Big Turnaround For U.S. Middle-Distance Running

Americans like Jenny Simpson are leading the U.S, middle-distance resurgence. Photo: www.photorun.net

In just a decade, American runners are now winning major races.

(c) 2013 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

At the 2003 IAAF World Championships in Paris, the United States put in a dismal performance in the middle distance events. With the Stade de France packed to capacity for nearly every session (the French were hoping to get the 2012 Olympics), not a single American athlete — male or female — made the finals of the 800m or 1500m. Indeed, the best performance was a sixth place in the 800m semi-finals by David Krummenacker.

Moreover, only a handful of USA athletes ran fast times that year by global standards. During the outdoor season, only six American women managed to break 4:10 in the 1500m, according to the statistics website Tilastopaja.org, and a paltry six USA men broke 3:40 for the same distance. Not a single American runner was ranked in the top-10 by Track & Field News that year for either 800m or 1500m. It was a dark time for American running.

“I do remember,” said 2011 world 1500m champion Jenny Simpson during a telephone interview. “Juli (Benson, her coach at the time) sat me down. We pulled up YouTube and were watching old world championships footage. It was not lost on me that there were no Americans, no Americans in the race, never mind contending for medals.”

A Total Turnaround

During the last ten years, a remarkable comeback has taken place for American middle distance running. The United States is again one of the best middle distance nations on earth. At last summer’s IAAF World Championships in Moscow, Team USA won four medals in the 800m and 1500m (Nick Symmonds, 800m silver; Simpson, 1500m silver; Matthew Centrowitz, 1500m, silver; Brenda Martinez, 800m, bronze), the first time any nation has achieved four medals in those disciplines in a single world championships. The Americans advanced eight athletes to the four finals, and 12 athletes in the semi-finals. The entire USA women’s 800m team made the final.

But the world championships performances represented only tip of a very large and growing iceberg. In terms of depth of performances, team USA was #1 in 2013 in the middle distances. A whopping 41 American men broke 3:40 during the 2013 outdoor season, seven times the number in 2003, and the most of any country in the world this year (Kenya was second with 27). In the same discipline, 23 American women broke 4:10 this season, the same as the next two countries combined (Russia, 12 and Kenya, 11). In the 800m, American men were #2 in the world with 20 athletes sub-1:47 (Kenya was #1 with 30), and American women were #1 in sub-2:02 800m performers with 17, just edging Russia by one athlete.

A Changed Mindset

While there were several contributing factors to the turnaround, a changed mindset was perhaps the first to come into play. American athletes began to see that they *could* be successful again, especially given that drug testing had now become much more widespread.

“People were cheating and getting away with it, so you’re not going to devote your life to it,” observed former world #1-ranked miler and television commentator Marty Liquori in a telephone interview with Race Results Weekly. “When you see people getting caught, you see a level playing field and you work a little harder.”

Frank Gagliano, the veteran coach who now trains athletes at the NJ-NY Track Club agreed.

“It’s not equal, but it’s nearly equal,” he said in a telephone interview.

Alan Webb, America’s best homegrown miler since Steve Scott, can be credited with beginning the renaissance. In 2001, Webb broke Jim Ryun’s longstanding USA high school mile record, running 3:53.43 at the Prefontaine Classic (he also ran a high school record 3:59.86 indoors earlier that year). After a brief and unsuccessful NCAA career at the University of Michigan, Webb was the lone global player in American 1500m running before Bernard Lagat began to run for the United States in 2005. Webb broke 3:33 during both the 2004 and 2005 seasons, then clocked 3:30.54 in 2007 in Paris, the same year he broke Scott’s American record in the mile, clocking 3:46.91. Those performances got the attention of a then-obscure NCAA Division III half-miler named Nick Symmonds who competed for Willamette University in Salem, Ore.

“The first is seeing other Americans perform so well at a high level,” observed Symmonds. He continued in an e-mail: “I think the first example of this is what Alan Webb was able to do in the mid to 2000′s. I still remember watching him run 3:30 for the win at the Paris GP in 2007 and thinking that he and I were built kind of similarly, and that if he could take on the world’s best then so could I.”

This year’s medal haul came after other significant accomplishments in the late aughts. In 2009, Shannon Rowbury and Bernard Lagat won bronze medals at the World Championships in the 1500m. Photo: <a href=”http://www.photorun.net“>www.photorun.net</a>In 2011, Morgan Uceny won the IAAF Diamond League 1500m title, Simpson won the world 1500m title, and Centrowitz won the world championships bronze medal at the same distance. In 2012, the American middle distance crew had a strong Olympics: Leo Manzano won the Olympic 1500m silver medal while Centrowitz finished fourth; Duane Solomon and Nick Symmonds finished fourth and fifth, respectively in an 800m final where David Rudisha broke the world record; Alysia Montano finished fifth in the 800m; and Rowbury finished sixth in the 1500m. (Galen Rupp, who ran 3:34.75 for the 1500m during the 2012 season, got the silver medal at 10,000m).

Training Groups Took Hold

Webb was coached by his high school coach, Scott Raczko, and trained on his own in Reston, Va. But national success would remain elusive until the formation of well-funded training groups led by highly qualified coaches. Nike played a central role in funding the groups which remain dominant today. These include two training groups based at their Beaverton, Ore., headquarters: the Oregon Project, coached by three-time New York City Marathon champion Alberto Salazar, and a second group coached by former University of Wisconsin coach Jerry Schumacher. Symmonds belongs to the third important Nike group, the Oregon Track Club Elite, an integrated track team with a middle-distance focus, which is based in Eugene, Ore.

