LRC Decides: Who is the Greatest American Distance Runner of All Time?

April 6, 2020

We’re in week four without sports, and we imagine you’re starting to get bored. The reruns of classic games on TV are getting stale, and the debate-show questions have been answered. We know where Tom Brady will play next season (Tampa?!?) and we know the Olympics have been postponed until 2021. What else is there to talk about?

Following the success of our Race of the Decade in December, which saw David Rudisha‘s world record in the 2012 Olympic 800-meter final crowned the best race of the 2010s, we decided it was time for another bracket.

As for the subject, how about one of the great debates in track & field: who is the greatest American distance runner of all time?

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There’s no obvious answer here. Is it Frank Shorter, the 1972 Olympic marathon champion who really should have two gold medals? Joan Benoit Samuelson, two-time Boston Marathon champ, 1984 Olympic gold medalist, and former world record holder? Meb Keflezighi, the only man to win Boston, New York, and an Olympic medal? Jenny SimpsonMatthew Centrowitz, Jr.Deena Kastor?

We couldn’t decide this on our own. So we’re calling on our readers — the most knowledgeable, passionate, and best running fans in the world — to determine the answer. The competition will be brutal. Legends will fall. But over the next two weeks, we’ll narrow a field of 32 men and 32 women to one men’s GOAT and one women’s GOAT, who will then square off to determine the overall greatest American distance runner of all time.

How it works

After soliciting your input on who should make the cut, we’ve assigned seeds to every athlete and created 64-athlete bracket, divided into four regions (two men’s regions and two women’s regions). Each day, vote for the athlete you want to see advance; the athlete with the most votes in each matchup moves on to the next round. We’ll keep going until only one athlete remains.


-Athlete must be an American citizen
-Athlete must have competed in events 800 meters or longer. 400/800 runners like Jearl Miles Clark will be considered, but only based on we’re ignoring their 400m accomplishments (600m accomplishments will earn consideration). Ultrarunners are included.
-Athlete must have competed after World War II. The level of competition pre-WWII simply wasn’t close to the modern era. Jim Lightbody may have won three gold medals at the 1904 Olympics, but you had never heard of him until reading this sentence.
-Athlete should be judged solely on what he/she accomplished while representing the United States. So marathoner Khalid Khannouchi‘s first world record, in Chicago in 1999, doesn’t count because he was still representing Morocco. But his second world record, in London in 2002, is fair game.)
-No one who served a doping ban is eligible for this competition — so no Mary Decker Slaney or Regina Jacobs.


If everyone agreed on what, exactly, constitutes greatness, there would be no need to hold this tournament. There’s always going to be an element of subjectivity involved, particularly when comparing athletes across disciplines. That said, here are some key components to consider when voting:

-international medal record
-national titles
-national/world records
-personal bests and top performances
-world rankings


The bracket schedule will play out as follows. All voting closes at midnight ET on the final day of each round.

-Play-in game: April 6-7
-Round of 64: April 8-9
-Round of 32: April 10-11
-Round of 16: April 12-13
-Quarterfinals: April 14-15
-Semifinals: April 16-17
-Final: April 18-19
-Winner revealed: April 20


Narrowing ever American distance runner since World War II into a 64-person bracket was such a tough task that we had to squeeze two more guys in. So we’re kicking off our tournament with a play-in game: Jim Walmsley vs. Chris Solinsky vs. Alan Webb (we told you the competition was going to be brutal!).

Vote in the play-in game here (voting ends Tuesday at midnight).

You can preview the rest of the bracket below:

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