Nancy Ditz was a little breathless, having sprinted from her back yard to answer the telephone.
“I flooded the pool last night, and there’s a repair man here to help me figure out what I did,” she said. “I’ve never had a pool before.”
That’s understandable. Ditz has never been this rich in talent before, never had this kind of promise before, never been as focused before. It’s all new to her, just as she is new to us.
Ditz is the second-best American female marathoner, behind, of course, Joan Benoit Samuelson. Because of Samuelson’s overwhelming popularity, however, Ditz may as well be No. 20.
Whereas the American public seems to be able to accept and revere scores of athletes in baseball and football, the saturation point in distance running may be one or two. Especially among women.
So, when Ditz heads the women’s field in Sunday’s Los Angeles Marathon, it will be a singular experience.
“People will get to know me,” Ditz said from her new home in the Bay Area suburb of Woodside, Calif. “I think they know Joanie first, that’s understandable. It takes a lot of exposure. I want to do more things in broadcasting and television. I did (color commentary) for the New York Marathon for ABC.
“My acceptance in running is fairly big. But people may know you in running but not elsewhere . . . until you win the New York Marathon like Rod (Dixon) did. He had been one of the best road racers in the world, but until he won the New York City Marathon, he didn’t take off. That’s part of the reason I’m running Los Angeles. It’s a media center.
“Go ask three people who won the Chicago Marathon. I don’t think they can tell you. That’s going to be their biggest problem. It’s not a media center. Los Angeles is. It’s good exposure.”
If it sounds as if Ditz is trying to catch up, that’s only because she is. She’s training like mad to improve her marathon time of 2 hours 31 minutes 36 seconds. She is talking to anyone who will listen so she can broaden her appeal as a star in running. She is about 100 years behind everyone else and she knows it.
Ditz, 31, began running at 25. In an era during which many runners begin their training just beyond the diaper stage, Ditz is definitely a late bloomer.
“I was a springboard diver in high school,” she said. “I was a good athlete, but not with things that involve hand-eye coordination. I didn’t run at all. I was always around sports, though. I was a fan.
“In college (Stanford) in my freshman year, I was a coxswain on the men’s crew team. That’s only because I weighed 110 pounds, which is the optimal weight for the boat. I had a lot of fun in college. I don’t regret not running in college. For all practical purposes, I’m a better runner because I didn’t run.”
Ditz began running for all the usual reasons, but she didn’t get caught in the running boom--high-tech shoes, latest outfits.
“It was simple. I started running because I was out of shape,” she said. “I was used to being in shape and having teen-age legs and a teen-age rear end. I discovered I had 25-year-old legs. I didn’t like it.
“Actually, the thing that really motivated me was the Pain Running Club, to which my husband belongs. These guys all run in a race that starts in one bar and ends in another. It’s seven miles and you get a pitcher of beer at the finish. That was my motivation.”
Ditz took that and slowly, steadily built a base in her running. She didn’t come into the sport with a great deal of speed, but she capitalized on consistency.
That would be her trademark. Let other athletes perform according to their whims. Ditz would be the rock who would always do well.
Almost. The 1984 U.S. Olympic marathon trial in Olympia, Wash., was an emotional and physical high in women’s running. After decades of trying, women would finally have a true distance event to run in the games. Ditz was thrilled to be there.
“My family has always gone to watch the Olympic Games,” she said. “It’s been a tradition. We went to Munich in 1972, and I remember watching Frank Shorter win the marathon. I’ve always thought the greatest thing you could do in life was make an Olympic team. It didn’t matter what sport, it would just be the apex of your career.”
Ditz was among the dozen or so runners who had a shot at the top three. She prepared for the race by running a series of shorter races. She was surprised when she lost two races to runners she had figured to beat. Still, she felt fine on race day, lining up next to Samuelson.
“I don’t know what happened,” she said. “I had severe cramps in my calves at the first mile.
“I was shocked at the prospect of running with that kind of pain for the entire race. You are prepared for some pain late in the race, but I was really scared. I didn’t know what it was.
“I have a picture taken of me at the five-mile mark. My face was so pinched with the pain. I wanted to drop out. If it hadn’t have been the Olympic trials I would have. I didn’t want to let everybody down, my family, my husband.”
Ditz was in 44th place at the halfway mark. Then, as inexplicably as it had arrived, the pain in her legs left.
“I blasted the second half,” she said. “I remember hearing I was in 17th place at 20 miles, way back but still passing people. I usually don’t feel real good about passing people in a race, I feel a little guilty. But every person I passed was like a small triumph.
“Then I passed the two girls who had beaten me in those races before trials. I remember thinking, ‘Ha!’ as I passed them.”
Ditz’s kick pushed her only into seventh place, and making the Olympic team became, she said, “a dream I had to let go of.”
She’s thinking more in the here and now and she’s not sure what to expect of her race in Los Angeles.
“It really depends on the weather,” she said. “I’m more concerned with a victory than time. I’m in shape to run a sub-2:30, but if it’s hot I’ll run conservative. I don’t know what to expect.”
Neither does the public, but after Sunday, at least they’ll know her name.