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Elite prep runner Lukas Verzbicas has choice: track or triathlon

Lukas Verzbicas is grimacing. The Illinois high school track star is sprinting around the final lap of the mile run at the New Balance Indoor Nationals in New York City in March, and the only sign that he's hurting as he races away from the field is the brief flash of pain.

As he rounds the final turn, Verzbicas increases his pace but his form still looks effortless. In the background, arms flail, shoulders bump and feet strike erratically, but out front Verzbicas moves with precision, everything but his shaggy hair in its proper place. He smiles and throws his arms up as he hits the tape. He half-walks, half-jogs a few steps and throws his arms in the air again, this time to thank the crowd for its support.

The smile stays on his face as he takes a victory lap around the track, and his excitement is understandable. Although he's run faster than his 4:10.67 mile time, it didn't come 70 minutes after finishing seven-tenths of a second off the national high school indoor two-mile record. Or complete an unprecedented triple that started two days earlier when Verzbicas broke his own national record in the 5,000 meters. The mile win gives him five national running championships in just more than three months. Actually, six, if you consider that, thanks partly to the quirky setup of high school national meets, Verzbicas' triple meant that Verzbicas won the team title ... by himself.

Maybe it makes sense that Verzbicas blurred the line between individual and team. He's never followed the normal script. The 18-year-old, who emigrated from Lithuania when he was 8, recently graduated from Carl Sandburg High in Orland Park, Ill., in three years. "An athlete's life is not forever, so you have to make the most of it," he says. "I have to race against athletes who are at my level or better than me."

He's certainly capable of making the jump to the college level, which he'll do by running cross country and track at the University of Oregon next fall.With his dominance at the national level, Verzbicas is in the discussion as the best prep distance runner ever. The most tantalizing aspect of his success might be that he has never fully devoted himself to the sport. He raced cross country part-time for his high school in the fall, but only after finishing his triathlon season, and he never ran for his school in track, competing unattached at national meets while training for triathlons.

This spring, for the first time, Verzbicas concentrated on running, racing mostly against professionals. Last weekend, he smashed German Fernandez's high school outdoor two-mile record by five seconds when he ran 8:29.46 at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore. On Saturday, he'll make his bid to break four minutes in the mile at the adidas Jim Ryun High School Dream Mile in New York City. Only four prep runners have ever gone sub-4, the first being the race's namesake in 1964. "It's a barrier, that's for sure," Ryun says. "But it's also attainable."

Verzbicas doesn't hide his aspirations to break four. After he won last year's Dream Mile in 4:04.38, he said he planned to do it this year. "I'm a year older, more mature and more experienced," he says now. "I'm a lot closer even than I was last year. If everything goes well, why shouldn't it be possible?" He speaks openly of his Olympic dreams, too. As the inconsistent performances by former high school phenoms show, prep achievement by no means guarantees future success. But "he's got everything going for him," says former Olympian Marty Liquori.

Verzbicas also has a trump card. He's not just a runner. He finished fourth at the International Triathlon Union Junior World Championship last September in a race he may have won if not for his inexperience. Until recently, he was expected to pursue his Olympic ambitions in the triathlon. But then he made a decision to focus exclusively on running in college. Or maybe he simply delayed a decision on his future. It's possible that the latest in the long line of "next great American distance runners" will exit the sport for something unrelated to injuries, burnout or failure. He may choose a different sport.

*****

Rasa Bertule is exaggerating when she says her son "grew up on the track," but it was a constant in the journey that took the distance prodigy from Kaunas, Lithuania to the Chicago suburbs. By the time Verzbicas was 15 months old, he joined his mom at the track. He played as Bertule, a former Lithuanian national record holder in the 3,000, coached. His stepfather, Romas Bertulis, is also a longtime track coach. "He grew up with elite athletes," Bertule says. "He doesn't know another life."

The desire to come to America was born from Bertule's experiences as an international competitor. Through those years racing around the world, she came to believe the United States was the "best place to be the best, the land of dreams." The journey was challenging, but the family made it smoother through their preparation. Verzbicas took English classes for two years before the move to America.

His first taste of competitive running came two years later at age 10 when his parents dropped him into a 5K road race. Not knowing any better, he went out with the leaders and hung with them for two miles. But his lack of training caught up with him and he walked the last mile. Despite the disappointing ending, the race confirmed what his parents had suspected: Lukas had an innate endurance. "It's genetics," his mother says. When he was 11, Verzbicas picked up the triathlon, and he excelled in both sports, winning junior high state titles in running and the Youth Elite National Triathlon Championship.

But his parents were already thinking about the future. "Our goal is a gold medal in the Olympics," Bertule says. "We're working with him for many years. It is our family project. It's our style of life." Verzbicas isn't Todd Marinovich, but his training has been focused. His parents are his primary coaches. During triathlon season, he completes three workouts most days, with one day off each week. This spring, as he's focused on track, his practices have been shorter but more intense. He averages between 50 and 60 miles per week and usually runs twice a day: a short morning run and an interval session in the afternoon.

