World Class

As evidenced by a strong showing at the Bislett Games, Bob Kennedy may be the best U.S. distance man in a decade
July 31, 1994

You could not miss Bob Kennedy, the American. He was the giant sore thumb, the unmistakable answer to the question: What is wrong with this picture? A group of small, fleet-footed African runners had separated from the pack at the midpoint of the 5,000-meter race at Oslo's Bislett Stadium last Friday night, just as other African distance runners have separated from other packs in races for the last decade or so. There was the favorite, Khalid Skah of Morocco, who was going for a world record. There was the defending Bislett 5,000 champion, Paul Bitok of Kenya.

And there were the three jostling foot soldiers—two Moroccans and a Kenyan—filled with mistrust and muted anger, ready to respond should the race tactics of the enemy interfere with their prized countryman. It had happened many times before in races involving Moroccans and Kenyans, most notably in the 10,000 meters at the 1992 Olympics, when Skah was temporarily disqualified after it was alleged that one of his lapped teammates had hindered the progress of Skah's Kenyan pursuer; Skah was later reinstated and awarded the gold medal.

In Oslo it was an African express of five runners, each mirroring the others' smooth, effortless strides. And all followed by a strange caboose indeed: a tall guy with a beard.

An American, for heaven's sake, with a famous American name. Twenty-three years old. A hair under six feet tall. Raised in Westerville, Ohio. A graduate of Indiana. Two-time NCAA cross-country champion. Former NCAA indoor champ in the mile and outdoor champion in the 1,500 meters. Twelfth place in the 5,000 in Barcelona. Didn't even qualify for the 5,000 finals at the '93 world championships.

Impossible.

A full head taller than any of the five Africans he chased, Kennedy looked like a giant misprint. Perhaps he was a rabbit who had forgotten to drop off the track after setting a torrid pace. Surely he would cramp up at any moment. Surely he would fall back. After all, the U.S. never produces great male distance runners anymore. Who was the last American to make his mark in the long races on the track? Craig Virgin in the early '80s? Steve Prefontaine in the mid-'70s? Yet here was Kennedy, his brown doe eyes fixed on the leaders, his crew-cut-topped head held high, his torso relaxed, looking every bit as comfortable as those two-footed antelopes who were setting the pace. "I wanted to be there with 800 meters to go," Kennedy said later. "I wanted a chance to win."

Kennedy had already raced at Bislett twice in his career, and both times he had set personal bests. "It's usual! perfect temperature for distance running," he says. "The air is clean. And the way they've built the track, the crowds are right on you. It gives you that little extra adrenaline."

Bislett bills itself as the "world record track," because 50 world records have been broken there since 1924. Number 50 had been set earlier in the evening by Kenya's William Sigei, who shattered the 10,000-meter mark of his countryman Yobes Ondieki by more than six seconds. The effort by Sigei, the 1993 and '94 world cross-country champion, was a tour de force that left observers wondering what other records are within the 24-year-old's grasp. At 6,000 meters, after the two rabbits dropped out, Sigei was off world-record pace by four seconds. He then pulled away, cranking out a 63.5-second lap to put space between him and the field as he fed off the energy of the knowledgeable Oslo crowd. The enthusiastic Norwegians clapped in rhythm with Sigei's long, silky strides and whistled derisively when a threesome of lapped runners failed to move aside as Sigei approached. "He will break it!" the Bislett announcer promised as Sigei began his final lap, which he completed in a blistering 56.9. His time was 26:52.23, a personal best by some 25 seconds.

Like most of the current crop of Kenyan track stars, Sigei lives outside London, in Teddington, where he is trained and managed by Kim McDonald. Kennedy, whose home is in Bloomington, where he is coached by legendary Hoosier coach Sam Bell, is also managed by McDonald. Since coming to Europe for the summer track season, Kennedy has been training with the Kenyans, doing the same workouts they do, which has buoyed his confidence. "You realize they're not superhuman," he says.

