she had surgery on her big toe joint, which had lost most of its cartilage. Her colitis is mostly under control now, thanks to a diet that includes drinking a gallon of fluids a day: water, juice, and herbal tea. Occasionally she'll treat herself to a cup of coffee, though she knows she shouldn't: "It dehydrates you and contains toxins."
Pippig, who started but never finished medical school in Berlin, has taken the program she has adhered to for the past 20 years and started to work with others on fitness and health issues. Her advice for a fit life includes nutrition ("Drink water first thing in the morning, you sweat so much at night"); exercise ("Get your foot out the door, no matter what you do"); and stress management ("I would suggest a very light yoga program with very intense breathing exercises"). She is studying to be a yoga teacher.
She also helps train Kenyan runners, though she describes herself more as a motivator than a coach. "I run more slowly. I'm always at the very, very back. You can't even measure the gap." She runs with them in rural areas at an altitude of 8,000 feet. When she goes to Kenya, she takes bags of clothes and other supplies with her. "You want to help," she says simply.
She helps here, too, selling her running pin online (www.utapippig.com), and donating some of the proceeds to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where she visits sick children. She also supports the South Boston Neighborhood House, through its Ollie Road Race.
Bill Rodgers, who won four straight Boston marathons and four straight in New York, knows the transition Pippig is going through. At 56, he still runs about 25 races a year, and helps promote the sport. "The challenge is that marathoners are in a very obscure position in the sports world," he says. "When sponsors look for spokespersons, they don't look for runners. We're not part of the mainstream."
But because of her fame and her fitness, Rodgers believes Pippig might be the one who changes that; he'd like to see her become a spokeswoman and coach for fitness and health issues. "We need people like that badly; regular people have a lot of health problems. I think someone like Uta who understands nutrition and working out could convince people that these things can really change you physically and psychologically." He also thinks she'll make a stellar master's runner.
Pippig, who has won three Bostons, three Berlins, and one New York marathon, plans to run Boston again, next time for fun. "It's a cool course. It's very challenging. It has a lot of character, with this one very unnecessary hill. . ."
Next year, when she turns 40, she plans to do some master's races. But right now, it's time for a run. She sheds her nylon jacket and pants on this warm autumn day, and takes off, just another Concord resident going for her morning jog.