EUGENE, Ore. — On a very good day, Mary Slaney can run up to 10 miles at a pace she refers to as a “jog.”
That’s only on a very good day.
Her toes no longer flex and her calf muscles just don’t fire, making running difficult and sometimes downright painful.
Slaney — or Decker back in her glory days on the track — still loves logging miles, but has found new avenues to re-channel some of that passion. The 53-year-old started an organic garden on her 55-acre property in Eugene and sews quilts.
Even after all these years, Slaney remains the gold standard in women’s distance running, the name by which a new crop of athletes is measured.
Still the record holder in the 1,500 meters, Slaney plans to be at Hayward Field when the event starts Thursday at Olympic track trials.
She wants to catch a glimpse of Jenny Simpson, who last summer became the first American woman to win a world title in the 1,500 since Slaney in 1983.
In her view, this event is on the upswing, with runners such as Simpson, Morgan Uceny, Shannon Rowbury and Anna Pierce leading the resurgence.
They’ll try to earn one of the three spots on the team and later this summer in London attempt to accomplish something that no woman — not even Slaney — has ever done: Win a medal in the 1,500 at the Olympics.
“We have some legitimate chances of getting a medal,” Slaney said. “I’m excited to see the girls getting faster in the 1,500. There’s so much depth, so much talent.”
Slaney was sitting court-side at a celebrity track and field basketball game on Wednesday night, watching the likes of Maurice Greene, Jackie Joyner Kersee and Renaldo Nehemiah knock down jumpers (or try to anyway).
She’s still as fit as ever, even if she can’t run as much as she would like.
“I’m broken,” she said of her body. “I’ve had way too many surgeries.”
By her count, it’s up to nearly 40 procedures. The one that truly hampered her happened a dozen years ago, when doctors tried to reroute the tendons in her toes. That way, it would take stress off her Achilles and lower legs, making it possible for her to train longer.
“In retrospect, all it did was ruin my feet and lower legs,” Slaney said. “My whole biomechanics have been readjusted, and not in a good way.”
She typically runs around four miles and maybe up to 10 if she’s feeling particularly good. And although she calls it jogging, she’s still running around a 7-minute pace.
“The upside of that is that I’m out running and can do it,” Slaney said. “I finally have accepted the fact that if I jog, I can keep running.
“But I’ll never get to race again.”
Then again, there’s hardly a need for Slaney to prove anything in a local road race. She’s already one of the most decorated female distance runners in U.S. lore.
— Captured the 1,500 and 3,000 at the ’83 world championships, an achievement labeled the “Decker Double.”
— Set 36 national records over her career.
— A six-time winner at the Millrose Games in New York, including her first title at 15 and her last at 38.
— Qualified for four Olympic teams.
That’s quite a resume.
“My fondest memory? I guess winning two world championship titles in 1983 is pretty important,” Slaney said. “It’s hard to say one specific fond memory.”
But there’s one indelible image that fans think about when her name is mentioned.
At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Slaney was the overwhelming favorite to win gold in the 3,000. In one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history, Slaney collided with barefooted runner Zola Budd and tumbled to the track.
There went a medal.
In tears, her eventual husband, British Olympic discus thrower Richard Slaney, helped her from the track.
“A different lifetime,” Slaney said of the race. “I hope I’ve grown up.
“It’s not a closed chapter. It’s just many years later. I don’t even know where (Budd) lives. I did hear she was coaching in this country. I’ve seen her, off and on at different events. She’s another alumni.”
Ask her about her garden and Slaney’s face instantly brightens. She’s building raised beds right now and trying to get the organic soil just right.
“I’m growing every kind of vegetable — everything,” said Slaney, who has a 26-year-old daughter who just earned her master’s degree in journalism and is teaching Italian at Arizona State.
As for what keeps Slaney busy these days, well, that garden, four dogs, three cats and renovating her house.
In her spare time, she sews.
“I spend a lot of time quilting, hours and hours and hours,” she said. “It’s my passion, I guess. It’s replaced the running thing.”
Only, nothing fully replaces running.
And around here, where distance running is sacred, she’s pretty much a town treasure.
“It’s a nice town, a nice small town to live in, where people know who you are,” said Slaney, who’s lived here since 1979. “They love track and field here.”
Slaney attended the University of Colorado at a time when Title IX was just coming into existence. She then went on to become one of the best to take the track, at one point holding every American record from the 800 meters on up to the 10,000. She was inducted into track’s hall of fame in 2003.
“When I first started running in 1970, it wasn’t so popular for women to be out running. It wasn’t so popular for people to be out running,” she said. “I think the harder I ran, the more records I broke, the more attention it gave women’s track and field.
“I hope that if there is a legacy, that’s part of it, that I helped grow it and helped make it what it is for the athletes today.”