Behind the Renaissance of American Distance Running
Team USA had a historic run in Rio, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Over the last decade and a half, the U.S. has managed to develop a stable of distance runners who rival the best in the world.
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Unless you spent the second week of the Olympics distracted by the nocturnal escapades of certain swimmers, you probably noticed that Rio 2016 was one hell of a showing for U.S. middle- and long-distance runners. In events including and further than 800 meters, the American men and women combined for seven medals, their highest tally at an Olympics since 1912, when current distance powerhouse Kenya was still over 50 years away from becoming an independent republic.
One of the high points for Team USA came when Matthew Centrowitz used his tactical savvy and blistering closing speed to become the first American man to win the 1,500 meters since 1908. “It was surreal to watch, to finally see an American dude do that after such a long time,” U.S. mile record holder Alan Webb told Race Results Weekly. “Somewhere along the way we hit this critical tipping point where it really clicked. Now, every time an American steps to the line at an international competition…you’re competing for a medal.”
This hasn’t always been the case. In distance events, the medal tally at Rio equals the total number of medals won by Americans in the last six Olympics combined. Which raises the question: What happened?
In events including and further than 800 meters, the American men and women combined for seven medals, their highest tally at an Olympics since 1912.
“In ’92, I came back from the Barcelona Olympics and there was a sense of hopelessness—[U.S. distance runners] didn’t seem as though they could get anything done. I remember our athletes were hoping to be top 15, hoping just to make the finals,” Vin Lananna, head coach of the U.S. track team, told me on the last day of competition in Rio de Janeiro. We were standing in a light rain in Rio’s Parque do Flamengo and had just seen the lead pack of the men’s marathon go by as they began the first of three 10K loops included in the course. Less than two hours later, Galen Rupp would take bronze and Jared Ward would come in sixth, making the United States the only nation with two runners in the top ten. (In the women’s race, all three Americans would finish in the top ten—a feat only achieved once previously, by Japan in Athens ‘04.)
When I asked Lananna what has contributed to the recent evolution of Team USA’s distance team, he said, “I think what’s happened now is that there have been all these great training groups that have come about, between Alberto Salazar’s group [the Oregon Project] Mark Rowland’s group [Oregon Track Club], Jerry Schumacher’s group [Bowerman Track Club], and the Army group [5,000-meter silver medalist Paul Chelimo’s team]. There’s a sense of renewed belief that we can compete at that level and I think that people are ready.”
While belief is a prerequisite for athletic triumph, it’s hardly enough on its own. Three of the training groups mentioned by Lananna are financially backed by Nike. The most prominent among them, the Oregon Project, was started in 2002 for the modest purpose of taking “American distance running back on top, where it belonged,” according to the group’s website. Its small stable of athletes currently includes Centrowitz, Rupp, and Mo Farah, the four-time Olympic gold medalist for Great Britain (despite its founding principle, the OP isn't exclusively American—its roster also features Suguru Osako of Japan and the Canadian Cam Levins). The group’s principal training base is at the jock Eden of Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, where athletes have access to state-of-the-art athletic facilities and world-class medical and coaching staff. Elite American runners in previous eras had far fewer resources at their disposal.
That’s not to imply that Team USA’s success in Rio should be solely attributed to fancy digs and underwater treadmills. But a favorable training environment for athletes who are given a financial incentive to stick with it unsurprisingly produces top-notch talent.
One such athlete is Evan Jager. After he won an Olympic silver in the men’s steeplechase, Jager, who trains with Bowerman Track Club (a team also based at Nike’s HQ), took to his Twitter account, saying, “No doubt that there was a lot of hard work that went into earning that medal but my support system was the thing that truly made this happen. Nike has financially supported me since I was 19 in a way that allowed me to live comfortably and only worry about my running. I have the best coaching in the world. My teammates, past and present, help me get out the door and motivate and push me everyday to be a better runner.”
It’s easy to overlook Jager’s nod to his teammates (which include the likes of Ryan Hill, who last Saturday, in Paris, ran the third-fastest 3,000 ever by an American) as the rote giving-of-thanks we hear at every award ceremony. But, as Lananna told me, the importance of having good people to run with cannot be overstated. There’s every reason to believe that encouraging our top national talents to work together is the best way to ensure more results like Rio. Just ask Jenny Simpson and Emma Coburn—training partners and fellow Olympic medalists.
“I think you're so much better with partners than on your own,” Simpson told RunBlogRun.com. “On the track, you can be much more consistent when you're not always carrying the load every single workout.” The best runners rarely work in isolation, and in fact, too much solo training may have been part of the problem during the lean years of U.S. running.
“When I look at what the difference is from what I was doing to what [Team USA] seem to be doing now, it’s having that many training partners at that level—compared to the older model where we trained in these isolated pockets,” says Bob Kempainen, who twice represented the United States in the Olympic marathon in the mid-90s. “In the ‘80s and ‘90s people would go to Boulder or places like that to train, but everyone had their different coaches and it was sort of diffuse that way.”
There’s a sense of renewed belief that we can compete at that level and I think that people are ready.
Nowhere are the benefits of a high talent concentration more apparent than in Kenya, the country that produces the majority of distance running champions. If Nike’s HQ and nearby Eugene are a stronghold for many of America’s most competitive professionals, the Kenyan equivalent would be high-altitude towns in the Rift Valley like Eldoret and “Home of Champions” Iten. Unlike in the United States, where individuals might be recruited from afar to come train at rarefied, well-equipped clubs, the great advantage of places like Iten is that potentially world-class talent is local and abundant.
“What you’ve got, literally every day in Eldoret and Iten, is one hundred kids coming out to see how well they can run,” says Larry Eder, the editor of RunBlogRun.com, former president of Running Network LLC, and stateside sage on professional track and field. “If you can show up for a workout and make it through, you can come back. And that’s what people do,” Eder said, before telling me that one of his Kenya-based writers—a 66-minute half-marathoner—attended a local track workout and made it about halfway before feeling that he was slipping into “semi-consciousness.”
“I mean, think about it: the 500th-ranked marathoner in Kenya is about a 2:15 guy,” says Eder.
To put that figure further into perspective, one can consider a statistic from a David Epstein NPR interview. He points out that all of the really good Kenyan distance runners come from the Kalenjin tribe, population: five million. While there are 17 American men in history who have broken the 2:10 barrier in the marathon, there were 32 Kalenjin who did it in October of 2011.
There are several plausible factors that could explain this dominance—the thorny issues of genetics and shady bureaucratic nebulousness among them—but perhaps most crucially, the best Kenyans train together. In the media build-up prior to the Olympics, much hay was made over a bare-bones training camp in Kaptagat, Kenya, where, last January, some of the finest runners in the world purposefully lived like first-year enlistees. Eliud Kipchoge, winner of the men’s marathon in Rio, was cleaning toilets. Geoffrey Kipsang Kamworor, world half-marathon champion, was preparing meals. What the runners lacked in modern training accessories was made up for by the sheer density of talent.
“I help them, they help me,” Kipchoge told the Associated Press of his high-profile fellow campers. “This is mutual interest.”
On a surface level, the camp in Kaptagat might seem like the polar opposite of the Oregon Project's opulent training lair, but both abide by the principle that talent begets and enhances talent. As American distance running and its corporate sponsors continue to support the elite running groups that have emerged in recent years—be it the Nike teams, or clubs like Brooks Beasts and Northern Arizona Elite—more and more talented young athletes will be attracted to the sport, which will in turn lead to more world-class performances. And it's already happening.
Eder, who coached high school track for 16 years, believes that after a two-decade hiatus, some of the best prep athletes in the country are returning to track and cross-country. In its most recent summary, the National Federation of State High School Associations lists outdoor track and field as the most popular sport among high school girls and second most popular among high school boys, after football. Part of this, of course, has to do with the size of track teams vis-à-vis, say, basketball, and the negative publicity and subsequent participation decline in football.
“The numbers for high school track and field have been rising for 19 straight years, for both boys and girls,” Larry Eder says. “And the quality is coming back up again, too.”
Indeed, the top prep performances of late bear this out. Of the nine U.S. high school boys who have broken four minutes in the mile, five have done it since 2011. As a 2015 New York Times profile of Oregon Project runner Mary Cain noted: “In 2001, only two high-school girls ran the 1,600 meters in under 4:50, and only one ran faster than 4:45. Last year, 46 girls ran faster than 4:50; eight broke 4:45.”
Results like these are enough to make anyone feel pretty good about the state of distance running in the United States. On the final day of the Olympics, with six distance medals already in the bank and one more forthcoming, Vin Lananna sounded optimistic as well. “I’m hoping that this is going to be the real tipping point, so that every year we can have these kind of expectations,” he said, as we stared out into the rain, waiting for the marathoners to come around again.