This isn’t meant to be singular story about one individual who ended up on a different running career. It’s a perspective on an often-ignored category of athletes who, voluntary or not, compete in the club running scene. I want to encapsulate several of the reasons that runners can still find enjoyment and satisfaction in a division that isn’t D1, D2, or D3.
Like many competitive high school runners, I was rooted in the mindset that not accepting a NCAA Division 1 offer was nothing short of failure.
Let’s just say I wasn’t no Drew Hunter.
By my senior year I had solid PR’s of 4:29 in the 1600 meter run and 9:36 in the 3200 meter run, nothing spectacular nor anything needed to run at major D1 programs I had set my sights on.
I was proud to see teammates of my year and previous ones make their commitments and make progress towards their aspirations, yet I felt left out.
After considering several collegiate running opportunities, including one in-state D1 team in VMI, I decided to enroll at Virginia Tech because of their academic prowess and their nationally ranked food — to be transparent, I might’ve had some quarantine fantasizing about West End.
I’d end up with the chance to run for the National Intercollegiate Running Club Association. I was lucky to have many close friends join me in attending VT; I have zero regrets about this choice.
Following my high school graduation, I thought “You know what, screw it. I’ll just go with the flow in college and do my best to stay fit.” Entering fall 2018, I was in moderate shape and figured I could dick around with training and still lay the smack on club runners.
And I think that a lot of people in the same position as me would occupy the same kind of mindset — they see the kind of times that some D3 runners drop and assume that the college running club is essentially a bunch of hobby joggers.
Looking back on it, I’m glad I was proved quite wrong. I began to notice both men and women in clubs across the country run incredible times that would seem to be competitive at even a Division I level.
My respect grew for some of the older guys on my club, Connor and Harrison, who were two grad students that nearly crossed the finish line together to run sub-26 in the 8k at the Mid-Atlantic Regional.
My only decent race was a 19:43 6k, and that was in late August. Even though I ended up having to nurse consistent knee and shin injuries, I started to regain a hunger. As I couldn’t run, I took out my energy in the weight room.
During the winter of 2018, I carried the honorable burden of being called “Thicc” by my teammates after I put on roughly 20 pounds of muscle and fat.
And yet, the spring of 2019 truly showed me how enjoyable the club scene can be. You can run on your own schedule, develop lasting friendships that go beyond running, and participate in fun team-bonding experiences. Yes, I even might have sported a valiant mohawk for a race — thanks Jake.
You make it what you want to be: you don’t have to abide by what could be considered a life-consuming running career if you simply love running and want to take it easy, and that’s completely okay.
Club brings people together from all kinds of backgrounds and running lifestyles, and you can learn a lot from different perspectives.
Even though the spring brought lasting memories, I still wasn’t satisfied with my own career.
I felt there was more left in the tank.
I had been big chilling on low mileage and still ran 16:11 in the 5k and 4:14 in the 1500 meter run, times my friends jokingly attributed to holdover from high school. All the time I’d look at Virginia Tech Track race results and ponder how I could reach those times myself. People joked I was burnt out and told me those were times I’d never hit.
That sparked a motive to not only prove them wrong, but to convince myself I had the ability.
So I ran.
I consistently ran for that 3-month period of summer, finally eclipsing the 50-mile barrier for the first time in my life. I ran 8-mile tempos, blasting Kanye and Eminem as I darted through neighborhoods. I ran dozens of hills next to my high school, all the time remembering that inspiration that helped me grow from the bottom of JV to a post-season contender.
I ran, and for every step I took, I felt my goals shift from not only winning, but to dominating. I use that word specifically because I wanted to stand out from club; a part of me wanted to be noticed by the real team.
So I continued with grueling tempos and progression runs, eventually closing workouts with sub 5 miles.
When fall came, I had a revitalized mindset. I dropped my 8k PR from 28:27 to 26:40 in my first race. Racing at Panorama Farms, I dropped the hammer after mile 1 and won by nearly a minute with a 25:11 8k. At the club Mid-Atlantic Regional, I did my best to hang onto a Penn State runner and finished with my PR of 24:46 — 4:58 per mile — a time I’m still astonished I managed to achieve.
With the opportunity given to me to compete unattached in D1 several 6k’s against Virginia Tech and ACC competition, I intentionally aimed to run with the lead pack to prove I could hang in the big leagues. I finished in 2nd place in the Hokie Open 6k with a time of 18:48, crossing the finish ahead of guys I admired for their elite performances.
The only thing left on the list was to compete to be the NIRCA national champion. The weeks before nationals I knew my body was beginning to break down, my patellar tendonitis and shin splints had both crept up over the course of the season.
With all the remaining strength I had on a frigid and windy morning, I lined up to close the curtains of a lengthened and draining season. And on that line a question resonated with me.
Why have I dedicated so much time and effort to a club sport? I’m an upcoming college junior without a D1 roster spot, and I’ve trained like an animal.
What was it all for?
But then it really began to click. I looked around me, not only at my teammates who I got up at 8 am for long runs with and ate dinner with me every single day, but at the hundreds of guys and girls who woke up with primal determination on a sub-freezing morning.
I began to realize that, besides notoriety, there isn’t really a meaningful difference in the level of competition of sports. It’s all a group of like-minded individuals with a passionate love for what they do.
It’s an intrinsic happiness not derived from being the best, but being your best.
Personally, I cannot predict my running future. I’ve been consecutively sidelined for 8-week periods with recurring knee issues.
I might regress this fall.
I know with my injury history I likely wouldn’t last on an elite Division 1 team. But where I don’t find success, I find brotherhood and purpose.
If you’re a high school runner without a clear option or even a college runner reading this, I hope you know you aren’t alone in your confusion and frustration; there are always alternative paths where you can find gratification.
Just understand that if you take the time to know your why, even your losses can be wins.
SAM LEBAHN — VIRGINIA TECH RUNNING CLUB
8000 Meter Run(XC): 24:46
Follow Sam on Twitter and Instagram