A Long Run Gets Longer

July 22, 1992
July 22, 1992

Table of Contents
July 22, 1992

The Games
Travel Alert
Track And Field
Team Handball
XXV Olympic Summer Games
Point After

A Long Run Gets Longer

Francie Larrieu Smith, who burst onto the world track scene in 1969, is now 39 and has made her fifth U.S. Olympic team-this time as a marathon hopeful

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower Drives my green age.... The force that drives the water through the rocks Drives my red blood.

This is an article from the July 22, 1992 issue Original Layout

With two miles to go in the women's Olympic marathon, if Francie Larrieu Smith has run strongly, she may get the chills. Physically, this will mean she has sweat away almost all her body's available fluids. Flirting with heat exhaustion, oddly, one can feel cold. Emotionally, however, she may be shivering because, by hanging on, she will be moving up. Some of the leaders will be faltering, having misjudged the course, the pace, the conditions or themselves.

Those last two miles wind ever uphill. As she runs, Larrieu Smith will feel torn, fought over. Her mounting fatigue will scream the one thing it always does, and her eyes—"You're catching them. They're human up there"—will suggest the opposite. In these final miles, she may feel that the race is forcing her to pit her ambition against her distress, her dream against her pain.

If so, she will be well positioned. No runner alive can bring greater steadfastness of dream to the race than Larrieu Smith. This is not simply because she is now 39 and still running 23 seasons after setting her first American record on the track or because she has made the U.S. Olympic team for the fifth time. No, it is because the force that drives her red blood drives it more powerfully than ever.

In April 1991 she ran 10,000 meters at the Texas Relays in 31:28.92, breaking Mary Decker Slaney's American record of 31:35.3, which had stood for nine years. Then Larrieu Smith placed second to Portugal's Rosa Mota in the 1991 London Marathon with 2:27:35, a good time considering that she and Mota were fighting a head wind for the last 13 miles. "She can do two and a half minutes faster," says Larrieu Smith's coach, Robert Vaughan. That puts her under Joan Benoit Samuelson's Olympic record of 2:24:52.

There is no precedent for what Larrieu Smith has done. In January she earned her spot on the Olympic team when she finished third (2:30:39) in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston. "I'm really the first woman I know of who's going to hit the over-40 masters' circuit who came up as an age-grouper and never quit," she says. To see her run is to demand, How the hell can this be? What has allowed Larrieu Smith alone to surmount the injury, defeat, distraction and boredom of three athletic lifetimes?

She started with good raw material. When Larrieu Smith was 11, one of her older brothers, Ron Larrieu, placed 24th in the 1964 Olympic 10,000, won by a fellow American, Billy Mills. Two years later, Larrieu Smith gave herself to the straightforward dream of going to the Olympics and winning a medal. That dream remains unfulfilled. She has made four other Olympic teams, but her best finish was fifth in the Seoul 10,000.

When she was a shy and willowy 16, Larrieu Smith tièd an American 1,500-meter record of 4:16.8 and so spent the summer of 1969 representing her country in meets in Europe and Japan. Loving ferocious running but sensitive to her culture's ambivalence toward it when it involves women, Larrieu Smith had a choice to make. "That summer matured me," she says, recalling the postcompetition efforts of certain amorous weight men to render her tipsily pliant. "I escaped those guys, but they showed me I was attractive, and when I went back to high school, that freed me to not care about rah-rah social popularity. I had more fun that year, not trying to fit in but just being myself."

For the next 10 years Larrieu Smith was the U.S.'s dominant female miler. A funny, practical vagabond, made happy with a good breakfast and a resilient track, she set 11 world indoor records and 36 American records, indoor and out, at 1,500, the mile, 3,000 and two miles. "At the Garden they used to time me at 1,500 and then 120 yards later at the mile, so I'd get two world records a meet," she says. "I have no idea how many times I did that." Although she was eliminated in the semis of the 1,500 in Munich and Montreal, in all other races between 1972 and '76, she never lost to another American.

