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The Hunger Of Scott Wietecha

The Tennessee runner hopes to improve on last year's Houston Marathon time of 2:18 this weekend.

The Tennessee runner hopes to improve on last year’s Houston Marathon time of 2:18 this weekend.

HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — It’s 15 days before the 2014 Chevron Houston Marathon and Scott Wietecha walks into Jumbo & Delicious, a dive-y burger joint in the suburbs of Nashville. “Back again?” the waitress asks as she takes his order. “I was just here a few hours ago,” he admits.

Wietecha, ninth at the 2013 Houston Marathon, orders the Rueben and a disposable plate overflowing with French fries. Next door is the best donut shop in town, he says. It has nothing to do with the complementary blueberry donuts he’d gotten that week — he’s been in plenty of times before that.

The 32-year-old elementary school gym teacher visits this tiny strip mall often. He has a body built from trans-fats, corn syrup, and white flour, and whittled by 130-mile weeks. “I used to tell my wife on Mondays that this is it, I’m going to clean up my diet,” Wietecha says. “It’s been a hundred Mondays and I’m not much better.”

But in 2013, despite his fast food binges, full-time job, high mileage, and the birth of his second child, never has he placed as high or run as fast. And despite what he’s accomplished, going into the Houston Marathon on Jan. 19, never has Scott Wietecha been hungrier.

Wietecha’s story didn’t start in college; it ended. At Division II Harding University, famous for alumnus and Athletics West pioneer Jim Crawford, Wietecha ran well, earning two All-American honors. But he was too intense, he says: “I was a big-time head case in college, a little too gung-ho, too up-and-down emotionally.” He obsessed, measuring workouts by the hundredth of a second. After a disappointing fifth year for grad school at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 2005, he got burned out, quit the sport, and starting lifting weights to bulk up. In his training log, a running vestige, he’d grade his diet each week. He never gave himself higher than a C. “The hunger [from running] took a long time to go away,” he says.

RELATED: 5 Questions With Scott Wietecha

Wietecha returned to running four years later in 2009 and debuted in the marathon in December 2010 at 2:27:08. The next year he was runner-up in the 2011 Country Music Marathon in 2:24:10. In 2012 he broke 65 minutes for the first time, running 64:39 at the Kentucky Derby Festival miniMarathon. Then last year was Houston.

Running in a pack in the early miles with two other Americans, one a 2:11 marathoner and the other now a 2:13-er, both broke away early, and Wietecha let them go. Both would drop out before 20 miles. Battling rain, 25 mph winds, and ankle-deep standing water, he worked the middle miles alone, so focused on his own race that he had no idea Andrew Carlson, another 2:11 marathoner and the race’s top American, was only 1:36 and a place ahead.

This is the mindset of the pure marathoner, patient and contained, ignoring the early surges, aggressive over the last 10K. Take the 2013 U.S. Half Marathon Championships in Duluth, where Wietecha finished ninth in 63:13: At the one-mile marker, which he hit in 4:44, he guesses he was in 50th place, dropped by a field led by a 4:21. But he would catch up with the big chase pack by five miles and set its tone for the end of the race. “I’m always thinking about how the early moves are going to affect me,” he says.

It’s because of this patience with his racing, Wietecha says, that makes him sure his future is the marathon. This weekend in Houston, his hunger is for 2:13.

“He’s not one to talk himself up,” training partner Connor Kamm, a 66-minute half-marathoner, says. “He knows what’s realistic in a workout or a race. He makes sub-5 pace look like his plaything.”

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There is gray in Wietecha’s goatee. “Getting out of bed, I‘ve got to hold the railing going down the stairs,” he says, laughing. He knows that there are only a few more years left in his career. And he knows running 2:13 is ambitious: “Being in shape [to run a time] and doing it are two different things,” he says.

But his hunger has driven him the last year to PRs in four distances, and when Wietecha returns to Houston, he’s hungry for a time that would get him on a Pan Am Games or World Championships team.

After that, Wietecha isn’t sure. But one thing is certain: the hunger always comes back.