Alberto Salazar likely will indulge his most painful habit this weekend.

He'll scan through the results of the New York City Marathon and grimace. He'll search desperately for the first American finisher -- geez, where is the first American finisher? -- and walk away in despair.

For the 22nd year in a row, Salazar will curse the New York City Marathon -- a race he won three times, a race that once filled him with tremendous pride -- for making him feel ashamed.

"I don't know why I even look at the results anymore," Salazar said. "We haven't had an American winner in so long, it's starting to feel like an embarrassment."

No American has won in New York since Salazar in 1982. And despite exhaustive efforts by Salazar and others, that trend is not likely to end this morning, when about 30,000 runners from 100 countries take to the starting line in Staten Island and race for more than $530,000 in prize money.

Despite Salazar's cynicism, a few U.S. runners could place in the top 10: Deena Kastor and Meb Keflezighi won Olympic medals this summer; Bob Kennedy and Abdi Abdirahman, top 5,000 and 10,000-meter track runners, respectively, will compete in the marathon for the first time; and two-event Olympian Dan Browne, who won the Army Ten-Miler in Washington on Oct. 24, will also compete. {grv}

But even in the wake of the huge success in Athens, an American victory in New York would qualify as a major upset. Race organizers tout this year's elite field as the strongest ever. It includes the women's world record holder (Paula Radcliffe of Britain, who dropped out late in the Olympic marathon) and a trio of two-time New York City winners (Kenyans Margaret Okayo, John Kagwe and Tegla Loroupe). So it's likely, marathon gurus said, that Americans will continue a trend of falling short in one of the country's most prestigious races.

"Somehow, we're very far behind," said Miki Gorman, 69, the last American woman to win New York City, in 1977. "We've gone so long without winning, I can't believe it. My win was a lifetime ago."

American distance running fell precipitously in the early 1980s, with the rise of large prize purses that made marathoning attractive to international fields. The New York City and Boston marathons -- races once dominated by American men -- were won by foreign runners in 1983 and '84, respectively, and no American has won either since.

Encouraged by early success, African countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Morocco made marathoning a priority, building an infrastructure to train talented runners in a group setting before they even reached high school. Americans, meanwhile, stuck with the same non-system -- leaving post-collegiate runners to find their own funding, their own coaches, their own training regimen -- and fell behind.

The search for a remedy to America's problem has lasted a decade and has been every bit as painful as the plight. A handful of marathon experts have devoted their lives to reviving American distance running, but they have struggled with finances and a relatively small pool of interested athletes.

"It's not an easy wall to climb," said Kastor, a bronze medalist in Athens. "We've got a lot of ground to make up."

Nobody knows that as well as Salazar, who is entrusted with the country's biggest professional running program. The coach and program director for Nike's Oregon Project, Salazar works with about a dozen post-collegiate runners in a well-funded program that began in 2001.

Runners in the Oregon Project train full time with world-class coaches. Their running form is picked apart by top-flight technology; their bodies are picked at by elite doctors and trainers. And the results? "Very minimal," Salazar said. "What we've done so far just isn't enough." Not to say that there is no hope.

Many programs have developed over the past decade and, while some have failed, others are beginning to experience some success. Team Running USA in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., helped develop both Kastor and Keflezighi; the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project in Rochester, Mich., has shaped a handful of runners who placed high in some U.S. marathons this year.

But America's best runners, coaches said, are still the product of individual effort, not a strong national system. Athletes such as Kastor and Keflezighi are so talented, so dedicated, that they thrive in spite of the U.S. professional running culture, not because of it.

Some think U.S. distance runners should train in Kenya. Others think top athletes should skip college and run full time, like some foreign athletes do now. Salazar and Nike hope to start a junior national team for distance runners, moving college students to Oregon to train full time.

"We have to do something, because what's going on right now isn't working," Salazar said. "All we want is to have some pride again in American distance running."

Nowhere does it hurt quite as badly as at the New York City Marathon, a race meant to celebrate the country's largest city, one with a deep running culture. The race winds through all five boroughs, finishing on the edge of Central Park. Crowds -- sometimes estimated in the millions -- line the streets. A good day at the marathon, race organizers said, can feel like a journey in American spirit.

Sometimes, though, this is more indicative of how it plays out:

Last summer at a race in New York, Kastor was introduced to the crowd as America's best hope to medal in Athens. As Kastor readied to take off, she heard a fan mumble: "Yeah right. She's an American."

"People have absolutely no faith," said Kastor, who, like several elites, will receive a hefty appearance fee for running in New York. "They think American runners are hopeless, that we don't stand a chance. I think they're wrong."

To prove it, she will run in New York just eight weeks after running in Athens -- an unusually short recovery time between marathons. Friends told Kastor to consider resting more, to relax and enjoy her Olympic medal. But running in New York, Kastor said, felt like something she had to do.

Fellow racers said Keflezighi, a silver medalist in Athens, will run in New York in part because of similar motivation: An improbable win would stimulate U.S. marathoning.

"It's a special race because it's big for this country," Kastor said. "I hate it when I hear that American distance running is a disgrace, things like that. Pretty soon we're going to step up, win this race and prove people wrong."

Bill Rodgers, Grete Waitz and Alberto Salazar celebrate the New York City Marathon's 25th anniversary in 1994; the three own 16 titles collectively.