April 8, 2020
This month, LetsRun.com is determining the greatest American distance runner of all time (overview here).
Below you’ll find the matchups for the round of 64 in the Lagat Region of the American Distance GOAT bracket. Voting will be open until the end of the day (midnight ET) on Thursday, April 9.
You can vote on matchups in the other regions by clicking the links below. Seeds are in ().
Race descriptions by Jonathan Gault.
Notable PBs (since representing US): 3:29.30 1500 (AR), 3:48.28 mile (#2 US), 7:29.00 3,000 (AR), 12:53.60 5,000 (AR), 27:49.35 10,000, 2:12:10 marathon
Global medals (as an American): 5 outdoors (1st 2007 World 1500, 1st 2007 World 5,000, 3rd 2009 World 1500, 2nd 2009 World 5,000, 2nd 2011 World 5,000), 3 indoors (1st 2010 World Indoor 3,000, 1st 2012 World Indoor 3,000, 2nd 2014 World Indoor 3,000)
USA outdoor track titles: 10 (8 in 5,000, 2 in 1500)
USA indoor track titles: 4 (4 in 3,000)
Global champs finals: 1st 2007 World 1500, 1st 2007 World 5,000, 9th 2008 Olympic 5,000, 3rd 2009 World 1500, 2nd 2009 World 5,000, 2nd 2011 World 5,000, 4th 2012 Olympic 5,000, 6th 2013 World 5,000, 5th 2016 Olympic 5,000
NCAA titles (as an American): 0
The Kenyan-born Lagat, who won three global outdoor medals in the 1500 and became the second-fastest 1500 man in history for his native Kenya (3:26.34), didn’t start representing the US until 2005, when he was already 30 years old. Yet he accomplished more in a US singlet than most athletes do in an entire career. With five individual global medals between Worlds and the Olympics, Lagat is the most decorated US distance runner in history. And that’s not even counting his indoor exploits — he won world titles at 3,000 in ’10 and ’12 and a silver in ’14.
His finest hour as an American? The 2007 Worlds, when he became the first American to win a global 1500 title in 99 years — quickly followed by the US’s first global 5,000 title in 43 years. That 1500-5,000 double in Osaka is on the shortlist — perhaps at the top of the list — of the single greatest accomplishments by any US distance runner and seems unlikely to matched anytime soon.
In addition to his championship accolades, Lagat holds American records in the 1500*, 3,000, and 5,000 meters.
*USATF recognizes Lagat’s 1500 record as 3:27 from 2004, when he first acquired citizenship, but given he competed for Kenya in the Olympics just two weeks later, we’re not giving him credit for that; his 3:29.30 from 2005 is still faster than any American in history.
Notable PBs: 13:13.32 5,000, 27:16.99 10,000 (#6 US), 60:29 half, 2:08:56 marathon
Global medals: 0
USA outdoor track titles: 4 (all in 10,000)
Global champs finals: 10th 2000 Olympic 10,000, 19th 2001 World 10,000, 15th 2004 Olympic 10,000, 13th 2005 World 10,000, 7th 2007 World 10,000, 15th 2008 Olympic 10,000
NCAA titles: 0
More accolades: Made five Olympic teams *3 top-5 finishes at World Marathon Majors
Unlike many of the men on this list, Abdi has never truly contended for a medal on the global stage, but domestically, his longevity is incredible. He’s made a record five US Olympic teams, most recently running his way onto the marathon squad at the age of 43 thanks to his third-place finish at the Trials in Atlanta. He also captured four US 10,000 titles and owns a marathon PR of 2:08:56.
2) Matthew Centrowitz, Jr.
