PERPETUAL MOTION MACHINE
Josh Spiker is one of the best long-distance runners Ventura has ever produced — but has disappointment slowed him down?
By Matthew Singer 08/07/2008
In the world of track and field, where margins of victory are often measured in half-steps and fractions of an inch, thoughts come quickly. Runner Josh Spiker, for example, didn’t start to think he maybe had a shot to win the 1999 California state title in the 3,200 meters until his foot cast a shadow across the finish line.
Even as he entered the last 10 meters, Spiker had no clue how it would turn out. Things were going according to plan, however. Unlike in his two previous races, where he held leads up until the final lap, Spiker stayed in the middle of the pack, speeding up and slowing down at random, conserving his leg strength and never allowing the other runners to base their rhythm off him. And by the time he approached the home stretch, the strategy devised by his Ventura High School coach Bill Tokar was clearly working: He was ahead of the majority of the field, and the runners in front of him had been goaded into a two-man battle. Normally, this is where the pain would set in: the Jell-O quads; the calves of fire; the sensation, in Spiker’s words, “that a bear has jumped on your back.” But Spiker felt none of it. Not having overextended himself trying to lead for the first 3,190 meters, he had stored up enough energy for one explosive surge at the end. He started hammering on the outside lane, the two leaders drawing closer.
Hey, he finally thought as he passed them, I might win this thing. Then, .02 seconds later, he did.
Life is slower for Spiker these days, figuratively and literally. At age 26, he is beginning to feel the wear and tear of two decades spent pounding pavement, running through injuries and pushing his body past greater and greater thresholds of pain. He complains of new lingering aches; his joints pop whenever he moves. As a result, he has cut down the mileage on his legs, from over 90 miles per week in college to about 50. And the single-minded focus that consumed him through high school and college — getting faster, better conditioned, breaking personal records, qualifying for state then national then international competitions — has largely left him. His main concern now involves all the stress of professional athletics and none of the glory: operating Inside Track, the local runners’ institution he bought in 2007.
It is a quadrennial August, and for the owner of a sporting goods store this is, of course, an exciting month. The Olympics is that brief moment when the world finds itself enthralled by sports it never knew it cared about, elevating swimming and gymnastics to the level of football, basketball and baseball in the national consciousness — for a few weeks, at least — and, possibly, increasing sales of track shoes and unitards across the country. But for Spiker, the Olympics mean more than the potential for better business. It is, for him, a reminder of missed opportunity: In 2004, Spiker qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, but a hernia kept him from racing. He insists he wouldn’t have made the team anyway. It is difficult to say whether Spiker is just keenly aware of his own limitations, or if he tells himself this to cope with the disappointment of having his chance to compete on the grandest stage ripped away from him. Either way, he admits that watching the games does not come without a twinge of frustration.
“Emotionally, it’s hard for me. I want to be there,” Spiker says. “I’m not far enough removed to let go and enjoy it.”
If one of the key factors separating world-class athletes from average ones is genetics, then running is coded into Spiker’s DNA: His mother used to run marathons — barefoot. But he says he discovered track mostly on his own. He remembers being 6 years old and seeing a group of kids his age jogging through Arroyo Verde Park. “It just seemed simple and fun, to get into a rhythm and run a mile,” he says. That group was part of the Ventura Tigres Youth Track Club. He joined and began covering 35 miles per week. In fifth grade, he ran his first major race outside California at the Junior Olympics in Florida. Nerves and humidity combined to make Spiker’s first taste of legitimate competition a bitter one. “I fell apart,” he says. “I was soaking wet and crying. I almost finished in last place.” But, he adds, “the vacation was fun.” The next year, in San Jose, he placed third in his heat.
Until eighth grade, Spiker split his time between running and soccer. But with high school looming, participating in two sports became too much strain for him. He had to choose, and it wasn’t a hard decision. As a competitor, he appreciated the fact that success or failure lay exclusively on his own shoulders. “I liked how a referee could not influence the competition. You can only rely on yourself to compete,” he says. “Once the race starts, it’s you versus the world. If you have a bad race, there’s only one person to blame.” And, he says, the solitary nature of long-distance running fit his personality. “I’m a bit of a loner.”
Entering Ventura High School, running became an all-consuming passion. He sacrificed all traces of a social life — hardly ever going out with friends, getting nine hours of sleep every night — gearing everything toward the next race. His level of dedication impressed and initially concerned his coach. “He had trouble distinguishing between training and straining,” Tokar says. “If it wasn’t hurting, he wasn’t training hard enough.” After spending much of his first year hurt between meets, Tokar eventually had to tell Spiker to tone down his workouts. “It’s not often that I have someone I have to do that with. With Josh, I’d have to say, ‘Come on, work less intensely.’ In most cases, it’s the opposite.”
In terms of pure talent, however, Tokar places Spiker “right up there at the top, if not the top” of the runners he has coached in his 22-year career. But it is his desire to win, Tokar says, that truly puts him a step above.
