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Verzbicas is first school runner to participate in New Balance mile

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / February 4, 2011

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Sitting in his stepfather’s car, Lukas Verzbicas stared in amazement at the Chicago skyline with its sleek, steel-and-glass towers. The drive through downtown served as his introduction to the United States, where his mother and stepfather believed a better life awaited. In his 8-year-old mind, it was a country of big buildings and big opportunity. Something about the skyscrapers made anything seem possible.

“I was awed,’’ said Verzbicas, who emigrated from Lithuania. “I’d never seen a building higher than 10 stories.’’

Awed, but not intimidated. The drive downtown hinted at how Verzbicas would handle new, challenging situations. He adjusted quickly to life in the US, perfecting his English and discovering a talent for running. Major opportunities came his way, and Verzbicas took advantage — climbing to the top of high school distance running, winning national titles, and setting records.

The 2011 New Balance Indoor Grand Prix offers Verzbicas, who turned 18 last month, his biggest opportunity yet. Tomorrow night at the Reggie Lewis Center, he will run the men’s mile, competing against elite, professional athletes for the first time. It is also the first time the meet director has invited a US high school runner to participate in the elite mile. Verzbicas will join a field slated to include Olympic silver medalist Nick Willis from New Zealand and American mile record-holder Alan Webb.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a high schooler to compete with elite, professional athletes,’’ said Verzbicas. “When you have such an opportunity, you cannot turn it down. I want to get the feel of that next level of racing. I want to have my shot and see what I can do. I certainly won’t be beating out any silver medalists. But I’ll definitely be running for a very, very fast time.’’

Does that mean Verzbicas will take aim at a sub-4-minute mile and Webb’s high school indoor record of 3:59.86? “We’ll see,’’ he said. But before he finishes high school and heads to the University of Oregon this fall, Verzbicas wants to join the “special group’’ of US high school runners who have broken the 4-minute barrier — Webb, Jim Ryun, Marty Liquori, and Tim Danielson. With professionals pushing the pace, the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix offers Verzbicas his best shot of joining the sub-4 high school club.

Verzbicas plans on following the advice he recently received from Webb to “ride the wave.’’ He will stay with the leaders as long as possible and see where that takes him. Verzbicas posted his best mile time (4:04.38) against high school competition in the Jim Ryun High School Dream Mile at the adidas Grand Prix last June in New York, pushing the pace from the front for more than half the race. His long, fluid stride made the win appear effortless.

“Who knows if I had Nick Willis to run with what could have happened,’’ said Verzbicas. Still, it’s early in the season for meet participants, and tomorrow’s mile may involve more strategy than speed.

“His progression as a high schooler has been so natural, so methodical,’’ said New Balance Indoor Grand Prix meet director Mark Wetmore. “There doesn’t seem to be many plateaus. That’s why he deserves this opportunity to run against these guys and see how fast he can run. Just as a fan, I want to see what he can do. Whether he breaks four might be dictated by how the race unfolds. Does he stay out of traffic? There’s no question that during the course of his career he’s going to break four many, many times. I’d love to see him do it here.’’

Distant memories The progression from pre-teen basketball player to precocious distance runner started when Verzbicas entered a 5K road race near his hometown of Orland Park, Ill. He was 11, and joined the race for fun without any training. He ran the first 2 miles with the leaders, then faded to a walk over the last mile. Still, he loved his introduction to distance running. His parents, who coached elite track athletes back in Lithuania, recognized raw, natural talent, even when they saw Verzbicas sputter to the finish.

After the 5K race, his parents decided to develop their son’s talent with an unconventional approach, training Verzbicas for the triathlon. They built his strength and endurance through swimming, cycling, and running, not the kind of pounding high mileage that can burn out runners at a young age.

“When he set a national record [14:18.42 for 5,000 meters indoor] as a freshman, people asked how he trained,’’ said his mother, Rasa Bertulis, a national record-setting, 3,000-meter runner in Lithuania. “We told people he was swimming more than he was running. Nobody believed it. People thought they misunderstood what we said or that we didn’t understand what was being asked. We did many things different with him. It was not just go run, run, run, run.’’

Verzbicas quickly ascended to the top levels of both the junior triathlon and distance running ranks. In 2010, he became the first high school runner to claim the Foot Locker and Nike national cross-country titles in the same season. Last September, he earned fourth place at the International Triathlon Union (ITU) Junior World Championship in Budapest. While thankful for how the triathlon helped him develop as an all-around athlete, Verzbicas plans to spend at least the next four years focused on running.

“I love the challenge of running,’’ said Verzbicas. “I love racing. I feel like I’m a different person when I’m racing against someone. I get in the zone. The only thing that matters is the race. I can only do that with running and it feels amazing.’’

To his fans and followers, those who crowd around for autographs at cross-country and track meets, it looks amazing, too. At 6 feet, 130 pounds, Verzbicas runs with an impressive blend of strength and grace. His confidence in his training and his talent is clear with every stride.

Since strict rules governing Illinois high school athletes would limit his ability to compete against top runners, Verzbicas doesn’t run track for his high school. His ability to choose races, combined with his 24-hour-a-day discipline and devotion to the sport, often leaves Verzbicas living a life more suited for a professional runner than an 18-year-old high school student. That same discipline also helped him speed through high school on a three-year plan. Admittedly, he’s in a rush to reach the next level.

Family guidance In preparation for his final high school track season, Verzbicas runs 60 miles per week under the guidance of his mother and stepfather. A typical day might consist of an easy 5-mile run before school, then after school he might do a speed workout or long run. His stepfather plans and oversees the running workouts, while his mother handles his schedule off the track. Verzbicas counts the occasional night out at the movies as his biggest indulgence.

Verzbicas and his parents acknowledge that it is hard work to reach the top and stay there, that they sacrifice daily, that they sometimes get on each other’s nerves.

“When they coach you at practice, it transfers on to life,’’ said Verzbicas. “It gets aggravating because you’re with them at home. Sometimes I feel like I want to go out and have fun with my friends. It’s good that they keep me from that and I don’t do that so often. Without them, I might not be at this level. They make sure I don’t get a big head and stuff like that. Sometimes it gets annoying, but it’s only for the better.’’

Added his mother: “We are teaching him what everything in his life is supposed to be. He needs to go to sleep on time. He needs to eat only good food. We control everything. He’s now 18 years old and feels like he knows everything about life. But at the end, he tells us, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ ’’

Verzbicas credits his parents and the move from Lithuania for his early success. If his family remained in Lithuania, he believes his running talent might have gone undiscovered or, at least, undeveloped. He might have been more easily distracted as a teenager. He certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed the same opportunities to test himself against elite milers.

“I came from Lithuania and I wasn’t anything there,’’ said Verzbicas. “In the US, I wasn’t, at first, anything. Then, with the opportunities given me here in this country, it’s just amazing to think about what I’ve been able to achieve. When it says it is the ‘Land of Opportunity,’ for me it’s the best way to describe how this country is. It’s the ‘Land of Opportunity.’ Now, I’m proof of it.’’

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.