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One day in the fall of 2003, upperclass members of the Wisconsin cross-country team set out to school the freshmen by pounding them into the ground on a long tempo run. Chris Solinsky, a stud recruit fresh out of Stevens Point (Wis.) Area High, refused to die until the final miles, grinding along and masking his agony. "It had to be killing him," recalls Matt Tegenkamp, a junior at the time, "but he wouldn't back off."
Distance running can be blessedly simple: Train hard, race fast. Solinsky lives by that code. Seven years after that initiation run in Madison, Solinsky, 25, has become the latest in a stream of U.S. distance runners to move close inside the slipstream of the East Africans, who have long dominated the sport.
On May 1 at Stanford, Solinsky won his debut at 10,000 meters, running 26:59.60 to break Meb Keflezighi's U.S. record by a staggering 14.38 seconds. Thirty-four days later in Oslo he ran 12:56.56 for 5,000, just behind Bernard Lagat's U.S. record of 12:54.12.
Solinsky's spring performances, which made him by far the fastest combination 5K-10K U.S. runner in history, lent statistical credibility to a toughman rep that took root years ago and is manifest in Solinsky's physique. He's 6'1" and 165 pounds, with the definition, muscle mass and attitude of a wrestler. "Tough cookie," says Alberto Salazar, the former marathon world-record holder and founder of the Nike Oregon Project, which supports Solinsky's training. "He reminds me of Lance Armstrong, that intensity."
He gets it from tough stock. Solinsky's father, Wayne, 50, gave up a promising running career to work on the family's dairy farm, and when Chris took up track in eighth grade, Wayne raced him every day, delivering messages like, "A wheelbarrow only goes as far as you push it. Then it just sits there." Solinsky got the point: Most mornings before school he would run five miles alone, as fast as he could, and then go to team practice in the afternoon. He developed into one of the nation's best high school runners.
Says Jerry Schumacher, Solinsky's coach at Wisconsin and now with the Oregon Project, "He does not get hurt, and that durability has allowed him to train without interruption for a long time." In Portland, training partners such as Tegenkamp (fourth in the 5,000 at the 2007 World Championships) and Simon Bairu of Canada avoid Solinsky on designated "easy" training days because Solinsky inevitably turns those runs into death matches. "I'll be sitting around the house thinking everybody is running alone," says Solinsky. "Then I'll find out they all ran together but just didn't call me."
No problem. Solinsky embraces his loneliness. "I've been the only white guy in a lot of races," he says. "The East Africans look at you like you don't even belong. I think about that before and after, but once the race starts, I'm on equal footing now."
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For Tim Layden's analysis of the U.S. nationals go to SI.com/more