Legendary track and field athlete Mary Slaney is putting her running shoes back on for an annual charity race in an area from which she emerged as one of the most accomplished female runners in U.S. history.
Thirty-five years after she received international attention under her maiden name Decker by winning the 800 meters in a U.S.-Soviet Union meet as a 14-year-old, Slaney can still call herself an American record-holder. She currently has the U.S. outdoor track record in four events — 1,500, 2,000 and 3,000 meters and mile — and in one indoor track event, the mile.
Although she never won an Olympic medal, Slaney set 36 U.S. records and 17 official and unofficial world records at various distances during her storied running career. Perhaps even more impressive, she is the only athlete in history to have held every American record between 800 and 10,000 meters.
Now living with her husband, former discus thrower Richard Slaney, in Eugene, Oregon, Slaney is returning for a charity run in Southern California, the same region from which she broke out as a running phenom.
Slaney will serve as the honorary spokesperson and starter of the 15th annual Keep L.A. Running event at Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey Sunday, July 13th.
“I consider L.A. to be sort of the birthplace of my running, so it feels like going home in a way, even though I now consider Eugene home,” said Decker, who attended high school in Orange County.
The Keep L.A. Running event aims to raise money for a variety of charities, including those that benefit children with cancer, prematurely born babies and other causes. Over the years, Keep L.A. Running has raised over $1 million for charitable causes, event spokesperson Don Franken said.
The event includes a 5K run/ walk, a 10K run, a coastal bike ride, a “mayor’s mile” and a “kids’ dash.”
The charity race is scheduled to begin with a 10K and 20K coastal bike ride and the mayor’s mile at 7:30 a.m. at the Imperial Highway entrance to Dockweiler Beach in Playa del Rey. The races are open to people of all ages, from the serious runner to the first-time participant.
New to the event this year is the team competition, in which special trophies will be awarded in the 5K and 10K runs.
“We really wanted to get groups of people, such as friends and co-workers, involved,” Franken said of the team competition.
Colonial Life, a co-title sponsor of the event, is offering cash prizes to the top three finishers for men and women in both the 5K and 10K runs, something Franken hopes will “attract elite athletes.” The prizes are $500 for first place, $350 for second and $150 for third.
Slaney is joining an elite group of U.S. track and field athletes who have served as event spokesperson, including Carl Lewis, Billy Mills, Frank Shorter and Louie Zamperini, a 1936 Olympian and World War II hero who also plans to attend this year.
Franken called Slaney an “icon in the sport,” one of the finest female distance runners the U.S. has ever produced.
“She was the fiercest competitor I ever saw on the track,” Franken said. “When she was healthy, she was unbeatable.”
During her standout career on the track, Slaney suffered many injuries, including one that came on the sport’s biggest stage, the Olympics. In the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Slaney was favored to win the gold medal in the 3,000 meters but collided with a barefoot South African runner, Zola Budd, and was unable to finish the race with an injury.
That disappointing moment “seems like a lifetime ago” for Slaney, but she is proud of her achievements on the track.
“I’ve gained a lot of support through my athletic career and I’ve been able to give back in small ways,” she said.
While Slaney plans to participate in the 5K event at Keep L.A. Running, she noted that she can no longer race competitively after having surgery on her feet. For someone who used to be idolized for her running ability, Slaney says not being able to race is one of the more difficult things to deal with.
As she returns to Southern California to start off Keep L.A. Running, Slaney is looking forward to seeing “everybody running.”
“I feel honored that some of the success I’ve achieved makes me a person that can benefit an event like that,” Slaney said.