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Aided Earlier, Veteran Runners Help Young Hopefuls

The economic framework for competitive running in America has undergone several spurts of evolution over the past forty years. The initial Shorter-Rodgers Running Boom of the 1970’s sparked a more realistic financially-fueled system of open racing which replaced the noble – yet clearly antiquated – concept of pure amateurism. More recently, business support of top-flight athletes has become more pervasive as Corporate America increasingly views elite runners – and the growing participation base behind them – as an effective vehicle to support civilization’s oldest sport, and – not coincidentally – to reach their marketplace and their customers. Also helpful – although somewhat less consistently effective – has been the emergence of the club system which has aided promising young runners with world-class potential.

But runner support also comes from yet another noteworthy source – from elite runners themselves. Inspired by a desire to extend their careers, to continue involvement with the sport they love, or – in more than a few cases – to express their simple gratitude, successful runners have increasingly found ways to “give back” and to lift the sport in a variety of helpful and meaningful ways.

Notwithstanding the focus and commitment required for the world class successes he has achieved dating back more than a decade, Meb Keflezighi has made the time, created the vision, and provided the energy to give back to the sport that has been very good to him. Working closely with his brother and agent Merhawi, Meb has found a way to combine his passion for running with his deep-seated desire to help promising youngsters in the sport just as he himself was assisted. Brother Hawi – 4 years Meb’s junior and a UCLA-trained lawyer – reflects on the birth of the Mammoth Track Club and how it all started. “When Bob Larson, Joe Vigil, Meb, and Deena Kastor started the Running USA program in Mammoth – now the Mammoth Track Club – they had an agenda,” notes Hawi. “Their agenda was to take athletes who grew up in the United States, went through the high school and college system here, and help them achieve big goals, Olympic medals.” These training groups of elite athletes were not simply focused myopically on the present. They were intent on creating an effective training dynamic that would prove to be self-sustaining. “They knew that if they could prepare the current generation of runners to win medals on the world’s biggest stages, those performances would inspire the next generation,” Hawi explains. “I think the fruits of that labor have been the medals won in the Olympic Games. I think one of the primary things coming out of the Mammoth program has been motivation by performance and by achievement.”
The Keflezighi brothers have found other ways to reach out, to lend a hand, to pay it forward. They both saw that the notoriety Meb enjoyed after capturing the 2004 Olympic marathon silver medal positioned him on a unique platform to help and inspire others. “Like the marathon, life can sometimes be difficult, challenging, and present obstacles. However if you believe in your dreams and never ever give up, things will turn out for the best,” states Meb in reciting what has emerged as his life’s credo. That governing principle on life inspired the MEB Foundation – an institution created by the brothers and guided by the importance of “Maintaining Excellent Balance” in life. It is this drive for balance that Meb Keflezighi believes has contributed greatly to his success as a marathon champion, family man, and community leader. Through the MEB Foundation, the Keflezighi brothers have, among other things, provided meaningful support to the New York Armory’s College Prep Program – Classroom 2 Anywhere – and to Loma Linda Hospital’s Medals of Courage Program.
Deena Kastor and her husband Andrew are another family duo that has found the balance between athleticism and mentoring. “Coach Joe Vigil and Coach Bob Larson collaborated and built a team around Meb and Deena up here in Mammoth Lakes.” reflects Andrew on the club’s 2001 origin. Mammoth Lakes’ elected city officials – visionary enough to see a win-win situation – stepped up to offer meaningful economic support for the club. “The town was looking to branch off from simply being a winter ski resort town and wanted to position itself as a summer running destination as well. The leaders saw the ability to attract some high profile athletes as advancing that goal.”
Andrew notes how the ghastly state of American distance running in 2000 helped jump start the Mammoth training experiment. “The USA had such a dismal performance in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. We only sent one man and one woman in the marathon to those Games,” Andrew explains. “And there was a general recognition that the East Africans had this great training model: group training at high altitude. So the high altitude savvy of Coach Joe Vigil and the Mammoth Lakes experience of Coach Bob Larson who had been bringing his UCLA teams up to this region for summer training for decades,” notes Kastor. “And four years later, we had two athletes [Deena Kastor and Meb Keflezighi] on the Olympic marathon podium.”

2004 Olympic marathon silver medalist Deena Kastor can look back on many assists she had on her pathway to the Olympic podium. One is certainly the economic support she received early in career – when elite athletes on the rise need it the most – from the Roads Scholar program founded by Runner Runners Club of America. Over the years the Roads Scholar program has aided many – including two recent Mammoth Track Club Roads Scholar recipients Gabe Proctor and 2014 USATF Half Marathon runner-up Lauren Kleppin.
More than a decade later, the Mammoth Track Club – now guided by the Kastors – continues to nurture a select group of elite distance runners at its 8000 foot retreat in the Eastern Sierra. “We have time standards,” explains Andrew as he outlines how runners join the squad. “So if athletes make the minimum standards, we’ll take a look at them. All athletes have to visit for three or four days in Mammoth – paid for on their own – before they commit to the club. We want to ensure there is good chemistry among the athletes. Once they’re here, we provide housing for them.” Andrew Kastor smiles as he reveals the somewhat unorthodox way he handles the incoming stream of regular inquiries. “I have never recruited anybody,” admits Kastor. “I just field emails and phone calls. And I let the emails and phone calls slide,” he confesses. “And when they contact me again, I respond to them. Deena and I ultimately make the call on who joins the squad.

