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Wednesday, 18 October 2006 00:00

Going the distance: Elite runner Jason Bodnar sets his sights on Olympic Trials

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By Michael Beadle

The marathon can be such a fickle race.

As much as you prepare for it, a lot can go wrong in those 26.2 miles. Missing a water station. Getting a blister. Maybe there’s a sudden downpour of rain or it’s an abnormally hot day. So much running and preparation builds into a matter of hours. And then disaster strikes.

 

Having trained for months to compete in the Twin Cities Marathon in Minnesota last month, Jason Bodnar wanted to qualify for the Olympic Trials with a sub-2:22 marathon. That’s 26.2 miles in a little over two hours at an average pace of about 5:25 per mile.

But several weeks before the big date, he pulled a muscle in his right hip.

Running through the pain, Bodnar didn’t make the time he had hoped for, but he did finish in 2 hours and 30 minutes — placing 29th out of 8,196 runners — and still an amazing 5:46-minute pace most of the human population could only dream of reaching.

That’s the world of Jason Bodnar — running fast and wanting to go faster.

Moving to Western North Carolina last summer to set up a dental practice near Clyde, Bodnar said he was excited to come to the mountains and take advantage of the quality of running here. Towns like Brevard caught his eye as a talent pool of runners.

A former member of the U.S. National Cross Country Team and a scholarship track athlete in college, Bodnar has put up some impressive numbers in races — 4:02 in the mile, 13:37 in the 5K, and 2 hours and 21 minutes in the 1999 Pittsburgh marathon, which qualified him for the 2000 Olympic Trials. But, he’s equally proud of his coaching experience, helping runners set personal goals.

Eying the local running scene in Western North Carolina, Bodnar says it’s a shame more schools don’t invest in their cross-country teams. There are a lot of local football athletes who could be cross country stars with scholarship offers to Division I schools, according to Bodnar.

“And it’s not rocket science,” he adds.

Bodnar himself started out as a football player — “misplaced” he calls it — until a broken right arm during football practice led him to rethink his options.

“I’m a Steelers fan,” Bodnar says. “I’m a football fan as big as anybody.”

But after being sidelined for football, he turned to track. His coach entered him in the 2-mile run (eight laps around the track). That first race, there were four people. One guy stopped to throw up, allowing Bodnar to pass him and not finish last. When Bodnar asked to be put in the sprinting races, his coach compromised and put him in the half-mile and mile races.

By his sophomore year, Bodnar became a leader in local cross country races and went on to state competitions. Growing up in Uniontown in western Pennsylvania, he had the advantage of running with Olympic-caliber runners in high school. He accepted a track scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, where he ran the 800 meters and ran cross country. It was a tough conference, but Pitt managed to beat rival Penn State three out of those four years in college.

“I got my butt whooped a lot,” Bodnar said. “I learned a lot about myself; that’s for sure.”

After college, he hit hs stride as a distance runner, earning a spot on the U.S. Cross Country team and competing in road races across the country with Asics as a sponsor.

“I guess distance running appealed to me right away,” Bodnar said.

 

Stick to the plan

Running is that microcosm of life, with its ups and downs.

“It’s something you can learn a lot about yourself,” he says. “It’s certainly a lifestyle choice.”

Physical talent can only take you so far, he adds, so he’s tried to work harder on mental toughness and diet changes. That means no beer, junk food or red meat leading up to a major race. To hear him talk about training — piling on 100 to 130 miles a week in preparation for a marathon — sounds as simple as Nike’s slogan, “Just do it.” But Bodnar is not one to make light of his hard work. It’s a matter of training hard to get results.

One of his secrets on long distance races is to drink diluted Gatorade (one part Gatorade, one part defizzed Coke and eight parts water) in ketchup or mustard bottles positioned at stations throughout the race.

“That’s my magic drink,” he says.

Randy Ashley, Bodnar’s coach and a two-time Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon, offers extra guidance along the way. Most people aren’t willing to go through the morning and evening runs, the 100-plus miles a week, and the mental challenge of taxing your body to the extreme, Ashley said. Bodnar goes through all that and still maintains a regular day job, while many elite marathon runners sleep 12 to 14 hours a day to get the necessary rest in an intense training regimen, Ashley said

Bodnar still has a year to qualify for the Olympic Trials in November of 2007 in New York City. He was on pace to run a sub-2:20 before his untimely injury. Just four weeks before Twin Cities, he ran a 20K in 1 hour and 4 minutes, so the speed is there. But the marathon can crush even the most ambitious athletes.

“He’s taking on a fairly tough beast, but I think he can do it,” Ashley said.

The marathon is the kind of race that exposes any weaknesses you have, so Bodnar has been doing longer tempo runs (10 miles at race pace) and breaking down his running technique — the equivalent of a golfer re-examining his swing.

“If you have a plan, you have to stick to that plan,” Bodnar says. “What you put into it is what you’re going to get out of it.”

That means running five to six days a week for the best results and keeping up a good work ethic — something that often transfers over to the classroom. At Pitt, Bodnar ran with two teammates who had perfect SAT scores.

“Most endurance athletes are good students,” he says.

Unfortunately, a lot of young students miss out on the chance to have early success with running, he adds. Unlike basketball and football that often get so much attention as a tough sport, running doesn’t have time-outs. And running is often used as a punishment. When you misbehave or don’t win a game or miss a free-throw, you have to run sprints or laps.

But Bodnar prefers to think of running as a challenge, going the distance and finding the will to endure.

“You’re out there attempting to do something no one likes to do,” he says.

Before coming to Western North Carolina, Bodnar lived to Florida, where he earned his dental degree in 2003, and found a new love in coaching. He gladly ranks his coaching achievements alongside any of his personal running accomplishments. One of his athletes, in an 18-month span, dropped his marathon time from 5 hours and 12 minutes to 3 hours and 9 minutes, and reduced his weight from 270 pounds to 201 pounds. Another made it to the world duathlon championships.

Scaling back his own running career, Bodnar says he would like to volunteer as a coach locally. He lives at Bent Creek and likes to run there. You also might find him at Cabin Flats, Lake Junaluska or along highways or at the track.

And he’s not the only one in the family with a running record. His wife Jennifer was first among women at the Folkmoot 5K in Waynesville in July. The two were married last June.

With the Twin Cities Marathon behind him, Bodnar will regroup and think over another attempt at a sub-2:20 marathon.

“I think I’m capable of running 2:14,” he said before jetting off for an evening run.

Fast — and running faster.

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