Distance-running camps aim to launch the United States back to the top

Can U.S. distance runners challenge the best?  Credit: Allsport
Americans have taken The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner to the extreme:

  • Its been 36 years since the last American, Billy Mills, won an Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 meters.

  • An American male hasnt won the New York City Marathon since 1982 or the Boston Marathon since 1983.

  • Joan Benoit Samuelson captured the first womens Olympic Marathon in 1984 in Los Angeles. Since then, an American hasnt medaled in the event. And the last male to medal in the marathon in the Olympics was Frank Shorter, who took home the silver in Montreal in 1976.

    Much has been written about the decline of the American long-distance runners over the last 25 years. While many remedies have been suggested, they havent all been put into action.

    However, that appears to be changing.

    Recently Team USA Distance Running, a joint program of Running USA and USA Track & Field, announced the establishment of two Team USA Training Centers in Rochester Hills, Mich., and Rochester, N.Y., geared toward long-distance running.

    The centers, which will provide coaching, structured group training and athlete support and promotion, are a partnership between Running USA, USATF, Hansons Running Shop and Team BrownStone.

    In addition, last August, Fila Discovery USA established a marathon camp near San Diego, Calif., on Mount Laguna, which has already paid dividends.

    Virginias Christine Junkerman, 28, finished seventh at the Chicago Marathon in October in 2:32:45. It was the second fastest marathon debut by an American woman. Another camper, Josh Cox, 25, of El Cajon near San Diego, finished 10th at Chicago in 2:13:54, six minutes better than his previous best marathon.

    Dr. Gabriele Rosa, the architect behind Fila Discovery USA, established similar training camps in Kenya in the early 1990s. Three of his runners Kenyans Moses Tanui, Joseph Chebet and Elijah Lagat have captured the last three Boston Marathons.

    As for the two new training centers in Michigan and New York, Dr. Basil Honikman of Running USA who is also Team USA Distance Running coordinator, sounded quite buoyed.

    We welcome our first two Team USA Training Centers and applaud the initiative and generosity of Keith and Kevin Hanson and John Luther in forming their training groups, Honikman said. Their commitment to distance running is deeply appreciated. With several more training centers scheduled to be online in 2001, together we have a chance to elevate U.S. distance running in the minds of the public.

    Plans for Team USA Southern California are nearing completion, and this center may open early in 2001. Led by former UCLA head track coach Bob Larsen and headed by U.S. Olympian and 10,000-meter champion Meb Keflezighi, Team USA Southern California will probably utilize the ARCO U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. (near San Diego) together with high-altitude springtime training at Mammoth Lakes in the California Sierra Nevada, east of Yosemite.

    In addition, Team USA training centers in Seattle and Pocatello, Idaho, are scheduled to open next year.

    With some programs already in place and others in the planning stages, there is hope that they will bring the United States back into the long-distance game.

    Honikman, who is helping to set up the new training centers, talked about the decline and hopefully the revival of long-distance running in America.

    Weve had individuals (Lynn Jennings) win the World Cross Country championships several times in recent years in the womens field and weve had world-level runners in contention at Fukuoka International Marathons, Honikman said.

    Right now it's conceivable that an America womens team could win the World Cross Country Championships, the shorter of the two races, Honikman said. Were not that far away. In 1995 the mens team finished fifth in the World Cross Country. You can get the very best runners on an American team. The problem is depth.

    Other countries operate their national teams much more strictly than we do. said Honikman. They would tell you that you need to run for Tanzania next week. And if you dont, then there will be an effect on your other athletic endeavors. We would never do that in this country.

    Honikman says the decline of Americas long distance running began in the mid- to late '80s, 20 years after Billy Mills.

    I think the decline is first of all something you would expect because its the nature of sports that no team is champion forever, Honikman said. You just have to look at American professional sports. Only the New York Yankees have had a dynasty of sorts in recent years and even they had a lot of bad times before 1996.

    Co-existence with what looks like a decline in American running was a resurgence of African running," Honikman said. Its also Spain, Portugal, Italy, Mexico, and Ecuador and various South American countries.

    You have a resurgence of strength in many more than one country, he said. It wasnt just the Kenyans, although they were very dominant. At the same time we introduced in America a series of championships and prize-money races that were available only to American athletes. That enabled Americans to make some money without facing the truly top-level competition.

    Honikman feels that things are changing and that because there is substantial prize money in world championship events, Americans will be more encouraged to compete in them.

    I think we should have a defined talent pool within the next nine to 18 months with the help of some of these new programs, Honikman said. And were not the only people doing this. Theres the Fila Discovery program, which has had quick success.

    Indeed, Fila Discoverys Marathon Camp on Mount Laguna was the main topic of a recent story in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

    Rosa tested about 20 athletes during the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials last July in Sacramento. Six men and three women were selected to participate in the Fila Discovery USA camp, which began in August.

    One of those was Josh Cox of El Cajon. Inside Coxs cabin at the camp is a magazine article about U.S. long-distance running with the headline Why We Suck.

    I cant worry about the state of the sport or other guys, Cox said. But anybody who says we suck, I invited them to follow me for two weeks and tell me Im not doing everything I possibly can. Im training my butt off as hard as God will allow my body to work.

    During a typical training week the men at the camp log about 130 miles; the women run about 117 miles. Cox ran 163 miles one week.

    The key to the program is that all the athletes have to do is run. And eat. They dont hold part-time jobs (Fila pays the athletes $400 a month for incidentals). Their meals are prepared by two chefs and their laundry is serviced twice a week. A massage therapist comes once a week.

    If you cant run fast here, you cant run fast anywhere, Cox said. "This is the perfect environment. Living at altitude benefits runners physiologically.

    He said he noticed the difference when he finished second at the 20K national championships in September.

    I was running 4:50 miles through the first six miles and it felt really easy, Cox said. It had never felt that easy.

    So more programs have been started, and others are waiting in the wings.

    Honikman calls it a flat-out business concept.

    People enter races, are paid prize money, buy products, read newspapers and make it possible for sponsors to bring money into the sport which allows the sport to grow some more and bring more people in, he said.

    Its a total business philosophy, its not just because running is great and is good for your heart, which it happened to be. And so thats why were doing it.

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