Daring to Dream

[deck]A Olympic hopeful grapples with a career-threatening injury.[/deck]

Apr 15, 2011; Walnut, CA, USA; Russell Brown wins the invitational 1,500m in a meet and stadium record 3:35.70 in the 53rd Mt. San Antonio College Relays at Hilmer Lodge Stadium. Photo courtesy of Flotrack.org

Apr 15, 2011; Walnut, CA, USA; Russell Brown wins the invitational 1,500m in a meet and stadium record 3:35.70 in the 53rd Mt. San Antonio College Relays at Hilmer Lodge Stadium. Photo courtesy of Flotrack.org

He has lived this moment in his dreams. The raucous crowd roaring its approval; The wall of noise crashing down onto the track from every direction; The Olympic flame burning as faithfully as the desire that drove him here.

Born out of years of humble devotion to his sport, this is Russell Brown’s dream.

But it is not his reality.

As the world’s best milers prepare for the Olympic 1500-meter preliminary round in London, Brown moves gingerly around a turf field in his hometown of Hanover, New Hampshire, anxiously testing the condition of his injured Achilles tendon. He has run faster than any American at 1500 meters this year, but his tentative strides bear no resemblance to the powerful cadence that propelled him to a 3:34.11 personal best in Qatar ten weeks ago.  Today’s run lasts just eight minutes. It’s all his broken body can manage.

Brown never imagined his season would end this way. He entered the US Olympic Trials in June among the favorites to punch a ticket to London. He left without even advancing to the 1500-meter final. Battling an Achilles injury sustained just days before the Trials, Brown barely made it to the starting line of his semifinal heat, limping painfully to a last-place finish, clocking 3:58.85—his slowest time since high school.

As he hobbled off the track, Brown didn’t owe the world a dignified exit. The unphased kids waiting at the gate for an autograph could find another signature for their souvenirs. The journalists could interview the next athlete that would walk through the press area. When asked by a reporter to explain what happened, Russell Brown didn’t need to open his heart to the camera pointed critically at his face. He could have walked out.

Instead, he answered the question with disarming candor, offering the world a glimpse of an Olympic-hopeful’s struggle to draw meaning from a journey that ended at the wrong destination.

* * *

 “You know, this comes around [every] four years,” Brown told the group of reporters. “This year really couldn’t have gone better for me. I felt like everything that had been going wrong started going right.”

When a coach and athlete meet to develop an Olympic training plan, it’s a fairly straightforward endeavor. 80 miles this week. Three hard workouts that week. Intervals, tempos, continuous intervals (fartleks), strides, weight sessions and rest, then repeat. On paper, a training calendar is as good as a printed roadmap to London. Follow the instructions, make the right turns (or, in this case, the left ones), and come July 27, you’ll be sporting a Ralph Lauren beret on your way to the Opening Ceremonies.

Even though success can seem simple within the black-and-white margins of a training log, victories aren’t won on paper. Nor is fortitude measured in black ink. In reality, the path to London is less interstate highway and more winding country road, full of twists and turns and emotions and, well, life. For Brown, making the US Olympic team meant more than improving his running economy or raising his anaerobic threshold. It meant embarking on a journey, one that led him on trips around the world, through haunts from his past, and headfirst into plans for the future.

With less that two months until the Trials, Brown’s journey was still on the ground as he boarded the first of three flights destined for Doha, Qatar. His Olympic ambitions hinged on achieving the “A” standard, a bar set high enough to eliminate all but the world’s best. Brown hoped the Doha Diamond League meet’s stiff competition would help him become the sixth American that season to meet the 3:35.50 1500-meter standard—the metric equivalent of a 3:52 mile.

Entering his fourth year competing for Eugene’s Oregon Track Club Elite, Brown, 27, had never made an Olympic or World Championships team. After graduating from Stanford University in 2008, he extended his running career by signing a professional contract with Nike. The salary was meager, but he quickly proved his worth.[L1]

In 2009, Brown trimmed more than three seconds off his 1500-meter personal best and ended the year by ranking top-ten in the country. A year later, he advanced to the final at the US Championships and finished sixth.

Enter 2011. Brown began the season with a US-leading 1500-meter time of 3:35.70, then set another nation-leading mark with his 3:51.45 mile at Eugene’s Prefontaine Classic in June. With just three weeks until the start of the US Championships, he had emerged as a favorite to advance to the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea. On LetsRun.com, the sport’s unofficial cyber headquarters, even the usually hard-to-impress message-board critics hopped aboard the Brown bandwagon.

“No excess fanfare or b.s.,” wrote one poster. “He’s just out there getting it done race after race. Excellent job, Brown!”

