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Inside Lane: Drew Hunter On His Career-Affirming and Heart-Breaking Track Season

After running with a broken foot at the US Championships, Drew Hunter had to withdraw from the World Champs—but he has no regrets.

In July, 2016, at age 18, Drew Hunter turned down a scholarship offer from the University of Oregon and instead became one of the United States’ youngest-ever male distance runners to turn professional. Three years later, his historic adidas signing at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials came full circle at this July’s USATF Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, where he placed fifth in the 5,000m final and qualified to the IAAF World Championships as the third finisher with the required time standard. But it’s been far from a storybook ending for the Boulder, Colorado-based athlete, who announced his withdrawal from the world championships due to injury last week.

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In times like these I just need to believe it’s all part of a plan. ⁣⁣⚒⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣⁣ Due to a nagging foot Injury I have official withdrawn from running World Championships later this month. This season was a dream season in the making. I won my first US title, set personal best over 3k and 5k distances, qualified for my first world team, and helped grow and develop @tinmanelite on a larger scale. However, at this point in my young running career, I have chosen to prioritize my health and well-being going into a very important 2020 season. ⁣⁣I wish the very best to Team USA in Doha. ⁣⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ If you want to read the full story. Check the link in my bio. Thanks for the support. Time to get this right. ⚒⁣ ⁣ #WakeMeUpWhenSeptemberEnds⁣ #lolz

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Make that injuries, plural: Hunter raced at the U.S. Championships and qualified for worlds with a plantar fascia tear, cuboid stress fracture and two stress reactions in his fourth and fifth metatarsals.

“My right foot was just not functioning,” he told PodiumRunner over the phone from Boulder. “It was a non-existent right foot.”

In Des Moines, though, before the 5K final at USAs, Hunter wasn’t sure about the extent of his injuries just yet. He had barely been able to run on land since early July, after racing 3:37 for 1500m at the Sunset Tour, and decided against getting an MRI until after the race.

“I don’t ever want to have kids thinking that it’s ok to run on an injured foot,” he says. “That was a decision that me and my team made, and we thought that I was healthy enough to do it. That’s something I want to make clear, because I don’t want people to think, like, ‘oh, tough guy running through injuries.’ That’s not my message whatsoever.”

“Unique and Weird” Training Program

With his coach, Tom “Tinman” Schwartz, and the Tinman Elite crew, Hunter adopted a flexible (or, in his words, “very, very unique and weird”) training plan in his build-up to USAs. Some days, he could manage running for up to an hour. Most days, he did the majority of his work in the pool or on the elliptical. During the team’s track sessions, he’d warm-up, do as many hard reps as possible, then go straight to the pool to finish an equivalent aqua jogging workout.

“At that point, it was just survival mode,” he says. “I had some dark days where I was like, ‘I’m just not gonna make this team. I’m not fit enough.’”

The turning point came during Tinman Elite’s last race-specific hard session—4 x 1K—which Hunter says he averaged in 2:37 to 2:38—about 13:06 pace for 5K.

“That’s really, really tough up in Boulder and I’ve never done anything like that before,” he says. “Even though my foot was killing me, that workout gave me confidence. Despite not being able to run a ton going into the race, I just switched my mindset.

“[I told myself], ‘You’re doing everything you can to make the team, and whether or not that happens, you’re not going to give yourself an out.’”

Hunter knew he was the same guy who ran 7:39 for 3K at the Oslo Diamond League earlier this summer.

And from the time he turned pro as a recent high school graduate in 2016, he targeted 2019 as his first realistic year to make Team USA.

Qualifying the Goal

There was always a chance that racing on a compromised foot would further aggravate the injury. But for Hunter, the focus was always on doing well at USAs, not necessarily Worlds—though qualifying for the latter was the goal.  

“For every athlete trying to make worlds, USAs is the only race that matters. For the best in the world, the Paul Chelimos and the Centros—who know they’re going to make the world team—it’s like, world championships are what matter, but for me as someone who’s young, 21, the U.S. Championship is everything. I put a heavy emphasis on it this year. My goal was to make the world team.

“Honestly, I didn’t really care how I did at worlds—as bad as that may sound,” Hunter says. His mindset was that a win for him would to be one of the best in the U.S. “I know the chances of me winning a medal [at worlds] are next to none at this point in my career. I can’t run 12:45 or whatever Barega and those guys can do. I’m realistic.”

During the race—the video of which Hunter says he has rewatched a dozen or more times—he steadily moves into prime position with all the major players: Lopez Lomong, Paul Chelimo, Woody Kincaid and Hassan Mead. Adrenaline got him through the first 4,850 meters. But at 150 to go, Hunter’s stride made a sharp change.

“If you look closely, I literally hop in the air and open my mouth,” he says. “I remember that moment so vividly of feeling my plantar pop. I know I got a lot of critics [saying], ‘he can’t close,’ and I’m not saying I was going to be kicking with Lopez and Paul up front—but you can see I just… I couldn’t toe off at all. I just threw in the towel at that point, knowing that I was going to make the world team if I didn’t collapse.”

Wait ‘Til Next Year

Because Americans aren’t allowed to chase the world standard this year, only those athletes who had run equal to or faster than 13:22.5 at the time of USAs were eligible to qualify for worlds. So despite finishing in fifth place, Hunter—along with runner-up Chelimo and fourth-place Mead—was still in the top-three of athletes with the world standard and earned a spot to Doha, where the IAAF World Championships will be held later this month.

Though he decided to forego worlds and end his season, Hunter, who turned 22 last week, and his camp will remember 2019 as an important learning year—especially with the glow of the Tokyo Olympic Games right around the corner.

“I wish I was healthy and I wish I was running 90-mile weeks right and gearing up to make a world final,” he says, “but that’s not the situation I’m in and that’s not my path. Hopefully, next year I’ll get it right and make the Olympic team knowing that I’m in the best shape of my life and ready to do really big things.”