Revisiting Daniel Komen, who forever changed running in the spree that kept on giving (Part 2)

Enjoy his "forever records" while they last, as modern spikes take on the ghost of a no-EPO-test freewheeling athletics era.

(Part 1 is here.)

That Daniel Komen drew the absolute most from his reserves is best exemplified by the splits in his 3,000-meter outdoor world record, 7:20.67, which he set in Rieti, Italy on September 1, 1997, two and a half weeks after he had knocked a grimacing Haile Gebrselassie on his can over 5,000 meters in Zürich.

Without this run to his credit, Komen would still remain among the all-time mega-greats. But this special effort immediately cemented his place in athletics history, and no pair of the murderer’s row of legs that has chased the mark in the busy quarter-century since has come at all close.

As you can see, this was not a race, just a wild kinetic display, one I’d gladly pay $7.20 a year in perpetuity to be able to access when feeling overly tame about my own running, or about anything.

In August, Komen had taken two shots at Noureddine Morceli’s world record of 7:25.11, falling short by 0.05 and 0.76 seconds. If anyone on the European circuit should have been drained by the beginning of September that year, it was him, as you’ll see by the time you’re done reading this post. And I suppose he was, seven minutes and twenty-one seconds after the gun went off in Rieti. But remarkably, every single one of his laps in his record run was under 60 seconds, and his last, obviously giving all he had, was 59.09.

Time and again, Komen’s data reveal every sign of someone running himself into near-exhaustion with several laps to go, somehow avoiding ever crossing the line into helpless forward thrashing. And why not? He gave himself plenty of practice.

How good is the outdoor men’s 3,000-meter record? It’s not just that it still stands; it’s that it’s so much better than Hicham El Guerrouj’s number-two mark and those of a slate of pursuers rarely viewed as laggards, and who on average can be assumed to have made use of all the same resources Komen did.

Geb, that joker, ran between 7:25.09 and 7:26.03 four times in the three years after Komen’s mark. Shortly after the last of these, in 1999, El Guerrouj, having upgraded himself to 3:43.13 miler a couple of months earlier, came “close” with a 7:23.09. In 2000, Ali Saïdi-Sief ran 7:25.02, then flunked a doping-control test at the following year's World Championships. Kenenisa Bekele banged out a 7:25.79 in 2007, the same year he had gone after Komen’s equally improbable indoor 3,000-meter world record of 7:24.90 and come up over five seconds short there, too.

And, unlike the marathon, the 3,000 meters (and 5,000 meters) can, if desired, be targeted by a large group of athletes several times within a single fitness peak, year after year, kind of like the Bowerman Track Club has done in recent campaigns (and more so during COVID-19). Indeed, all of the variables are easier to control when it comes to the track. A single bad-weather day, for example, won’t wash away an entire season’s world-record-prep work for all involved, as it will for the marathon. Yet somehow, the men’s 42.2K world record has been broken ten times in the twenty-three-plus years Komen’s 3K mark has sat alone at the top.

At some point during Bekele’s peak years on the track, he and therefore everyone else alive seemed to just kind of give up even talking about chasing Komen’s mark. And why bother? The flat 3K? Not an Olympic event anyway. Someone out there may recall pacemakers being asked to take a 3,000-meter field through four laps in 3:55 sometime in the past two decades, but I don’t; in fact, most announcers probably would have laughed at the folly of this just as they had the first time around, even though the joke turned out to be their chortling skepticism at the thermonuclear early pace.

Bekele claimed before his attempt at Komen’s indoor record that it would take an almost unconjurable set of circumstances for that mark—not the one Komen is even best known for—to fall. Like the outdoor mark, it still hasn’t, though it might not be long now; Getnet Wale of Ethiopia ran 7:24.98 in late February. I’d hate to be in Komen’s quarter-of-a-century-old shoes these days, because I bet all of his records will be gone within two years.

