PITTSBURGH -- America's lack of proficiency in the marathon could be embarrassingly obvious here Sunday morning, for the second time in 10 weeks.
That's because the U.S. Olympic marathon trials for men, scheduled for an 8 a.m. start Sunday in downtown Pittsburgh, could wind up with the same forlorn finish as the U.S. trials for women did on Feb. 26 in Columbia, S.C.
That was the race won by Christine Clark, 37, the pathologist from Anchorage, who came home a winner with a personal best of 2 hours, 33 minutes and 31 seconds. But since that time was 31 seconds slower than the ``A'' time standard for the Olympic Games, it meant that Clark alone would represent the United States at the Games in Sydney, Australia, rather than the usual three-runner contingent.
The prerace scenario for the men in Pittsburgh is decidedly similar. Only two Americans have met the Olympic A standard of 2:14.00 - David Morris of Chugiak, who ran the 1999 Chicago Marathon in 2:09:32 last October, and Joe LeMay, who won the California International Marathon in 2:13:55 in December.
Khalid Khannouchi, the world-record holder and America's best marathoner as of Wednesday, when he finally became a U.S. citizen, won't run here. He finished third in the London Marathon on April 16, running 2:08:36, but came out of the race with ankle and hamstring injuries.
That leaves these possibilities:
If all of the top three finishers run 2:14 or faster, all three make
the Olympic team.
If only the winner runs 2:14 or better, he will make the Olympic team, and so will Morris and LeMay, who already have met the standard, if they finish the race. Should either Morris or LeMay win, in whatever time, they will constitute the two-man team representing the United States in Sydney.
If a runner other than Morris or LeMay wins, in a time slower than 2:14, he alone will represent the United States in the Olympic race for men, the same as Clark.
A single U.S. entry in the men's Olympic marathon would be a first, but with only two trials entrants who have met the A standard - compared with 76 Kenyans, 39 Japanese and 17 Russians - even that may be more than the United States really deserves.
In LeMay, Morris and Todd Williams, however, the United States has some athletes whose dedication to their 26.2-mile calling is beyond admirable, and who all may meet the standard.
The 6-foot-4 LeMay is an engineer from Princeton who works a 40-hour week for a banking software company. He trains yearround near his home in Danbury, Conn., and wears a headlight, like that of a miner, when he runs on the narrow, dark country roads before and after work.
He missed out on running the 10,000 meters in the 1996 Olympics because of the same time standard rules now confronting various U.S. marathoners.
``I think my chances are better than average,'' LeMay said last week. ``Certainly in 1996 I would have been a long shot, and this time I'm going in as one of the favorites. I honestly can't say that I'm in the best shape of my life, but I've been training hard, about 140 to 150 miles a week, and I'm looking forward to getting out on the course and getting this thing over with.''
Morris set the U.S. marathon record at 2:09:32 when he finished fourth at Chicago last year. To reach the elite level, Morris, 29, moved to Japan and spent spent three years training there. Today it may prove to be his best career move.
``A lot of Europeans, Japanese and Africans are running well, and everyone says the Americans are soft,'' Morris said. ``So I went over there to learn about their training and make some money so when I came back I wouldn't have to work, just concentrate on running. I learned a lot over there. I learned to run a little higher mileage and to do longer-tempo runs that aren't real fun, but they make you a better runner.''
Williams, one of the nation's most accomplished distance runners, has run only two marathons and has struggled in the late going both times. To get past that trouble, Williams has done six twohour runs on a basement treadmill with the temperature set at 75 degrees.
``If this one doesn't work out, it's going to be a while before I run a marathon again,'' Williams said.
Others in the 106-man field who may challenge include Rod DeHaven, 33, who ran Chicago's flat course in 2:13.02 two years ago; Keith Brantly, 37, who earned a $100,000 bonus, the largest in U.S. history, for winning the 1998 U.S. championship; and Alfredo Vigueras, 37, the Californian who won here last year in 2:14.20.