Runner Holthaus goes extra mile

Columbia athlete, 27, has eye on 2000 Games

June 22, 1999|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Time, time, time.

The less Matt Holthaus uses to get around a track, the longer he's allowed to follow his dream of being one of America's best milers.

There have been stretches when his beat-up Volkswagen and depleted bank account told Holthaus that it was time to give up the chase and join the 9-to-5 world. Then come tantalizing snippets that last less than four minutes, when the possibilities are grand -- even running for the United States in the 2000 Olympics.

A 27-year-old who came out of Columbia with good but hardly great scholastic credentials, Holthaus is the current national champion in the mile, having won that event at USA Track and Field's indoor meet in March.

On Memorial Day weekend, he enjoyed maybe his best performance ever, clocking 3 minutes, 54.96 seconds in the mile. Holthaus' next big race -- and his first competition since then -- comes on that same track in Eugene, Ore., in the 1,500 meters at the outdoor nationals Thursday through Sunday.

It's only the most important weekend of his running career.

Finish in the top three, and qualify to represent the United States at this year's world championships in Spain. Spend the rest of the summer in Europe, where international fields, packed houses and big purses produce fast times. Pad your resume for next summer. Get on the fast track to Australia, and the 2000 Olympics.

"I've been in the same mind-set the past several years, that 2000 would be my shot," said Holthaus, who will run in the preliminaries Thursday and then, possibly, the final Saturday. "After 2000, that will be when I go get a job somewhere."

Fast learner

Holthaus' father is a career diplomat for the U.S. Department of Defense. Holthaus was born in England and spent parts of his childhood at outposts in Turkey, Thailand, Afghanistan and Switzerland, where he played all manner of sports, but longed for the day when he could try American football.

He got the chance when his family moved to Columbia. After two years of football at Wilde Lake High, Holthaus saw the light and tried cross country. As a senior, he won a state championship. A career as a middle distance runner was born.

Barely scratching the surface of his talent, Holthaus was a 4: 30 miler as a Wilde Lake senior in 1990. That's nothing spectacular, but James Madison University took a chance and offered a partial scholarship. Two years later, Holthaus had shaved nearly 25 seconds off his best, running the 1,500, the metric mile, in 3: 46.

"I don't think I ever trained more than 20 miles a week in high school," Holt- haus said. "When I went away to college, I knew it was a whole new level, and I went there with the expectation that `now I'm really going to run fast.' I did, but I also discovered that the only way I was going to realize my full potential was that I would have to stick with it for a long period of time."

As a college junior, Holt- haus lowered his 1,500 best to 3: 41 and began to qualify for NCAA championships, but that's where his progress stopped, 7-8 seconds shy of challenging the top Americans.

Americans get excited about track and field once every four years, during the Olympics. In Europe, it's always popular. Holthaus saw that middle-distance runners need to finish in the top three at the nationals to get overseas opportunities.

"Coming out of college, I hoped to run in Europe and make good money," Holt- haus said. "I held that up as one of my goals. I've always been on the bubble, never getting it done.

"After a couple of years, I realized that the money wasn't going to come. I had to stop looking at that as the motivating factor. If there's a big race, and you're worrying about what the purse is -- `Man, if I only win this, that's rent money for six months' -- that's not good for your mental state."

Holthaus sold shoes at a running store. He has worked temporary jobs. The Reebok Enclave, through its program that supports middle-distance Olympic hopefuls, supplied shoes, gear and a coach in Georgetown University's Frank Gagliano.

He also has received a stipend as a graduate assistant coach at American University, where he's pursuing a master's in film. Every little bit has helped. Holthaus has never filed a tax return of more than $20,000, the passenger door on his 1985 Jetta is finicky, and he lives with his parents.

"After James Madison, he wanted to concentrate on running, and I always wanted him to take this as far as he could," Robert Holt- haus said. "He's continued to amaze me, the way he'll run a personal best out of the blue. There have been a couple times when you wondered if he had peaked."

Down time

One of those came in 1998. Holthaus opened the outdoor season that year with a personal best in the 1,500, 3: 38.70, but a heel injury interrupted his training and he finished last in a 12-man final at the nationals.

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