A QUARTER-CENTURY ago, on a chilly day in April, I stood with a couple of thousand scantily clad compatriots awaiting the start of the 1975 Boston Marathon. History was about to be made by a blond, skinny fellow who was a few hundred feet ahead.
Bill Rodgers ran the 26.2 miles in two hours, nine minutes and 55 seconds. Later, he would become perhaps the best marathoner in U.S. history, top-ranked in the world for four of the next five years.
I came across the line 36 minutes -- and more than 300 runners -- behind Mr. Rodgers, feeling that I was part of a tide of American runners that would never recede. Many of us, including Mr. Rodgers, had been inspired by Frank Shorter's victory in the 1972 Olympic marathon in Munich. The United States put three runners in the top 10 that day. Four years later in Montreal, Mr. Rodgers succumbed to the heat, but Mr. Shorter was second and Don Kardong was fourth, again showing an astonishing depth of talent.
But now, as athletes compete in the 2000 Olympics, Americans are not a factor in the marathon. Our country's top runners are so slow that we cannot enter a full contingent of three in the race. Only trials winners Rod DeHaven and Christine Clark are in Sydney.
In 1982, the United States had three male marathoners in the world top 10 rankings, led by Alberto Salazar in first. Since then, only one native-born American has made the list -- Steve Spence in 1991. South African expatriate Mark Plaatjes made it in 1993. Now our big hope is world record holder Khalid Kannouchi, a Moroccan by birth who was made an American citizen too late to train for this year's Olympic trials.
So what happened?
For many, the answer is simple -- Africans happened, particularly Kenyans, who have dominated distance running for more than a decade. The assumption is they must be equipped with better genes, a natural ability to run long distances that leaves us Americans in the dust.
The fact is recent marathon top 10 lists do contain plenty of Kenyans, but also runners from Portugal and Italy and Japan and Korea and Mexico and other countries whose genes are well-represented in the eclectic pool that makes up the people in the United States.
There are some historical factors. The boycott of the 1980 Olympics hurt, depriving an emerging generation of running heroes. Still, in 1984, Joan Benoit won the first women's Olympic marathon, yet that only delayed the descent of American women's marathoning, now as lackluster as the men's.
The growing professionalism of the sport -- which was supposed to save it -- did some damage, as runners were content to pick up $500 winning the weekly 10-kilometer race instead of dedicating themselves to training for a major world title.
In the end, it is a simple matter of architectural engineering: If you are building a pyramid, the bigger the base, the higher the point at the top. In Kenya, the base is huge, made up of millions of youngsters who grow up dreaming of being distance runners, akin to the base we provide for basketball. The more people in the base, the better the chance of getting that elusive combination of naturally endowed talent nurtured by the desire for excellence necessary to reach the top.
If you look at the sheer numbers of people running marathons in the United States, the base of the pyramid appears even bigger now than 20 years ago. But the numbers are deceiving. While more people are running marathons, fewer are trying to run as fast as they can. The growth has been at the slow end of the scale, those who finish the race in four hours or more. There might be some great runners among those people, but we will never know because few of them try to do more than finish, to chalk up a marathon as one of their life's goals accomplished.
Twenty-five years ago, satisfaction came not just from finishing -- that was always goal No. 1 -- but from running faster than you had the last time. That was what drove everyone I ran with back then.
Now that seems to be the goal of only a diminishing few. A marathon is something you do to feel good about yourself, not to see how bad you can make yourself feel, banging your body against that wall at 20 miles and pushing as hard as you can for those last 10 kilometers.
I've always believed that everyone who runs a marathon is a winner, but Americans aren't going to get any better at this sport until we get a few more people who know that a race only has one winner -- and are angry when it isn't them.
The races themselves cater to this new-age crowd. It used to be on weekends, you plunked down a $1 entry fee, took off for 10, 15 or 20 miles, had a drink of water and went home. Now you pay out $20, run 3.1 miles and party for a couple of hours. Don't worry, be happy.
My first marathon was in New York in 1974, four times around Central Park. The entry fee was $2. At Boston the next year, it cost $3 to get in the field. Now it costs more than $70 to run the 26.2 miles in New York and Boston.
You just wonder if a special-education kindergarten teacher who quit smoking and took up his old college sport of running when his motorcycle broke down would pay $70 to enter the Boston Marathon. That was Bill Rodgers in 1975. There might be another one out there now, looking for a distance running hero, and a race he can afford.
Michael Hill, who covers higher education for The Sun and coached cross-country at Johns Hopkins for three seasons, ran 28 marathons before his right knee started giving out.