The first competitive race I witnessed was one of the greatest college cross-country races ever contested. The 1979 NCAA Cross Country Championship at Lehigh University showcased legendary powerhouse teams, including UTEP, Washington State and the University of Oregon.
More astonishing, however, were the individuals and their performances on that perfect 60-degree morning in the Saucon Valley. Henry Rono of Washington State, then a world-record holder at four distances, defeated the young upstart Alberto Salazar of Oregon 28:19 to 28:28, with third place 20 seconds behind Salazar. The names in the top 25 that day would go on to define a generation of American and global distance running. Hunt, Musyoki, Maree, Sinclair, Nenow, Spivey, Clary. In 1979, I was 10 years old, born and raised in a soccer crazed town in Connecticut, yet I had never seen anything on the pitch as grueling and beautiful; all I wanted was to be a part of the power and simplicity of this sport.
That cross-country race in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania took place at the apex of the first running boom experienced in America. Frank Shorter's Olympic gold medal in Munich and Bill Rodgers' four Boston and New York City Marathon wins inspired American runners of the 1970s and early 1980s to get out the door and run.
In the more than 35 years since my introduction to distance running, I have seen and experienced much. Here are a few reflections on the past decades.
What is Old is New
The 1970s and 1980s saw American runners at or near the top of international long-distance races from the 5K to the marathon. The U.S.'s best athletes ran more, commonly averaging 100 to 130 miles per week for years at a time. While there were undoubtedly casualties of this high-volume approach, American distance runners consistently saw the podium in every medium—cross-country, road racing and the track.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, things changed. A handful of influential exercise physiologists convinced many, including those in the coaching community, that we could run less and perform as well or better.
They were wrong. By the early 2000s, the "low volume/poor performance" hangover was wearing off, and the results of our swing back toward larger quantities of aerobic conditioning in the last decade speak for themselves. American long-distance runners are logging more miles and making noise once again on the international race scene.