American Distance GOAT: Vote in the Final Four!

April 20, 2020

This month, is determining the greatest American distance runner of all time (overview here). After a tense quarterfinal round, including one matchup that went down to the wire (recap here), only four athletes remain — two men and two women. The winners of these Final Four matchups will be crowned’s Greatest American Male Distance Runner of All Time and Greatest American Female Distance Runner of All Time before squaring off against each other to determine the ultimate American GOAT.

The Final Four matchups are below. Voting will be open until the end of the day (midnight ET) on Wednesday, April 22. Seeds are in ().

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Bios by Jonathan Gault.

Men’s Final: Frank Shorter vs. Jim Ryun

Matchup Overview: Both of these men were the very best in the world in their event in their primes. Shorter was ranked World #1 by Track & Field News three times and won Olympic marathon gold in 1972 (plus a silver in ’76). Ryun was also ranked World #1 three times and broke world records in the mile and half mile. His best Olympic finish was 2nd in 1968 (behind Kip Keino in the altitude of Mexico City); he lost a shot at a second medal after falling in the prelims in ’72.

1) Frank Shorter

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Notable PBs: 27:45.91 10,000, 2:10:30 marathon
Global medals: 2 (1972 Olympic marathon gold, 1976 Olympic marathon silver)
USA outdoor track titles: 6 (3 in 10,000, 2 in 6-mile, 1 in 3-mile)
USA indoor track titles: 2 (both in 3-mile)
Global champs finals: 5th 1972 Olympic 10,000, 1st 1972 Olympic marathon, 2nd 1976 Olympic marathon
NCAA titles: 1 (1969 NCAA 6-mile champ)
More accolades: Four-time Fukuoka Marathon champ *Former AR holder in marathon and 10,000

Frank Shorter was even better than you remember.

Everyone knows about the Olympic marathon gold in 1972. That, alone, puts him in rarefied air — since that golden day in Munich, only one American man has won Olympic gold in a distance event.

But did you realize what Shorter did in the days before that gold medal? Here’s a reminder of his 1972 Olympics:

August 31: 27:58 (American record) in 10,000m heats
September 3: 27:51 (American record) for 5th in 10,000m final
September 10: 2:12:20 for 1st in marathon

Four years later, Shorter added a silver in Montreal — though many believe that should be a gold given the East German athlete who beat him was likely doping. He also won Fukuoka — then regarded as the de facto world championships in the marathon — four years in a row from 1971-74, including an American record of 2:10:30 in ’72. He was ranked World #1 in the marathon by Track & Field News in ’71, ’72, and ’73, and #2 in ’74 and ’76. Only Eliud Kipchoge has been ranked #1 more frequently. Frank Shorter was a marathon God.

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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.

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Women’s Final: Deena Kastor vs. Jenny Simpson

Matchup Overview: Both own Olympic bronze medals. Kastor leads Simpson in major American records (three to one, including the still-standing marathon mark), while Simpson holds the edge in World Championship medals (three to two, including gold in 2011; Kastor has two silvers from World XC) but Kastor has edge in major marathons won (two to zero).

If we compare them by world and US rankings according to TFN, it’s interesting as Simpson leads in terms of world rankings but Kastor leads in terms of US rankings. Both were ranked in the world top 3 three times according to TFN during their career including one year at #1, but counting the steeplechase, Simpson was ranked 10 times in the top 10 in the world while Kastor can claim only six top 10 world rankings. But while Simpson leads in world top 10 rankings, Kastor dominates in terms of #1 US rankings with 12 (1 in the 5000, 5 at 10,000 and 6 in the marathon) while Simpson was the US #1 five times (twice in the steeple, three times in the 1500).

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1) Deena Kastor

Notable PBs: 8:42.59 3,000, 14:51.62 5,000 (#7 US), 30:50.32 10,000 (#4 US), 67:34 half marathon (#3 US), 2:19:36 marathon (AR)
Global medals: 3 (2nd 2002 World XC, 2nd 2003 World XC, 3rd 2004 Olympic marathon)
Major marathon wins: 2 (2005 Chicago, 2006 London)
USA outdoor track titles:
5 (all in 10,000)
Global outdoor finals:
6 (11th 1999 World 10,000, 11th 2001 World 10,000, 12th 2003 World 10,000, 3rd 2004 Olympic marathon, 5th 2007 World 10,000, 9th 2013 World marathon)
NCAA titles: 0
Bio: Two-time World XC silver medalist *2005 Chicago Marathon champ *2006 London Marathon champ *Former AR holder in 10,000 and half marathon

