Anyone who meets Colorado Springs runner Tommy Neal will always remember him for his absolutely (and sometimes annoyingly) bottomless energy and downright ridiculous sense of humor. Having qualified last summer for the marathon Trials a week and half away, those attributes may arguably be two of his finest as they grant him his abilities to be ever chomping at the bit for another energy sapping task, and to always be at the ready with a joke for even the most discouraging situation. On his road to the Trials, those characteristics have come in pretty handy.
Hailing from just outside the tiny town of Leeton, MO where his parents operated a small beef farm where he and his two older brothers helped out throughout their younger days, Neal has from the get-go never been a stranger to hard work. That work ethic would unknowingly come in handy in the future when Neal would take up running.
Great things often come from humble beginnings, and growing up with two brothers equally as energetic as himself, his fed-up mom often sent the three outside to run laps around the house when things got too out of control. After getting dropped off by the school bus every day, the three would race up their half-mile long driveway. Neal says of his middle school days later on that with his extremely hyperactive nature, “I got into a lot of trouble. Like A LOT a lot.” His mom issued an ultimatum: run up and down the driveway everyday before school (a mile run) or go on Ritalin. While he now knows she never would have opted for the Ritalin, Neal’s running nonetheless got off to an unorthodox start with mile long runs before school everyday. Thanks, mom.
Shortly thereafter, Tommy was recruited by his brothers to run a local mile long cross country race against other area middle and high schoolers. Never having raced before, he was warned to stay away from the leader and go out conservatively. Neal ended up winning the race by a large margin and from there, began to carve out his niche in the running world. He had a successful high school career where he claimed a handful of state titles in cross country, the mile and two mile races in track, in addition to rewriting some of the high school state records. He went on to compete for Missouri State, later transferring to the University of Central Missouri, during which time he competed in the steeplechase, 5k and 10k.
After graduating in 2006, Neal set his sights on making the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials. Self-coached, Neal moved to Ames, Iowa to train with longtime friend and college teammate Blake Boldon, who was then running for Saucony while assistant coaching at Iowa State. The two trained together for a stint before Neal went to Nashville, TN to continue to train while getting involved in a stewardship in the field of chiropractics.
Boldon called Neal up a shortly before the Trials in June of 2008 suggesting that they move out to Colorado Springs to train. However, Boldon’s running hit a rough patch as Neal was in the process of transplanting himself to Colorado and as it turned out, Neal would more or less be on his own.
“I pretty much moved out there in a leap of faith,” Neal said. “I had no job, nowhere to live, and I knew one person who I had met one time, and I was living in his apartment because he let me while he was out of town.”
Maybe not the smoothest start. But things pieced themselves together as Neal soon gained employment with the local Boulder Running Company-Colorado Springs, and through that, earned a place on the Adidas-sponsored Boulder Running Company race team which aided his running with free shoes and gear and occasional travel assistance to some of the bigger races.
With Boldon on the rebound and newfound roommate Nate Jenkins, Neal was fortunate to have training partners at his level and with his mentality as he consistently logged 110 mile weeks in pursuit of his Trials berth a few years later. Self-coached for the majority of his career, Neal lowered his PR’s into the low 14:20’s for 5k, a 29:32 10k, and garnered multiple top-15 finishes at national-caliber races.
Last June, Neal finally saw his efforts come to fruition at the Gary Bjorkland half-marathon in Duluth, MN. There, Neal clocked himself at 65:02 over the 13.1 miles. Initially certain he had narrowly missed making the cut for the Trials by 2 seconds, he later found out that in fact his chip time was 65:00 and he punched his ticket to Houston.
It seemed as though the stars could not align any better as only a week before his stellar race in Duluth, Neal had started working with world-renowned coaches Renato Canova and Scott Simmons--heads of the new American Distance Project that was being launched in Colorado Springs.
“Three days before the race, Renato had us doing hill repeats to take a look at our form. It wasn’t part of my plan to get ready for the half, but I wasn’t going to tell Renato Canova that I wasn’t going to do hill repeats. I figured if Canova had me doing them, it must be okay! I just went with it but went into the race with some pretty sore legs.”
Still, the timing was good as Neal could now start his build-up into the Trials under the tutelage of two of the greatest coaches in the world. While his training volume didn’t vary substantially from what he had done previously, the intensity was at a whole new level.
“Normally the goal in training is to get in miles and run the workouts fast. With Renato and Scott, it’s all about teaching your body to run faster a greater amount of the time,” Neal explained.
In arguably the best shape of his life, late last summer Neal ran into some rather abrupt obstacles. Having a handful of workouts where he was unable to get anywhere near his goal times and feeling unable to recover as effectively as he always had, Neal, as planned, headed out to Cow Harbor. While he earned 10th place, it was as he said, “A really, really bad 10th place. I didn’t have it and couldn’t ever get rolling.”
Knowing himself well and never one to sweat the small stuff, he knew there was something more at hand than just the typical peaks and valleys that every runner goes through. His recovery was hindered, the work he had done in no way reflected his times, he was perpetually dehydrated despite hydrating adequately, and at 6 foot 2 his weight plunged from an already lean 145 to a downright scrawny 128. Sensing something bigger amiss, Simmons ordered up blood work where it was discovered that Neal’s ferratin (iron) levels were an off-the-charts 428. Extremely high is 120. Additionally, he had an astonishingly high hemacrit level of 49.6. “If I was a cyclist, they would not have let me compete with hemacrit levels like that. People pay good money to get those levels illegally,” Neal joked.
Neal was in the meantime still finding himself unable to train at anywhere near the level he had previously with the Trials fast approaching. He continued to train as tolerated while trying to lower his iron levels thinking that was the issue at hand. Given the fact that it was a mystery how his ferratin and hemacrit levels had attained such high levels, and that iron overload is linked to many illnesses, he opted for another bit of blood work where it was discovered that his blood sugar was sky high. Neal was then diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes slightly over a month from the Trials.
“With the way that training had been going and knowing what an adjustment I would have to make, I kind of knew my chances of doing as well as I hoped were over,” Neal said. “But when the nutritionists were talking to me, what I got out of it was that running was a good thing. It would help me balance blood sugar without the shots. I’m scared of needles. I hate being poked. I hate shots.”
Initially debating upon whether or not to compete in Houston, Neal decided that given the effort that had gone into his preparations for the last several years, he wasn’t surrendering his spot. “I earned it and I’m going to enjoy it,” he said simply.
Despite his dreams of a stellar race at the 2012 Trials perhaps being in shambles due to a situation beyond his control, Neal is already looking ahead. Undaunted by his recent obstacles, his mileage is climbing again and already his next goal is to earn a Trials qualifier in the 10k at the 2016 Trials. Resourcefully, he is in communication with elite cyclists also affected with Type 1 diabetes in an attempt to learn how they manage their blood sugar for hours of racing.
But Houston still looms ahead, where the unending efforts of many of the nation’s best runners will be put to the test, and undeterred, Neal will be among them. “I don’t know if I’ll finish, but I’m going for glory I guess. I worked hard and that‘s part of it, but there is also the experience,“ he said.
“It’s going to be awesome just to toe the line.”