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Meet Jason Lehmkuhle

Gone are the days when a 2:12 American marathoner could not “fly under the radar.”

Jason Lehmkuhle has been around for a while. He is 32 years old and has been running professionally for a decade. He has achieved many worthy accomplishments in that decade, yet most fans of American running do not know much about them.

Lehmkuhle will run Sunday’s ING New York City Marathon, which this year doubles as the USA Men’s Marathon Championship. Judging by his recent results, Lehmkuhle has a good shot at attaining a podium spot in this race within a race, if not in the open men’s elite race.

If you plan to watch the race, and we hope you do (unless you’re fortunate enough to be running it), you might like to know a little bit about that pasty American with close-cropped hair you’re cheering for. So here’s a little bit:

Raised in St. Charles, Mo., and educated at Drake University, Jason Lehmkuhle has trained with Minneapolis-based Team USA Minnesota since its inception in 2001. Among his training partners on the team, which is coached by Dennis Barker, is Josh Moen, a former Division III college standout who recently had a breakthrough performance, finishing a close second behind Abdi Abdirahman in the USA 10-Mile Championship and who will also run the New York City Marathon (as will Abdirahman). Don’t be surprised to see Lehmkuhle and Moen running together on Sunday through the first 20 miles—or beyond.

Lehmkuhle was a solid performer in high school, winning Missouri state titles in cross country and track as a senior. He enjoyed similar success in college, earning All-American status at 5000m and 10,000m. Nevertheless, many runners who perform as well as Lehmkuhle did in college do not consider it worth their while to try to run professionally after graduation. Lehmkuhle believed he had untapped potential, however, especially at distances longer than those he was able to run as a student-athlete, and he went for it. And it has paid off.

But it took a while. Due in part to injuries and in part to the fact that he simply needed time to develop, Lehmkuhle had few successes in his first years as a professional racer.  His breakout year came in 2005, when he finished third in the USA Half Marathon Championship, qualifying for the World Half Marathon Championship, and also qualified for the World Cross Country Championship and the World Marathon Championship.

Despite that last achievement, and his previous ninth-place finish in the 2004 US Olympic Trials Marathon, Lehmkuhle remained dissatisfied with his results at the marathon distance all the way until the fall of 2007, when he surprised many by finishing fifth in the Olympic Trials Marathon with a personal best time of 2:12:54. He missed out on the last Olympic qualifying slot by 74 seconds.

In an interview after the race, Lehmkuhle said, “I had some really bad races, bad strategies, in about three or four marathons prior to the Trials, so it (the fifth place) really saved my wanting to continue to do the marathon. I said in an interview leading up to the Trials that in 2005, 2006, 2007, in all these build-ups to marathons, I really felt like I was in 2:13 shape. The workouts would point toward that, and then I got in the marathons and there were just myriad things that happened, but they just didn’t work out. Some were disasters, some were moderate disappointments, but I didn’t run the marathon I thought I was capable of until New York (the Trials), and that was the really satisfying part of the race.”

Having finally “figured out” the marathon, Lehmkuhle has since lowered his half-marathon PR to 1:02:32, which is considered to be the equivalent of a 2:11 marathon. If he is able to run that fast on Sunday, Lehmkuhle could score the biggest payday of his career. A 2:11:22 finish was good enough for third place and $40,000 last year, and there is a separate prize money structure for American men this year. Lehmkuhle did compete in the 2008 New York City Marathon and finish eighth overall, third among Americans.

A graphic design major in college, Lehmkuhle maintains a side business as a freelance graphic designer that will become his central focus after he retires from racing. His wife, Kristen Nicolini Lehmkuhle, is also a member of Team USA Minnesota.