THE TROUBLE WITH running for a living is that paychecks are based on performance. Pro basketball and football players can have a rotten day at the office, and they still get paid, but not a pro runner.
If a runner finishes in the top three or so of a race, he eats, and if he doesn't he starves or pedals Amway.When a pro runner says he finished out of the money, it is meant literally. A runner doesn't take the money and run; he takes a run and then the money, if he's lucky.
All of which makes each racing effort that much more important and difficult. There are so many factors that can rob a runner of a payday: Colds, Kenyans, pulled muscles, allergies, cramps, wrong turns.
Just ask Ed Eyestone. He has been arguably the top American distance runner for a decade, and he still is subject to the vagaries of racing and the human body. Last weekend Eyestone was running in the Crescent City 10,000-meter road race in New Orleans. The second biggest 10K race in the country (33,000 entrants), it also doubled as the U.S. national 10K championships this year and as such attracted all of the top American runners.
But none of them was any match for Eyestone. With less than a half-mile to go, he held a big lead over his nearest rival. The $4,000 first prize was as good as his. He was a lock.
Too bad he never made it to the finish line. One moment he was running, the next moment he was staggering like a drunk and then stopping, the finish just 500 yards away. Next thing Eyestone knew he was lying on a stretcher with an IV stuck in his arm.
There would be no paycheck this day.
"It's a crazy occupation," said Eyestone from his home in Layton this week. "Other than the finish, I had a great race. But I went home with the same amount of money as the guy who finished in 33,000th place."
This wasn't the first time Eyestone finished a race in the medical tent. As a BYU freshman, he twice ran himself to such a state of exhaustion in track races that he staggered back and forth across several lanes and finally crawled the last few yards to the finish. But that was 15 years ago and the farthest thing from his mind last weekend.
As Eyestone warmed up for the Crescent City race, he noticed the high temperature (upper 80s) and even higher humidity (upper 90s). For a runner who had been training in cold, dry Utah, he should have been wary, especially when he developed a case of cottonmouth before the race even began.
"Be careful out there; it's hot," he told other runners.
Three miles into the race, Eyestone and Keith Brantley pulled away from the pack and opened a comfortable lead, or at least as comfortable as it gets running a 4:30-per-mile pace. They alternated the pacing chores until Mile 5, and then Eyestone surged and opened a 20-yard lead on Brantley.
Eyestone was in command of the race as he reached the 6-mile mark, but suddenly, without warning, his body began to shut down.
"I went from feeling great one moment to a feeling of impending doom the next," he recalls. "It was like a car running out of oil; finally, the pistons seized."
Overcome with a wave of dizziness and tunnel vision, Eyestone began to stagger and weave, a la Gabriele Andersen in the 1984 Olympic marathon. His body was simply overheated and dehydrated. Runners flew past him. One of them, Aaron Ramirez, shouted at Eyestone to stop. Another rival, Tom Ansberry, grabbed Eyestone by an arm and attempted to pull him off the course, but Eyestone resisted, saying he had to finish.
A short time later, Eyestone was found staggering around a park. Race officials rushed him to the medical tent in a golf court, the first of more than 200 runners who would need treatment that day. By then, Eyestone couldn't stand. They placed him on a stretcher and wrapped him in cold towels while pumping two bags of IV fluid into his arm.
Even as he lay on the stretcher, Eyestone thought of the ramifications: If he makes the Olympic team next year (for the third time), he will face the same hot and humid conditions in the Olympic marathon, which will be run in Atlanta in the middle of the summer.
"That will be even more fun," says Eyestone dryly.
Eyestone has thrived in such conditions previously. He was 13th in the 1992 Olympic marathon in Barcelona, and he won Atlanta's Peachtree Classic in the same hot, humid conditions he encountered in New Orleans.
"If this happens only every 15 years, I can handle it," says Eyestone of his Crescent City experience.
Apparently recovered from last weekend's swoon, Eyestone returned to work this week. He resumed training in preparation for a busy racing schedule, which will include a marathon (he and training partner Paul Pilkington have been selected to represent the U.S. at the World Track Championships in Sweden) and several major road races. The next time he races, Eyestone hopes he finishes in the money, not in the medical tent.