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2007 Foot Locker Nationals
December 8, 2007 Balboa Park, San Diego CA

Luke Puskedra is still leading, but Michael Fout is right there on his shoulder. Now Michael Fout is moving up! Michael Fout is…

Michael Fout is in sixth grade. He’s an athletic disaster, which is the kiss of death for a boy in a town where excellence in sports is revered, which is every town when you’re male and eleven years old. He is inept at football, hopeless at baseball, and he’s just been cut from the sixth grade basketball team. This is a revelation to him, since no one gets cut from the sixth grade basketball team.

But Michael Fout just did.

Worse, this is Indiana, where circular metal rims grow on the backside of every garage and barn in the land. Where kids dribble until dark in schoolyards and driveways and abandoned lots, throwing imaginary pump fakes and elaborate behind-the-back passes. Where the crossover is king and the jump shot is a rite of passage. Where the least you can do as an uncoordinated sixth grader is make the team and ride the pine. Maybe grab some minutes when the score gets out of hand.

But not Michael Fout. Michael Fout didn’t make the cut.

A year from now, at the urging of his Uncle Jim, he’ll start doing something that seems absurd at the moment. He'll move with his grandparents to the small city of La Porte, Indiana, not far from South Bend, and he’ll consider his winnowing athletic possibilities and take up the one "sport" his more athletically-gifted classmates consider punishment for dropped passes and bricked foul shots. He’ll become a runner.

Michael Fout is really putting the hammer down! Michael Fout is our new leader. Michael Fout is…

Michael Fout is standing in the cool evening air of Greensboro, North Carolina. He’s catching his breath after completing eight circuits of the track at North Carolina A & T University in eight minutes and fifty-eight seconds. Sub-nine for two miles, and it’s just starting to sink in. The buzzing crowd and the persistent media and the meet announcer are all elsewhere, hounding race winner Matthew Centrowitz, who has just equaled the third best high school time ever for this distance, and Craig Forys, who trailed Centrowitz to the line.

Michael Fout finished ninth, deep in the field. He wasn’t even on the same straightaway as Centrowitz and Forys at the end of the race, but it doesn’t matter. He didn’t come to the Nike Outdoor Nationals to win. He came, as a high school junior with a decidedly thin, injury-riddled resume, to see if he could run with the best in the nation.

Earlier in the season he’d told La Porte High coach Tim Beres that he planned to break nine minutes in the 3200 before his junior year was out. Beres, who began coaching the same year Fout entered high school and rarely found himself on the pessimistic side of their goal-planning sessions, had an unexpected reply.

“Mike, I think that’s ridiculous.”

“You don’t think I’m any good,” Fout shot back.

But that wasn’t the case at all. From the time Michael Fout showed up for practice as a 5’6” freshman weighing 110-pounds soaking wet, Beres had seen the promise of that efficient stride and tireless work ethic. He just had no evidence, after several seasons of dings and disappointments, that such a breakthrough was imminent. Entering the spring of his junior year, Mike was barely under 9:20 for 3200. Impressive, but certainly not sub-nine territory. Beres counseled a more modest target of 9:05.  Maybe get under 9:10 first.  But then his pupil reeled off a 9:13 at the West Lafayette Invitational, a 9:12 at his regional meet, and a 9:03.49 to win the Indiana state championship.

Beres came back to Fout with a new reply: “I was wrong on this one. You’re ready.”

On an uncharacteristically temperate Friday evening in June, behind the torrid early pace of Luke Puskedra, Fout weaved his way through a crowded field of sub-nine seekers to record a big PR and establish himself as the third best two-miler in the junior class.

Watching from the stands was Coach Bob Braman of Florida State University, a man who reached out to Mike in the recruiting process when the top selling point on Mike’s bio was a seventh-place finish in the Indiana state 3200 as a sophomore. Mike’s junior cross country season had been a wash—truncated by a knee injury which hobbled him for most of the season. But in his one big race before the injury, he’d won the New Prairie Invitational over Indiana’s top harrier at the time—Foot Locker finalist DeSean Turner—and Braman had taken notice.