Another added, “Brown has the [country’s] fastest 1500 time, indoors and outdoors, and has the fastest mile [by] an American this year . . . I think he has to be favored to make the team for Daegu at this point.

Then another: “Russell is humble and hungry. On to greatness!”

What happened next, nobody could have predicted. Despite entering the US Championships healthy and full of confidence, Brown failed to make it out of the first round. He finished fourth in his preliminary heat, passed in the final straightaway by a hard-charging Will Leer. Brown seemed in disbelief at the finish line, burying his head in his hands as the realization sunk in that his season was essentially over. Although just two-tenths of a second stood between Brown and a place in the final, the LetsRun cynics showed no mercy.

They attacked: “He just didn’t run a smart race. Bush league mistake, no doubt.”

Again: “Even Acosta, who had not been running well, found his legs and got into the final. Major fail for Brown.”

And again: “Yet another flash in the pan for U.S. distance running.”

In the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of professional sports, Russell Brown went from rising star to fading comet overnight—and not just in the court of public opinion. His shocking letdown also cost him the chance to compete in the summer’s Diamond League competitions, where meet directors were interested only in athletes who had qualified for the World Championships. Instead of capitalizing on his fitness to hit the Olympic “A” standard on the Diamond League circuit that summer, Brown would have to wait.

That’s why May 2012 arrived with Brown flying halfway across the world, while his training partner and fellow Olympic 1500-meter hopeful, Andrew Wheating, enjoyed some rare spring sunshine in Eugene. Wheating was one of five Americans to achieve the “A” standard in Europe over the summer, earning him a degree of comfort in the months leading up to the Trials. With less than eight hours until his friend’s race in Doha, I found him working judiciously to plant a vegetable garden in his backyard. After catching up about his training and fitness, the conversation turned to Brown’s prospects in Qatar.

“He’s in great shape,” Wheating assessed optimistically. “But with Russell, there’s always other variables that he factors in.”

“He’s a thinker?” I asked, vaguely aware of Brown’s tendency to analyze a race inside and out.

“He’s a big thinker,” Wheating replied. “We’ll see how it goes. I’m a little nervous.”

Some 7,000 miles away, Brown lounged around his hotel, the only refuge from Doha’s sweltering heat. His roommate, veteran sprinter Darvis Patton, told him not to bother adjusting to the eleven-hour time difference. “Just sleep when you’re tired,” he advised.

In between three- and four-hour snoozes, Brown let his mind wander to the task at hand. His agent, Paul Doyle, had told him the race would feature two “rabbits,” dedicated pacemakers responsible for leading the field through 1,000 meters at a blistering pace. If he could just cling to the back of that pack, he wouldn’t care if he finished dead last. As long as he got the Olympic “A” standard, nothing else mattered.

When the race finally began, the manic pace around him was a shock to Brown’s system. As he would later recall, “It just felt like we took off sprinting and never really stopped sprinting.” Actually, by most humans’ standards, they were flying. The leaders clocked the first 400 meters in fifty-five seconds with Brown barely a second behind. When he reached the 800-meter mark and glanced up at the clock, he liked what he saw. 1:53. Perfect.

Still maintaining his position near the back of the pack as he dashed into the final lap, Brown was right on pace to meet the “A” standard. He just didn’t realize it. Fatigue can do funny things to even the sharpest minds, and with 200 meters to go, Brown’s math was failing him, his stream of consciousness truncated into staccato bursts.

Check the clock—what?! Behind pace? No matter. Just sprint. One straightaway left. So hot! 40 meters. 90 degrees? Lift the knees. Get that guy! 10 meters. C’mon, couple more strides. Lean in for the finish. Whoosh! Find Doyle.

“I get it?”

“You got it!”

* * *

“I let myself hope and I let myself dream. And I wanted things that I never even let myself want, let alone think could be a reality.”

In a modest two-story home nestled among the rolling hills just miles from Dartmouth College’s pristine campus, the Browns never talked Olympics. They didn’t have time. Throughout his son’s time in grade school, Chris Brown shuttled Russell to practices for soccer in the fall, ice hockey in the winter and lacrosse in the spring, coaching as many of the sports as he could manage.

Although competitive running was relegated to the summers until his junior year of high school, Brown’s speed turned heads—and caused headaches—from the moment he could walk. In pre-school, he earned the nickname “Runaway Russell” for his habit of disappearing as soon as his teachers looked away. If the person assigned to watch him lost focus even for a moment, Russell’s response was one his mother Jocelyn Chertoff remembers well.

“He would just bolt.”