From his years around the sport, the 6-foot, 135-pound runner is tactically smarter than most athletes his age, able to adjust to different conditions and win races in many ways. "Watching him run at last year's Dream Mile, I was very impressed," Ryun says. "After the pacer dropped out, he went to front, threw the gauntlet down and basically said, 'Come and get me.'"

At the Nike Cross Nationals in Oregon in December, Verzbicas stuck with the lead pack on a muddy course and, despite getting spiked in the leg by another runner, moved at the four-kilometer mark and held on against hard-finishing Edward Cheserek, a Kenyan émigré. A week later at the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships in San Diego, Verzbicas cruised to an 11-second victory. It was his second straight Foot Locker victory, making him only the third male runner to take the race twice. He was also the first runner to win both national meets. "He's had one of the finest cross country seasons in history, if not the finest," says Craig Virgin, a two-time world cross country champion and three-time Olympic qualifier, whose Illinois state meet record Verzbicas fell three seconds short of matching. "The kid seems able to open his mind up to things that most people would just shirk away from."

Verzbicas' family had already decided he would forego his last year of high school, and he had taken extra classes last summer in order to graduate in three years. He was also training for the triathlon at the time, meaning that his cross country season came without the standard summer mileage. He was in great shape from all his cross training, but he wasn't logging 70 to 100 miles per week like many top runners. Until September, his focus was on the triathlon.

*****

Last summer at the ITU Junior World Championship in Budapest, Verzbicas displayed both his tremendous potential and inexperience. After finishing the swim, he put his wetsuit on the ground and tossed his cap and goggles at his box in the transition area, failing to place them inside the container. It was a small mistake, but it proved costly later in the race.

Verzbicas jumped on his bike, but his swim split put him about 20 seconds behind most of the contenders. The gap placed him in no man's land and eventually the lead pack pulled away. By the time the 20-kilometer bike leg was over, Verzbicas was more than a minute back. "I had already counted him out of the race," says Keith Dickson, the manager of Verzbicas' club team and the Team USA coach at the championship.

But then Dickson started getting radio calls. Verzbicas gained 30 seconds on the first loop. He moved up fast. The triathlon has come a long way since the sport debuted in the Sydney Olympics in 2000. At first, athletes could contend if they had one strong event and two solid ones. But recently, competitors started to see the triathlon as one sport -- not three. Athletes are coming to the triathlon at a younger age, and elite racers need to excel in each phase to compete at big international meets. So there's no way that, after two subpar legs, Verzbicas could run himself to a world championship. Is there? He keeps moving up.

But Dickson received another radio call: Verzbicas' number was on the penalty board. Failing to put his equipment in his box after the swim leg will cost him 15 seconds. Verzbicas ran himself into contention, but it's all for naught. About 200 meters from the finish line, he pulled into the penalty box to serve his time. He still moved from 45th to fourth during the 5K run, but those 15 seconds are crucial. Verzbicas finished 21 seconds behind champion Fernando Alarza of Spain, 19 behind runner-up Thomas Bishop of Great Britain and 14 back of teammate Kevin McDowell. If not for the penalty Dickson thinks Verzbicas and McDowell would have finished 1-2.

The race showed Verzbicas' potential. Like his distance running accomplishments, it came without full dedication to the sport. Although he is likely a better runner because of his commitments to cross country and track, his other events suffer. "He's not just an incredibly gifted runner," Dickson says. "He's actually an incredibly gifted athlete. You put him in the water, throw some hard workouts at him, and he turns into swimmer. You put him on a bike and watch the power-to-weight ratio, it's off the charts."

"He's world class," says Andy Schmitz, high performance senior manager for USA Triathlon. "If he ever focused on the triathlon full-time, he could definitely go pro and be a contender at the international stage."

Dickson puts it more bluntly: "He's a world champion."

For many years, Verzbicas' goal was to compete for a spot on the Olympic triathlon team in 2012 and a medal in 2016. Instead, he will focus on running for now, even if not everyone agrees that it is the best way to finish the family project. "We did not change our opinion," his mother says. "To be an Olympian is very hard in track. So, we're talking about an Olympic medal, [it] can come through triathlon. But we'll let him go, get his education, see how good he can be as only a runner. He wants to run, so we're letting him do it."

At the professional level, distance running is dominated by East African runners, from countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, and that's why Bertule believes the triathlon provides the better opportunity for a medal. No geographic region controls that sport in the same way. When Verzbicas broke the high school two-mile record last weekend, he lost to a 17-year-old Kenyan runner, Isiah Kiplangat Koech, who has run the 5,000 meters in 12:53, more than a minute faster than Verzbicas' high school record of 14:06. Even though Verzbicas excels domestically, he is a lap behind at the international level.

