With perfect form and ponytails, Jen Rhines and Morgan Uceny ran effortlessly down a dirt path along the Charles River last week, passing morning rush-hour traffic, bike commuters, and joggers.
Along the way, they prompted double takes. Olympians in action tend to do that, especially in a city with as rich a running history as Boston.
With elite team initiatives underway at the Boston Athletic Association and New Balance, Boston is re-emerging as a running mecca for world-class athletes. It is a throwback to the late 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s when many top distance runners, led by legends like Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit Samuelson, trained in the city and its suburbs. At the 2016 US Olympic track and field trials, Boston should be well represented, with around a dozen entrants in various events.
“Athletes see the opportunities here and they’re excited to take those opportunities,” said Rhines.
This past fall, after several years of planning, the BAA launched a high-performance program for Olympic-caliber athletes, starting with Rhines, a three-time Olympian, and her husband, BAA elite team coach Terrence Mahon. They were joined by Uceny and a handful of promising women who recently graduated from college in what Mahon called “a great draft class.”
In the months ahead, Brighton-based New Balance plans to build its own elite team with runners who will live and train in the area. Seven-time NCAA champion Abbey D’Agostino signed with New Balance in June and moved to Newton in August. The shoe company believes that the runner, who grew up in Topsfield, will draw other top talent.
“For us, it comes back to the fact that to be great, to be national class, you don’t necessarily have to train in isolation, in the mountains somewhere,’’ said Mahon. “With a great support system in Boston, we feel we’ll have everything we need and more to help these young kids become national champions and Olympians.”
From the Charles River to the Emerald Necklace to the Battle Road Trail to the Minuteman Bikeway to the Boston Marathon route to the multitude of indoor and outdoor tracks, elite runners are exploring all the city has to offer.
Rhines, who lives in the Back Bay, said Boston is “a very livable city for runners.”
Uceny, whose Cleveland Circle apartment places her near the marathon course, said Boston gives her “the best of both worlds for a good work/life balance.” Already, she has followed a day of training with an art class at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and tried her first lobster roll after the Falmouth Mile.
“I’d like to stay here for the rest of my running career,” said the 29-year-old Uceny, the world’s No. 1-ranked 1,500-meter runner in 2011 and a 2012 Olympian. “I’ve moved all over and I’m looking forward to settling in one place.”
The popularity of elite training bases tends to be cyclical, depending upon where top coaches and athletes want to live, how easily athletes can access running routes and workout facilities, and what is advocated by the latest science.
Over the past 15 years, elites have flocked to rural training outposts, seeking high altitudes and mountain trails in places like Mammoth Lakes, Calif., where 2014 Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi has spent time along with other Olympians. Top runners also have congregated in Portland, Ore., near Nike headquarters and about 100 miles from Eugene, Ore., also known as Track Town USA. And then they have popped up in locales such as Minneapolis, suburban Detroit, and more recently in Seattle, with its focus on middle-distance events.
So, to the BAA and New Balance, there seemed no good reason why sea-level Boston with its snowy winters could not reenter the elite running mix and draw top talent again.
Mark Coogan, an Olympic marathoner who was the first Massachusetts runner to break four minutes in the mile, coaches D’Agostino and works for New Balance. If the renewed efforts pay off, Coogan said, “We’re going to have a lot more Olympians come out of Boston. It could be just like the old days.”
In 2005, the BAA began researching what it would take to establish a high-performance running group, consulting with elite teams across the country, making a wish list and identifying logistical issues. Above all, the BAA leadership wanted to build a program that could last decades and attract young athletes with Olympic potential.
“It was getting back to our roots,” said Michael Pieroni, coach of the BAA Running Club. “We were a high-performance team back before the term was around, back at the turn of the previous century. . . . We knew we needed a coach and we needed a plan. This is a long-term commitment, hence the long buildup and leg work that needed to be done.”
Mahon, an elite running coach for nearly a decade, proved the right man at the right time. He brought experience in coaching Olympic marathoners and American record holders like Deena Kastor and Ryan Hall, as well as the ability to guide athletes in events from the 800 through the marathon. His coaching range made it possible for the BAA high-performance group to focus on more than developing marathoners, even though the Boston Marathon is the organization’s signature event.
To earn consideration for the BAA high-performance team, Mahon and Pieroni want athletes who meet certain time standards in their chosen distances. For example, women must run a 4:12 or better in the 1,500 or a 15:45 in the 5,000 or a 2:34 in the marathon. All those times fall within the range of performances worthy of the 2012 Olympic trials.
In addition to Rhines, the roster includes Boston University 5,000 and 10,000 standout Katie Matthews and five other recent college graduates. Uceny and Chris O’Hare, a British middle-distance runner who has World Championship experience, train with the BAA group under Mahon, but compete for the global Adidas team. Eventually, the BAA expects its high-performance group to number between eight to 12 runners, with a mix of men and women.
“By going from the 800 to the marathon, it allows us to go after the best athletes possible,” said Mahon. “Also, we’re looking at athletes who know and understand what Boston is about and will be comfortable in that scenario.”
Today, it’s a scenario that offers much more than trails, tough winters, and city life.
Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman recalled that he first saw the BAA high-performance group while running along the Charles River on a bitterly cold morning last winter.
“They were going the opposite direction and went by like a bullet train, whoosh,” said Lieberman, who studies running biomechanics. “An elite runner looks like a different species than the rest of us. You can’t not notice.”
Mahon, meanwhile, recognized Lieberman’s running partner, Massachusetts General Hospital cardiologist Aaron Baggish, and joined the pair. The group quickly fell into a conversation about running form and physiology and kept it up for five miles.
It was an only-in-Boston kind of moment. And it was a meeting of running minds that makes the city particularly appealing as a training base.
The way Mahon sees it, the city possesses medical and scientific resources that can help the BAA’s elite runners improve. Or, as Lieberman said, “We already are a running mecca for research.”
Lieberman told Mahon he would be happy to study the strides of the BAA elites and collect data. Mahon and Baggish plan to work together with athletes visiting the Cardiovascular Performance Program lab that Baggish runs at Mass. General.
“The things that are missing in Boston are notable, like altitude, but we do have the best access to the best sport science,” said Baggish. “The BAA group is a perfect fit for what we do.”
Baggish will perform physiological testing on the BAA athletes, a process that, he said, “defines what’s underneath the hood of the athlete.” Lab-based testing will allow the BAA to collect detailed, quantitative measurements of runners’ strengths and weaknesses. Then, Baggish hopes to use a combination of lab findings and performance results to determine where there might be room for improvement.
As D’Agostino transitions from college to professional runner and eyes the 2016 Summer Olympics, she is confident that living and training full-time in Boston will make her a better runner. Also, the thought of helping build an elite New Balance running team near her hometown excites her.
“It’s a chance to set a precedent for what running in Boston can be now, voicing all that is here,” said D’Agostino. “It’s encouraging to know that it’s been done before. It’s cool to know that the best of the best have been here and had success.”