So much for that. In August of that year, Komen, who achieved prominence at around the same time El Guerrouj, had hay of a couple of forays into El G’s wheelhouse, the 1,500 meters and mile. In the shorter event, he became the first Kenyan to sail under 3:30 and moved into a fifth-place tie on the all-time list with a 3:29.46. (Today, he’s tied for #20 all time, is #10 on the all-time Kenyan list, and is the second-fastest Kenyan named Daniel Komen.)

El Guerrouj (3:45.64), Komen (3:46.38) and Venuste Niyongabo (3:46.70) finished the race in Berlin featured in the above video as the 2nd-, 4th-, and 5th-fastest milers of all time. In fact, Niyongabo, who in effect retired at the turn of the century, continues to hold both the fastest-ever third-place and fourth-place (3:48.26) one-mile times, and also managed to finish fourth in a 1,500-meter race in which he recorded what was then the fourth-fastest time in history.

In July, Komen had been determined to break the two-mile record Gebrselassie had reclaimed in May with an 8:01.08 and, even more importantly, become the first human to break eight minutes in the event. His otherworldly 7:20.67 3,000 meters converted to a 7:55.92 for two miles, but could anyone really summon another obvious one-off, or come sufficiently close? When Komen froze the clock in Hechtel, Belgium at 7:58.61, it was one of a handful of moments I’ve had while watching track that almost didn’t make sense to me despite my watching the entire thing unfold.

Again, though, 1997, apart from a World Athletics Championships, was about Komen and Gebrselassie facing off again over 5,000 meters and trying to lower the world record, possibly below 12:40. At the Worlds, Komen had won gold in the 5,000 meters and Gebrselassie in the 10,000 meters, both in comparatively slow times. In a Weltklasse rematch on August 14—eight days after Gebrselassie’s 10,000-meter final and just four days after Komen’s triumph in the shorter discipline—Gebrselassie broke his own world record with a 12:41.86, leaving Komen with a PR (12:44.90) but a loss and a best mark outside Gebrselassie’s two best races.

But nine days after that, in a race he won by nearly 30 seconds, Komen finally blasted his way to his first and only outdoor 5,000-meter world record—12:39.74. Gebrselassie would reclaim the mark ten months later in Helsinki with a 12:39.36. Joshua Cheptegei (12:35.36 last August), Bekele (12:37.35 in 2004) and Komen stand as the only four men to run under 12:40.

Komen continued running very impressively into 1998, setting indoor world records in the 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters and even running under eight minutes for two miles for the second time, though missing his own record by 0.30 seconds. But it was a non-Olympic, non-World Championship year, and would be the last in which Komen, rather than his imprint, made a significant impact on the sport. He did run 7:29 and 12:55 in 1999, bit placed only fifth at the World Championships 5,000 meters. He also apparently contracted malaria a second time in 2000, when he broke 7:30 for the fifth and final time outdoors, but bombed at the Kenyan National Championships, which doubled as his nation’s Olympic Trials.

In the end, perhaps what really nudged Komen toward excessive partying and perdition was my getting a yellow Lab in the fall of 1998 and naming it after the guy. This Komen, ironically, would display unusual longevity, making it to about the age of fifteen. His official 5K personal best, however, was only 17:18.

I met Daniel Komen in 2002, when he was testing the roads during a comeback and was invited to a then-prominent 8K in Tennessee I happened to find myself at. I introduced myself to him and told him about my dog. He was smiling the entire time, but on the other hand his expression never changed, so who knows what he thought. He may have believed I was telling him that one of us was running for the cure.

Henry Rono is often cited as the best male distance runner never to appear in an Olympic race—or was, before Komen came along and a few years later arguably walked away from the sport with that distinction in hand. Rono was a deity in an earlier time, so I’ll leave that to others to decide.

There are many ways to frame a distance runner’s legacy, and it’s always hard because in sport that is so physically monochromatic, this inevitably reduces to comparisons to runners in bygone eras. On that view, Daniel Komen was the Steve Prefontaine who fulfilled the over-mythicized promise of the Pre racing style, blasting from the front regardless of what others in the field had planned and usually winning. With Pre, part of the perverse fun was believing against much available evidence that he was a desperate underdog in every on-the-track tussle; watching his animated head-rolls and knowing what he’d said about his intentions in pre-race interviews made it easy to buy into the overplayed idea that Pre was a relentless risk-taker who lived and died by the front-running sword.

