Before he moved to Michigan and became a professional athlete, Terry Shea analyzed plant DNA for a biotech company in New England. Carl Rundell was a business consultant based in Georgia who had been clobbered by the Internet crash and briefly considered filing for bankruptcy. Bob Busquaert was a substitute math teacher living near his home town in southeastern Michigan.
All three have since pureed their previous lives in order to join the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, a training operation in Rochester, Mich., whose founders -- brothers Kevin and Keith Hanson -- in 1999 set for themselves the improbable goal of rejuvenating American distance running.
Shea, Rundell and Busquaert flew to Washington this weekend with similarly outsized targets: All three hope to finish tomorrow's Marine Corps Marathon with times at or below 2 hours 20 minutes, a time that hasn't been reached at Marine Corps since 1997, a time that would be five minutes faster than last year's winning mark.
The Hansons, though, are well acquainted with outlandish aims. After successful collegiate careers in the 1980s, both brothers -- "junkie running-geek fans," according to Kevin -- settled into regular jobs, older brother Kevin as a high school English teacher and cross-country coach and younger brother Keith as a buyer for a pharmaceutical company.
Neither had any sort of background in business, which didn't stop them from deciding to open a running store in 1991.
The first store initially struggled to make a profit, but within three years the brothers left their jobs and opened two more stores. And as their businesses began to succeed, they hatched another unconventional plan: They would spend several hundred thousand dollars a year to support a cadre of American distance runners with untapped talent, runners who the brothers thought needed financial backing and a team environment to thrive.
The brothers would lure these runners to southeastern Michigan with the promise of free housing, benefits and coaching, allowing them to log 120 to 140 miles a week while working part time in the running stores. By nurturing these athletes, the Hansons hoped they would expand the pool of Americans capable of running sub-2:20 marathons, increase the odds of finding Americans capable of starring internationally, and, as a side benefit, amass possibly the best educated shoe salesmen in the country.
"As funny as this might sound, I never had any doubts that it would be successful," Keith Hanson said. "I would have been more surprised if it didn't work."
The program began in 1999 with three local runners living in a group house the Hansons purchased in Rochester. By 2000, there were seven runners in the program, and the Hansons bought a second house.
After receiving national publicity last year, several major running and apparel companies began clamoring to get involved. A sponsorship deal with Brooks allowed the Hansons to start a women's program, buy a third house and offer performance bonuses to its athletes. The Hansons' top-level runners now receive shoes, apparel, gym memberships, travel stipends, physical therapy, chiropractic treatment and high-tech mattresses, in addition to the free rent, health insurance and shoe-store shifts. There are 22 runners affiliated with the program, and the brothers -- who still provide the group's coaching -- receive at least one call a week from interested runners.
"At first people thought, 'No, this isn't right,' " said Kevin Hanson, whose wife, Nancy, an accountant, handles the financing and scheduling for the program. "Was this going to be around for a year, two years? It's like, 'No, it's going to be around for 20 years.' "
And as their numbers have grown, team members have earned a national profile, best exemplified by February's U.S. Olympic men's marathon trials. Hansons runners -- wearing their red, gold and black jerseys -- made up more than 10 percent of the 71 finishers. One Hansons athlete -- Brian Sell -- led the race for 16 miles before fading. Two others -- Trent Briney and Clint Verran -- placed fourth and fifth, respectively, becoming the top two alternates for the Olympic team.
It was "a showing that no one other than the Hanson brothers and maybe the athletes themselves expected," said Shea, one of seven Hansons runners who finished in the top 42.
Rundell -- who, like Shea, will run tomorrow's Marine Corps Marathon -- finished 25th at the trials. Busquaert, nursing a sore hamstring, was farther back.
The three runners had their choice of several fall marathons this year; all three chose Marine Corps, partly to reward Brooks, a major sponsor of the race.
"Just having any of the Hansons here this year has already enhanced our presence in the race," said Jesse Williams, a Brooks marketing specialist and the company's liaison to Hansons. "Every time they descend upon a city, it totally does so much for us -- they leave that city and everybody remembers them."
But none of the three Hansons runners who has come to Washington is exactly a typical team member.
None, for example, has met the group's "Tier One" standards that qualify runners for housing and health insurance, and thus they each live outside the group houses, supporting themselves while receiving the other perks.
Having already attained and then left full-time employment puts them in a slightly different position from many of the younger Hansons runners, who "haven't really had that chill-down period yet, where they have to work a job 40 hours a week," as Busquaert puts it.
The 30-year old Shea, who spent two and a half years in Washington after graduating from Bucknell, shed his biotech career, taking a sizable pay cut to work part time as a laboratory technician for a company that makes metal fasteners and bolts for auto factories.
Busquaert, 29, continues to substitute teach several days a week, taking off a week or two for each marathon he runs.
Rundell, at 36 the program's senior member by six years, had perhaps the strangest trip to the Rochester area. After graduating from Vanderbilt, where he walked on to the track team, he became a consultant for Ernst & Young. But after helping found a consulting firm, several Internet busts landed Rundell in debt, and he moved home to Michigan and used running to reassemble his life. Rundell went to a Hansons store for one of the program's community runs -- which attract up to 70 or 80 recreational runners -- hanging on during the run because he didn't know exactly how to get back to his car. He soon became an honorary member of the group while also working fulltime as a consultant for auto manufacturers. Before he joined the group he was a 2:30 marathoner; last year, at the age of 35, he broke 2:20, a massive improvement for a runner in his mid-30s.
Such dramatic gains, the Hansons say, partly explain why they continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a batch of mostly unknown runners, although the brothers' ultimate goal is to send athletes to the Olympics.
Shea, Rundell and Busquaert have shared a training schedule, and will likely work together at the front of tomorrow's race.
But each said that winning marathons is almost less important than proving to the Hansons and themselves that they still have more potential, more minutes to shave, more chances to validate their commitment to running.
"You're putting your life on hold to pursue a dream that you've had since high school -- to run to the best of your ability and see what you could do," Busquaert said. "That's what I'll get out of this. I'll know I gave it a shot, devoted a fraction of my life to finding out what I could do."