May 3, 2012
By Bernie Rosendahl, MSU Athletic Communications Contact for Track & Field and Cross Country
EAST LANSING, MICH. - Sit for a moment and think about all the attributes necessary for a distance runner. What comes to mind?
Endurance and stamina would follow.
Dedication would rank highly.
Now, think about a few additional - yet very important - characteristics that not every successful distance runner possesses.
It is unquestionable that senior Shaka Dukes has the speed, endurance and stamina that only a lucky few possess. But the additional defining characteristics that separate him from his competitors and teammates have always been his patience and adaptability.
Shaka Dukes and his twin brother, Menachem, were born at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Hospital in 1990. The early years of Dukes' family could best be described as transient. For a majority of his adolescence, Dukes had lived in various parts of California. Oakland, Vallejo, Pacifica, and Sacramento were places that he once called "home".
"My dad and mom liked to move us around a lot," Dukes explained. "It was a little crazy. He worked for the United States Government in the Secret Service and he continued to work for them until he retired in 1996."
But no matter the destination or how busy the moving schedule had become; Shaka, Menachem, and their younger brother, Ramses, were still able to make time for their mutual love of sports. From basketball to football and everything in between, the trio would find themselves in a perpetual cycle of competition.
"We were always super competitive with just about anything," Dukes said. "There would be days where we'd get out of one practice and just head to the next."
However, the most fiercely-contested sport where bragging rights would be undoubtedly on the line was track. Shaka and Menachem discovered their potential roughly around the age of 11, and soon after, were participating in track meets and racing others older then themselves.
The development and experience gained via this competition enabled them to find success relatively quicker than their peers. By age 12, both were competing in the AAU Junior Olympics and were ranked the best in the country in the 1500 meters.
Dukes' fondly recalls the championship race in which he and his brother would have to compete for the title.
"It was a photo finish. It came right down to the line and he got me. He would always beat me and I don't know how...but Menachem would always beat me by a tenth of a second. It was great competition and at the time we were just happy to run well."
In following years, Dukes' would spend his time going back and forth between California and Michigan. In fact, it wasn't until his junior year of high school that he would be able to call Michigan, specifically Detroit, his permanent residence. He enrolled at Detroit Mumford High School, the first true inner-city school he ever attended. The amount of pressure and unease one would feel due to so many relocations would normally affect a teenager. However, Dukes' took the move in stride, adapting to his new surroundings.
"Mumford was great," Dukes said. "It didn't take me that long to make the transition there because I had moved around a lot in the past. I made friends quickly and never felt like an outcast."
Once entrenched in Detroit, it was time for the Dukes' brothers to get to work on the cross country and track teams. He suffered a setback in his first season of cross country at Mumford dealing with injuries, but would regain form by the time the track season started in the spring.
During that spring, Dukes found himself a part of a talented 4x800 relay team that would go on to compete at the MHSAA finals. Unfortunately for Dukes and his teammates, they would place dead last at the meet and were the subject of unwarranted criticism for poor performance. Undeterred, the team regrouped and set about ways to prove themselves for next season.
The building blocks would have to be set early, beginning with Dukes' final season of cross country that fall.
"We had to come in hard to cross country and prove everybody wrong and let them know that we were still good." said Dukes. "That was our motive from the very beginning of that year."
Good would be understated, as Mumford went on to win the Wayne County Championships, a first-time achievement for a Detroit Public School. The success continued with a follow-up victory in a regional meet for the squad, setting the tone for Dukes' final season of high school track.
With the 4x800 relay team reassembled, Mumford would dominate the entire season - with one catch.
"All year, we never had any competition," Dukes explains. "We were just waiting for states (state championship meet) to have some sort of competition."
When the state championship meet finally arrived, Mumford proved to be up for the challenge, claiming top honors in the 4x800 (3200 Relay) in 7:44 and defeating the runner-up Rochester Adams by five seconds. The relay team then received an invite to the prestigious 2008 Nike Outdoor Nationals. Competing as the Motor City Track Club, the squad demolished the field, running 7:37.99 and establishing a new state record.
After graduation, Shaka and his brother, Menachem, began searching for schools that would allow them to continue their running careers. The short list included the likes of Louisiana Tech, Florida A&M, and the University of Denver. While both didn't initially consider Michigan State, they felt compelled to contact head coach Walt Drenth, who at the time was just returning from the Olympic Trials. Once they secured a campus visit, the Dukes brothers were certain of their decision.
"Everyone was great and it just felt like the right school, recalls Dukes. "With all the other schools, I didn't get that feeling. But with Michigan State, it was different. This was one of the last schools I thought I would come to. I'm glad I made the right decision."
From the outset, it would appear that Shaka and Menachem would just focus on middle distance for the following track season.
"We couldn't even go to cross country camp (prior to the season) as we didn't have the miles," remember Dukes. "I always told him (coach Drenth) that I wanted to just run the mile and be a 1500 meter runner."
But Drenth had other plans.
In his very first week at MSU, Dukes and rest of cross country team travelled to Bath, a small town east of campus. It was supposed to be an easy 10-mile training run. What happened that morning was far from easy and something Dukes would remember for the rest of his life.
"Everyone was flying on that run," Dukes laughs. "We got to the 10-mile mark and everyone came though at sub-60 (minutes). The older guys were pushing the pace and we just tried to hold on. It was supposed to be this chill run on the weekend."
