Twenty miles into last Saturday's U.S. Men's Olympic Marathon Trials in Columbus. Ohio, three men chased two men. The two were veteran road runners Keith Brantly and Bill Reifsnyder, and for the previous seven miles they had tested each other, in the process opening 120 yards on the three men, Ed Eyestone, Bob Kempainen and Steve Spence. They were up there hammering each other," said Spence afterward. "We could see them surge."
Spence, 29, knows the virtues of patience, especially on warm, humid days such as Saturday. Last September, at the World Track and Field Championships in steamy Tokyo, Spence ran a perfectly judged marathon, moving from 24th place at the race's midpoint to third at the finish. His bronze was the first distance running medal a U.S. man had gotten in a world or Olympic championship since 1976, when Frank Shorter earned the silver in the Olympic marathon.
But no one was quite sure what to make of Spence's performance. He had finished ahead of Olympic champion Gelindo Bordin of Italy, among others, but his time was slow, 2:15:36. Obviously it would have been faster in cooler weather, but how much faster? Was his performance the breakthrough U.S. marathoners had been waiting for?
It was easy to be skeptical. Almost a decade had passed since a U.S. man had looked capable of beating the best marathoners in the world. The last was Alberto Salazar, who won the New York City Marathon three straight years (1980 to '82) and the Boston Marathon in '82. The rest of the world has improved since then, but the U.S. hasn't. Last year no U.S. marathoner broke 2:12, a time achieved by more than 50 men from around the world, a dozen from Japan alone. Indeed. Spence got to run in the world championships only after The Athletics Congress, which oversees track and field in the U.S., persuaded the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the sport's world governing body, to raise the qualifying time from 2:12 to 2:14. Spence's best time had been 2:12:17.
"The athletes are beginning to wonder," Kempainen admitted. "What does it take to be the best? Is there something we're totally overlooking?"
There was no shortage of expert opinion in Columbus, where the first three finishers in Saturday's race would qualify for the Games. The event's organizers had invited every living U.S. Olympic marathoner, and on Thursday, 15 of them gathered for a press conference that provided a fascinating oral history of the event. Ted Vogel held up a sad little leather pancake, identifying it as one of the shoes he had worn in the 1948 Games in London. And Buddy Edelen, the last U.S. marathoner to set a men's world record (2:14:28 in 1963), explained how he had spent five years training and competing in England, serving a kind of apprenticeship under leading marathoners of the day.
There, Shorter believed, was one answer to Kempainen's question. "U.S. marathoners aren't doing what Buddy did: going where the good guys are and finding out what they're doing," he said.
Shorter also offered a second answer. "Money clouds perspective," he said. Cash prizes officially entered road racing in 1982. Before they were able to support themselves by racing, runners had the burden of holding a job, but they had the freedom to choose how often they would race. Marathoners need long, measured training buildups, which are hard to achieve when they're running for money.
Spence, a graduate of Shippensburg (Pa.) University, wasn't lacking for perspective. For four weeks before the trials he had cloistered himself in a cabin in the hills of West Virginia. He had no TV or telephone. On weekends he went home to Chambersburg, Pa., to visit his wife, Kirsten, and their daughter, Neely. "Basically all I did was eat, sleep and run," said Spence last week.
Running with his blond hair pasted to his head by sweat and his eyes hidden by wraparound shades. Spence tucked in behind Kempainen and Eyestone as they set out after the two leaders. Kempainen, 25, a middle-distance runner, had competed in just one marathon in his life, finishing second in 2:12:12 in last October's Twin Cities race. "I probably have a pretty distorted view of the marathon." he said. "I've run one, and it was great. There may be another, grim side to it."
It seemed distinctly possible he would experience that side in Columbus. A 1988 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Dartmouth, Kempainen had postponed his second year of medical school at the University of Minnesota to train at altitude in Fort Collins, Colo. Things went well until Thanksgiving, when a pain developed in his right knee. A month later the ailment was diagnosed as a rare stress fracture of the patella. In January, Kempainen was limited to "running" in a pool or using a cross-country ski machine. When he started training again in February, he developed tendinitis in his other knee. It was March before he could really train normally.
Kempainen runs with his elbows far back and shoulders thrust forward, as if he's anticipating the tape too soon. In the uphill 20th and 21st miles, he pushed through with times of 5:11 and 5:07.
Brantly and Reifsnyder were caught at 22 miles by their three pursuers. "It was like Merry Christmas when they came back," said Eyestone. At 30, Eyestone, a BYU graduate, is the veteran of the three 1992 Olympians-to-be. He made the 1988 U.S. team but finished a disappointing 29th in Seoul.
Just past the 24-mile mark Spence, Eyestone and Kempainen looked back over their shoulders in unison. "We're all sale." Spence told the others.
They did not discuss tying. Half a mile from the finish, Spence surged up a short hill, leaving Kempainen and Eyes-tone for good. He reached the finish in 2:12:43, eight seconds ahead of Eyestone. Kempainen was clocked in 2:12:54, superb in view of his limited preparation: He may have the brightest future of all. The three Olympic qualifiers won $40,000, $30,000 and $20,000, respectively, for finishing in the top three. In addition each earned a $2,000 bonus for breaking 2:14 and a training stipend of $16,000.
None of the three appeared spent by his effort. "We were holding back at points," said Spence. "The three of us seemed comfortable most of the way. We're going to recover quickly for Barcelona."
Kempainen (left), Spence (center) and Eyestone moved toward Barcelona in unison.