For many, the thought of becoming a professional in the Track and Field sphere starts and ends with "Professional Athlete." In a new monthly series, MileSplit NY will be shining light on the broad spectrum of possibilities our sport provides, outside of competing as an athlete. We'll be meeting New Yorkers who have made their way in the sport, utilizing their own unique strengths, to bring the sport to the high level it sits at in the Empire State. Check out prior entries here.
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Given his druthers, John Trautmann would never have chosen to give up running.
Trautmann, 51, had set national records individually and as part of team at Monroe-Woodbury High School and Georgetown University, respectively, and was on the verge of doing something special at the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992.
However, Trautmann was not given his druthers. What he was given was a shocking dose of reality mixed with some bad luck and poor timing, all of which left him disillusioned and disappointed, ultimately pushing him away from the sport and the life that he loved.
A toe injury had proven devastating to Trautmann, forcing him out of the Barcelona Games while hastening his retirement from running in 1996. Had that been the end of Trautmann's story, it would made for one of those sad "what might have been" tales.
Trautmann, however, unexpectedly rewrote that ending. He returned to the sport that he loved, set another record all while reintroducing himself to a generation of runners who might not have ever known how great he actually was and, clearly still is.
TRAUTMANN WAS PENN-SATIONAL
Trautmann had already committed to Georgetown by the time he arrived at The Penn Relays in 1986. While that would have satisfied some runners, many of whom would have coasted through their senior year knowing that a college career was in place, it wasn't for Trautmann. He was running with a vengeance that spring, looking to break four minutes in the mile and eclipse the national record for the 3000 meters.
It was with that mindset that he approached the Penn Relays and the race that would define his high school career.
"I knew I had the capability to break that record," Trautmann said. "But I was pretty slow out in that race, way off a record pace. I did the mile in 4:22 and I needed 4:18. I got the record, though. I did the last 600 meters in 1:29. I didn't plan on running it that way. I was running by myself the whole way. I knew I could get it; I just had to put my head down the last 600 and run."
"Penn definitely had my adrenaline going. You see people in the stands [including his future Georgetown teammates], the whole thing. It's not something I could have done at some rinky-dink dual meet. There were good guys there and the fact that there were other people in the race, the best guys on the East Coast, makes you take it to the next level."
Trautmann finished the race in 8:05.8 (pictured left), winning the 3000 meters at Penn for a second consecutive year. He ran the final 400 meters in 59.2. While the record would be his, he was unaware of who the previous record holder was. The legendary Steve Prefontaine had set the mark [8:07.9] as a senior at Marshfield High School [Ore.] in 1969. Trautmann also broke Gerry Lindgren's national indoor mark of 8:06.3 set in 1964.
"The crazy thing was that I didn't know who Prefontaine was before that race," Trautmann said. "Not everyone knew who everyone was back then. Maybe being a high school kid, I didn't know who all these guys were. I didn't know all the stories about Pre but later there were a couple of movies and he had gotten bigger and the legend had grown.
"Without the media and stuff back then, it was tough to know about the history of the sport. I definitely knew about him after that. People made a big deal about breaking Pre's record. I didn't understand what it meant at the time."
Trautmann went up in the stands following the race to celebrate the experience with his future Georgetown teammates, including former New York State High School track stars Miles Irish and Mike Stahr. It was the shining moment of his spring season. While he would go to break four minutes in the mile later in his career, it never happened in high school.
"After that I got mono," Trautmann said. "I had one more race. That race [at Penn] took a lot out of me. I ended up with mono and the rest of my season was pretty much scrapped.
"I never saw the race, either. Someone may have a tape of it but I've never seen it. If there is one, it's a VHS or a Beta version or something. There were not too many things being filmed back then, especially high school races."
OH BOYA, TRAUTMANN IS A HOYA AND SETS ANOTHER RECORD
Irish and Stahr had already established themselves as two of the best collegiate runners in the country by the time Trautmann arrived in the fall of 1986. Stahr was part of a world record-setting 4X8 team at Arizona State before transferring to Georgetown. He had also broken a four-minute mile. Irish, meanwhile, was a three-time All-American and four-time All-Big East runner who had set the national high school record for the 1000 meters in 1983. He outlasted Stahr by a split-second in that race to secure his place as one of the best runners in the nation.