Kastor is best known for her marathon exploits, but she excelled across multiple distances and surfaces. At the marathon distance, she won an Olympic bronze in 2004, won two majors, and twice broke the American record. Her 2:19:36 still makes her the only American woman under th 2:20 barrier and that record will turn 14 on Thursday. But Kastor was far from a one trick pony on the roads. She also set US road record at 8k, 12k, 10 miles, 20k and the half marathon (67:34, since broken). As good as she was on the roads, it can be argued she was equally as good if not better in cross country where she won 8 US titles (7 at 8k, 1 at 4k) and two world championship individual silver medals.  On the track, she won five US 10,000 titles and set an American record at 10,000 (and arguably one at 5,000 as well; when Kastor ran 14:51 in 2000, only doper Regina Jacobs had run faster among Americans) and finished as high as 5th at Worlds.

She’s also the only American woman in the last 30 years who can genuinely say she was the best marathoner in the world — she won Chicago and London back to back in 2005/2006, with her 2:19:36 in London holding up as a world leader (#4 on the all-time list at the time) and earning her the World #1 ranking from Track & Field News.

2) Jenny Simpson

Notable PBs: 3:57.22 1500 (#4 US), 4:17.30 mile (#3 US), 8:29.58 3,000 (#5 US), 14:56.26 5,000; 9:12.50 steeple (#4 US)
Global medals: 4 (1st 2011 World 1500, 2nd 2013 World 1500, 3rd 2016 Olympic 1500, 2nd 2017 World 1500) 
USA outdoor track titles:
7 (4 in 1500, 2 in steeple, 1 in 5,000)
USA indoor track titles: 4 (2 in 3,000, 1 in 1500, 1 in mile)
Global outdoor finals: 8 (8th 2008 Olympic steeple, 4th 2009 World steeple, 1st 2011 World 1500, 2nd 2013 World 1500, 11th 2015 World 1500, 3rd 2016 Olympic 1500, 2nd 2017 World 1500, 8th 2019 World 1500)
NCAA titles: 4
Bio: Most global outdoor medals (4) of any female American distance runner *Former American record holder in steeple *Collegiate record holder in 1500 (3:59.90), mile (4:25.91i), and 5,000 (15:01.70i) *2014 Diamond League champion (1500)

With four global medals, including a world title in 2011, Simpson is the most decorated American female distance runner in history, and one of the most decorated 1500 runners from any country. Thanks to her strength and a brilliant sense of pace, Simpson almost always measures her race perfectly, allowing her to run down countless foes over the final 100 meters. Though her finest hour came at the 2011 Worlds, where Simpson shockingly walked away with the gold, she was actually in better shape in all three of her subsequent medal runs (but faced tougher competition in each).

Simpson’s dominant collegiate career at the University of Colorado and her steeplechase exploits (she finished 4th at Worlds in 2009 in an American record) should also be appreciated, but Simpson’s greatest trait is her consistency. She first broke 4:00 for the 1500 as a 22-year-old college senior in June 2009; over a decade later, at age 33, she ran 3:58 in the World Championship final, with few dips in between. Though Simpson never broke the AR at 1500 (her 3:57.22 ranks #4 on the all-time list), her 9:12.50 steeple best stood as the AR for over six years.

Update: We received an email from a University of Colorado SID who requested we mention one other testament to Simpson’s longevity — she has 10 straight outdoor World/Olympic teams. The SID even included a statement from Simpson’s longtime coach Mark Wetmore:

“I wish it explicitly stated that she has made every World and Olympic team since 2007. I don’t think any US distance runner has ever done that, female or male.”

Indeed, no other US distance runner has made every team since 2007 — though it should be noted that Shalane Flanagan, like Simpson, made 10 straight teams from 2004 through 2016 (two in the marathon, eight on the track).

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Talk about this poll on our world famous messageboard/fan forum. MB: Who is the American GOAT – Deena or Jenny? Coach Wetmore and Colorado get involved and back Jenny .

Related: Rojo Speaks LetsRun Got It Wrong. Joan Benoit Samuelson Had A Better Career Than Jenny Simpson
*MB: Has LetsRun nation lost its mind? Jenny Simpson is currently beating Joan Benoit in the voting for Greatest American Ever
*MB: Rojo goes home DEVASTATED. Simpson def. Benoit Samuelson
From The Archives: LRC Daegu 2011: Jenny Simpson Pulls Shocker, Wins World 1,500m Title

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