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Ticktock ... ticktock ... ticktock

Jesuit's Andy Biladeau maintains a cool focus on achieving a rare feat: covering 2 miles in less than nine minutes.

By SCOTT PURKS
Published February 15, 2005


TAMPA - Feet hit the trail. Birds flutter. It's February, the sky is clear, the air is cool. Long legs stretch out. Lungs warm up. The possibilities are out there.

Running.

Down the wood-chip path at North Tampa's Lake Rogers Park, Andy Biladeau hits his stride, legs scissor, scissor. Nine miles to go. Soon Henry David Thoreau or Walt Whitman or the Who, or "Who knows," he says, will join him. And on he will run. No watch on his wrist. No one around.

By the end of the week, he will have covered 80 miles, many with his lungs on fire and his legs feeling like they might shoot into his abdomen. By the end of the month, he will be around 320 miles, and after the hours, days, months and years of running, he hopes he will be in good enough shape to do something only one bay area and four Florida high school runners have done.

Break nine minutes in the 2-mile run.

"That's what gets me running out the door," said Biladeau, a 6-foot-2, 140-pound Jesuit senior. "I think about it sometimes in class, and I'll start writing down training plans for that day. Then I'll expand it to weeks, even months."

The first shot comes March12 at the Nike Indoor Championships in Landover, Md.

If he doesn't do it then, he'll assess his training before deciding when he will try again.

But no matter what, he says, he's not obsessed. Really.

"I think a lot about the long-term," he said. "I think about what my future coach at (the University of Virginia) said about me running more mileage now so that when I get up there I won't get injured and discouraged. Then I think about the years after that. I ask myself what do I need to do to get my body and mind to run as fast it possibly can?"

Always thinking, Andy Biladeau is.

* * *

Sometimes he thinks of Brett Hoffman.

"I picture this ultra-marathoner, kind of a stocky guy for some reason, but a guy blessed with tremendous speed," Biladeau said. "He's a madman; someone who loved to race; a guy who liked the pain; someone who pushed himself so hard that he did amazing things.

"I'd love to get inside his head."

Biladeau has never met Hoffman, but he isn't far off.

At St. Petersburg High in 1975, Hoffman became the first high school runner in the state to break nine minutes in the 2 mile. In 1977, he set the state record at 8:53.

He did it by training like a "madman." More than 100 miles a week in school-issued adidas with the red canvas tops and rock-hard soles. He'd get up at 5 a.m. and run 6 miles then get in 6-9 that night.

"And it wasn't like now where it's normal to see people running to get in shape," Hoffman said. "Back then, runners were looked upon as freaks or something."

He said dogs chased him and people heckled him (one even sprayed a fire hose at him) while others wondered if he might have been stealing something. Why else would he be running so fast at 5 a.m.?

One time, he said, the police pulled him over in the dark and asked, "What are you doing?"

Hoffman said, "I'm running."

"Running from what?"

"I'm training," he said. "I'm training so I can run faster."

There hasn't been anyone like him since.

Besides Biladeau, the only real threats from the bay area to break nine minutes came from Largo's Pat McDonough, who ran 9:05 in 1988 (time rounded off and adjusted from 3,200-meter time, which means adding three seconds); Bart Sellers (1981, 9:08) and Berkeley Prep's Rolf Steier, who ran 9:08 in 2002.

In Florida's history, only four prep runners have broken nine minutes in the 2-mile (including converted 3,200-meter times). Only one came after 1983: Ocala Vanguard's Steven Hassen, who in 2003 at the Arcadia (California) Invitational covered 3,200 meters in 8:52.75.

Last fall in a race set up by Jesuit's cross country staff during halftime of a football game, Biladeau ran 9:08. But Biladeau wasn't challenged, winning by 35 seconds.

"It's tough to go low without racing against somebody," he said. "The race gets you more into it. It's a place where you get more out of yourself.

"That's the beauty of it."

* * *

Biladeau said he loves to race because it's the ultimate test of pain and limits. And it's the pain that has opened his mind to so many things. Such as Thoreau, a giant poster of whom hangs on his bedroom wall, next to one of the Who, who led "The invasion" and "Just rock in general."

"I know it sounds weird," he said. "But I think the pain in running has helped me be an explorer of life. I've gotten used to the pain to the point that it's a part of me and I like it. I used to get all "rah! rah!' and try to grind my way through the pain. Now I accept it because I know it's a good thing.

"Physical suffering is cleansing. It makes you strong. And calm. Physically and mentally."

Hoffman, now 45 and living in Ithaca, N.Y., understands Biladeau but said, "Pain is something to ignore. The pain is only temporary, so why pay attention to it? Either you push past it or you don't get where you need to be."

He made sure to add that Biladeau's outlook is healthier than his in high school.

"If I had to do it all over again, I never would have run (more than 100 miles a week when I was that young) because it took a toll on me," said Hoffman, who had a solid but not illustrious career at Duke and Florida State. "But back then, we were all about breaking records.

"Distance running can be a seductive thing because if you have some ability and you're willing to push yourself to extreme lengths, you can get better and better.

"But if I were coaching kids today, I would tell them to think of the long run. Think about being able to go for goals at 25 and 28 years old. Don't overdo it too soon and burn your body and mind out."

Hoffman said Biladeau is wise to listen to the voice of pain, the one that reminds him not to put too much pressure to himself, or to beat himself up over mistakes.

Biladeau said he learned about pressure in 2002, when he ran a mile in 4:22.63, or one-hundredth of a second behind the winner, Ohio's Jeff See, giving them the fastest mile times by American high school freshmen indoors.

Ever.

"He hasn't run national breaking times like that since then, but there's been reasons for that," Jesuit coach Mike Boza said. "He had anemia (in 2003), and he's done a lot of experimenting with his racing, testing his limits, trying to find what's the best way to race for him."

Which led him to the next thing: beating himself up.

In 2004, he said he "blew up" during a 2-mile national invitational race in Arcadia, Calif. He jumped to the front and pushed to a maddening pace because he said, "I felt so good."

Three-quarters of a mile in, however, he said, "I didn't feel so good."

Instead of tucking behind the leaders and reassessing, he kept pushing. He finished way, way back, embarrassed.

He walked off the track and found a private spot next to a wall.

"I cried for a long time, thinking here I am sitting on the ground crying after a race 3,000 miles from home," he said. "I mean, where was I? What was I doing?

"Then I looked at the ground and started thinking, "You know, this isn't that big of a deal. I'm running for the long run, you know? I'm running because I love it."'

That's why today he said he will appreciate the pain while thinking on Thoreau, Whitman and the Who, and yes, he will think about going under nine minutes in the 2 mile. But, he assured, he also will remind himself that he has a long road ahead.

He will be happy to do it because it is what fuels him.

He will run.