While Trautmann never broke four minutes in the mile in high school, it wasn't long before he did so collegiately. He ran 3:40 in the 1500 as a freshman and then officially broke four minutes the following year at 3:58. He grabbed another spot in the record books, though, on April 24, 1987 when the Hoyas returned to the Penn Relays on what was a rainy spring day.
Trautmann was just beginning to establish himself as one of the best collegiate runners in the country when he stepped to the line to begin the race on the 1200-meter leg. He held fifth place for most of his leg, briefly moving into fourth on the final lap. He dropped back to fifth, running the leg in 2:53.1, before handing off to Darron Outler, who would hold the fifth spot after running the 400-meter leg [46.9].
Irish did the same in the 800-meter leg [1:46.1] before Stahr exploded on the last half lap of the mile to give the Hoyas the win and a national record [9:20.96]. Stahr ran his leg in 3:54.9, breaking the previous mark for the fastest 1,600-meter split in Penn Relays history. Former Georgetown star John Gregorek had set the previous mark [3:55.1] in 1982.
"The 1200 was a bit short for me," Trautmann said. "I had run a couple of 800s in high school but 1200 was short for me. As long as I brought it in close to the leaders, though, I thought I would be fine. I ran 1:53 through 800 with was a second slower than my high school PR. And, I was able to hang in for the last 60 and didn't fall too far back.
"I was very happy with it [his performance]. You always want to try and bring the stick in first but going against those guys, who were the best in the country, at that time in my career wasn't possible. To bring it in within two seconds, I was very happy. Miles ran a fantastic leg on the 800 and Mike brought us back into it. Nobody pressed Mike from the beginning and that allowed him to get back."
Stahr twisted his ankle the following day, crushing the Hoyas' chances at the 4X8 title but Trautmann said "that one race made the weekend". Arkansas [9:20.10] would break the mark two years later.
Trautmann finished his collegiate career with an impressive resume. He was he a national champion [outdoor 5000m in 1990], was named All-American five times and a two-time Big East Indoor Meet Outstanding Performer.
OLYMPIC HEARTBREAK AND THE INJURY THAT NEARLY ENDED IT ALL
There were few runners coming out of college in 1991 that appeared to have a brighter future than Trautmann. He had won the Big East 5000m Indoor title four times and the outdoor title three times. He also set three school records and one conference record and as the Barcelona games drew closer, he was a favorite to win a medal if not 5000m title.
Trautmann, however, didn't make it past the 5000m semifinals in Barcelona. A degenerative condition in his big toe was causing him pain and as he pushed through his professional career, the pain had become unbearable. He had worn away the cartilage in the first metatarsal of his left foot and running without the joint was putting pressure on his plantar fascia, causing tremendous pain that forced him to alter his running style.
Originally he thought the problem was plantar fasciitis but it wasn't until he saw a surgeon in Alabama that he learned the toe was the true problem. While Trautmann never was given an exact reason as to why the joint in his toe deteriorated, he hypothesizes that it was the result of a broken toe he suffered as a child.
Trautmann, who had a contract with Adidas at the time, had two surgeries on the toe between 1992 and 1996. He said neither helped, in fact they might have made things worse. By the time he chose to give up running in 1996 the pain was unbearable, both physically and mentally.
"By the end, I was just going through the motions," Trautmann said. "I couldn't get a normal stride and I would always favor that side. I couldn't run without getting injured. I didn't have the right running economy to run at the level I wanted to run at. I officially retired in 1996 but I should have done it before that. When I finally did it, it was a relief.
"At the very end, it was frustrating and I was just glad to get away. I had to get away or I would go crazy. One of my goals was to make the Olympic team and I thought my best years were in front of me at that point. But when you try to run through an injury, it is so mentally frustrating. I was fit but my running gait was off and I couldn't run fast anymore. I couldn't put my full weight on my left foot when I was pushing off. I was working harder than ever and not getting anywhere."
When Trautmann quit, he quit completely. He stopped running - the pain was still there - stopped working out, stopped following the sport and started working as a credit trader on Wall Street. He put on weight and appeared to be getting ready for a full-blown trip into middle age. Then he got the bug ... again.
THE COMEBACK LEADS TO ANOTHER RECORD
Trautmann's return to running was a bit more subtle than George Costanza screaming "I'm back baby! I'm back!" He was in his late 30s and feeling the effects of not running for nearly 15 years but had undergone a third surgery on his toe, one that fused his bones, took away his pain and changed his perspective.