Under the Kastors’ leadership, guidance of the team is a shared responsibility. “The way we position ourselves, I’m the head coach and I write all the training programs and help strategize races for the athletes,” explains Andrew. “Deena is positioned as the mentor,” outlines Andrew on the role of his Olympic medal-winning spouse. “She has performed on the world’s largest stages and been successful at racing at that level. Deena trains with the girls and the girls ask her questions pretty much every single run. They talk about her development and her approach to racing.”

The Kastors work to find that special balance that can create a professional, yet comfortable approach to pursuing world class dreams in a team environment at altitude. “Between Deena and me, it is a professional club, but it is also a mom and pop club.”

And in a serious moment, Andrew offers insight into the genuine motivation behind the Kastors’ dedication to Mammoth Track Club. “Distance running has been very good to us and we want to give back,” Kastor explains. “We don’t come into this sport to become rich and famous. We have done very well, but we want to be able to give back to the sport, too. We see value in giving back, and we are very happy to do so.”

A growing number of athletes – many of whom have benefitted from post-collegiate elite group training – see the benefit of the continuing growth of these athlete-driven support groups. Amy Begley, a 15-time All American distance star and 2-time national champion while at the University of Arkansas, struggled to find the right training environment after leaving Fayetteville in 2001. After a frustrating 6 year nomadic-like existence with interim training stints that weaved through Indiana, Austrailia, Albuquerque, and Atlanta, Begley finally found the right fit with Nike Oregon Project. At the end of 2006, Begley, frustrated and frequently injured, was contemplating retirement. “I told myself I would give myself 18 months to make the Olympic team to see if I could make my dream come true,” admits Begley. The move to Portland paid off. In 2008 Begley made the U.S. Olympic team in the 10,000 and finished 26th in the Beijing final. “The Oregon Project gave me all the resources I never had,” explains Begley. “I had free massage, free chiropractor. I was on a livable wage for once with my contract. We had a sports psychologist. We had access to the pool, the weight room – all the things that an athlete would need. Everything I had been struggling to pay for years was now being offered to me by the Oregon Project.” But there was more. The following year, Begley continued to ride the wave of ongoing Oregon Project support: she won the 10,000 meter USATF title, made the U.S. national team, and competed in the Berlin World Championships where she finished 6th in the 10,000 – posting a P.R. time of 31:13.78.

Now retired from elite completion, Begley serves as the women’s head cross country coach and assistant women’s track & field coach at the University of Connecticut. But she hasn’t forgotten the how she stumbled into just the right situation that allowed her to achieve her dream. Stirred by her own post-collegiate struggle and the professional career that nearly slipped away, Begley has founded the Distance Divas Elite. “The goal of the group is to help US distance women to bridge the gap between collegiate and professional running,” explains the 36 year old Olympian who notes that final 501(c)(3) approval for her fledgling organization is still pending. “The average age has typically been around 28 for women who make the Olympic team in the distance events. It is pretty typical to have a gap between college and when you make the team. Too many talented young women slip through the cracks due to the limited number of well-funded opportunities that are available.”

Begley – who, like Kastor, was an early beneficiary of the RRCA Roads Scholar program – wants to help other promising athletes, the majority of whom do not get the big post-collegiate contract, to bypass the missteps she made as a younger hopeful so that they have a fair and supported chance to pursue a professional running career. Hoping to cultivate an alternative source of economic support different from the sparse and often-fickle traditional shoe company funding, Begley envisions an elite family of women distance runners which provides support for community fitness programs for youngsters and adults in exchange for funding from local businesses and foundations. Inspired by the earlier successes achieved by initiatives such as the MEB Foundation and the Mammoth Track Club, and fueled by vision, gratitude, and pure distance runner determination, Amy Begley is not likely to rest until the Distance Divas are up and flying and assisting the next wave of young women runners achieve their fullest potential.
It seems clear that the major economic engine for more effective elite athlete development in the U.S. road racing arena must come from the corporate sector – from those Fortune 500 companies that have economic clout. These have been and will continue to be the companies that can see and cultivate that special dual opportunity that will both advance their business agenda while also assisting a legion of promising post-collegiate athletes to transform potential into elevated performance. But – as can be seen – the assistance that can come from somewhat less muscular, yet well-designed support programs crafted and headed by respected elite athletes can also make a meaningful difference for the next generation of promising young athletes – and for the sport itself.

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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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