Speed outside fast-food lane

Special to The Times

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Tyson Gay's mother was hardly surprised to hear that her son had dinner in a restaurant. After all, Daisy Gay Lowe said, he eats nearly every meal outside the two-bedroom furnished apartment where he lives alone while training in this Dallas suburb.

It was what Gay ordered in a Cajun-style restaurant that startled his mother.

"He ate that?" she said, after hearing that the leading sprinter in the United States had tucked into a dish called Grilled Mahi Mahi St. Charles, with the fish embellished by lobster, shrimp, sauteed mushrooms and spinach in a Dijon cream sauce, accompanied by dirty rice.

"Oh, my God, that's awesome," Daisy Lowe said, struck by the idea that, at age 25, her son finally may have swallowed the nutritional advice she -- and others -- had been giving him for years.

This is a guy who usually traveled overseas to compete with one bag full of training clothes and another crammed with potato chips, cheese nips, doughnuts, fruit roll-ups, chocolate chip cookies, gummy fruit snacks, and, in one near concession to healthy eating, granola bars. A guy who saw asparagus stalks on a plate and asked if they were zucchini.

There was a guilelessness about that question, a refreshing lack of pretense in exposing how green he remains about vegetables, a world champion who is not the least bit world-weary.

It also reflects a mannerly upbringing, full of love and empty of affectation, in a deeply religious, Southern family (his mother's e-mail address expresses devotion to Christ). In one five-minute phone conversation last year, Gay addressed the caller as "sir" a half-dozen times.

Beyond the track, where Gay moves at a pace that made him reigning world champion in the 100 and 200 meters, he is a soft, polite drawl in a sprint world accustomed to a steady diet of stars who talk as loud and fast as they run.

What he does is the most fundamental and seemingly uncomplicated of sporting challenges: get from here to there faster than everyone, whether the older sister he finally beat at age 14 or the world-record holder he crushed for the 2007 world title in the 100.

He was slow only in coming to the realization that strictly fast food isn't the right fuel for a fast man, a man favored to win both sprints at the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials that begin Friday in Eugene, Ore., a man whose running should earn him more than $2 million this year from his shoe contract and other endorsements -- including one for McDonald's Southern-style chicken sandwich.

It wasn't until he ran four 100s and four 200s over six days in oppressive heat and humidity at the 2007 worlds that Gay really understood the battering his body goes through over the time -- barely two minutes altogether -- spent in those races.

"I had some marathoners I train do a workout of six times 60 meters, with three minutes rest between them, and they couldn't walk the next day," said 2000 Olympic sprint relay gold medalist Jon Drummond, one of Gay's two coaches. "The 60 did more damage to their bodies than long, hard runs."

Gay saw the stress of sprinting in stunning detail in the high-definition video a Japanese film crew shot last fall of him and Jamaica's Asafa Powell, the runners who had been expected to turn the Olympic 100 into a mano a mano.

The video shows Gay's left calf distorted by effort as he pushes off for a stride, then the right ankle bending dramatically as he lands on that foot, over and over again for the 45 strides it takes him to run the 100.

"It looks so painful," Gay said.

That helped him understand why Drummond advised him to eat just chicken, fish and vegetables, why the vitamins and mineral supplements and weightlifting Gay once shunned were necessary as preventive medicine to avoid having virtual pain become real, that he needed to bring more than just running skills to the table.

Last month, before he headed out to the track to prepare for his first 100-meter race of the season, Gay spent an hour at O's Personal Training in Arlington. He pumped 25-pound dumbbells, waist to shoulder, as if swinging his arms in a race. He did eight sets of sidearm and overhead pull-ups on a Body Master. Then leg raises. Crunches. Knees pulled to chest in an explosive motion like a start.

"I always thought if you lifted weights, did this stuff, you were going to get bigger and slower," Gay said. "I realized I had to do it just to be strong enough to get through a season."

The burden on Gay shifted about three weeks ago, when Usain Bolt, another Jamaican, lowered Powell's world record from 9.74 to 9.72 in a New York race. Gay was a distant second, even though his time (9.85) was just one one-hundredth off his personal best.

Bolt, 21, had been startlingly fast in two other races this spring, beginning his season the way Gay had a year ago. Now he faces the pressure of probably going to the Olympics as the world-record holder, and only one man in that position has won the 100-meter gold since 1988.

