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the Distance Gods

Part 1

The Distance Gods Are Back!

A Look At The 2000 Prep Distance Resurgence And The Countdown To Raleigh!

By Stephen ("steveu") Underwood

Pre, Ryun and Lindgren.

Liquori, Virgin and Centrowitz .

Hulst, Serna, Hunt and Chapa.

Alan Scharsu. Jeff Nelson.

The names are well known - some more than others - to runners, coaches and fans of high school distance running who date back at least 20 years. They were the heroes and idols who set prodigious standards of excellence in the 1960s and 70s that continue to dominate the all-time lists into the new millennium.

Some went on to great success in college and beyond. Others faded away. There were still others in that era remembered by the hardest of hardcore fans - Tim Danielson, Dave Merrick, Richard Kimball among them - and runners like Eric Reynolds, John Trautman and the Mastalir brothers who pushed standards in the '80s.

But their great performances, especially those of the leading names, have stood like monuments to a bygone era - seemingly untouchable.

Internet track statistician Patrick Hoffman calls them (at least the 2-milers) "Distance gods." To those of that era, and still today, they are just that.

Now, thanks to some outstanding athletes coming into full flower this spring, plus networks of local and national information like dyestat.rivals.com, performances and excitement are rocketing to new levels. You could say the gods are making a comeback.

Inspired perhaps by the pair of Steve Prefontaine feature movies released a few years ago and 2000's challenging of the grand records, the kids of today are whispering (or shouting) the names Pre, Ryun and others again. And EVERYONE is talking about THESE star runners:

Alan Webb.

Dathan Ritzenhein.

Don Sage.

Ryan Hall.

And a galaxy of others.

In a manner that hasn't been seen since the glory days, the 9:00 barrier for the 2-mile and 3200 is getting smacked around like an old pro wrestler, while the sacred 8:40 territory that the big four of Nelson, Virgin, Pre and Lindgren once occupied is being attacked by the top dogs.

Taking a look at Hoffman's all-time lists - certainly among the best anywhere - it's clear that this is a special day.

Until the monster Franklin Sanchez/Andy Powell indoor duel in Massachusetts last year, there had been no revisions to the top 40 all-time combined 2M/3200/3000 performer list since 1986. In 2000, there have been three, including two of the top 13 of all time. And the two biggest events of the season are yet to come.

With just Webb joining the all-time top 50 mile list this year, the 4-lapper hasn't seen a statistical breakthrough on that level. But the much-hyped assault on 4:00 at the Herbster mile two weeks ago has been rivaled only by the Riley/Jennings/Karie efforts three years ago - in terms of creating media attention for prep distance runners.

Clearly, distance running is big-time again. And it may be just in time. While U.S. distance runners were more significant factors on the world scene through at least the mid-80s, their stature has diminished greatly in recent years. Check any of the leading message boards on the net, or read the running magazines, and countless theories abound. The dramatic upsurge in performance of Kenyans, Moroccans and Ethiopians has played no small part, but depth of performance among Americans themselves in many distances has slipped dramatically since the early 80s.

Can today's high school stars reverse that trend? Well, they don't deserve such pressure, at least not yet. But it certainly seems likely that there could be some big improvements on, say, the yearly 1500, 5000 and 10000-meter lists of 2003, 2004 and 2005 if this keeps up.

And, of course, this resurgence is good on its own terms. Whatever these fine, fast youngsters do in the years ahead, they've already generated more than enough excitement.

So what do those who bridge the gap from yesterday to today have to say about distance running in the past and present?

If Hoffman's lists were a bit obscure in the past, they are no more. With each passing week, more and more message board posters give the link to his website, lending perspective to the latest 8:50 or 9:00 breakthrough.

While Hoffman - whose day job is that of a computer scientist for his start-up company Anvil Infomatics - respects the milers and all of track and field, he started his lists to give special recognition to those 8-lappers who weren't in the spotlight as much.

"I wanted to give them a little more credit," he says. "They haven't always gotten the glory that the milers do."

As to the mythical status that the "Distance Gods" moniker serves to give tribute to the 200-plus sub-9ers on his list, he adds, "Well, Prefontaine - he's a god to most runners. But some people forget about Gerry Lindgren and Jeff Nelson, who hold the records."

Hoffman started his lists - as well as wealth of pages of other running information and analysis - when his son was endeavoring to break the 4:30 and 10:00 barriers. Eventually, with the help of Jack Shepard and John Molvar, the all-time national lists were born, with the sub-9 2-mile "Distance Gods" list also taking the status of the "Molvar Challenge" - the challenge, that is, of breaking 9:00.

