Earlier this month I spent a couple days in Oregon reporting a story for Sports Illustrated on U.S. distance runner Chris Solinsky, who has had a brilliant spring, crushing the American 10,000-meter record and also becoming the just the fifth U.S. runner to break 13 minutes in the 5,000 meters. Because of the magazine's space limitations, the Solinsky story appears only as an "Inside Track'' column. This is a longer version of that story. Think of it as the director's cut.
BEAVERTON, Oregon -- At this moment, Matt Tegenkamp would prefer not to talk. "I'll be doing a lot better right after this,'' he says, nodding toward the track that sits in the middle of the Nike business campus in suburban Portland. (And in the middle of the track is: A mature forest; you cannot see the 200-meter mark from the finish line. Half expect to see Hansel and Gretel wander out at any point). "This'' is a series of 16 400-meter repetitions of 62 or 63 seconds, each with just 100-meter jog recoveries. It is essentially an agonizing five-mile tempo run, which leaves Tegenkamp in the moment of dread that any competitive runner can appreciate.
Standing nearby is Chris Solinsky. Like Tegenkamp, Solinsky is part of the Nike Oregon Project, the eight-year-old training program conceived by former marathon great Alberto Salazar, which now includes a dozen world-class runners training in two groups under two coaches (Salazar and Jerry Schumacher, who trains Solinsky and Tegenkamp). Unlike Tegenkamp, Solinsky is not running the workout, because he just raced 5,000 meters in Oslo four days earlier.
But Solinsky isn't happy to stand by and watch Tegenkamp suffer with training partners Evan Jager and Tim Nelson. "I wish I was running it,'' he says. And that, in a sentence, is the essence of the 25-year-old Wisconsin native who has become the latest in a generation of U.S. distance runners to move close inside the slipstream of the East Africans who have dominated the sport for more than three decades.
On May 1 at Stanford, Solinsky ran 26:59.60 for 10,000 meters in his first attempt at the distance, breaking Meb Keflezighi's U.S. record by a staggering 14.38 seconds. Thirty-four days later he ran 12:56.56 for 5,000 meters in the Oslo meet, just off Bernard Lagat's American record of 12:54.12 in the same race. ("And it was the dumbest 12:56 in history,'' says Schumacher, in reference to Solinsky's spotty tactics).
Solinsky's 10K was the first sub-27 by a non-African runner (and it probably could have been much faster; more on that later). His 5K made him by far the fastest American combination 5K/10K runner in history. Perspective, absolutely affected by history but telling nonetheless: Solinsky's 5k is now 25 seconds faster than Steve Prefontaine ever ran; his 10k 46 seconds faster than Frank Shorter's best. (According to trackfocus.com, only 16 men in history -- all of them Africans -- have run faster than Solinsky at 5K and 10K).
The most jarring part of Solinsky's rise -- and it's been a steady ascent for nearly a decade -- is that he looks not at all like a distance runner. (Many of the best U.S. runners in history resembled East Africans in stature and, in some cases, upbringing. Shorter: Built like a Kenyan. Bill Rodgers: Built like a Kenyan. Dathan Ritzenhein: Built like a Kenyan. Ryan Hall: Built like a Kenyan and raised at altitude. Lagat: Was actually a Kenyan).
Solinsky, meanwhile, is 6-foot-1, 165 pounds, with the definition and muscle mass of a wrestler or a Division III safety. He has broad shoulders and thick legs and, best of all, his approach to training and racing matches his build. "Tough cookie,'' says Salazar. "When I'm with him, he reminds me of Lance Armstrong, that intensity.'' It wasn't always that way.
Solinsky was raised in Stevens Point, an hour north of Madison and nearly dead center in the state of Wisconsin. His father, Wayne (actually Artman Wayne, as with several previous generations of Solinsky men; Chris was spared and Artman was made his middle name), and mother, Shelley, were divorced when Chris was in kindergarten. He lived with his mom until eighth grade, and then moved in with his father and, at nearly the same time, decided -- after playing soccer and basketball as a little kid -- he wanted to run.
