His run-up to Atlanta? A volcano

Phil Davison meets a marathon runner who has been to the mountain of hope and felt the expectation of his country. German Silva will be chasing gold for himself and Mexico

German Silva is able to laugh at the day in 1994 when, following press vehicles, he veered off the New York marathon course with only a few hundred yards to go. Realising his mistake after a few seconds, he chased his fellow Mexican Benjamin Paredes like a man possessed and caught him in the final strides to win the race.

Last year, Silva won the New York race again, this time avoiding the scenic detour. Now as he trains for Atlanta, Silva's only chance of getting lost is in the mist that shrouds the 13,800ft Nevado de Toluca volcano. By the time he reaches the crater for a few laps inside the rim on a lunar- like landscape, his view is like that from a cruising airliner, with Toluca's cloud layer far below.

The 28-year-old hopes that running up and down the extinct volcano once a week for the past year - a full marathon distance from bottom to top and back - will give him the edge in Atlanta by strengthening his oxygen- deprived heart, lungs and muscles.

To local hikers and picnickers, the man in the Fila sweatshirt - his sponsor - and Spandex shorts is either a superman or a madman as he glides past along a twisting, rock-strewn path, daunting to hardened walkers, up to an altitude where this reporter could barely summon the breath to ask him a few questions. Hikers who reach the top often get white flashes in their eyes from oxygen deprivation. A Japanese runner who once tried to train with Silva fainted.

At the top, having climbed two and a half miles at a speed most of us could not run on the flat, and having gone from 25C to near-freezing, the little Mexican jogs into the crater for a few laps around the eerie, charcoal-coloured "Lake of the Sun".

Amazingly, as he warms himself by a log fire, the marathon man is not alone. In the lake, a youth paddles a tiny, bright-yellow, one-man dinghy, apparently his idea of a day out in the country. By the lake's edge, a family of three is setting up a taco stand to make a few pesos out of the occasional hiker. Private initiative, Mexican-style.

Sometimes, for instance last winter when there was 20 inches of snow outside, Silva spends the night in the stone ruins of a hikers' refuge, huddling in a sleeping bag against sub-zero temperatures. For company, he has the guards from a nearby radio and TV antenna tower.

All of Mexico, disappointed by a lone silver medal in Barcelona where Silva finished sixth in the 10,000 metres, will be rooting for the 5ft 3in, 8st runner when he tackles the steamy Atlanta course on 4 August. His compatriots Paredes and the London marathon winner Dionicio Ceron are also favoured for medals, but the little man from the Atlantic coast state of Veracruz has won over his nation by his refusal to play the superstar role.

He has used his success to encourage children in Veracruz to take up running and stay away from alcohol and drugs, organising youth races in which Fila T-shirts and shoes are the coveted prizes. "I also organised a race for men carrying 100kg [220lb] loads of oranges. You should have seen them move, some of them did about five miles an hour over a 400-yard course," he said.

In his home village of Tecomate - population 500 - barefoot children chase after his Jeep when he and his 33-year-old Dutch wife, Miranda, arrive with clothes and school utensils such as pencils, donated by her neighbours on the Dutch island of Texel. They met through mutual friends after he ran the Rotterdam marathon in 1992, married last year and have an eight-month-old baby, Zyanya, a name taken from Silva's Aztec ancestors. "I think our long-distance running ability comes from the Aztecs," said Silva's coach, the former marathon man Rodolfo Gomez, at their Mexico City training camp. "When the Emperor Montezuma [before Hernan Cortes conquered Mexico in 1521] wanted fresh fish for his palace in Tenochtitlan [now Mexico City], he would send men out to run more than 200 miles to the sea and back."

Silva's mother, Audoxia, is a Totocana Indian. His father, Agapito, an orange grower who lived to see him win New York the first time round but died last July, was of Portuguese origin. True to his half-Indian roots, Silva calls the volcano by its ancient Otomi Indian name, Chinantecatl, or "Guardian of the Mountain".

Despite his success, Silva has little to show for it, lives in a simple home on the edge of Toluca, drives a four-wheel drive Ford Explorer and feels best when he returns to the village where he used to help his dad pick oranges and drive them across country for the higher prices of the Pacific coast.

"I've been taken to New York's Waldorf Astoria, I've been on the Letterman show twice [on late-night television in the United States], but I feel best in my village," he told me after returning to the foot of the volcano. He sold the Mercedes he won in New York in 1994 and a Jeep Cherokee the following year in order to finance his training because, as he pointedly noted, "I have received no support from the Mexican Olympic Committee."

After his first New York win, the governor of Veracruz state asked him what he would like as a gift. "Bring electricity to my village," the athlete replied. Within months, power, and TV sets, came to Tecomate. Silva hopes an Olympic gold might push the governor to bring in running water.

He started running after the family donkey persistently dumped him into orange groves instead of taking him the two and a half miles to school. At 17, he ran a 5km race with nationally known runners and finished third. "No one believed me because they'd never heard of me. They accused me of using a bike," he said.

"When I repeated the feat a couple of weeks later, they took notice." Apart from the benefits of altitude training, he reckons the searing heat of his home village means he will feel at home in Atlanta.

Although quietly spoken and unassuming, Silva is forthright about the social, political and economic problems of his country as well as the mafia-like clique which runs most sports.

After he criticised the Mexican Athletics Federation after the Barcelona Games, the federation's president, Julian Nunez Arana, suspended him for four years but later backed down and lifted the ban three months later.

Silva is also highly critical of Mexico's Olympic Committee chief, Mario Vazquez Rana, who used to insist that Mexican Olympic athletes receive no prizes in other events. Silva noted that Mr Vazquez Rana is one of Mexico's wealthiest men with a fortune possibly hitting the billion-dollar mark.

"It's difficult to see such a beautiful country as mine, full of natural assets, but where the difference between rich and poor is so wide," the runner said. "We just don't have a system that improves the quality of life for the majority."

Medal or no in Atlanta, his mother will be the noisiest spectator. The two of them have a big date later in August as he has long promised to take her to see the Pope in Rome, and has been promised an audience soon after the Olympics close.

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