“When it comes to crunch time in a race, having the will to push yourself faster is often the factor that distinguishes an elite athlete from a good athlete. He had the willpower to push himself to the top level,” Tokar says.
Spiker’s first test of his own willpower came his sophomore year, at the Southern Section Masters Meet in Cerritos, Calif. He had run the 3,200 meters before, but never against the caliber of opponents he faced that day. “I knew I was outclassed,” he says, “but when I took the lead, there was something really refreshing and encouraging in that. I felt I was competing against the big boys.” Alas, he didn’t hold the lead long. With 400 meters to go, the more experienced runners, having conserved their leg strength, sprinted past him. He ended up finishing eighth overall. But that wasn’t what mattered. He had shaved 10 seconds off his previous best time. Most importantly, he proved he could hang with another class of runners. “The fact that I went for it, and that I had a strong finish, that was the tipping point.”
From there, the accomplishments began to stack up — three All-American honors, the third-fastest mile in America in 2000 and, of course, his victory at the state championships.
Winning state as a junior opened the door to several colleges, and in November of his senior year Spiker signed to the University of Wisconsin. When he arrived in Madison the following fall, Spiker stepped into a situation that, from a running perspective, was worlds apart from what he had known growing up in Ventura. For one, he was mixing with a deeper pool of talent than before, on a team filled with guys who, like him, were the best runners in their respective schools, cities, counties. Also, his coach, Jerry Schumacher, took a less restrictive approach to training than Tokar, allowing his athletes to more or less set their own regimens. And, perhaps most dramatically, Spiker realized that having a life away from the track was not only encouraged by the college environment but demanded. “When you run 90 to 100 miles a week, you have to unwind, or it eats at you,” he says.
Despite the changes, Spiker continued to perform well. As a freshman, he traveled to Belgium to represent the United States as a member of the Junior National Cross Country Team, finishing 24th against a field that included the vaunted Kenyans. He finished ninth in the 2001 NCAA Cross Country Championships, third in the 1,500 meters at the 2002 Outdoor Track and Field Championships (which he ran with a stress fracture in his pelvis) and led his relay team to second and third place finishes at the Indoor Track and Field Championships in 2002 and 2003. And in 2004, he ran 3:40 in the 1,500, putting him in position to compete in the Olympic Trials.
In between that qualifying run and the trials, Spiker had an MRI scheduled for a bump in his abdomen that had been steadily growing over the course of the season. He had an idea what it was, and his suspicions proved correct: a hernia.
Spiker faced three scenarios: race in the trials, not qualify and put his health in jeopardy, compromising his ability to help the cross country team, which he felt had a good shot at winning the national title the following year; have surgery and miss the trials; or put off the operation, possibly run the strongest 1,500 meters of his life, and advance to the most celebrated platform of athletic achievement.
Ultimately, he went with the surgery. He rationalized that he just wasn’t up to par to make Olympic time, and didn’t want to risk his contribution to the cross country team. Not that it was a choice made with ease.
“It was frustrating,” he confesses, “knowing that all I had to do was show up.”
Today, Spiker doesn’t appear haunted by doubt, but being forced to skip the Olympic trials does seem to have had a lingering effect on his running career. He underperformed at the national Cross Country Championships in 2005, and his team took second place. After graduation, Spiker signed an endorsement deal with New Balance and relocated to Colorado. But even as a self-proclaimed loner, Spiker found himself missing the camaraderie of the team training sessions back in Madison. And for the first time since he began running, his motivation started to dwindle.
At a crossroads, in 2006 he decided to return to Ventura and make good on a promise he made before he went to Wisconsin: buying Inside Track, where he worked as a cashier for a few summers as a teenager.
“He said one time, when he was leaving off to college, ‘I’ll be back. Don’t sell the store to anyone else,’ ” says Gary Tuttle, a former Ventura City Councilman and professional runner, who opened the store in 1977. “I wasn’t ready to sell it then anyway. When he was ready to buy, I was ready to sell.”
When he officially took over on New Year’s Day 2007, Spiker funneled the energy he once devoted to running into the store. Tuttle had kept Inside Track mostly untouched for 30 years; Spiker immediately put in new floors, new fixtures, brought in new clothing. And when the lease came up earlier this year, he moved to a newer, bigger location — 38 W. Main St. — and, with the added floor space, expanded the inventory to cover other endurance sports such as cycling.
Spiker says he likes what he is doing now. Watching him help customers at Inside Track, it’s clear he is not lying. But reclaiming his shot at the Olympics remains in his mind. He still competes — he is currently preparing for the Carpinteria Triathlon next month — but he knows getting back to where he was requires a whole other stratum of commitment. Right now, other things take precedence, a fact that was probably unimaginable four years ago. But, he says, he has a good 10 years left to do it. And for someone accustomed to thinking in milliseconds, that is all the time in the world.
“If my life is at a point where I can go for it,” he says, “I will.”
Visit Josh Spiker at Inside Track (38 W. Main St., Ventura, 643-1104), Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sun. noon-5 p.m. For more info, go to www.insidetrackventura.com.