Sunday’s Chicago Marathon was a big, happy day for Americans.
Comeback kid Luke Puskedra posted a massive five-minute PR of 2:10:24, good for fifth place. In his former life as a University of Oregon star and then Nike Oregon Project pet, the unusually tall (6’4”) boy wonder got everyone’s hopes up by blasting a 1:01 half-marathon at the age of 21. But Alberto Salazar’s magic did not work on Puskedra—he ran a disappointing 2:28 marathon debut, was summarily dumped by NOP, lost his Nike sponsorship, questioned the whole pro running enterprise, and at the start of this year, quit running and gained 20 pounds. It was a brief retirement, more like a reset. Coaxed back into sneakers by his wife and his former U of O coach, Puskedra ran an encouraging 2:15 at Grandma’s Marathon in June, had a solid summer of training, and three weeks before Chicago, rang up race director Carey Pinkowski to see if he could still get in. Puskedra ran, like an American flagpole, in the lead group of petite 2:04 guys ‘til 20 miles, hanging tough in the final 10K.
Forty-two-year-old, never-say-die Deena Kastor finished seventh among an equally over-qualified, international field of women, setting a new US master’s record of 2:27:47. That hotfoot is not just significant in the master’s category: There are only 19 faster performances by US women, ever, five of those being her own.
Big PRs, records broken, familiar US faces amongst the top ten (women were particularly impressive with Americans Sara Hall placing tenth in 2:31:14, and Sarah Crouch, twelfth, in 2:32:51), it was like birthday, Christmas, and Fourth of July at the same time. Grown men were jumping up and down, hugging and weeping a little. I couldn’t be happier for Puskedra and Kastor—they are six kinds of tough, and deserving. U S A, U S A!
As you can tell, I’m about to rain on this parade.
The fact that Puskedra’s 2:10 is the fastest US marathon so far this year is, well, depressing. That performance, while validating for Puskedra, is only 47th on the all-time US list, and doesn’t even appear in the top 291 worldwide performances of all time. If he’d laid that down in 1990 it would have barely warranted a good job. The Dick Beardsleys and Alberto Salazars and Greg Meyers and Benji Durdens and Bill Rodgers of this country were killing it, turning in 2:08s and 2:09s on a regular basis. Heck, factory worker Phil Coppess from Clinton, Iowa ground through the 1985 Twin Cities Marathon in 2:10:05 and was back at work on Monday. At the time, folks were like, That was pretty good. Thirty years on, Coppess’ course record still stands.
Now, a guy who’s had every conceivable training advantage benefits from accidental pacers (Kitwara, Chumba, et al did not have the balls to attempt an honest pace on their own—Chicago abruptly discarded pacemakers this year—and so provided delightful and unexpected company for Puskedra through 20 miles) pops a 2:10:47, and we’re wetting ourselves. Please.
You’ll be happy to know I have no beef with Kastor’s time. The women’s lead pack lit out down the road in Chicago at a brisk pace, and Kastor gamely hung with them. Her 2:27, a top 20 hit on the US all-time list though failing to crack the top 241 postings on a world scale, is very close to what she ran in the 2004 Olympics. Eleven years ago. She is the US marathon record holder (2:19), a mark she set in 2006. The woman’s a machine, no doubt about it, but she’s 42 years old. In thirty years, Joan Benoit Samuelson’s 2:21:21 is still the third fastest marathon, all time, by an American. What, there are no non-masters women in this big country to come in and take up the traces? At some point, Kastor will not be able to prop up US distance running any more, and so far, the view down the pipeline is bleak. There’s Shalane Flanagan (2:21) and Des Linden (2:22), and maybe Amy Cragg, though her PB is 2:27—good on a US scale. That’s three women. I’ve got seven fingers left over.
Some Americans passed on a fall marathon because it wouldn’t allow for proper preparation for the Olympic Trials Marathon, to be held in mid-February 2016. In fact, the only reason the Chicago Marathon was able to attract domestic talent like Kastor and Puskedra was because neither was really thinking about the Trials. Kastor realized a 43-year-old (she’ll have a birthday before the Trials) really shouldn’t have much chance of being top three at the Trials, and Puskedra, coming off a modest 2:15 PR, also didn’t seem like Olympic team material.
Suddenly, a masters woman and a 2:10 guy are looking mighty five-ringworthy. That’s dandy. For them.
photo credit: Getty Images