Wells Shoots for Respect in NYC Marathon

Friday, October 31st 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ If Clint Wells has to drop out of his first marathon, he sees the bright side.

New this year, the New York City Marathon will feature ``sweep wagons,'' vans that tail elite runners to pick them up and bring them to the finish line if they have to quit the race.

``If anything goes wrong, at least I'll have a ride back,'' Wells joked.

Wells hopes to do everything right Sunday. If he does well, he might take up the marathon full-time. That will only help the American men, who have struggled to contend in the marathon for the last 15 years.

Right now, Wells is primarily a cross country runner. He wanted to try the marathon, but figured he would do that in the fall of 2004. When race organizers called him, he decided to give it a shot earlier than expected.

``The day they asked I had the flu so it sounded like the worst idea ever,'' said Wells, a Native American who is who is part Apache, part Yaqui. ``But I wanted to see if it was a race for me. I just want to get one under my belt.''

Billy Mills, the Native American who upset the field and won gold in the 10,000 meters at the 1964 Olympics, has given Wells plenty of advice.

``He was more convinced in my ability than I was,'' Wells said. ``He's been a good, positive role model. He became someone I looked up to.''

Maybe Wells can become someone the next generation can look to as a role model in the marathon, if he decides to pursue the event.

The last American man to win the NYC Marathon was Alberto Salazar, who won the race from 1980-82.

The fastest American in a marathon this year was Jimmy Hearld, who completed a race in Austin, Texas, in 2 hours, 12 minutes, 51 seconds. That is nearly eight minutes slower than the world record of 2:04.55, which Kenya's Paul Tergat set in September.

When Salazar won the NYC Marathon in 1982, he finished in 2:09.29. There has been a regression in running times among Americans, which he finds hard to believe.

``We had been improving from the 60s, 70s, and 80s,'' Salazar said on a conference call. ``There would have been no way to foresee that we'd go backward.''

The last time an American man ran under 2:10 in the NYC Marathon was Ken Martin, who finished in 2:09.38 in 1989. Rod DeHaven was the only American entry in the 2000 Olympics and finished 69th. The last American man to win Olympic marathon gold was Frank Shorter in 1972.

``What people don't realize is running is a very developmental sport,'' Downin said. ``You take a 24, 25 year-old athlete, it's going to take them three or four years of good developmental work to get to the point where they are in a position to think about things like medals and U.S. championships.''

Salazar would like to see runners have more of a commitment to the marathon at a younger age.

Also, there are just a handful of programs and not enough funding for developing standout marathoners. In countries like Kenya, there is a commitment to developing talent, starting when they are teenagers.

``Back in the 80s, it seemed like there were tons of good people running marathons because that was the thing to do at the time,'' Wells said. ``And then it slipped away from that back to the track.''

Things on the women's side are a little better. Deena Drossin has the third fastest marathon time this year in 2:21.16. She will be in New York, but is pacing a group of four women hoping to gain a qualifying time so they can run in the Olympic trials.

The last American woman to win the NYC Marathon was Miki Gorman in 1977, but Marla Runyan finished fourth last year.

Though there is virtually no chance for an American to win, they do have the opportunity to win something. The Alberto Salazar Award was created this year and will go to the top American man and woman to finish the race.

``Hopefully that can put a little bit of a spotlight on the Americans as they work to get back into the thick of it,'' Salazar said. ``We're moving in the right direction.''