Feb 10, 2020

Thanks to "Those Guys," Luke Puskedra is Back

By Barbara Huebner

When Luke Puskedra finally worked up the courage to tell his wife that he wanted to come out of retirement to run the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon, she had one stipulation:

“You’re still going to have to run with those guys.”

Those guys – about 18 in all, and not all guys – include doctors, financial advisers, an engineer and a former district attorney, from their 20s to their 60s. They get together four days a week, running to stay fit, form bonds, relieve stress, have fun. Like most runners.

For Puskedra, it was like waking up and discovering a new species.

A 12-time NCAA All-American at the University of Oregon, Puskedra signed a pro contract in 2012. That year, he ran a promising 1:01:36 half marathon and finished 17th in the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships. But after a disastrous marathon debut in 2014 in New York (2:28:54) he felt he needed a break. His contract wasn’t renewed. He contemplated retirement, but was lured back to the sport by his former Ducks coach, Andy Powell.

In 2015, his fifth-place 2:10:24 at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon put him among the contenders for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. At the 2016 Trials, he finished fourth. Though heartbreaking in the moment, he was only 26 and the future looked bright.

Less than 48 hours later, his 7-month-old daughter, Penelope, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer. Puskedra put his running on the back burner during her surgery and chemotherapy, and then in April underwent knee surgery. As the alternate for the Olympic marathon team, and with Trials champion Galen Rupp eligible to run the 10,000 meters instead, Puskedra didn’t feel certain until the gun went off that he wouldn’t be called to the start line in Rio. He ran poorly in his return to Chicago in 2017, and never again approached his personal best.

A perfectionist who described himself as obsessive about every detail of training, napping for hours each day on top of getting a solid 12 every night, fending off every distraction, Puskedra announced his retirement in early 2019. “For a long time,” he wrote on Instagram, “life was that thing that happened between one training session and the next.”

He wasn’t getting enough out of running, he realized, to put that much into it anymore. He’d put an unfair burden on Trudie for years: living like a hermit, regimenting their lives, leaning on her for support when those sacrifices didn’t pay off. He was out.

Having already been easing into real estate, he and Trudie launched Puskedra Homes, a real estate and interior design business. The energy and sense of accomplishment Puskedra was getting as he learned the ropes of his new profession served as an energy gel to his reward system. It had been a long time since he’d felt that jolt from running.

And if it wasn’t his job to run, he wasn’t going to run.

Two weeks after he retired, Trudie told him: “You need to get out of the house and do something. You’re annoying.”

When a guy at church asked Puskedra if he wanted to come run with his group recreationally, Trudie convinced him to give it a try. He still marvels at what he discovered at those first 6 a.m. gatherings:  “Instead of HAVE to run, they GOT to run.”

Puskedra ran four days a week with the gang as they prepared to compete in the Cascade Lakes Relay, an annual tradition. The “Worst Pace Scenario” crew ran hard, did hill training, hit the track. But it was indeed a new dawn.

“I think Luke appreciates that we aren’t competitive,” said Brian Franssen, whose kitchen serves as a pre-run gathering spot.  “At the end of the day, we all want to see each other do well.”

Then came the race. “Doing a 24-hour relay is the furthest thing from elite racing you can get,” said Puskedra, who previously had demanded of himself lengthy, precise warmups. “In the van, being out in the wilderness near Bend, I rediscovered the love of lacing up the racing shoes.” Rather than being cocooned to get jittery about an impending race, “you have two minutes to put your shoes on and then get out of the van and run hard.”

After the relays, Franssen said, Puskedra “lightly starts mentioning that he might come out of retirement.” When they learned he had the Trials standard (thanks to his 2:17:53 in Chicago 2017), they urged him on.

Trudie said she wasn’t the least surprised when her husband gingerly broached the subject. She always knew he had unfinished business. “I’m hopeful, excited and mostly curious,” she said. “This will really dictate where we go for the next few years.”

Whatever happens, she’s seen a change in her husband. The way she cleaned the house, how she went about cooking dinner … anything that subtracted from Puskedra’s focus in his former pro life could rattle him. There was no such thing as discussing Christmas plans or anything beyond that week’s training.

A few months ago, she was shocked when he talked about taking the kids – Penny, now 4 years old and cancer-free, and sister Payton, 2 – to Disney World after the Trials. She literally thought she’d heard him wrong.

“That’s when it began to sink in, the change of mentality,” she said. “I admire him so much; he’s making a conscious effort to not fall back into it. He’s a lot more accepting, and I think a little bit of it comes from being with this group of people.”

Eight of them, including Franssen, plan to be in Atlanta for the Trials.

“They booked their tickets before I did,” Trudie reported.

Having Puskedra join their circle, said Franssen, has offered a shot of adrenaline, prompting them to push themselves more while always being “Mr. Positive.”

“Luke is taking us along on this journey,” he said.

On the way, the Olympic aspirant – “maybe it’s a farfetched goal, but that’s what kind of pulled me back to doing it” – has indeed continued to run with the group, including on their 8-10 mile long run on Saturdays before his own long run on Sundays. Franssen is hoping Puskedra will join the group’s planned Friday morning run in Atlanta, the day before the Trials.

If that sounds like a distraction, he’ll likely be there. Four years ago, on the plane home after the Trials, the Puskedra lamented his decision to stay home with his family rather than go train at altitude. He remembers saying, man, all those guys who finished in front of me made those sacrifices. Maybe I should have, too. Next time.

“Now I’m in a situation where not only am I not going to training camp to get away from distractions, but basically I’m embracing them,” he said. “The more distractions, the better. However it shakes out, I’ve found the next chapter. This isn’t the only thing I have. If you’re not holding it too tight, it might not slip.”

 

Photos: Victah Sailer/PhotoRun; Courtesy of Luke Puskedra