Given the current state of America's road racing scene, who knows what to expect in Sunday's U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in New Jersey? Not since Alberto Salazar went in the tank and Bill Rodgers surrendered to advancing years has an American stepped forward to dominate the roads, particularly in the marathon.
All of which makes Sunday morning's race wide open. Anyone could step forward to claim one of the three prized spots on the U.S. Olympic marathon team even, say, a Salt Lake doctor or warehouse manager or an Ogden school teacher."This won't be like other Olympic Trials," says Salt Lake's Anthony Sandoval, who will make his fourth appearance in the Trials on Sunday. "It will be interesting to see how this race goes. There aren't any contenders who are shoo-ins."
So the running world will tune in Sunday to meet America's next marathon hopes; the race will be televised live by ABC.
Five Utahns will toe the line for the race Ed Eyestone, Paul Cummings, Paul Pilkington, Criss James and Sandoval. All except Sandoval have dipped under 2:20 to qualify for the Trials. Sandoval will be there by virtue of being a former Trials champion.
Eyestone is the only Utahn with a realistic shot at making the Olympic team, but much will depend on how smartly he runs the course. "The course is so deceptive," says Bob Wood, a Salt Lake running afficionado and agent for Eyestone, Cummings and Pilkington, among others. "The first 16 miles are uphill, then it's a straight 10-mile shot downhill. A lot of guys kill themselves the first 16 miles, then have nothing left."
Eyestone, James and Pilkington recently drove over the course with Cummings as a guide. Cummings, who placed second (and scored his personal record) in the New Jersey Waterfront Marathon two years ago on this same course, warned his fellow Utahns to be patient and to bide their time through those first 16 hilly miles.
Perhaps they could take in the scenery in the meantime. The course, which begins and ends in Liberty Park, adjacent to the State of Liberty and the New York City skyline, will take the field through some of New Jersey's famous sites.
"It's not a real pretty course," says Eyestone. "It goes through an industrial area and then through some scummy neighborhoods. It's Geneva Steel times 20. I'm surprised they got the bid. I guess money talks."
"Why do they call this The Garden State?" asked ESPN's Toni Reavis. "It looks like the back of a radio."
Scenery aside, the deceptive course, combined with the lack of a dominating name, will make the race for an Olympic berth all the more unpredictable. Maybe, just maybe, a new American phenom will step forward who can compete internationally. At the moment, the event is leaving Americans. Only twice in the past five years, has a U.S. runner even cracked 2:11 in the marathon.
Here's a look at Utah's entries:
ED EYESTONE (Personal record: 2:16:20, Houston, 1984) For the last two years Eyestone has ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, among U.S. road racers, but he still is new to the marathon; in fact, he has run only two of them. That notwithstanding, no one doubts he has a great marathon in him, despite two so-so efforts.
His marathon PR came in Houston four years ago. He ran Boston last year and, for the first 19 miles, stayed with the leaders. "Then I hit the proverbial wall," says Eyestone, who faded badly and finished in 2:19:19.
Immediately after the race, he told his wife Lynn, "If I ever want to do this again, talk me out of it." Two hours later, though, he was ready for revenge.
"It wasn't a real boost for my confidence, that's for sure," he says, dryly. "But I have been motivated to avenge that."
Eyestone, a four-time NCAA cross country and track champion at BYU, is in fine shape this year. Last month he clocked 13:39 in a 5,000-meter road race to place fourth (winner Steve Scott set a road world record of 13:30).
PAUL CUMMINGS (PR: 2:11:31, New Jersey, 1986) At his best, Cummings would be a cinch to make the team or even win the Trials race. But he's not. For most of the past two months he has been forced to cut back to 40-mile training weeks (and no interval work) because of a lingering virus. As a result, he is also winless in six road races this season. To make matters worse, earlier this week he incurred a foot injury during a training run.
"I thought I had a good chance in the marathon trials," he says. "I don't now."
In fact, he is uncertain if he will even enter the race.
Thus, another setback in a career that has been full of them. At age 34, he says he is running out of time. With that in mind, Cummings, the father of four, is gradually moving to other means of support, namely coaching. He coaches some 50 Utah road runners of all abilities for a fee of $30 a month.
PAUL PILKINGTON (PR: 2:16:50, Houston, 1987) Pilkington manages a running career around a full-time job and full-time family. He teaches seventh-grade English and reading at Mound Fort Middle School in Ogden to support his wife and three children.
"To run at this level has been difficult," he says. "But my wife and kids have been very supportive of my time away. It's like having a second job."
A former Weber State steeplechaser (PR: 8:46), he has converted to the roads nicely. He placed eighth in the Twin Cities Marathon last October; he was the third American (17th overall) in last year's Houston race, which earned him an alternate spot on the U.S. Pan American team.
Pilkington has the good fortune of arriving at the trials in peak condition. At the Eikeden Relay in New York two weeks ago, he clocked the fourth fastest 15K leg of the event (out of some 52 teams).
CRISS JAMES (PR: 2:15:15, St. George, 1987) No one had heard much of James until he won last October's St. George Marathon in 2:15:15, which tied Cummings' course record and qualified him for the Trials. It was only his second attempt at the marathon.
It is tempting to dismiss James' fine time to the downhill course at St. George estimated to be worth an additional eight minutes but James showed something in the Eikeden Relay by running the fifth fastest 12K leg and rallying the team into contention.
As James says, "There's no one in the U.S. who's running so well that they're a shoo-in to make the team. I think I can run with those guys if I run smart."
James, a former state champion for Murray High School, had a quiet four-year career at BYU. "I never had an outstanding year," he says James.
ANTHONY SANDOVAL (PR: 2:10:19, Olympic Trials, 1980) Remember him? Sandoval won the 1980 Olympic Marathon Trials then sat out the Olympics because of the U.S. boycott. He also finished fourth in the 1976 Trials (at age 20) and sixth in the '84 Trials.
Since then, however, Sandoval has done little serious running. He has moved to Salt Lake City to work as a cardiologist at the V.A. Hospital and the University of Utah Medical Center.
"I've been too busy with my medical work to race," says Sandoval, who turns 33 next month. "I've been out of touch as far as running goes." Perhaps understandably, he is taking a casual approach to Sunday's race.