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Ex-distance great Merrill-Morin returns to track
ORONO, Maine — In her heyday, Jan Merrill matched strides with other American greats Mary Decker Slaney and Francie Larrieu from 1,500 meters to 5,000 meters. Although she finished eighth in the finals of the 1976 Olympic 1,500 meters, her time of 4:02 in the semifinals still ranks as the seventh-fastest time ever by an American woman.
On Thursday, 21 years after retiring from a decorated elite running career, the 51-year-old Merrill-Morin — now married — ran here at the USA Masters Outdoor Track & Field Championships.
“I just jogged and didn’t train until last summer,” Merrill-Morin said. “The big difference is that as an elite athlete, you are very up there mentally as well as physically, but at the masters level the physical part just isn’t there.”
Merrill-Morin also noted another huge difference between the youth and the older set. She originally planned to competing here in the 1,500, but a groin injury in a downhill road mile five weeks before changed her schedule.
“I didn’t want to get hurt in the 1,500,” said Merrill-Morin, who this past spring resigned as a 14-year assistant coach at the Coast Guard Academy for a similar position at Rutgers. “There is a slower tempo in the 5,000 than the 1,500 and less chance of getting hurt.”
Merrill-Morin said she probably would scratch in today’s 1,500, looking ahead to the fall cross country season.
In her professional career, in addition to competing in the 1976 Olympics, she was a gold medalist at the 1975 and 1979 Pan Am Games in the 1,500. She also won silver at the 1981 World Cross Country Championships and was a 12-time National AAU/TAC champion and a member of 24 U.S. international teams.
Between 1976 and 1981, Merrill-Morin held the world record in the indoor 3,000 meters and two-mile run, as well as the outdoor record for the 5,000 meters. She also owned the U.S. 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000 records. Twice, she said, she ran the 5,000 in 15:30.
This week, her 5,000 time was 21:07.84, but good enough for the win. During the race, she tried several times to convince one of her competitors Debbie Lee that the official lap counter was correct. Lee didn’t believe, kicked a lap too early and was easily overtaken by Merrill-Morin.
That’s not something she would have encountered two decades ago before her devastated hamstrings forced her into retirement. Nor were the crawling 1:55 times she was running for 400-meter intervals a year ago when she hit 50.
“My father is 90 years old, he still competes in masters swimming,” said Merrill-Morin, who four years ago completed her masters degree in Sports Medicine and returned to competitive running because she was looking for another challenge. “Last year, he set five American records in one day. I wanted to show him I can win one medal.”
Geb sighting — No distance runner in history has the range of Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia. But he is especially great at the half-marathon distance.
Gebrselassie was in New York yesterday morning to compete at the NYC Half-Marathon.
“My manager told me there is a half-marathon in New York,” Gebrselassie said. “I said I will go. Does not matter what they pay me. New York is big, and a race here will be special.”
Gebrselassie has won all seven of the half-marathons he has run. His resume includes a victory at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half-Marathon in Tempe, Ariz., in January 2006, when he set the then world record of 58:55.
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