Now he, like Fout and Beres, was seeing the emergence of that buried promise.

Michael Fout is opening up a bit of a lead. Michael Fout is heading up the steep dirt hill. Michael Fout is…

Michael Fout is lying on his bed on a summer morning. Adjusting to the light and studying, for the millionth time, the sheet of paper taped to the side of his dresser. The one he looks at every day when he wakes up. The cryptic acronym at the top: DSFSB. Don’t Settle for Second Best. The list of goals underneath, which is really a collection of directives to himself. The keys to the summer, if this running thing is really going to work out.

Stay healthy is at the top of the list.

Right below it? Work harder than ever.

Which also means work smarter than ever. The enduring lesson from his junior year knee injury was that seventy miles a week doesn’t work for this body. The engine can take it, but not the frame. So Coach Beres has a new plan for 2007.

Never above fifty again.

Mike has followed that plan, and put in his miles, and done the weight work and the core exercises and the drills that have transformed a 5’6”, 110-pound freshman into a 6’1”, 145-pound soon-to-be senior with broad shoulders and a powerful build. He’s picked up the odd summer work, but mainly he considers running his summer job.  Running and working out at the YMCA.

And it’s paying off.

And he’s healthy. And the knee feels good.

And he's thinking this could be the year.

Michael Fout is at the top of the hill now! He’s made that bold move and he’s holding on. Michael Fout is…

Michael Fout is sitting in a ballroom at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, California, with seventy-nine other Foot Locker finalists and a roomful of coaches and parents, listening to Ryan Hall speak from a podium. Hall, recently annointed the Next Great One in US distance running on the strength of his marathon performances in London and at the US Olympic Trials, is on a panel of elite runners invited to speak on the eve of the Foot Locker National meet.  He is wearing the mantle of America's Distance Hope somewhat uncomfortably, like a boy in an ill-fitting suit with his hunched shoulders and his self-conscious, languid drawl. But his message is magnetic.

He’s discussing the point in the marathon trials when he realized that the comfortable lead pack he’d help carve out was being threatened from behind by a surging Khalid Khannouchi, the former marathon world record-holder. At that point, Hall says, he made a decision to push the pace, for fear Khannouchi would fragment the pack and ruin his chances. In that moment, Ryan Hall took his shot. He shifted gears and dropped his one big move and broke the field open.

In a race like Foot Locker, Ryan Hall says, you have to take your swing, or you’ll walk away wishing you had.  Ryan Hall says this, in his sincere, languid way, and Michael Fout is riveted.

He’s been taking his swings all season. He took a swing at the Culver Academies Invitational in September and got dropped by Chris Derrick in the final thousand meters. He took a swing at the Indiana state meet and dominated in 15:31. He took a swing at the Mideast Meet of Champions and beat fellow Foot Locker finalist Maverick Darling and took down Bob Kennedy’s course record in the process. He took a swing at the Foot Locker Midwest qualifier and bolted to the title in a rematch with Derrick, then listened to people murmur on internet message boards that Derrick had been holding back in preparation for races down the road.

Now, Mike Fout is listening to Ryan Hall and thinking he has one swing left this season, and he knows exactly how he’ll do it.

In about twelve hours, he’ll toe the line at the 2007 Foot Locker National Finals, and when the gun goes off, he’ll hang three to five seconds off of what will inevitably be a fast first mile, and he’ll position himself with the lead pack on the second loop of the Balboa Park course, then make a definitive move somewhere near the two mile mark. It will be the hardest move he’s ever made in a cross country race, and he’ll have one shot to take it. This field is too good for second acts.

Move like it’s the final 400 meters, and distance the leaders immediately—that’s the plan he’s worked out with Coach Beres.  Listening to Ryan Hall is only reinforcing his resolve.

