The Nov. 3 Olympic marathon trials in New York City marked a significant resurgence in American distance running. And the winner—the top three qualified for the 2008 Games in Beijing—happens to be a training buddy of the top Northwest athlete in the race, the Ukrainian-born, Bellevue-raised Mike Sayenko.
"I know Ryan Hall. He's a friend of mine," says Sayenko, a UW grad, of the trials winner. It was Hall and another top contender, 2004 marathon silver medalist Meb Keflezighi, who this summer invited Sayenko to the elite Team USA training camp in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. "I ran into Meb in the park, and he said, 'Hey, you should join us,'" Sayenko recalls. Soon he was logging high-altitude miles with the stars, gaining more than just physical benefits: "Being able to stay with Meb for even half a workout really helped my confidence."
Such rigor helped propel Sayenko to a personal record of 2 hours, 18 minutes on a difficult course in Manhattan. "I'd never seen Central Park before," he says. "I felt I was in 2:15 or 2:16 shape. My goal was...top 20, top 25. It was kind of lofty." He ended up finishing 29th. Hall won in a dominant 2:09, making him a legitimate Beijing medal contender, with the next two Olympic qualifiers at 2:11. (This year's trials featured the most sub-2:20 performances since 1980.)
At 23, Sayenko is part of a new youth infusion in the marathon. Hall is 25 and runner-up Dathan Ritzenhein 24. This movement to compete in marathons much earlier in runners' careers might come in part because on the Olympic track, American distance runners haven't been a factor in a long time, to put it kindly. Case in point: The 10,000-meter world record of 26:17 is now a full minute faster than the U.S. best.
Or it could just be a belated acknowledgement of physiological reality: After dropping out of this year's trials, the 35-year-old 2004 Olympian Alan Culpepper quipped, "There's something to be said for fresh legs and naïveté at this distance."