Notable PBs: 1:44.62 800, 3:30.40 1500 (#3 US), 3:50.53 mile (#10 US), 7:40.74i 3,000, 13:00.39 5,000 (#10 US)
Global Medals: 3 outdoors (3rd 2011 World 1500, 2nd 2013 World 1500, 1st 2016 Olympic 1500), 1 indoors (1st 2016 World Indoor 1500)
USA outdoor track titles: 5 (all in 1500)
USA indoor track titles: 2 (1 in mile, 1 in 1500)
Global champs finals: 3rd 2011 World 1500, 4th 2012 Olympic 1500, 2nd 2013 World 1500, 8th 2015 World 1500, 1st 2016 Olympic 1500, 8th 2019 World 1500
NCAA titles: 1 (2011 NCAA 1500 champ)
Centrowitz doesn’t own any American records, and he’s never won a Diamond League points event. But his championship record speaks for itself, and it’s why we crowned him US Distance Runner of the Decade in our Best of 2010s awards: bronze at 2011 Worlds and silver in 2013 (both times behind Asbel Kiprop, who was later busted for doping), gold at 2016 World Indoors and, most famously, gold at the 2016 Olympics.
One of the greatest tacticians in the history of US distance running, Centrowitz has an innate ability to put himself in the perfect position and stay out of trouble until the racing begins in earnest. Many runners would panic when thrust into the lead of the Olympic final; Centrowitz turned it to his advantage in one of the most brilliant tactical runs in Olympic history, closing with a phenomenal 50.6 last 400. Times are sexy, but the best of the best race for medals. In that respect, Centrowitz has been the US’s best ever over 1500.
Notable PBs: 1:44.56 800, 3:30.98 1500 (#6 US), 3:50.64 mile
Global medals: 1 (2nd 2012 Olympic 1500)
USA outdoor track titles: 2 (both in 1500)
USA indoor track titles: 2 (both in 1500)
Global champs finals: 12th 2009 World 1500, 2nd 2012 Olympic 1500, 10th 2015 World 1500
NCAA titles: 4
More accolades: 2-time Olympian
The Olympic silver in 2012 is obviously the highlight, America’s first in the men’s 1500 since Jim Ryun in 1968. On the circuit, Manzano ran hot and cold, but the dude always brought it at major championships. Every year from 2006-15, Manzano finished in the top 3 at USAs; he was one of the last guys you wanted to see on your shoulder on the last lap (he famously earned his Olympic silver by going from 8th to 2nd over the final 200 meters). He was also a monster in college, winning four individual NCAA titles and anchoring Texas to an NCAA title and indoor world record in the DMR in 2008.
3) Jim Ryun
Notable PBs: 1:44.3 800, 3:33.1 1500, 3:51.1 mile
Global medals: 1 (2nd 1968 Olympic 1500)
USA outdoor track titles: 3 (all in outdoor mile)
Global champs finals: 2nd 1968 Olympic 1500
NCAA titles: 4 (1967 outdoor mile champion; indoor mile champion in 1967, 1968, and 1969)
More accolades: Former WR holder in the half mile & mile *First US high schooler to break 4:00 in mile; held US HS record for 37 years *3-time Olympian
Ryun was the greatest US distance phenom ever. He made his first Olympic team at age 17 in 1964. In 1965, as an 18-year-old high school senior, Ryun ran an American record of 3:55.3 in the mile and finished the year ranked #4 in the world by Track & Field News. The next year, he ran world records in the mile (3:51.3) and half mile (1:44.9), garnering T&F News #1 ranks in both events and Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year honors. In 1967, at 20, Ryun retained his world #1 ranking at 1500/mile and lowered his mile WR to 3:51.1 — the last time an American held the mile WR.
The one thing missing from Ryun’s resume was Olympic gold. He finished second in 1968, and though he was over a second clear of bronze medalist Bodo Tummler, Ryun was soundly beaten by Kenya’s Kip Keino in the altitude of Mexico City, 3:34.91 to 3:37.89. Four years later, Ryun had another shot in Munich but fell during his qualifying heat and failed to advance to the semifinals.
