A shorter version of this piece first appeared in the March 2011 issue of Competitor Magazine.
With three-and-a-half laps remaining in the 10,000 meter race at Stanford University’s Payton Jordan Invitational last May, all eyes are on the lanky blond in the lead named Galen Rupp, who made it well known before the race that he came to California that night for one reason and one reason only: to break Meb Keflezighi’s then nine-year old American Record of 27:13.98.
As Rupp clicked off lap after lap well under record pace, it seemed all but a certainty that Keflezighi’s time was his for the taking. With less than a mile to go Rupp was in front of the pack and everything appeared to be going according to the carefully calculated plans set forth by his coach, Alberto Salazar.
Behind Rupp was Kenyan collegian Sam Chelanga of Liberty University and lurking in third was Chris Solinsky, a rugged linebacker of a long distance runner running his first track 10K with a slightly different, and far less publicized objective, than the smooth-striding Rupp.
Fans of American distance running will never forget what happened next. Solinsky shot to the front with a little more than 800 meters to go and stayed there until he crossed the finish line first in 26:59.68— not only a new American Record, but a barrier-breaking time that was all but lost on the Wisconsin native until he noticed the clock for the first time in the race with 200 meters to go. After 24 and a half laps of racing, how did Solinsky not know he was on record pace until he only had half a lap left?
“They were calling out splits every 200 meters but I never really paid attention to them or added them up or anything,” Solinsky recalled. “I purposely tried from the beginning almost to fall asleep and stay relaxed. I didn’t want to think about splits. I just wanted to put myself in position to contend for the win and I wasn’t going to let myself get dropped.”
That last line sums up Solinsky in a nutshell: a focused, ferocious competitor with one unwavering objective when he laces up his spikes and steps on the starting line: win the damn race, or die trying.
“I started getting quite a bit of adrenaline flowing through me and was getting excited about setting myself up for a big move there in the last 1,000 meters or so,” Solinsky said. “I was confident in what I had left to be able to win the race.”
Solinsky’s been in the business of winning races since his high school days at Stevens Point Area High School in his native Wisconsin. He captured three straight state cross country championships from his sophomore through senior seasons, and dominated the Footlocker National Cross Country Championships in 2001, winning by a commanding 21 seconds over the likes of his current Oregon Track Club teammate Tim Nelson and reigning U.S. half marathon champion Mo Trafeh. The self-described “redneck from the backwoods of Wisconsin” wasn’t too shabby on the track, either, graduating with a personal best of 4:03.6 in the 1,600 meters and 8:43.24 in the 3,200. His approach to racing as a prep was similar to his philosophy as a professional: run for the win and everything else will follow.
“It’s not going to turn out great every time but it’s worth sticking your neck on the line,” Solinsky admitted. “My whole philosophy is that I’m going to keep myself near the front for as long as possible and give myself a chance to win. If it’s not my day it’s not my day.”
In 2003 Solinsky matriculated to the University of Wisconsin where he came under the guidance of a young coach named Jerry Schumacher, who took a bunch of young Badgers and turned them into an NCAA powerhouse, capped off by an NCAA team championship in 2005. Multiple individual NCAA champions also emerged from the group, none more accomplished than Solinsky, who was an 11-time All-American and 5-time NCAA champion by the time he graduated in 2007.
“He’s always trained us to we have the tools, the fitness, to run a certain pace but he doesn’t want us to worry about time,” Solinsky says of Schumacher, who still coaches him today. “He’s very adamant about us being ready to compete. If you compete the times will come. He’s always made sure that we have confidence in ourselves and not afraid of anyone in the race. If you’re going to enter the race and not go for the win, why even lace up the spikes and get on the starting line?”
It’s an understood attitude whose theme resonates throughout Solinsky’s current Oregon Track Club training group—based in Portland and guided by the ever-unassuming Schumacher—which includes former Badgers Nelson, Matt Tegenkamp and Simon Bairu, along with the likes of a few outside additions such as Andy Bumbalough, Shalane Flanagan and Lisa Koll. The goal isn’t for Solinsky, who last summer also became just the fifth American ever to break 13 minutes for 5,000 meters, or any of his other teammates, for that matter, to simply be the best Americans in any given race.
“If we’re going to do this we’re going to try to be the best in the world,” Solinsky says. “We can’t be happy to just make a world championship team or an Olympic team. When we make that team, we’re there for business. We’re not just there to enjoy the experience.”
Taking care of business–first at this summer’s World Championships in Daegu, South Korea and next at the Olympic Games in London next summer–are the top two items on Solinsky’s to-do list. While he’s yet to make an Olympic team or even finish top-10 at the World Championships, showing up on the starting line of either final won’t be enough for Solinsky.
“I want to win the 5,000 this summer,” Solinsky states. “And hopefully that sets me up and gives me enough experience and confidence going into next summer where I’m in position to contend for an Olympic gold medal. I believe if things go well in training and if the opportunity arises I can be in that ballpark. And when I put myself in that ballpark it’s a matter of putting the pieces together to win a medal. Obviously this is my goal and I’m very realistic in knowing a lot of things have to go right, but I’m going to make sure I put myself in the right position and make the right moves to accomplish that mission.”
Aside from a freak knee injury to PCL sustained from slipping on ice while in training Madison two winters ago, the 6-foot-1, 160-pound Solinsky has had an amazing track record of durability over the course of his career. He runs well over 100 miles a week with regularity and handles an amazing workload of workouts only matched by the top African runners he’s aiming to beat in big races.
“Durability is my strength,” Solinsky says. “I try to keep my head down and keep plugging away. Keep those high mileage, high quality weeks and just keep building upon what I’ve been doing these last few years. Basically keep pushing that line and seeing just how strong I can get. People tell me all the time I need to get faster. I’m just as fast as the guys I’m trying to beat. I need to keep getting stronger. I think by next year if I continue to put in a lot of hard work I truly believe I can get to that level.”