Carlsbad, CA — While always a fun race to watch before the professionals take off, the men’s 20-29 age-group competition at this year’s Carlsbad 5000 was even more compelling than usual as former high school sensation Lukas Verzbicas, he of the sub-4:00 high school mile fame, was continuing his comeback from a horrific cycling accident last summer in Colorado Springs.
Long, lean and elegant as ever, Verzbicas was coming into Carlsbad after eight months of rehab and two competitions in 2012, a four-mile road race win January 19th in Sarasota, Florida, and a 22nd place finish at an Olympic-distance pro triathlon March 19th, also in Sarasota. After settling into the Olympic Training Center in nearby Chula Vista, California for the last two months under 1984 Olympic 800-meter gold medalist Joaquim Cruz, 20 year-old Verzbicas was ready to take on a strong group of like aged men at Carlsbad over the 5K road distance.
Befitting a miler’s mentality, Lukas glided smoothly into position through an opening 4:42 mile, tucking in behind Ryan Ripley of the Red Rock Running Company out of Las Vegas. Then, as with most of the races at Carlsbad, the leaders quickly separated themselves in the slight uphill second mile as the course made its first of two hairpin turns at a mile and a quarter while a sea breeze added to the effort.
As the two approached 3K opposite the Tamarack Beach Resort Hotel, Lukas began leaking off the back. By the two mile split Ripley had built a nine-second margin, 9:29 to 9:38. By the finish Lukas had slipped to third, finishing in 15:21 unofficially. After the race I caught up with him outside the VIP area.
“I wanted to run around 15:00,” he began, his body language giving testimony to his feelings about the day’s outcome.
“You seem down,” I said.
“I’m very discouraged,” he admitted, eyes brimming with emotion. “I really didn’t care about the time — actually I’m satisfied with it — but I’m frustrated with the lingering spinal cord injuries. I felt good till 3K, then suddenly it was like there was nothing in me. I don’t know…”
Last July 31st Verzbicas suffered a serious cycling accident while triathlon training in Colorado Springs. He’d moved to the Rocky Mountain state from Oregon after winning the ITU World Junior Triathlon Championship in Beijing, trading in his track scholarship at the University of Oregon after just two races for full ride at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs where he planned to join the USAT’s Elite Triathlon Academy.
However, after early success in two pro triathlons, Lukas decided forego school and train full-time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. It was while training on his bike in late July that he skidded on sand while negotiating a 180-degree turn and slammed into a guardrail. Lukas broke his clavicle, partially collapsed a lung, and broke his spine leaving his right leg paralyzed. Even in this age when most hospital stays are measured in hours rather then days, Lukas spent five weeks in hospital, first recovering, then re-learning how to walk before even thinking about training again as a world-class athlete.
“There isn’t any data on people like me,” Lukas explained when asked how his doctors are approaching his return to world-class competition. “Because most people with my injury become paralyzed.”
The effect of his lingering spinal cord injuries aren’t just manifested in the loss of energy or leg control. During the race he also experienced a loss of GI tract control, a condition familiar to anyone who has suffered s spinal cord injury.
“There’s nothing you can do,” Lukas said in frustration and embarrassment. “It’s getting better; at first I couldn’t control myself at all, but it isn’t something I like to talk about. It just comes on suddenly. I felt fine at 3K, then just felt flat.”
Young, talented and handsome, the Lithuanian-born athlete who grew up outside Chicago has been to the heights. Not only was he just the fifth high school athlete in U.S. history to run a sub-4:00 mile (3:59.71, New York 2011), he also won the ITU World Junior Triathlon Championship in Beijing, China one month later in the summer of 2011. But now he has paid a visit the depths with no guarantees for the future.
He plans to return to the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista where he will continuing training till August. And though his frustration at his recovery was quite evident today, so was his determination to continue his journey to full health.
“If things go fine I may race again in May or early June,” he concluded. “The Triathlon World Cup is in Toluca, Mexico at the end of May. The Pan Am Cup is in Dallas in early June. I had my first pro win there last year. So I’d like to go back to that one.”
As a reporter you see athletes both in their glory and in their misery following competitions. But to interview a young person as he struggles with the vagaries of life, when the body that had always responded instantly to his every whim now seems to betray him, is among the most difficult tasks we must undertake.
Lukas showed his mettle today, not only in how he raced, but in how he comported himself afterwards. He’ll need to lean on those qualities for the road ahead. One thing seems certain. He will have many people cheering for him to succeed.
More on the Carlsbad 5000 later. I have a USATF San Diego-Imperial Award’s Dinner to attend with Toya.
It works like God’s own landscape auto-timer. Honest, after a morning of overcast skies and still winds, perfect racing conditions, the sun and sea breezes joined the 28th Carlsbad 5000 at precisely 11:30 a.m. as the men’s 20-29 year-old age group race was about to start. Happens every year, and instantly slows down any and all ensuing competitions.
Why they run the pros as the last race of the day when the majority of racers have gone home and the conditions are at their worst is beyond my comprehension. But there are many things beyond that rather low standard.