Michael Fout is opening up on the flat. Michael Fout is powering up the last little hill. Michael Fout is…

Michael Fout is playing football on the beach. He’s tall and athletic and broad-shouldered and fast. He’s just returned an interception for a touchdown against a team of lanky fellow runners, ripping down the San Diego shoreline in a spray of sand. If it hadn’t been for a certain footrace in the morning, it might have been the best move he pulled all day.

But the move he pulled in that morning race—good lord.

On a rain-slick course already trodden by the girls’ championship race, Michael Fout took his swing. Just past the two mile point, after hanging three to five seconds off the sharp early pace, he unleashed an unanswerable move on an already suffering field and gapped them immediately. He stormed up the one major hill on the course like a man possessed, cresting the top and coming off the downhill in complete control of a race he'd had little business imagining himself running a year ago.

“I did feel surprisingly good,” he says later, “but obviously there was pain too. You put in literally thousands of miles training for this, and it comes down to the last 800 meters. You’re thinking, I’ve worked so hard. I’m so close to the goal, don’t let it slip away now. The pain was kind of like a dirtied chalkboard; I just wiped the slate clean. It was like flipping a switch—here we go.”

Somewhere in the back of his head, never fully surfacing, but agitating the effort nonetheless, was the encouragement of Ryan Hall—Take your swing—and the whispers of the message board mavens—Derrick was cruising at the regional—and the words of Coach Beres—I was wrong on this one. You’re ready.

All alone, Fout plowed up the final slight ascent and angled toward the finish line. Closing in over the final 800 meters, but never threatening, was his old nemesis Chris Derrick. Two Midwesterners, emerging as the Foot Locker national champion and the runner-up. No cruising, just guts-on-the-table effort.

Now the adoring crowd and the pressing media and the meet announcer were swarming them, and they were nearly tripping over each other in their post-race humility, expressing mutual respect and admiration for one another.

“I can’t say enough about Chris,” Fout says. “He’s a true champion too. I really would consider him a friend and hope we stay in touch and get to race each other again in college. It was a great season he put together.”

What about the message board murmurs? No lingering tension from that?

“Maybe if it had been somebody besides Chris Derrick,” Coach Beres says later. “But Mike had gotten to know Chris when they raced at the Culver Invite. When he started hearing those rumors, it didn’t bug him in the least. He knew Chris had nothing to do with it.”

Watching Fout's performance from the sidelines, yet again, was Coach Braman of Florida State, who’d rolled the dice on a junior with tremendous upside and landed one of the prize recruits in the nation when Mike Fout made a verbal commitment to attend FSU in the fall of 2008.

And Uncle Jim was there too, the former collegiate runner who’d nudged his nephew toward the sport all those years ago, when even the sixth grade basketball team wouldn’t have him.

Michael Fout to the top of the hill…and it’s downhill to the national title! Michael Fout is going to be the 2007 Foot Locker National champion! Michael Fout is…

Michael Fout is riding in a motorcade. Or the closest thing to a motorcade you’ll find in La Porte, Indiana. Three squad cars just off the back bumper and four of the city's finest up front, providing a full police escort from the airport back home. Tonight there will be a party at his girlfriend’s house, with friends and family and teammates and coaches in attendance.

At La Porte High on Monday, there will be bulletin boards and morning announcements and a video of the race looping at lunchtime. Kids he doesn’t know coming up and congratulating him. Teachers stopping him in the halls.

A whole town, welcoming home their national champion.

And at some point, after the parties and the celebrations and the newspaper articles have subsided, there will come a day when things return to normal. When it will just be Michael Fout and the beckoning road again. A Midwest winter and the dumping Lake-effect snow and the drudgery of the necessary miles.

And one morning, maybe tomorrow, Michael Fout will wake up to the gathering dawn in his bedroom and glance, for the millionth time, at his bedroom dresser.

He’ll see the list of goals affixed there. The target times. The necessary steps to make this running thing happen. And the cryptic, prophetic acronym at the top: DSFSB.

Don’t Settle for Second Best.



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