The Top Dozen American Long Distance Running Performances

11/03/2009 - 12:26

By Pete Rea/ZAP Fitness/Running Journal/November 2009

Living full time at a training center for runners, one would imagine our topic of conversation is 90 percent running related. Lately nothing could be further from the truth. With politics and finance majors from Princeton as well as well as MBAs, exercise science, and psychology majors, we discuss and debate global politics and classic literature as much as we do performances on the roads and tracks.
One topic, however, that has recently raised eyebrows and brought the volume level up here in the office is the subject of the greatest performances by American runners, particularly in the last few decades. Part of the crux of this debate of debates is the notion of what constitutes a “great” performance in long distance running. Are times the most important weighted factor to be “great” or should victories and placings be weighted more heavily regardless of time? The answer is a tough one and a mix of the two, but all of us here at ZAP decided to take on this enormous task and attempt to come up with the top handful of American long distance running performances in the modern era, that we decided began with the 1964 Olympics in Mexico city 45 years ago.

Here they are distance running lovers – the ZAP Fitness dozen greatest American distance running performances during the last 45 years.

#12 – Craig Virgin – World Cross-Country Champion (Madrid, Spain 1981) Craig Virgin may be the best American runner few people know. A National high-school record holder, NCAA Champion, Olympian at 10,000m, three-time winner of the Peachtree Road Race, and American Record Holder, the Illinois native picked up his second World Cross-Country title (he also won in Paris in 1980) on the muddy cow pastures in Madrid with a tough front run race tactic.

#11 – Dathan Ritzenhein – American Record 5,000m – 12:56 (Zurich, Switzerland 2009) “Ritz” is one of the premier young guns currently making his mark on American running history. The 27-year-old made his biggest mark just a few weeks ago becoming the fastest non-African ever at 5,000m and one of only a handful to ever break 13:00.

#10 – Dave Wottle – Come from Behind Gold Medal 800m (Munich, Germany 1972). Few alive during the 1972 Olympic will forget Dave Wottle’s come from behind victory to win the Gold Medal in the 800 meters. More interesting to us track nuts was the way he ran the race – EVEN! Virtually no one in modern 800-meter running runs the second half (400m) of the 800m race as fast as the first. On that magic day in Munich, Wottle did just that. With only 250 meters left Wottle was in last place – he grabbed the lead for good in the last two steps.
#9 – Lynn Jennings – Gold Medalist World Cross-Country Championships (Boston, MA – 1992) Lynn Jennings will go down as one of the toughest competitors in American History with hundreds of victories to her credit as well as an Olympic Bronze Medal in the 10,000m. According to our “computers” here at ZAP though her greatest run was in the spring of 1992 when Jennings won her third consecutive World Cross-Country title in front of her home crowd in Franklin Park.

#8 – Ryan Hall – American Record Half-Marathon of 59:43 (Houston, TX – 2007)
In the last five years, Ryan Hall has emerged as one of the best young distance runners America has seen in the modern era. Hall cruised through 10K that day in 28:22/15K in 42:22 (tying the American record) and 10 miles in 45:33 (breaking the American Record). He is the only American to ever break one hour for a half marathon.

#7 – Frank Shorter – Gold Medal Olympic Marathon (Munich, Germany – 1972) Frank Shorter was one of the most prolific American long distance runners. The Yale graduate was an NCAA Champion, four-time National Cross-Country Champion and Olympic Trials champion in both the marathon and the 10,000m twice (’72/’76), but clearly Shorter will best be known for his Gold Medal in the marathon at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, the city where he was born. The performance has been credited as the race that kicked off the running boom of the 1970s.

#6 – Alberto Salazar – Boston Marathon Victory (Boston, MA – 1982). Alberto Salazar’s star burned as bright as any in the history of American running. Between the late 1970s and the early 1980s Salazar redefined front running and won virtually every race he touched. Salazar broke the World Marathon Record in the fall of 1981 in New York (2:08.13), but we at ZAP believe his win at Boston five months later was the better (and greater) run. Now referred to as the duel in the sun, Salazar’s 2:08.51 in record heat (street temps were recorded at 98 degrees by the 10 mile mark) over Minnesota native Dick Beardsley was one for the ages.

#5 – Shalane Flanagan – Olympic Bronze Medal / American 10,000m Record 30:22.2 (Beijing China – 2008) – At 28 years of age, Shalane Flanagan has already accomplished as much as any female American runner in history. The Massachusetts native has won multiple NCAA Championships and holds numerous American records. Her greatest performance thus far was the Olympic Bronze Medal winning performance in the 10,000m at the Beijing Olympics.

#4 – Mary Slaney’s Double Gold 1,500m/3,000m (Helsinki, Finland – 1983). With more than 31 American Records to her credit, Mary Slaney is the greatest female American middle distance runner of all time. Her greatest meet was undoubtedly the inaugural World Track & Field Championships in Finland where she defeated all the Iron Curtain could throw her way to grab victories in two events.

#3 – Jim Ryun – World Mile Record 3:51.1 (Bakersfield, CA – 1967). Jim Ryun’s career was nothing short of astounding. He held World Records in the 880 yards, the 1500m, and both the indoor and outdoor mile. He became the first American High School athlete to break 4:00 in the mile and remains the only to do so as a junior. Ryun’s crowning achievement, however, is undoubtedly his mile record of 3:51.1 in 1967 – run on dirt, without pacers (rabbits), in a race in which the 20 year-old college junior led from start to finish. Ryun’s record stood for 8 years until broken by Tanzania’s Filbert Bayi.

#2 – Billy Mills – Olympic Gold 10,000m (Tokyo, Japan – 1964) The story of Billy Mills’ rise from the poverty of a Native American reservation to Olympic Gold Medal is one most runners know. On a summer night in Japan in 1964, Mills went through 5k faster than he had ever run 5k, and kicked home to defeat Australian Ron Clarke in dramatic fashion to set an Olympic Record (28:24).

#1 – Joan Benoit-Samuelson Olympic Gold Medal Marathon (Los Angeles, CA - 1984)
As the competitors in the first ever women’s Olympic Marathon passed the 2 mile mark an historic event was noted: women had just run farther than at any point in Olympic history (the longest race before 1984 for women being the 3,000m). Taking the lead in the first 10 kilometers Samuelson, America’s sweetheart, went on to run 2:24.52, still the second fastest winning marathon in Olympic history. Hers is the ZAP Fitness greatest performance by an American long distance runner.

I hope you have enjoyed this trip through the last 50 years of American running performances. I am sure I will receive many e-mails about performances left off the list. What about Bill Rodgers’ 2:09.27 American Marathon record? Or Alan Webb’s 3:46 mile? Or Ruth Wysocki’s win at the ’84 Olympic Trials in the 1,500m? Or Bob Schul winning 5,000m Gold? These are a few of the more than four dozen “close calls” that did not make the list. Our highly educated staff looked at times, but we also placed heavy weight on depth of competition and the World and Olympic Championships taking special note.

ZAP Fitness is a Reebok and NY Road Runners Sponsored non-profit facility that supports post collegiate distance runners in Blowing Rock, NC. ZAP puts on adult running camps during the summer and is available for retreats all year. The facility has a state of the art weight room, exercise science lab for testing and a 24-bed lodge. Coaches at the facility include two-time Olympic Trials Qualifiers Zika Rea and Randy Ashley as well as head coach Pete Rea. For more information go to or call 828-295-6198.

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