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Fatherhood, reunion with coach pushing Luke Puskedra toward Olympic marathon berth

Luke Puskedra earned his qualifying time at the 2015 Chicago Marathon and has recently been running tuneup races for the trials. AP Photo/Paul Beaty

Trudie Puskedra is a tennis player, not a long-distance runner. Her husband, Luke, is the one in the family with the running chops, a four-time cross country All-American at Oregon and 10,000-meter standout.

So Trudie admits it was odd in December 2014 when she was wearing him out on casual runs during a vacation to South Africa.

"My world is about 60 feet long and 20 feet wide, that's about as far as I run," she says, laughing. "But he and I would go for these 10-, 15-minute jogs and his legs just wouldn't do it. He told me, 'I don't think my legs will ever work again.' He just felt they were broken for good."

Luke Puskedra had hit a wall in his running career and the score was Wall 1, Luke 0. After a stellar career at Oregon that ended in 2012 and a post-collegiate pairing with Nike's Oregon Project and coach Alberto Salazar, Puskedra wasn't performing up to his own high expectations. Even worse, he'd lost the joy of running.

After a disappointing 2:28:54 in his marathon debut -- at the 2014 New York City Marathon -- he'd had enough. He walked away for more than two months, gained 23 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame and had no desire to get back. His contract with the Oregon Project expired and wasn't renewed.

Newly married and with a daughter on the way, Puskedra questioned whether all the work he'd put in -- he calls himself an "all-or-nothing" personality who does nothing halfway -- and all the time away from home had any meaning. He'd thrown everything he had into running and, in his eyes, fallen flat.

"When you don't race well, it's hard not to look back and say, 'I sacrificed all this stuff and it wasn't worth it,'" Puskedra says.

He started looking at various jobs and thinking he wanted to be a "normal guy" who didn't eat, sleep and breathe running.

"I didn't have that desire," he says. "I just didn't see it. For me, going for a run, I'm going to hurt. And what's the point of hurting if I'm going to have to sacrifice being a normal person? That's how I felt at the time."

Now, months later, everything has changed.

In October, Puskedra ran 2:10:24 at the Chicago Marathon, the fastest time for an American in 2015. He's again a happy, dedicated runner. And, on Feb. 13, he'll be among the favorites to win a spot on the U.S. team at the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in Los Angeles.

"It's probably one of the bigger transformations I've seen in a runner, going from kind of down and out to being the top U.S. marathoner," says Andy Powell, his distance coach at Oregon and a friend and mentor. "It was pretty cool to see."

Regaining his stride

Puskedra's running renaissance was gradual. It came with the help of a move, his wife, Powell, the Olympic calendar and a change in approach.

Luke and Trudie moved from Portland, Oregon, where he'd been training with the Oregon Project, back to Eugene, where she took a job as a tennis coach. At the time, Luke felt he was closing a door. Instead, it turned out he was opening one.

Back in Eugene, he was closer to Powell and felt more at ease. Powell hadn't been his coach since Luke left Oregon, but the two had stayed in touch. Now that Puskedra was back, Powell -- the man who recruited him to Eugene -- invited him to Ducks practices.

"Andy told him, 'Just come down to practice. You don't have to run with the guys or anything, just come and hang out,' to get a little social interaction," recalls Trudie. "He started running with the guys. He definitely wasn't, 'I'm going to run again.' It was slowly. You kind of let the wounds heal and your confidence builds back up."

Powell says his invitation to Luke Puskedra wasn't anything "structured." Puskedra came out, watched workouts, chatted and soaked up the college vibe.

"I told him, 'Don't take running too seriously, but don't completely make up your mind and just throw in the towel,'" says Powell. He told Puskedra to just run for fun and invited him to occasionally work out with the team.

At first, "he was the worst one of the group," says Powell, laughing. He was out of shape. "Slowly, over time, he got better. I was just giving him the opportunity to be around our guys and go for runs and ... something sparked."

Puskedra says it was "a long process." It wasn't really until April, when he entered the Vancouver Sun Run 10K and won in 28:53, that he felt as if he were on the right track. It wasn't a big race. The field wasn't stacked with elite runners. Yet he was energized by the atmosphere, his performance and the presence of several members of Trudie's family who regularly participate in the event. He had fun.

