Is this the last great American female road racer? Laughter from nearly 1,800 miles away bounced back over the cell phone.
“I don’t know about that,” said Libbie Hickman, about to take her three youngsters to a bookstore near their home in Fort Collins, Colo. “I’m still working at being the best American mom.”
Her first child wasn’t yet born when Hickman and Catherine Ndereba ran for the victory in Joan Samuelson’s Beach to Beacon 10K road race. That was 10 years ago. The two finished with the same time of 32 minutes, 19 seconds. No other finish in this race has held more drama or controversy.
Hickman ran to break the ceremonial tape first and relaxed at that second, throwing her arms in the air to celebrate. The problem was, the tape was held by volunteers a step or two in the front of the electronic mat that collected finish times from the computer chips in each runner’s shoe.
Ndereba never slowed. A three-judge panel awarded her the win. “If I had only kept running,” said Hickman. Her laughter returned with less mirth.
For three running seasons, the two dueled on the roads in Boston, Pittsburgh, Cape Elizabeth and elsewhere. In 1998, Hickman beat Ndereba by seconds in the Tufts 10K. It was a finish hailed as the most significant by an American female that year. An American beating a Kenyan? Oh my.
That’s the point as this year’s Beach to Beacon watchers prepare to oooh and ahhh the elite runners from the rest of the world battling for the lead Saturday. Libbie Hickman was from Hometown USA. There hasn’t been another like her since 2000, running to the finish at Fort Williams Park. Ndereba, a five-time winner over a six-year span beginning in 1998, returns this week at age 38.
“I was able to have a nice, long career,” said Hickman. “I was able to build the strength I needed to contend with the elite runners over years of training and racing. It’s a huge sacrifice, a lot of dedication and sometimes, as an American, you feel so alone. If you can’t compete with the best at this distance, people switch.”
There’s a wealth of new American talent at shorter distances, such as 1,500 and 5,000 meters, says Larry Barthlow, who has recruited the elite runners since this race started in 1998. He believes sponsors, particularly shoe companies, encourage Americans to stick to the track and avoid the road.
On a track, spectators pay to watch the race unfold in front of them from start to finish. Who pays to watch road races? You get a snapshot of that tiny part of the course where you choose to stand. Not great for viewing, not great for marketing. The challenge of the changing terrain of a road course is greater and more appealing to many runners, but they’re athletes, not race promoters or sponsors.
American road racers and their coaches are sometimes guilty of cherry-picking the races entered, avoiding the best of the elites when there’s less hope of earning a bigger chunk of modest purses. Somewhat like fighters avoiding better opponents to build up a string of victories while working toward bigger paydays.
Hickman is 45 and her running now is mostly confined to chasing her two daughters and a son, ages 8 to 3. She does hand the kids to her husband on some weekends to get away for two hours and just run. Occasionally she’ll enter a masters race but as she laughs again, her body protests. More than she cares to feel.
She ran a couple of hundred competitive races, she estimates. Her success opened the doors to several halls of fame, including the one at Colorado State, her alma mater. Runner’s World magazine named her its top female road racer in 1991, 1998 and 2000.
“Sometimes it seems like a long, long time ago,” said Hickman. “Sometimes it feels like the blink of an eye. I can still feel the (course), feel the crowd. Maine was a beautiful place to go to. (Beach to Beacon) was a beautiful race to run.
“Running elbow to elbow in a competitive race like that was pure enjoyment. I just wish I had run that last step.”
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: