Elite prep runner Lukas Verzbicas has choice: track or triathon (cont.)
The race showed Verzbicas' potential. Like his distance running accomplishments, it came without full dedication to the sport. Although he is likely a better runner because of his commitments to cross country and track, his other events suffer. "He's not just an incredibly gifted runner," Dickson says. "He's actually an incredibly gifted athlete. You put him in the water, throw some hard workouts at him, and he turns into swimmer. You put him on a bike and watch the power-to-weight ratio, it's off the charts."
"He's world class," says Andy Schmitz, high performance senior manager for USA Triathlon. "If he ever focused on the triathlon full-time, he could definitely go pro and be a contender at the international stage."
Dickson puts it more bluntly: "He's a world champion."
For many years, Verzbicas' goal was to compete for a spot on the Olympic triathlon team in 2012 and a medal in 2016. Instead, he will focus on running for now, even if not everyone agrees that it is the best way to finish the family project. "We did not change our opinion," his mother says. "To be an Olympian is very hard in track. So, we're talking about an Olympic medal, [it] can come through triathlon. But we'll let him go, get his education, see how good he can be as only a runner. He wants to run, so we're letting him do it."
At the professional level, distance running is dominated by East African runners, from countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, and that's why Bertule believes the triathlon provides the better opportunity for a medal. No geographic region controls that sport in the same way. When Verzbicas broke the high school two-mile record last weekend, he lost to a 17-year-old Kenyan runner, Isiah Kiplangat Koech, who has run the 5,000 meters in 12:53, more than a minute faster than Verzbicas' high school record of 14:06. Even though Verzbicas excels domestically, he is a lap behind at the international level.
To close the gap, he will need to increase his mileage. Because he has never been a full-time runner, no one knows how his body will respond to the increased workload. Many high school phenoms have struggled with injuries and Verzbicas hasn't been bulletproof. He cut short his freshman cross country season because of a back injury, and he was slowed by an Achilles problem his sophomore year. Those injuries may have been from the quick turnaround after triathlon season, though, so it's unclear if a running-only focus will help or hurt his health.
Verzbicas also needs to develop his speed to compete internationally. Although he will be a 5,000 or 10,000 meter runner in the future, he races shorter distances with this goal in mind. For a runner of his caliber, though, toying with an event like the mile takes him to the edge of history: the four-minute mark. "It's definitely a mental barrier because it's such a round number," says Alan Webb, who ran a high school record 3:53.43 in 2001. Webb was the first high school runner in 34 years -- and the fourth ever -- to break four minutes, and another decade has passed without another doing so.
When Verzbicas makes his attempt, he won't be racing professionals like every successful sub-4 miler besides Ryun, but he will have a strong field with him. The Rosa twins from New Jersey, Joe and Jim, have battled injuries but are threats. At the New Balance Outdoor Nationals last June, Verzbicas went out hard in an attempt to break Fernandez's two-mile record. He faded badly, the Rosas flew by him, and Joe Rosa won the title in 8:44. Cheserek, the runner-up at Nike Cross Nationals, will be there, too. The field could help push Verzbicas to his goal, or it could make him pay for fast early splits. If he falters down the stretch, he could lose the race. It's a risk.
But so is giving up a sport he could be a world champion in for one where an Olympic medal might be even tougher to win. "I don't want to look back one day and ask myself what could have been," Verzbicas says. "I want to see just how successful of a runner I can become. Who knows? Maybe I'm better off becoming a triathlete in my future. But I won't pass up the chance of seeing how good of a runner I can be."
Verzbicas isn't finished with the triathlon yet. This summer, he will race at the ITU Junior World Championship in Beijing. He's making the trip partly as a tribute to McDowell, his triathlon teammate who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in March. McDowell is undergoing chemotherapy and his long-term prognosis is good, but he won't race again until next year. Verzbicas wants to bring back the title his friend was favored to win. Verzbicas will race a pair of triathlons before going to Beijing and focus his training on that event. It will make his college cross country season more difficult, but he doesn't care, he wants the medal for his teammate.
The decision is one of loyalty, but it is also a reminder of Verzbicas' willingness to create his own path. Verzbicas even considered turning professional out of high school before deciding on Oregon. "My goal is not to be the fastest I can be in my life right now, but when I'm older and I'm at my prime," Verzbicas says. "I want to move on to college and make my own decisions and be more independent."
Virgin talks of the supreme confidence it takes for a runner to reach the top. Verzbicas' decision to gamble on himself is evidence he has this trait. The 2016 Olympics is still his goal, and Verzbicas has steered his focus away from the more obvious path. But the most obvious path isn't always the right one. "Winning an Olympic gold, there's so many factors," Dickson says. "The main one being, when you wake up in the morning, you dream about it. We can talk physiology all you want, but that doesn't matter. Too many guys with great physical abilities burn out. You've got to have the thing where you wake up in the morning and that's your dream."
In reality, Verzbicas could still return to the triathlon. In a couple years, he'll have a better idea of where he fits in the distance running world. He'd also still have the time to get back into shape for the triathlon. "The hard part is, if he stayed for the full four years at Oregon, it would be too late to focus on 2016," Schmitz says. "It's hard to stay world class. The other guys are too good to just pick it up like that. If he keeps sharp, if he comes back ... with 2 or 3 years to immerse himself in the sports, he could be a contender for the team." The options are still there.
The decision on his long-term plans could become easier if he breaks four on Saturday. He's not a better runner because he finishes in 3:59 instead of 4:01, but breaking the barrier would open up even more opportunities to him. He can test himself against elite runners and find out if he can be an Olympian in the sport. He takes each defeat hard, but he comes back even stronger, his coaches say. "He won't settle for anything less than excellence," Schmitz says. "If he doesn't execute to perfection, he's not happy, even if he wins." Better competition could take Verzbicas to the next level, as early losses lead him to respond with an even greater intensity. "Lukas doesn't have any paradigm that he has to break in his own mind," Virgin says. "He's convinced himself he's capable of reaching his goals."
Even as he heads to Oregon in September, he'll have one foot in the triathlon world. His stepfather will be the head coach at the new Elite Triathlon Academy in Colorado Springs, a program for college-aged triathletes launched with the support of USA Triathlon and the U.S. Olympic Committee. Verzbicas' parents will move to Colorado later this summer, and the academy's first class features some of his teammates, including McDowell. The program was designed for people with Verzbicas' abilities: potential international competitors who want to concentrate on the triathlon instead of leaving for one sport. That isn't Verzbicas' mindset right now.
He'll need to weigh his passion for running with his potential in triathlon and figure out what to do next.
He still has time to decide.
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