As a steeplechaser, Isaac Updike is accustomed to clearing hurdles and negotiating barriers.
He came out of Ketchikan with an athletic background that was steeped in soccer as much as running, but he nonetheless walked on to the running program at Eastern Oregon University and forged himself into a NAIA national champion in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
Even so, NAIA is a long way down the collegiate ladder and not a routine springboard into a professional running career. Yet Updike kept grinding, working part-time jobs as he trained and steadily dropping his times until he became a sponsored pro.
Now, at 30, an age when he should be at or near the peak of his prime, Updike is coming off a knee injury that caused him to miss about five months of training at the end of last year and early this year.
Still, with an impressive steeplechase win at the Penn Relays in late April, he is poised for this week’s USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Oregon, where he is a legitimate contender for a podium finish that would earn a spot in the World Championships in Eugene in July.
“That’s the one you’re always trying to sharpen the whole season around,” Updike said of the national meet.
Updike will take his season-best time of 8 minutes, 22.96 seconds from the Penn Relays into Thursday’s preliminary round, ahead of Saturday’s final. Updike’s time ranks seventh among Americans this year and isn’t too far off his personal best of 8:17.74 run in 2021.
The deep field at nationals includes Hillary Bor, the two-time Olympian and two-time national champion (2021, 2019) who has run 8:12.19 to lead Americans this season; 2020 Olympians Bernard Keter (8:17.31) and Mason Ferlic (8:20.96); budding NCAA stars in Duncan Hamilton of Montana State (8:18.88), Parker Stokes of Georgetown (8:18.88) and Kenneth Rooks of BYU (8:22.56); emerging pro Brian Barraza (8:19.16); and two-time Olympian Evan Jager (8:27.88), who won silver in the 2016 Games in Rio and has only recently returned to racing after enduring injuries the last few years.
That triggers the usual math: Lots of contenders, only three berths to Worlds available.
“There’s probably 8 or 10 of us where it’s like, ‘If I have my day, I’m on the team,’” said Updike, who is sponsored by Nike.
Getting to the start line at Hayward Field in Eugene was an ordeal. Early last fall, after moving to Flagstaff, Arizona, from the East Coast, Updike began to experience pain on the outside of his left knee. He took some days off and underwent treatment, but pain lingered. An MRI did not reveal any tear and the working diagnosis was IT band syndrome. Finally, an ultrasound revealed a couple of small tears in Updike’s IT band. He underwent a PRP (platelet-rich plasma) injection and that treatment, which accelerates healing, allowed him to begin training again in late January.
Updike’s performance at Penn, his first race in about nine months, not only assured him he had regained his fitness, but it also soothed his mind.
“I don’t think I’m in a bad spot (physically),’’ he said. “You always have doubts, questions, so to be able to race and run a solid time out of the gate was nice.”
Updike followed the Penn Relays with a win in a 2,000-meter steeple in New Jersey in mid-May. Then came a performance he called “flat’’ in New York a week later, where he finished third in a 3,000 steeple in 8:27.88. Since then, he’s been training in Flagstaff before heading to Eugene this week.
He’s been at this game long enough not to read too much into the highs or lows. His win, and his strong time, at Penn let him know he is fit. Now, heading into nationals, it’s all about performance.
Updike finished eighth at the 2019 nationals and fifth last year, when nationals doubled as the U.S. Olympic Trials. He’s hoping to make a similar improvement this year.
For Isaac Updike, there are always hurdles to clear and barriers to overcome.