I went out of my way to avoid images of deal-crazed people running as if their very existence depended on it Friday.
I’m a sucker for Thanksgiving leftovers, anyway, and to further reinforce the themes of gratitude and family, we have 29-year-old Josh McDougal, who won the MVP Health Care Stockade-athon in Schenectady three weekends ago.
It was a pleasure catching up with Josh for the first time since I interviewed him 10 years ago.
At the time, he had a bit of Paul Bunyon mystique about him.
Section II distance runners knew all about the kid who trained on trails in the Adirondacks around his home in Peru, just south of Plattsburgh.
That, in spite of the fact that they rarely, if ever, had a chance to run against him, since he was home-schooled and was not allowed to race in interscholastic meets, per New York State Public High School Athletic Association rules.
Still, McDougal ran against older athletes in road races and open track meets, like the one at which I met him and his family at the University at Albany.
Polite and intelligent, he struck me as someone who was as serious about his running as anyone his age, perhaps a reflection of the self-drive you would need to crank out high mileage in the isolation of the woods with just your younger brother as a teammate.
It probably wouldn’t have been a stretch for an outsider to believe that Josh McDougal ran as if his very existence depended on it.
Then he fell off the face of the running world.
An NCAA cross country national champion in 2007 for Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. — you know, Jerry Falwell U. — McDougal left college with a degree in kinesiology and a pro contract to run for Nike.
By then, though, he was already in the midst of a brutal stretch of years in which he, at first, couldn’t train consistently because of a variety of physical problems, then couldn’t sleep comfortably in a bed, much less run at all.
The Stockade-athon ain’t the Olympics, at which the 14-time All-American McDougal had every right to believe he’d compete someday, but his victory in Schenectady was especially gratifying in its own way because it was part of a comeback this year that, for now, is open-ended.
“A lot of people have a much harder time with things than just not being able to do something that they love,” McDougal said. “This time around, I’m trying to be a lot more thankful for the blessings and just being able to run, you know? I don’t know if I’ll ever reach the levels that I once did. But I’m still improving, I’m having a lot of fun, and my wife and family are incredibly supportive. We’ll see.”
McDougal came out of the shadows in 2003, when he was fourth at the Foot Locker Northeast Regional at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, then fourth at the Foot Locker National Championships in San Diego.
The big Division I programs took notice, but McDougal honored his commitment to Liberty.
One of the runners who finished ahead of McDougal at nationals was Galen Rupp, who went on to run for the powerhouse at Oregon and eventually became an Olympic silver medalist.
McDougal beat Rupp by one second for the NCAA national championship in 2007, suggesting great things ahead for him. Instead, 130-mile training weeks had already begun to catch up to him.
“Eventually, I quit,” he said. “I hung up the shoes, competition-wise, as a senior in college. I was technically a professional, but I wasn’t even really able to train consistently to run races in 2008 and 2009. I did run two races in 2009, it was a sponsored thing where, OK, you’re obligated to at least try.
“So I was able to train for a month, then try, and I was so hurt that I did not sleep on a bed for the rest of the year. So by the end of 2009, I understood that it was over.”
The biggest member of his fan club didn’t give up on him.
A high school runner for a modest program at Madison High School in Marshall, N.C., Victoria Jones admired McDougal from afar. An exasperated English teacher gave her class a throwaway assignment, “What Celebrity Would You Want to Marry,” and Victoria wrote about the national champion one state over who had been kind to her team when he was at one of their meets.
Then McDougal was off the radar because of his injuries, but a 2011 magazine story on him prompted Victoria to send him a letter via Facebook “saying pretty much what I remembered most about him was how he treated people,” Victoria said.
A month later, McDougal proposed, they were married and now have a 17-month-old son, Declan, and another baby on the way.
McDougal has been coaching, while working with a physical therapist who finally seems to have gotten his myriad physical problems under control.
He has a new coach and has had some nice comeback races, including a 1:07:25 in the Manchester (N.H.) Half Marathon, since beginning race-type training 10 months ago. He beat a terrific field that produced the second-highest number of sub-50-minute finishers in the 39-year history of the Stockade-athon.
He has documented his journey in detail on a blog called “The Path to Humility,” admits to a period of bitterness and disillusionment, but has a lot to be thankful for and spares no opportunity to express that.
“I’ll never be the same runner,” McDougal said. “I’ve put a lot more time into a lot of little things. You’ve got to pay attention to little things. You can only be young and stupid once.”