There were no shoe sponsorships or endorsement deals waiting for Sam Penzenstadler as he wrapped up his stellar but under-the-radar collegiate running career in the spring of 2015.
A three-time all-American at Loyola University in Chicago, Penzenstadler figured he would remain in the Midwest to train for a year with his college coaches or by himself as he contemplated his running future. Professional running felt like a far-away dream, and Penzenstadler was unable to find an elite post-collegiate club in the area to foster his aspirations.
“I was 99 percent sure that I was staying in Chicago,” Penzenstadler said.
But more than 700 miles away in Washington, D.C., American University graduate student Tom Brumlik, long-time track coach Drew Mearns and two-time Olympian Matt Centrowitz, the Eagles’ cross country and track and field coach, were in the process of establishing the District Track Club. Officially launched in January, the professional post-collegiate middle-distance and distance running club is aiming to be the first of its kind in the nation’s capital since the Reebok Enclave folded in the early 2000s.
Penzenstalder was at the top of their recruiting list.
“Sam was to me the only guy we had to have to build this program around last year,” said Brumlik, a 29-year-old former Division III runner. “Just his personality in general, he was extremely laid-back [and] very excited not only to train post-collegiately, but he seemed more interested in building something, being kind of a pioneer.”
On Sunday morning, Penzenstadler and several of his teammates will be among the elite runners competing at the second annual Navy Mile on Pennsylvania Avenue, an event he won last year.
For the past 13 months, the 24-year-old Wisconsin native has embraced his new home in the Washington area. He lives in Arlington with two of his teammates and is an assistant cross-country coach at Sidwell Friends.
Under the tutelage of Brumlik and Centrowitz, Penzenstadler has set personal bests in both the outdoor 1,500 meters (3:39.64) and mile (3:57.80) as well as the indoor 1,500 meters (3:42.32) and mile (3:57.29).
His season, however, was cut short in late spring by calf injuries. It was a particularly unfortunate setback during an Olympic year, but Penzenstadler’s experience with the District Track Club has only fueled his desire to make it onto the sport’s biggest stage.
“Through four more years, I’ll be four years stronger, four years smarter,” he said of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
When the Enclave lost Reebok as its sponsor on Jan. 1, 2001, it left a void that has been tough to fill.
There are several competitive running clubs in the Washington area, including the Georgetown Running Club and the Maryland-based, professional, all-female Riadha group, but none match the scope and success of the Enclave, which was led by Centrowitz and Frank Gagliano, now the head coach at the New Jersey-New York Track Club.
Unlike with the Georgetown Running Club, which has dozens of members who are full-time professionals in something other than running, Brumlik wants the District Track Club to be a small group with athletes who are “at the very least” hitting the Olympic ‘A’ standard.
Edose Ibadin, a 23-year-old DuVal High and Hampton University graduate, is a likely candidate. He joined the club last fall and reached the semifinals of the 800 meters at the Olympic trials in July.
“I love having [this club],” Ibadin said. “In college, I didn’t really train with people at this level, so it’s really good to be able to train with people who push me every day.”
Centrowitz and Brumlik also envision the club having a deep community involvement in the District with hopes that it will inspire and excite local runners. Three of the eight current members (seven men and one woman) have ties to the Washington area.
“I want it to be a grassroot program that people feel this is their home and that this is important,” said Centrowitz, whose son Matthew won the Rio Olympic gold medal in the 1,500 meters. “[I want] people in the neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. to feel that this is their club.”
Through donations and a few partnerships with local businesses, the District Track Club, a non-profit, provides its athletes with discounted gym memberships and pays for gear and race entry fees, but runners still have to make a living by taking other jobs.
Brumlik uses pro runner and former club member Kerri Gallagher as a model of the work-run balance he wants for his athletes. Gallagher, a former assistant coach under Centrowitz at American, had a job that allowed her to train at an elite level while making ends meet. She now runs for Nike and is the head cross-country coach at Manhattan College.
On a recent workout at Lewinsville Park in McLean, Penzenstadler led three of his teammates — Ibadin, Georgetown alum Billy Ledder and Williamsburg native Derek Holdsworth — around the turf fields, effortlessly gliding through each repetition and showing no signs of the injury that hampered him in the spring.
When he lines up Sunday for the Navy Mile, Penzenstadler will have those same teammates around him, pushing him toward, and potentially challenging him for, another victory.
“It was a little risk but high reward coming out here,” he said. “I’m young. I’m the most [healthy] and fit I’ve been. It’s worked out. It’s been good so far.”
Where: Pennsylvania Ave., Washington
When: Sunday; first of 14 heats begins at 8 a.m. Elite females 11:15, elite men 11:30.
Defending champions: Men’s: Sam Penzenstadler (4:16.07). Women’s: Kenyetta Iyevbele (4:52.34).
Prize money: $3,000 for first place. $1,000 bonus for first man to break 4:00, first woman below 4:35.