Corrigan Sports Enterprises didn't have to look far when it needed quality distance runners to boost today's inaugural Baltimore Marathon Festival.
Fila has found its niche in the athletic shoe wars by backing Kenyans, particularly in the pursuit of big-money marathons. The Italian company's U.S. headquarters is in Sparks, and when it purchased the naming rights to the 5K that is a companion to the Comcast Baltimore Marathon, both races landed runners who have been nurtured through Fila's Discovery Kenya program and a spinoff, Discovery USA.
The marathon favorites include Luka Cherono, who has spent the last year training at Fila's Kaptagat camp, and Sammy Kosgei, who expanded his limits at the Kapsait camp. Men who routinely run under 2 hours, 10 minutes are among the regulars at the latter, a remote outpost in western Kenya where there is no electricity and the regimen includes accelerated 23-mile runs that climb from 6,500 to 10,000 feet.
The Fila fold includes road racing legend Moses Tanui and Paul Tergat, who only turned to the roads last year after he lost a duel with Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie in an epic 10,000-meter clash at the Sydney Olympics. Distance races at those Games were conspicuous on two counts: an abundance of stars from spartan cultures in Africa and the lagging performances of Americans.
Fila launched Discovery USA at last year's U.S. Olympic trials in Sacramento, Calif. It physiologically screened up and coming Americans, selected those with the right potential and sent them to Mount Laguna in the mountains east of San Diego.
Ideally, the setting will replicate the model constructed in Kenya by Dr. Gabrielle Rosa, the Italian guru who coached Gianni Poli to victory in the 1986 New York City Marathon and then turned Tanui into a force.
The Rosa credo consists of training at altitude, where thinner air increases lung capacity; a simple life of running, rest and replenishment, and group workouts. None of that "loneliness of the long distance runner" stuff.
Josh Cox, a 26-year-old who is one of America's best young marathoners, will run the 5K today. He is based at the Mount Laguna camp, but has trained with Kenyans at the Kaptagat camp.
"Being able to train with them day in and day out has been a real learning experience," Cox said. "It takes away some of their mystique. The main difference between Americans and Kenyans is that they have so much depth.
"Kids here want to grow up to be Barry Bonds or Michael Jordan. There, everyone wants to be Paul Tergat or Moses Tanui. The poverty is incredible, and running is their ticket out to fame and fortune."
Fila funds approximately 250 Kenyan distance runners. Kenyans had their string of Boston Marathon victories ended at 10 this year, but a countrywoman, Catherine Ndereba, repeated there.
There were fewer role models for Cox, who grew up in Florida and took road trips to Camden Yards for Orioles games when he was a student at Liberty College in Lynchburg, Va. He was never fast enough to qualify for the NCAA track and field championships - he barely broke 30 minutes in the 10,000 - and was helping a friend at the Pittsburgh Marathon in 1999 when he found his niche.
"I was pacing a training partner, but after 16 miles I felt pretty good and kept going," Cox said. "I finished in 2:19. When I was the youngest man at the Olympic trials a year later, I received some good press."
Cox quit his job as a software designer and became one of the dozen Americans affiliated with Fila. He ran 2:13.55 in Chicago last year and two months ago was the top American in the world championships.
When Virginia high schooler Alan Webb broke Jim Ryun's 36-year-old record for prep milers last spring, there was talk of an American running renaissance, but Cox's 35th-place finish in Edmonton underscored the gulf that must be crossed.
"The drought is definitely not over," said Greg McMillan, a Fila coach. "Until Americans win gold medals and set world records, and compete at the highest level of this sport, there's still work to be done."
NOTES: Former Villanova star Carole Zjac will contend for the women's 5K title. ... Special Olympics Maryland is coordinating more than 900 volunteers who will handle all manner of tasks at the Baltimore Marathon Festival. ... Various streets will be closed to automobile traffic as the marathon proceeds through the city; traffic will be permitted to cut across the course when gaps in the field occur.
Street closures that will occur in conjunction with today's Baltimore Marathon:
Northbound Russell Street from Worchester Street to Pratt Street, 6 a.m.-9:30 a.m.
Eastbound Pratt Street from Paca Street to President Street, 8 a.m.-9:30 a.m.
Southbound President Street from Pratt Street to Fleet Street, 8 a.m.-9:30 a.m.
Eastbound Fleet Street from President Street to Boston Street, 8 a.m.-10 a.m.
Eastbound Boston Street from Fleet Street to Linwood Avenue, 8 a.m.-10 a.m.