Brown’s speed proved to be an asset in every sport he tried, especially track. Chris remembers his 10-year-old son’s first race, a 100-meter dash at a summer all-comers meet in Hanover. Standing near the finish line, Chris peered down the straightaway at the local kids getting ready to begin.

“I knew all of the kids and I thought, ‘This is going to be a good race,’” he recalled. “And then Russell just blew them away.”

As Brown continued to rack up wins on the track, including the state indoor 600-meter title as a high school junior, one of the country’s best distance coaches took notice. In the fall of Brown’s senior year, Stanford coach Vin Lananna invited him to pay a visit to the Cardinal program that had just added an NCAA cross country title to its growing list of achievements.

Brown left Palo Alto sold on Stanford, but he would have to wait another seven years to run for the man who recruited him. Only months before Brown was set to arrive on campus, Lananna departed unexpectedly to take the athletic director position at Division III Oberlin College. Brown just rolled with the punches, earning nine All-American honors with the Cardinal before moving to Oregon to run professionally under OTC Elite coach Mark Rowland.

It’s here, in 2010, that Brown and Lananna were finally united. Lananna—then the director of track and field at the University of Oregon—wanted to keep coaching Andrew Wheating after his graduation from Oregon. In need of someone to train alongside his star miler, he turned to Brown, who had grown up just across the Connecticut River from Wheating’s hometown of Norwich, Vermont. They’d often met up to run together during summer breaks, forging a strong friendship on grueling runs across the region’s hilly terrain.

Brown jumped at the chance to join his friend under Lananna’s guidance, and the two milers soon became inseparable, even collaborating off the track to produce a series of comedic videos for their blog, “Behind the Stands.” The tandem seldom missed a day of running together, but on June 14, 2012, their training plans forced them apart. With Wheating consigned to the pool for a scheduled rest day, I was Brown’s lone companion as he set out for Pre’s Trail to complete a recovery run.

By then I had been embedded in Lananna’s training group for three weeks, joining Brown and Wheating for runs, warm-ups, cool-downs and the occasional post-workout meal as I documented their respective journeys towards the Olympic Trials. Sometimes I asked questions, but mostly I just listened—to their worries, to their ambitions and to their frustrations.

That day’s run was no different. By the time we reached the wood-chip trail that crosses from Eugene into neighboring Springfield, Brown was dreaming aloud. The contract bonus for making the Olympic team would be a financial relief, he said, and a medal in London—heaven forbid the thought of it—might yield enough cash to cover the down payment on a home with his girlfriend.

Even as he bore ahead in pursuit of his Olympic dream, the seeds of Brown’s life after running were beginning to sprout. Two days earlier he’d agreed to become the chief financial officer at Jasper Mountain, a Eugene nonprofit that serves emotionally disturbed children and their families. Starting in the fall, it would be his first non-running job since college.

While Brown explained that he planned to continue his professional running career even after assuming the new role, he couldn’t say for how long. Running demanded sacrifice, and it wasn’t just late nights and wild parties that had gone by the wayside. Two years had passed since Brown’s girlfriend, Nji Nnamani, left Eugene to pursue an M.B.A. from Stanford, and he’d long grown tired of the distance since then. Brown was ready to begin his life with her. A trip to London, he figured, would be a good way to start.

Just as we reached our turnaround spot, Brown and I were joined by company. When OTC Elite milers Jordan McNamara and Ciaran O’Lionard pulled up at our sides, they were already deep in conversation about McNamara’s race this Saturday, a last-ditch effort to hit the “A” standard before the start of the Olympic Trials. Apparently he and Rowland were unable to secure the services of Matt Scherer, a professional pacemaker known for his precise execution of race splits as well as his considerable bulk.

“You know Scherer alters gravity, and I was trying to become his satellite,” McNamara joked.

With Scherer unavailable, Lananna and Rowland had asked Brown to pace part of the race. Lananna thought he would benefit from running the first 800 meters as a tune-up for the Trials, but Brown wasn’t immediately sold on the wisdom of helping a competitor hit the Olympic “A” standard. When McNamara broached the subject on the run, he avoided a solid commitment.

“Listen, J-Mac, don’t worry about the pacing and just focus on running a good, hard race,” he said. “The rest will work itself out.”

Privately, Brown planned to express his doubts about the idea to Lananna. This close to the Trials, he couldn’t afford to take any chances that might lead to a repeat of his 2011 disappointment. Sure, he’d love to help a fellow OTC athlete chase a dream. Just not when it’s his dream too.