Traveling with the ready-for-anything Pacific Coast Club of Dwight Stones, Steve Smith, Kate Schmidt, Al Feuerbach, Jim Bolding and Debbie Brill, Larrieu Smith spent the '70s nodding off in hundreds of taxis and trains, coming gloriously awake in hundreds of stadiums, outkicking hundreds of hometown favorites, cooling down while carrying hundreds of bouquets. She cannot now glance at a European skyline without being mildly stricken with the nights she owned Stockholm or Zurich, Berlin or Budapest.

"The life was abnormal, but I wasn't," she says. "I was happy. I just had this unusual existence in the track and field bubble, and it went on and on, and I won and won, and that was fine." She defined herself by the act of snapping to full alertness, full force, when the race demanded. "I'm very good at focus," she says, suddenly with flint in her tone. "When I hone in, not a whole lot gets in the way."

She married sprinter Mark Lutz in 1976. "We were two people bouncing around Europe who got married without finding out we were totally different," she says. They divorced in 1978. Larrieu Smith kept her focus, placing fourth in the 1979 World Cup 1,500. This was not a woman easily unhinged by domestic turmoil. No, the challenge of her life had to come from where she lived, from the track itself, from being beaten, from Mary Decker.

In 1973 Larrieu Smith had seen the then 14-year-old Decker blossom into the U.S.'s best 800-meter runner and shuddered at the prodigy's bounding speed. "She was the only runner I ever feared," says Larrieu Smith. "I was glad she wasn't in my event. Yet."

Injuries kept Decker at bay until the late '70s, and Larrieu Smith held her off to win the 1979 TAC 1,500. "But when she came on, it was like gangbusters," says Larrieu Smith. "She wiped out all my records, and I didn't respond too well." By 1982 her rival, now Mary Decker Slaney, would hold seven world records and all 10 American records from 800 through 10,000 meters.

"Instead of taking Mary as a challenge, I freaked out," says Larrieu Smith. "I stopped believing in myself and started getting beaten by people I didn't even know. I was near 30 and totally intimidated."

In 1980 she married the steady, supportive Jimmy Smith, now a professor of exercise physiology, and moved to Dallas, but she ran no better. In 1982 she started working with the calm, restraining Vaughan, now of Baylor's Tom Landry Sports Medicine and Research Center, but ran no better. She placed only fifth in the 1984 Olympic trials 3,000.

"Failing to make the team for L.A. was what it took to make me finally absorb what Robert taught," she says. Vaughan's lessons were not unfamiliar ones. Larrieu Smith had learned them at 16, and so it is galling to her now that she ever lost her way. "He taught that life goes on, that you shouldn't take a loss personally, that you shouldn't worry about what others do, that you should run your own race...." she says. "God, I'm embarrassed at what a long time it took me to come back."

"It must be a shock for people who have won all their lives to be beaten," says Vaughan. "I think Francie's reaction is common to many athletes." It's just that most of them go through it in high school.

Larrieu Smith began running road races. "I was thinking, O.K., career's ending, let's get a few bucks on the road," she says.

She got a new life. In June 1985 she dueled world-record holder Grete Waitz over 10,000 meters in New York's Central Park. "Being in New York, running in front of the media guys who remembered all those races from the days in the Garden, it did a lot," says Larrieu Smith. She whipped Waitz with a strong last mile and was confirmed in her move to the longer distances.

After Benoit, Waitz and Mota made the 1984 women's Olympic marathon a hit, the IAAF, the world governing body for track and field, added the women's 10,000 to the Olympic program. Larrieu Smith ran fifth in Seoul in 31:35.6, narrowly missing Slaney's American mark, but by then she knew her race had to be the marathon.

"Ingrid Kristiansen's 10,000 world record is 30:13, and, woo, that sounds fast when your best is 31:28," she says now. "Besides, there are a lot of others around 31 minutes. But in the Barcelona Olympic marathon the heat is going to be a factor, and anything can happen, especially since they have a two-mile hill at the end. That will be my best chance, my shot at fulfilling the old dream I had at 13."

