Running: Fleet-Footed Foreigners Need Not Apply

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
News from the Field, February 1997

Running: Fleet-Footed Foreigners Need Not Apply

A million-dollar purse for besting the American marathon mark begs a question: Why reward mediocrity?
By Bill Donahue

Maybe it was after African men took the top 13 spots in last year's Falmouth Road Race, or after the top American woman at the 1996 Olympic marathon finished a sobering 5:25 off gold-medal pace. Whatever the case, an idea seems to have taken hold in the boardroom of one of the sport's top sponsors: Maybe the outclassed Americans need a little incentive.

Thus New Balance, the shoe company, has announced that it will pay a million dollars to the American runner, male or female, who breaks the American marathon best by the biggest margin, on American soil, in 1997. It's the largest prize ever offered in road racing, and naturally it's reshaping the goals of the nation's best runners, especially as the spring marathon season kicks off at month's end in Los Angeles. "I'm going after that million," says Olympian Keith Brantly, who admits that he's now training harder than he did for the Games.

Alas, New Balance's bounty has also stirred up its share of hard feelings. "It is not something very good to swallow," says Kenyan star Ibrahim Kinuthia, who has his sights set on the 2:06:50 world record. His Boston-based agent, Tom Ratcliffe, agrees: "They're rewarding mediocrity."

The American records are ripe to be broken. No American woman has come within five minutes of Joan Benoit's 12-year-old best of 2:21:21. The men's best, Bob Kempainen's 2:08:47, is more approachable--but Kempainen has quit racing, and no other American currently running has broken 2:09. So few experts expect any U.S. marathoner to become an instant millionaire. Still, New Balance says it's pleased with its promotion. "We wanted to put American running back in the limelight," says spokesperson Joyce Furman. "It's patriotic." And, we might add, pretty risk-free.

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