3:42 PM EST, January 9, 2012
There is no doubt Frank Shorter is the greatest U.S. men's marathoner ever.
And what better time than now to think about his stature - and that of all U.S. marathoners - with the U.S. Olympic marathon trials coming up Saturday in Houston?
So here is my list of the Top Ten U.S. men's marathoners, a group that pretty well covers the history of marathoning in this country.
Yes, Ryan Hall is on the list, and he would move into my top three should he make the 2012 Olympic team and win a medal at the London Games.
(I will rank the women later this week.)
Coming up with such a ranking is a Sisyphean task or, to mix metaphors, a bit of trying to compare apples to oranges, so thoroughly has the sport changed with the emergence of hundreds of great East African marathoners, especially Kenyans, particularly over the past two decades.
For example: In the 1972 Olympic marathon, where Frank Shorter won gold, there was just one Kenyan entrant, who did not finish. There was no Kenyan in 1976, when Shorter won silver behind an East German later linked to doping. In 1972, there were three Ethiopians -- including bronze medalist Mamo Wolde -- but none in 1976 because of the African boycott that also kept Kenyans from competing in Montreal.
But that does not prevent me from ranking Shorter as the greatest U.S. marathoner ever, because he beat all comers and because I believe Olympic results generally carry more weight than anything else. Especially since until the last 35 years, there were only three races of real note open to U.S. runners: the Olympics, Boston and Fukuoka, Japan.
My idea of greatness includes these other criteria:
*Dominance of an era. You can beat only those runners competing with you, and doing so convincingly is a mark of greatness. There is no real way to compare 1908 to 1964 or 1972 to 2011, so you judge each in its own context.
*Times. Even with dramatic differences between courses and weather conditions, a fast time is a historical calling card.
*Contribution to the sport. Some people not only have been great competitors with impressive results but also had a lasting impact on either the public appeal of marathoning or the elite part of the sport.
With all that in mind, here goes:
1. Frank Shorter. His two Olympic medals trump everything else - especially since no U.S. runner had won a medal since 1924 when Shorter won in 1972. That Munich gold helped spur a mass running boom that has continued to this day. Shorter also won four straight titles at the Fukuoka Marathon, considered the most competitive international invitational race of that era, and won the 1971 Pan American Games marathon.
2. Bill Rodgers. "Boston Billy" missed his best chance at an Olympic medal when the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics. But the elfin Rodgers was the dominant runner on the domestic circuit during the golden age of U.S. men's marathoning, winning Boston four times and New York four times from 1975 through 1980, and he also was ranked world No. 1 three times. His engaging personality helped popularize the sport.
3. Meb Keflezighi. A native of Eritrea who came to the USA at age 12, "Marathon Meb" became the first U.S. Olympic men's marathon medalist since Shorter when he won silver in 2004. In 2009, he became the first U.S. men's winner at New York in 27 years. He also finished second at New York in 2004, third in 2005 and third at Boston in 2006 (the first U.S. man to make the Boston podium since 1985). Last November, at age 36, he finished 6th at New York in a personal best time. As gracious as he is talented, Keflezighi has won hearts as well as medals.
4. Buddy Edelen. At the height of his career, one story called him "a forgotten expatriate." Another, summarizing his career, called him, "Buddy Who?" But two-time Olympic marathoner (14th in 1968, 4th in 1972) and former Sports Illustrated runner Kenny Moore called Edelen the inspiration for the exceptional generation of U.S. men who followed. In 1963, Edelen became the first to break 2 hours, 15 minutes (2:14:28) and the first U.S. man to set a world record since 1925 (and the last until Khalid Khannouchi in 2002). Later that year, he ran what then was the third fastest time ever. Edelen won the 1964 U.S. marathon trials by nearly 20 minutes in 91-degree heat but, soon injured by overtraining, finished 6th at the 1964 Olympics. He moved to England in 1960 to train and race in a more intensive environment and retired in 1967 with seven wins in 13 races, "most against strong international competition," according to a story in the Norwich (Conn.) Bulletin. Edelen was a fast man ahead of his time - the running boom that arrived less than a decade after his world record. How fast? Only nine U.S. men ran faster in 2011 than Edelen's top two times of 1963.
5. Clarence DeMar. He was the dominant U.S. marathoner for two decades, finishing second in his first Boston Marathon in 1910 and winning the race for the seventh time in 1930 at age 41. DeMar competed in three Olympics -- 1912, 1924, 1928 -- and won a bronze medal in 1924, the last Olympic men's marathon medal by a U.S. runner until 1972.
6. Johnny "The Elder" Kelley. He became a marathoning touchstone by running the Boston Marathon 61 times (finishing 58), the last at age 84. In an era when Boston was the most esteemed non-Olympic marathon, Kelley won the race twice, 10 years apart in 1935 and 1945, and finished second seven times. He also competed in the 1936 and 1948 Olympics, taking 18th and 21st. In 2000, Runner's World magazine named him "Runner of the Century."
7. Khalid Khannouchi. The Morocco-born Khannouchi, who moved to the United States in his early 20s and became a U.S. citizen in 2000, is both the U.S. record-holder and the most consistently fast U.S. marathoner ever, with four of the five official top times in U.S. history. Khannouchi also won races, including Chicago twice and London (with a world-record time) after getting citizenship.
8. Alberto Salazar. An emigre from Cuba as a child, Salazar was a shooting star as a marathoner, with the most effective part of his running career likely shortened by his maniacal training and by having won one of the most dramatic battles in marathon history. In 1980, he won the first of three straight New York titles, with the then-fastest U.S. marathon debut. In 1981, he won New York in a time (2:08:13) first thought to be a world record, but the course later was found to be about 150 yards short. In 1982, on what the Boston media guide calls a "sun-scorched afternoon," he and Dick Beardsley fought "The Duel in the Sun" over the last nine miles at a Boston Marathon record pace. Salazar took the lead with a mile to go, won in a sprint and then collapsed from dehydration. He never was the same runner after 1982 and finished 15th at the 1984 Olympics, four-plus minutes from the bronze medal.
9. Johnny Hayes. Hayes had finished 5th, 3rd and 2d at Boston before becoming part of the most legendary Olympic marathon -- and the first run over the now accepted distance of 26 miles, 385 yards. It was the 1908 London Games, where the first finisher, Italy's Dorando Pietri, would be disqualified because race officials carried him across the line after he collapsed several times near the end. Hayes, second across the finish, was awarded the gold and later touched off a brief marathon craze in New York; Pietri became an international celebrity. Both men turned professional after the Olympics, a decision that banned them from most races under the amateur rules of that time. They ran two match race marathons of 260 laps in Madison Square Garden, with Dorandi winning both.
10. Ryan Hall. After setting a new U.S. men's debutant mark in 2007, Hall has gone on to become the second-fastest U.S. man ever on a record-eligible course (2 hours, 6 minutes, 17 seconds) as well as the fastest ever under any conditions when he took advantage of a substantial tailwind and a point-to-point, downhill (for record purposes) course with a 2:04:58 in Boston last April. Although Hall clearly has been the leading U.S. marathoner since 2007, he has made the podium just once (a third) in eight international marathons and was 10th (the second U.S. finisher) at the 2008 Olympics.
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