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No longer off in distance

With the creation of training centers, hope is in sight for US distance runners

By Barbara Huebner, Globe Staff, 4/13/2001

LPINE, Calif. - From the trails beneath the peaceful Jeffrey pines on Mt. Laguna to the dirt footpaths at the edge of Albuquerque to the streets of suburban Detroit, American distance running is systematically being restored to its glory days of a quarter-century ago.

The Discovery USA training program in Alpine, Calif., gives runners the chance to be full-time athletes. (Globe Photo / Sean Poroy)

At least that's the plan.

''It's about time,'' said Bill Rodgers, who at age 53 is still one of the few American marathoners who might be recognized in a supermarket outside of his neighborhood. ''We'll see on Patriots Day. I think we'll get some good results.''

Two organizations, frustrated with the falloff in numbers and performance of American distance runners over the past two decades, have recently set up shop with just that in mind. Recognizing that athletes thrive when they A) gather in training groups with a good coach and, B) don't have an anxiety attack every month when the rent is due. Team USA Distance Running and Fila's Discovery USA are providing some combination of room, board, coaching, equipment, facilities and medical care that encourages runners to train full-time at high intensity with big ambitions.

Seven athletes in the program will be running Boston. At least three of the men have top-10 potential.

''This is what I needed,'' said Josh Cox, a 25-year-old from Rancho San Diego, Calif., who has been part of the Discovery camp since last summer. ''I needed a block of time where someone was willing to support me and say OK, you can be a full-time athlete. You don't have to go out and make ends meet by going to the local road race so you can grab $500 to pay the rent and mess up your training.'' With time to rest and focus instead of work and over-race, Cox has increased his mileage to as high as 163 in a week, and shaved almost six minutes off his personal best in Chicago last fall, finishing 10th in 2:13:55.

While no one goes into distance running planning to get rich (''It's the least economically-aspirational job in the United States,'' quipped Rodgers), the first few years after college is often such a financial death spiral that talented runners are lost before they can reach their potential, putting their sport on the back burner or just quitting.

''You live off credit cards for six months, get a good [race] payday, pay them off, and start all over again,'' said Todd Reeser, a promising 27-year-old who runs for Team BrownStone out of Rochester, N.Y., part of the Team USA program. Reeser, who will be running Boston Monday and has yet to earn more than $15,000 a year since graduating from college, explained: ''Most guys aren't going to do that. They say why am I doing this, or the bill collector says why are you doing this, and they go get a job.''

Cox agreed. ''There's been nothing to bridge the gap between the 22-year-old college graduate and the 28-, 29-year-old international competitor,'' said Cox, from Rancho San Diego and the youngest qualifer for the 2000 Olympic Trials. ''So many guys fall into the abyss. It's very difficult to focus on the big picture if you don't have the finances to back it up.''

''You don't need much,'' emphasized David Morris, a BrownStone member whose 2:09:31 in Chicago two years ago was an American best. ''All you need is a roof over your head and a bunch of carbohydrates. Keep that going a few years and maybe you can get in position to make a living.''

Although American women finished ninth and 10th in 1997, there have been no American men in the top 10 since Bob Kempainen in 1994, and the United States has not won an Olympic medal in the marathon since Joan Benoit Samuelson in 1984. Nonetheless, few would argue that US distance running hit its symbolic low point last year when only one male and one female runner at the Olympic trials qualified for Sydney. Unseasonably hot weather and unexpected rule changes aside, the perception that America has sunk too far was inescapable.

''Enough of us were sick of talking about the lack of depth or the fact that we haven't had another Bill Rodgers,'' said Ryan Lamppa, a coordinator of Team USA Distance Running. ''People have been talking about this kind of program for at least a decade. After what happened in the marathon trials, it was a wakeup call. We wanted to do something tangible.''

So did Fila, which for years has sponsored the successful Discovery Kenya program under the guidance of Dr. Gabriele Rosa, the Italian coach of two-time Boston winner Moses Tanui and five-time World Cross-Country champion Paul Tergat.

''To read that we couldn't even field a marathon team that was anywhere near competitive was disappointing to many people,'' said Jon Epstein, president and CEO. It's not the Americans don't have the ability or the dedication, it's just a matter of support.''

One subject matters

From the outside, only the cardboard Fila sign in the window hints that this apartment might be different from the dozens of others at Meadow Woods, about 30 miles east of San Diego. Inside is another matter: a few pieces of rented furniture but no beds; vast piles of bagels and bananas; a professional massage table; nine one-gallon jugs of water lined up by the door ready to be grabbed on the way out.

It's a common area for the nine runners in Discovery USA, who share four other units for sleeping. Here, they gather around two dining tables pushed together and relax when they are not in the midst of twice-a-day workouts.

''It's just like college, except we don't have to study,'' said Christine Clifton, formerly Junkermann, whose 2:32:34 debut in Chicago last fall was one of the fastest marathons by an American woman in 2000.

