Francie Larrieu Smith was warming down after a race recently when a young woman running beside her suddenly gave her a concerned look.
"Uh, Francie?" the young runner asked. "Are you OK?"
Larrieu Smith--knees creaking, muscles aching, body slightly slumped--had to smile. She must have looked even worse than she felt.
"I said, 'Yes, I'm OK. This is just what happens when you get a little older .' " Larrieu Smith recalls with a laugh.
\o7 Older \f7 is a relative term, of course. Like Nolan Ryan in baseball and George Foreman in boxing, Larrieu Smith, 40, is a definitive legend in American track and field. She's a five-time Olympian, the American record-holder at 10,000 meters. She is the role model for hundreds of young whippersnappers, male and female alike.
While many of her peers have long since retired, Larrieu Smith, of Dallas, is still going strong. Last summer, she was selected to carry the flag for the U.S. Olympic team at Barcelona. She plans on making her sixth Olympic team in 1996.
"I didn't start out to go to five Olympics," Larrieu Smith says. "I set out to go to one and then retire. But along the way, I fell in love with the sport."
Along the way, she also picked up some perspective. Balancing running with other aspects of her life has made for more success in her 27-year career, she says. That is why Larrieu Smith is coming to Orange County for the Race For The Cure 5K, Sept. 26 in Newport Beach.
Race For The Cure is a national five-kilometer road race series benefiting the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, a Dallas-based organization whose mission is to eradicate breast cancer as a life-threatening disease. All proceeds from the race are used to fight breast cancer--75% is used to fund low-cost screening in the area where the race takes place, 25% goes to The Komen Foundation's research and educational grants.
Larrieu Smith, the race's national honorary chairperson, has participated in thousands of running events in her career. This one, she says, is different. Many Race For The Cure entrants have never run a race. Most come simply because they want to do what they can to fight the disease, the leading cause of death in U.S. women aged 35-54. Along with the 5K, a one-mile walk is also offered.
Some entrants wear signs on their backs with the name of someone they know who has had breast cancer. Daughters run--or walk--in honor of their mothers. Husbands participate in tribute to their spouses. A "survivors division" honors those who have overcome the disease. They are given complimentary pink visors before the race.
It is a poignant gathering. After the race, the breast cancer survivors are invited on stage for a special recognition ceremony. It is then, Larrieu Smith says, that a certain statistic comes to life: one in nine women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime.
"You're standing out in the crowd and they ask the survivors to step forward and all of a sudden you see all these people walking to the stage," she says. "It is very touching."
Which is why Larrieu Smith became involved with the event two years ago. Although her shoe sponsor pays for her travel expenses, the time and energy she dedicates toward the race is something she is happy to contribute.
"I just heard on the news today a study was done that indicates the number of deaths from breast cancer seems to be decreasing," Larrieu Smith said. "Apparently that's because of early detection. That's the message we're trying to get out.
"I think we're reaching women in a real positive way."
Specifics: The Newport Beach edition of Race For The Cure will feature a women's 5K at 8 a.m., a coed 5K at 9:15, and a one-mile fun run/walk at 9:20. This is the only stop on the Race For The Cure series that will offer a prize purse--$5,000 total. The prize money, donated by a local newspaper, will be awarded in the women's 5K only.
Those expected to compete include:
--Shelly Steely of Albuquerque, N.M. Steely, 30, won the prestigious Carlsbad 5,000 in March and has a 5,000-meter best of 15:08.67. She was seventh in the 3,000 at the 192 Olympics at Barcelona and qualified for the World Championships last month but had to withdraw because of a hamstring injury.
--Lisa Weidenbach, 31, of Gig Harbor, Wash. Weidenbach won this race last year (in a course-record 16:31) but her greatest claim to fame, though, might be this: in the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Olympic marathon trials, Weidenbach finished fourth each time--only the top three finishers make the team.
--PattiSue Plumer, a two-time Olympian from Menlo Park. Plumer, 31, gave birth to a daughter, Jacqueline Michelle, on May 11. This will be her first race since. "I'll be surprised if I break 19 minutes," she says.
Her opponents might scoff at that. Plumer holds the American record for the 5,000 on the track--15 minutes flat.