“I can say with confidence that I could not have been able to accomplish all that I have without the Oregon Track Club Elite and the wisdom of Mark Rowland,” Symmonds said, naming his Oregon Track Club Elite coach. “I have a feeling Matt Centrowitz would say the same thing about the Oregon Project and Coach Salazar.”

Other groups with more of a longer distance focus also sprang up, with funding help from the New York Road Runners (NYRR), the organizers of the TCS New York City Marathon. NYRR president and CEO Mary Wittenberg found a way to fund USA training groups by selling special, high-priced marathon entries. Her organization provided regular funding to groups like the Mammoth Track Club (Mammoth Lakes, Calif.), New Jersey-New York Track Club (New Brunswick, N.J.), Team USA Minnesota (Minneapolis, Minn.), Bay Area Track Club (San Francisco, Calif.), Team USA Arizona (Flagstaff, Ariz.), ZapFitness (Blowing Rock, N.C.), and the Austin Track Club (Austin, Tex.). Another important group, the Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project (Rochester Hills, Mich.), was funded by independent running store owners, Kevin and Keith Hanson, and the Brooks running shoe and apparel company. Over time, the USA had it’s own kind of club system with a mix of for-profit and not-for-profit financial support.

“I’ve been thinking about this for years,” Coach Gagliano said in a telephone interview. “The club system has blossomed. All the clubs in the country, every one are developing athletes, men and women, giving post collegiate athletes a chance to continue their careers. They didn’t leave the sport after college.The post-college system is fantastic now.”

Joe Vigil, who coached Brenda Martinez to her bronze medal performance at last summer’s world championships, agreed. He also cited the Olympic marathon medals by Meb Keflezighi (silver) and Deena Drossin (bronze) in 2004 as helping to light the fire under American runners. Both athletes were part of the Mammoth Track Club, the first of the New York Road Runners-funded groups, where coaching came from Vigil, Bob Larsen and Terrence Mahon.

“With the success of Deena and Meb medaling, other athletes came to the realization that it was possible,” Vigil wrote in an e-mail to Race Results Weekly. “Consequently, their confidence levels rose and they began to believe that it was possible. They found out that East Africans could be beat.”

Simpson agreed, saying that Drossin — now Kastor — was a major inspiration for her.

“When I was in high school I had someone like Deena; I got to watch her.” She added: “I think she gave me the first tiny little peek what commitment level was required to be at that level. I think this was important for young distance runners to succeed at this sport.”

More National Competitions, Improved NCAA Coaching

The establishment of special middle and long distance meets where athletes could run in good climates and achieve fast times has also played a role, coaches said. In particular, the distance meets at Mt. San Antonio College (Mt. SAC) in Walnut, Calif.; Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.; and Occidental College in Los Angeles, had a big impact.

“In the United states, I felt that when Mt. SAC began to run their meets in the 90′s and 2000′s, I think that was a tremendous thing that got us jump-started,” observed coach Gagliano. “Another thing is when Vin (Lananna, the former Stanford coach) went to Stanford and had those meets, those Stanford meets in the evening.” He continued: “That really helped the men and women in this country see how fast they could run. They were jammed, people all around the track.”

Indeed, the USATF High Performance Meet at Occidental College last May in Los Angeles saw 18 men break 1:50 for 800m, and 32 men break 3:40 for 1500m in a single day across multiple heats.

Collegiate coaches, training both collegiate and post-collegiate athletes, also played a key role. Coaches like Andy and Marica Powell (University of Oregon), James Li (University of Arizona), Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs (University of Colorado) and Ray Treacy (Providence College) have made a big impact but in the NCAA ranks, but also by continuing to coach athletes after they left the university system, and allowing post-collegiate athletes to use university facilities. Those coaches are also better trained than their predecessors, according to Vigil.

“The USATF coaching education programs are reaching a greater number of coaches and bringing together together on a professional level,” observed Vigil. They are learning proper physiological, psychological and periodization concepts to apply to their athletes. This Podium Education Project (PEP) has been invaluable.”

Widespread Drug Testing

The exact role of drug testing on the rise of American athletes is hard to know with any certainty. However, for an athlete like Syammonds, who did not compete at the global level in the early 2000′s, the playing field feels level enough that the potential use of performance enhancing drugs by his rivals neither a distraction nor a disincentive for him to train hard.

“For me personally, I’ve never really worried about it,” Symmonds said in a telephone interview. “I think it’s fairly level. When I stepped on the track for the final at worlds this year I was 90% confident that everyone in the race was clean.”

Simpson said she was a bit more skeptical, but pointed out that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) had made significant progress in catching drug cheats, especially with the introduction of the biological passport program which tracks changes in blood chemistry over time. She said that she couldn’t “help but let it be a little bit personal” when those who break the rules are brazen enough to take to the track and challenge her.

“I don’t think that 100 percent of my races will be against clean people,” she said. She continued: “My job is to wake up everyday optimistic and train hard for the races I signed up for this year. It’s WADA’s job to catch the cheaters. The only thing I can do is have faith that they are getting better at it every year. That isn’t my job.”

Get our best running content delivered to your inbox

Subscribe to the FREE Competitor Running newsletter

Recent Stories

Videos

Photos