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Destiny Earned

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By Woody Green

Uta Pippig has a contagious condition. Her genuine, gleaming white

smile spreads to everyone around her. I witnessed this a few weeks

before this year's Boston Marathon, as she and her coach and

companion Dieter Hogen addressed a group of runners in Boulder.

The crowd was restless when she arrived, having waited over a half

hour past the scheduled start time of the talk. Uta melted any edge

to the groups temperament quickly with her soft, friendly voice and

ready laugh.

If anyone had a right to be on edge, it was Uta. Unsure if she would

be going back to Boston, her training not quite where she wanted it

to be, a chance at another Boston victory was none the less dangling

like a carrot before her nose.

Even without another Boston win Uta has certainly made a place for

herself in marathon history. A best of 2:21:45 makes her the third

fastest marathoner of all time. She won the Boston and Berlin

marathons three times each, and also managed a win at New York. As

impressive as this list of accomplishments may be, many remember

her best for the way she wins.

Uta normally blows kisses to the crowd as she approaches the finish.

She celebrates her victory without the common self-centered

approach of so many athletes. Instead, she makes the crowd a part of

the experience, she shares it with them and people love her as a

result.

This evening in Boulder, the crowd clings to each word with the

attention normally reserved for royalty.

As dramatic as her come from behind win was at Boston last year,

the first question put to Uta was about her disappointing show at the

Atlanta Olympic Games. Much had been made of the hardship she

went through in Boston, and the media was certain she would never

recover in time to run well at Atlanta. In fact, she did not run well,

eventually dropping out of the race with a noticeable limp. Uta put

the record straight, however. She said her training had been going

very well, she was quite fit, and there were no left over problems

from Boston.

"I hope you have a tissue," she told the crowd as she began her story

of the Atlanta Olympics.

In great shape and ready to go for the gold medal, Uta decided early

in the race to make a move. She pulled to a 30 second lead by the 5

kilometer mark.

"I didn't go out too fast, only 17:00 at five kilometers. That is slow,"

she claimed.

Uta recalled talking to Joan Benoit a few months before the race. Joan

made a very similar move early in the 1984 Los Angeles games and

won that race. None the less, she warned Uta not to go out too fast in

Atlanta. Uta laughed at the comment. "But Joanie," she said," what did

you do at LA?"

Uta is no stranger to bold moves. She and Dieter left East Germany

after the fall of the wall, but she was technically a deserter since she

was still officially a part of the old East German army. She and Dieter

were on their own.

On her own at the front of the Olympic marathon, she clearly had no

fear. The early move was not a desperate act as some in the media

thought. It was a calculated approach to the race by a very confident,

fit runner. In fact, 17:00 for five kilometers is about 2:23 marathon

pace. This was a pace she felt confident she could maintain.

Uta's undoing was not a mistake in pace or pre-race training. It

involved her racing flats. These were the same shoes she wore to

victory in Boston, and they had been occasionally used in training.

Unfortunately, these comfortable shoes had a worn outsole that made

them a little slick on the rain wetted pavement at Atlanta. In

addition, there was a little too much room in the shoes. Perhaps they

had stretched with use. In any event, the slipping both on the

pavement and inside the shoe cost her dearly. She got a severe pain

in her midfoot first, her shin later. Sciatica shot up her leg. She

continued until it was apparent there was no reason to go on. When

she left the race she had slipped all the way to eighth place.

Uta handled the disappointment better than her parents, who

couldn't stop crying when she visited them after the race. She told

them this wasn't so bad.

"I can run, at least," she told them. "There are people out there who

would like to run and can't." Such is Uta's outlook.

Dieter handled the disappointment in his usual, scientific, manner. He

had to dissect the problem. He made use of ultra high speed cameras

to photograph Uta's foot inside the racing flats. He discovered a

serious twisting of the metatarsals as a result of the slipping motion,

which caused a stress fracture in her foot and in her tibia.

After twenty marathons, Uta said, "it was a stupid mistake. I should

have known better." Neither she or Dieter blamed bad luck.

Did luck have a part in her come from behind win at the 1996 Boston

Marathon?

Late in the race Uta was well behind race leader Tegla Loroupe, who

had taken the lead at the 18 mile mark. Uta had bad cramps from

both intestinal problems and menstruation. She had visible diarrhea

and bleeding associated with these problems, and yet she didn't stop.

Behind by over 100 yards with a mile to go, she pressed on. Then

Loroupe was hit hard by leg cramps. She was reduced to a shuffle

which permitted the diligent Pippig to take the lead and win in

dramatic fashion. It hardly seemed like luck at the time, it appeared

to be destiny.

It has been said that people often create their destiny, and perhaps

the extreme training Uta puts in had a lot to do with her ability to

persevere. At times she puts in as many as 180 miles in a week. She

lifts weights, does specialized resistance exercises and follows a strict

diet. In the past Uta indicates she has been so involved in training

that she doesn't even go shopping for months at a time. All of this is

carefully prescribed by Dieter.

Hogen was a coach in the old East German sports system. If this

brings to mind the injection of various banned substances, put your

mind at ease. Dieter was a rebel in the East German system. He felt

trapped by the political system. Before the fall of the wall, East

German officials would not let Uta and Dieter leave the country.

"They were afraid if we left the country, we wouldn't come back,"

Hogen relates. "They were right."

The very calculated, scientific approach of the East German sport

system fit Dieter well, however, and he takes a highly cerebral

approach to Uta's training as a result. Training paces are still

calculated in the old East German method of meters per second, for

example.

As precise as the training approach is, Uta let us in on a secret. Each

day she takes note of how she feels and adjusts the training plan

accordingly. Plans may even change mid-workout if need be. Uta and

Dieter feel strongly that an athlete must learn to read their body.

Uta's diet includes plenty of vegetables and whole grains. Vitamin

and mineral supplements are employed, as well as sports drinks

before, during and after workouts.

"Dieter is the cook," Uta says. He figures the number of calories that

Uta burns each day and cooks just the right amount of food to

replace those calories. There is no deficit and no overage. "Except on

ice cream days," Uta laughs. "Dieter hates ice cream days."

It sounds as if no nutritional stone had been left unturned, yet Uta

had been making a nutritional mistake that contributed to the colon

problems that were so evident in the Boston race. She wasn't

hydrating enough. It wasn't that she wasn't drinking water. She was

making a real effort to drink water daily. It just wasn't enough.

The stress of training and the dry air in Boulder had taken its toll.

Uta now drinks at least a gallon of water a day. This is in addition to

sports drinks and other fluids she might consume.

Twenty marathons and still learning. Such is the life of a world class

athlete.

As the enchanted group that had listened to Uta filed out of the

church meeting room, I wondered about the future.

We didn't know then that Uta would be running the 1997 Boston

Marathon. There we saw the same Uta we have always seen. Granted,

she did not win this time out, placing fourth. She wasn't in her best

shape, which she and Dieter knew before the race. None the less, her

2:28:50 proved to endear her even more to marathon aficionados. As

she ran, she shrugged her shoulders as if to say "sorry I can't run

faster for you today." She smiled, waved to the crowd and put a lump

in the throat of everyone who watched her.

After she ran 2:21:45 at Boston in 1994, many wondered if Uta

would be the first woman to break the 2:20 barrier. If she does, it is

likely that sports statisticians will remember her primarily for that

accomplishment. Most of us, though, will remember the kisses she

blew to her fans, her dramatic 1996 Boston finish, and that infectious

smile.