Saturday, March 25, 2017

V 7 N. 21 (3) Jon Hendershott's Most Memorable Men's Distance Races


by Jon Hendershott

Part III—Men’s Distances.


As a wannabe 400 hurdler way (waaay) back when, I felt that that race was the most demanding on the oval. But I also decided long ago—especially after a rash attempt to “run” one—that the steeple runs a very close second. Nearly two miles of distance running, plus negotiating 28 hurdles and 7 water jumps, defines “brutal.”

Two races, both of which produced World Records, are most memorable for me. The more-recent of the pair came at the ’97 Zürich Weltklasse meet when Kenyan Wilson Boit Kipketer ran down record holder Moses Kiptanui in the final straight to cut the record by 0.10 to 7:59.08. (This is the second momentous race from that Zürich meet; see why below, following the 5000.)

But it was the earlier WR I was fortunate enough to see—in the ’76 Olympic final in Montréal—that claims my “most” rating. Sweden’s Anders Gärderud, World Record holder with his 8:10.4 in ’75, made his move with 300-meters left to break away from the dogged pursuit of ’74 European champ Bronislaw Malinowski of Poland as well as unexpected Frank Baumgartl of East Germany.

The Swede gained a couple of meters out of the water jump and held the margin up to and over the final barrier. Then he powered his lanky frame down the closing stretch to cross the line with a WR-lowering 8:08.02.

But behind Gärderud, the drama unfolded suddenly. Baumgartl was finishing strongly and passed Malinowski just before the final barrier. But then the East German caught his trailing knee on the crossbar and went down hard. Malinowski was right behind and suddenly found another hurdle in his way in the form of the on-the-track-in-a-heap Baumgartl.

The capacity crowd gasped in shock, yet the Pole kept his head, simply hurdling his fallen foe. Malinowski came home in 8:09.11, also under Gärderud’s former WR, while Baumgartl gathered himself and was able to get home in 8:10.36 for the bronze medal.

I was lucky enough to meet Gärderud 16 years later when the ’92 International Athletics Foundation Gala was held in the majestic Stockholm City Hall, rather than its usual site of ritzy Monte Carlo. Star Swedish athletes were among the guests.

Still lean and angular, Gärderud smiled when I related to him how memorable his Montréal victory was for me. His smile didn’t break as he replied, “Me, too.”

Last Lap Montreal 3000 Meters Steeplechase click here

5000 METERS:

My most memorable 5K wasn’t a record, but it sure was a screamer in terms of competition. At the ’03 Worlds in Paris-Saint Denis, Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj burnished his historic résumé by first winning his fourth consecutive 1500 title.

Meanwhile, Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge was just an up-and-coming 18-year-old. Yet the pair waged a last-lap battle for the ages, while edging ahead of 10,000 champion Kenenisa Bekele. El Guerrouj had forged into the lead with 800 to go, holding Bekele and Kipchoge at bay until the final bend. Then Bekele dropped back slightly, while Kipchoge held on tenaciously.
Bekele, Kipchoge, El Guerrouj
The pair waged a stride-for-stride battle to the finish as the crowd in the Stade de France roared. The runners even bumped a couple of times in the final meters and looked to cross the stripe together. Yet it was Kipchoge who prevailed by a thin 0.04 in a still-standing World Champs record of 12:52.79. The first six finishers came home under 13:00, still the deepest Worlds 5K ever.

And Kipchoge, who turned 32 last November, compiled a stellar 5K career record since that initial Worlds victory: ’04 Olympic bronze and ’08 silver and ’07 Worlds bronze. But after turning to the marathon in ’13, Kipchoge has reached a new level of brilliance, winning the ’16 London title in 2:03:05 to become No. 4 all-time and then taking the Olympic gold last summer in Rio.

2003 World's 5000 finish  Click here for the video

Now, about that ’97 Zürich affair: following the Athens World Champs, T&FN staffers Garry Hill, Sieg Lindstrom and Shawn Price, along with yours truly, ventured north to the Swiss city for the first Grand Prix meet to follow the Worlds. I was especially excited to attend the Weltklasse as I had read for years about the ultra-high level of its competition. As well, I got to write the meet coverage, always a perk for me.

And the August 13 meet didn’t disappoint, starting with Boit Kipketer’s 7:59.08 steeple record. Shortly after, Wilson Kipketer cut down his own 800 record to 1:41.24. Then in the meet’s closing race, Ethiopia’s grand master Haile Gebrselassie covered 5000 in 12:41.86.

Three World Records—and all in just 70 (yes, seven-oh) minutes. But perhaps just as amazing was that none of those fresh records lasted more than… 11 days.

The 5000 mark was the first to go when Kenyan Daniel Komen clocked 12:39.74 in Brussels on August 22. Two nights later in Köln, the other two bit the dust. First, Wilson Kipketer cut his 800 mark to 1:41.11. Then about an hour later, another young emerging Kenyan in Bernard Barmasai outran vet Moses Kiptanui to slash the steeple best by 3-plus seconds to 7:55.72.

It was a stunning late-summer spate of record-setting the sport has rarely seen since. I felt so fortunate to see the first trio of marks—even if their record lives were short-lived.