"It took the pain away but functionally, it was different," Trautmann said. "I could run without pain and my body sort of adapted. I wasn't as efficient as I was with a normal running toe but I could push off slightly so I decided to get back into running.
"I was way over weight [more than 60 pounds heavier than his best weight] and out of shape. I was 200, 210 pounds, which is huge for me. That's really tough for me because I'm only 5-10. That coupled with my old college coach [Frank Gagliano] being back on the East Coast motivated me to start running. I knew I wasn't going to be able to do anything near term but down the line I felt I could be competitive at a Masters level. First I lost weight, a little at a time, and then I caught the competition bug again."
Trautmann was 41 or 42, he's not sure which, when he ran his first race in nearly two decades, participating in a meet at Randall's Island. The first goal he set was to break six minutes in the mile. By the time he was 43 he had run the equivalent of breaking a five-minute mile in the 1500. He then set his sights on breaking the Age Group World Record for the mile, which was 4:23 at the time.
"That was the goal I had when I was 43 and things started to get better," Trautmann said. "I had been training and I thought I was in shape to run faster and Brad Barton, who is a year or two older than me, breaks the record and runs 4:17 [4:17.54]. I knew I could run 4:23 but not 4:17. When I was 45 I ran 4:18 and just missed it."
A few weeks later, though, Trautmann achieved his goal, running a mile in 4:12.33 on Feb. 15, 2015 at The Boston University Valentine Invitational. He had shattered Barton's time and also topped what was believed to be the unofficial indoor mark set [4:13.25] set in 2009 by Tony Young. The winner of Trautmann's heat at BU was Jeremy Hernandez, a Ramapo [N.J.] college student with a time of 4:09.22.
"I haven't really raced since that world-record race," Trautmann said. "That was the last time I was in a track race. Maybe someday. I'm staying in shape and if I want I can turn it up again. It's a lot of work, though. It's tough and draining to train at that level.
"If there comes a time when I can turn it up a notch again, I will, but right now I have no immediate goals. That was the goal. That's what I wanted to do and I would re-evaluate what I wanted to do after it and I'm still re-evaluating five years later."
Gagliano's return to the East Coast was more than an effort to get Trautmann back in shape, though. He had come back to help found The Hoka New Jersey-New York Track Club, an organization where elite runners on the East Coast could train. He felt Trautmann could help.
Trautmann had left Wall Street by 2014. The company for which he was working had shut down his department and Trautmann used that as the impetus for a change. Wall Street was getting more challenging and he had already been training with Gagliano so by the end of 2015 it was only logical that he took a position with the club. He also started working as an assistant coach at New York University. While he can't remember which one came first, he is positive they were both months apart.
"Gags said come out and work for me and it evolved from there," said Trautmann, who lives with Grace, his wife of six years, in Manhattan. "It all worked out. It was great to get back into the sport. It was exciting and refreshing and I was a lot happier that when I was working in the finance industry. It was great to be able to work with the kids at NYU and the potential Olympians at NJNY.
"I learned a lot from both of them. I learned how to be a better coach. The kids at NYU have allowed me to get hip to all the things the college kids are doing. I know all the lingo now. Everyone you work with, the more levels at which you can coach, the more you learn as a coach you realize that not one coaching style works with everyone. You have to coach the individual."
The runners he works with at the club range in age from 22-30. One of his charges is Hernandez, the runner he nearly beat in his record-setting Masters race.
Trautmann says dividing his time between the two jobs can be difficult. There are instances when both squads work out on the same day so he tries to have practices at different times. While the situation isn't always ideal, he has Gagliano to back him up at NJNY and a good staff at NYU to help out if he can't be there.
"That is huge," said Trautmann of his fellow coaches at NYU. "I love coaching. If things had gone a little different in my career, I might have gone into it right away. But I needed to get away from the sport and get fat."
Trautmann said he doesn't talk about his past regularly with his team at NYU, pointing out they can look at his coaching bio if they really want to know. Eventually they find out who he is, though, and it only adds to what he is able to impart on them.
As for running, he says he won't ever be breaking four minutes in the mile again. He'd be happy to break five minutes if he went out and raced now. Don't count him out, though. He's already made one big comeback and set a record. There might be one more comeback in him and another record-setting performance before he is done.