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Stress Is for Losers / Westbury's Middleman fights back

Pain has been a constant in Dan Middleman's life for a long time. But the

physical pain of distance running and the emotional pain of competition he had

been dealing with since his days at Clarke High School became nearly unbearable

a year and a half ago. "I almost had a nervous breakdown," he said.

Sleepless nights and self-doubts turned Middleman's racing career into an

ongoing nightmare, and he was ready to quit. But months of therapy led to a

major attitude adjustment that has re-energized the Westbury native and 1996

Olympian. Now, he's ready to take the next giant step as a runner. Sunday,

Middleman will make his marathon debut in New York, a place where Americans

generally have performed with the same aplomb as the Atlanta Braves in Yankee

Stadium. No native-born American marathoner has finished in the top 10 in New

York since 1993; no American runner has won it since Alberto Salazar, who was

born in Cuba, but grew up in the United States, in 1982.

Middleman, 30, is excited about performing in front of friends and family; less

so about having his performance judged in New York based on his citizenship.

"I'm not carrying an American flag out there," he said. "To me, this is going

to be a journey of self-discovery, to see how I can handle this distance."

That journey began back at Clarke, where Middleman was a two-time state

champion at 3,200 meters, graduating in 1987, and continued through the

University of Florida, where he was an All-America in cross country, indoor and

outdoor track. In the spring of 1996, Middleman ran a clutch 28:04-a 10K (6.2

miles) personal best-at the Mt. SAC Relays in California, which qualified him

for the U.S. Olympic trials. There, he collapsed at the finish line of his

preliminary heat and spent 45 minutes in the medical tent being treated for

dehydration. But three days later, he not only ran but finished third in the

final. Though he didn't make it into the final in Atlanta, he earned respect

from the track cognoscenti for his gutsy performances. "He is as renowned for

his courage as he is for his ability," said veteran track writer James O'Brien,

now an official with the New York Athletic Club. And courage is a crucial

factor in the marathon.

But so is staying on an even, emotional keel; and that's where Middleman's gait

has sometimes been unsteady. His natural, New York type-A personality often

became double- and triple-A the night before races. "I was having anxiety

attacks, I couldn't sleep, and when I did, I'd wake up with my heart racing,"

he said. "I was getting my ego too wrapped up in my racing. It was like, 'If

I'm not running well, I can't be much of a man.'"

In the spring of 1998, Middleman quit his job as a special education teacher in

Raleigh to focus on running full time. It didn't work. "I was just putting too

much pressure on myself," he said. I decided to either get help or hang it up.

He opted for the help of sports psychologist Burt Giges of New Rochelle. Daily

sessions with Giges and later, Dan Gould in Greensboro, N.C., helped Middleman

separate himself from his racing performances. Racing has been less painful

for Middleman ever since. In February, he finished third at the national

cross-country championships in Tacoma, Wash., then went to the world

championships in Belfast in March, and followed that up in April with a

third-place, 13:42 performance in the Penn Relays 5K. Now comes the big jump,

to the 26.2-mile marathon. And not just any marathon.

Besides its reputation for swallowing Americans whole, New York, with its

bridges, crowded streets and tight turns, is known as a tough, tactical course,

where experience matters. "It takes a lot of guts just to step up to our

starting line," said Anne Roberts, elite athlete coordinator for the New York

Road Runners Club.

"I'm not intimidated by [the elite field], because I'm not racing against

them," Middleman said. "I'm just trying to get a feel for this distance."

No matter how he does, Middleman will feel the pain of running again Sunday.

But this time, it will be in his legs and not his heart; this time, he won't

lose sleep over it.

New York Sports