At a press gathering three days before Sunday's New York City
Marathon, Deena Drossin, who had never competed in a marathon,
announced her plans to finish the race in 2:24:12. That meant
that Drossin, a 5'4", 105-pound runner from Alamosa, Colo.,
expected to beat the nine-year-old course record of 2:24:40 set
by Australia's Lisa Ondieki and shatter the U.S. women's New York
mark by more than 3 1/2 minutes. No one laughed.
This is an article from the Nov. 12, 2001 issue
Drossin, 28, a two-time U.S. champion at 10,000 meters, has the
sort of determination that keeps her rivals glancing back. At the
2000 World Cross Country Championships, Drossin swallowed a bee,
was stung, passed out, got up and finished 12th in a field of
100. Her proclamation had marathon organizers reminiscing about
Alberto Salazar's saying, before his marathon debut in the 1980
New York race, that he would finish in 2:10. He won in a
course-record 2:09:41, and a star was born.
"Deena has Salazar's confidence, and it's great to see," New York
Road Runners Club president Allan Steinfeld said last Saturday.
"This race is the most important event in marathoning, and if
we're going to take this thing to the next level, we need someone
like Deena to capture people's imagination."
"This thing" is the push that the U.S. is making to pull
marathoning in America from its nearly two-decade malaise.
Despite her prediction, Drossin finished seventh in New York in
2:26:58, 2:37 behind the winner, Kenya's Margaret Okayo. (The top
U.S. men's finisher, Scott Larson, came in 13th at 2:15:26,
nearly eight minutes behind winner Tesfaye Jifar of Ethiopia.)
"I'm ecstatic," said Drossin. "I didn't run 2:24, but to debut
with the course record for a U.S. woman--I couldn't ask for
Drossin was also happy to have earned $61,000 and to have won the
U.S. championship. Usually, USA Track & Field designates a
lower-profile marathon for its annual championships, but this
year it chose New York (the first time for the men and the first
since 1978 for the women), hoping to lure Americans to the big
stage. New York's big cash prizes, high profile and punishing
course attract many of the best international runners. Their
presence, in turn, usually causes the top U.S. marathoners to
stay away, because they have little chance to earn money against
the leading foreigners, who years ago left Americans far behind.
The well-chronicled U.S. decline may have reached rock bottom
last year. The U.S. Olympic trials were held for the women in
February 2000 and for the men 10 weeks later, and when the
trials were over, no runner had met the Olympic qualifying
standard. That meant that the U.S. got to send only one
marathoner of each gender to the Sydney Olympics, the same token
entry that the IOC affords countries such as Angola and
Liechtenstein. Says Steinfeld, "We were appalled." The failure
inspired Running USA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to
improving running, to establish a training program for distance
runners, which began in July 2000. Drossin participated in that
program, as did Milena Glusac, who was second among U.S. women
on Sunday. Moreover, in the wake of the disappointing 2000
trials, Fila set up another camp and brought in Gabriele Rosa,
the famous Italian trainer, to introduce U.S. runners to his
notoriously brutal training program that has been so successful
for Kenyan marathoners.
"It's impossible that a country as large and with as many
resources as the United States does not produce champion
marathoners," says Rosa. "We think we can change that."
While those training programs were getting under way, Road
Runners organized New York's bid for this year's U.S.
championship and attracted top-flight American runners the usual
way: The club jacked up cash prizes for the race to $514,000,
almost double last year's purse. It also altered the course to
eliminate a short but steep incline at the 23-mile mark.
The result in New York for both American men and women will not
lead anyone to abandon the long road to recovery. "Are we going
to produce an Olympic medalist in 2004?" asks Basil Honikman,
executive director of Running USA. "Not likely. Might we produce
one in 2008? That's our goal."
Drossin, who expects to concentrate on marathoning after another
year of shorter distance running, could be that medalist. "Right
now I'm going to go lie down and watch as much TV as possible,"
she said after the race, "but this was awesome--the race and the
whole experience. We see what the Kenyans are doing in their
training methods, and we're learning. There's a resolve here.
Distance running will be elevated over the next few years, and so
Drossin, "and we're learning."