Ryan Vail, 27 years old and the best American marathoner in his age group, lives and trains in Portland, Ore., which makes him sound like a distance-running cliché.
Vail isn't part of any of the high-profile professional running groups based there, though. He grew up in Gresham, less than half an hour away, so he "already knew what a great place it was to train," he says.
Vail -- who comes into the Nov. 3 New York City Marathon with a personal record of 2:11:45 -- is a presence apart in Portland, much by choice. He's still being coached by his Oklahoma State University mentor Dave Smith, who cites Vail's maturity and leadership as crucial to the creation of OSU's NCAA cross country dynasty.
"I've also PRed under Dave for eight straight years now, so I'm kind of hesitant to change anything as long as the progress keeps continuing," Vail told Runner's World Newswire in 2012.
"We were in synch when I was in Stillwater [Oklahoma], so it was an easy transition," Vail says. "I'm really good at self-motivation. I don't need a group, I don't need someone here yelling at me, and [Smith] knew that."
Vail is notably unflappable. He made his marathon debut at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials with an 11th-place 2:12:43. His second marathon was supposed to be in New York City in November 2012.
When the race was canceled, other elites scrapped their marathon plans or faltered badly in their backup race. Vail, on the other hand, found his way to Fukuoka, Japan, four weeks later and ran that 2:11:45 PR.
Vail returns to New York at the tail end of a 2013 season in which he was the third man on the USA's silver medal team at the world cross country championships, finished sixth in the 10,000 at the USATF Championships, and won the Rock 'n' Roll San Jose Half Marathon on Oct. 6 in 1:02:06 after a 150-mile week.
He's one of the three most significant American men in the New York City field, along with the 2009 NYC champion Meb Keflezighi and Jason Hartmann, the fourth-place finisher in the last two Boston Marathons.
The question is whether Vail is ready to take the next step into the top tier of an American marathon corps that is aging and often wounded, and whose numbers are quite thin.
"I think I need to make that jump and get down to the 2:09 range to be there," he says. "But there's guys who are dealing with injuries, guys who are getting older. I think Meb's going to be around until he's 50, so I'm expecting to see him on the line. Everyone else, it seems like they're showing signs of mortality. That's something that can definitely open some windows for me in 2016."
"At the same time, we've got a lot of really talented young guys coming up," continues Vail, "so it will be interesting if any of them decide to see if any of them decide to make an early jump to the marathon or not."
What young talents is he talking about? "I don't really have anyone in my mind, to be honest," he concedes.
In New York City, says Vail, "I'm ready to make that next jump. Jason [Hartmann] has run so well in those major marathons but I think ability-wise, we're not so far apart. I think I'm in striking range of some of the good guys right now. I'm definitely already a strong hill runner. That was part of the reason for going to New York."
To prepare for New York, "we haven't changed a whole lot. We've definitely gotten more aggressive with the training," with a bit more volume and some longer and faster intervals, Vail says.
"But overall, the plan is pretty similar. I know, at the very least, I'm in PR shape. If I were to run Fukuoka again right now, I know I'd be running very much faster" than his 2:11:45.
Vail also shares details of and observations on his training on his blog.
"It seems to be received positively," he says. "It's just nice to try to connect to people, to show them there's no magic recipe, there's no secret to it, that it's just getting out there and running a lot. People have said, 'It's nice that we can sit there and look at this.'"
"I'd love to read a detailed blog like this of some of the other guys."
Vail's ability to adjust to changing circumstances was demonstrated in San Jose. Initially, he thought he'd have to go head-to-head with Ryan Hall, but Hall withdrew after a training setback.
"I tried to reach out to Meb, because he had done this race many times but I never heard back from him," Vail said.
"I was thinking for awhile there 'maybe I will be running this alone.' Then I got the message that Fernando [Cabada, seventh at the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials] was coming, and I was happy about that. I knew, seeing what he had run this year, he would be at about my level."
The pair ran together for about ten miles before Vail pulled away.
"I was a little bit afraid to push the pace early on because I didn't know how I was going to feel in the middle of marathon training," he explains.
"But I was really happy with the way that I could close down the last three miles and put about 30 seconds on the field. I think that was a really good sign, more than my overall time, the fact that I could basically tempo run for ten miles and then put in a hard three."
Back home in Portland, Vail puts in 10 to 15 hours a week at a running store, "just keeping something else on the resume," as he puts it. "I'm not there for the $10 an hour."
He still leaves time for naps.
"When you're training really hard and you go to sleep early and you get nine hours, you can still feel like someone beat you with a hammer all night."
He also plays guitar, but "just in the privacy of my living room."
Vail's wife, Eva, a former Oklahoma State student, is Czech. Her parents' home, where she and Ryan go once a year, is "an hour and a half away from Prague, in a 200-person village," he says.
"The only runners around are her family. It's a nice situation. Every few miles there's another village of a few hundred people. It's nice and hilly. It's really great. Free food. Everything's real cheap. It's a nice training camp."
Three days after the New York City Marathon, Vail and Eva will be off to the Patagonia region of Argentina, and nearby Santiago and Buenos Aires, for four weeks.
"We always try and make a vacation after a season like this," says Vail. "We both love hiking. Patagonia is an instant choice for that. After two weeks, I'll be able to get back to running long down there."
More adventuresome than many, Vail doesn't tread in one place. He embraces the opportunity to be a global athlete. "This isn't going to last forever," Vail says. "At some point I'm going to have to get as real job and not have this freedom to travel and train."
But it can last at least until 2016, and the next of his incremental forward steps can occur in New York. American marathoning needs an infusion of younger, top-tier contenders, and everything points to Vail being the next one.