Just last week sub-4:00 high school miler Lukas Verzbicas
announced he was leaving the sport of running at the altar (quitting the University of Oregon after just two months) to run off with the sport of triathlon (enrolling at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs where in January he will join the US Elite Triathlon Academy).
The chat rooms are lit up with how Lukas jilted his Oregon teammates,
but one thing is for sure, this decision by Verbicas is a monumental semaphore waving in the face of running. Wonder if they see it?
Track and field has been the signature sport of the modern Olympics for over a century, the sport of the gods (Citius, Altius, Fortius) and yet here is only the fifth high school boy in U.S. history to go sub-4 in the mile, and instead of embracing one of the most prestigious distance programs in the nation, learning from one of its most respected coaches – before going on (one would assume) to a long pro career – young Lukas has instead decided to throw in with a hybrid-sport that began as a bar bet in Hawaii in May 1979.
It’s historic in its implications. Never happened before. And as this seismic shock rolls through running, the sport itself gears up for its annual governing convention in St. Louis arguing about club-level team uniform logo compliance. Could it get any more Keystone Cops than that? And you wonder why Lukas said, “so long, see ya”.
I’ve long been an advocate for pumping up the competitive side of distance running even as the participation, fun-run, charity fund-raising elements have come to dominate that world. But this might be my turning point, too. When we can’t even hold one of our historic young runners in our orbit, what’s left?
We can agree or disagree about why Lukas made his decision to abandon running for triathlon. Sure, his step-father Roman Berlis was named to head USA Triathlon’s elite academy, which opened in August. A huge influence, no doubt. And though Lukas did call triathlon his first sport, he said last year that he had a passion for running that he didn’t for triathlon.
And yes, he did win the ITU World Junior Championship in Beijing in September. But that was going to be Verzbicas’ last fling with his old girlfriend the triathlon, and he did it because of their mutual friend, Kevin McDowell, who is dealing with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma cancer. But as time went on, it seems the old flux capacitor got a hold of him, and good-bye Eugene, hello Colorado Springs.
And, true, there is that matter of citizenship. Though Lukas has spent half his 18 years in the Chicago area, he still carries a Lithuanian passport, and wouldn’t be eligible under USATF regulations to race in track national championships, or be allowed by IAAF rules to represent this country on the track until after Uncle Sam’s welcome is official, a period that could stretch into years. On the other hand, there is no such impediment within USA Triathlon governance or the ITU to compete in national champs or rep the USA internationally (though not in the Olympics until he was a citizen – thanks to Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune for the correction). But there’s more to it than just that.
Lukas not only became just the second high school kid (joining Jim Ryun) to run sub-4:00 in a high-school-only competition, winning the Jim Ryun Mile at the NY Grand Prix last summer in 3:59.71, he’s also jumped into the deep end of the running talent pool a few times, as well. He set the high school two-mile mark (8:29.46) at the Prefontaine Classic in June in a senior race. He’s seen the track ahead, and what he sees isn’t his future.
“Maybe I could be the best in the nation,” he told Hersh of the Trib,”but I can’t see myself now running a 2:03 marathon or a 12:35 for 5,000, which is what it would take to be the top world level.”
On the other hand, look at his face at the finish of the ITU World Junior Triathlon Championships in Beijing. That looks like an epiphany - Hey, Kenyans don’t swim. Ethiopians don’t bike. I can actually win here!
Though Lukas became only the fifth boy in U.S. history to go sub-4 in the mile, by my count there were 41 performances in 2011 in the 1500-meters world-wide by athletes born the same year, 1993, or later than Lukas whose times were better than his in mile equivalency. Sure, as a friend of mine in the sport reminded me – “The age cheating is so wide spread that the IAAF should just scrap the world youth and world junior champs”. Notwithstanding, the point is made, the competition in distance running is worlds beyond triathlon. Now add on the NASCAR-like sponsorship logos that USA Triathlon allows to be splattered all over triathlete’s uniforms – and that running bans, outright – and Lukas is already thinking of finding an agent.
What we see here is the same principle which has college students dropping STEM majors (science, technology, enginering, and mathematics) for grade-inflated humanities degrees. So even though one might be more prestigious than the other, a college degree is a college degree, just as an Olympic gold medal is an Olympic gold medal. So when running is weighed on the scales against triathlon by young Lukas, and everything from rules to financial opportunities to family tip heavily in one direction…
There are no stagnant moments in life; we are in a constant state of flux, as athletes, and as a sport. The signs are all around us, other sports like tennis, triathlon, soccer, lacrosse, etc. are fighting hard for what were once our recruits. It is up to us whether we choose to see these trends not, act on them or not. Is running paying any attention?