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Coach is a champ

Marathon winner finds a new career

By Barbara Huebner, Globe Staff, 4/12/2000

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isa Rainsberger has the distinction of being the last American woman to win the Boston Marathon, and she doesn't like it one bit.

''It's sad,'' said the woman who, as Lisa Weidenbach, crossed the finish line first in 1985 and who will be in town this weekend to celebrate the 15th anniversary of her victory. ''We have so many talented young athletic girls and women in our country. It just doesn't seem possible that we can't provide the support, coaching, mentoring, and avenues to duplicate the marathon successes'' of US athletes such as Joan Benoit Samuelson and Kim Jones.

Jones, second in 1993, has the best recent finish of any American woman at Boston. Last year the top American was Lynn Jennings, who finished 12th.

Still ranked the seventh-fastest American woman ever, thanks to a personal best of 2:28:15 in 1989, Rainsberger, now 38, has had a solid career. Although she's probably best known for finishing fourth in three consecutive Olympic Marathon trials, she adds to her Boston win a pair of back-to-back marathon victories in Chicago (1989, 1990); a 48:28 15-kilometer time at the Cascade Run Off in 1989, which was then an American record; and a fifth place at the 1988 Olympic Trials at 10,000 meters.

Recently, however, Rainsberger has been forced to face the end of her marathon career. While pregnant with her daughter Katie Lynn, now 19 months old, she developed a 16-inch blood clot in the femoral vein of her right leg, which couldn't be treated with conventional drugs because of potential damage to the baby. So, she explained, the clot basically solidified, with the veins surrounding it taking up the duty of transporting blood back to her heart. Although she can still run shorter distances and hopes to become competitive again when she hits the masters circuit at age 40, running more than two hours or getting dehydrated now brings excruciating pain.

''It's as if someone is taking a tourniquet and squeezing my leg,'' said Rainsberger, whose hopes to run in Boston wearing bib No. 1985 in honor of her anniversary were dashed. ''My marathon days, I think, are over. Rather than just beat myself up and struggle with it, I'm at peace with it.''

Instead of running marathons, she has eagerly turned to coaching. While in high school, Rainsberger lost a friend, Jeanne Poll, to leukemia; when she was looking for a way to give back to the sport, she called the Leukemia Society of America to ask if they needed a coach. Answer: yes. So she began preparing some Team in Training athletes near her home in Colorado Springs to run for the charity at the 1998 Suzuki Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in San Diego.

''The group I was coaching wouldn't let me quit,'' said Rainsberger, explaining why she's still at it. ''They even started paying me.'' She now coaches for Team Diabetes as well.

Her stable has grown to include about 25 athletes, most of them recreational, but one member, Theo Martin, turned in a 2 hour 15 minute 7 second debut at the California International Marathon last December that makes him the eighth-fastest qualifier for the men's Olympic Marathon Trials.

''Ever since she started training me, I just started improving each race,'' said the 25-year-old Martin, who went into Cal International hoping to run 2:18 or 2:19. ''She's helped me make that next step. Two steps, actually.''

At Boston, Rainsberger will have five runners, including her husband, Bud, 44, a partner in the firm of Carnick & Rainsberger Financial Planners. ''Their whole excitement in going to Boston gives me goosebumps,'' said the past champion, who said she figures she'll be more stressed out watching the race than she would be if she ran, ''probably because I'm helpless.''

She was anything but in 1985. The 23-year-old, then living in Marblehead, beat her closest rival by more than eight minutes on an unseasonably warm day in which she clocked a 2:34:06. Although she quickly apologized for the slow time, she was already on the map.

''It gave me a pedigree, so that when I spoke to people about what I did or who I was, they seemed to understand,'' said Rainsberger. ''Once, I told someone that I was a road racer, and their response was, `Oh, you race cars?' When I tell people that I have won the Boston Marathon, they understand.''

Harder to understand is what it felt like to finish fourth in three consecutive Olympic Trials (1984, 1988, 1992), just missing the team each time. While some view it as remarkable consistency on her part and others imagine it to have been unspeakably frustrating, Rainsberger sees it, at least from this distance, as merely three races in a long career.

''People think finishing fourth is devastating,'' she said. ''For a day, it's devastating. Finishing fourth was a lot harder on those close to me because they didn't know how to react around me. Sort of like when a friend gets divorced. What can you say to them?''

Making it to the Olympics, however, was a dream she held through three decades and just as many sports. In 1980, Rainsberger, an All-American swimmer for the University of Michigan, qualified for the Olympic Trials in that sport, only to see them canceled because of the boycott. Then came the marathon years, fruitful in many ways but never yielding that Olympic berth. After the 1996 marathon trials, in which she finished 19th, Rainsberger decided to combine her talents for running and swimming and pin her hopes on training for the triathlon, which will make its debut as an Olympic sport in Sydney.

''It was going very well,'' she said. ''Then I got pregnant. She's my medal.''

Last year, she added a new line to her athletic resume: race director of the Cheyenne Mountain Sprint Triathlon, which includes a children's category that lasts about 12 minutes. ''Some of these kids are on tricycles,'' said Rainsberger, laughing. ''They're allowed to have a parent in the transition area to help them tie their shoes. One thing I have to do is give back to our kids.''

As for the state of distance running in America, Rainsberger is not optimistic, calling it ''the bottom dweller of sports right now.'' Asked what she would tell Craig Masback, CEO of USA Track & Field, if he were to ask for her opinion on how to mend the sport, she replied: ''I would need a great deal of his time. The solution I see would take an entire generation.''

Setting up a forum in which people like her could share their opinions and ideas on the sport would be a start, she said. Considering a national and regional system of clubs and teams for children, led by USATF coaches, would be another. ''We have women's soccer and women's hockey to look up to,'' she said. Lining up financial support for post-collegiate athletes, with corporations hiring athletes and creating teams the way Japan does, might be a third option.

As for the recent women's Olympic Marathon Trials, the first in which she did not participate, Rainsberger called them a fiasco of hot, hilly conditions and confusion over Olympic qualifying.

''Why not just expect them to run with a 10-pound bag of flour on their backs?'' she said. ''What hit the newspapers was the fact that we had the slowest performance ever, and that's what our young people read about.''

Nonetheless, did she wish she'd been able to compete? Sure, she said, the athlete in her will always want to be there. ''On the other hand,'' she added, ''it's time for me to get off the fence and voice my concerns, and maybe help if I'm asked.''

Sounds like another new career.

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