Americans eye rare NYC marathon victory

November 5th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: Americans eye rare NYC marathon victory


Associated Press

NEW YORK - Marathoner Alan Culpepper would rather not call it a drought, preferring the term "dry spell." No matter the label, the long winless streak for American runners at the New York City Marathon has become a stigma.
There has been no U.S. winner since 1982, when Alberto Salazar won his third straight title. The first 13 New York races were won by American men - but none has been since. The losing streak is even longer for American women, dating back to 1977.
Olympic medalists Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor hope to end those skids Sunday, and both have an excellent chance. Keflezighi was third last year in New York in the men's race, and second the year before; Kastor holds the American record in the women's marathon.
But why would the end of such streaks be significant? Would it be simply a matter of national pride, or would it have any impact on the sport itself?
Culpepper, one of the top U.S. men competing in the 26.2-mile race from the Verrazano Bridge to Central Park, points out that American distance running has come a long way in the last few years. As recently as 2003, for instance, no American man was among the top-10 finishers in New York - Kenyans claimed the top four places, and seven of the top 10.
"An American winning would accelerate that further, and would open Americans' eyes to the idea that this is a professional pursuit like tennis or golf," he said. "We're at a unique point in American distance running."
Craig Masback, chief executive officer of USA Track and Field, said a U.S. victory in New York would highlight the success Americans have had recently at the Olympics and world cross country championships.
"We're one of the best distance-running countries in the world, but what you need to transcend just the running community is to have the signature athlete and the signature performance," Masback said. "With that transcendent moment, it can go from impact story in a niche sport to an important sports story."
The 33-year-old Kastor set the American record of 2 hours, 19 minutes, 36 seconds while winning the London Marathon in April. She was the bronze medalist at the 2004 Athens Games, and is ranked No. 1 in the world.
On Sunday, though, she'll wear bib No. 2 - No. 1 is reserved for the defending champion, Latvia's Jelena Prokopcuka.
Now that she owns the U.S. record, Kastor says she will run a tactical race and not worry about the clock. She plans to focus on the runners in the lead pack, also expected to include a pair of Kenyans - 2006 Boston Marathon winner Rita Jeptoo and four-time Boston winner Catherine Ndereba.
Kastor trained for this race by running 130-135 miles per week at her home in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., at an altitude of 8,000 feet. Though most of her training partners were men, she envisioned them as her top women competitors - and visualized battling with them across New York's bridges and through the final stretch in Central Park.
In addition to Culpepper and Keflezighi, the men's race will feature the marathon debut of 23-year-old Dathan Ritzenhein, a U.S. cross country champion who is being touted as the next great American distance runner. They all will be trying to dethrone Paul Tergat, who edged 2004 champion Hendrick Ramaala by a third of a second last year.
After years of not putting up much of a fight - in the dozen New York Marathons from 1990 to 2001, a U.S. man was in the top 10 only twice - the Americans think they have a chance to finally win again this year.
"I think it would have a tremendous impact way beyond flag-waving and pride," said Salazar, who now works in the running department at Nike and will run the first 10 miles of this weekend's marathon to help pace Lance Armstrong. "To be successful, any sport needs to be financially sound and you need sponsors coming into it because of the excitement that sport presents. Without a doubt, if you don't have Americans being competitive, it hurts the sport."
Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner, will be making his marathon debut this weekend. Among the other celebrities will be Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, supermodel Kim Alexis, mountain climber Ed Viesturs and former Olympic gymnastics champion Shannon Miller.
A record 93,000 applied to run in the marathon. About 35,000 will be at the starting line on Sunday. Though much of the attention will focus on Armstrong, the real race will take place among the leading men and women as they pass Columbus Circle and head back into Central Park for the final stretch.
The women's and men's winners of the race, whose primary sponsor is Dutch financial services company ING, will get $130,000.
If Kastor can break the women's winless streak, race director Mary Wittenberg said she has "a chance for crossover appeal" beyond the sport. Wittenberg cites the impact Armstrong has had on cycling and Tiger Woods has had on golf.
"I think an American win in New York will pay back in broader recognition for this race and the sport," Wittenberg said. "I think one person has changed cycling, one person has significantly elevated golf. It will take more than one win in New York, but she would help inspire that pipeline of athletes behind her."

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