3:30 PM EDT, October 27, 2011
In the final two races of his prep track career last June, Lukas Verzbicas quickly stood the running world on its ear with a sub-four mile and a high school record in the two mile.
His transition to college running -- and college -- understandably has gone slower.
Verzbicas arrived at the University of Oregon last month with a sore knee, needed to switch from triathlon training to purely distance running workouts, dealt with initial homesickness and learned quickly that college cross-country would be a lot more tactically demanding against tougher competition than he had in winning the Foot Locker national cross-country championships his final two years at Sandburg High School.
It all showed in his only race for so far for the Ducks, when Verzbicas finished 62nd of 273 entrants at the Oct. 14 Wisconsin Invitational. That left him more than 90 seconds behind winner Lawi Lalang, a first-year (in cross-country) University of Arizona runner from Kenya.
"I was never comfortable in the race," Verzbicas said in a text message this week. "I was supposed to sit back and feel relaxed, but I kept pushing towards the front.
"Even if the opening pace wasn't that fast, I felt I was running someone else's race. This made me uncomfortable, as I've never been in the position of being up front and feeling the need to keep pushing just to hold on. Then it became drastically demoralizing and went downhill after that."
Verzbicas, the third Oregon finisher, said he already has put the poor debut behind him and is both healthier and more mentally prepared for his next race, Saturday's Pac-12 Championships in Arizona.
"We are going into Pac-12s ready as a team," he said.
After winning the conference title from 2006 through 2008 and finishing second the past two years, Oregon goes into this year's meet as a decided underdog with a young team. The Ducks' preliminary entry list had seven freshmen, four sophomores and one senior.
Verzbicas got a late start to cross-country training because he competed at the World Junior Triathlon Championships Sept. 11 in Beijing, fulfilling a promise to bring home gold as a tribute to his friend, Kevin McDowell, who would have been the favorite. McDowell was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in March and, after undergoing chemotherapy, attended worlds as a spectator.
Because he twisted a knee in Beijing, Verzbicas had to stop running for several days after getting to Oregon. When he resumed training, the workload was overwhelming at first.
"I'm running more than usual, so it took some time getting used to it," he said. "Plus, I was in triathlon training the entire summer, so it took some time translating that training to running. But I'm all adjusted and all healthy now."
That should soon make a world of difference.
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