14) Marty Liquori
Notable PBs: 3:36.0 1500, 3:52.2 mile, 7:43.23 3,000, 13:15.06 5,000
USA outdoor track titles: 5 (3 in 5,000, 2 in mile)
USA indoor track titles: 4 (3 in mile, 1 in 3-mile)
Global champs finals: 12th 1968 Olympic 1500
NCAA titles: 5
More accolades: Former AR holder in 5,000
Liquori, the third US high schooler to break 4:00 in the mile, made the 1968 Olympic 1500 final one month after his 19th birthday, but he would not make another, missing out due to injury in 1972 and 1976. However, Liquori ranked among his era’s greatest 1500/5,000 runners, finishing as Track & Field News World #1 in the 1500 in ’69 and ’71 and the 5,000 in ’77 (the year of his 13:15 American record). He also won three straight NCAA 1500 titles from 1969 through 1971, a feat no one has accomplished in the almost 50 years since.
4) Bill Rodgers
Notable PBs: 28:04.42 10,000, 2:09:27 marathon
Global medals: 1 (3rd 1975 World XC)
Major marathon wins: 8 (Boston ’75, ’78, ’79, ’80, NYC ’76, ’77, ’78, ’79)
USA track titles: none
Global champs finals: 40th 1976 Olympic marathon
More Accolades: 1977 Fukuoka Marathon champ
Rodgers was one of the world’s premier marathoners in the 1970s — he won Boston and NYC four times each and was ranked #1 in the world by Track & Field News in 1975, 1977, and 1979. Of those years, 1977 may have been the most impressive as he won NYC on October 23 in 2:11:28 and bounced back to win Fukuoka — the unofficial marathon world champs — just six weeks later. His PR of 2:09:27, set in Boston in 1979 — the fourth fastest time in world history when he ran it — compares favorably with the top American times of today, even 40+ years later. An ace road racer at a variety of distances, Rodgers also won bronze at World XC in 1975.
13) Horace Ashenfelter
Notable PBs: 8:45.40 steeple
Global medals: 1 (1st 1952 Olympic steeple)
USA outdoor track titles: 6 (3 in steeple, 2 in 3-mile, 1 in 10,000)
USA indoor track titles: 6 (5 in 3-mile, 1 in mile)
Global champs finals: 1st 1952 Olympic steeple
NCAA titles: 1 (1949 outdoor 2-mile)
More accolades: Former WR holder
While moonlighting as an FBI agent, Ashenfelter set the steeplechase world record to win Olympic gold in Helsinki in 1952 — the last American to accomplish either feat. You can decide for yourself what the coolest part of that last sentence is, but with US titles in everything from the indoor mile to the 10,000, Ashenfelter was far more than just a steeplechaser. And he was an incredible steeplechaser.
5) Alberto Salazar
Notable PBs: 13:11.93 5,000, 27:25.61 10,000, 2:08:51 marathon (#9 US)
Global medals: 1 (2nd 1982 World XC)
Major marathon wins: 4 (1982 Boston, NYC in ’80, ’81, ’82)
USA outdoor track titles: 2 (both in 10,000)
Global champs finals: 17th 1983 World 10,000, 15th 1984 Olympic marathon
NCAA titles: 1 (1978 NCAA XC champ)
More accolades: Former AR holder in 5,000, 10,000, and marathon
Salazar’s reputation has taken a hit in recent years after numerous misdeeds as a coach, and he has admitted to using testosterone late in his competitive career. Still, the fact is he was one of the planet’s best distance runners in the early 1980s.
In 1982, Salazar piled up a career’s worth of accomplishments in a single year. On March 21, he earned silver at World XC in Rome (the last time an American man earned an individual medal). Then on April 19, he ran a course record of 2:08:51 — the fastest marathon ever by an American at the time — in brutally hot conditions to prevail over Dick Beardsley in the famed “Duel in the Sun” and win the Boston Marathon. He followed those performances up by breaking the American records at 10,000 (27:25 in Oslo) and 5,000 (13:11 in Stockholm) that summer, before successfully defending his NYC Marathon title in a course record of 2:09:29. He finished the year ranked 8th in the world in the 5,000, 2nd in the 10,000, and 1st in the marathon.
Salazar had mostly burned out by age 26, but returned as an ultrarunner to win the famed Comrades Marathon in 1994 at the age of 35.
