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Twenty Years Later, Mark Curp's American Half Record Still Stands
By David Monti
(c) 2005 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
September 15, 2005

Exactly 20 years ago today on the streets of Philadelphia, Mark Curp ran the race of his life.  On a seasonably cool and sunny Sunday, he put in several hard surges in the last mile of the Philadelphia Distance Run half-marathon, dropping two-time winner Michael Musyoki of Kenya and Nick Rose of Great Britain, to set a world record for the distance of 1 hour and 55 seconds.

"It ended up that my last mile was my best of the race," said Curp last Sunday speaking by telephone from his home in Lee's Summit, Mo.  "Four-thirty to 4:32," he recalled.

That his world record has been surpassed ten times in the last 20 years is no surprise, most recently by Kenyan Samuel Wanjiru last Sunday in Rotterdam (59:13).  But what is surprising is that Curp's run in Philadelphia is still the fastest ever by an American athlete on a record quality course.  In fact, he is still the only American to crack the 61 minute barrier, something which has been done 249 times globally since Curp became the first in 1985.

"It is somewhat surprising," said Curp of the longevity of his record.  "It is surprising with the number of big runners out there."

Before the race in 1985 Curp wasn't looking to run any particular time.  He'd notched a major victory earlier that summer at the Bix 7 Mile in Davenport, Ia., and was looking for another win, especially over Musyoki who had won the Peachtree Road Race 10-K and Cascade Run-Off 15-K earlier that year.

"I went out and did a hard workout three days before that kind of shook the legs out," said Curp who rarely did more than 90 miles per week in training.  "I knew I was in good shape at the time, but didn't put much thought (into trying for a record)."

He was with the leaders in the first part of the race, but started to fall back less than halfway through.  "At the 10-K point I almost fell off the pack," he said.  "They got three seconds on me."

But he regained his rhythm and was shortly back with the leaders, feeling better with the passage of each mile.  He really wanted to win this one, and lacking a stinging kick, he knew he had to make his move for victory well before the finish.

"I've been in that position so many times," he said.  "Just whittle the pack down in the course of the race and getting outkicked at the end.  I remember with a mile to go I dug down and pushed.  I could just feel Michael breathing down my neck."

Curp got to the finish line two seconds ahead of Musyoki, with Rose finishing another six seconds behind the Kenyan.  His world record held up for five years until Mexican Dionicio Ceron broke it on the same course in Philadelphia in 1990, running 1:00:46.  But as the years rolled by, no American man came close to Curp's mark.  In 1993, Todd Williams ran 1:00:11 at the Tokyo City Half-Marathon, but that point-to-point course had an elevation loss more than 50% greater than statisticians allow for record setting purposes.  So Curp's mark continues to stand.

"I still have to say it was my top performance," Curp commented.

Keith Brantley, who ran 1:01:30 in Philadelphia in 1993 and is the #3 American all-time at the distance, thinks it was a potent combination of Curp's training and the top athletes who came together in Philadelphia that day which made the record possible.

"Mark's record has lasted so long because his intense tenacity came together on a perfect day while racing against great runners," wrote Brantley in an e-mail message.  "While I'm certain that one of the USA's new stars will run faster soon, Mark's record certainly gives credence to his legacy."

One of those current stars, Alan Culpepper, who has a 2:09:41 marathon to his credit but has never run an elite half-marathon, agrees.  "Any time a record stands for 20 years then the quality of the performance speaks for itself," he wrote in an e-mail.  But he also points out that besides Philadelphia, there aren't that many top-class half marathons in the United States where breaking the record would be feasible.  "The half-marathon has turned into more of a preparatory event leading up to a marathon," he added.  "It would be great if the half-marathon was contested more often."

As the years have passed since that memorable day in Philadelphia, Curp has moved on.  He now works for American Century Investments where he manages a customer service team.  He's been with the company for eight years, and is the father of five children, ranging in age from 20 years to 9 months.  He and his wife of ten years, Teri, just moved into a different home in Lee's Summit and Mark has yet to pull out the photo he has breaking the world record that photographer Victor Sailer had given him.

"It was on the cover of Running Times," said Curp, pausing for just a moment to savor the memory.  "I've got it in some box someplace.  I've not had a good place for it."

      *  *  *  *  *

The 28th Jefferson Hospital Philadelphia Distance Run takes place on Sunday on a new course which race organizers, Elite Racing of San Diego, Calif., have designed to be more scenic for athletes and more inviting for spectators.  No U.S. man is expected to challenge Curp's record, but Deena Kastor could surpass Joan Benoit Samuelson's U.S. record of 1:08:34 which was actually set one year before Curp's.  Kastor is using the race in Philadelphia as a tune-up for her assualt on her own American record at the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon next month.

"There is no denying that Joan Benoit Samuelson has been an icon in this sport and a role model for distance runners all the way around," said Kastor by telephone from the Reno, Nev., airport where she will depart for Philadelphia today.  "It's always great to pay tribute to her accomplishments in the past.  I hope to run under 1:10, and I'm going to need good conditions to do it.  I feel good and confident, and this course is popular for fast performances."

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