Different paths
by Greg Hitchcock 5.9.01

Meb Keflezighi, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Eritrea, set the American mark for 10,000 meters last week at the Cardinal Invitational at Stanford University. He ran 27:13 to break Mark Nenow's almost 15-year old mark of 27:20. For those who don't have an atlas handy, Eritrea is between Sudan and Ethiopia on the Red Sea. Keflezighi came to America when he was about 10 years old, but this is not his story.

Rather, any 15-year old American record is noteworthy, but Nenow's run in 1986 is especially instructive. There are several reasons the record stood for 15 years, and I suspect that running periodicals will focus on how American distance runners have been mostly left behind since then. But the main reason the record stood so long is that it was a fast time.

Nenow broke Alberto Salazar's American record of 27:24 set in 1982. Nenow and Salazar graduated from high school in the same year (1976). They are both slowtwitchers; it would be surprising if either could have run 55 seconds for 400 meters well-rested, which is a major disadvantage when nearly all of their peers could run the last lap of 10K in 51 to 56 seconds. They both work at Nike now and both are well-liked and well-regarded in the sport. But despite their similarities, the two runners took very different paths to the top of American distance running.

Many people are familiar with Salazar's heavy training regimen, replete with the hard interval sessions familiar to Americans. If Salazar's coach, Bill Dellinger, had five principles of training, the principle that won out over the other four was callousing (which in runner-speak is a verb meaning to desensitize yourself to the pain of running fast). Moderation finished last in that system every time.

Salazar trained extremely hard and got great results. Knowledgeable coaches who saw how hard he trained were concerned he would have a short career. It turns out he did. Salazar's best days were done by age 23 (though he still had a couple of world class years in him), which is just about the age that Nenow began to develop into a top runner. It is impossible to say whether Alberto's health issues beyond injuries, such as adult-onset allergies and asthma, were caused by or disconnected from his intense training, but injuries and illness gradually reduced his ability to run world-class times.

Moreover, it is difficult to find fault with an athlete who ruled American roads, track and cross country for several years during an era of the deepest talent in U.S. distance running history. Salazar won three New York marathons and one Boston, setting course records at each and a world best, as well as American records in the 5,000 (13:11) and 10,000 meters on the track, and for 5-miles on the road (22:03). His time of 2:08:13 at the 1981 New York Marathon is still a superior time to any other marathon time by an American (because the course measured 148 meters short of the official marathon distance, the time is not credited as an American record). This is a man who should have few regrets about his stellar career, or the incredible effort that went into attaining that excellence.

A typical week for Alberto had more than 100 miles of running. Monday would include a fartlek run followed by eight to twelve 200-meter repeats at 30 seconds with 30 seconds rest. Tuesday would have a hard track or loop trail sessions. A staple of Tuesday afternoon was to alternate a fast mile at 4:30 to 4:40 with a "recovery" mile at 5:20 to 5:40 for seven to nine miles (the result being an average of about a 5-minute mile pace for the entire distance). Thursday morning usually was a five-mile run at marathon race pace (about 24:30). Thursday afternoon was a fast 7-10 mile run followed by six to nine 300-meter cut downs (56 to 42 seconds), or a similar workout. Saturday was the toughest workout of the week. I once saw him do 4 x 1-mile cut downs , starting in the mid-4:20s and finishing around 4:10. This was a hard workout, but not uncommon. And that was an easy workout compared to the notorious "30th Avenue" session*, which was a key workout leading up to Alberto's New York marathon victories. If the Sunday long run is counted, the result is six hard workouts each week. With that load, he ran his mileage at a relatively easy pace (I usually saw him going 6:30 to 7:00 minute mile pace)

In contrast, Nenow was a good but not great collegiate runner at the University of Kentucky, winning SEC conference titles, but never challenging for a NCAA championship. After college, from 1981 to 1989, he ranked in the top five in the U.S. in the 10K. He peaked in the second half of the 1980s, ranking as the number one American 10,000 meter runner in 1986, 1987 and 1989. In contrast, Alberto started his success as soon as he entered college, ranking in the top 10 from 1977 to 1984. Salazar held the number one U.S. ranking in the 10K from 1981-83. Both peaked at number two in the world rankings, Salazar in 1982 and Nenow in 1986.

Nenow ran his first world class 10,000 meter in 1982 at the Mt. San Antonio College Relays when he stunned the distance world by dropping his PR by 54 seconds, running 27:36. This sudden surge gave hope to every good collegiate runner that they too might develop into world class talent. A couple of years later, Nenow set a world mark for 10K on the road at the Crescent City Classic in New Orleans, running 27:22. That time was the world best for 10 years and still stands as an American road best. Two years later, at the end of the 1986 European track season, Nenow set his American track 10K record in Brussels.

Nenow's training focused more on distance runs, including hill running, rather than taxing interval sessions. During his best years, he regularly exceeded 140 miles per week. He also took extended break times each year (4-6 weeks with no running). In contrast, Alberto often trained and raced at a world-class level year round, without any significant rest periods.

I recall Nenow coming to Eugene to see about relocating to train there, and possibly be coached by Dellinger, the University of Oregon coach. He watched an end-of-season "taper" workout that us collegians were doing to prepare for the nationals. We ran four times 1200 meters averaging 3:14, with the fastest at about 3:05. It was apparent that Nenow wanted no part of that interval training, or of the early 1980s Eugene scene where you couldn't go out to collect the morning paper without seeing a 13:30 5K runner zooming by on a morning run.

Nenow preferred to train alone and to train with steady, hard runs in rolling hills. While he often ran hard, he did not do many intervals. In fact, he had years in which he did no interval sessions. His best success, though, came when he added just a little bit of low-intensity speed work to his training. He can't regale an audience with many stories of heroic workout sessions. Instead, he can only point to the 27:20 that stood for almost 15 years as the American track standard and the equally imposing 27:22 road 10K record that stands yet. That makes for a pretty good story.

*"30th Avenue" was a University of Oregon staple cross country workout until the early 1980s when it became apparent that athletes were getting injured from the effort. The workout started with 3 consecutive laps on the track at 60, 65 and then 70 seconds to simulate the fast start of a race. The runners then headed out onto the roads at a fast pace, usually in the 5:20-:30 per-mile range. At about two miles into the run, the runners went up 30th Avenue, about a mile long hill at 6-7 percent grade, followed by a similar downhill. At the bottom of the hill, the runners ran another 1200 meters on the road in 3:15 (usually faster) and continued on their mid 5-minute mile pace for several miles, actually running on a stretch of Interstate-5 as they returned to the track. At the track, the runners then ran 3 consecutive laps in 70, 65 and then 60 seconds. Because of the extreme amount of pounding this workout imposed on the legs, it was replaced with a similar effort on the Amazon barkdust running trail when it opened in the early 1980s.