ATHLETE OF THE YEAR
Chicago Tribune 2011 Preps Plus Athlete of Year
Runner and triathlete Lukas Verzbikas outdistances the competition
Sandburg's Lukas Verzbicas is the Chicago Tribune 2010-2011 Athlete of the Year. He recently broke the four-minute mile barrier at the Prefontaine Classic in Oregon. (Kirby Lee-US PRESSWIRE / June 4, 2011)
The friends, all triathletes from the west suburban Multisport Madness club, would do a long, steady run. Verzbicas, triathlete and runner, would do a 45-minute Fartlek, a form of interval training.
After running 20 minutes at a warmup pace, he began the Fartlek, which included eight fast sections: two of one minute each at a mile pace of 4 minutes, 15 seconds; two of two minutes at 4:30; two of one minute at 4:20; then two of 30 seconds at 4:15. There would be a recovery section of the same duration between each fast one.
A few strides into the first fast section, Verzbicas had left his four companions behind.
Soon the trail dropped to the left, where a short piece was flooded. Verzbicas charged straight ahead onto the loose stones of an embankment rising five feet to a railroad line, followed the tracks for 75 feet, then veered down the embankment and across a sodden stretch of grass to rejoin the trail, all without breaking stride.
An observer on a mountain bike had to walk the bike along the embankment and across the muck as Verzbicas finished his antelope imitation and disappeared into the distance. The biker became fully aware of Verzbicas' speed when it took nearly two miles of riding hard to catch up.
One of the friends who had begun the workout with Verzbicas similarly was blown away.
"When I saw him take off, I started thinking, 'Ohmigod, that's crazy fast,'" Nolan Dickson said. "I wondered how long I could have kept up.
Dickson isn't the only high school runner who has found chasing Verzbicas a futile exercise. In cross-country and track, the 18-year-old from Sandburg was in a class by himself no matter where he ran — in the state of Illinois and around the country.
That is why Verzbicas is the Tribune's 2011 Preps Plus Athlete of the Year, even though he ran just cross-country for Sandburg because of Illinois High School Association rules that forced him to choose between running only high school track or challenging himself against some of the world's elite runners.
Those rules are also why he chose to graduate in three years instead of four.
"I would have loved to represent my school and my town in track,'' he said, "but I feel like the faster I want to get at the next level, I have to be racing at the next level.''
In high school cross-country competition last fall, Verzbicas (pronounced Vairzh-bit-skas in his native Lithuanian) became just the third boy to win two straight titles at the Foot Locker national cross-country championships. He also won a second straight Illinois Class 3A state title.
On the track, in his final race as a high schooler, Verzbicas became just the fifth U.S. high school miler to break four minutes when he won the High School Dream Mile at last Saturday's Adidas Grand Prix meet in New York in 3:59.71.
One week earlier, pulled along by elite international runners at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., he had lowered the national high school record for the 2 mile by nearly five seconds with a time of 8:29.46.
In March, at the New Balance Indoor Nationals in New York, he took the team title single-handedly by winning the mile, 2 mile and 5,000 meters over about 42 hours — with the mile coming 70 minutes after the 2 mile. And just after beginning his final year at Sandburg, Verzbicas finished fourth at the 2010 World Junior Triathlon Championships last September in Budapest, where a technical penalty of 15 seconds almost certainly cost him a medal.
Two years ago, Verzbicas told Sports Illustrated he hoped to make the 2012 Olympics in triathlon. Since then, he has taken a longer and different perspective, choosing to give up triathlon to concentrate on running after he competes at this September's World Junior Championship in Beijing.
"I have a passion for running," he said. "I don't have the same for triathlon."