Reneau's Progression Defies Traditional Marathoning Path

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2007

Mike Reneau signed up for the class at the end of his senior year in college, when he finally had room in his schedule for an easy elective. He had never run a marathon before, never even considered it. But when he saw the course listed in an Internet catalog for the University of Wisconsin -- MARATHON/DISTANCE TRAINING -- he enrolled on a whim. Why not earn some academic credit for getting back in shape?

That's how Reneau ended up in Ron Carda's lecture hall at the beginning of the spring semester in 2004, sitting among students who hoped to shed a little beer weight and struggle through a five-hour marathon. Carda, a longtime professor, handed out the class syllabus, which recommended a running baseline of 20 miles per week as a prerequisite. Reneau told Carda that he had run only once in the last several months, for two slow miles on his father's treadmill.

"Mike made it clear from the start that he was pretty much an absolute beginner, and I was honest with him," Carda said. "I told him, 'You have a lot of work to do in this class before you can finish a marathon, much less finish one fast.' "

That Reneau will run the marathon with about 150 other qualifiers at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials tomorrow in New York City makes him much more than the biggest success story in the 15-year history of Carda's class. Reneau is perhaps the most unlikely contender in the 26.2-mile race that loops through Central Park. In the four years since he signed up for Carda's class, Reneau has transformed from a novice runner with virtually no distance background into a contender to place top 10 in his country's most competitive distance race. The first three finishers in New York will represent the United States at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing next summer.

"The funny thing is, I actually got an A-minus in the marathon class," Reneau said. "I guess I must have messed up a test or something, but I was hooked on running as soon as I started that class. From there, it was an escalation of commitment, and all of the sudden I was making it my whole life."

In a sport where most elite athletes spend decades running high mileage to build endurance, Reneau, 29, is compensating for lost time by training with a group called the Hanson-Brooks Distance Project in Rochester Hills, Mich. Nine months ago, he moved into a group house with other elite distance runners. They wake up to run at 7 each morning, work together during the day at local shoe stores and then run again at night.

Hanson accepted Reneau into the training group in February, after Reneau ran the Houston Marathon in a personal-best time of 2 hours 17 minutes 46 seconds. During his initial interview with Hanson in Rochester Hills, Reneau professed a willingness to turn himself over to instruction. He had run only four marathons, establishing a personal best each time, but he had never worked with a coach.

"He's one of the most coachable athletes I've ever had," Hanson said. "The great thing about working with Mike is that he really doesn't have any preconceived notions. He's willing to try everything."

The trade-off, of course, is that Reneau hadn't tried anything before he arrived in Rochester Hills in February. For one of his first workouts with the Hanson-Brooks Distance Project, Reneau and other group runners were instructed to run six consecutive miles in less than 4 minutes 40 seconds, with only a short break between each mile. It was what Hanson considered a standard track workout, one he assigned to his athletes a few times each month. But Reneau voiced a concern: He had never even run one mile in less than 4:40, much less six in a row.

"I made it through all six, but I don't know how," Reneau said. "I was dying. I'd never really even run on a track before I got here. The first five or six months were a pretty rough adjustment, because everything was new."

But Reneau traveled to New York yesterday with his confidence fortified by what he called "the hardest training cycle" of his life. Nine months of speed and strength work combined with 120-mile weeks have improved his stamina and his finishing kick. He hopes to run the marathon in about 2 hours 14 minutes -- a time that might allow him to sneak toward the front of the pack if any of the favorites falter. Reneau also enters the race with the advantage of knowing much of his opposition: At least six other runners from the Hanson-Brooks Distance Project are capable of placing in the top 15, and veterans Brian Sell and Clint Verran are strong candidates to qualify for the Olympics.

"It's still sinking in that I could beat even a handful of guys at this level," Reneau said.

Reneau was predisposed to become a talented runner, but he spent his childhood avoiding the sport. His father, Jeff, placed 10th in the Olympic marathon trials in 1968, but Reneau decided to focus on wrestling instead. He competed for four years on his high school varsity team in Hudson, Wis., running cross-country during the offseason to stay in shape. Reneau wrestled for two more years at the University of Wyoming. Then he quit, transferred to Wisconsin and stopped exercising much at all.

Not until Reneau walked out of his first lecture for the marathon class and called his father did Jeff finally have an excuse to pull his old running scrapbooks and training logs out of a closet. Jeff taught his son a little bit about pacing and breathing techniques. Then, in 2004, Jeff attended the final for Reneau's marathon class -- to run the Mad City Marathon in Madison, Wis. -- and watched his son finish in 2 hours 36 minutes.

"I knew right then that he had more potential than I ever had," Jeff said. "A lot of marathoners don't peak until their 30s. Mike's still young, and he's already one of the top guys out there. Plus, he's really just beginning his career."

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