Mercury News

Kenyans run. Moroccans and Ethiopians run.

Americans? We don't do long distances. Or at least, goes conventional wisdom, not very well.

But at Stanford, they're trying to defy that perception. One step at a time, Vin Lananna has created an oasis in the desert of what has been the American running scene.

``The mantra has been how terrible our distance runners are,'' said Lananna, Stanford's director of track and field and cross-country, finishing that statement with an audible sigh. ``But if you keep saying that, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's time to change that.''

Heading into the NCAA West Regional on Saturday at Stanford, the Cardinal men's cross-country team is ranked first in the nation while the women's squad is second. And Lananna has done it with teams that are virtually all-American. With the exception of Malindi Elmore, a British Columbia woman, all the top Stanford runners sweat red, white and blue -- in addition to cardinal and white.

``There's no big mystery to running well,'' said Lauren Fleshman, a two-time NCAA track champion in the 5,000 meters. ``It's about having good coaching, good training partners, a training environment and then your own determination. We've got that.''

But it starts with Lananna, whose Stanford teams have won four NCAA titles and who will be the U.S. Olympic middle-distance coach in 2004.

``He's constantly reinforcing young runners' views that they can be competitive with the rest of the world,'' said Craig Masback, CEO of USA Track & Field. ``That's the whole way he set up his program. He shows that it's not something other people do. It's what they can do.''

Or plan to do.

``None of us want to be the best American distance runner when we get out of college,'' said Donald Sage, this year's NCAA champion in the 1,500. ``We all want to be the best distance runner in the world.''

A short, sparse history

You have to go back a generation or more to find U.S. distance runners who were the best in the world. Recent years -- no, decades -- have seen poor results by Americans at the Olympics and other marquee events such as the Boston and New York City marathons.

In fact, Masback said, America's history of great distance runners is pretty slim once you get past the occasional shooting star, such as Olympic marathon winners Frank Shorter (1972) and Joan Benoit Samuelson (1984), and Billy Mills' fabled gold medal in the 10,000 at the 1964 Games.

``It's not much beyond that,'' said Masback, a former outstanding miler. ``It's just a fact.''

And in the 1980s, the NCAA scene was thoroughly dominated by international distance runners -- particularly from African nations. But Lananna, then at Dartmouth, led his men's team to runner-up finishes at the NCAA cross-country meets in 1986 and '87 despite no athletic scholarships and a belief in American runners.

Lananna always thought Stanford -- where the track and men's cross-country teams were falling on hard times -- would be a perfect place to build a model, made-in-the-USA program because of its combination of academics, a wide-open campus and great weather. In 1992, he got that chance. Four years later, the Cardinal men's and women's cross-country squads won national titles with all 14 runners being U.S. citizens.

``I think a lot of schools that wanted to do the U.S. thing thought, `Hey, there really is a light at the end of the tunnel,' '' Lananna said.

Following in those footsteps, three of his runners (Gabe Jennings, Michael Stember and Brad Hauser) competed in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Meanwhile, the Nike Farm Team -- a successful Stanford-based, post-collegiate team co-founded by Lananna in 1994 -- has grown to comprise 60 runners training to reach Olympic level.

Yet while Lananna is strident in voicing his opinion that American runners can compete, he also is not the close-the-borders type. In fact, although he hasn't made a habit of it, Lananna said he's more than willing to recruit international athletes, and Stanford does have one male runner from Switzerland.

That said, the Cardinal runners like the program's U.S. focus.

``I have no problem with foreign athletes competing in the NCAAs,'' Sage said. ``It raises the level of competition, and I like the challenge of running against them. But I like training with other guys who have the same goal of bringing back U.S. distance running.''

There's no lack of them at Stanford. Lananna doesn't so much recruit as he does stockpile talent. His teams are so deep that he believes eight runners -- five men and three women -- are capable of winning an individual title at the NCAA championships this month. He has 28 runners alone on the men's squad.

``It's fun to watch the guys starting down Campus Drive for a run, with 30 of them in a herd,'' Fleshman said. ``They can't be missed.''

Though running may be an individualistic sport, cross-country is a team event. You're only as good as your top five -- whose finishing places are added to make the team's score. That's why Lananna works hard building a team bond. It includes having the athletes spend three weeks together before each season training at altitude (8,000 feet) at Mammoth Lakes.

``When you don't run well, you're not just letting yourself down,'' Sage said, ``you're letting the entire team down. That makes you push yourself harder.''

This year, and beyond

At the NCAA championships, to be held Nov. 25 in Terre Haute, Ind., the Cardinal women will try to catch top-ranked Brigham Young. Competition for the men figures to come from Arkansas and defending champion Colorado, another U.S.-dominated program.

Last year's men's meet was the closest in history, and it was an hour after the race before officials finally could confirm that Colorado edged Stanford 90-91.

``We'd like to make it easier this year, so we don't have to wait to find out how we placed,'' Sage said.

And, as usual, the foreign influence will be felt. Four of the top male contenders hail from Africa: defending champion Boaz Cheboiywo (Kenya) of Eastern Michigan, 2000 titlist David Kimani (Kenya) of Alabama, BYU's Kip Kangogo (Kenya) and Arkansas' Alistair Cragg (South Africa).

But in the bigger picture of U.S. running, Lananna believes the future is bright. He's encouraged by the development of a new crop of runners and believes the United States will be back in the medal hunt starting at the 2004 Olympics.

His Stanford athletes agree.

``What we've done should say something to our country about what we're capable of,'' Fleshman said. ``Americans tend to be optimistic about what we're capable of doing. So why should distance running be any different?''

Contact Mark Emmons at memmons@sjmercury.com or (408)-920-5745.