Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - Former Ketchikan Kings cross country runner Isaac Updike set his quickest, the United States’ fastest this season and world’s best time of this year for the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Oregon Relays in Eugene on Saturday.
“It is definitely still setting in,” Updike, 29, said Sunday. “It has just been a crazy 12 or 14 hours at this point responding to a lot of really positive and encouraging messages and people reaching out. It has been exciting.”
Updike’s 8:17.74 on the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field oval obliterated his previous best time of 8:25.38, set in Belgium in 2018, and met the Olympic Trials qualifying time of 8:32.00.
The Oregon Relays included professional runners, USA Track and Field races and college races. The Oregon State High School championships are also run at Hayward Field.
Updike said he was not aware he was on track for a personal best time and only knew a time from 1,200 meters in.
“At that point of the race, I kind of lost track of what the time was,” said Updike, who trained at altitude in Flagstaff, Arizona, for the Oregon Relays. “There was so much jostling and movement going on within the race itself I was just focused on trying to keep contact with any person that was trying to make a move. I didn’t have a clue as to what was happening until I came over the last barrier and as I was running down the home stretch and saw 8:10 happen and was still in race mode. But there was excitement right at the finish line.”
The steeplechase is basically seven laps of four barriers and a water pit at the 250-300 meter mark of the back turn.
No one has combined the oval’s run, jump and splashing event in a faster time this year, and his mark is the standard that athletes are now pursuing for this season.
“There was excitement and a sense of accomplishment and reassurance, really, that what I had been doing was right and the speculation that myself and my coach had for my season were on par and honestly a little short for what I think I can do,” Updike said. “I knew I had it in me. I just had to wait for the right race.”
The world record for the event is 7:53.63 set in 2004 in Belgium by Qatar athlete Saif Saaeed Shaheen. The Olympic Record is 8:03.28 set by Kenya's Conseslus Kipruto in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and the American record is 8:00.45 set by Evan Jager in 2015 in France.
“It is very gross,” Updike said of the world mark. “I can’t comprehend how good those runners are.”
The pandemic last year has put his training in a different pattern.
“The silver lining is we were able to try new workouts and new training regimens in terms of volume and intensity,” he said. “A lot of flexibility because you didn’t have to work around meets and travel… the flip side is not having the races to continue sponsorships and things like that you need.”
Updike is a professional athlete. He didn’t renew his contract with Hoka and is unsponsored.
“I have a good hunch that should change now at some point,” he said.
Updike trains under Empire Elite based out of New York.
Updike already has a stint in the Olympic Trials under his singlet, placing 12th at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials at the same Hayward Field on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene.
“I made the finals by the skin of my teeth,” he said. “I did a lot of heat training because it was blistering hot that year. It was raining that race and not my day.”
With 500 yards to go, and in last place, Updike resigned himself to just finishing.
“I had honestly just checked out,” he said. “I thought since I was running at home not to fall.”
One runner fell on the last barrier and three others on the last lap. Updike said he started to chase runners.
“And then someone fell in the water pit,” he said. “It really goes to show you that the steeple is not over until you cross the finish line.”
That year was actually the last Olympic trials for the historic old field. Updike set his personal best time in the newly updated stadium, still in the same location and the site for the Olympic Trials in June and the World Championships next year.
“From here I will go back up to Flagstaff and race in Kansas City next week doing another steeple and then we will probably sit down and reevaluate how the rest of the season goes because things have changed a little bit,” he said.
Updike uses the Flagstaff training because “it is very conducive to me running fast and my body seems to like it. You just seem to run, breath and live running up there, day in and day out around a ton of really good athletes and that is a big plus, and obviously you have the physiological benefits of hemoglobin and all the science behind high altitude.”
Updike ran four years of high school cross country in Ketchikan (2006-10) with his twin brother Lucas under then-coach Dan Ortiz, now a state legislator.
Ortiz said he remembers seeing them run in middle school.
“You could tell even then they had some natural ability,” he said. “The best thing was when he was at college his coaches said he did not come there over-trained. I guess that was my gift to them, I didn’t over train him. He was a nice kid, easy smile, easy to work with and very coachable. He is still just a very nice guy. We still have conversational runs when he gets back to Ketchikan.”
Updike said his brother was faster through middle school and half of high school.
“I was always chasing him,” he said. “Then something happened and he was chasing me. It was always fun and positive.”
He said he ran in middle school because a student could get out of their last class if they were in running. He ran high school cross country, making state three years (56th place, 13th and then fourth as a senior) as prepping for soccer.
“I always just ran,” he said. “In soccer I was the guy that played both JV and varsity and in basketball they would put me on the guy they didn’t want to have the ball because I would chase him around all game.”
Updike went to college at Eastern Oregon and as a senior in 2015 won the NAIA national steeplechase championship.
“I wanted to do a sport in college but there is not a lot of traction coming out of southeast Alaska because we are so isolated… I reached out to the coach and he responded so that was a big plus because I had a lot of coaches that didn’t. My sister (Bethany) was going there so I knew someone there, and she had a car so that was also another really big plus and coach Ben Welch was from Alaska.. he said I could walked on and that was all I needed.”
Updike jokingly said running in Alaska over skunk cabbage and logs was key.
“Definitely growing up in Alaska I was always in streams and breakwater and driftwood and avoiding tackles in soccer and having to have a little bit more agility while you were running helped,” he said. “If you are a multipart athlete in high school it is a really good option, not a lot of people do it, it is a hard race but pretty gratifying.”
Five years in college with technique coaches refined his steeplechase and as a freshman he learned, “If you didn’t fall you kept racing.”
After college he joined Team Run Eugene and qualified for his first Olympic Trails in 2016. He has also placed eighth at the 2019 U.S. National Championships.
He would come back to help coach the Kayhi Kings under Leigh Woodward when his schedule allowed.
“That is just who he is,” Woodward said. “He is a giver. He had extra time and knew he could help out. If he was in town he would run with the kids. He could push my top runners.. but then he would drop back and give encouraging words to some of the back of the pack. He would visit with every single runner. He is one of a kind.”
Updike said he learned psychological lessons, grit and patience from Ortiz. He learned to give back to community while working with Woodward, reaffirming the love and fun in running.
He also coaches at a private high school in New York when able.
“That really helps me come back to why I started in the beginning and what it means to continue to do it, the purity,” he said. “It is interesting. You can go anywhere in the world and just go out for a run on a trail and you meet someone just doing what you love to do.”
Although he now must use his marketing degree on his athletic image and says the best marketing is “racing fast,” he said his inspirations come from a place most wouldn’t consider.
“Truthfully when I see someone out running who might be a little overweight or running super slow and it is actually harder and takes more for them to be out there,” he said. “When people say they are impressed I am out there, I say they should be impressed this other person is out there. Some people may spend an hour fifty to run 10 miles. I don’t know if I have that grit or determination to do that. They spend more time on their feet running than I would. I may do more volume but I am more callous, too. A lot of average runners are a lot tougher than they realize.”
On Sunday, Updike met up with friends for a leisurely 14-mile-plus run.
“We were all just able to go out and chat and run and just enjoy being in the woods with each other,” he said.
Above - Isaac Updike celebrates as he crosses the finish line of the 3,000-meter steeplechase during the Oregon Relays at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon on Saturday. Below - Updike on a training photo shoot in New York.