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114th Boston Marathon

American women contenders are a distant memory

By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 13, 2010

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There are so few of them now that they’re known by their first names, usually mentioned together — Deena-and-Kara. Amid platoons of Ethiopians, Kenyans, Russians, Japanese, and Chinese in women’s marathoning, Deena Kastor and Kara Goucher are the only American runners among the global elite. At a time when the US males, led by Meb Keflezighi and Ryan Hall, are enjoying an upsurge, their female counterparts make up a list of two.

If there are no marquee domestic names in the field for Monday’s 114th Boston Marathon, it’s because Kastor is running in London April 25 and Goucher is hoping to have a baby. Paige Higgins, the top US contender, has a personal best (2 hours 33 minutes and 6 seconds) nearly two minutes slower than all of her foreign rivals.

No American woman has won here since Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach in 1985, the last year before prize money was awarded. None has won in New York City since Miki Gorman in 1977. “In the last 10 years no American was going to win a major marathon except Deena,’’ observes New York race director Mary Wittenberg. “That’s what we have to move beyond.’’

Kastor, who won Chicago in 2005 and London in 2006, is 37 now and her personal best (2:19:36) was set four years ago. Goucher, who made her 26-mile debut two years ago in New York, is 31. Magdalena Lewy-Boulet, the Polish-born Olympian who ran 2:26:22 to finish second in Rotterdam last weekend, is 36. Along with Desiree Davila, they’re the only US women who’ve broken 2:30 since the beginning of last year. “What’s more surprising is the age of the people who are doing it,’’ said Larsen- Weidenbach, who was 23 when she won here 25 years ago. “We’re not nurturing our young.’’

While the Americans have been running in place, the rest of the world has been getting both faster and deeper. Ten Ethiopian women already have run faster than Lewy-Boulet this year. In 2009, Goucher’s best time (2:27:48) didn’t put her in the global top 50.

USA Track & Field said the dearth of depth is temporary. “It’s the same situation we were in with the men,’’ said Jim Estes, the federation’s associate director of long-distance running. “It takes a while to turn it around. The women just aren’t on the same development cycle that the men had been.’’

The men’s pool is decidedly deeper. Besides Keflezighi and Hall, either of whom could be the first domestic men’s winner here since Greg Meyer in 1983, the up-and-comers include Dathan Ritzenhein, who finished ninth in the Beijing Olympics, Brett Gotcher, Jason Hartmann, and Jorge Torres. Though the women’s pipeline undeniably is thinner, help should be on the way with the likes of Shalane Flanagan, Amy Hastings, Molly Huddle, and Ilsa Paulson, who won last year’s US title at 20.

The most promising is the 28-year-old Flanagan, the Olympic bronze medalist in the 10,000 meters in 2008. Like Kastor and Goucher, Flanagan is exceptionally versatile. Besides her Olympic podium placement, the first by an American at the distance since Lynn Jennings in 1992, Flanagan breezed to the USA half-marathon crown in Houston in January with a 1:09:41 clocking that chopped more than a minute off the record. Last month she was the top US finisher (12th) at the world cross-country championships in Poland, sparking her teammates to the bronze medal, their first medal in seven years.

The obvious next step is the marathon and it’s clearly on Flanagan’s to-do list. The question is, when?

“The marathon is a whole other animal,’’ said her coach Jerry Schumacher. “Could Shalane run a marathon? Absolutely. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.’’

That was Goucher’s concern when coach Alberto Salazar, the former Boston and New York champion, mentioned the idea to her. “I was like, gag me,’’ said Goucher, who won the 10,000 bronze at the 2007 world championships. But she finished third in New York in 2008 in 2:25:53, the fastest debut by an American woman and the first podium finish since 1994. Then she placed third here last year behind Salina Kosgei and Dire Tune, hanging with the leaders until the final stretch.

Goucher and Kastor have proven that top US distance runners can make the jump from the track to the marathon without a lengthy apprenticeship. But for most of them, that jump can look more like a plunge into a blacktop abyss.

“When you have had success on the track, sometimes you’re hesitant to make the move up,’’ said Keith Hanson, who coaches Davila as part of the Hansons-Brooks group in Michigan.

Davila made her marathon debut three years ago in Boston, slogging her way through a brutal nor’easter that made survival an accomplishment.

“From there it can only look better,’’ said Hanson. Last year Davila finished 11th at the world championships in 2:27:53, just behind Goucher, in only her fourth attempt at the distance. “That was just the tip of the iceberg,’’ reckoned Hanson. “She’s got a lot more in her.’’

Davila was 23 when she made her marathon debut and now is in prime time. To keep the pipeline flowing, more promising women have to be persuaded to move up earlier in their careers.

“Some runners think, I’ve done everything else I can do, I might as well try the marathon,’’ said Estes. “You want them trying it earlier in their careers, but you don’t want them to do it too early.’’

Wait too long and the window closes. Try it too soon, before stamina has been added to speed, and the window can slam shut abruptly. That’s why Flanagan, the Marblehead native who’d toyed with the idea of running Boston this year, is being pragmatic about moving up to 26 miles.

“We’re just being extra cautious with the approach,’’ said Schumacher. “It was kind of rushing a little bit much to try it in the spring.’’

For most top distance runners, though, the lure of the marathon eventually proves irresistible, as it did for Kastor.

“She wanted an Olympic medal,’’ said her coach, Terrence Mahon. “The likelihood of her getting a medal on the track was low. So it was, OK, if a medal is what you want, why not explore the marathon?’’

Three years after making her debut in New York, Kastor won the Olympic bronze in Athens, the first US medal at the Games since Joan Benoit claimed gold in 1984.

“These athletes, they all want to be in the big game,’’ said Wittenberg, who already has signed up Kastor for New York and would love to get Flanagan as well. “And nothing can compare to the marathon.’’

Quite simply, 26 miles is where the money is. Winning Boston is worth $150,000 and the annual World Marathon Majors winner earns $500,000. “Economically, the marathon is second only to the 100 meters from the standpoint of how much money you can make,’’ said Mahon.

Especially for an American, because victories have been so rare for them. If Kastor can win in New York in November and end 33 years of foreign domination, she may get to take Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island along with her paycheck. And if anyone wins in Boston, Hancock may just turn over the tower.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.