12) Billy Mills
Notable PBs: 13:41.3 5,000, 28:17.6 10,000
Global medals: 1 (1st 1964 Olympic 10,000)
USA outdoor track titles: 1 (10,000)
USA indoor track titles: 1 (3-mile)
Global champs finals: 1st 1964 Olympic 10,000, 14th 1964 Olympic marathon
More accolades: Former AR holder in 10,000 *Former 6-mile WR holder
Mills is only American to win the Olympic 10,000-meter title and one of just three American men to earn a global medals in the event, which has been around for 109 years. He followed that up with a 6-mile world record of 27:11.6 at the US champs the following year (he tied in that race with Gerry Lindgren, who was also credited with the record).
6) Khalid Khannouchi
Notable PBs (since representing US): 60:28 half marathon, 2:05:38 marathon (AR)
World records (as an American): 1 (2:05:38 at 2002 London)
Major marathon wins (as an American): 3 (2000 Chicago, 2002 London, 2002 Chicago)
USA track titles: none
Global champs finals: none
Khannouchi, born in Morocco, was already the marathon world record holder (2:05:42) when he began representing the US in 2000. And though he competed at just one global champs for the US — he DNF’d in the 2001 World Championship marathon — he ran some of the fastest times ever by an American marathoner. It can also be argued he ran the single greatest marathon by an American.
Khannouchi smashed the American record with his 2:07:01 win at 2000 Chicago in his first marathon as an American, but his biggest exploits came in 2002. That year’s London was a race for the ages, as in addition to Khannouchi, it featured 5,000/10,000 world record holder Haile Gebrselassie in his marathon debut plus Paul Tergat in marathon #3. And the race lived up to the hype — at the time, we called it the greatest marathon ever.
The race went out at WR pace and all of the big players were there and some others. At 17 miles, seven were still in the lead pack, but by mile 22 it was down to the Big 3 of Khannouchi, Tergat, and Gebrselassie. In the final two miles, Khannouchi put the hammer down and shockingly Geb was the first to crack, then Tergat. Khannouchi got the win in a WR of 2:05:38 as Tergat moved to #2 on the all-time list at 2:05:48 with Gebrselassie moving to #6 all-time in third in an Ethiopian record of 2:06:35. Eighteen years later, Khannouchi’s mark remains the American record.
That fall, Khannouchi won his third and final major as an American in a totally stacked Chicago. He won in 2:05:56 (4th-fastest time ever recorded at the time) in a race that featured four of the top nine fastest times in history. Runner-up Daniel Njenga ran 2:06:16 (#7 all-time, #5 performer), Japan’s Toshinari Takaoka ran a Japanese-record 2:06:16 (#8 all-time, #6 performer) for third and Tergat ran 2:06:18 for 4th (#9 all-time). London and Chicago were clearly the top marathons in the world at the time (we ran a poll debating which one was #1) and Khannouchi won them both, running the #1 and #4 fastest times in history in the process.
In all, Khannouchi owns four of the top seven marathon performances by an American on a record-eligible course, including the only two sub-2:06’s (Ryan Hall did run 2:04:58 at the severely wind-aided 2011 Boston Marathon).
Notable PBs: 13:16.03 5,000, 59:43 half (AR), 2:04:58 marathon (#1 US)
Global medals: 0
USA track titles: None
Global champs finals: 10th 2008 Olympic marathon
NCAA titles: 1 (2005 outdoor 5000)
More accolades: Fastest American marathoner of all time *2:08:24 debut at 2007 London was an American debut record at the time *6 top-5 finishes in World Marathon Majors
Hall made a bold decision to move to the roads at age 24, and it paid immediate dividends as he crushed the US half marathon record in his debut in Houston in 2007, followed three months later by his stellar 2:08:24 marathon debut in London. Thus began one of the most electrifying five-year runs in the history of American marathoning, Hall duking it out with the top Africans in the biggest races. Though Hall never won a major, he managed six top-5 finishes and some truly incredible runs, such as his 2:06:17 at 2008 London and his 2:04:58 at a wind-aided 2011 Boston — the fastest marathon ever run by an American.
