Posted: Friday June 10, 2011 11:12AM ; Updated: Friday June 10, 2011 1:59PM
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Elite prep runner Lukas Verzbicas has choice: track or triathon (cont.)

By Bill Carey, SI.com

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Verzbicas is one of the most promising young runners in the U.S., but he faces stiff competition internationally.
Verzbicas is one of the most promising young runners in the U.S., but he faces stiff competition internationally.
AP

His first taste of competitive running came two years later at age 10 when his parents dropped him into a 5K road race. Not knowing any better, he went out with the leaders and hung with them for two miles. But his lack of training caught up with him and he walked the last mile. Despite the disappointing ending, the race confirmed what his parents had suspected: Lukas had an innate endurance. "It's genetics," his mother says. When he was 11, Verzbicas picked up the triathlon, and he excelled in both sports, winning junior high state titles in running and the Youth Elite National Triathlon Championship.

But his parents were already thinking about the future. "Our goal is a gold medal in the Olympics," Bertule says. "We're working with him for many years. It is our family project. It's our style of life." Verzbicas isn't Todd Marinovich, but his training has been focused. His parents are his primary coaches. During triathlon season, he completes three workouts most days, with one day off each week. This spring, as he's focused on track, his practices have been shorter but more intense. He averages between 50 and 60 miles per week and usually runs twice a day: a short morning run and an interval session in the afternoon.

From his years around the sport, the 6-foot, 135-pound runner is tactically smarter than most athletes his age, able to adjust to different conditions and win races in many ways. "Watching him run at last year's Dream Mile, I was very impressed," Ryun says. "After the pacer dropped out, he went to front, threw the gauntlet down and basically said, 'Come and get me.'"

At the Nike Cross Nationals in Oregon in December, Verzbicas stuck with the lead pack on a muddy course and, despite getting spiked in the leg by another runner, moved at the four-kilometer mark and held on against hard-finishing Edward Cheserek, a Kenyan émigré. A week later at the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships in San Diego, Verzbicas cruised to an 11-second victory. It was his second straight Foot Locker victory, making him only the third male runner to take the race twice. He was also the first runner to win both national meets. "He's had one of the finest cross country seasons in history, if not the finest," says Craig Virgin, a two-time world cross country champion and three-time Olympic qualifier, whose Illinois state meet record Verzbicas fell three seconds short of matching. "The kid seems able to open his mind up to things that most people would just shirk away from."

Verzbicas' family had already decided he would forego his last year of high school, and he had taken extra classes last summer in order to graduate in three years. He was also training for the triathlon at the time, meaning that his cross country season came without the standard summer mileage. He was in great shape from all his cross training, but he wasn't logging 70 to 100 miles per week like many top runners. Until September, his focus was on the triathlon.

*****

Last summer at the ITU Junior World Championship in Budapest, Verzbicas displayed both his tremendous potential and inexperience. After finishing the swim, he put his wetsuit on the ground and tossed his cap and goggles at his box in the transition area, failing to place them inside the container. It was a small mistake, but it proved costly later in the race.

Verzbicas jumped on his bike, but his swim split put him about 20 seconds behind most of the contenders. The gap placed him in no man's land and eventually the lead pack pulled away. By the time the 20-kilometer bike leg was over, Verzbicas was more than a minute back. "I had already counted him out of the race," says Keith Dickson, the manager of Verzbicas' club team and the Team USA coach at the championship.

But then Dickson started getting radio calls. Verzbicas gained 30 seconds on the first loop. He moved up fast. The triathlon has come a long way since the sport debuted in the Sydney Olympics in 2000. At first, athletes could contend if they had one strong event and two solid ones. But recently, competitors started to see the triathlon as one sport -- not three. Athletes are coming to the triathlon at a younger age, and elite racers need to excel in each phase to compete at big international meets. So there's no way that, after two subpar legs, Verzbicas could run himself to a world championship. Is there? He keeps moving up.

But Dickson received another radio call: Verzbicas' number was on the penalty board. Failing to put his equipment in his box after the swim leg will cost him 15 seconds. Verzbicas ran himself into contention, but it's all for naught. About 200 meters from the finish line, he pulled into the penalty box to serve his time. He still moved from 45th to fourth during the 5K run, but those 15 seconds are crucial. Verzbicas finished 21 seconds behind champion Fernando Alarza of Spain, 19 behind runner-up Thomas Bishop of Great Britain and 14 back of teammate Kevin McDowell. If not for the penalty Dickson thinks Verzbicas and McDowell would have finished 1-2.

 
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