CHULA VISTA, Calif. -- Al Heppner took a huge gamble in the highest-stakes race of his life.
Heppner, a 29-year-old race walker from Columbia, Md., opened a big lead during the first 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) of the U.S. Olympic trials 50-kilometer (31.1-mile) event yesterday on the roads of the Chula Vista Marina, and seemed to be booking his dream ticket to the August games in Athens, Greece.
But it turned into a nightmare. He faded to fifth place and labored over the finish line in 4 hours, 23 minutes, 52 seconds, in a race won by Duke alumnus Curt Clausen, 36, of the New York Athletic Club in 3:58:24.
"I never crashed like I did today," Heppner said.
He reached 30K in a swift 2:33:04, nearly two minutes in front of Clausen, Tim Seaman and Sean Albert, leaders of the 12-man chase pack.
"I knew I was under Olympic qualifying pace. Everything seemed under control. All I had to do was keep cruising along," said Heppner, a graduate of Howard High and Wisconsin-Parkside who is a member of the U.S. Army World-Class Athlete program.
But the 50K event -- the longest footrace on the Olympic program -- is unforgiving. If the distance itself or the competition do not beat you up, the elements often will.
Heppner began to fade after 30K in the bright, sunny conditions. His legs and arms grew weary. His body stiffened up; it took extreme willpower to keep on walking.
The rest of his race became a struggle and then a straggle.
A half-hour after crossing the finish line, he was still getting medical attention.
"I thought my fitness was good enough to walk that pace," he said. "My mind was pretty confident that it was. I can't tell you exactly what happened.
"Around 41-42K, I was losing my sense of balance. It wasn't muscle cramps that took me out, I just seemed to run out of fuel. I don't know if I didn't take enough calories or what."
His father, Max Heppner of Baltimore, said: "When things happen in a 50K race, they happen fast.
"Sometimes, when you see him hurting like this, you don't know what to wish for -- not finishing it and not hurting his health, or finishing it and being in this kind of pain afterward.
"But Al would never look at it that way. He'd never even think about dropping out."
For Heppner -- who met similar frustration at the 2000 Olympic 50K trials, failing to finish in brutal weather -- his 2004 Olympic dream may yet have legs.
Since only Clausen beat the Olympic "A" standard of four hours flat, Heppner or any of yesterday's other finishers could fill up to two remaining spots on the Athens-bound team by recording a mark under 4:00 by July 1. A prime opportunity will come at the IAAF World Race Walking Cup in May 1-2 in Naumburg, Germany.
"Hopefully, I'll get it done," said Heppner, his body still aching. "Yes, it is still possible. Somehow."