To close the gap, he will need to increase his mileage. Because he has never been a full-time runner, no one knows how his body will respond to the increased workload. Many high school phenoms have struggled with injuries and Verzbicas hasn't been bulletproof. He cut short his freshman cross country season because of a back injury, and he was slowed by an Achilles problem his sophomore year. Those injuries may have been from the quick turnaround after triathlon season, though, so it's unclear if a running-only focus will help or hurt his health.

Verzbicas also needs to develop his speed to compete internationally. Although he will be a 5,000 or 10,000 meter runner in the future, he races shorter distances with this goal in mind. For a runner of his caliber, though, toying with an event like the mile takes him to the edge of history: the four-minute mark. "It's definitely a mental barrier because it's such a round number," says Alan Webb, who ran a high school record 3:53.43 in 2001. Webb was the first high school runner in 34 years -- and the fourth ever -- to break four minutes, and another decade has passed without another doing so.

When Verzbicas makes his attempt, he won't be racing professionals like every successful sub-4 miler besides Ryun, but he will have a strong field with him. The Rosa twins from New Jersey, Joe and Jim, have battled injuries but are threats. At the New Balance Outdoor Nationals last June, Verzbicas went out hard in an attempt to break Fernandez's two-mile record. He faded badly, the Rosas flew by him, and Joe Rosa won the title in 8:44. Cheserek, the runner-up at Nike Cross Nationals, will be there, too. The field could help push Verzbicas to his goal, or it could make him pay for fast early splits. If he falters down the stretch, he could lose the race. It's a risk.

But so is giving up a sport he could be a world champion in for one where an Olympic medal might be even tougher to win. "I don't want to look back one day and ask myself what could have been," Verzbicas says. "I want to see just how successful of a runner I can become. Who knows? Maybe I'm better off becoming a triathlete in my future. But I won't pass up the chance of seeing how good of a runner I can be."

*****

Verzbicas isn't finished with the triathlon yet. This summer, he will race at the ITU Junior World Championship in Beijing. He's making the trip partly as a tribute to McDowell, his triathlon teammate who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in March. McDowell is undergoing chemotherapy and his long-term prognosis is good, but he won't race again until next year. Verzbicas wants to bring back the title his friend was favored to win. Verzbicas will race a pair of triathlons before going to Beijing and focus his training on that event. It will make his college cross country season more difficult, but he doesn't care, he wants the medal for his teammate.

The decision is one of loyalty, but it is also a reminder of Verzbicas' willingness to create his own path. Verzbicas even considered turning professional out of high school before deciding on Oregon. "My goal is not to be the fastest I can be in my life right now, but when I'm older and I'm at my prime," Verzbicas says. "I want to move on to college and make my own decisions and be more independent."

Virgin talks of the supreme confidence it takes for a runner to reach the top. Verzbicas' decision to gamble on himself is evidence he has this trait. The 2016 Olympics is still his goal, and Verzbicas has steered his focus away from the more obvious path. But the most obvious path isn't always the right one. "Winning an Olympic gold, there's so many factors," Dickson says. "The main one being, when you wake up in the morning, you dream about it. We can talk physiology all you want, but that doesn't matter. Too many guys with great physical abilities burn out. You've got to have the thing where you wake up in the morning and that's your dream."

In reality, Verzbicas could still return to the triathlon. In a couple years, he'll have a better idea of where he fits in the distance running world. He'd also still have the time to get back into shape for the triathlon. "The hard part is, if he stayed for the full four years at Oregon, it would be too late to focus on 2016," Schmitz says. "It's hard to stay world class. The other guys are too good to just pick it up like that. If he keeps sharp, if he comes back ... with 2 or 3 years to immerse himself in the sports, he could be a contender for the team." The options are still there.

The decision on his long-term plans could become easier if he breaks four on Saturday. He's not a better runner because he finishes in 3:59 instead of 4:01, but breaking the barrier would open up even more opportunities to him. He can test himself against elite runners and find out if he can be an Olympian in the sport. He takes each defeat hard, but he comes back even stronger, his coaches say. "He won't settle for anything less than excellence," Schmitz says. "If he doesn't execute to perfection, he's not happy, even if he wins." Better competition could take Verzbicas to the next level, as early losses lead him to respond with an even greater intensity. "Lukas doesn't have any paradigm that he has to break in his own mind," Virgin says. "He's convinced himself he's capable of reaching his goals."

Even as he heads to Oregon in September, he'll have one foot in the triathlon world. His stepfather will be the head coach at the new Elite Triathlon Academy in Colorado Springs, a program for college-aged triathletes launched with the support of USA Triathlon and the U.S. Olympic Committee. Verzbicas' parents will move to Colorado later this summer, and the academy's first class features some of his teammates, including McDowell. The program was designed for people with Verzbicas' abilities: potential international competitors who want to concentrate on the triathlon instead of leaving for one sport. That isn't Verzbicas' mindset right now.

He'll need to weigh his passion for running with his potential in triathlon and figure out what to do next.

He still has time to decide.

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