Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2014

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Cover:
Mike LeDuc '14, three-time national champion in track and field, with his teammates. Clockwise from top right: Mike LeDuc '14, botany major from Canton, Conn.; Ian Rathkey '14, East Asian studies major from Old Lyme, Conn.; Ben Bosworth '17, economics major from Dorchester, Mass.; Niall Williams '16, economics major from Niskayuna, N.Y.; Daniel Burns '16, government major from Alexandria, Va.; and Aaron Samuel-Davis '14, classics and dance major from New London, Conn. Photo by Bob MacDonnell

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Leader of the Pack

Leader of the Pack
Michael LeDuc '14 (left) captured a national title in the 3,000-meter steeplechase in May 2013, holding off the top-seeded Jack Davies (right) of Middlebury College by only .08 seconds.

Mike LeDuc '14 won his third NCAA National Championship in May. What makes him run?

by Amby Burfoot, editor-at-large for Runner's World magazine


The 3,000-meter steeplechase is the train wreck of track events. Runners must complete seven-and-a-half laps, almost two miles, and hurdle five immovable barriers per lap. One barrier is followed by a treacherous water pit.

As steeplechase runners grow fatigued, their hurdling skills and coordination deteriorate. Result: spectacular collisions and gruesome falls that can produce concussions, broken bones, bloody spike wounds and more. Runners with a macabre sense of humor search YouTube for the “best of the worst” falls.

Michael LeDuc '14 blocked such thoughts as he ran the steeplechase at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division III Outdoor Track and Field National Championship at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in May 2013. LeDuc was leading the race but saw another frightening image. Glancing up at the Jumbotron, he noted that a Middlebury College runner, Jack Davies '13, had caught him.

Not a good sign. Davies had beaten LeDuc handily in their previous encounter, due to his superior sprint speed at the race's end. Now Davies passed LeDuc on the final lap and stormed toward the finish. Watching from the scene, Coach Jim Butler P'10 felt his heart sink. “Sure, I was worried,” admits Butler, head men's cross-country coach and associate head track and field coach at Connecticut College for 27 years. “But Mike has great determination to win, and he knows how to get to the finish line first.”

LeDuc struggled to stay close behind Davies, but wobbled over the final water jump. With 70 meters remaining, he smacked the last barrier hard, and heard the crowd's collective “Ohhhhh … ” He pitched forward at an awkward angle, his arms windmilling in a wild attempt to maintain balance. Train wreck?

Standing against a trackside fence, Butler remembers thinking, “Oh, please, dear God, let him stay on his feet. Let him at least get a medal out of this.”

Trying to avert a crash, LeDuc's body switched to automatic pilot. “The way I was falling forward, my legs started moving super-fast to get back under my upper body,” he recalls.

Score a point for innate human stabilization. LeDuc began to straighten up. Only then did he refocus on the race and realize he was gaining on Davies. “Somehow I was able to maintain my momentum,” he remembers. “I caught Davies right at the line. I didn't know if I had won until I looked up at the scoreboard.”

Yes, he had, in a photo finish. A mere .08 seconds separated the two runners. In the process, LeDuc improved his personal best by almost four seconds, set a school record of 8:50.58 and at that time, became the third Connecticut College athlete to win an NCAA national title. (He has since has won two more national titles, for cross country in November 2013 and again for the steeplechase in May 2014.)

LeDuc grew up in Canton, Conn., about 15 miles west of Hartford. The second of three boys, he recalls that they were always scrambling through a nearby forest, climbing trees and falling down. His father, Jeffrey, is a machine shop manager; his mother, Theresa, a public school nurse. Her skills came in handy whenever LeDuc needed to be patched up after a misadventure. He gained an interest in biology and plant life from nearby woodsy explorations as well as his family's frequent hiking and camping trips, his Boy Scouts experiences, and an inspirational high-school teacher, Steve Messier.

The three-boy family fostered his competitive drive. “We had some wicked Wiffle-ball games,” he says, “and I was always trying to match my older brother, Daniel, while making sure I stayed ahead of the younger one, Peter.”

LeDuc first ran cross country in seventh grade. When a friend asked if he would continue the following year, he had a ready reply. “Why would I do that?” he said. “It's like stabbing yourself in the leg over and over again.”

Soccer was his first love. Tall and gangly, he lacked the balance and quick acceleration of nimbler players. He mostly sat on the bench through three years of soccer in high school, finally switching to cross country his senior year.

LeDuc started the running season modestly, but came on strong in the championship meets. His teammates took to calling him “Big Meet Mike” (a tag that stuck through his four years at the College). In his final cross-country race as a senior at Canton High School, LeDuc competed in the State Open against the best runners from all of the Connecticut high schools.

With a quarter mile remaining, he had clawed his way up to ninth place, only to be tripped by the runner behind him. The two sprawled to the ground, as a dozen other runners swerved around and ahead. Momentarily dazed, LeDuc managed to bolt back to his feet and finish 15th. “I've coached a number of high-level runners at other colleges and high schools,” says Tim O'Donnell, the coach at Canton High School, “and none of them could unleash the competitive drive that Mike has when it counts.”

A few weeks later, LeDuc visited Connecticut College. He was struck by the College's small size and warm community, the campus' hilltop beauty, Coach Butler's easy-going gregariousness, and the friendly cross-country runners he had dined with. On the drive back to Canton, he told his mother, “That's the place where I want to go to college.”

FINISHING WITH a 3.8 GPA

On a clear, crisp morning this past March, LeDuc strides across campus from The College Center at Crozier-Williams to the Athletic Center. At 6'1" and 137 pounds, he's got the rail-thin distance runner's physique, while a prominent, aquiline nose announces his French-Canadian heritage. He nearly always carries a backpack laden with his books, his massage stick and a foam roller. He uses the latter two implements several times a day on the sore muscles that inevitably accompany his arduous training.