1997 Weltklasse Steeplechase

1997 Weltklasse 800

1997 Weltklasse 5000

10,000 METERS:

Two 25-lappers, both at an Olympics, have been most memorable for me—but only one was the most.

First, there was the ’72 Games final in Munich, in which Finn Lasse Viren was inadvertently tripped just before halfway and fell into the infield—right in front of the majority of the T&FN Olympic Tour group, including me. The 5000 defender Mohamed Gammoudi cartwheeled over him a moment later, but Viren was up in just seconds. (A dazed-looking Gammoudi took much longer to struggle to his feet and resume running, though he dropped out some 600-meters later.)
Viren and Gammoudi on the ground

Yet despite the stunning fall and breaking of his racing tempo, Viren caught the field and by the 8K mark had taken the lead. After other late-race surges, the Finn led Emiel Puttemans by 3-meters at the bell but his 56.4 final lap proved too much for the Belgian as Viren clocked a World Record 27:38.4, 1.2 seconds ahead of Puttemans. Viren lowered by a full second the global record held by the immortal Ron Clarke—even after spending perhaps three seconds, or a bit more by some estimates, on the ground after his stumble and fall. Astonishing stuff.

1972 Munich 10,000 meters (the fall is at 12:19 on this video)

It was, of course, only the first of Viren’s two stellar races in Munich, as he completed the distance sweep by taking the 5000 title a week later. And he repeated the feat four years later in Montréal. Both doubles were utterly superb examples of racing supremacy by Viren.

My other ultra-memorable Olympic 10K came in 2000 as two great (such an overused word, yet they were great) Africans waged a duel for the ages in Sydney. Ethiopian legend-in-the-making Haile Gebrselassie aimed to defend his title won four years earlier in Atlanta—where he had to clock an Olympic Record 27:07.34 to outlast the 27:08.17 by Kenyan Paul Tergat.

Two other Kenyans traded the pacing chores for 8K before Tergat assume the lead. By the bell, five were still in contention, but Tergat waited until just 250-meters remained before launching his sprint. Only Geb stayed with him and the pair entered the homestretch.

Not until a mere 50-meters were left did Geb draw even on the outside with his taller foe on the rail. Both runners were sprinting with all they possessed and the capacity crowd was screaming at a thundering level. (Yet for me, it wasn’t the loudest roar in Sydney—more about that in a later installment.)

Each man kept pumping his arms as the finish line crept closer, with Tergat the first to tie up ever so slightly. Geb didn’t edge ahead until about 3 meters remained and both runners dipped like sprinters. The 27:18.20 by Geb turned back Tergat by a bare 0.09 as the pair embraced afterward like the great friends and rivals that they were. Of course, Geb’s ever-present mega-watt smile endeared him to everyone all the more.

It was a race of unforgettable drama and an unmatched display of the highest level of competitiveness.

2000 Sydney 10,000m


I won’t include any marathon memory—simply because I have never viewed any marathon in its entirety. I have seen snatches of 26-milers, mainly at the Olympics and Worlds. But watching a runner or the field pass by at some point in a race doesn’t qualify for me as having “seen” the race.

I loved standing by the side of a road in rural Greece, near the fabled town of Marathon, as the men’s field pattered past very early in the ’04 Games race. I was able to spot Meb Keflezighi among the throng, mainly because he was wearing a white cap with “USA” on the front. So I yelled, “Go Meb!”

And it was thrilling to watch the TV broadcast of the finish in the ancient Olympic stadium in downtown Athens as Meb won his glorious silver medal.

But I have always adhered to a “rule” that the T&FN crew follows: to claim a mark as what we call a “PR seen”—or in this case, a “most memorable” performance—you have to have witnessed that performance from start to finish. So a few seconds as a marathon field runs past don’t count for me. (I will comment later on the “see the whole performance” rule in the javelin section of the men’s field events chapter.)

But one other very memorable moment for me involving the marathon came at the Munich Olympics. On a sunny late-afternoon, we all were seated along the backstretch in the Olympiastadion, waiting for the day’s action to begin.

Then some of us noticed the crowd in the standing-room section at the far end of the stadium beginning to applaud. We also noted an official pushing out someone in a wheelchair. Binoculars quickly revealed who was being wheeled out—and honored eventually by the entire stadium as fans stood and cheered.

Abebe Bikila in Munich

It was ’60 and ’64 26-mile champion Abebe Bikila. The Ethiopian had ushered in the era of African distance prominence with his ’60 victory run barefoot over the ancient cobblestones of Rome. He had defended his title with ease four years later in Tokyo—but then wearing shoes. He memorably did a series of strenuous calisthenics on the infield after finishing the race.

But in early 1969, Bikila was involved in a car accident that left him paralyzed. He eventually regained some use of his upper body—and waved in appreciation when the Munich crowd rose to honor him. He died a little more than a year later, in October of 1973, of a cerebral hemorrhage related to his accident.

While it was tragically sad to see Bikila immobile in a wheelchair—after seeing him run so fluidly and dominantly in film of his two Games wins—he still looked regal in an Ethiopian team blazer as he waved to quietly acknowledge the crowd. It was a privilege to see an Olympic legend be so universally honored that day in Munich.

(Next: men's relays)

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