May 31, 2012
By Bernie Rosendahl, MSU Athletic Communications Contact for Track & Field and Cross Country
EAST LANSING, MICH. - The setting is the Spartan Invitational, Michigan State's only home track meet of the season. It's a picture-perfect April afternoon, only moments away from what will be the marquee event of the day:
The Men's 1500-Meter Run.
A selection of Michigan State's top distance runners are about to toe the line. A tall, lean Ben Miller stands in lane three. Lithe David Madrigal stands in the lane two, while a stealth-like Alex Wilson looks around anxiously and stretches his back, awaiting the signal to get into position.
True freshman middle-distance runner Austin Wissler is also in the mix, as is fellow freshman Caleb Rhynard, a former Foot Locker National Qualifier who looks to see how he stacks up against his seasoned teammates in the fastest heat of the event.
One runner looks rather comfortable given the impending challenge. He's glancing towards the bleachers, adjusting his watch, and appears to be eerily at peace in this setting of tension. The gun goes off and he moves immediately to the front, surging through the first 200 meters looking smoother than anyone else in the heat.
A desirable, efficient cadence for a runner of any ability is 180 foot strikes per minute. The runner leading the way looks to be moving at 200.
"They move so effortlessly. I couldn't imagine running like them."
A spectator that day could have easily said those words about senior distance runner Joe Dimambro as he passed through the next 400 meters of the race, looking serious but just as relaxed as when he started.
But those were the words of Dimambro himself six years ago when he attended Michigan State's Cross Country camp as a high schooler, describing the fluidity of Michigan State's then crop of runners that he put on such a pedestal in his youth.
Two years later, Dimambro would be one of those runners.
Born in Fenton, Michigan, as the oldest of three siblings, Dimambro was a born student-athlete. His father had the athletic genes and had run cross country in the high school, while his mother was accomplished in her academics.
He was involved with soccer in his early years, starting in the community AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) leagues and eventually playing midfielder as freshman in high school, but Dimambro's first brush with any type of competitive running didn't come until middle school track - when he utilized the sport to get into better shape for soccer in the fall.
Dimambro would later find himself participating in cross country, but he wasn't a star in the very beginning.
"I was...third best on the team," confides Dimambro.
But after his first career race, in which he finished third amongst his teammates, Dimambro's then coach told his mother, Laurie, that he should really stick with the sport because he had a lot potential.
That coach, Rick Cradit - who doubled as the middle school cross country coach and Fenton High School's track coach - would play a role in getting Dimambro acquainted with the sport by inviting him and a few other top runners from his class to participate in indoor track, an unofficial sport at the school.
Even though the workouts were of an increased intensity than he was not used to, Dimambro sensed that his future success might be on the track. With that in mind, he was forced to make the decision to quit soccer.
It took a little bit of time for Dimambro to be entirely sure of that decision and be confident in his abilities. First, his racing tactics needed work.
"Early on I'd get a little too far out ahead or get boxed in (in track), explained Dimambro. "I learned it wasn't necessarily being the best runner, but how to be the best runner."
Second, he needed to believe in himself. Even after running a 16:53 5K on a cross country course as only a sophomore.
"I remember going to various different college camps during the summer," Dimambro continued. "And I remember the counselors that were running in college and having so much respect for them. The whole time I'm thinking, "Wow, I don't think I could ever reach that level."
But Cradit took interest in developing him to that level by planning out training regimens early in advance to get him ready for both the track and cross country seasons. By the time Dimambro was a junior, he found himself a conference and regional champion and placing high in state competition.
He also changed his way of thinking to,"Well, maybe I can do this."
During Dimambro's senior year he would establish himself as one of the state's best cross country runners. But one particular race, the Portage Invitational, would put Dimambro on the map as one the Midwest's best.
"It was the first time we (Fenton) had ever went to the Portage Invite which was this huge meet and I remember not having that many expectations going into it," Dimambro recalls. "I was thinking I was just going to just race it just like any other race. But it was the day that I would run a huge personal best and take second place. I ran 15:24 and it was just such a euphoric feeling. I was on cloud nine."
After placing seventh in the MHSAA State Finals and earning All-State honors, it was clear that Dimambro had the necessary attributes to run collegiately. He received interest from Michigan State, Eastern Michigan and Grand Valley during the recruiting process.
Dimambro had previously visited the campus of Michigan State and was impressed with the running trails at Lake Lansing, the wooded paths off campus, and the university itself. But the biggest selling point would be the personality of Head Coach Walt Drenth.
"After visiting here, I was really impressed with Coach Drenth's organization," said Dimambro. "I also liked how he established the program and what he believed in. You can tell that he knew what he was doing and he conveyed what he was doing in a way that you respected."
After officially becoming at Spartan, Dimambro would make the trek up to the Leelanau Peninsula in northern Michigan in the August of 2007 for his first workout with the team.
"It was an eye-opener," Dimambro recalls of the experience. "The first day was a test to see what kind of fitness everybody was in. I loved it; sleeping in cabins, getting up early to eat breakfast and heading out and running pretty hard every day. It was a great way to get to know all the team members and get a really solid block of training in."
