Fueling the current resurgence in elite U.S. marathoning are a handful of programs, the better known of which are fronted by Nike in Eugene, Oregon, or made famous by the likes of Ryan Hall and Deena Kastor in Mammoth Lakes, California.
But where do other talented, if not yet stellar, distance runners inspired by the new-found American competitiveness on the road go? After their collegiate careers have, ahem, run their course, professional runner careers can now be pursued through the likes of Team USA Minnesota in Minneapolis or the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project in Rochester, Michigan.
To join the latter, however, a male runner needs to already be capable of a 14 minute 5K, 29 minute 10K and 2 hour 20 minute marathon. (Women need to have notched a 16:15 5K, 33:45 10K and/or a 2:42 marathon.) Those hoping to make the Hansons-Brooks team know that their selection means being recognized as having Olympic potential.
The Olympic development aspect of Brooks-Hansons program was evident at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in November 2007 when five runners in the top 20 wore the team's iconic red, yellow and black singlets. The first among them was Brian Sell who placed third overall in 2:11:40, earning him a trip to the 2008 Olympics. Sell's breakthrough performance put the Brooks-Hanson program on the map.
In that same race was Sage Canaday, who as a junior at Cornell University qualified to run the U.S. Olympic Trials. Coached by Letsrun.com co-founder Robert Johnson, Canaday started the trials in the mix with Sell and his teammates. But because he was running NCAA Regionals in cross country the following weekend, Canaday never intended to overtax himself by running the entire marathon.
"I had vowed that the purpose of this Olympic Trials would be to gain experience, and that I'd return on my own terms in 2012," Canaday recalls. "Perhaps by then, when I would be 26 years old, I might be able to actually compete for a top 15 finish."
That's where Running for the Hansons begins, Canaday's new self-published book about joining the team and training for the 2010 Boston Marathon.
He went into the Michigan program with tremendous excitement to be living the life of a professional runner but quickly found that the single-minded focus and physical demands required had its drawbacks. Unlike top tier, world-class runners, Canaday and his teammates lived together, ran most of their 120-plus miles per week as a team and individually spent as many as 40 hours a week selling shoes at the Hansons stores.
Canaday quickly realizes that because running doesn't have entertainment value like golf, NASCAR, poker or bowling, you can be an Olympic-caliber runner and still have trouble making ends meet. "I mean I know the economy is bad now, but that's embarassing," Canaday writes. "We're near the poverty line here. If my rent weren't covered I'd basically be broke."
Canaday never sounds ungrateful, just young. He bemoans his lack of a social life, particularly the dating scene he enjoyed in college. He notes the zero tolerance policy for dating among Hansons' teammates; members have been promptly kicked out for violating that rule.
In a subsequent chapter, Canaday emphasizes the benefits: That his rent is covered, Brooks provides shoes and gear and the Hansons offer financial incentives to perform well at races. If not for the perk of professionalism, "I probably would have given up the dream a long time ago," he admits.
Running for the Hansons is at its best when Canaday describes his day-to-day routine and relentless competition between teammates during workouts. The profiles of his fellow runners are more projections of Canaday's awe for them, especially Sell, than substantive descriptions. His deliberate decision not to include much about the women's team or even interview Kevin and Keith Hanson are disappointing. He gives some space to Desiree Davila, who nearly won this year's Boston Marathon, but mostly expresses fear of her catching him on long training runs.
Teammate Drew Polley's training log for the 15 weeks leading to his 2:16 finish in Boston last year is included as an appendix. The author ran that same race, but for reasons not explained but understood, he did not detail his own training plan as extensively. Also at the close of the book is "Sage's Training Manifesto," which includes principles that can be gleaned from other training manuals intended for seriously talented and driven runners. Specifically, the Letsrun.com crowd.
What it takes to succeed as a professional runner, let alone an Olympic medal contender, is almost beyond comprehension. But Canaday expresses well the sacrifices, internal struggle and overwhelming desire required to turn that dream into reality.
For more information, go to sagecanaday.com.
Joel Patenaude is the editor of Silent Sports magazine.