If you were to watch Dave Whitfield run around a 200-meter oval, you’d think he had been running his whole life.
The Philadelphia native’s smooth stride and endurance have led the Virginia Tech harrier to PRs of 1:51.40 and 4:07.20 in the 800 meter and 1 mile run respectively, and he also contributed a leg to the Hokies’ ACC Champion Distance Medley Relay this past year.
Before he ever set foot on a track, however, Whitfield’s journey began on the ice.
“I remember going out to breakfast with my mom and it was my seventh birthday. And we were looking at pamphlets and I was looking at things I wanted to do for my birthday and I showed my mom a hockey pamphlet. It was a [Philadelphia] Flyers minor league team — I don't know why I even grabbed it but it looked cool,” explained Whitfield.
“My mom put the pamphlet in her pocketbook and then two weeks later, she was like you have hockey practice, and I was like what's up and and the hockey rink is probably like five minutes from my house, so I got there and the first month was terrible to skate like I remember, my ankles were swollen from falling crazy.”
Eventually hockey became easier and less painful, and he quickly fell in love with it, becoming a captain in only his freshman year. Although playing left wing on the ice was his first love, running became his new priority as his running career blossomed in his junior year of high school.
A shiny new 800 PR of 1:53.38 convinced him that his future was on the track.
The physical burden of skating and the tough weekends of going straight from an indoor track meet to a hockey game might not seem optimal for running, at least to an outside observer. But Whitfield believes that the years of skating transformed him not just into a better hockey player, but also a better runner.
“It definitely kept me durable. I only had one severe injury when I sprained my knee my sophomore year but I might have been out for a month,” recounted Whitfield. “Going from a track meet at Lehigh on a Saturday to a hockey game, it just took so much on my body. It was obviously a blessing that I didn’t get injured.”
Moreover, hockey helped Whitfield develop his leadership skills: “I love the team atmosphere of ice hockey, and I think I think that transferred. As for me being a leader and mentor for younger students, I think I got that from the team environment from hockey.”
Those lessons and skills from hockey aided him as his running career progressed, ultimately earning Whitfield opportunities to run for several of the best schools in America. A dominant showing at his hometown Penn Relays eventually convinced him to commit to Virginia Tech.
“They just won Penn Relays by a landslide,” says Whitfield, recounting the Hokies’ 2017 victory in the Championship of America 4x800 meter relay, “and not only that, they just beat the state school that I also wanted to go to so it was a no brainer.”
Although he’s enjoyed a successful career, Whitfield is the first to point out college running isn’t easy. He struggled as a freshman, and advises any college runner to be resilient even if their transition to the NCAA isn’t smooth.
“I used to think my junior year that progression was linear. I think that's rule number one in progress–it is not linear by any means. In high school we think that [progress is linear], because our bodies are still changing and we get a new PR every week.”
Whitfield eventually had to face a plateau, as all runners inevitably must. Even when running wasn’t giving him the external validation it had previously, he took inspiration from one of his hometown heroes.
“Like Rocky said, you get knocked down but it's about how you get back up and respond to that. I’ve been knocked down so many times in my career, like the fact that I'm even where I’m at now still PRing as a fifth-year senior is enough.”
Reflecting on these lessons from his hometown — lessons he is still working on implementing — the Hokies harrier acknowledges he is still far from a finished product.
“And I'm really trying to just embody Philly culture and just giving your 100% every single race. If I can get my hundred percent every single race, I feel like I will be running way faster.”
Enjoying his progress, no matter how nonlinear it may be, Whitfield has worked on gaining perspective and mindfulness surrounding his running. Recently, he has taken up meditation and embarked on his Master’s degree in Educational Psychology as he finishes his collegiate eligibility with Virginia Tech. As he adds a couple chapters to his collegiate running career, he has begun envisioning his future.
His Master’s degree will keep him in Blacksburg, where he plans on competing in cross-country next year. After that, Whtifield is unsure exactly what his next steps entail, though he mentions academia, collegiate coaching, and education as possibilities. Nevertheless, expect Whitfield to attack his next venture with the same passion and grit he learned from the ice hockey rink and his city.
“I definitely see myself coaching, so basically after I’m done with cross country, I won't have any more eligibility. Basically I'm just going to be a volunteer assistant and drive vans and do a little coaching on the side there,” Whitfield said.
“After I'm done with my master's degree, I want to get my PhD in Social Psychology because I love social interactions. Then, the end goal is probably to teach or research. I just want to do something when running is over that is challenging, and I feel like academics is a great way to still challenge myself.”