How quickly the big wheel turns and with it the bright glare of celebrity and fame. Just this week Bronxville, New York teen sensation Mary Cain won her third USATF Athlete of the Week award of 2013 for her junior and high school 800 meter record at the Nike Pre Classic in Eugene, Oregon. But recall that in 2011 the teen everyone was talking about was Lukas Verbicas of Orland Park, Illinois, who won two USATF AOW awards in a period of six months, the last for his 3:59.71 victory at the adidas Grand Prix Dream Mile, when he became only the fifth high school runner in U.S. history to go sub-4:00 – and only the second in an all-high school event.
Two very consequential years later we found Lukas back on the track at University City High School in San Diego competing in the mile and 5000 meters at the Summer’s Night Track & Field Meet still on the road to recovery from a horrific cycling crash last summer that nearly killed the triathlete/runner, then left him partially paralyzed and learning how to walk again.
The big wheel may have turned, but slivers of light still seek him out.
“It was good,” Lukas said shyly after taking a strong second in the 5000 (15:06.77), “a workout. I swam a couple of hours ago — it’s a workout day — and I felt good in the water, but the last lap in the mile began to hurt. I loosened up again in the 5000 though.”
It’s a long way from the world-wide Diamond League tour (today in Rome) to a local all-comers meet featuring a robust crowd of several hundred competitors, coaches, family, and friends. But after being hospitalized for five months following last July’s crash, the fact that he has come back as far as he has testifies to the will of this special athlete.
“I’m using these local meets as good training I wouldn’t be doing on my own,” he explained as his current coach, 1984 Olympic 800-meter champion Joaquim Cruz, stood alongside.
“His speed is coming back,” said Cruz. “He’s done some sessions running 26s for 200 meters, and he wanted to do a 400 last week, and did a 58. Remember, this is only an introduction to training. He is running 35 miles a week. When he ran Carlsbad (5000 April 7th, 15:21) that was literally coming off nothing.”
Now in its fourth year, the Summer Nights meet at University City High was the first in a four-meet series, several of which Lukas plans to run on his long comeback.
“There are no huge expectations here,” Cruz went on to say. “No pressure to perform at his best ability. Triathlon people said he shouldn’t compete at all, just prepare. But he isn’t ready to get full training yet. So these meets are just for fun, a way to feel alive again. Plus he wants to do it, and I’m not going to stifle that.”
But Cruz also wants Lukas to be smart where he races. Between the Carlsbad 5000 (15:21) and last night Lukas has competed three times, once at a triathlon in Mexico, then twice on the track in California.
“He put it in his head that he wanted to go to Mexico (for the triathlon),” explained Coach Cruz as Lukas esetablished good position through the early stages of the mile. “We said, ‘You shouldn’t go’, but he wanted to. So I said, ‘Okay, Go’. And he had a bad experience. Now when we say, ‘Don’t expose yourself, you’re not ready’, he listens. Lukas is like a young kid that you tell not to put his hand on the hot stove, and he does anyway. But it’s his nature to explore, and he’s learning. And he wants to try, and I don’t want to kill that spirit.”
Lukas went out with the leaders in the mile through 64-65 seconds in the opening quarter, 2:08 through the half, and 3:12 at three-quarters. Albert Gomez, the winner, hit the line in 4:17.07, while Lukas faded from third to seventh in 4:25.14.
“But he did a hard workout yesterday,” Cruz said with a combination respect and frustration. “Now he comes back and says, ‘I was tight’. Well, why do you think?! Yesterday he did a 5:50 2K, two times a mile in 4:38 and 4:42, then three 400s in 62,63,62. All with 3:00 rest between. Then he swam a few hours ago.”
On June 1st at the Jim Bush meet at UCLA Lukas ran 14:51.77 in the 5000 and won, a slight improvement over his 14:53.49 at the Los Angeles Oxy Invitational in April.
Last night Lukas tucked in with two other runners in the 5000 behind clear leader Dillon Marx of Mesa College who has been dominating the local community college circuit the last two years. Marx hit 1600 meters in 4:37, eight-seconds up on Lukas and the chase pack. As the race extended, though, Verzbicas began to string together consistent 72-second laps to finish a strong second in 15:06.72 behind Marx’s 14:54.90.
“Getting my right leg to come around on the turns is harder than running on the straights,” Lukas admitted, as he continues to overcome the spinal cord damage from his bike accident. “I run faster on the roads, and actually I’m more comfortable going the opposite direction on the track.”
Though it didn’t happen last night, Lukas has also been plagued by a recurrence of a GI tract control problem that is a holdover from his surgery. But he’s learning to deal with it.
“He’s been at Chula Vista (Olympic Training Center) for eight weeks now,” Cruz outlined. “Our communication is better, and the program is to get him ready for Rio 2016, because I also work a little with USA Triathlon.
“In my opinion he is a runner who happens to do the triathlon. The more we can get him toward being an elite runner, the better he will do in the triathlon. Running is the base of the three events. That’s what he’s known for, not for being a swimmer or a cyclist.”
There remains a tentative, almost gentle quality to Lukas as he rejoins the competitive community. While current teen queen Mary Cain is an engaging chatterbox, Lukas is more naturally reserved. Being the most famous male high school runner since Alan Webb and Sixties teen legend Jim Ryun — who was on hand last night along with former American mile record holder Steve Scott, and former high school indoor mile record holder Thom Hunt – Lukas maintained an under-the-radar presence in the midst of the spirited meet.
So while former teammates at the University of Oregon battle Arkansas, Texas A & M, and Florida for the NCAA Track & Field title in Eugene this week, 20 year-old Lukas Verzbicas will return to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista for another week on what is a long, and mostly lonely road to wellness and full recovery. But he’s having fun, and showing progress.
“Strength doesn’t come from winning,” Lukas tweeted yesterday before the meet. “Your struggles build your strength.”
The struggle and strength building continue.