- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2003

Aspiring Olympic miler Jason Long is on his hands and knees at your feet, squeezing your heels and prodding your toes through the pair of Adidas running shoes he has suggested after watching your stride and listening to your workout profile.Ten minutes earlier, upon your arrival at the Metro Walk & Run store in Springfield, you had never heard of Long. Now, enlightened by one enthusiastic employee’s congratulatory high five and explanation, you can’t believe one of the nation’s premier distance runners is heading to the stock room to fetch you a pair of shoes.On a personal level, such an experience is exhilarating — comparable to having Charles Howell fit you for a set of golf clubs, Jermaine O’Neal lace up your next pair of hightops and Andy Roddick tweak the tension on your tennis racket.On a professional level, however, it’s downright depressing and an indictment of the state of U.S. track and field. With Athens just a year away, one of our best and brightest had to hock sneakers to make ends meet.”It’s cool, man. I think it’s fun to scrounge,” says Long, a 24-year-old graduate of James Madison University who ran the eighth-fastest U.S. mile this year (3:59.99) three months ago at the Armory Collegiate Invitational in New York. “Track and field doesn’t have the same kind of marketing and financial support of some sports in this country, but that keeps you hungry — sometimes literally.”It’s impossible not to instantly like Long, who has an ego thinner than his runner’s legs and a broad, mischievous smile that suggests he hasn’t always led such a Spartan lifestyle. Long, along with fellow former JMU All-American Ben Cooke and a handful of other post-collegiate locals, recently founded the DC Track Club, a group dedicated to training excellence, Olympic medal dreams and scrounging.”Scrounging is our term for doing whatever is necessary to stay on that track,” says Cooke, a 26-year-old 5,000- and 10,000-meter runner trying to balance training, married life and his recent promotion to manager of the Rockville Metro Walk & Run store. “It’s definitely tough. I have to work 40 hours a week just to live in this city. And that’s not good for my running. Let’s put it this way: It feels like after I work that somebody’s beaten my legs with a stick. And then I’ve got to go run 15 miles.”I’m competing against guys who don’t work at all, guys who are getting massages and training at altitude or whatever. Some of those guys are sponsored, like Alan Webb. Some are in high-profile track clubs that help them pull some weight. But, you know, it’s not easy for anyone in this sport. I mean even [Khalid] Khannouchi was washing dishes in New York City when he first got here. He’s the No. 1 marathoner in the world. So, almost everyone in this sport has paid their dues, except for maybe Alan. You’ve got to scrounge if you’re a distance runner in the states. Because, let’s face it, distance running in this country hasn’t been any great shakes for some time.”Frankly, that’s a serious understatement.Since Frank Shorter won silver in the 1976 Olympic marathon in Montreal, a total of 90 medals have been handed out in the five principal Olympic men’s distance events: 1,500 meters, 3,000-meter steeplechase, 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and marathon. Staggeringly, U.S. runners have managed just one trip to the podium — Brian Lee Diemer’s bronze in the steeplechase in 1984.But after a two-decade distance drought, Uncle Sam seems ready to complete the long run back to medal glory in Athens.Paced by Khannouchi, a native Moroccan now sporting U.S. citizenship, and 800/1,500-meter dynamo David Krummenacker, the United States is the midst of a distance renaissance of sorts that could yield heavy metal results at next year’s Olympiad.”The state of track is higher now than it’s been, as far as the level of performances and the participation rates in high school, college and beyond,” says Pat Henner, who coaches men’s track at Georgetown, as well as Long and Cooke. “Look at the marathon — it’s in a boom right now. Krummenacker is an international force in the 800 and 1,500 [meters]. And we’re further along in the 5,000 and the 10,000 than we’ve been in quite some time. One of the only problems with the sport is that it’s definitely not marketed very well.”Poor marketing means minimal media coverage, which in turn leads to low public awareness, weak attendance and broadcast revenues and empty U.S. training coffers. Nike does more than its share for U.S. sprinters and the occasional miler; Webb signed a $1.5 million contract with the company last year. But most American distance runners like Long and Cooke are left to fend for themselves and forced to scrounge.”Track has been very poorly marketed in this country by the people at the top, there’s no doubt,” says Cooke. “Turn on ESPN, and you’re more likely to see bowling, dog shows or strong man reruns than running.”That financial reality has become a rallying cry for the likes of Long and Cooke.”That’s kind of the point behind the DC Track Club,” says Long. “It’s about running as a lifestyle. I’d rather have passion than money any day. In the long term, it would be nice if DCTC gained enough steam that maybe it’s easier for future runners to train and compete than it has been for us.”As for Athens aspirations, Henner likes Long’s chances if he continues on his track of rapid improvement. Though Long is ranked just outside of the U.S. top 10 among 1,500/milers, he is quickly creeping up the list. Only two runners and an alternate will make the U.S. Olympic team at the trials in Sacramento next year. But Henner sees no reason why Long can’t claim one of those spots.”Jason is in incredible shape,” says Henner. “His fitness is excellent, but now he needs to work on his racing skills and tactics. … There’s an element of luck in making an Olympic team. And there’s an element of confidence; does he really believe he can run with the best? He’s definitely talented enough, and he’s definitely working hard enough. Its just a matter of perfecting his racing tactics. Aside from David Krummenacker, nobody else is running times that Jason isn’t capable of running.”Says Long: “I want to compete nationally, and I don’t see any reason why Ben and I can’t run with those guys. I really feel like I can run with anybody.”Cooke’s Olympic chances are more difficult to assess because a rash of injuries have hampered his development. And unlike Long, who reduced his part-time working schedule last week to concentrate on training, Cooke has both a full-time job and marriage to manage off the track.”My wife hates my training,” says Cooke sheepishly. “She can’t stand it. Every single time she wants to do something, I squash it. I wouldn’t even go Christmas shopping last year, because I didn’t want to walk around a mall on my feet. We’re doing good, but I’m sure I’m going to pay for my running later.”Actually, neither Cooke nor Long has really considered the concept of ‘later,’ it just seems to be against the scrounger’s code. The future consists entirely of tomorrow’s training schedule and next week’s race. Perhaps there’s an ironic twist of maturity in the concept of existing completely in the moment. “I just want to run,” says Long with a noble simplicity that is almost Forrest Gumpian. “Some people want to make money. I want to run [personal records]. I just can’t see sitting in a cubicle staring at a computer and making a lot of money but not enjoying what I’m doing. For me, it’s a no-brainer. I’d rather be broke and happy.”

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