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Niyo: Olympic hopeful Curtis gets on right track with Hansons

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Bobby Curtis

Mike Morgan has seen them come and go – and run and suffer and question plenty along the way – as a longtime member of the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, an Olympic development program for post-collegiate runners based in Rochester Hills.

“I’ve probably had 50 different teammates over the last decade,” said Morgan, who joined the team – founded by Kevin and Keith Hanson, owners of a chain of shoe stores in suburban Detroit – back in 2005.

But he’s never had one quite like Bobby Curtis, the 31-year-old former NCAA track champion who made the full-time move to Michigan – and the marathon -- in 2013.

“He definitely was the fastest guy to join the program,” laughed Morgan, 35, one of 13 Hansons runners who’ll compete in Saturday’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles. “And he still is.”

Now he’s about to find out if he’s fast enough to make it to Brazil, as the top three finishers in the trials will qualify for the U.S. team headed to this summer’s Rio Olympics.

Morgan is aiming to do the same, of course, and on the women’s side, Desiree Linden, the runner-up at the 2012 trials, is among the heavy favorites to lock up an Olympic berth. But it’s Curtis that many are pointing to as a darkhorse contender in the men’s race.

The Villanova grad spent several years competing on the track after winning the NCAA 5,000-meter title in 2008. And his 10,000-meter personal-best of 27:24 in 2011 makes him the seventh-fastest American in history at that distance.

Niyo: Rochester Hills marathoner races toward top

It also made him a prized recruit for the Hansons, who’ve built their reputation more on blue-collar work ethic than blue-chip recruits, turning under-the-radar talents like Linden and Brian Sell into Olympians and more.

“Bobby is one of those guys, you can watch him run and it just looks like he’s out for a regular jog and then you hear the split and it’s like, ‘Oh, my God!’” said Linden, 32, who moved to Michigan in 2006 and made her marathon debut in Boston in 2007. “He’s just a smooth, efficient runner. He’s got incredible track speed.”

That doesn’t always translate, however. Curtis ran his first marathon in 2011 in New York, and after failing to meet his own unrealistic expectations there – he labored to a 15th-place finish in 2:16:44 – he eventually realized what so many have before him: If you’re going to be a marathoner, you’ll have to train like one.

“It was terrible and I’m like ‘Oh, maybe I’m not cut out for this,’” said Curtis, who finally sat down with the Hansons the following year after coming up short in his bid to make the 2012 Olympic team at 10,000 meters.

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After both sides agreed there was a fit, Curtis got right to work with higher mileage -- peaking at 130 miles per week -- and a different training mindset. What followed was a successful progression, with a 2:13:24 result in his second marathon in Japan in December 2013 and then a 2:11:20 as the top American finisher in Chicago in October 2014.

“When things go poorly because you questioned everything, it’s kind of a bummer,” said Linden, the second-fastest qualifier on the women’s side. “But when you buy in, or you see your teammates buy in and getting the results, it’s like, ‘OK, well, I’ll just get in line and see what happens.'

“So it’s exciting to see what (Curtis) has put together in the last couple years in the marathon, and I think he’s got a lot more in the tank, now that he has kind of bought into the idea that he’s gonna be great at it.”

It’s an easier sell in that group setting, clearly, what with the runners helping to push each other daily through the grueling, three-month training segments. But also given the Hansons’ history, having sent runners to the last two Olympics – Brian Sell in 2008 and Linden in ’12.

That streak seems likely to continue with Linden arriving in Los Angeles in top form this week, fresh off a six-week stint with the rest of the Hansons crew in Florida. But Curtis should have company near the front of the men’s race, too, including Morgan, who is making his third trials appearance, and former Stanford All-American Jake Riley, who made his 2:13:16 marathon debut in Chicago in 2014.

“The perception is, if you’re wearing that Hansons-Brooks uniform, you’re ready to go on that day, especially when it comes to the Olympic trials,” Morgan said. “There’s other big races – Boston, New York, Chicago. But this is the closest we get to lining up the best runners in America all at the same time. This is the cream of the crop for the U.S. and a chance to find out where you stand.”

U.S. OLYMPIC MARATHON TRIALS

When: Saturday, men’s race begins at 1:06 p.m. ET, women's at 1:22 p.m.

Where: Los Angeles

TV: NBC

At stake: Top three finishers qualify for U.S. team for 2016 Rio Olympics in August.

Purse: $600,000, top 10 men's and women's finishers (first $80,000, second $65,000, third $55,000)

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

The Hansons-Brooks Distance Project based in Rochester Hills has 13 members competing in Saturday’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials:

Men

Bobby Curtis (2:11:20 qualifying time)

Brendan Gregg (2:18:30)

Mo Hrezi (1:04:00 – half marathon)

Luke Humphrey (2:16.34)

Mike Morgan (2:14:40)

Jake Riley (2:13:16)

Women

Melanie Brender (1:14:38 – half marathon)

Danielle Miller (2:41:32)

Jen Rock (2:40:55)

Melissa Johnson-White (2:32:37)

Katie Kellner (1:14:39 – half marathon)

Desiree Linden (2:23:54)

Dot McMahan (2:34:52)

OTHER LOCAL RUNNERS

Men

Harry Dixon, Ypsilanti (1:04:26 – half marathon)

Matthew Fecht, Warren (2:18:19)

Christo Landry, Ann Arbor (2:14:30)

Nathan Martin, Concord (2:15:46)

Alan Peterson, Bessemer (1:04:26 – half marathon)

Zach Ripley, Rockford (2:18:26)

Dathan Ritzenhein, Rockford (2:09:45)

Women

Sarah Boyle, Brighton (1:14:06)

Courtney Brewis, Dearborn (2:42:32)

Erin Heenan, Ann Arbor (2:42:47)

Nicole Michmerhuizen, Ann Arbor (2:41:40)

Laura Portis, Kalamazoo (2:33:42)