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.
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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.