The men's marathon at the Athens Olympics ranks near the top of road racing's great catastrophes.
Mindaugas Pukstas just wishes he had been close enough to see the crash.
The 27-year-old Lithuanian, who lives and trains in Oklahoma, is among the men who think they have the goods to make Saturday's Baltimore Marathon their first victory at the classic distance.
His most vivid experience over 26.2 miles came at the 2004 Olympics, where the breeze off the Aegean Sea couldn't reach a course that concocted some of the most severe conditions to ever greet an international field. The great Paula Radcliffe dropped out of the women's race. A week later, the men's race was soiled when a defrocked priest tackled leader Vanderlei de Lima just three miles from the finish.
The incident opened the door for Stefano Baldini to take gold. About 20 minutes later, Pukstas schlepped into the Panathinaiko Stadium, 74th among 81 finishers after a mishap of his own. He said the sports drink he left for placement at the 5K mark spoiled in the sun and led to a stomach disorder that forced him to stop several times along the route.
"I finished, but I was disappointed," Pukstas said recently from his home in Stillwater. "It was the biggest race of my life. I was running against the best in the world. I wasn't thinking about winning. I just wanted to do my best, and I couldn't."
Pukstas is a bit of a novice.
He was raised in Kaunus, the same hometown as former Maryland basketball player Sarunas Jasikevicius. He dabbled in running as a teen, studied at a college in Lithuania and fell in love with the nation's best triple jumper. They married and moved on to Southern Methodist University. Pukstas transferred to Oklahoma State and is less than two years removed from an 11th-place finish at the 2003 NCAA cross country championships.
Zivile, his wife, directs the jumpers in the Oklahoma State track and field program, where Pukstas is listed a volunteer assistant. On mornings when she must conduct a practice, Pukstas delays the start of his training to care for Rokas, their 1-year-old son. Earlier this year, he logged a series of 140-mile weeks to prepare for a marathon in Edinburgh, Scotland, but he hasn't been able to put in that kind of volume lately.
Last weekend, the lure of a $15,000 first-place prize helped Baltimore pick up Russia's Mikhail Khobotov and Kenya's Ronald Mogaka, men with sub-2:13 credentials.
Pukstas has never had a payday bigger than $5,000. He finished third in his marathon debut, at Austin in 2004, where he posted a 2:14:59 that remains his personal best. Baltimore will be only his fifth marathon, and Pukstas hopes it will bring him his first title.
"Still looking," Pukstas said. "Maybe Saturday."
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