As spring turned into summer, his training with Powell increased and he began to regain his fitness and passion. The fact it is a pre-Olympic year was a motivator.

"Making the Olympic team was always my dream, and so it was kind of us sitting down and having the talk, it's like it would be stupid go give it up and then a year from now say, 'OK, yeah I want to run again,'" he says. "'OK, you've got to wait another three years for the Olympic trials.'

"That was what I'm trying to work towards. When I started training again, like I said, I'm all-or-nothing with everything. I was like, 'OK, I'm going to do everything I can to make that Olympic team.'"

All the while, Puskedra was intent on keeping a better balance in his life. Running would no longer overpower everything else, especially once Trudie gave birth to their daughter, Penelope, in July. He vowed that family would be a priority. He cites Meb Keflezighi and Dathan Ritzenhein, both stars in the running world and devoted family men, as role models.

"But I don't think it's a secret that when they show up to the line they're ready to go every time," he says.

So Puskedra streamlined his workouts. Less was more. Instead of stressing about working additional stretching, core work and weights into his routine, he ditched them. He focused only on running. His intent was to gradually work those back in, but as of late November he said he hadn't.

"I've been able to have the success without them ... I just felt I've got a good balance," he says.

Powell, too, could see it, especially after Penelope arrived.

"He was just genuinely really happy," he says. "And I think being happy is a big part of running, you know? If you're not happy, you're not going to be successful. I think he got into this good routine and he just seems to be doing great."

Managing stress

In June, Powell suggested Puskedra run Grandma's Marathon in Minnesota. He did, and ran 2:15:27. Trudie says she could see a difference in him.

"It was just a nice, easy pace for him," she says. "After that everything just started picking up and he felt better and better."

In early September, he finished fourth in the USA Track and Field 20K championship in Connecticut, running 59:30, just three seconds behind Ritzenhein in third place, and six seconds behind winner Jared Ward.

With the Chicago Marathon just weeks away, Puskedra started thinking about entering. Though he wasn't doing the usual structured marathon training, he was eager to test himself. Almost every day Trudie says her husband would say, "I think I want to run Chicago."

"One day I was like, 'You know what, just run Chicago,'" she recalls. "I told him, 'You're at a point in your career where nothing really matters. Nobody really expects anything from you anymore. Not in a bad way, you're just now the underdog.'"

So, Puskedra called the race director three weeks before the race date, was granted a spot and surprised almost everyone with his performance. Powell, however, wasn't among the surprised.

"He was doing some incredible things in practice," he says. "He just kind of had to put it together and get in the right race. I've seen him in good shape when he was in college, but the stuff he was doing before Chicago, he looked really good."

Puskedra says his own expectations for the race were low. He simply hoped for a good marathon experience. But halfway through, he found himself in the lead pack at a pace that was perfect for him. When the leaders took off with 10K remaining, he couldn't catch them. Yet he felt good and stayed strong, finishing fifth as the top American.

It was an entirely different experience from his marathon debut in New York almost a year earlier, when he says he'd stressed himself out thinking of every possible scenario that could go wrong, and did.

"I guess the biggest difference was I obsessed about that marathon for 16 weeks before, and that was the result," he says. "And this one, I only gave myself three weeks to obsess about it and I didn't really obsess."

Now, he's back into a more traditional marathon training routine, building up for the Olympic trials. And, in just over 2 hours and 10 minutes in Chicago, he restored all those high expectations. Now, too, he has a new deal with Nike. He's back in the mainstream.

This time, he believes he's ready.

"I feel good," he says. "I think the biggest thing for me is to not stress. It's managing it."

Powell, too, believes he's primed. He thinks he has a good shot at making the Olympic team.

Whether he does or not, though, Powell sees big things in the long run for Puskedra in the marathon. He believes the two years Puskedra put in with Salazar - building a strong base - are paying off. At 25, he's still got a big upside. Plus, he says Puskedra's ability to do high mileage yet stay healthy is rare.

"All of a sudden, things are starting to click," he says. "He's in a good spot now for sure."