When he's back home in Indiana, Kennedy trains by himself. One reason is that he can't find an American who can keep up with him. "My miles are similar to what others do: 90 to 95 miles a week in the off-season," he says. "But I run more of those miles more intensely than other U.S. runners. When I do a series of 400s, 600s, 800s—whatever—they're all geared toward a 13-minute pace [for the 5,000], with very little recovery time between them. One of the reasons we haven't produced many world-class distance runners recently is I don't think Americans train hard enough. For a long time you've been able to make the U.S. Olympic team running 13:45 at nationals, and that's been everyone's goal."

Kennedy has had little interest in being just the best American. His father, Robert Sr., who sells exercise equipment in Ohio, also ran at Indiana and once held the Hoosier record for the three-mile run. "He never pushed me into running," Bob Jr. says, "but he said, 'Whatever you do, try to be the best.' " To Bob, that meant only one thing: an Olympic or world championship gold medal. Since most 5,000 runners peak at age 26 or 27, everything pointed toward Atlanta in '96.

While Kennedy now appears to be ahead of schedule, it didn't look that way last March when he missed the world cross-country championship because of a stress fracture. Rest was prescribed, and for more than a month his only exercise was a couple of hours a day on a stationary bike. The time off, he believes, was a blessing. "The Kenyans take two months off at the end of every season," Kennedy says. "No American does that."

Kennedy didn't get back on the track until mid-April. He was rejuvenated, and his training was stronger than ever. Kennedy's goal this season had been to break 13:10, which would have been some five seconds faster than the 13:14.91 he ran at Bislett last year—the fastest time by an American in the 5,000 since 1989. But he had to radically raise his sights. In his first 5,000 of '94, on July 8 in Lille, France, he ran 13:05.93. When he called Bell to share the news, Bell took it in stride. "He's always preached, never set limits," Kennedy says, "He told me, 'Great job, now get your head ready to break 13 flat.' "

Any notions that Kennedy might prove a one-meet wonder were dispelled in Nice on July 18, when he broke Steve Scott's American record in the 3,000 with a 7:35.33, as he finished fourth behind three Africans. Now, four days later Kennedy was at it again, in Oslo, chasing a phalanx of tireless Africans, as the Norwegian fans roared encouragement.

To Kennedy's surprise, Bitok and Simon Chemoiywo, the top two Kenyans, began to drop off the pace with two laps remaining. Kennedy passed them. Now he was fourth, trailing the three Moroccans, with Skah leading. When Skah put on his surge at the bell, Kennedy stayed with him. He passed Hissou Salah, but with 200 meters to go, Skah was still two meters ahead of him, with Brahim Lahlafi between them. "I was a little too far back to catch him," says Kennedy. He blew by Lahlafi with his kick, but was unable to run down Skah, finishing second.

Though Skah's winning time, 13:01.89, was almost five seconds slower than the world record (set earlier this year by Haile G. Selassie of Ethiopia), Kennedy's time, 13:02.93, was the second-fastest ever at 5,000 meters by an American. Sydney Maree, a native of South Africa, holds the U.S. record at 13:01.15—a mark Kennedy hopes to lower in Zurich on Aug. 17.

"There's another level between competing and winning," Kennedy says. "I know I can compete with anyone. Now I have to learn how to win. I realize now Skah's teammates were putting themselves between him and me. This is still new territory to me."

Its new territory in general for distance runners from the U.S., which has proved to be a developing nation when compared with Kenya, Morocco, Burundi and Ethiopia. The last time an American won a medal in a distance race on a track at the Olympics was in 1964 when Bob Schul and Bill Dellinger placed first and third in the 5,000 and Billy Mills won gold in the 10,000. Says Kennedy, who hopes to be the next such medalist, "One thing I hope I've done is raise the level of thinking about what you can accomplish as a U.S. distance runner."

Consider it done.

PHOTOBOB MARTINKeeping up with the Africans, the bearded Kennedy (228) came within a hair of victory. PHOTOBOB MARTINSkah, the favorite, was the one runner Kennedy could not catch.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)