Former Baylor School runner James Strang from Signal Mountain was part of unprecedented United States success last Friday in the Hanji Aoki Cup International Ekiden in Chiba, Japan.
Strang, a former University of Arkansas All-American who now lives and trains in Colorado Springs, ran the lead leg in the Americans' bronze-medal finish in the prestigious road relay race that includes a men's 5-kilometer run, then two women's 5k legs alternating with men's 10ks and a closing women's 7.195k. Sixteen countries were represented.
Galen Rupp, a good friend of Strang who earned the silver medal in the 10k at the London Olympics, ran the closing men's leg at Chiba, followed by Neely Spence, who was on a Pan American Games team with Strang.
"The United States has participated in this competition for years and has never finished on the podium. A U.S. team has finished fourth before, but never higher," Strang, who competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials this past summer, said this week. "This race falls during the offseason for American distance runners who are not competing or training for marathons, which makes it tough for the USA to assemble a team that can compete. Some of the other countries are getting ready to go into their seasons.
"But when I was asked to be on this team and heard who else was on it, I knew we had a shot at the podium."
The 27-year-old Strang was asked only a couple of weeks before the competition -- a USA Track and Field director called and told him some changes were being made to the lineup and asked if he would be willing to join the team -- and he was coming off a long break.
"I really had been running only about five days -- I started back with light workouts -- when we got to Japan," Strang related. "But our men's team coach told me that all I had to do was set the pace for the team and keep us close. Other countries had stacked their first legs with their Olympians but were weaker after that."
Strang did his job, staying within 15 seconds of first-leg leader Thomas Longosiwa of Kenya, the Olympics' 5k silver medalist. Then young American Chelsea Reilly ran a personal best in her 5k to get the U.S. into fourth place, and Jake Reilly got virtually even with his Russian counterpart for third in a pouring rain.
Kenya and Japan had begun to pull away from the other teams, but Rupp and Spence closed well to clinch the bronze.
"Everyone did their part. That was the biggest thing," Strang said. "We knew the Russians, Kenyans and Japanese were stacked teams, and on paper we were not as strong as them, but this goes to show that anything can happen on race day."
Strang's 2012 10k track times led to his inclusion in the Hanji Aoki Cup, and now he is about to begin 10 weeks of "heavy training" preparing for the 2013 indoor and outdoor track seasons.
"I plan to start racing in February," he said. "I wasn't planning on this race, but those of us who decided to run are very glad we did."
Contact Ron Bush at email@example.com or 423-757-6291.