The other day I described an encounter with a homeless man who nearly reached the Olympics 23 years ago. I didn’t get to the main reason for writing about him because of the lengthy introductory material, so here it is.
In the spring of 1981, Rich Martinez of Widefield High School of Colorado Springs ran 4:10.98 at the 5A State Track and Field Championships in Pueblo to establish a state record that still stands. Third in this meet as a junior, Rich, by his own account, demolished defending state champion Greg Keith of Smoky Hill — the alma mater of state 3200-meter record-holder Brent Vaughn, who turned in a 9:05.89 in 2003 — in the final half-lap to set a mark that has been on the books for longer than any Colorado high-school track record. Thirty years is remarkably long stretch for any running record to last; for a distance event in a running mecca like Colorado, such a time scale is nigh geological.
Nevertheless, there are those who argue that the record, the statewide high altitude notwithstanding, is weak. Colorado is not by any measure a dead zone, ranking 28th in population among U.S. states in the 1980 census (it is now 22nd). The state record in New Hampshire, with one-fourth of Colorado’s population, is more than three seconds faster than Rich’s mark. So what gives? Does running at close to or above 5,000′ elevation really make that much of a difference?
There are a number of reasons the answer is obvious. The longevity of the record speaks for itself. Then there’s the fact that a number of Colorado high-schoolers have turned in faster times at sea level in spite of the difficulty of preparing for a mile race at any altitude at higher elevations (more on that below). Eleven Colorado boys have run under Rich’s record in sea-level races, and the same number have ducked under Vaughn’s mark in out-of-state competition, with Vaughn himself topping the list at 8:45.60. Connor Winter, an Arapahoe High grad who is just starting his freshman year at the University of Colorado, tops the anywhere-anytime 1600-meter list at 4:05.57 (converted from a 4:07.02 mile); his fastest in-state time was 4:11.50, the closest threat yet to Rich’s record.
Then there are the specific whys. Most people recognize that the oxygen pressure decreases with increasing elevation, but there’s another aspect to the altitude-induced impedance of times in races longer than about 600 meters, but shorter than, say, a half-marathon. People acclimate to high altitude by producing more red-blood cells whether they exercise or not (although it takes longer for sedentary people to achieve this effect). This, however, is not enough to allow runners who specialize in track distances to get in the kind of repetition training involving race-pace leg turnover that’s required for peak performance in a 1600- or 3200-meter race. Elite athletes who live at altitude find ways around this by either doing brief stints at low altitude or doing treadmill workouts using supplemental oxygen. Coloradans don’t have the luxury of “live high, train low” training because getting from, for example, Boulder (5,300′ mean elevation) to a place lower than 3,000 feet would take several hours. More to the point, high-schoolers don’t have the luxury of heading to sea level for a few weeks at a time to turn in the high-intensity 200s, 400s and 600s that most milers rely on for peak performance. As a result, a miler who lives and trains exclusively at high altitude may have no discernible advantage over someone of equal ability who trains at sea level and pops up to Boulder to race the distance unacclimated. (For races any longer than this, it would be a different story.)
I watched the Pearl Street Mile last Thursday evening. It’s a prize money race that attracts top local talent. Granted, a road mile with several turns is never going to be as fast as a track mile. Still, a guy who had recently run under 1:50 for 800 meters could manage only a 4:15 (about a 4:13-4:14 1600 meters). Kenyon Neuman, a C.U. All-American who graduated two years ago and recorded a 13:41 5,000 meters, won the race, also in 4:15.
There’s no way to quickly research the 1600-meter records for each state to see which one has lasted the longest — boys or girls — but I’d be very surprised if it isn’t Richie’s.