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Funny money

Here's a timely debate: Would a boatload of money, as in a half-million bucks, inspire a wispy distance runner to jack up the pace? Maybe better handle the baking sun, steaming temperatures and gritty pollution of Athens?

Or, more to the point, fuel an American marathoner's run for gold at the Summer Games? Not likely.

The guess here is a $500,000 carrot isn't turning any Americans into tireless rabbits on the grueling trek from tiny Marathon to downtown Athens, but whatever puts some giddy-up in the stride of Uncle Sam's distance specialists is to be applauded.

That said, talent and heady preparation -- which it sounds like this group has more of than any in recent memory -- could have an American making noise in the men's and women's Olympic marathon later this month.

But first, let's talk funny money.

In what is certainly a shrewd PR move, the organizers of the rival LaSalle Chicago Marathon and the IMG New York City Marathon have banded together to post a $500,000 bonus, reward or whatever you want to call it should an American capture Olympic gold in the Athens marathon. Not a cent for silver or bronze, though. Only gold pays.

Now this doesn't appear too risky a proposition. No one is hyping a fabulous payday for, say, an American favorite in the 100 meters or any of the trio of talented, muscle-bound shot-putters. Lest we forget, only two American men have ever won the Olympic marathon -- Johnny Hayes in 1908 and Frank Shorter in 1972. Joan Benoit Samuelson won the inaugural women's marathon in 1984, and that's been it.

And these aren't your typical headline-grabbing characters, anyway. Money isn't what drives them to log 150 or so miles a week. Dream Teamers they are not.

When news of the bonus plan reached Deena Kastor on the island of Crete, where she and teammates are fine-tuning for the Games, the 31-year-old spoke of being "flattered" with the attention being given her sport. Alan Culpepper echoed similar, gracious sentiment -- though admitting money won't be on his mind over the 26.2-mile course.

"I know I could probably speak pretty confidently for all of us, at 22 or 23 or 24 miles, I guarantee none of us will be thinking about money,'' offered Culpepper, laughing. "We'll be thinking about how to stay on our feet and keep moving forward.

"So, no, it doesn't really -- you know, as long-distance runners, track and field athletes, I know that none of us are monetarily driven. That's not really why we got into the sport.''

Out on the course, it is first and foremost about survival. Getting from Point A to Point B faster than the next runner. Only the Athens course may be more challenging than most because it's a net uphill trek.

The course is defined by a series of rolling hills, much like the Boston Marathon layout. From the 16- to 20-mile mark, the terrain is described as a five-story climb every mile. The closing six miles into Athens is a steady, downhill run that is equivalent to an eight-story drop per mile.

Couple a hellacious course with anticipated 85-degree temperatures, and this is a race you run like a Republican candidate in the Bible Belt: very conservatively. That's the American plan, anyway. And even a fat paycheck isn't changing that.

"[The bonus] is a great incentive, but I don't think we'll be drastically changing our race plans, at least I won't,'' said Jen Rhines. "It's very warm over here. For me, I think it's going to be a steady pace. I hope I'll be able to move up throughout the field during the race. Just run steady, not try to throw down any great surges, but hopefully just progress some as the races goes on.''

Dr. David Martin, USA Track and Field's marathon development chairman, is the brains behind the American race strategy. If the marathons were being run over fast courses like Berlin or London, his charges wouldn't stand a chance against the Kenyans and other runners out of Africa. The course and dicey climate may be the great equalizers, at least that's the hope, in tipping the scales for the smart, laboratory-tested athlete versus the swift athlete.

"I feel like the bad conditions and the tough course is to my advantage, just because a lot of people are going to be disheartened when it starts going poorly," Culpepper says. "You have to run smart under these types of circumstances.

"Most countries around the world, they just don't think that way. They think, 'I'm just going to get in the race and I'm just there to race.'"

The Americans have clearly done their homework, enthusiastically plunging into everything from altitude training to heat and humidity training to working up a detailed hydration strategy. Along the way, physiologists and psychologists have tinkered with their hearts, lungs and minds.

Yet whether any one of them will be smart enough for a $500,000 payday remains to be seen.

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