The Comeback: How Luke Puskedra Bounced Back from 4th Place at the Olympic Trials and His Daughter’s Cancer Diagnosis to Prepare for Sunday’s Chicago Marathon
By Jonathan Gault
October 5, 2016
“I’m going to have to watch the Olympics from home.”
That was the first thing that went through Luke Puskedra‘s mind when he crossed the finish line in fourth place at the Olympic Marathon Trials in February. Coming to grips with a fourth-place finish at the Olympic Trials is hard enough, but what Puskedra has endured since that day in Los Angeles would test any man’s soul. Two days after the race, his seven-month-old daughter, Penelope, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a form of cancer most commonly found in young children. Puskedra and his wife Trudie spent much of February and March making the 110-mile drive up and down I-5 in Oregon between their home in Eugene and Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, where Penelope received treatment.
Puskedra had to adjust to a new reality where running was no longer his top priority. He spent nights sleeping in the hospital and chose not to run during their trips to Portland.
“When you’re staying in the cancer ward that we were in, you wash your hands before and after [you visit],” Puskedra said. “It didn’t really feel right for me to go out tracking mud and all that stuff into somewhere where the kids could get sick. I wanted to be there for my wife and my daughter.”
Even when Puskedra was home, however, he couldn’t focus on running knowing what his daughter was going through. Whenever he went out to run, he’d worry that he was going to miss a call delivering news about Penelope’s test results. His knee was bothering him too, but he didn’t feel right going to a doctor for it while his daughter was getting MRIs and CT scans.
The good news is Penelope has been in full remission for three months now and is currently cancer-free, but even once Puskedra got his knee checked out (he had surgery in April to remove a floating piece of cartilage) and allowed his thoughts to return to running, he found himself unable to fully move on from the Olympic berth he missed by 72 seconds. Part of that was the awkward position he occupied. Puskedra was slated to run the Chicago Marathon, but as the alternate for the marathon team, he had to be prepared to run in Rio just in case, especially with Galen Rupp‘s status up in the air.
“After watching [Rupp] run well in the 10k [at the Olympic Trials] and have those wheels, those few days between that and the 5k, I’d lie if I say it wasn’t tough for me to think I might have at shot at doing the marathon,” Puskedra said.
Deep down, Puskedra, who routinely saw Rupp doing easy runs between 5:20 and 5:40 pace every day when they trained together at the Nike Oregon Project, always suspected the marathon might be Rupp’s best event. But it wasn’t until the morning of the Olympic marathon, August 21, that Puskedra could fully close the book on that chapter of his life.
“I didn’t really have closure until the gun went off [in Rio],” Puskedra said. “Them telling you in team processing that you could be notified 48 hours before if someone comes up hurt or something like that, you want to be prepared for those opportunities if they did come up. But also you want to be realistic as well. That was kind tough for me, emotionally, with training.”
Watching the race was not nearly as difficult as Puskedra imagined it would be. Once the gun fired, he was able to relax and enjoy the success of Rupp, his former teammate at NOP and the University of Oregon, and Jared Ward, who grew up 20 minutes away from Puskedra in Utah. Waiting until after the Olympics to fully focus on Chicago also offered a benefit: there was less time for Puskedra to psyche himself out, as he had done before the Olympic Trials. The week before the Houston Half Marathon on January 17, Puskedra felt amazing, and his 61:29 in Houston was a personal best. But at that point, he had already reached peak fitness and was on his way down.
“I hyped [the Trials] up too much,” Puskedra said. “I got carried away with what you guys in the media kind of like to do, the 100-day countdown, the 75-day countdown, the 50-day countdown. By the time it was the 20-day countdown, I was like, ‘Man it needs to comes soon because I’m not feeling too good in training.'”
He’s learned from that, and for Chicago 2016, his fifth marathon, Puskedra elected to shorten his buildup. He condensed the bulk of his serious training into an eight-week period, starting with 11 weeks until race day, before beginning his taper and adding sharpening workouts the final three weeks. But man, were those eight weeks tough. Below is a typical week for Puskedra during that stretch:
Monday: long warmup, track workout — either 12 x 1k at 2:40-2:45 with 1-minute recovery or 8 x mile at 4:25 with 2-minute recovery
Tuesday: hilly 22-mile run
Wednesday: 13 miles easy and strides
Thursday: 40-minute warmup, 90-minute hilly fartlek, 10-minute cooldown. Approximately 23 miles total.
Friday: 13 miles easy and strides
Saturday: long run, 24-28 miles with the last part close to marathon pace
Sunday: 13 miles easy
That’s 130 miles a week in singles. Puskedra knows it’s a lot, and his college coach Andy Powell, who still advises him (though Puskedra writes the workouts), will often ask Puskedra to back off in training, whether that’s reducing the distance or slowing the pace during workouts. But Puskedra has experimented with several different approaches during his career, especially during his time under Alberto Salazar from 2013-2014 (where he ran anywhere from 90 miles per week to 170). He has come to realize that high mileage suits him best, though he can’t sustain mega-miles for much more than two months.
“I like to have things pretty uniform and that’s why I can only do it for eight weeks,” Puskedra said. “You can only do marathon training for so long.”
As if that weren’t enough, the lanky, 6’4″ Puskedra said he supplements those 130 miles with an hour on the exercise bike each day. Puskedra believes biking helps flush out his legs, but that’s not the only reason he does it.
In case you couldn’t tell, Puskedra is obsessive when it comes to running, but he doesn’t like to spend his free time with Trudie and Penelope talking about the sport. That’s where the bike session comes in. More than any physical benefit, it offers him a time to reflect. It’s almost Pavlovian. If he’s doing something fitness-related, he’s in runner mode, thinking about training, races, all the minutiae that occupy the minds of runners. Outside of that, he tries to keep running off his mind.
“I don’t know how much actually aerobically it helps to do the biking,” Puskedra said. “I think a lot of it is mental, just knowing that you’re doing more and that’s just more time that you can focus.”
Right now, Sunday’s Chicago Marathon is the object of Puskedra’s focus. His tuneup race at the U.S. 20K Champs in New Haven was slower than a year ago (he was 10th in 60:14 this year compared to 4th in 59:30 in 2015), but he was in a much harder training block this time around and believes his fitness is comparable to where it was when he ran 2:10:24 in Chicago last year — the fastest marathon by an American in 2015. He’d like to finish in the top five again.
No matter how Puskedra does in Chicago, he knows just how fortunate he is. At the start of 2015, Puskedra was overweight and on the verge of quitting the sport entirely; he had gained 23 pounds after being dropped by his sponsor Nike following his disastrous marathon debut in New York. Now he’s one of the U.S.’s top marathoners, and more importantly, has a happy family cheering him on. A crowdfunding campaign for Penelope raised over $75,000, most of which got used up paying medical bills (Puskedra has insurance, but said that even with insurance the bills were hefty). Now Penelope, who celebrated her first birthday in July, is healthy and Puskedra said all of her numbers are in the normal range.
The marathon is the ultimate test of endurance. Based on what he’s endured in his career so far, Luke Puskedra should do pretty well on Sunday.
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