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NEW YORK — Sitting in a midtown Manhattan hotel room, Matt Tegenkamp is relaxed and ready to take to the roads for Sunday’s United Airlines NYC Half. The 33-year-old is composed and fit in the midst of marathon training, preparing for next month’s 119th running of the Boston Marathon. His legs are ready to fire like pistons and mind is razor-sharp focused on the task at hand.
But most importantly, the Nike Bowerman Track Club member’s heart is in the right place, at ease with a very hard decision that was made last month. In February, Tegenkamp decided to leave the friendly confines of the outdoor track and truly dedicate himself to the marathon.
Last Tuesday, it was announced that Tegenkamp had been added to the John Hancock Elite Athlete Team for the Boston Marathon, a somewhat late addition to the race’s professional field. Speaking with Race Results Weekly here today, Tegenkamp opened up about the decision to run Boston, and how it took some time to decide whether he’d focus on the 26.2-mile distance this year.
“It’s just been a back and forth for me. I don’t think it’s any secret—I would love to still do track and field,” Tegenkamp began. “But the marathon is where I’m headed, especially in 2016.”
Tegenkamp’s first love in athletics was the track. For much of the past decade he’s thrived on the outdoor oval, winning a 5000m national title in 2009, setting an American record of 8:07.07 for two miles in 2007, and making a pair of Olympic teams in 2008 (5000m) and 2012 (10,000m). In 2009 he broke the 13-minute barrier for 5000m, running 12:58.56, one of only six Americans to achieve that.
Yet with time, especially in the last year and a half, injuries seemed to catch up to the Lee’s Summit, Mo., native and University of Wisconsin alum. The constant high intensity pounding of the track took a toll on his body, nagging aches and pains popping up with greater frequency.
Late last year and early this year, Tegenkamp and coach Jerry Schumacher sat down to try and decide on a plan for the future: return to the track and focus on qualifying for the 2015 IAAF World Championships, or make a full commitment to the marathon. In 2013 Tegenkamp made his 26.2-mile debut at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon with a respectable 2:12:28 finish, although he hit the wall hard after 18 miles and wound up finishing tenth.
“That was tough,” Tegenkamp said of the marathon experience, speaking about ‘the wall’ taking over his legs and making the last eight miles a test of will power. “But I learned a lot.”
In February, Tegenkamp laced up his spikes at the NYRR Millrose Games on Valentine’s Day for a test over 5000m. When the deciding move was made mid-race and the leaders increased their tempo, Tegenkamp simply couldn’t match the surge. The once potent pop in his legs wasn’t quite there; he’d finish seventh in 13:41.90.
“I think in the back of my mind, for me going into the year, I didn’t want to make a marathon decision yet,” Tegenkamp said. “I didn’t think I was in the right place fitness-wise. I think you have to [typically] make those marathon choices way too early. I got to dabble a little bit indoors and see where I was and see what maybe could happen, and I think now seeing that [result], I’m really fit and I’m definitely more trained for the road.”
Although the race helped Tegenkamp realize his best bet this year was the longer distances, leaving the track behind wasn’t an easy pill to swallow.
“Track and field was my passion, and I know I’m walking away from [the track],” Tegenkamp said, pausing ever so slightly to let those words sink in and find the right way to continue. “That’s just really hard to replace. And it’s not just track, it’s that 5000m. That’s my passion, and it’s just the body every once in a while shows times that you can get back into [peak 5000m form]. But when I do the longer duration of it, track and field is just so intense and takes such a toll on your body. The marathon is just a different thing. The miles— I’m older and stronger, and can handle the workload, the type of training required for the marathon.”
Don’t be mistaken—Tegenkamp isn’t hanging the spikes up for good or contemplating any sort of “retirement” per se. He’s still got plenty left in the tank to fire away on the roads and even race a few times on the track this summer. But his main focus is and will be the Olympic Trials Marathon.
After the NYRR Millrose Games, Tegenkamp took a step back and thought about what would matter more to him now: a fast 10,000m time at Stanford in the spring, or the experience of racing at the Boston Marathon, getting another marathon under his belt before gearing up for the 2016 Olympic Trials Marathon in Los Angeles. His heart drew him to the latter.
“I look at those two things and what they would mean to my career, and sure, maybe I could go and get a PR at the Stanford track, who knows. But Boston—probably the greatest marathon tradition that there is—to be able to be a part of it,” he said. “It’s an honor and I think I’ll be able to go there and run super competitive and do well.”
Since his days at the University of Wisconsin, Tegenkamp has been exposed to a certain aspect of marathon training: long upbeat threshold runs that Schumacher regularly schedules. Whether you are a miler or a 10,000m-focused athlete, Schumacher makes sure that his athletes get long threshold runs in to build endurance and strength. This, in part, has given Tegenkamp added confidence when transitioning full-time to the marathon.
“Jerry’s philosophy has always been marathon focused, so we’re always exposed to it on some level. It doesn’t matter which athlete you are, you get exposure. How long that exposure is kind of varies depending on your event,” explained Tegenkamp. “With the exception of the [track] intensity side of things, [marathon training] just doesn’t beat the body up as much. That’s what I’ve learned in this training cycle.”
On Sunday, Tegenkamp will compete in the United Airlines NYC Half alongside a number of athletes also racing the Boston Marathon. Among them are past Boston Marathon champions Meb Keflezighi and Wesley Korir, and fellow Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein. Tegenkamp’s plan is to race up towards the front just like he did in 2014, when he finished seventh in 1:02:04 in his half-marathon debut.
Tegenkamp has shown a knack for longer races on the roads, winning a pair of USA 20-K national titles in 2012 and 2013 and placing third at the USA 25-K championships in 2013. Though he doesn’t have as much experience at the half- or full-marathon distances as Keflezighi or Ritzenhein, Tegenkamp is still confident.
“We do the work in training, and the way that our group is and the expectations of our coach, some of the practices aren’t too far off from a road race effort,” said Tegenkamp. “I’m mentally and physically ready.”
Near the end of a 25-minute interview, Tegenkamp was posed perhaps the toughest question of all: when you look at yourself, do you now say Matt Tegenkamp is a road racer or a track runner?
“I’ll always be a track guy,” he said with a laugh, recalling the 2013 IAAF World Championships, when he watched all the races online and got jitters and goosebumps simply viewing the 5000m from a distance (it was the first time he’d watched—and not competed at—a World Championships in years). The event, he says, always sends a shiver through his body, the racer’s mentality coming out. “That’s what gets me. The 5000m has defined me and that’s the race that will always stick with me. That’s who I am as a runner. That long grind on the red-line from step one, seeing how long you can go and how fast you can go…”
Yet if all goes as planned and Tegenkamp notches a sub-2:10:00 performance at the Boston Marathon, he’ll maybe consider the marathoner label.
“It’s all about being competitive. If I can be competitive, then times and all the rest will take care of itself.”