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?



  1. One cannot help but really like this kid. But he is just a kid with many adults controlling his life. It is important to keep in mind that his triathlon training gave him the base to break 4:00 in the mile. But once a runner, always a runner. Lukas needs to realize his true passion. A talent like Lukas comes along once in anyone’s life time. It really made me sick to see this kid hurt. The Vietnamese have a saying “A bee will sometimes sting a tearful face twice.” I don’t want to see this kid hurt again. In my humble opinion, Lukas is a miler. His speed potential is yet to be fully explored. Lukas, if you ever read this, don’t chance fate. You seem to have a second chance at your life and it is really your life. Do what you truly love, Olympic gold or not.

  2. He chose triathlon because Kenyans don’t have access to swimming pools and paved roads for cycling. Otherwise the state of triathlon would be no different than the state of long distance running.

  3. Your post is a little demeaning to Triathlon (which was not started in Hawaii in 1979, might want to do a little homework). There is also significantly less money for elite triathletes than elite runners in the US. Take even just the top distance runners in the country (sprinters would really skew things) and they are ALL out earning the top triathletes. We’re talking there may be three males in the US who make over 50k a year takehome (not counting travel reimbursement and free product). I can easily think of more than 5 athletes in my state (Oregon) who are making more that that in a year.

    Lukas has an uphill battle in triathlon. His swim needs to get a lot better. And he has never raced an Olympic distance race (which is double the distance that he raced as a junior). I think it will be a while before we see him at the top level of the sport, if he gets there. It just takes a number of years to master running a really fast (sub-30) 10k at the end of a 2 hour race.

  4. …LV will very quickly that the top triathlete’s are no slow pokes on the bicycle on in the water. He will be ‘schooled’ by men if he ever makes it to the Olympics. Like any other sport, there are no guarantees.

  5. It’s hard to deny the appeal of joining a sport where:
    1) you might see a medal in your future.
    2) more sponsorships are available immediately.
    3) you don’t need to change citizenship to compete in your country of choice.

    To me there is a paradox in his decision to switch to a sport where he thinks he’s closer to being world class. Is he world class because he’s that good or because it’s not a deep sport? As long as it still gives a gold medal and sponsorships, though, you can’t deny the sport’s relevance.

    1. Joe,

      I think you got it. No question, the East African onslaught is, at present, unstoppable, and that was paramount in the Verzbicas decision. But if running just made it easier for its athletes to compete, and gave them an even playing field in sponsorship opportunites against triathlon – or any other option – then maybe runners would stay in the sport. This case is pretty much sui generis. We haven’t seen a runner of Verbicas quality bail out ever before that I can think of.

    1. Oops, I forgot to say that the only reason I had to opportunity to read this article is because a professional runner (Nick Symmonds, 800m, in the Facebook Group I linked above) posted a link to this blog article. Nick has some great insights and a lot of passion to improve the governance of the sport of running in the USA. If you are interested in joining the discussion, or reading some great conversations on the topic, I recommend to join the group.

      Also, check out the TFAA (Track & Field Athletes Association). They are doing a lot of work to improve the sport of running:

      See you at the track,

      1. Nick Symmonds is my favorite track personality. Outspoken but always a class act on or off the track. He is doing much for this sport. Nick is a pit bull among gray hounds, scrappy and race savoy as all hell. I cannot imagine anyone would be foolish enough to run a slow, tactical race against Nick.

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