Distance runner accomplishes historic feat for Iowa

BY BEN SCHUFF | MARCH 08, 2011 7:20 AM

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For a moment, Larry Wieczorek was at peace.

In the hectic life of Division-I athletics, the Iowa men’s head track and field coach was able to breathe after Jeff Thode automatically qualified for nationals in the mile.

But it wasn’t his athlete qualifying for NCAAs that slowed time for the head Hawkeye. Nor was it related Thode’s having just broken the school record in the mile in consecutive meets.

Instead, it was the five collective numbers displayed across a digital screen inside Notre Dame’s Loftus Center at the last-chance meet — 3:58.72. The sophomore had just completed the first sub-4:00 mile in Iowa school history.

“Jeff dared to do something great,” Wieczorek said.

The accomplishment was just the latest in what has been a grueling stretch for the distance runner. Two weeks ago, at the Big Ten championships, Thode was at least partially responsible for 11 of the team’s 88 points. He finished third in the mile, ran the mile leg on the fourth-place distance medley relay, and then notched one point for Iowa in the 5,000 meters.

“I probably, as a coach, did everything I could to ensure that he would not break the 4-minute mile a week later,” Wieczorek said about running Thode in three events at the Big Tens. “He has an unbelievable internal drive and guts that he wants to win and run fast.”

For Thode, however, the seemingly impossible feat appears to be just another race. The Schaumburg, Ill., native is taking everything in stride.

“It hasn’t settled in yet, and I don’t really care,” he said before Monday’s practice. “I’m just making sure I’m keeping my mental focus ready for nationals.

The last chance meet wasn’t about winning the mile but rather crossing the finish line with a time good enough to get to the NCAA indoor championships in College Station, Texas, next weekend.

With the 4-minute mile out of the way, Wieczorek said winning races and running tactical races will be the next step for the 20-year-old. The head coach noted that this was the most complete race he’s seen Thode run in his year and a half at Iowa.

Wieczorek recalled last year’s Notre Dame Meyo Invitational, in which the now school record-holder was on pace to run a 4-minute mile through the first three-quarters of the race. But Thode died off in the last quarter, and, as Wieczorek remembered, “Everybody was saying, ‘What a stupid runner.’ ”

This time around, Thode was able to hold his pace. And in a year in which nine school records have been broken, the prestige of the 4-minute mile may make this one stand out amongst the rest.

“You want, you hope, the other guys to follow suit,” assistant coach Joey Woody said about Thode’s performance at the last chance meet. “This is not a participation sport. It’s all about excellence, and that’s what we’re shooting for.”

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