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