Less than six years after taking up distance running, Andrew Wheating has emerged as the next great American miler
He ran not for crypto-religious reasons, but to win races, to cover ground fast.
—JOHN L. PARKER JR., Once a Runner
Most gifted young runners are not just participants in their sport; they are fully absorbed in its culture. They begin running early and soon learn the obsessively numerical language of the game—splits, miles per week, national rankings—and they become connected across time zones in an Internet-based community. They are passionate about racing against the clock, but not always about racing against other runners.
September 19, 2010
Then there is Andrew Wheating. He didn't run a track race until the winter of his senior year at a tiny prep school in New Hampshire, 4½ years ago. When other runners would gasp, "Oh, my god, sixty-two!" for a lap run in one minute and two seconds, Wheating would ask, "Sixty-two what? Sixty-two runners in the race?" When he arrived at Oregon as an under-the-radar recruit in 2006, he had never heard of Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj, the greatest miler in history.
"I remember him asking me, after he had decided to go to Oregon, what the world record was for the mile," says former Stanford runner Russell Brown, who knew Wheating from growing up in New Hampshire. "He knew nothing about the sport."
Wheating did know one thing. "Put him in a race, regardless of what race," says Oregon coach Vin Lananna, "he runs to win."
It's working. In the summer of 2008, at age 20, Wheating made the U.S. Olympic team in the 800 meters, and before exhausting his college eligibility in June he won five NCAA titles, including an electrifying 800-1,500 double this year in front of an Oregon home crowd at Hayward Field in Eugene. He turned pro in July, and ran four stellar races in Europe, most notably a 3:30.90 for the 1,500 meters in Monaco on July 22, the sixth-fastest time in history by a U.S. runner.
Wheating's résumé, physique and skill set—he is 6'6" and seems to run effortlessly—have made him the latest Great American Hope in the mile and the 1,500. With the Worlds looming in 2011 and the Olympics in 2012, expectations for Wheating are only rising. "He's a freak of nature, the guy is ridiculous," says Johnny Gray, the U.S. record holder in the 800 (1:42.60), who's now an assistant coach at UCLA. "He's capable of challenging my American record in the 800, but in the 1,500, my goodness, he can break the world record [El Guerrouj's 3:26.00, in 1998] and win medals."
It's the medals that motivate Wheating. His breakthrough 1,500 in Monaco was good for just fourth-place (behind two Kenyans and a Moroccan). "For a second, in the last 100, I was thinking, All right, I'm gonna have a fast time," says Wheating, "but the mind-set always has to be, Catch those guys. The minute you forget you're competing, you lose the race. Fourth place isn't on any medal stand."
Wheating is sitting in the den of his family's home off a hard-packed dirt road outside Norwich, Vt. Straight from Vermonter central casting, he is barefoot and wearing sweatpants and a tie-dyed T-shirt from Ben & Jerry's. Wheating only recently made his first visit to the ice-cream company's headquarters, an hour away in Waterbury, and at the end of the tour he asked, "What does it take to get a flavor named after you?"
He was kidding. Sort of. Wheating's rookie summer as a professional did not intimidate him. "After those races, I feel like I can race with those guys," he says. "I feel like I can beat them." That would include even 21-year-old David Rudisha of Kenya, who last month set a world record of 1:41.01 in the 800. "I watched his record race, and they just let him go," says Wheating. "I just want to get on his shoulder and see how long I can go."
Brave talk for a guy who six years ago was getting ready for his junior season of soccer at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, N.H. When he ran the conditioning mile in five minutes flat, his coach suggested that he try cross-country. Wheating won two New England small-division prep school cross-country titles. After the second, Dave Faucher, a KUA administrator, called his friend Jeff Johnson, a former Stanford runner, charter Nike employee and a part-time coach who lived nearby in New Hampshire.
"The Faucher phone call," says Wheating. "Without that call, none of this happens. It's cheesy, but you could call it destiny."
There is talent in Wheating's DNA. His father, Justin, born in South Africa and raised in England, was an accomplished field hockey player. As a kid Andrew was in perpetual motion. "Wave a red flag in front of him and watch him go," says his mother, Betsy. Two weeks ago in Vermont he could be found tossing a ball and racing the family's border collie around the house, just to win. Yet his demeanor is decidedly chill. "He's just Andy," says longtime friend John Wallis. "He's goofy. He's the same guy who would sit in the back of the room in junior high looking up dirty words in the dictionary."
In January 2006, after the phone call from Faucher, Johnson met with Wheating. A few days later he took Wheating to the Dartmouth Field House and told him to run six 400-meter intervals in 67 seconds each, which he did easily. Johnson called Lananna at Oregon. "Jeff doesn't blow smoke," says Lananna, who began recruiting Wheating. As a senior, Wheating, running independently—Kimball Union has no track team—ran 3:54 for 1,500 meters, roughly the equivalent of a 4:11 mile.
His progress since has been dramatic. Wheating "has an enormous upside in terms of aerobic capacity," says Lananna, who will continue to coach him as a pro for both the 800 and the 1,500. "If I were coaching against Andrew, it would be tough to formulate a strategy. You can't outkick him, but you can't outrun him, either."
Wheating's style is to wait and kick, but he has demonstrated solid racing instincts and the rare ability to kick off a fast pace, which is vital to succeeding in the 1,500 at the international championship level. "You have to be able to react quickly and change gears," says Steve Holman, a 1992 Olympian, 3:50 miler and member of the USA Track and Field board of directors. "It takes a lot of confidence and toughness." The 800, meanwhile, is essentially a sustained sprint.
Wheating will be scrutinized by the track-nut underground and ordained by the mainstream as 2012 nears. "My Facebook friend requests have gone way up," he says. "Hey, I'm not leading the charge here. There are a bunch of good Americans. I'd like to help make running cool. When I started, people were like, Dude, running is not cool."
Wheating walks outside in the midday sunshine, his border collie shuffling along behind. A Nerf ball sits on the lawn. You just know that in five minutes there's going to be a tired dog lying in the grass and a world-class runner in possession of another win.
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"He's a freak of nature," Gray says of Wheating. "He can break the world record and win medals."