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The sudden athlete

Jonathan Rossing

Jonathan Rossing, pictured during the Seattle Marathon, is a graduate student in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University Bloomington.

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How would it feel to wake up one day and be transformed into a competitive athlete? When Jonathan Rossing took up running at the age of 24, he could not have guessed that he would soon be placing among the top 2 percent of runners in marathons across the country. Only three years later, he is taking second and third in regional marathons and mini-marathons, competing for first place in the international Gay Games and dreaming of the Olympic trials.

Rossing, a graduate student in the Department of Communication and Culture, first got the idea to train for a marathon when a friend brought up the topic several summers ago.

"I thought it would be a nice thing to say I had done," he said. Based on his sporadic workout history, Rossing didn't expect an impressive outcome. "All through undergrad I worked out and lifted weights and played basketball, but it was all sort of willy-nilly 'I should do something to stay in shape.' I ran cross-country for one year in high school, but I didn't enjoy getting up early to run, so I never ran again until the marathon training."

Starting with 3-mile runs, Rossing built up to four days each week in preparation for the Chicago Marathon in October 2003. He found he enjoyed the quiet time as an opportunity to let go of his productivity-oriented graduate work.

"Running is meditative," Rossing said. "I get into a groove, and at the end I have no idea what I have been thinking about. I just let my mind go."

Planning to run for fun and hoping to complete the race in less than four hours, Rossing surprised himself with a finishing time of 3 hours 39 minutes, averaging a pace of 8 minutes and 20 seconds per mile. His success in 2003 inspired a long-term goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

Rossing holds the balloon marking the area designated for competitive racers at the 2005 Chicago Marathon.

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"I planned to run a second marathon a little faster than the first, and then on my third marathon to try to make the 3:10 qualifying time," Rossing said. But he outdid himself again, completing his second marathon in 3:10:36, within the 60-second grace period to qualify for Boston. By his third Chicago Marathon in 2005, he was down to a finishing time of 2:52.

"What is remarkable to me is that for the first two and a half years of racing I just did it on my own," Rossing said. "I put together my own training schedules. But I would push too much, so I never strung together more than three consecutive months of good training."

This year, Rossing contacted running coach Jason Karp, a graduate student in IU Bloomington's exercise physiology program, for a personalized plan to take his competition to the next level. Karp designed a training program that outlined precisely how far and how fast Rossing needed to run each day. His goal: to place among the winners in the Gay Games, to be held next month in Chicago.

The Gay Games is an international competition similar in format to the Olympics. Elite athletes and amateurs alike are encouraged to participate. Chicago's competition is expected to draw 12,000 athletes from 70 different countries.

"This is my sport, and I'm coming to do this in community with the rest of the folks," Rossing said.

The winner of the 2002 Gay Games marathon, Jake Bartholomy, finished in 2:39, followed by second-place finisher Carlos Vizcarra at 2:51. With Karp's help, Rossing believes he has a chance at first place.

"If the competition is similar to 2002, I would be vying for first or second place. My goal is to run it in 2:37," Rossing said. "I really believe that I can come close to a 6-minute pace. I think that's realistic based on the training I've been doing."

Rossing still wrestles with his new athletic identity and is wary of jinxing himself with bold predictions.

"Until recently I didn't talk about what I really wanted to achieve with my running," he said. "I would tell people about a time I wanted to get, but in the back of my mind there was a different goal that was faster."

Working with a coach has helped boost his confidence, Rossing said. "Now I'm a little more upfront about what I really think I can do."

Karp is also confident in his client. "He has been very consistent with his training and has been responding great. He recently ran a half-marathon in 1:17:03 which, when combined with the longer endurance work, will set him up for a great marathon," Karp said.

If Rossing makes his pace goal in July, he will focus next on finishing a marathon in 2:30. His ultimate goal is to qualify for the Olympic trials with a 2:22 marathon time by spring 2008.

"It would be awesome to get to the qualifying trials," he said. "I have a year and a half to get down to that time. I wouldn't expect to go to the Olympics. Just to be one of the people who get to run at the trials would be amazing."

Rossing also expects to finish his doctoral dissertation on race and racism in 2008. Juggling his academic work with intensive marathon training will be a challenge, but Rossing believes the two goals can be synergistic.

"I know I have to get the run in and I know I have to get the research in. I don't feel like running has been a hindrance to my graduate work. If anything it has been a help. It's encouraging -- if I get stuck on something in the library, I can go out and have a successful run and come back fresh."

The Gay Games VII marathon will take place in Chicago on July 22 starting at 6 a.m. For more information or to view Rossing's time after the event, visit http://www.gaygameschicago.org/.