"I think him having the record does ease the pressure on me," Gay said via telephone before leaving for Eugene. "People are going to be asking him all the time if he can do it again. I'm happy not to be the favorite."

Gay also realizes the U.S. trials are too competitive to be thinking about the Olympics, especially in the 100, where one misstep could be enough to keep a man from the top-three finish necessary to make the team in the event. He already has to overcome notoriously slow starts that led last year to his working with Drummond on that phase of his race.

In the search for speed, Gay has kept moving.

He owns a house in Fayetteville, Ark., where he went to college at the University of Arkansas, and rents apartments in Arlington and Orlando, Fla., where he does base training with his longtime coach, Lance Brauman. He spends the fall with his sister in their hometown, Lexington, Ky., where Gay's 7-year-old daughter, Trinity, lives with her mother.

"It can be lonely at times," Gay said of his nomadic life. "I talk to my mother a lot about it, and she says there is a reason for everything. I can deal with it."

It's a good thing that like most athletes his age, Gay can multitask communications. As he slid behind the wheel of his white Cadillac Escalade for the drive to dinner, Gay was talking with a visitor, sending a text message and sorting out the best route in his head.

The situation got more complex last year, when Brauman spent 366 days in prison after being found guilty of mail fraud and embezzlement. Brauman, who had written out a year's worth of workouts for Gay, was released two days after Gay won the 100 meters at worlds, and the runner returned to train with him for four months before going to Texas.

"I can't have tunnel vision," Gay said of the coaching arrangement. "I have to listen to advice on the left and on the right."

Gay also wears no blinders on the drug issue that has sent U.S. sprinting into a dark tunnel of suspicion.

He was quick to volunteer for repeated testing in the new U.S. anti-doping program, Project Believe, that establishes baseline chemistry for each athlete, allowing variations in subsequent tests to be more easily classified as doping. He also understands denials have become meaningless in a sport so besmirched by the BALCO scandal.

"Some people probably are going to say, 'Tyson Gay is on drugs,' and some will say, 'I know he is clean,' " Gay said. "I try not to focus on drug accusations and who is doing what. I just love to compete."

To aid his performance legally, Gay takes ibuprofen, potassium, calcium, magnesium, multivitamins and fish oil. And, yes, he cleaned his plate of it all, the mahi mahi and the shellfish and the vegetables, to the last grain of dirty rice.

He has put his mouth where his money is.

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Philip Hersh covers Olympic sports for The Times and the Chicago Tribune.

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Begin text of infobox

In the running

Tyson Gay, above, who has volunteered for repeated testing in the U.S. anti-doping program, is expected to be one of the top sprinters for the U.S track and field team in Beijing. Trials to qualify for the team will be held this Friday through July 6 at Eugene, Ore. Gay's career highlights and top times for U.S. sprinters in 2008:

TYSON GAY

* Age: 25.

* Height/weight: 5-11, 165

* College: Arkansas.

* Hometown: Lexington, Ky.

* Personal bests: 9.84 (100 meters), 2006 and 2007; 19.62 (200 meters), 2007, second-fastest 200 ever.

* Career highlights: three gold medals (100, 200, 400 relay) at 2007 world championships; U.S. champion, 100 and 200 meters, 2007; NCAA champion, 100 meters, 2004.

* Past Olympics: none.

100 METERS

World record: 9.72, Usain Bolt, Jamaica, 2008. U.S record: 9.79, Maurice Greene, 1999.

Top 10 U.S. performances of 2008:

9.85... Tyson Gay

9.96... Travis Padgett

10.04... Preston Perry

10.05... Trindon Holliday

10.06... Mike Rodgers, Darvis Patton

10.08... J-Mee Samuels, Evander Wells

10.09... Ivory Williams

10.10... Carlos Moore

200 METERS

World and U.S. record: 19.32, Michael Johnson, 1996

Top 10 U.S. performers of 2008:

20.0... Tyson Gay

20.07... Wallace Spearmon

20.08... LaShawn Merritt

20.10... Walter Dix

20.22... Charles Clark

20.25... Xavier Carter, Evander Wells

20.30... Rodney Martin

20.32... Travis Padgett, J-Mee Samuels

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