Komen? He just took out the power drill and kept it jammed against the working surface until it was too hot, smoky and loud for anyone else to tolerate being near.

This one put a smile on my melon: In 1998, a group of Kenyans was upset that U.S. races were moving to limit the prize money available to foreigners, and the triggering event was the Bolder Boulder 10K, which at the time was still permitted to openly claim that sea level was for sissies. Komen, speaking on behalf of his countrymen, had this to say about American runners:

They have to accept that we’re better than them in long distance races, so they should learn from us.

I believe that big-mouth Daniel Komen should avail himself of a copy of any edition of any U.S. running-oriented magazine published within the past two years as a guide to how much at-large Americans have learned to focus on the essentials of hardcore competition since he issued his snide directive. He must have been focusing on the softies in our ranks, and was unaware the U.S. was busy assembling a whole generation of voracious accepters and learners.

Or, gratuitous if not entirely irrelevant snark aside, he could look at the array of top-caliber runners, many of them indeed Americans, who continue cite him as an inspiration in their competitive travels, year after year. Getting into some of Komen’s legendary, oft-circulated workouts could be a fun post on its own.

While no athlete is obligated to put on a spectacle for fans when the job is to win, with Komen, you knew you were getting at least a spectacle, and if he didn’t win, whoever beat him had to run fast and hard enough to make it worth anyone’s while to watch. As you’ll find is true of every record-breaker, the key to Komen’s success was a willingness to maintain pressure that would rob him of any conventional notion of a finishing kick.

Komen was the Wilson Kipketer of the middle distances, chest-out and elegant in top flight almost to the point of an optical illusion. Watching someone pull away from runners who themselves appear impossibly efficient at 60 seconds per lap is like seeing the Moonwalk performed at better than 15 miles per hour on a high-friction surface.

Daniel Komen may have known he was done with going-for-it-all running before anyone else could see it. He had run and run without reservation, and done what he believed needed to do—done more, perhaps, than he had followed whatever vague moderating impulses he may have felt along the way. And of those who did know he was probably either literally or for practical purposes finito, most just didn’t want to accept it.

He was just too damned jaw-dropping good to go away like that.

But like many others of my vintage, I’m glad he was here, period. People today speak of a fondness for stories, and Komen’s is exactly the timeless kind I never want to see disappear.

Reluctant addendum: As much as I wish it were not so, this discussion and all embedded praise is comically incomplete without mentioning that around 1990, synthetic erythropoetin (EPO) became widely available, and no formal test was put into play until the 2000 Sydney Olympics. If you suspect that the bonanza of previously unimaginable times during this decade was primarily attributable to other factors, such as Africans alone figuring out that hard, high-volume training engenders success, there is an excellent chance you’re among the ranks of the Wokeklasse.

Acknowledgements and references: Matt Fitzgerald wrote an article in 2014 exploring some of the reasons for what seemed like a premature departure from world-class running for Komen. I didn’t re-read it before writing this, because I didn’t want to learn that Matt had copied my 2021 muse way back when, but as I recall, it contains a lot of stuff you might find interesting that I didn’t touch on here.

Also, thanks to Total Running Productions for some of the skinny and a lot of the inspiration for this post. TRP, by the way, is one of those rare YouTube channels that provides informed contextual analysis so good I feel relieved when an occasional, and always negligible, mistake seeps into a video, as when John Walker was identified as Australian (maybe New Zealanders don’t find that as trivial, but they’re outnumbered). And that’s honestly about the highest praise I can imagine giving, because what I’m saying is that the content is so informative that I find myself relieved to occasionally discover I know something that the TRP brain trust may have not. The flip side of that is that I always learn a great deal, even about people and races I have long known at least a little about.