Not the retiring type: Faxon Law New Haven Road Race regular Luke Puskedra is back

Hartford Courant
Lori Riley
September 01, 2019

A few weeks ago, Luke Puskedra found himself in a van full of running friends as part of a team called “Worst Pace Scenario,” running three 7-mile legs of the Cascade Lakes Relay, a 137-mile relay race in Oregon.

“I had a blast,” said Puskedra, 29, who lives in Eugene, Oregon. “It was a great time. I needed their energy to try to find my identity as a normal runner.”

It was something Puskedra wouldn’t even have considered doing four years ago, when he was one of the top American marathoners, after finishing the Chicago Marathon in 2:10:24. Only Olympic bronze medalist Galen Rupp has run faster since.

But Puskedra, a self-admitted perfectionist and former Faxon Law New Haven 20K Road Race runner-up, had inconsistent results and it seemed like the harder he trained and the more he invested in his running, the worse it was. So after the Houston Half-Marathon in January, he decided to retire from competitive running and become a realtor.

He kept running, though, and slowly, as he ran with others and didn’t worry about his times anymore, he started to feel better.

Which is why when John Tolbert, the elite athlete coordinator of Monday’s New Haven 20K, texted him and asked if he wanted to run at New Haven, the 20K national championship, Puskedra thought about it and said sure.

“There aren’t really any expectations for me,” said Puskedra, who’s run New Haven five of the last seven years, finishing third in 2014, fourth in 2015, 10th in 2016 and 14th last year.

“If everything clicks, this will be a great stepping stone in an environment I’m familiar with.”

Puskedra has no illusions of grandeur: two-time New Haven champion Leonard Korir, who became the first American to win the Falmouth Road Race since 1988 earlier this month, is returning with a solid field of contenders.

“I’m mentally fresh, but underprepared; I don’t have big expectations,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for those guys. I’m not I’m going to come in and beat you after coming off the couch.

“If I can run marathon pace for 20K on Monday that would be a huge win. If I can run 5:00 [minute per mile] pace, I know that’s not going to put me in the hunt for the win. It would be a stepping stone.”

Puskedra has qualified for the Olympic Marathon Trials, which will take place Feb. 29 in Atlanta, so he is going to assess how he does in New Haven before committing to anything in the future.

New Haven was one of his first races in 2012, fresh out of the University of Oregon, where he was an 11-time All-American. He finished second. He had run a 1:01 half-marathon when he was 21 and it appeared he would have a promising marathon career. But by age 24, he had run a disappointing 2:28:54 debut in New York, had been dropped by his sponsor Nike, had quit running briefly and gained 20 pounds.

He returned after a hiatus to run his personal best 2:10 at Chicago but was inconsistent after that. He finished fourth at the Olympic Trials, just missing the 2016 Olympics, but found some perspective after his baby daughter Penelope was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancer found in children under 5. She underwent surgery and chemotherapy and is healthy now. Since then, he and his wife Trudie have had a second daughter.

When Puskedra walked away from the sport a second time, he began a real estate and interior design company with his wife. And when he wasn’t putting as much pressure on himself, he learned that running was fun again. He started running with a group of people at 6 a.m. a few days a week, going down to the local track and doing workouts.

“I used to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep – it’s like I dreaded running,” he said. “A lot of the time, I trained by myself. I was a hermit. It wasn’t training if I wasn’t running under 5:40 pace. Every time, I got in the car [to go run], I had to psyche myself up.

“With these guys, I was able to look at it as social. It was a whole different thing.”

Puskedra also is an assistant coach at a local high school, which has also given him perspective.

“I learned from a lot of my mistakes I made from my career,” he said. “Those kids helped to inspire me. They would show up and if they didn’t have a good day, there were never any excuses.”

Between his job, coaching and his kids, he’s pretty busy.

“I just don’t have time to overthink running anymore,” he said.