* * *

“Well, you know what, this happens to a lot of people. I’m not the only one. I guess the bottom line is, making a team like this—that’s not something anybody deserves. We all work hard. We all want it. We all care. We all use the mistakes we made in the past to look toward the future. When you get to this level, you can just get unlucky.

With Hayward Field off limits until the Trials, McNamara decided to go after the “A” standard in a hastily assembled meet at nearby Lane Community College. A handful of events were on the docket, all of them designed to give local athletes a final chance to hit qualifying marks or sharpen their fitness before the start of the Trials in a week.

By 7:45 p.m., when the 1500-meter race was set to begin, a small crowd had gathered on the grassy slope above the track. As the six competitors finished their final warm-up strides, McNamara ran up to the fence at the base of the hill.

“I’m gonna need you guys down here to help me out!” he shouted to the supporters scattered above him, rattling the chain links with his hands to set an example. OTC Elite steeplechaser Steve Finley was the first to move, and soon the whole crowd was congregated just meters from the track oval, clapping, cheering, buzzing.

After the initial difficulty of finding a single rabbit, Lananna and Rowland had recruited three. Wheating and Oregon sophomore Daniel Winn would combine to set the pace for the first 500 meters, and Brown would press on through 800 meters. During a conversation earlier in the week, Lananna had managed to get Brown on board with the plan. Even if McNamara hit the “A” standard, Lananna had explained, he would be the least of Brown’s worries at the Trials. Based on the season’s early results, Centrowitz, Manzano, and Torrence were among the favorites to challenge him for a top-three finish and a spot on the Olympic team. McNamara was not.

As Brown stepped to the starting line, he was primarily focused on his own preparation. Barely thirty minutes earlier he’d competed in the meet’s 800-meter race, winning in 1:47.61. By having him return to the track for another hard 800-meter effort, Lananna hoped to prepare Brown to run fast on tired legs, a skill that would be essential for surviving three 1500-meter rounds in the span of four days at the Olympic Trials.

When the starting gun fired, all three rabbits shot to the lead ahead of Heath and McNamara. Wheating’s massive strides propelled him around the track with uncanny ease, the rest of the field stringing out in his wake. Wheating executed his orders to perfection, covering the first 400 meters in fifty-five seconds before drifting across the track to clear the path for Winn. Barely fourteen seconds later, Brown was the man in charge.

Even at a world-class pace, Brown’s form oozes power. He runs with his broad torso upright, keeping his upper body still and arms relaxed while his legs do the heavy lifting. Running beside shorter athletes, Brown’s long strides give him the appearance of gliding across the track in slow motion, his racing spikes scarcely meeting the track surface before sweeping backwards on an arcing circuit that terminates with his next knee drive.

Watching Brown cruise through 800 meters in 1:52, it was hard to imagine anyone beating him at the Trials. He looked so smooth. While McNamara would go on to miss the “A” standard by less than two-tenths of a second, the result didn’t matter much to Brown. He was joking and laughing with Wheating as he set off on his cool-down jog, his spirits buoyed by the confidence that he was both fit and healthy. What he didn’t know—couldn’t know—was that his good fortunes were about to change.

When I arrived at practice four days later, something was wrong. Brown was standing on the infield with his back to the track, Lananna crouched behind him, gazing intently at the six inches of tendon between Brown’s heel and calf. His career had been riddled with Achilles problems, but he’d managed to run pain-free all spring. Now, just eight days before the Olympic Trials 1500-meter preliminary round, that streak was over. He had first felt the pain when stepping out of bed the morning after McNamara’s race. A run on Monday and workout on Tuesday had only made things worse.

Not one to leave anything to chance, Lananna turned away from Brown’s Achilles and began calling OTC Elite massage therapist John Ball to schedule treatment for that afternoon. While he waited impatiently for Ball to answer his phone, he told Brown to take the day off and dose up on ibuprofen.

“Take three pills three times a day, okay?” he prescribed. Brown nodded, then turned to vent his frustration.

“On the way over, I was making deals with the devil,” he said, trying to smile despite the concern etched upon his face. “Ten years of my life? My firstborn? I haven’t offered them up yet, but they’re on the table.”

He paused for a moment, as if to contemplate the worst-case scenario. “I guess I could come back and do this all over again in four years,” he said with a grimace.

* * *

“Right now this stings a lot. But I think in the next couple days I’ll wake up and remember how lucky I am. I’ve got the best family in the world. I’ve got the most beautiful girlfriend in the world. I live in the most wonderful place. I’ve got the best friends and teammates. Nobody can ask for any more.”

Watching from their seats near the start line, Brown’s parents Chris and Jocelyn waited anxiously for the Olympic Trials’ 1500-meter runners to emerge onto the track.