She ran her first 26-miler in 1986, in Houston, gingerly. "Not being a marathoner, it seemed to me a race you needed to learn to run," she says. "But I had a good solid 20 years of base training before moving up." She seems a natural for the distance, weighing but 105 pounds and possessing a stride reminiscent of 1972 Olympic champion Frank Shorter's. "I am light on my feet," she says. "I go forever in a pair of shoes."

She still trains much like a miler, racing at short distances to preserve her speed. "I still think I'm a miler, even when I shouldn't," she says. "1 confidently kicked the last lap of this year's TAC 10,000 in 67 seconds. Unfortunately Lynn Jennings ran a 63."

Studying her new craft, she placed second in the 1990 London Marathon, and won $37,500. Such prizes create a great temptation to race herself to road-pounded wreckage. "Especially at my age," she says. "You think, How much longer can I go on at this level? So go for the money. Go for the money."

With Vaughan's help, she tries to resist. In good years she has won $60,000, but she won't approach that figure this year. "All the best-paying races came in my healing time after the marathon trials in January," she says.

Larrieu Smith finds marathon training wearing and plans to revert to track racing as soon as she turns 40 next November: "Getting ready for the trials I didn't have real problems, but I didn't feel physically perfect, either, and I'm in constant pursuit of feeling perfect. It wasn't fun, and I almost got to wondering whether I didn't have to start giving in to my body now, finally." Whereupon Vaughan noted that listening isn't exactly giving in, and Larrieu Smith cut her weekly mileage from 100 to 90. "And I feel a hundred times better."

She claims she's aged. "Get real," she says. "I'm going to be 40.1 need a routine more now. I don't want to upset my comfortable life with Jimmy and our dogs or miss my coffee with friends every Friday morning." She about convinces you with this smoke, but then she wonders what she could have done in the marathon by now if she had started at 30 instead of 35, and you sense the force in her still, and you ask again: How did she make it here, so green and fiery?

Vaughan considers the question and thinks of how Larrieu Smith once strained a tendon in her ankle and yet ran on it every day for the month it took to heal, or of the race in which she dislocated her toe, kept going until it popped back in and won. "Then she hid it from me," he says, "because I'd have made her rest. I think she does things like that because she just enjoys the competition and the training. She just still likes it." Vaughan speaks with a clear sense of his words' inadequacy. In a scientist's last try, he cites her "great genes."

It would seem that he has explained as much as anyone can and that it is unfair to push Larrieu Smith on the point. You can't expect a chrysanthemum to say why all the daisies have withered. But this one will take a last run at it.

"Well, first, I never at the beginning thought I'd go this long," she says, "but I got into that fairy-tale world of running, and just when the bubble was about to burst, sponsorship became legal and money races came in, and that let me stay in the sport without changing focus. I was blessed that what I loved could become my job. Then, emotionally, I was made to see that if I loved running, surely there would be a race for me to win, and there was. And when that race turned into the marathon, I looked at runners like Carlos Lopes, winning the L.A. men's Olympic marathon at 37, and Joyce Smith placing 11th in the women's race at 46, and then Priscilla Welch running 2:26 at 42, and they all gave me hope. You know what it really was? It was never really feeling like quitting."

Neither will she feel like surrender when she hits Barcelona's final, brutal hill. Instead, she will compare the reality of that ascent with the images that have popped into her mind, unbidden, during every long, hilly training run she has taken for months. She has seen the landmarks, the distant stadium and the other runners, among them defending gold and silver medalists Mota and Australia's Lisa Ondieki, respectively, world champion Wanda Panfil of Poland and talented young Kenyans and Japanese, all of whom will have been tempted to push too hard, too soon.

"Gotta be smart, gotta be smooth," Larrieu Smith says, drilling herself even now. "That's what gives me the old hope. If I can see the finish line, I can always find something."

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERPHOTOPETER HEAD MILLERA loser in the '76 Olympics (above), Larrieu beat Decker in the 3,000 at the '79 nationals.PHOTO[See caption above.]PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERJimmy lends support to Francie, who also finds room in her life for canines as well as marathons.