The Road Less Traveled
When I line up to race against other professional runners today, it is hard not to think back on how this whole running thing got started for me. The story of how I got to where I am today is unconventional by running circle norms, as the sport of distance running rarely sees college walk-ons qualify for the NCAA Championships, and odds are stacked even higher against those walk-ons becoming a professional runner and competing against the best marathoners in the world. I started out as an average, and then above-average (certainly not great), high school runner and was fortunate enough that Ohio University let me walk-on to the cross country and track and field team. I was a high-schooler who had never broken 16-minutes in the 5k or run 3200-meters under 9:45, but would leave college as a Mid-American conference runner-up, and ultimately, an NCAA qualifier. During my college years, I never won a conference championship or became an All-American, but I believed there was more in the tank. I made a goal to qualify for the 2012 US Olympic Marathon Trials and realized that after my 10th place finish at the 2010 USA Marathon Championships. Those goals have since evolved, resulting in faster times and higher finishes. You see, my path to the starting line of a professional race has been non-traditional, and luckily for me, today’s race results are not determined by what people have done in the past. I wouldn’t say ‘I’ve made it’ in the running world, but I can say my mom isn’t quite as worried about me being a professional runner as she used to be.
The Foundation: Van Wert, Ohio
Born and raised in rural Northwest Ohio, I first learned about the sport of running while traversing the country roads of Van Wert. Generally speaking, those roads were pancake flat, wind tunnels surrounded by cornfields. The very first “organized practice” of my running career was a 2-mile run, which ended at the local Dairy Queen. Thinking that cross country practice would end at Dairy Queen everyday, I decided I would give the sport a try. Throughout most of my junior high and high school running career, I consistently found myself finishing as one of the top 5 runners on my team and was extremely fortunate to be a member of a very supportive, and successful, Van Wert program. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I started to have some individual success, which brings me to life lesson #1:
Learning to cope with failure is an absolute must because life cannot, should not, and will not always go as planned.
Real Running Shorts
My senior year was fueled from the disappointment of our team failing to make it to state, after being ranked #1 in Ohio all season long, during cross country season as a junior. The week after that disastrous regional meet, I made a commitment to dedicate more energy and focus to my training, and for the first time in high school, decided to run track. That’s right, I didn’t run track my freshman and sophomore years of high school; ironically enough, I thought running 8 laps around a track would be too boring. My decision to finally run track was exactly what I needed to improve as a runner and it propelled me to a successful senior campaign. I ended up dropping more than 1-minute off my previous high school 5k PR (from 17:08 as a JR to 16:03 as a SR) and finished 11th at the Ohio High School Division II State Championships in both cross country and track (3200).
However, with little to show from a less-than-impressive high school career, the offers to run at the collegiate level as a scholarship athlete were all but limited to a few smaller Division III schools in Northwest, OH. Nothing against any of those schools, but they were not the right fit for me. I had my heart and mind set on attending Ohio University. Still knowing very little about the sport of distance running, I decided to walk-on to the cross country and track and field teams at OU. I joined the Ohio team that year as a kid who had never worn real running shorts, had never seen a college or professional track event (live or on tv), and had never run more than 60-minutes without stopping. How I actually survived an entire fall quarter of cross country my freshman year of college is BEYOND me, which brings me to life lesson #2:
New challenges are tough, but overcoming those obstacles starts with hard work and a positive attitude.
The College Years
That fall, everything I did running-wise was seemingly a first: my first 10-miler without stopping, my first time running seven days a week, my first morning run, my first ice bath – the list could go on and on, but you get the point. I kept telling myself that if I could just get through that day, the next one would be easier. I was in complete survival mode, but somehow I made our traveling team. By the end of the cross country season, when our team began to taper and the volume of our weekly mileage decreased, I was able to finally get my legs under me and finished 2nd on our team at our conference meet. Sure, it was nothing to get too excited about (because our team was not that good my freshman year), but it was still a big deal to me at the time, and in a way, still remarkable to me even now.
Under the guidance of my college coach, Mitch Bentley, I steadily progressed each season and each year. His training principles and philosophy were a perfect fit for my personality. He provided runners with the paint and easel and then relied on us to create the artwork. A steady diet of tempo runs along the Hocking River, climbing the hills of Hooper Street and Congress Street, and weekend staples such Barts or Angel Ridge is what helped make a 9:47 high school 3200-meter runner into a Mid-American Conference Cross Country runner-up and individual qualifier to the NCAA Championships.
After dabbling in some road races post-collegiately, I realized that I still had a deep desire to chase a few unfinished goals, so I began training more seriously for my first half marathon, which brings me to life lesson #3:
Don’t let society’s natural barriers douse your dreams.
A Jump Up
Although I still ran while in completing grad school, I had put any semblance of serious training on the back burner for much of 2008. The brief downtime from competitive racing turned out to be exactly what I needed. When I returned to serious training in 2009, I did so with a more mature mindset; a maturity needed for longer road races. After a few decent performances in some half-marathon events in 2009, I decided I would attempt my first marathon in 2010. Naturally, I began increasing my weekly mileage and doing some longer workouts, but what I found out during the buildup to my first marathon was that I was completely clueless about how to tackle the 26.2-mile distance. Aside from that, I discovered that I really enjoyed the longer training.
I chose the Eugene marathon for my 26.2-mile debut in part because I wanted to get my feet wet in a smaller race, where I would be less tempted to go out too hard. This allowed me to focus on running my own race. On what turned out to be a perfect Spring morning to race, I went through the first 13.1 miles exactly like I wanted to – conservatively. As the race evolved and unfolded, I ended up moving to the lead around mile 23 and finished my first marathon on the track at Hayward Field as the winner of the 2010 Eugene Marathon. It was an incredible first marathon experience and running within 4 minutes of the Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying mark in my first attempt at the distance made me rethink some goals, which brings me to life lesson #4:
We should all be in the habit of assessment and reassessment; don’t forget that where you are now is different from where you were and not the same as where you ultimately want to be.
Leaving the Shore
After making some modifications to my training based on my first marathon experience, I set my sights on trying to qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials at the 2010 USA Marathon Championships, held in Minneapolis, MN. To accomplish that goal, I would need to run under 2:19:00 or finish in the top 10. I ended up finishing 10th and running 2:18:29, officially booking my ticket to Houston for the Trials. At the time, the Twin Cities Marathon was a career changing race for me, and I will never forget the feeling I had running towards the finish line that morning. In a year’s time, I had gone from never running over 20-miles to finishing in the top 10 at a US Marathon Championships.
Despite having a great 2011 season, a season where I set new PR’s in the 5k, 10k, 10-mile, and half-marathon, I decided that I needed a change of scenery, and for the first time in my life, moved away from Ohio. Having spent the eight years after graduating high school in Athens, Ohio, I knew that a change would be both hard, but also good for me in the long run (no pun intended). Now, Eugene, Oregon is my new home; Track Town, USA. That brings me to my fifth, and final life lesson, of my little story:
You can’t find new oceans if you never leave the shore. So don’t be afraid to take some risks along the way.
Big Risks. Big Rewards.
Successful people are risk takers and are willing to take risks because they have the courage and confidence in themselves to overcome any obstacle; their conviction to achieve success is stronger than any wall standing between them and their path to success. So, I’ll continue to take risks in the pursuit of becoming a better runner. And let’s face it, life is more fun that way!