CHICAGO — It was a sweet-sad look at two athletes at opposite ends of their careers. One has relentlessly raced over a long and storied career. The other is fresh, feisty and seldom runs marathons.
One has brutalized her body, asking more and more. The other pushes and then backs off and is far more resilient.
The one, Joan Benoit, ran in the American's Marathon Sunday with the announced goal of running a sub 2-hour 20-minute marathon and regaining her world record.
She came close but didn't do it. Her winning time of 2:21:21 is an American record and the second-fastest time by a women.
The other, Steve Jones, would say only that he was fit and hoped to run well. He came within a heartbeat of a world record. His 2:07:13 was one second slower than Carlos Lopes' six-month-old record.
It was a triumph for the shy Jones, a heroic effort that fell cruelly short. The Welshman had gone out at a blistering early pace that no one in the field was able, or willing, to match. For 20 miles, Jones ran under world-record pace.
"I didn't think he could hold it. I was pretty surprised that he was able to keep going," Australia's Rob de Castella said. De Castella was passed in the last few hundred meters by Robleh Djama of Djibouti. Djama was second in 2:08:08 and de Castella third in 2:08:48.
Did Jones know he was running at 2:03 marathon pace? Was the Royal Air Force corporal aware that his 1:01:42 was the fastest-ever half-marathon, did he listen to his split times?
"I wasn't really taking too much notice of them," he said. "I felt quite comfortable, so I just carried on. "
Jones ran at that suicide pace for miles longer that anyone could have thought possible. Then, as even Jones knew would happen, the time came to pay the price. It happened at 21 miles.
"If there's such a thing as a wall, I almost hit it," Jones would say.
Other runners would say they felt they were running into a wall all day. A stiff wind made the 55 degree temperature seem colder and made the flat, fast point-to-point course seem somehow more difficult.
"The wind was very strong," Jones said. But Jones was stronger. He used his strength to hang on after he escaped the wall. There was never any question about Jones' speed--as a 10,000-meter specialist, he should have the leg speed to kick.
As it happened, when Jones most required his kick, he had it but was unaware he needed it. Jones knew he was under world record pace early, but he also knew he had slowed considerably.
As he came into view of the finish line, the crowd tried to communicate to Jones how close he was to the record.
"As I came around the corner at the top, I thought I had lost it," Jones said. "Obviously, I knew I had slowed drastically. I was getting ready to just start waving to the crowd and shaking hands with my friends. If I had known, I would have started my kick sooner--it wasn't much of a kick. It might have given me a second or two."
Two seconds was all Jones needed. By missing the record, Jones also missed a $50,000 bonus offered by race officials. As it was, he won $35,000 for finishing first and $10,000 for a course record.
Jones remained low key throughout the ordeal--the ordeal of the press conference, that is. He clearly would rather "have a beer and party with my mates" as he put it, than answer to the international sporting press.
"I'm just a runner, I'll run any distance," Jones said. Indeed. This was only his second marathon. Jones set a world record here last year in his marathon debut. He's not sure if he'll run another for several months.
Jones will take leave from the R.A.F. (he re-enlisted last year) to run cross-country. Benoit's future is not so clear.
No secret was made of the fact that Benoit and world record holder Ingrid Kristiansen were both shooting for a sub-2:20 race. Benoit badly wants her record back. To the world, it would seem Benoit has little left to prove.
Not to Benoit. Last year was an emotionally and physically draining one for Benoit. She won the Olympic Trial marathon only 11 days after knee surgery, she won the first women's Olympic marathon, she got married.
Then, earlier this year, Benoit began to run poorly. She just wasn't motivated, she said. It was a shocking admission from running's most competitive and determined racer.
Benoit's coach Bob Sevene revealed Sunday that there was more.
"The doctors couldn't put their fingers on it," Sevene said. "They told her to see a sports psychologist. They told her she was too old. It turned out she actually was bleeding internally--within her intestines."
Benoit got out fast and for most of the race ran well under world-record pace. Then she faltered. Not even a valiant sprint at the finish could give Benoit the record.
It was widely thought that if Benoit could break 2:20 here, it would be her last marathon.
"I didn't run under 2:20, so I'll run another marathon," Benoit said. "We are all eyeing that barrier, it's going to go. If it goes from 2:21 to 2:18, it's not going to surprise me."
It will surprise some if Benoit's body holds together long enough for her to be the one. She still has problems with the knee. Sevene said Benoit's right Achilles tendon needs surgery but no one can get Benoit to agree to it.
If there is an heir to Benoit's marathon crown, Kristiansen is a good bet. The Norwegian has an uncanny ability to stay relaxed. Little seems to ruffle her. In the post-race press conference, with her whimsical expression, it was hard to remember that she, too, had been denied the record.
Kristiansen held off hard-charging Rosa Mota for second. Kristiansen was timed in 2:23:05, Mota in 2:23:29. Mota, the Olympic bronze medalist, has improved her personal best time in each race she's run.
Benoit, like Jones, won $35,000 for first and $10,000 for a course record.