Where were you 10 years ago today?
I can remember where I was like it was yesterday. 10 years ago today, I ran my 4th marathon at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. Going into the race, I had the 39th fastest marathon personal best in the field of 101 of the top marathoners in the world. On paper, I had no shot at medaling in the race. However, I along with my coaches and teammates in Mammoth trained and believed otherwise. Weeks before the race, I wrote “MEDAL” on the date of August 29 in my 2004 calendar.
The beauty of racing is that once the gun goes off, everyone is for him or herself. The medals and awards are not handed based on the personal bests before the race, they are earned based on performances in that particular moment. I have always believed that preparation is the key to success. After living and training in Mammoth Lakes, I was ready to compete for an Olympic medal.
At that time, I had more credibility in running the 10K distance. In 2001, I broke the American Record by running 27:13 and at the 2004 US Olympic Trials, I set the US Championship Record. On paper, it looked like my chances to medal in the 2004 Olympic Games would be in the 10K, though still a longshot. Having qualified for the Olympic Games in both the 10k and Marathon, I had a very difficult decision to make. I earned the right to compete in both events, but also could give up my spot in one event to focus on the other. Coach Larsen and I spent hours discussing this matter before making a decision. I would be a 2-time Olympian regardless of whether I ran the 6.2 mile race or the 26.2 mile race. But I had already experienced the thrill & honor of being an Olympian at the 2000 Games in Sydney. This time, I wanted to see if I could become an Olympic Medalist. It was very tempting to run the shorter distance and where on paper I was closer to striking distance for a medal. Additionally, the 10k is run at the very beginning of the track & field segment of the Olympic Games, whereas the Men’s Marathon is always the last event. I remember the 2000 Olympics fondly, because after my 12th place performance in the 10k, I had a two week vacation in Sydney, Australia. I really got the Olympic experience of meeting athletes from all over the world at the Olympic Village, touring Sydney, and spending time with my family who came to watch me. If I decided to run the 10k in Athens, I could re-create a similar Olympic experience.
If I chose the marathon, no only was it a longer distance to run, and on hot, hilly and humid conditions, but I would not be able to have the Olympic experience my family and I had in Sydney. By the time the Marathon is over, the Olympics are over the next day. Despite all of these factors pushing for me to run the 10k, I decided the marathon was the way to go.
In the marathon, we felt the hot, humid and hilly conditions would be equalizers that would bridge the gap between my modest personal best (2:10:03) and the 38 competitors that had faster personal bests, one of which was the World Record Holder (Paul Tergat, 2:04:55). On paper, Paul Tergat was projected to finish a mile ahead of me.
Well, sometimes you’ve got take calculated risks to achieve something great. We saw the challenging course and conditions in Athens as an opportunity instead of a deal breaker. We also recognized the unique opportunity to run the marathon in Athens, Greece, the motherland of the marathon and the modern Olympics. Additionally, when Coach Bob Larsen and Coach Joe Vigil started Team Running USA California (now Mammoth Track Club) with Deena and I, our goal was to demonstrate that with the right training and support, Americans could compete with the best distance runners in the world. Within 3 years of starting the group in Mammoth, Deena & I came back with a medal each in the marathon. The USA was the only country to medal in both the men’s and women’s marathon, and we just happened to live less than a mile from each other. This was a big contrast from the 2000 Olympics, where the USA only had 1 man and 1 woman that had the time standard to compete in the Olympic Marathon. In my opinion the resurgence of US distance running started 10 years ago. Today, the USA has runners that are amongst the best in the world in every event from the 800 meters to the marathon. Yet, there is still room for improvement in terms of depth and consistency, so let’s see if we can be in a better position in 10 more years.
In looking back today, a decade later, running the marathon at the 2004 Olympics was also a great choice for my career. 10 years ago the marathon was undiscovered territory for me. Looking back at that Olympic Marathon, winning the Silver Medal gave all the confidence in the world. 10 years ago, I thought I would win the New York Marathon 70 days later, not 5 years and 70 days later. 10 years ago, I didn’t think I would run a personal best in the marathon at the age of 38. 10 years ago, I didn’t think I would be racing and beating guys 10-15 years younger than me. 10 years ago, I didn’t think it would take me 10 years to win the Boston Marathon, but 10 years later I am more than okay with that unexpected delay. 10 years ago, I was afraid to chase Stefano Baldini for the Gold Medal with 5k to go, because I didn’t want to hit the wall and not get ANY medal. But 10 years later, I was confident enough to break away from the pack of young guys at the 5 mile mark. I guess Marathoning is like wine, you get better with age. Some things take longer than we want to achieve or accomplish, but just because they don’t happen in your time, doesn’t mean they will never happen. Never give up on your dreams, but also never give up working to make your dream become a reality.
Run To Win,
P.S. Thank you to Tito Morales of Marathon & Beyond Magazine for his great article “Deena & Meb in Retrospect” about the 10 year anniversary of our Olympic Medals: https://marathonandbeyond.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/18.5_EditorsChoice.pdf
Here is a YouTube Video (Audio in Italian) of the marathon race 10 years ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJI2gjMdRVo