The training run certainly wasn't out of the realm of his physical ability. In fact, it showed his potential. This gave Drenth the idea to experiment and test Dukes at mental and physical levels he'd never previously experienced.
"In the middle my first cross country season, he just came up to me in practice and said, `You've been running well' and the next thing I know, I was running with the distance guys and doing their workouts. He then told me I'll be racing at the EMU Invitational, which was a 10K. I think his exact words were `You're racing this week, don't get scared now!'"
Where some athletes would complain about their new role or given position on the team, Dukes took the new challenge without hesistation. He would adapt to the workouts and find a way to be competitive regardless of the circumstances. That Saturday, Dukes would finish in the top half of the race in 24th place with a time of 34:29.
"Ever since that, I've been always been looking for improvement and just trying to race better. I felt that if I'd race well in cross country, I could take whatever I learned from the experience and I bring it on to the track."
While Shaka would continue to increase his weekly mileage, Menachem struggled to stay healthy. During spring break, his knee started giving him a considerable amount of problems.
"He was struggling," Dukes explains. "It all started happening during spring break. He was able to do some indoor races, but during the outdoor season his knee kept bothering him. They did numerous tests on him and nobody could figure out what it was. We then found out he had torn his ACL."
With his brother no longer on the team, Dukes' would develop close friendships with fellow runners Brian Hankins and Joe Banyai, individuals who would inadvertently help him in his quest to improve. He would find himself drawn to the camaraderie of the cross country team, an attraction that would serve as support in the future whenever things got difficult.
Dukes' admits that he didn't initially make the progression he wanted early in his career, which at times, made life in the program trying.
"It took some adjustment to get to where I wanted to be as a runner," remembers Dukes. "Some people catch on quicker and I just told myself to just be patient. It's going to come sooner or later and don't give up."
It didn't take long.
In 2009, he placed fifteenth overall and third amongst his team at the Jeff Drenth Memorial cross country race. Two weeks later he would run his very first 8K, the Spartan Invitational, finishing 26:39. He was able to take that momentum on to the track in 2010, establishing a lifetime personal-best of 2:29:79 in the 1000 meters, which at the time was a mere five seconds away from Michigan State's indoor school record.
However, it wouldn't be until his senior year in the fall of 2011 that the Spartans would see Dukes at his finest. He competed in five of the possible eight meets, proving himself as one of the stronger and more durable competitors on the team. It was also this year that Dukes would have the race of his life at the Michigan Intercollegiates at Hillsdale College.
He would place third overall, running a career best 26:22 8K, en route to Big Ten Cross Country Runner of the Week honors.
"I raced well and raced smart and it really got me back into the groove," Dukes said. "The course was slow, so it was my tactic to sit behind the early leaders and just move through. There was this hill around the 5K mark that changed the whole race. There were about the twelve us together and after that hill only a few people were able hold on to the pace."
Dukes continued, "Coach Drenth just told me to be patient. That was one of my biggest flaws, being impatient and going out too hard. I just kept finding certain parts of the course where I was able to stay smooth and not fall off."
With the completion of his final cross country season, Dukes hoped to close his career at Michigan State with a successful season on the track. Afterall, it was track that brought him to East Lansing in the very beginning.
Unfortunately for Dukes, that season would never come.
This past February, Dukes felt excruciating pain on the right side of his body.
"I was in pain and I didn't know what was wrong," said Dukes. "I did an indoor race at Notre Dame and when I came back to practice the following week I couldn't even run. The whole right side of my body felt awful. They thought I had appendicitis but the doctors couldn't tell until I had an ultrasound. It was then that they found out I had gallstones. It sent me rock bottom."
Despite a sour ending, Duke still maintains the competitive spirit and the flexibility to deal with life's changes that have allowed him to transition from a youth track prodigy to cross country contributor. If not contributing, Dukes still sees it necessary to be with his team at all times.
It's his way of giving back the support they gave to him from the very beginning.
"I always wanted to get better and just being around them has made me better," Dukes says. "Our team is just full of guys that you just always want to be around."
It would also be hard to talk about Shaka Dukes without discussing his personality. There is a distinct reason why he is one of the most well-liked athletes within the program.
"I'm just open to meeting everyone and I don't treat anyone differently," Dukes explains. "I was brought up to just try to make friends and make good conversation. Most of all, I feel it's important to be genuine with others."
After graduation, Dukes' plans on going to graduate school and taking the LSAT, with hopes of becoming a corporate lawyer. But beyond those plans lies a passion project that he hopes to undertake at some point during his professional career.
He wants to pursue opening a restaurant and becoming a winemaker. He studied in France last summer and interned at a vineyard with his brother, Menachem. The new experience made an undeniable impression on the siblings, and for Shaka, it served as a welcomed escape from life as a student-athlete.
"Sooner or later you need to learn more about the world. Just learning about French culture increased my awareness and expanded my horizons on life, period."
Dukes' standing within the program and the intrinsic nature of his personality are also recognized by the individual responsible for bringing him to Michigan State.
"He's been an immense pleasure to coach," said Director of Track and Field, Walt Drenth. "There are some guys that don't get to spend a lot of time on the varsity and a lot people come and go...but there are some people who are going to leave holes in the program."
"Having him leave is going to leave a hole. I'm going miss him. He's a fine of example of an individual who embodies the heart and soul of our program."