Feb. 27, 2008
By Darren Shimp
Anyone who runs as a hobby seems to have a firm grasp that distance runners are a complete different breed. These men and women are found miles away from the communities they call home, braving the elements. It is the calling of nature, refusing to be bound to the restrictions of an ordinary oval track or the crumbling roads of Eastern Washington.
While recreational runners spot the distance aficionados better than most for that reason, according to Eastern Washington University distance specialist Curtis Suver, it is "because we're the ones in the short shorts all the time."
Suver's daily journeys through parts unknown to most have found him among the cream of the crop of Big Sky Conference distance runners. His school-record time of 8:07.39 in the 3,000 meters, established just a few weeks ago at the University of Washington Invitational in Seattle, was also the third-best time by a conference athlete this season.
The junior from Maple Valley, Wash., attributes his three weeks over winter break of intense training as a catalyst for his indoor success this season.
"I've had these high goals the last couple of years, to make it to nationals," said Suver, who spends hours each day with his teammates training and preparing.
It is with two of those teammates (Tyler Justus and Alex Smyth) and two former Eagle distance runners (James Conrick and Shawn Helm) which Suver shares a house in Cheney, along with rampant Halo tournaments on the Xbox.
The house sits nestled next to the railroad tracks, which serves as a free wake-up service, as locomotives approach with horns blazing at 6 every morning, getting Suver and his teammates up just in time for their practice at 7.
This week, the Xbox controllers may be gathering dust, as Suver and his mates prepare for this weekend's (Feb. 29-March 1) Big Sky Conference Indoor Championships, to be held in Pocatello, Idaho. Coach Kerr has him slated for both the 5,000 race Friday night and the 3,000 tilt Saturday afternoon.
"Normally that would be pretty tough," said Suver on the short rest between the two events. "But at conference, you run more to win than to race a fast time; it's a big difference in distance running. Running to win it goes a lot slower, and is not quite as tough."
The conference championships are also more about the team performance than the individuals, as the times recorded this weekend won't even count towards qualifying times for nationals, which will be held March 14-15 in Fayetteville, Ark.
As of Feb. 27, Suver held the 18th-best time in NCAA Division I Indoor Track for the 3,000 meters, just two spots from qualifying for a mid-March trip east, as a minimum of 16 participants qualify (based on NCAA benchmarks). His recent school-record-breaking run in the 5,000 (14:03.64) may also send him to Arkansas.
Beyond the NCAA Championships, he also has aspirations for earning a "B" standard qualification to run at the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 3,000, perhaps the 5,000 too, being held in Eugene from June 27-July 6 at historic Hayward Field.
What happens if qualifying for the Trials doesn't work out?
"My buddy's got some tickets," said the criminal justice major Suver, who will be done with his undergraduate degree this spring. He is seriously contemplating graduate school at Eastern, as he has every intention to stay and run for his last year of eligibility.
He started running at the age of 11 after his father had picked up the hobby as something new to try at the age of 40 and brought the young Suver along to experience the expedition for himself.
"His new thing is his new Mustang now that he's 50," said Suver.
He caught the competition bug in seventh grade and hasn't recovered since. Suver considers to have been a "head case" at one point in his running career.
"I used to not talk to anyone. My parents knew -- `Don't talk to him, he's just in a bad mood,'" said Suver. "That was in high school through freshman year of college."
He has, however, improved his on-track persona as the years have passed.
"I love seeing some people that just freak out before races, while others are relaxed," said Suver. "Some people are just a wreck before a race. I'll be on the line looking at someone praying, or someone who can't talk to anyone, they're so nervous."
With the help of the EWU coaching staff, Suver and his fellow Eagles have developed eagerness and devotion towards the sport, which goes further than the time on the stopwatch.
"Distance runners, on some levels, enjoy the solitude of getting out to the trails and roads of Cheney. It is a form of self-therapy," said EWU track and field head coach Stan Kerr.
The sudden change in enthusiasm, according to Kerr, is largely in part to the efforts of Eagles distance coach Chris Zeller, who has taken the team out of their normal environment to bond.
"We've gotten kids that love to run, for running's sake; I think that helps a lot," said Zeller. "We've done a lot of bonding, such as a team camp at the start of the school year where we camp at the Jewel Basin in the Flathead National Forest (Montana). I think that's done a ton too because you're just running in the mountains.
"You are focusing more on the experience of running. When we come back from there, they are such a tight knit group. When I got here a couple of years ago, I sat with the team to establish a distance running culture and what that would look like. They have bought into that a little bit."
Suver was one of the first to buy into this new ideology, and attributes that change to the drastic improvements to his performance.
"I just stopped caring (about all the external distractions) and got a whole new philosophy on running," said Suver.
With school records under his belt and one more year remaining as an Eagle, this newfound peace that Suver found in running could lead him to bigger and better accomplishments -- leaving one of his friend's tickets unused would be a great start.