7) Dave Wottle
Notable PBs: 1:44.3 800, 3:36.2 1500, 3:53.3 mile
Global medals: 1 (1st 1972 Olympic 800)
USA track titles: 1 (1972 outdoor 800)
Global champs finals: 1st 1972 Olympic 800
NCAA titles: 4
More Accolades: Former WR holder in 800
Wottle is known for the most famous negative split in the history of 800-meter running, and while his 1972 Olympic title is (deservedly) his crowning achievement, Wottle also gets credit for breaking the 800 world record earlier that summer (also with a negative split) and winning four NCAA titles at Bowling Green.
10) Donavan Brazier
Notable PBs: 1:13.77i 600 (world indoor best); 1:42.34 800 (AR)
Global medals: 1 (1st 2019 World 800)
USA outdoor track titles: 2 (both in 800)
USA indoor track titles: 2 (1 in 800, 1 in 600)
Global champs finals: 1st 2019 World 800
NCAA titles: 1
More Accolades: 2016 NCAA 800 champ *Former 800 collegiate record holder *2019 Diamond League champ *Indoor American record at 800
Obviously Brazier’s longevity can’t (yet) compare to the top guys in this bracket — he’s still just 22 years old. But based on what he’s already accomplished, he belongs in the conversation. A phenom at Texas A&M, Brazier broke a 50-year-old collegiate record by running 1:43.55 to win the NCAA 800 title as a true freshman. He won his first US title a year later.
Then came 2019 and the greatest year ever by an American 800 runner. Brazier broke the American record indoors (1:44.41, which he lowered to 1:44.22 in 2020) before setting a world indoor best for 600 at USAs. Outdoors, he won the US title, two Diamond Leagues (the latter clinching the DL title), and became the first American since 1972 to win a global outdoor 800 title, running 1:42.34 in the World Championship final in Doha to set a meet and American record.
8) Steve Prefontaine
Notable PBs: 7:42.6 3,000, 13:21.87 5,000, 27:43.6 10,000
Global medals: 0
USA outdoor track titles: 2 (both in outdoor 3-mile)
Global champs finals: 4th 1972 Olympic 5,000
NCAA titles: 7
More Accolades: Held American records at every distance from 2,000 through 10,000 meters *Former US HS record holder for 2 miles (8:41.5) *3-time NCAA XC champ (1970, 1971, & 1973)
Despite dying in a car accident just four months past his 24th birthday, Prefontaine amassed a legacy as one of the greatest American distance runners of the 1970s. After setting the national high school record for two miles, Pre put together an incredible collegiate career at Oregon; along with Washington State’s Gerry Lindgren, he remains one of just two Americans to claim three NCAA XC titles (including the track, he won seven NCAA titles in all).
Pre famously just missed a medal in the 5,000 in the 1972 Olympics at the age of 21 and would have been among the favorites in 1976 had he lived until then. As it was, he still managed to set 15 American records and inspire a cult following that survives to this day.
9) Bob Kennedy
Notable PBs: 7:30.84 3,000 (#3 US), 12:58.21 5,000 (#6 US)
Global medals: 0
USA outdoor track titles: 4 (all in 5,000)
USA indoor track titles: 2 (both in 3,000)
Global champs finals: 12th 1991 World 5,000, 12th 1992 Olympic 5,000, 7th 1995 World 5,000, 6th 1996 Olympic 5,000, 6th 1997 World 5,000, 9th 1999 World 5,000
NCAA titles: 4 (including 1988, 1992 XC)
More accolades: Former AR holder in 3,000 and 5,000 *4th at 1993 World Indoors *2-time Olympian *1987 Foot Locker champ
Though the 1990s were, collectively, dark days for American distance running, Kennedy was the one shining light. Just look at the all-time US 5,000-meter list upon Kennedy’s retirement in 2004.
Kennedy’s American record in the 5,000 stood for over 13 years, and though he wound up 6th in the Olympic 5,000 final in 1996, his bold move to the front with two laps to go in Atlanta still sends chills down the spine of American distance running fans of a certain age. Kennedy deserves props for his college achievements at Indiana as well — he won NCAA XC as a true freshman in 1988 and again as a fifth-year senior in 1992. Let us know when another American does that.
You can vote on matchups in the other regions by clicking the links below.