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An end to this American trail?

By John Powers, Globe Staff, 4/18/2003

Greg Meyer never thought it would be 20 years and counting until another US male won the Boston Marathon. "Hell, I thought I'd win it again," says Meyer, whose 1983 victory now stands as the high-water mark for domestic road racing.

"I'm surprised." In the two decades since Meyer posted his blistering 2:09:00, the sport and the race have changed dramatically, leaving the native-born Americans literally a mile behind the global leaders.

For the past dozen years marathoning -- and Boston's hallowed laurel wreath -- has belonged to the Africans, most of them high-altitude Kenyans. When the gun goes off for the 107th race in Hopkinton Monday noon, there won't be a homegrown men's contender in the bunch.

No American has finished among the top five since Dave Gordon in 1987, the year before the Africans arrived in force. None seems likely to for a while. "I don't see it happening," says Bill Squires, who coached Meyer and the rest of his Greater Boston Track Club teammates in their glory days.

The numbers tell the tale. Except for Moroccan-born world record-holder Khalid Khannouchi, who gained US citizenship three years ago, no American runner ranks among the men's world top 100 this year and none has broken 2:09 in nine years.

"Obviously, we would love to see an American win Boston sometime in the next three to five years," says Ryan Lamppa, a coordinator for the Team USA Distance Running program. "I would love to say next year, but . . ."

What's much more likely is that an American woman will break the tape in Copley Square. That hasn't happened since Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach in 1985, but after Deena Drossin's stunning American record (2:21:16) in London last Sunday, the day seems closer.

"I hope that it acts as an inspiration, just like Paula [Radcliffe's] performance [a 2:15:25 world record] did to me," says the 30-year-old Drossin. "You could either look at it as 'I can never do this.' or as 'Wow, these barriers are being broken.' "

It was Joan Benoit Samuelson's shocking world record (2:22:43) here 20 years ago and her Olympic victory in Los Angeles that inspired a generation of American women to take on the marathon. "She's still an icon of the sport and a legend," says the Waltham-born Drossin, who chopped five seconds from the mark Benoit Samuelson set in Chicago in 1985.

Drossin is the poster woman for the Joanie Generation, which also includes Marla Runyan (personal-best 2:27:10) and Milena Glusac (2:31:14), who could be the first two Americans to crack the top 10 here since Kim Jones and Debbie Kilpatrick in 1997. "I think it's a very good opportunity to have a strong American showing," says Glusac.

No such chance for the US men, whose top people, such as Dan Browne and Alan Culpepper, are focusing on this summer's world championships in Paris. The top American entrants here are Richard Byrne (2:19:11), Peter Gilmore (2:21:47), and Robert Dickie III (2:22:00). When Meyer won in 1983, a 2:19 wasn't even within shouting distance of the Eliot Lounge.

"There were so many good Americans back then," muses Meyer, whose 2:09 is still the fourth-fastest by an American here. "You look at that race that day, we had three guys [Meyer, Ron Tabb, and Benji Durden] under 2:10. The cupboard was full -- then it dropped off the table."

For more than a decade, beginning with Frank Shorter's stunning Olympic victory in Munich in 1972, Americans were in the forefront of international road racing, especially at Boston, where a homeboy won the race eight times in 11 years. "We look back at it now and say, we were the good old days," Meyer says. "It was incredible."

What changed everything was money. The running boom went global and after sponsor John Hancock began offering prize money in 1986, the Africans turned up here two years later and have won all but two races since. There was plentiful cash, too, for the Americans, who began abandoning the marathon for 10K races that began sprouting by the dozens every weekend.

"In a way, it was easier 25 years ago," says Alberto Salazar, whose 1982 victory here over Dick Beardsley was perhaps the greatest foot-to-foot duel in race history. "There was no money, so there was nothing to chase. You were a starving artist."

Once you could run for both love and money, marathoning seemed far less rewarding on a per-mile basis. "You only have so many of those babies in your body," says Bill Rodgers, who won Boston four times between 1975 and 1980. "I tell people that if you want to take the lowest-paying job in the richest country in the world, be a marathoner."

Except for Khannouchi, whose 2:05:38 at London last year is the world's best, the only American to break 2:09 in the last two decades was Bob Kempainen, who posted a 2:08:47 here in 1994. Yet there are signs of a homegrown resurgence by the likes of the 30-year-old Culpepper, whose 2:09:41 last fall in Chicago tied Salazar's record for a US debut, and by the 27-year-old Browne, whose Twin Cities victory (2:11:35) was his first 26-miler.

"We've got some talent starting to crank up," says Rodgers, who was barely known beyond Heartbreak Hill when he set the US record with his 1975 victory here. "There are a lot of pretty good people in the 2:09-2:16 range whose names aren't well-known yet, but they're starting to show results. Culpepper's 2:09 -- that's for real."

For the American men, the long road back roughly follows the road map laid out by the Greater Boston Track Club three decades ago -- groups of talented post-collegians who live and train together and work their way up gradually from track to road. "You need a stable," says Squires, who got most of his from within 10 miles of Boston.

Team USA Distance Running, which is supported by Running USA and USA Track & Field, offers training centers for more than 35 athletes in California, Minnesota, Michigan, and New York, and has produced not only Drossin but US marathon champions Ryan Shay and Sara Wells. The Oregon Project, funded by Nike and run by Salazar, has five runners in residence (including Browne) and room for five more.

The group training idea was revived after US marathoning hit rock bottom three years ago, when only one man and one woman qualified for the Sydney Olympics. "That left a bad taste in our mouths," says Lamppa. "But those Olympic trials proved to be the kick in the pants that we needed."

Not that anybody is expecting an instant renaissance -- five years is the working timeline. "One of the problems in this country is that everyone wants a quick fix," says Salazar. "Before things start looking up in the marathon, they've got to start looking up in the 5,000 and 10,000."

That was Squires's gospel to his Greater Boston guys: "If you can run the 10,000 on a track, then you can tackle the big boys' game." The GBTC, which began as a track club, developed into a monster road racing team that placed four members in the Boston top 10 in 1979. "We had Bill, Randy Thomas, Bobby Hodge," says Meyer. "Just a wonderful time to be a runner."

The Patriots' Day jaunt was never better than it was in the early '80s, with Rodgers and his local crew, with Salazar and Beardsley duking it out, with Benoit Samuelson setting a bold new standard for women.

"Those runners singlehandedly put marathoning on the map in the US," says Dave McGillivray, the Boston Athletic Association's race director.

When Meyer did his solo cruise through the Back Bay in 1983 and collected his laurel wreath, his medal, and his beef stew, nobody would have guessed that there wouldn't be another domestic victor for the rest of the millennium and beyond.

"Those days are not gone forever," insists Lamppa. "An American will break the tape in Boston -- and it'll be the shot heard 'round the world."

This story ran on page F3 of the Boston Globe on 4/18/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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