At the gym, LeDuc steers for the office of Ned Bishop '84, head coach of the men's and women's track and field teams, and slides silently into a chair next to Bishop's desk. The walls are covered with dozens of All America and Student Athlete plaques that his runners have achieved during Bishop's 29 years at the College. Several are inscribed to LeDuc, a botany major (who finished with a 3.8 GPA).

LeDuc hasn't come for a pep talk but to discuss a four-credit independent study he is pursuing under Bishop's guidance. It's titled “Philosophy of Running and Coaching.” LeDuc created the course after realizing he was feeling “nostalgic about all my years of running.” He also wanted to delve more deeply into coaching. Several days earlier, he had accepted a position to teach horticulture and biology at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, Ill., a Chicago suburb where he also hopes to coach the school's budding runners.

LeDuc slides a completed course assignment across the desk to Bishop, pointing out a section that concerns him. It reads, “Once a student-athlete sees that hard work can lead to improvement, that lesson can easily be applied to the classroom. Running faster or harder in practice will help an athlete race better, just as studying harder or more efficiently will help a student perform better in classes.”

Bishop scans several paragraphs quickly, and then responds. “No, this is good, you make a very important point,” he says. “I know that when I played basketball and ran cross country in high school, it gave me a confidence and feeling of acceptance I never had before.”

In moments, the two are sharing personal experiences and amplifying concepts. The teacher-student gulf disappears. “Connecticut College gave me the quintessential academic experience,” LeDuc says later. “It's such an intelligent, bright community, and it's so easy to connect with professors. It turned out to be the right college for me in every way.”

When not studying or running, LeDuc devoted much time to the Honor Council, which formally adjudicates alleged violations of the College's Honor Code and Student Code of Conduct. He served as an elected representative during his junior and senior years. “I came to realize that every situation is different,” he says. “I probably had more of a 'straight and narrow' outlook when I arrived at Connecticut College. Now I see more shades, and how context can change things.”

Some are surprised, even a little disheartened, that LeDuc doesn't plan to continue competitive running. He has gotten stronger and faster every year of his life, and no doubt has still more potential. “I'll admit that I wish he would keep running,” says Butler, “but I totally respect his decision.”

LeDuc says he prefers to tackle just one major challenge at a time. Additionally, he notes that his high-level running has been stressful at times — a stress, it would seem, that came from within — and now he wants to concentrate on his first year of teaching. “I like to do what I'm doing to the best of my abilities,” he says. “I don't think I could teach well and run competitively at the same time. It would be difficult to train hard without the supportive environment and teammates I had at Connecticut College.”

'He Trains Hard and Studies Hard'

LeDuc's final cross-country season at Connecticut College started on an uneventful note when he finished fourth in the first meet. The knee he banged in the NCAA steeplechase victory had healed slowly, resulting in a month of lost training.

Even more worrisome: his student teaching responsibilities at nearby Montville High School. He had to prepare for classes, report to school early each morning, teach into the afternoon, and then rush back to campus for afternoon cross-country practice. “I was constantly exhausted,” he recalls.

To maintain his 100-miles-per-week training, LeDuc woke up as early as 4:30 a.m. for his morning workouts. To his surprise, he often had company on the morning runs. His teammates showed up to pace him, even though their schedules allowed for late-morning sleep-ins. “We wanted to help Mike however we could, because he had such a big impact on us,” says Ben Bosworth '17. “He's a real team player who believes in each of us and our future success.”

LeDuc's running turned around after that first defeat. He won every remaining race on his schedule, and in late November flew to Hanover, Ind., for the national Division III Cross Country Championship. The previous year, he had finished 13th. This time he and Coach Butler settled on a gutsy but risky strategy. He would go to the front with a full two miles remaining. It was a tactic that might lead to victory, but might also lead to an embarrassing swoon.

LeDuc followed the script, and surged to the lead after four miles. Only one other runner stuck with him, John Crain, a senior from perennial cross-country powerhouse North Central College in Illinois. They opened ground on the field; one of them would clearly win, the other would be a footnote. Butler and four of LeDuc's teammates, who had driven through the night from New London, sprinted back and forth inside the course to cheer him on.

“The last time I saw Mike, there was a half mile left,” says Butler. “Crain was still on his shoulder, and I couldn't tell who was stronger.” LeDuc tore for the finish line, but Butler couldn't penetrate the thick crowd to gain a vantage point.

Bosworth and LeDuc's teammates were more aggressive. “We found some friends from Tufts, and they let us through to the security fence,” says Bosworth. “We started a chant, 'Mike LeDuc! Mike LeDuc!' and soon everyone near us joined in. It was an amazing conclusion to an unbelievable season.”

Butler couldn't see anything, but he heard all he needed to know from the announcer's voice. “And the winner is, number 575 from Connecticut College …”

LeDuc attempted a modest celebration. Distance runners talk of “savoring” the last seconds of their best races. After all, they push themselves so hard for so long. It's nice when they can relax and glide through the finish-line tape.

LeDuc didn't have that opportunity in his May 2013 steeplechase win — a photo-finish victory salvaged from a near train wreck. In Indiana in November 2013, as he eased into a finish-line glide, he became the first Connecticut College athlete to win two NCAA national titles, and raised his right arm in triumph. “I was so tired that the photos look ridiculous,” he says. “I tried to lift my arm, but it looks more like I'm about to fall over and collapse.”

That's a typical self-deprecating perspective from LeDuc. Butler puts his college running career in sharper relief. “Mike's a fearless competitor,” he notes. “He trains hard and studies hard. He's smart, humble, kind and thoughtful — a great teammate and incredible leader. The other teammates have no jealousy. They all love him."


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