His dad would join him. Wayne Solinsky, 50, had been a very good high school runner in Stevens Point in the mid-1970's, running 4:30 for a mile and 9:30 for two miles. But he lived on a dairy farm and there were endless chores to perform, so he never trained in the offseason and never ran cross-country until his senior year, and only then when he promised his father he would give up bow-hunting because only one leisure activity was allowed. After graduation, he stayed home and never explored the depth of his running talent. When Chris began running in eighth grade, Wayne was determined to make sure his son didn't leave any untapped potential.
"I never got the chance to see what I could have done as a runner,'' says Wayne. ''I didn't want Chris to have that hanging over him.'' Hence, they butted heads almost immediately. In the summer before Chris entered high school, Wayne would run with him every day -- and beat him every day. Then he would explain why. "You're not tough enough,'' Wayne would say.
"You're starting to piss me off,'' Chris said one day.
"Good,'' said Wayne. ``It's about time.''
The first time Chris beat his father was in the SPASHS intrasquad run before the start of the 1999 cross-country season. Wayne went out too hard and faded to finish in 17:45 for 5K; Chris caught him late and ran 17:40. A lesson was learned. Chris became a tenacious trainer. He would run five miles on his own, and as hard as possible, at least three days a week, and then train with the cross-country or track team in the afternoon. One day he ran a five-mile loop in roughly 23 minutes -- before school -- and called cross-country coach Don Behnke to tell him about it. "What are you doing?'' Behnke said, incredulously.
Solinsky developed into one of the best high school runners in the country, running 4:05 for 1,600 meters and 8:43 for 3,200 (beating a stellar field at the Arcadia Invitational). He was even bigger then than he is now, probably reaching 175 pounds at times, but he never broke down. "As a coach, you worry about durability at that age,'' says Behnke. "You ask yourself, 'Am I letting him do too much? Is he going to be one of those runners who people ask about: Whatever happened to Chris Solinsky? Because he burned out. But this is a strong and durable kid.''
Wisconsin distance coach Jerry Schumacher heard the same buzz. "There were a lot of naysayers about how good Chris could be,'' says Schumacher, who left Wisconsin and came to Oregon in January 2009. "People were saying: 'He's too big, he ran too many miles in high school.' He's always going to be big. But the fact is, he doesn't get hurt. It's an amazing thing. He has tremendous durability and aerobic ability, and they go hand in hand. He doesn't miss time due to injury, so he's able to train a lot and that is a major asset for him.''
Tegenkamp's view: "Chris is one of a kind. He's got a body type that just does not break down. He gets little aches and pains, but they just don't develop into major injuries. He's had something like seven straight years of steady training in Jerry's system. That's very rare for a distance runner.'' (Asked how many times he has personally been hurt in those same seven years, Tegenkamp says, "You couldn't count on both hands'').
Salazar takes a scientific view of Solinsky's mass. "He's got functional muscle weight that's propelling him. It's not like he's fat. Think of it this way: If you put a bigger, heavier engine in your car, the car is going to weigh more, but it can still go faster.''
Ritzenhein, whose less-than-one-year-old 5K American record was taken down by both Lagat and Solinsky, says, "All I can say is, he's got to have the biggest pump [heart] of anybody out there. Can you imagine how fast he would go if he was my size?'' (Ritzenhein is 5-8, 117 pounds).
Solinsky has used this durability to train relentlessly hard. "I'm willing to work as hard as I have to work,'' he said, while eating a bowl of pasta, sitting next to his wife, Amy (former Wisconsin pole vaulter Amy Dahlin), at an Oregon restaurant. "I love long, tempo runs. I love to ride that [anaerobic] line a lot. You never know how long you're going to be able to run, so you've got to put everything you can into it.''
His college teammates saw it when he arrived at Wisconsin from Stevens Point Area Senior High in the fall of 2003, a stud recruit who had run 8:43 for two miles as a prep runner. One afternoon the upperclassmen took the rookies on a 70-minute de facto hazing run, in which the primary goal was to run the freshmen into the ground. Solinsky refused to give way, grinding along through the miles and masking his agony. "It had to be killing him,'' recalls Tegenkamp. "But he wouldn't back off.''
