Pittsburgh Marathon: Americans to run here for big piece of the purse

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Ian Burrell's final mile at the 2014 Houston Marathon was draped in patriotic fanfare. Spectators lining the streets chanted, "USA! USA! USA!" as Burrell sprinted to a lifetime best 2:13:26 and hoisted an American flag at the finish line.

It was a day most American long-distance runners could only dream of, but, as Burrell knew well, it also served to show an alarming disparity among elite runners.

Burrell was the first American to cross the finish line in that race, but he didn't even make the podium. He finished seventh overall, nearly six minutes behind winner Bazu Worku of Ethiopia. The six runners ahead of Burrell hailed from Ethiopia, Kenya and Mexico.

While Worku walked away with a $40,000 payday, Burrell returned to his day job as a defense attorney in Tucson, Ariz., with $2,000 in prize money and a $1,000 bonus for besting the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials "A" qualifying standard of 2:15:00.

It's this financial and competitive disproportion that Patrice Matamoros, CEO of Pittsburgh Three Rivers Marathon, Inc., is targeting with the newly founded American Development Program, an initiative designed to increase exposure, opportunities and additional income for American runners.

The total prize purse for the 2014 Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon exceeds $135,000 -- the largest purse in race history. And this time, $40,500 will be set aside for the top American finishers, men and women, in the marathon and UPMC Health Plan Pittsburgh Half-Marathon.

"Running isn't the easiest sport to make a living in, so any opportunity is well-appreciated," Burrell said. "The Three Rivers Marathon putting in this type of prize money and making it exclusive to U.S. athletes is huge for U.S. distance running."

The idea was generated after the 2013 marathon, Matamoros said. She rattled off a number of facts and figures to illustrate American runners' relative invisibility on the current international stage -- the two-decade Olympic gold-medal drought and the dearth of American victories at the World Marathon Majors.

"We were looking at what we could do to help American athletes, and we decided this was something that could be our niche," Matamoros said, adding that Pittsburgh doesn't have the resources for seven-digit payouts as do Chicago, Boston and New York.

The Three Rivers Marathon isn't the first to split the prize pot for American runners, but the American Development Program is unique in that it isn't married to a single event. It is a year-round initiative that allocates an American-only portion in four event purses: the marathon and half-marathon in May, the GNC Live Well Liberty Mile in August and the EQT Pittsburgh 10 Miler in November.

In addition to offering the regular prize purse, the American-only purse and the opportunity to earn bonuses for runners who meet Olympic Trial standards, the American Development Program also pays for travel and lodging in Pittsburgh for runners who qualify for the program.

Kelsey Jackson, the program coordinator, expects the American Development Program to sponsor between five and 10 runners of each gender in the marathon and half-marathon.

"If these opportunities didn't exist ... you'd focus your efforts elsewhere because you have to make a living," Burrell said. "This is keeping a lot of people in the game."

The program also worked in conjunction with the Kids of Steel program to link Burrell and Clara Santucci, the top American woman at the 2013 Chicago Marathon, as pen-pal correspondents to local schools. They will visit the schools in early May.

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.

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