The last twenty-four hours had been a nightmare; every waking moment spent trying to nurse their son back to health. In his preliminary heat a day earlier, Brown looked like a favorite to advance to London, cruising into the semifinal round with encouraging ease. He thought he’d shaken the Achilles injury that hampered him all week, but as he walked up a ramp to the press area and his adrenaline wore off, the pain came rushing back—worse than at any point in the twelve days since his injury.

Chris and Jocelyn would remember that evening as a dizzying combination of doctor’s visits, pharmacy runs, massage treatments, anti-inflammatory medication and nerves. They comforted themselves with the knowledge that if Russell could advance past the semifinal round, he’d have a full day to recover before Sunday afternoon’s final. With the race now upon them, no one in Brown’s camp could stand to acknowledge that the final might go off without him.

When Brown finally took the track for his semifinal heat, it wasn’t the sight his parents hoped to see. He tried to do a warm-up sprint down the backstretch, but the hitch in his stride foiled the attempt. “Maybe it will loosen up,” Chris thought to himself. “Maybe he can still do this.”

3,000 miles away, Nnamani clung to the same hope. Alongside twenty fellow investment banking interns at a bar in New York City, she watched the runners sprint for position down the opening straightaway. She planned to pay Brown a surprise visit in Eugene if he made the final, but his first 100 meters didn’t offer much promise. Fighting through a painful limp, Brown quickly dropped to the back of the pack.

In the stands, Chris and Jocelyn cringed. With each unwieldy stride, their hope for a miracle faded. By the time the runners reached the final lap, neither parent was surprised to see the competition speeding away from their limping son. They watched helplessly as Brown crossed the finish line in last place, his head hung in defeat, Wheating wrapping his arms around him in a silent embrace. A stream of people would hug Brown in the hours that followed. None of them would find the right words to say.

                                                                        * * *

“If I could have made the Olympic team that would have been nice. But that’s not going to happen. And that’s how it goes.”

As Brown answers my phone call, his voice still bears the sadness of defeat. It’s been ten days since he sat in Hayward Field’s stands for the 1500-meter final and witnessed Wheating finish third behind Leo Manzano and Matthew Centrowitz, earning him a spot on the US Olympic team. Brown enjoyed watching the race, standing and cheering as his best friend and teammate achieved the sport’s biggest triumph. But there were also moments when the smile slid off his face, moments when he looked at the tall figure charging into third place and didn’t see Wheating at all. He saw himself instead.

“When I watched Andy take off and finish really well, all I could think about were all the times—like our last couple races—when we ran right together,” he explains. “And seeing the way Centro ran his race . . . just the way I knew he would and just the way I wanted to run. It was sort of like my dreams were coming true, but I wasn’t in them.”

Brown lets himself reflect on the “what-ifs” only for a moment. It’s too painful to think what might have been. Better to believe that more than a six-inch tendon stood between him and the Olympic dream. At least he tries to believe that.

“Andy, Centro and Leo—they did everything right. They were better than everybody else,” he says. “Had I been perfect, there was still no guarantee. It’s not fair for me to lament that I’m not [in London] and harp on the fact that I got hurt because it does a little bit of disrespect to the guys who made the Olympic team. Making the team still would have required the best performance of my life. I think I was ready for that, but you can’t bank on the best performance of your life.”

Even with the Trials still fresh in his memory, Brown is already laying the groundwork for what comes next. He’s back home in New Hampshire, meeting with doctors to figure out exactly what happened to his left Achilles tendon—and how to prevent it from happening again. An MRI revealed tears in some of the Achilles’ fibers, probably the result of running the first-round race on a tendon that was already ailing. His rehabilitation won’t require surgery, just a heavy dose of rest, cortisone injections, an ultrasound, and cross training. From now on, strengthening drills and exercises need to be a part of his daily routine.

But for how much longer will actual running be part of that routine? Perhaps the biggest cruelty of the Olympics is that it only comes around once every four years. Training plans can be developed to accommodate this inconvenience, but life doesn’t fit so easily into these four-year cycles. By the time the 2016 Rio Games begin, Brown will be 31-years-old. He hopes to be married to Nnamani by then, maybe even starting a family. With a promising business career also ahead of him, it’s possible that the 2012 Olympic Trials marked the end of Russell Brown’s Olympic dream. I shudder at the thought. He takes it in stride.

“You know, some people get lucky and some people don’t,” Brown reflects. “You just hope that in the end, you get lucky more times than not. So sure, this is one of those big moments where life kicked my ass.

“But I feel like I deserve another moment when life hooks me up.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *