At the 2000 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, only one man and one woman qualified to compete in the Olympic Marathon in Sydney, with each having just the 'B' standard. It was the first time that the United States had sent one athlete for the marathon in the men's and women's competition instead of three runners for each field. It was also a wake-up call for U.S. distance running, which essentially had fallen on hard times during the 1990s.
While a number of factors caused the decline – 267 American men had run 2:20 or better in the marathon in 1983 compared to just 20 under 2:20 in 2000 – most observers of the sport agree that it was important for athletes to resume training in groups as they did in the late 1970s and early 80s. In addition to the marathon results, U.S. athletes overall were not competing at an expected level on the roads in various distances, on the track in the 5000 and 10,000 meters, or in cross country.
The result was a movement to create training centers where athletes competing in the longer distances could run together, get top-level coaching and have the necessary financial, environmental and health support that would enable them to focus on training and competing.
In the fall of 2000, Running USA and USA Track & Field announced the launch of the Team USA Distance Running Program. The Hansons Running Shop, out of Rochester Hills – now called the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project - had already led the way with a group formed in 1999. Others – including Team USA California (now the Mammoth Track Club), Team USA Minnesota, and Zap Fitness soon followed.
Each training center for long distance runners – competing in the 800/1500 meters up through the marathon – offers athletes a variety of supportive programs. These include coaching, a group training environment, health care services and/or health insurance, stipend and/or part-time jobs, and in some cases housing, among other services.
Although the training centers operate differently depending on funding, location and coaching, the goal is similar – to improve the competitive level of U.S. distance running both nationally and internationally. Athletes are prepared to compete on the track, the roads and in cross country.
Many athletes make inquiries to selected training centers during their final year of collegiate eligibility. Once a runner has completed his or her eligibility, they can make a visit to a training center. Visits should be an important part of the decision-making process, just like it was during the college selection process. You’ll want to know the following:
* The coach and his/her training program.
* The focus of the center – mid-distances, track, roads, marathon.
* The chemistry with potential training partners.
* The support services provided.
Unlike the college selection process where an athlete is permitted five official visits that are paid by each university and last 48 hours, you can make as many visits as you want if you are invited by a training center. However, as a note of advice, you should narrow your interest to two or three centers based on your research about the location, coach and other athletes at the center.
Many training centers begin their selection process in the spring, with selection occurring during the summer months following an athlete’s graduation or completion of an athlete’s collegiate eligibility.
If you are competing in spring track meets, you may be approached by training center coaches or representatives who would like to talk about your interest in pursuing the sport post-collegiately. You may also be approached by agents about the need for representation during your selection process for a training center and/or a shoe contract.
If collegiate eligibility does not end until after the fall cross country season, you should still contact a training center in the spring or summer. Why? Many training centers fill their rosters in the summer and do not have openings or take on athletes over the winter unless a previous contact and interest has occurred.