But that doesn't mean they're not learning anything, especially about the value of rest and recovery. ''In Kenya, they don't do anything during the day,'' said Cox. ''You just see them lying on the grass staring at a rock, watching the world go by. That's all they're doing, waiting for the afternoon run. Oh man, that's what it's about right there.''

Said Rosa: ''You cannot push twice a day in training if you are not able to rest. You cannot do what you do at home. It is not possible to follow some job and be a [top] marathon runner.''

Here, their job is clear: get up early, run, come back and shower, eat breakfast, rest, eat lunch, rest again, do an afternoon workout, eat dinner, rest some more. Each session of the camp lasts about three months in summer and winter, leading up to the fall and spring marathon cycles, and participants are selected on the basis of treadmill tests that indicate how well-suited they are specifically to marathoning. If selected, they pack a few bags, quit their jobs, and head to camp.

''It's a different life than most people would like,'' said 34-year-old Jill Gaitenby of Boston, who is running Monday. Gaitenby quit her job as a kitchen designer and gave up a ''gorgeous'' apartment in the Back Bay to live in a spartan apartment with bare walls. ''But it doesn't matter,'' she said. ''We're here to train. It's a good soul-searching experience.''

''My way is a test,'' explained Rosa.

Last year, in the months leading up to the fall marathons, the Discovery camp was based at 6,000 feet on Mt. Laguna, where the athletes shared cabins and a single land-line telephone, whose cable was strung especially for them. (Cell phones, they say, occasionally worked if you stood in just the right spot under just the right tree.) The high-altitude, remote locale ideally mimicked the Eldoret region of Kenya, right down to the precise terrain of the trails, and the group is eager to get back after an unusually snowy winter forced them into the apartments at Alpine.

Instead, Cox and several others spent time training in Kenya. Another lesson learned. After running with Tanui for a month, said Cox, he saw how hard they worked but also how human they are. ''It's not so much of an intimidation factor for me anymore,'' he said. ''They put one foot in front of the other just like everybody else.''

Fila's commitment to the program is open-ended, although geared toward the 2004 Olympics, and is expected to cost more than $1 million.

It's a group effort

Team USA Distance Running has a more-flexible approach, working with existing groups of runners, not all of whom are marathoners, to set up a series of regional training centers. So far, three are operational: Team BrownStone in Rochester, N.Y.; Hansons Running Shop in Rochester Hills, Mich.; and Team USA Southern California. (If sponsorship considerations can be worked out, one is planned for the Boston area later this year.) In some, such as Hansons, housing and part-time jobs are provided, but the common thread is group training under a coach.

''The concept of training together cannot be overestimated,'' said Marc Bloom, a senior writer at Runner's World and author of the just-published ''Run with the Champions.'' ''You get so much benefit out of it physically and emotionally. You reinforce with one another that you can be a great runner. When you're by yourself, it's easier to get overwhelmed.''

Team USA Distance Running is a joint program of Running USA and USA Track & Field. Running USA is a consortium of road races, running associations and various other groups involved in running, aimed at promoting the sport.

At Team BrownStone - named after sponsor BrownStone Physical Therapy - top runners include Morris; Eddy Hellebuyck, a prolific road racer and 2:11:50 marathoner who will contend for the master's title in Boston as well as hoping to finish among the leaders, and Reeser, 27, who won the 20-kilometer national championship last year. The three spent the winter training in Albuquerque at about 6,300 feet, where Hellebuyck lives year-round; in turn he will spend the summer racing season in upstate New York.

''The blueprint for the team is pretty solid,'' said Reeser. ''We definitely know where we're going. It's just a matter of implementing the approach.'' A three-tiered program will provide a sliding-scale of benefits and services depending on how fast an athlete runs.

So far, the most talked-about Team USA program is the one just launched in Southern California, which includes Olympians Deena Drossin, Amy Rudolph, Meb Keflezighi, Jen Rhines, and Abdi Abdirahman. Geared toward currrent 5,000- and 10,000-meter runners whose date with the marathon would more likely be 2008 than 2004, it has a couple of well-known coaches: former UCLA coach Bob Larson and former Adams State coach Joe Vigil.

It also has a well-known sponsor: Nike, which has made a three-year commitment to support the center, even though some of the athletes are under contract to other shoe companies.

''You've got to look beyond that,'' said John Capriotti, Nike sports marketing manager. ''If you make the sport better, it's better for Nike and everyone involved.''

Working toward goal

Perhaps the most telling story is that of Lamppa, who is among the coordinators of Team USA. Lamppa, who was a Minnesota state sprint champion and ran for Harvard, decided in his mid-20s to quit his job as a history teacher and train full-time to qualify for the 1988 Olympic Trials at 1,500 or 5,000 meters. At one point, he was out for a run and found a $20 bill lying on the ground. By then used to living on $10 a week for food, he realized he had just doubled all the money he had.

''If I had heard about a program like this, I would have been on the phone,'' said Lamppa, explaining his passion for the project. ''If they had said no, I would have turned up in the doorway to say I'd sleep in the basement.''

He didn't qualify for the Trials, and went back to work.

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