For nearly his entire first semester, Solinsky would train with one group of older teammates on one day, and then another on the next. "The problem was, he was getting everybody on their hard days,'' says Simon Bairu, another former Badger who is now training in Oregon with Schumacher/Nike. Before he left, Solinsky won two NCAA 5,000-meter titles (and also endured an epic crash in the national XC meet in his senior year, a rare bonking).
There have been setbacks since. He missed the 2008 Olympic team at 5,000 meters when he faded to fifth in the final 200 meters after leading the race. In the winter of 2009 he tore his posterior cruciate ligament by slipping on ice (never gets hurt from just running) and missed four weeks of training. But again, his stout build helped him: The ligament has never been repaired and Solinsky powerful lower body has simply taken up the slack.
In Oregon, he pounds miles relentlessly. "Jerry has to stop him sometimes,'' says Tegenkamp.
Solinsky says, "A lot of the things I do, I don't think I could get away with if I was a normal, wimpy runner.''
Another thought: Salazar regards Solinsky as one of the most biomechanically perfect distance runners he's ever seen. Perfect stride length, perfect foot plant, perfect balance. (Trivia: Salazar says the best he's ever seen was Haile Gebrselassie, although most of the Ethiopians are almost perfect, as well).
On assigned "easy'' days, Solinsky will drop his pace steadily below six minutes per mile, sometimes under 5:30. Training partners like Tegenkamp (fourth-place finisher in 5,000 at the 2007 Worlds and a 2008 Olympian) and Bairu will purposely avoid Solinsky on these easy days because Solinsky inevitably turns the runs into death matches. "I'll be sitting around the house thinking everybody is running alone,'' says Solinsky. "Then I'll find out they all ran together, but just didn't call me.''
Says Bairu: "If any one of us was to train the way he does, even for a week, we'd break down.''
Part of the reason Solinsky trains so relentlessly is that he questions his raw talent. Prefontaine was the same way, and accordingly, Solinsky went through high school "obsessed'' with Prefontaine, often watching both Pre theatrical movies in a single day before racing or training.
Solinsky's affection for long, tough, tempo running made his ascension to the 10,000 a no-brainer, and while his 26:59 shocked the distance running community (and frankly, surprised even Solinsky), it probably could have been much faster. Consider: Solinsky didn't take the lead until 900 meters remained and then closed in 1:56 for the last 800. "I saw him right at the finish,'' says Bairu, who ran 27:23 in the same race. "He was fresh. He could have kept going. I told him, 'You're not supposed to look like this after a 10,000. If he had been running for time, and took the lead earlier, he could have run 26:40-something for sure.''
Solinsky says, "It was a lot easier than I expected.''
Just over a month later, he ran his 12:56.56 in Oslo, a race in which Solinsky was shuffled back in the middle of the race and ran in the second-pack traffic while Lagat -- smarter and more seasoned -- stayed out of trouble a few meters in front. Solinsky chafed and pushed, getting his shins spiked repeatedly by runners in front, without getting unboxed. (This happens often to Solinsky, whose shins are full of spike scars. "Carnage,'' says Tegenkamp.).
Solinsky and Schumacher have more than a year to plot their event strategy for the 2011 world championships and a year beyond for the next Olympics. Solinsky will say only that he's "leaning'' toward the 10,000. It makes sense that he would avoid the 5,000, which is not as quirky at the kick-crazy 1,500 meters, but still often is decided by wild final 200s.
He will not run this weekend at the USA Track and Field nationals in Des Moines because it is neither a world championship nor Olympic year. His next race will be the 5,000 meters at the July 3 Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, and then a series of races in Europe. Those cannot come soon enough, each providing a chance to hack away at history. "I've been the only white guy in a lot of races,'' says Solinsky. "The East African runners look at you like you don't even belong. They pass you in races like it's embarrassing to have the Mzungu [the Swahili term for western Europeans or persons of western European descent] ahead of them. I think about that before and after, but once the race starts, I'm on equal footing.''