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Competition committee

Running club in Detroit is pacing the US charge

The Hansons running group hopes its pack mentality while training is the path to marathoning success.
The Hansons running group hopes its pack mentality while training is the path to marathoning success. (Getty Images Photo / Jeff Kowalsky)

ROCHESTER HILLS, Mich. -- Kevin Hanson remembers how he felt seven years ago after yet another African holiday parade along Boylston Street. ''We were sitting around like everyone else, watching 12 foreigners cross the line before the first US runner," he recalls. ''We're thinking: This is the Boston Marathon. This is Patriots Day. Where are the Americans?"

They'll be back in force at high noon Monday, ready for a full frontal assault on the 110th edition of the world's most storied road race. Besides Meb Keflezighi and Alan Culpepper, the top two US marathoners, there'll be eight members of the Hansons-Brooks team, the homegrown distance club cofounded by Hanson and brother Keith.

Not since 1983, when Greg Meyer led four countrymen to the finish line at the Pru, has an American man won Boston. ''It's surprising that nobody's even put their nose in and tried," says Meyer. ''They just weren't coming."

Now they are. Keflezighi, who won Olympic silver in Athens and since has finished second and third at New York, is bypassing London to be here. Culpepper, whose fourth-place finish last year was the best by a US male in 18 years, is back and fully fit. And Hansons-Brooks, led by world team members Brian Sell and Clint Verran, has made this race the centerpiece of its competitive year.

While US men's marathoning has made a significant rebound from rock bottom in 2000, when only one runner (Rod DeHaven) qualified for the Olympics and finished 69th, it still hasn't produced a victor in a major US marathon other than Chicago, where Khalid Khannouchi has won twice since he became a citizen in 2000.

''Until we have Americans who can compete in Boston, I don't think the public will accept the resurgence," says Keith Hanson. ''Boston is an absolutely necessary part of this. Nothing else has the mystique and the history and the recognition."

Glory days
During the race's glory days in the late '70s and early '80s, when domestic runners won five times in six years, they had one thing in common -- they all had trained with the Greater Boston Track Club, whose modus operandi was to let a bunch of competitive guys have at each other every day in practice in a sporting (and productive) form of road rage.

''It was very intense," recalls Bill Rodgers, who won here four times between 1975 and 1980. ''We all pushed each other physically and mentally, and we had a charismatic leader in [coach] Bill Squires. But we liked running together. We had fun with it. It wasn't a grind."

So when the Hansons, who own a string of running stores in the Detroit suburbs, decided to build a hardtop hothouse here and grow their own domestic marathoners, they used the GBTC as a model. ''It's similar to the Kenyan mentality," says Sell, who's the US half-marathon champion. ''Get a bunch of guys who kill each other every day."

Except for Culpepper, who trains on his own in the Colorado hills, the day of the sole practitioner, the lonely long-distance runner, has passed. ''We proved in the '90s that training on your own with individual shoe contracts wasn't the way to produce any depth," says Verran. ''You need a talent pool to draw from. Group training is the way to go."

''Distance projects" are now the preferred route -- Team Running USA, the California-based group that includes Keflezighi, fellow Olympic medalist Deena Kastor, Abdi Abdirahman, Ryan Shay, and Jen Rhines; Nike's Oregon Project (Dan Browne, Adam Goucher, Galen Rupp); Team USA Minnesota (Katie McGregor); the Big Sur Distance Project (Blake Russell); and the Boulder Performance Training Group (Jason Hartmann, Jorge Torres, Dathan Ritzenhein).

Hansons-Brooks, though, was the original. ''Everything has followed in their wake," says Chicago Marathon race director Carey Pinkowski, who says the Hansons approach is ''Americana at its best. They've been at it for a while. They have a real identity."

With their red-yellow-black quadrant-style singlets, the Hansons have a way of standing out at the starting line. ''People think we're an eighth-grade track team," says Luke Humphrey.

Or a hardtop cult. The runners live together and work together (or have the option to). They hang out together. And every morning they meet at a nearby duck pond and chase each other for a dozen miles along the trails and dirt roads in and around Stoney Creek Metro Park. ''I'm with a whole bunch of guys who push each other every day," says Verran. ''That's the biggest thing."

Uphill climb
If the Hansons are hungry, it's because most of them are former no-names on the way up. Trent Briney and Verran finished fourth and fifth in the last Olympic marathon trials, which Sell led for more than half the race before fading. In last year's world championships in Helsinki, Sell placed ninth (the top US finish) and Verran 22d. In the recent Shamrock Shuffle 8K race in Chicago, Chad Johnson and Josh Eberly outkicked Khannouchi, the former marathon world record-holder.

''Hansons is definitely the Everyman," says Mary Wittenberg, race director of the New York City Marathon, which has made a point of showcasing American runners. ''Everyone thinks he can be Brian Sell."

