San Diego, Ca. — By the time the “Meb Keflezighi 10,000 meters” was called to the Mesa College track around 8:30 p.m. last night, most of the 250-300 competitors and spectators who had come out for the second of four Summer Nights T&F Meets had already headed for home.
But don’t blame meet organizers Thom Hunt and Monique Henderson, both of whom coach at Mesa. They, along with Monique’s dad, Adam, worked tirelessly handing out hip numbers, lining up fields, and wiping noses. With so many kids, teens, and adults on hand looking to compete — heck, the 100 meters heats alone took nearly 30 minutes to complete — you knew it was going to be a late night. All of which was a good thing as the popular Summer Nights series continues to build track and field in America’s Finest City.
My wife Toya had competed in the 800 meters earlier and was still in her cool down, so as the 10,000 meter field lined up, I sidled up alongside 1984 Olympic 800 meter gold medalist Joaquim Cruz at the start-finish area. The Brazilian icon is now a coach at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, and had one of his athletes in the 10K.
“In his mind he wants a 29 (minute time),” Cruz explained, speaking about Lukas Verzbicas, the former high school mile star and 2011 ITU World Junior Triathlon champion who he’s been working with for the last 10 weeks in Chula Vista. “But he’s not ready for that yet (sub-30:00 10K).”
This 10,000 would be the sixth race in Lukas’s comeback from a life-threatening bicycle crash in Colorado Springs last July 31st. And like anyone who has been involved in such a serious accident, Lukas just wants to get back to normal as fast as he can, and make the whole thing go away. But that isn’t how life works, which is why a caring, patient mentor can be so much more than a developer of workout routines.
“The more times you go out there, the smaller the dragon gets,” said Coach Cruz as Lukas toed the line wearing the famed NYAC Winged Foot logo on the front of his white singlet. “I told him not to push it, but to find the race rhythm in the first couple miles, then see what happens.”
Under ideal SoCal conditions (cool, dry and still) the first lap went down in 71-seconds, 4:44 pace, quick. But Lukas wasn’t leading, rather was tucked into fourth, nicely positioned. The next two laps fell in 75 and 72 as the field searched for its rhythm on the pale blue oval reminiscent of the track at Drake where the USATF Nationals are currently being staged in Des Moines.
“He just increased his mileage by three miles a week,” Cruz informed me as he called out the splits. “On Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays he had been doing seven miles. That’s now eight. The other two days he does speed. But he had been doing seven for a long time without change. I’m still getting to know him. He’s very quiet and very secretive sometimes. So I’m just getting a feel for him. 71! 72!”
6:02 at 2Km, 30:09 pace.
“Since he’s a triathlete we talk a lot about the importance of making sure one event doesn’t take too much from the other two. He can’t do intervals on the track one day, then do intervals on the bike the next day. He has to be very specific with what he writes down about work in the pool and on the bike. But he thinks he can do the same workouts that he did in high school, and run faster, but it doesn’t work that way.”
The next several laps slowed to 74s and 75s as Lukas remained at the end of the string led by Steven Martinez, one of Thom Hunt’s athletes at Mesa College.
“When I was 18,” continued Cruz, “I could only handle three 300s all out (36,37,35) with a five-minute rest between. When I was 21 (the year he won the Olympic gold medal at the L.A. Games) I had built my body to do five at 35-seconds with a five-minute rest. He doesn’t understand that yet. He thinks, ‘I did some elite workouts in high school’. Yes, but you need to do more.”
But therein lies the rub, as they say. After his devastating crash Lukas has yet to fully recover from his spinal cord injury. He continues to labor with an imbalance in leg strength, left over right, and also suffers from a loss of voluntary control over “other” body functions, especially when he exercises hard. And evidence of that began to show up as the race played out.
“I told him to come prepared,” said Cruz. “Bring your towel, and wrap up afterwards. But he’s stubborn — ‘I don’t need it.’ So I let him do what he wants. It’s the only way to learn.”
15:23 (approx.) at 5K. Lukas still in fourth, in line with the other leaders, the last several laps holding true at 75-seconds per.
On April 7th Lukas ran the Carlsbad 5000 in 15:21, taking seventh place in the 20-29 age group. Since then he’s competed in two other track 5000s. On May 4th at the Oxy High Performance meet in L.A. he ran 14:53.49 (35th place). Then he spun a 14:51:77 at the Jim Bush SoCal Champs meet also in L.A. on June 1st, his 20th birthday. At Oxy he also took 17th in the 1500 in 4:11.65, a double he duplicated later that week at the first Summer Nights Series meet at San Diego’s University City High School. There he ran 4:25.14 in the mile (7th) and a 15:06.72 over 5000 meters (2nd).
“He’s light, smooth, and economical,” Cruz pointed out as we saw the lap times rise to 76 and 77 in the still night air. “But he’s been struggling a little. He doesn’t like to do long stuff on the track, because he’s never done it before.”
25-flat at 8K, 31:04 pace.
“What I care about is how he handles the race,” Cruz maintained as Lukas began losing ground on leader Steven Martinez, his lap at 8400 meters dropping to 79 seconds, slowest of the race. “But, look, he’s going to finish the job. The kid’s a champion.”
Steven Martinez polished off his win in 31:04, Lukas coming in third in 31:30. Immediately upon finishing, Lukas peeled off to the privacy below the vacant stands to clean up. But he was noticeably limping, too, walking on his right toe as if to avoid putting weight on his heel.
“He said his foot was a little sore,” confirmed Cruz, but “he has a dramatic story already after all he’s been through. It gets really bad before it gets good. But he’s tough in the head, and I like the kid.”