Less than one year ago, Luke Puskedra was the story of the Chicago Marathon. After a disappointing 2:28 debut in New York a year prior, he finished as the first American and fifth overall runner at the 2015 marathon in 2:10:24. In that one race, he went from a runner without the Olympic Trials A standard to one of the favorites to represent the United States in Rio. Now, just one year later, he is returning to Chicago.
A lot has happened in the intervening year for the 26-year old. On the running side, he was the top American at the Houston Half Marathon in January in a time of 1:01:29 and finished fourth at the U.S. Marathon Olympic Trials in 2:14:12, making him an alternate to compete in Rio if one of the top three finishers either got injured or, in the case of Galen Rupp, chose to pass on the marathon for other events.
Puskedra entered the Trials as one of the perceived favorites to make the team after his performance in Chicago that fall. He was with the pack of contenders through 15 miles until a move from Tyler Pennell broke the race up. “It was a 4:47 mile at mile 17 and I wasn’t able to respond, which was disappointing because I was easily able to cover similar moves in Houston. I tried to cover. It’s not like I thought they were going to come back.”
In the heat of Los Angeles that day, Puskedra began to struggle after that move. “I was sixth place going backwards thinking I’m not feeling good, having trouble keeping fluids down. The thought goes through your mind whether you’re going to finish today.”
Of course, he did finish and even put together a solid last 10k to pass Pennell, the man who made the move that dropped him from contention. He ended up in fourth, which, as Puskedra tells it, is the worst place to be. The build-up to the Trials took a lot out of him, both mentally and physically, but “out of respect for the Olympic team,” he needed to be ready, which meant continuing his training.
Outside of running, life was about as hectic as it could get. Shortly after the marathon trials, his daughter Penelope was diagnosed with cancer after doctors found a growth on the back of her neck. Understandably, this made training more difficult. “Running is such a small component in life. I wasn’t going to go to the track and hammer a workout when I knew my daughter was getting chemo. I had running to get away, but I wasn’t training. I was making sure I was there for my wife and daughter.” As a result, he mostly took the spring off from racing.
But, since he ran Chicago in 2015, the plan was always to return in 2016. As he tells it, the decision to run in 2015—the race that led to a 2:10 time and made him the third-fastest entrant in the Olympic Trials—was mostly spur of the moment. “I had been doing more track speed stuff—not doing the long runs I always thought you needed to do to compete at the longer tempos. [After the New Haven 20k], I felt strong but those guys ran away from me. I was frustrated with that and told my wife, ‘I feel like I’m in really good shape and I’d like to see how it translates to the marathon.’” Quite well, it turned out.
After adopting a more traditional marathon training approach for the Trials that left him worn down and stale on race day, Puskedra has gone back to what worked for him last year. “The approach I’ve taken into this one is to not put too much pressure on every workout. I’ve been trying to simulate what I could do last year where I only had three weeks to obsess over Chicago. Now it’s day-to-day and no countdown. I don’t want to lose the race in the training.”
Unlike most elite marathoners, Puskedra only does one run a day, though he doesn’t let that get in the way of matching any other athlete in terms of quality or quantity. He does a single run in the morning, reaching 130 miles per week in singles during the highest mileage cycles of his training, and adds an hour on the bike each afternoon. “I’m still doubling, biking in the afternoons,” Puskedra said. “I’m able to do 130 miles in singles which isn’t conventional. ...I just haven’t had success doubling. Going out to do a five mile run, I usually don’t feel good until three miles anyway. So, feeling like crap for three miles and good for the last two, confidence wise, that didn’t really work for me.”
Whether it’s in discussing doing singles versus doubles, or how he approaches training leading up to a big, culminating race, or even his approach within the race, Puskedra keeps coming back to putting running in it’s proper context in life. He credits having a daughter with making that balance clear because, as he puts it, she doesn’t care whether he had a bad workout that morning. “I owe my resurgence to finding the balance that I needed. I can’t obsess all the time like I did before.”
That approach of balance extends to his approach to the 2016 Bank of America Chicago Marathon. While he would like to run faster than his did last year, he mostly wants to “go out and compete and not worry about time. That was the biggest thing last year—I didn’t have enough time to worry about time.”
Chicago is not a rabbited race, so the focus on competing and tactical racing makes more sense here than in a more time-oriented race such as Berlin. With nine athletes in the field who have run under 2:10 for the marathon—including defending champion and 2:04 marathoner Dickson Chumba—competing and running fast shouldn’t be mutually exclusive goals this weekend. After all, the same approach led to a fifth-place 2:10:24 finish just a year ago.