Sell, who comes out of tiny Woodbury in central Pennsylvania, ran for St. Francis College. Most of his teammates attended directional schools such as Central Michigan or Eastern Illinois. ''They get kids who weren't the big stars in college and who traditionally would not have continued to run," says Pinkowski. Once they join Hansons, though, many of them blossom. ''It's crazy," says Humphrey, who went to Central Michigan. ''I'm beating guys who destroyed me in college."

The Everyman image is what got Brooks to sign on as sponsor. ''They are it for us," says Jesse Williams, who directs the shoe company's team sales and sports marketing. ''They're our LeBron James and Michael Jordan."

The Boston Athletic Association, which was looking to lure top-drawer homegrown talent to a race that hasn't had an American in the top three since 1985, saw the Hansons group as perfect partners. ''They represent a great opportunity for us to get involved and put direct support where it was most needed," says Boston Athletic Association executive director Guy Morse.

Besides including Sell and Verran among John Hancock's group of elite athletes, the race is paying travel expenses for six other teammates (Briney, Humphrey, Johnson, Mike Morgan, Kyle O'Brien, and Marty Rosendahl) and subsidized their recent Florida training trip.

No club since the GBTC, which put four runners in the top 10 in 1979, has made that kind of mass appearance, and it's symbolic of the all-for-one approach that is the Hansons trademark. If one of them does well, all of them feel that they can. ''You look at the times the other guys are running," says Briney, ''and you start thinking you can do that."

That was the Greater Boston club's secret a quarter-century ago. ''The running boom was euphoric," says Rodgers. ''The sky was the limit. I thought I could beat Miruts Yifter and Henry Rono. You have to think that way."

Trying to keep up with Rodgers in the Newton hills elevated everybody who ran with him. ''You never know when a breakthrough is going to come," says Meyer. ''You look at Bobby Hodge. He ran 2:10:59 and he was the fourth or fifth guy on our team."

All about effort
For the Hansons, the breakthrough came when the unheralded Briney ran a 2:12:34 at the 2004 Olympic trials in Birmingham, Ala., beating his personal best by more than eight minutes. ''I've said that Trent running 2:12 was one of the best things that ever happened to the program," says O'Brien. ''If you see someone doing well, everyone thinks, hey, I just beat him in a workout. Success for one person is success for everyone."

It's all about the group dynamic, and the Hanson brothers have done everything they can to encourage collective effort by easing the everyday barriers to elite-level training. ''The plight of the American distance runners is that they graduate from college at 21 or 22 and reach their potential at 30," says Keith.

During the in-between years, most runners are underemployed gypsies, trying to stay competitive while family and friends wonder when they're going to hang up the shoes and get a ''real job." ''It's a constant conversation," says Sell, who is married to a nurse and who passed up a dental school scholarship to focus on running. ''It's still going on."

Signing on with the Hansons, though, dramatically reduces the strain on the checkbook. Runners can live rent-free in one of the three houses the club owns here. If they work in one of the running stores, which Sell and several others do, they get health insurance. Coaching is free. Brooks provides all the gear they can use, travel expenses are paid to races, and runners get bonuses for results. ''I tell them, this is as good as it gets," Keith says.

Joining the club requires a minimum standard (14:00 in the 5,000 meters, 29:00 in the 10,000, 2:20 in the marathon for men; 16:15, 33:45, and 2:42 for women) but the times aren't set in stone. Hansons will accept someone who shows promise, and will turn down someone who might not fit with the team culture, which is light on ego and heavy on labor. ''I like that we're in Detroit," says Keith. ''We view ourselves as a blue-collar group. We want to outwork people. You've got to go out and pound those miles out."

Pounding in Rochester Hills, of course, isn't quite like pounding in San Diego. ''When you live in Michigan, especially in winter, you make a decision: I'm going to train today," says Meyer. ''When you look out the window and it's not nice . . . "

The Hansons go, rain or snow, morning and afternoon. And the workouts aren't fun runs along Paint Creek Trail. ''I've got these younger guys out here every day trying to take out my throat," says Verran, who's the team's grand old man at 30.

That's how it was when the Greater Boston guys knocked heads every day on Heartbreak Hill and that's how it is here. ''No one wants to lose to anybody else," says Verran. ''Everyone has an ego and pride. Nobody likes to get his butt kicked. You want to dish it out once in a while."

The Hansons are all about pushing it, which is why Sell busted out of the pack after 7 miles at the 2004 Olympic trials and led for the next 14. At last year's world championships, Sell kept pushing even as global top guns such as Olympic champion Stefano Baldini were dropping out. ''I'm a realist," says Sell, who moved up 13 places during the final loop and finished ninth, well ahead of 2005 Boston victor Hailu Negussie. ''I don't think that because I beat the champion that I'm going to win the Boston Marathon. But I'd like to mix it up and move up on the ladder."

Not since 1985 has an American been even as high as third on Patriots Day and the form chart says that Sell, whose personal best is 2:13:22, probably will be only the third American here behind Keflezighi and Culpepper. But that doesn't mean he won't attack all the way to Copley Square. ''It'd be nice to see a goofy white guy win it," Sell says.

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