- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003

BOSTON A week ago, two women crossed the finish line of the London Marathon and rewrote running history. In doing so, Briton Paula Radcliffe and American Deena Drossin significantly lowered their marathon times and immediately raised the bar.
Radcliffe slashed nearly two minutes off her 6-month-old world marathon best while Drossin trimmed five seconds off the American best.
The American mark had held up for more than 17 years, a 2:21:21 set at the Chicago Marathon in October 1985 by legendary Joan Benoit Samuelson, a two-time Boston victor.
"Joan Benoit's record stood for so long, it became a barrier like the four-minute mile," said Jill Gaitenby, one of America's top entrants in tomorrow's Boston Marathon. "Nobody could break it. Now there are a lot of women who say they know they can do it."
The door also opened for Marla Runyan, most recognized as the legally blind Olympic 1,500-meter runner and Paralympian, who makes her Boston debut.
"Yeah, whenever an athlete breaks a barrier, like Paula and Deena did, it makes all of us know that it is possible," the 34-year-old Eugene, Ore., resident said.
Runyan hopes to build on her 2002 New York City Marathon success, a debut 2:27:10 clocking that was the fifth-fastest time ever by an American woman.
"I'm not expecting as big a drop here [as Drossin ran last weekend]," said Runyan, whose straight-up, tall running style magnifies her 5-foot-7, 114-pound frame. "Even if it were a flat course here, which it is not, I'm looking at a drop of two to three minutes improvement here."
That still would clearly place Runyan as the top American woman, but probably not fast enough to win the 107th Boston Marathon. The odds-on favorite is defending champion Margaret Okayo of Kenya, who last year slashed more than a minute off the previous record of 2:20:43 by Uta Pippig of Germany in 1994.
Gaitenby will seek to improve on the 2:36:45 effort that unexpectedly made her the top American woman here in 2001.
At 36, Gaitenby is not merely a newbie to road racing and marathons, as Runyan is. She is fairly new to the sport of competitive running.
"I didn't start jogging until 1989," said Gaitenby, who grew up in a small town next to Amherst in Western Massachusetts and attended Boston College. "1992 was my first road race."
She played softball and basketball in junior high and high school, and participated in intramural sports at BC.
"I started running once or twice a week during my senior year to lose weight. By the end of the year, I could run one lap [about two miles] around the Boston College reservoir without stopping, which for me was considered a victory," Gaitenby said. "This sporadic running continued, and eventually I was up to running 15-20 miles a week."
One thing that did fascinate her was that once a year, on Patriots' Day Monday, she would watch thousands of runners pass the campus on the way to the Boston Marathon finish.
"In the back of my mind, I said I'd like to try that one day it seemed like an enormous challenge," said Gaitenby, still bewildered even today that she is considered an elite marathoner.
Her first race was the 7.1-mile Falmouth Road Race in 1992, and almost a year later, she completed the Boston Marathon in 3:55.
"I finished that race and said this was the best thing I had ever done," she said.
Six months later, she ran 3:19 at the Marine Corps Marathon. By 1997, the mathematics major was training with a serious running club and setting her sights on a sub-2:50 marathon to qualify for the 2000 Olympic trials.
A year later, she nailed a qualifying 2:49:14 and ran with the nation's top women in Columbia, S.C., in February 2000, ending up 39th.
"At that time, I was 32, 33 and working full time as a kitchen designer in Boston, training full time and feeling tired all the time," Gaitenby said.
Something needed to change. At the urging of her coach, Gaitenby applied to be part of the FILA Discovery USA program, a set of training camps around the nation for distance runners.
It was a huge risk. It meant quitting her job, moving to San Diego and taking a vow of poverty, living the Spartan life of an American distance runner.
"My family thought I was crazy," she recalled.
She started camp in February 2001, and in 10 weeks, was noticing significant improvement. In April, she lowered her personal best at Boston to 2:36:45, first American women and 14th overall. In August, she again was top American at the World Championships in Edmonton, Alberta.
Although she was the top American woman again here last year, Gaitenby's season was marred by a bone bruise on her left heel. However, she recovered well and won the U.S. National Championships in Minnesota last September with a personal best of 2:36:10.
The victory earned her a trip to the World Marathon Championships this August in Paris and a $30,000 top prize.
"That was a big help," Gaitenby said, admitting that she is barely making a decent living now as a runner.
Which is important, since FILA no longer sponsors the training camps.
Gaitenby has been training in San Luis Obispo, Calif., with a group of elite runners, including 1996 Olympian Linda Sommers-Smith.
"My ultimate goal in life is to break 2:30, but if I were to get injured today and never race again, I would be satisfied with my running career," said Gaitenby, who recently became engaged to her coach, Steve Boaz. "To think that I have been competing for only two years and here I am being treated as an elite athlete."
This weekend, as she goes through her rituals the pasta dinner tonight, the Dunkin' Donuts coffee tomorrow morning, applying the mascara she always wears she feels she is back at home.

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