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It's 10 a.m. Thursday and the crowd getting a caffeine fix at a coffee shop in downtown Flagstaff, Ariz., is decidedly fit. They should be -- most of them are professional runners.
The "Bagel Run," a weekly group training session that starts at the bagel shop across the street, has morphed into a standing coffee date for the women of Team USA Arizona, one of about a dozen training programs nationwide created in the past 10 years to elevate the level of U.S. professional distance running.
Lindsay Allen, a steeplechaser with the elite running group, remembers a time when running was much more solitary. As one of the original female members of Team USA Arizona, Allen's post-collegiate running years were a struggle. Not only was she adjusting to a new coach, a new town and more intense training at 7,000 feet of altitude but she no longer had the support and camaraderie she was accustomed to in college.
"I was missing the team environment I was spoiled with at Stanford," said Allen, who graduated in 2008. "It was a letdown -- there was a lot of loneliness and I toyed with the idea of going back to Palo Alto to be closer to my family and friends."
The group, founded in 2007 by coach Greg McMillan, was only a year old when Allen was encouraged to give it -- and Flagstaff -- more time. Now she's one of 11 women on the team, which also includes two other steeplechasers, 5K and 10K specialists and marathoners. There's no lack of training partners or ways to pass the time between workouts, making all the difference in both her athletic performance and quality of life, Allen said.
In fact, the women now outnumber the men of Team USA Arizona, with 11 women and seven men currently on the roster. The growing numbers are part of the boom in post-collegiate females considering a professional running career instead of immediately gravitating toward graduate school or the traditional work force.
The evidence is anecdotal, but there's good reason to believe that the effort to support emerging elite female runners is paying off. According to Running USA, an organization promoting the sport, women accounted for 41 percent of the total population competing in road races in 2010, up from 26 percent in 1996. Jim Estes, associate director of marketing and long distance running programs at U.S.A. Track & Field, says as general female interest in running grows, so will the talent.
Evidence also suggests the competition is getting fiercer. Although no US marathoners are yet closing in on Deena Kastor's American record of 2:19:36, set in 2005, more are achieving the "A" standard qualifying time (2:39) for next year's Olympic trials. With seven months left to qualify, 33 women have already posted a 2:39 or faster, whereas only 19 women qualified for the 2008 trials with an "A" standard time, according to Estes.
Trina Painter, Team USA Arizona assistant coach and a three-time Olympic trials track finalist, says options to pursue world-class running dreams are greater than when she graduated in the 1980s. At that time, women either had the talent to sign an endorsement contract or they stuck with their college coaches, making ends meet with part-time jobs.
"I remind our women that what they have now is a unique and special opportunity [that's] not to be wasted," Painter said. "My generation had to make its own way, but they're part of a movement to bring this sport to another level."
Women selected to be members of groups like Team USA Arizona possess the kind of talent that once evaporated between NCAA and professional competition. Recognizing the problem, teams started popping up across the country with funds from organizations such as USATF and companies like adidas, Brooks and Nike, helping to provide coaching, health care, stipends and other support athletes often can't afford on their own.
At first, the response from women to join Team USA Arizona was tepid, due to a lack of information about the new program. Allen, for example, only happened upon the team as a college senior because her then-boyfriend was a member. But the word has spread rapidly and coaches like McMillan are sorting through piles of applications for now-coveted slots on the team. In three years, the competition to get into the program has attracted better and better runners. The average personal-best 10K time of new Team USA Arizona women have dropped by nearly a minute, now requiring female runners to master a blistering pace of 33:30.
"We fly potential athletes in to Flagstaff to see the trails, the town, meet the team," McMillan said. "It's hard for any runner not to want to be in Flagstaff, because there's such an excitement about running here. We don't sell the program as much as we just present it."
The new crop of females who joined Team USA Arizona last summer had vastly different experiences than Allen did two years ago. Erin Bedell, a steeplechaser from Baylor University and Megan Duwell, a 5K All-American from the University of Minnesota, researched the options the same way they did during their college recruitment process. Both were attracted to Flagstaff because of its access to medical care, top-notch facilities, endless trails and high altitude. They also found important chemistry with their coach and potential teammates in a town with few distractions.
"We're all living the same lifestyle," said Duwell, who already made her first USA team, which won gold at the North America, Central America and Caribbean Athletic Association Cross Country Championships. "We hold each other accountable for everything from workouts to ice baths to core routines to getting enough sleep."
Bedell hopes her generation is one that will inspire girls to dream of becoming professional runners in the same way Brandi Chastain and Mia Hamm did for women's pro soccer when she was a kid. "Now we have the Kara Gouchers and Shalane Flanagans bringing home Olympic and world championship medals," she said. "There are more role models and more support for anybody who has the dream."
A standing coffee date and Bagel Run on Thursday mornings in downtown Flagstaff doesn't hurt either.