Fresh off his first national championship at the 2010 Aramco Houston Half Marathon in January, Antonio Vega's running life changed. All it took was that single race to catapult him into prominence. In the course of one year, Vega went from an anonymous road runner to national champion to overall men's champ on the 2010 USA Running Circuit.
The 27-year-old Team Mizuno star also firmly placed himself in the conversation for a 2012 US Olympic Marathon team berth.
One might think that Vega, who lives and trains year-round in Minneapolis, would use his recent earnings from Houston and the USA road circuit to get out of the frozen north for warmer climates as he preps for a return to Houston again in January. But not so.
Instead, Vega dutifully logs 120-miles week after week on a treadmill at one of the Lifetime Gyms scattered around the Twin Cities. Even during a recent cold snap, he stuck to the treadmill, plugged into his Ipod rather than venturing outside and risking a fall on the ice.
Staying here in Minnesota is the best thing for me, says Vega who was born and raised in Oakdale, just a few minutes outside of St. Paul. Lots of the top guys go to Arizona or California to train in the winter, but I might as well stay here because that's what I'm used to and that's what works best for me.
Indeed, everything seems to be working for Vega who didn't start running until his senior year of high school. Before then, he was an All State soccer player and a place kicker for his high school football team. But in a PE class at the start of his senior year, Vega was required to run a timed mile. When the teacher (who doubled as the cross-country coach) looked at Vega's time 4:40 he knew Antonio could be somebody special.
First, the coach had to get Vega to come out for cross-country which wasn't easy since he refused to give up soccer or football. But the school's athletic director worked out a flexible practice arrangement that satisfied all three coaches. Cross-country took a back seat to the other sports and Vega only ran about 20 miles a week, but that was enough to propel him to a remarkable fourth at the Minnesota state cross-country meet.
Soccer is really my first love, says Vega, whose father Luis played professionally in his native Chile. I was in the Olympic Development program for Minnesota, but I was small which didn't bode well for my future in soccer. My mindset was that I wanted to do a sport in which I could get the highest level of competition. So if I could be the best in running, that was what I was going to do.
Vega earned a track and cross-country scholarship at the University of Minnesota where he was coached by UM legend, two-time US Olympian Steve Plasencia. Unfortunately, the transition to college track wasn't particularly smooth for Vega who had a tough time going from the minimum, low-key miles he ran in high school to doing 70 miles a week as a freshman in a major college program.
It was too much. I hated my first two years of college, says Vega, not used to the heavy mileage. I had two stress fractures and was hurt all the time. I was constantly asking myself, Why am I doing this? But I'm not the kind of guy who gives up.
The turning point for him came when he placed ninth in the NCAA regional cross-country meet his junior year. At that point, says Vega, I just decided I need to figure this out, stay healthy and if I could, gradually I would get better at this.
Although he did get better, earning All American honors in cross-country and being elected team captain, there didn't seem to be much of a running future for Vega after graduating from Minnesota with a degree in kinesiology. He applied to graduate school and was accepted into a cardiac rehabilitation program in Duluth.
But that summer before he entered grad school, Vega took a fling at a few road races to pick up some extra cash and was surprised to run 14:12 and 29:15, which were just a few seconds off his college track PRs for 5000 and 10,000 meters.
Instead of going to grad school, Vega decided to put it on hold and gave himself a year or two to concentrate on running as a member of Team USA Minnesota's squad of postgrads.
Once free from the burdens of college, Vega began to apply himself and gradually built up his mileage from his college high of 75-80 to over 120.
This was a huge change for me, says Vega. I needed to build my volume very slowly because I wasn't used to those big weeks. The reality was my training age the actual years I had been running was so much younger than everyone else because I didn't start running until I was a senior in high school. And then at UM, I was a very low mileage guy because I couldn't handle the normal training load. Once I figured all that out and adapted to the high mileage, things started to improve for me.
Did they ever. Vega's rise started inauspiciously with his first attempt at the marathon at the 2008 Twin Cities. He went out boldly enough in 1:08 for the first half, but crumbled in the final three miles to finish in a disappointing 2:23:41.
He did run well at the shorter distances, including a 44:45 for 15-K and in the Aramco Houston Half Marathon in January of 2009, Vega ran a highly competitive 1:02:55 which was good for seventh in the US Half Champs. Later in the year, he returned to the Twin Cities Marathon and this time improved to 2:15:46.
After Twin Cities last fall, Vega returned to the treadmills for his buildup to Houston the first road race of 2010. Although Vega is teased about his addiction to the treadmills, he says it's more out of necessity than any love for indoor running.
Believe me, there is no beauty of running on a treadmill, says Vega who is on the treadmill from early November to mid-March. It takes a lot of mental toughness to do a 22-mile run on a treadmill by myself. The one advantage it gives me is I never overtrain. If I'm on the treadmill and I'm supposed to run 10 miles, I do exactly 10 miles and not one step over it. There's never a chance I'm going to do a little more than I'm supposed to do. I know a lot of people think I'm crazy staying up here all winter and on a treadmill, but this is normal. Plus, it works for me.
It must. Vega's biggest victory of his career--the 2010 Aramco Houston Half Marathon is proof of that. In Houston, Vega patiently ran with a large group of front runners for eight miles before he and Team USA Minnesota teammate Patrick Smyth broke the race open. A few hundred meters later, Vega made his break from Smyth and by 10 miles (reached in a PR of 46:55) had a decent lead which he held to the finish, winning his first national championship of any kind in a PR of 1:01:54 (nearly a minute faster than the previous year).
Houston was my break out race, says Vega, who led the 2010 USA Running Circuit standings from start to finish, culminating with a second place in the 10-mile national championships. During the year-long circuit, Vega set personal bests at every road distance: 3000 meters, four miles, 10-K, 15-K, 10 miles, the half and the marathon.
Vega also found time to get married in the fall to long-time girlfriend Jennifer Hess, a 2:49 marathoner herself, who is a first-year medical student. Because Jen is studying in Des Moines, Antonio constantly finds himself on the road between Iowa and Minnesota. It's difficult, says Vega, but we're making it work.
Even though Antonio has had his greatest success in the shorter races, the marathon remains his primary focus. Last spring, Vega focused on the Boston Marathon and although he PR'ed in April in 2:13:47 for 12th place, it wasn't the result he was looking for. I wanted to get closer to 2:11 than I did, says Vega. I'll get there though. Based on what I've done in the shorter distances and how competitive I've been over the summer, I know I can run 2:11 or faster. It's very realistic for me.
Vega isn't certain what his next marathon will be. He had planned to run the New York City Marathon in November, but a hip injury kept him out. Vega has already qualified for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials (which will be held in Houston in January, 2012) and making the Olympic team is priority number one.
I want to be a factor in any race I run, especially in the Trials, says Vega. I certainly haven't run my best marathon yet and with the progress I've been making, I can be a definite threat. It's still a year away and who knows what will happen by then? Nobody gave me a shot in Houston and look what happened. I'll definitely make some noise in Houston.