photo by PhotoRun.net
Dave Hunter wrote this piece for us. One of our new writers over the past year, Mr. Hunter is a track fan, who gives us a great view of the sport, from his unique perspective. This is a fun article on Brian Olinger, who I have lucky enough to watch run for many years.
Versatile Distance Ace Weighs Options
by Dave Hunter
Track & Field, like life itself, is filled with many decisions. An athlete displaying an undeveloped talent and an interest in the sport will soon be confronted with an array of choices. "Do I stay with the discus, or might I be better at the hammer?" "I'm a promising long jumper, but might I be an even better triple jumper?" "Is the 1500 my best event, or is it the 5000?" The imprint and the finality of the often-subtle choices we face and make every day may never have been better captured than by Robert Frost in "The Road Not Taken" - his simple and graceful poem about the bittersweet consequences of the choices we make.
One American track athlete who has an appreciation for the magnitude of decision-making and the impact that choices have upon "our journey" is Brian Olinger - a versatile and talented distance runner who has many Frostian roads before him.
At age 28, Olinger is a seasoned distance runner whose career performances display a Rod Dixon-like range of talent in a wide band of distance events. At the Ohio State University, and under the careful tutelage of his college coach Robert Gary, Olinger was able to transform from a very good high school distance runner into an impressive collegiate performer. After Olinger's graduation, Coach Gary - a two time Olympian in the 3000 meter steeplechase - continued to nurture Olinger's development. While Olinger is best known for his steeplechase prowess - his P.R. is 8:19.56 - a deeper look at his array of performances reveals his versatility. With a mile best that is just a tick above 4:00 [literally 4:00.1], Olinger has excellent speed for a longer, middle distance runner. At the Mt. SAC Relays earlier this spring, Olinger shaved 5 seconds off his previous 5000 best with a time of 13:26.94. The following week, Olinger joined a stacked field in the 10,000 at the Payton Jordan / Cardinal Invitational at Stanford. His seventh-place finish in 27:50.58 was another huge 17 second PR and just missed the Olympic "A" standard of 27:45. Had the opening 5000 - passed by Olinger and the lead pack in a restrained 13:55 - been just a little more ambitious, an "A" standard mark might have been in the cards for Olinger.
While some might see Olinger's recent performances as nothing but positive, it did create a special quandary for this versatile athlete: What is the game plan for Eugene? Steeplechase or 10,000? In mid-April, at the Jesse Owens Classic, Brian noted: "What we don't want to do is to go the Trails and say, 'Well, let's run this and if this doesn't work, let's do this.' We want to have a concrete plan. A lot will depend if I can get the "A" standard [27:45] at Payton Jordan in the 10. So if you get that, the 10K decision becomes harder. Because I think you are a viable competitor. I think there is a spot out there in the 10. If a runner has shown 27:30 fitness, then a person like that is a threat." That may be especially true at the Trials where the 10,000 is likely to be somewhat tactical.
And as the days leading up to the USA Track & Field Trials continued to slip away, Olinger, like so many others, ultimately had to make a decision about which event - the steeplechase or the 10,000 - he would run in Eugene in his quest to capture a coveted spot on the Olympic team. "It is full steam ahead with the steeple," said Olinger in an interview earlier this week. "During the past ten days, I have had 3 of the best hurdling sessions of my career." Olinger will head off to the west coast this weekend to compete in his first 3000 meter steeplechase of year at the USATF Oxy High Performance Meet at Occidental College. "If the competition is there, I am hoping to run under the "A" standard [8:23.1]."
But even after his Eugene event selection has now been made and even after this upcoming Olympiad is over, there is yet another event - the cruelest of mistresses - that beckons his name...the marathon.
It is undeniable that Olinger has made his mark on the track. But Olinger's upper range of versatility may not stop with 25-lappers. As this year began, using the USA's expanded qualifying standards, Olinger parlayed an earlier 10,000 qualifying time of 28:07.52 to gain entry into the USA Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston this past January - even though he had never run a marathon and had never raced farther than 7 miles [First American finisher in Falmouth in 2011]. What? How does that happen? How does it make sense for a 3000 meter steeplechase guy to all of sudden hop into the Olympic Marathon Trials? "I must admit that it was a vocabulary word ["marathon"] that we [Coach Gary and I] had never exchanged back and forth in ten years of working together," notes Olinger. "But the timing was such that it made sense."
Olinger's unorthodox qualifying credentials for Houston's Trials race made him a center of media attention and, to the uninformed, prompted speculation about his fitness to compete with the country's best marathoners. But Olinger prepared diligently for the Trials with a steady diet of 100+ mile weeks featuring high-quality long weekend runs of 20+ miles. "With Coach Gary on the bike, it would be 5:40 pace right out the door. After about 6 miles, we'd drop it down to 5:00 pace for about 13 miles before we cooled it down to the end." And in January pre-race interviews, Olinger made it clear that he was in Houston not merely to compete in the Trials, but to make the team: "I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I had a legitimate shot to finish in the top three." He backed up his words with race day action as he was one of a small pack of runners bold enough to respond to Ryan Hall's opening gun salvo of 4:50 miles. And while his back door departure from the lead pack at around the 10 mile mark was hasty - and ultimately led to a DNF - his spirited and gutsy performance at the Trials prompted many to view Olinger's Trials experiment not as ill-conceived, but as courageous. It has even caused some to speculate that Olinger - with his proven leg speed, with the right training for an extended period, and with more experience - may be able to cultivate a most successful future for himself in the longer event. Olinger, too, has allowed himself to think about it: "It [the marathon] intrigues me. It is something I want to do again. And I want to put forth an honest effort. I like the training. It is right in my wheelhouse. I am more of a road guy than a track guy."
With his Olympic Trials choice, Brian Olinger has faced - and made - a critical decision about his track & field journey. He gauged his training, he ran in some high quality races, and he made a difficult choice: if he is to represent the United States in the London Olympics, it will be in the steeplechase. But Brian knows that pivotal decisions about his future path in track & field remain. One of many would be: how, if at all, does the marathon fit into his future? We can be sure that Brian Olinger, a measured and thoughtful young man, will make this and other key decisions with care and only after great thought. But, even then, no one will ever know - not even Brian - if he made the right choices. But those choices, to paraphrase Robert Frost, will make all the difference.