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The Comeback Kid: Luke Puskedra Becomes a Top U.S. Olympic Trials Contender

After quitting elite running in search of an average, regular life, Luke Puskedra slowly found his way back into the sport.


After quitting elite running in search of an average, regular life, Luke Puskedra slowly found his way back into the sport. Now he’s one of the best marathoners in the U.S. and a top contender for the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon on Feb. 13 in Los Angeles.

Many times, with a baby on the way, Luke Puskedra tried to settle into his role as a working man.

He bought a car, and he thought he could be a salesman. He bought a house, and he thought he could become a real estate agent. After a contractor did some work on the home, he thought maybe he could work in construction.

Every time, his wife, Trudie, disagreed. She knew that Luke, deep down, was a runner. But because this was after his disastrous first marathon in 2014, and before last October’s breakthrough in Chicago, when, as an unsponsored runner, he finished fifth and ran the fastest American time since Meb Keflezighi’s 2:08:37 in Boston in 2014, Luke disagreed with her. He was no runner. He was sick of running.

Yet Puskedra had been a runner his whole life. He discovered it in third-grade gym class, growing up in Ogden, Utah; the following year, his father drove him to Junior Olympic meets. He became a high school standout and a star recruit at the University of Oregon, where he earned numerous All-American honors and placed fourth in the 10,000-meter run at his final NCAA championships in 2012.

When he ran 1:01:36 in his first half marathon later that year, many thought he could be a professional star, too. In 2013, Alberto Salazar invited him to the Portland-based Nike Oregon Project to train alongside some of the world’s top runners.

When the time came to prepare for the New York City Marathon in 2014, Puskedra traveled to Salazar’s camp, by himself, and he ran 160 miles a week. Many, including Salazar, were amazed by Puskedra’s talent, but Puskedra saw himself as a grinder. He admired the casual approach of, say, Olympic silver medalist Galen Rupp, but he couldn’t match it. Puskedra thought he had to outwork everyone else. Occasionally, he ran until he was sick.

Running, though, is one of the few sports that doesn’t always offer more rewards for working harder. Illnesses are a common sign of overtraining, and Puskedra also had other symptoms of it. Standing at the start line on Staten Island, he knew he wasn’t right.

It was cold and windy, and he felt sluggish, with wooden legs. He watched the lead pack go first, and then the second pack, and then, the most punishing irony of all happened. He began to get passed by elite weekend warriors, the guys who had lives, families and careers—all the things he thought he had to sacrifice for running. He ran 2:28:54, a deplorable result for a runner of his pedigree and career bests.

* * *

Puskedra didn’t want to get married right away—even though he met Trudie, a tennis player, at Oregon and loved her—and he didn’t want kids, either, all because of running. Running seemed to take the fun out of everything, or at least skew the perspective of everything else in his life.

In fourth grade he felt obligated to run well because he didn’t want to waste his Dad’s time driving him all over the country to Junior Olympic races, even though his dad just seemed to enjoy the races and didn’t care about the results. When he was in seventh grade he saw his future, and by the time he got to Oregon, he enjoyed competing, but he didn’t enjoy training.

After the disappointing race in New York, during a little break, he ate all the foods he couldn’t eat before, and he didn’t stop. His time off stretched into two months and included four-week trip to South Africa with Trudie to visit with her family.

He just wanted to be a normal person. He wanted to have a wife, a child and a job that he didn’t need to obsess over. When he moved away from Salazar’s camp and back to Eugene, where he’d had his successful college career, he did it for Trudie’s opportunity to become a tennis pro with her old college coach at a club.

When he was back, however, he kept getting texts from Andy Powell, his old coach, who invited him out to run with the guys. Oregon, Powell reminded Puskedra, was a family, not just a program. And every time Luke would ask Trudie if he could go, she always said yes. If you want to run, you should run, she said.

“As a man, it’s hard to swallow that your wife is working and you’re not really doing much,” Puskedra says. “But she never gave me the easy out. She never let me off the hook and said I couldn’t run.”

She never let him settle for being a regular dude. Instead, she gave him the time to rediscover that he was a runner.

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As Oregon’s coach, one of Powell’s most important jobs is to prepare his runners for a life beyond the track. Even when they’re seniors and facing the biggest meets of their careers, he’s encouraging them to think beyond running and helping them prepare to find regular jobs and lives.

Puskedra had returned to Eugene as a guy who had successfully given up running. He was 23 pounds over his racing weight. And still, Powell wanted him to start running again.

He always viewed Puskedra differently. He was one of maybe five guys Powell had coached in his career who could conceivably make the Olympics and possibly even contend for a medal.

