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Smooth Transition: Exclusive Interview With Lukas Verzbicas

The newly minted sub-4:00 miler is making a temporary return to triathlon.

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Newly minted sub-4:00 miler Lukas Verzbicas will attempt to win a world championship in triathlon next month. Photo:

The sub-4:00 miler is aiming for a world championship in triathlon.

Interview by: Linzay Logan

On June 11, high schooler Lukas Verzbicas proved himself as one of the next great American runners. Clocking 3:59.71 for the mile at the adidas Jim Ryun High School Dream Mile in New York City, Verzbikas claimed the title as the second American scholastic male to ever run a sub four-minute mile in a high school-only event.

Just two weeks prior, the 18-year old from Orland Park, Ill., broke the national high school two-mile record with an 8:29.46 clocking at the Prefontaine Classic amid a stacked field of professionals. The strikingly mature teenager has a lot on his plate before heading to the University of Oregon in fall where he will run cross country and track. But first, Verzbicas–also an accomplished amateur triathlete–has a triathlon world championship to win.

In the midst of all his recent running successes, Verzbicas has brought swimming and biking back into his training plan–ironically enough, at a time he thought he would be giving up triathlon to focus solely on his running career. Things changed in March, however, when one of Verzbicas’ best friends and training partners was diagnosed with Hogdkins Lymphoma. “I wasn’t supposed to do triathlon this year but my long time friend, Kevin McDowell, was just diagnosed with cancer,” Verzbicas said. “My goal is to win him the gold medal at the ITU World Championships because I am confident he would have won it.”

With just over a month left to train, we caught up with Verzbicas from his training camp in Warren, Ill., and spoke to him about his sub-4:00 mile and temporary transition back to triathlon. When you arrived in New York for the adidas Jim Ryun Dream Mile did you think you had a sub-four minute mile in you?

Lukas Verzbicas: Coming off the two mile (at the Prefontaine Classic), I thought: “this shouldn’t be that hard”, but it was a lot harder than I thought. There were many other people that could have gone sub four that day but the weather conditions weren’t favorable. It was cold and misting, which isn’t great running weather. I had always had that goal of running sub four and at the halfway mark I didn’t think I could do it but somehow there was something in me that caused me to run 1:56 for the last that 800.

What were you thinking as you took that last turn around the track?

“I have got push it.” I was focusing on winning and with 50 meters to go I looked at the clock and realized I could actually do it and was lucky enough to get under four.

I’m not sure it was just luck.

I have to focus on staying humble. I am very fortunate and grateful.

You must put a lot of time and energy into your training to get to where you are. What would you say are one or two things that are keys to your success in training and racing?

Most of all it’s the support I have. My parents and everyone I have around me and supporting me. I could never have achieved all that I have achieved without my parents’ support.

You’re doing your share of support, too, by racing for your friend. Tell me about your decision to come back to triathlon for one more year.

Kevin’s diagnosis happened very unexpectedly and it took everyone by storm. I thought I was done and ready to move on from triathlon and go on to Oregon when this happened. It was very emotional time and my parents and I decided I would come back for one more year. Oregon is very supportive of my decision. It’s not just something I’m doing for myself but for someone else so it makes it far more meaningful. The goal is to win him a gold medal because I’m confident he would have won.

How has your training changed besides adding swimming and biking since you began training for the world championships?

It is a lot more volume. I am at a training camp and today I had three hours of biking and swimming and an hour of interval running. It is a lot more training than running alone, although the intensity isn’t as high as track training.

Verzbicas will make a temporary return to triathlon at the world championships before resuming his running career at the University of Oregon. Photo:

What kind of training camp is it?

My team and I come out here to train for a week or sometimes more during the summer to get away from things. There is no TV, no Internet, but I have an iPhone so I have 3G and can go on Facebook. I don’t know what I’d do without my phone here.  It is nothing but farms and dirt roads so it’s good for training. There is just a bunch of corn. But it’s fun and Kevin is here with us, training as much as he can. Sometimes he hangs on for a bike ride or training session. You wouldn’t even believe that he has cancer besides his bald head. It makes him feel better and it makes us feel better having him around. It’s so unfair.

What does Kevin think about you going for the win for him?

He really appreciates it and it seems like he is really happy I’m doing it. I feel like I need to this for him. He has his last chemo treatment in August and he should be healthy by the middle of the fall. The cancer has only made him stronger. He is the future of U.S. triathlon and maybe even world triathlon.

Sounds like you guys are pretty good friends.

Yeah, we’ve been teammates, but friends, more importantly, for five years. The best way to support him I felt was to do this and bring him home a medal. It’s special to win but even more to win for someone else who really deserves it.