An older permanent part of that page states "This page is dedicated to the small number of High School athletes who have broken the 9-minute 2-mile barrier or the equivalent 3K (8:21) or the current popular 3200 (8:57). Unfortunately, this barrier is becoming more difficult to achieve."

But more recently, he has added, "It looks like this challenge IS becoming as easy as it was in the 70's and U.S. Runners will be back with the world's best. We are definitely back with Ritz, Sage and Logsdon under 8:50 this spring. Track is Back! Gerry Lindgren watch out!"

In Elmhurst, Ill., super-veteran York HS track and CC coach Joe Newton can not only look back to the past with memories of Craig Virgin dominating the state and national scene, but enjoy the progress to that level of his own phenom, Don Sage.

"I think we're seeing a renaissance in distance running," he says.

Newton has developed and guided scads of great distance runners and 20 championship cross-country teams during over 40 years of service at York. But he says his 1999-2000 squads are his best ever - in terms of both times and placings in state and national meets.

One can only imagine that the coach's memories of the likes of Virgin are made even fonder by the accomplishments of Sage and his teammates.

"The (Illinois) state cross-country meet in 1972 - I'll never forget it," he says. "Craig went out in 4:19 for the first mile and just destroyed the field. He was like Pre, just fearless. He was way out there and he never came back."

Equally vivid to Newton was the scene at Prospect HS for the International Prep Invitational the next spring. "It was 95 degrees and the track was just melting; it was like glue," he says. "And this guy (Virgin) runs 8:40.9 and sets a national record."

Virgin's record stood until 1979, when the greatest of the "Gods" - and perhaps the most unlikely - shook the distance world again. Jeff Nelson never thought of times and splits when he raced; in fact, when he crossed the finish line at UCLA's Drake Stadium during the Pepsi Meet 2-mile, he could've sworn his time was 8:46.

And the Burbank (Calif.) HS runner certainly never thought the revealed 8:36.3 would have stood to this day. "It's really something," he says now. "When it had taken place, records were always falling, but then the progress started slowing down."

While no one questioned that Nelson had incredible talent, plus endurance culled from a high-mileage program, that he became the top dog of all time is still something to behold. He was never motivated by records and the watch, and his team almost never did their workouts on the track.

Guided by Coach Kemp, Nelson and his teammates did high mileage, but the intensity was rarely overwhelming. But a lot of speed-play and fartlek running, mixed with some great camaraderie and desire to win for the team, was what fueled them.

"We had a bunch of dedicated guys and we ran as a team," he says. "And we just went out there to do the best we can and to win. We would pace each other and push each other."

Of course, at his best, Nelson was rarely pushed. But ironically, this detachment, and a Gabe Jennings-like attitude of uplifting everyone's performances, was what made Nelson most successful. And he shares a concern with athletes that get too caught up in the numbers.

"They say, 'I'm going to do this time,' and they put so much worry and effort that they've got to do this, if they don't, they're shattered," he says.

While Nelson hasn't always followed the sport as closely as some, since his heyday, it was at the Mt. SAC cross-country race in '98 that he, too, sensed the sport's resurgence. "I was surprised to see all of these kids wearing shirts with Pre quotes on them," he says. "And I remember being really impressed by Josh Spiker."

It would be Spiker, in fact, who would give Nelson's 14:32 course record from 1978 one of it's sternest tests a year later, clocking 14:42 last fall. The Ventura H.S. senior has impressed this spring with a comeback from injury and becoming one of the more-respected voices on the message boards.

Whether the 2-mile or mile records will fall this year, or the next, is anyone's guess. But it seems even more likely that the trend of excellence in prep distance running will prevail for some time to come.

"We have a society imbued with the competitive spirit, an educational system that hopes to promote excellence with its spillover into athletics, a spirit of support for hard work, the presence of national level competitions for a good number of athletes - including those of underclass nature - and the vastly improved communication about our sport through the medium of the Internet. All of these have all resulted in people crossing the finish line in a faster time," says Doug Speck, who is one of the sport's leading proponents as a meet director, writer and web-site editor in Southern California.

"While the bell curve of young people has some obvious and serious problems at the bottom end, still, the top end has some absolutely super kids who are very interested in excellence in every area of their lives!"

Footnote:

In the days ahead, leading up the national championships in Raleigh, N.C. on June 16-17, we'll take a closer look at some of the athletes and teams who have made the biggest splashes this year - for both boys and girls, in the mile/1600 and 2-mile/3200.

The Distance Gods series by Stephen Underwood:

 

 

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