The fact that Puskedra looked “like hell,” Powell says, didn’t change his mind. He hoped that Puskedra would begin to look at his young team—a team full of guys who loved to run—and want to join them.

As Trudie saw it, with Powell inviting him to practice, it was her job to keep him from finding a job for as long as possible. Puskedra was a worrier, and, as such, he wondered constantly if he was doing his part as a husband and a father.

“I kept telling him that I was making enough for us to be comfortable for a year or so,” Trudie says. “And all the time, I was hoping that he’d start itching to run again.”

If Powell didn’t want Puskedra to squander his talent, Trudie wanted her husband to run because of her own limited ability as a tennis player. She was good enough to play at a prestigious college but she couldn’t play professionally. She knew Luke had that rare chance to compete with the best.

Powell and Trudie both knew, even without talking between the two of them, that Luke needed to discover that itch on his own. They couldn’t push him. Both of them, then, had to grin when Luke began to join Powell’s team out for a few runs.

* * *

Parker Stinson was especially glad to have Puskedra hanging around practice. Puskedra hosted him on his recruiting visit to Oregon in 2009. “He was someone I really looked up to,” says Stinson, who, like Puskedra, would go on to have a career full of All-American results with the Ducks.

Puskedra was glad to have him around too. Stinson was the third piece of the triangle. He helped make training fun. Stinson now calls their training sessions “magic.”

“We just took off, and it’s freeing because we don’t worry so much,” Stinson says. “We know we will push each other.”

Once he was back in, Puskedra had to learn how to race again without worry. Thanks to a grant from the Road Runners Association, Puskedra began to travel to smaller races, which would keep the pressure off him as he got his racing legs back. Those went well, and Powell put him in Grandma’s Marathon last June. Puskedra enjoyed it immensely and ran 2:15:27. He soon thought a major marathon like Chicago would be a possibility. He built up to the Chicago Marathon in October by running 120 miles a week, 40 less than what he put in before New York.

Puskedra’s 2:10:24 effort stunned the American running community, but it was more of a pleasant surprise for those who were working with him.

“He was in unbelievable shape right before Chicago,” Powell says. “The marathon is such a strange beast, but the times were coming easily to him.”

Powell believed. He said he would have been disappointed had Puskedra not run at least 2:12.

So what was the difference between New York and Chicago? Before New York, Puskedra overtrained, Stinson said, because he didn’t believe in himself. Training, even too much training, is reassuring to uneasy runners because it’s work, and work makes you better. But you have to believe in the hard work you put in. Puskedra never allowed himself to do that because he always believed he had to outwork others.

“This time, Luke felt great about his workouts, and he would leave it at that,” Stinson says. “He couldn’t do that before.”

Now he’s a contender once again, this time to finish in the top three at the Feb. 13 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Los Angeles. Puskedra admits he wishes he was in the same position that he was in Chicago: as a relatively unknown, unsponsored runner. Yet there are differences now from New York, when people expected him to break out as one of the best Americans.

Salazar’s Oregon Project didn’t work for Puskedra, but Puskedra doesn’t believe his coaching had anything to do with his failure in New York. He respects Salazar, and said Salazar gave him plenty of guidance.

“I’ve pondered that a lot,” Puskedra says. “I don’t think it was his coaching. My mind wasn’t right. If I was in his program now, with the way I’m feeling now, I’m sure I would excel. But I like the situation I’m in now.”

He writes his own training plans, and Powell gives him advice. He’s sponsored by Nike. He trains with Stinson. And he’s at home with his infant daughter. He thought about spending a couple weeks at altitude prior to Chicago, but he’s discovered that he doesn’t need to isolate himself from his family. He actually needs them around, even with all the work that raising a baby requires. His little girl seems to negate some of the pressure he’ll naturally put on himself.

“In the end, she’s not going to care what time I run,” Puskedra says.

The danger, of course, is Puskedra’s naturally obsessive tendencies, and you can’t just suddenly decide to stop being Type A. Trudie monitors it, and when Luke got back into competitive running, she gave her husband a little advice. Tennis players, she said, will use a phrase to remind them to stay focused on the important things during a match. So they decided on a phrase that she would use when she thought Puskedra was getting carried away with the training again. “Keep it simple,” she tells him.

It’s worked, because Puskedra, for the first time in many years—maybe since the seventh grade—is enjoying running again. So far in 2016, he’s proved 2015 was no fluke—he set a new half-marathon PR of 1:01:29 on Jan. 17 in Houston.

“I remember him sending me a note after Chicago,” Powell says. “It said, ‘That was fun as hell.’”

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