"Our freshman class - which included Brenden Marcum, Aaron Simoneau, Paul Grieve, Nick Tecca, and Aaron Winter - were given a lot of attention by the upperclassman and that made us feel like we were a part of the group. That made the whole transition easier; as I do remember being overwhelmed with the workouts at times."
However, during one particular hill workout, Dimambro found himself in the front pack with experienced Spartans Daniel Lewis, Dustin Voss, and Adam Sprangel.
"After the workout, Coach Drenth took the time to come up to me to say that I ran really well in that workout. To hear things like that as freshman are definitely motivating," Dimambro said.
In that first year, Dimambro was redshirted, running unattached in cross country at the Jeff Drenth Memorial and competing in his first 8K, the Spartan Invitational.
"People warned me, it's tough, it's a lot further than you think and after you get to the 5K mark you still have a lot more to run. I remember running it and just not being ready for the pace you needed to be successful. I finished in 26:15 and thought to myself that I just needed to run a lot better," recalls Dimambro.
"It's such a big race and it's a little overwhelming, it feels like a state (high school finals) meet. It was mainly me being lost in a sea of people."
The following spring he would also compete unattached in track, racing the mile during the indoor season and the 1500 meter and 5000 meters outdoors.
But at the end of his freshman year, Dimambro was frustrated with the stagnation of his times and felt generally tired of racing for no real purpose.
"I felt like I was only racing for myself and I didn't like that," he explained. "So there was a little bit of frustration at the end of my freshman year - but at the same time those feelings were combined with me really looking forward to putting on the green and white singlet and racing for Michigan State next season."
Eager to make improvements and contribute to the team, Dimambro embarked on summer filled with 70 to 75 mile weeks of training. By the time he returned to campus, he had made drastic improvements in his fitness. During a team training run in Bath, Michigan, the squad embarked on a seven mile threshold workout with Dimambro finishing with the team's top runners.
"I was running in the 25's (minutes) for a 5-mile split," remembers Dimambro. "And that's where you are saying to yourself "Oh my god, I was racing at this speed last year" and I'm doing this on dirt roads... so I must be doing something right."
Those types of training runs would inevitably translate to solid racing times for the redshirt freshman.
In the 2008 Indiana State Pre-National Meet in Terra Haute, Indiana, Dimambro placed 78th amongst some of the fastest collegiate runners in the nation, running a career-best 24:42 and finishing second on the team. Dimambro still considers it the biggest race he's ever competed in.
"I didn't feel over my head - but I did look down the line and saw runners from programs like Stanford and Oregon and thought, "Oh my gosh, I'm actually racing against these guys". I think I did a really good job of not letting any pre-conceived notions into my head and just racing. The good thing about Pre-Nats is that there are always tons of guys to run down. I thought that I didn't run particularly good or bad, but after finishing, a couple people told me that I ran under 25 (minutes) and I remember being really excited about it."
It was also during this year that Dimambro would represent Michigan State for the first time at the Big Ten conference meet. The event would be one his favorite moments from his career and an experience that he longed for after running attached in his first year.
"It was in Ann Arbor and I remember we were warming up on the course and a lot of the team had come to cheer us on," said Dimambro. "When we crested a hill during warm-ups, all these people started cheering "Go Green! Go White!" and I immediately got goosebumps."
It is common knowledge within the program that Dimambro has been one of the more successful and reliable runners at Michigan State due to his ability to regroup and recharge between the cross country and track seasons. The 2011 cross country season saw him participate in five out of the eight possible meets. The only other runner to compete in more races last season was redshirt freshman Ben Carruthers.
"I set the scale to zero and just don't think about the sport," explains Dimambro. "I found the best course of action is to take a week off and start spending time on things you kind of neglected like friends and family. I like to take a long trip home after a season just to recharge the batteries. I know that even though this is certainly one of the more important things in my life, there are other things that are very important too."
He also takes precautions from a physical standpoint.
"I visited the training room even when I wasn't hurt. I took care of smaller things like using rollers to massage out pain and taking ice baths to recover."
He added, "Honestly, it's been a combination of me being really lucky because I really pound out miles. I don't go over prescription when it comes to miles or paces, but I've been really lucky that my body has been able to handle a lot. If I have had injuries, it's only been connective issues like tendonitis. I've never had a stress fractures or anything like that. When I'm training my best it's because I'm finding that balance everyday and I'm listening to my body."
Dimambro continued, "The thing about this sport is that there's a fine line between being in the best shape of your life and being injured. It's often hard for some people to walk that line."
Dimambro's senior year also saw a shift from personal to team goals. At the beginning of each season, each athlete writes down their goals, setting forth a path for what they want accomplish by the time the conference and NCAA championships arrive.
Dimambro was far less concerned with his personal times as he was regarding the team's overall performance.
"At this point in my career, I feel like one of the best things I can do is to help bring the program forward. That starts with me running well on my own, but it's more important to me to try to foster the right environment to help my teammates too. I obviously wanted to be All-Big Ten, but my goal in the NCAA Regionals (cross country) was to run whatever I needed to run to help our team qualify for nationals."
It's this way of thinking has lead to Dimambro being named a team nominee for the Big Ten Sportsmanship Award during his final year of cross county.
"It was good conclusion to my season," he said of his nomination. "Even though some of my goals weren't reached, it really was icing on the cake (to be recognized) and a nice way to close out my career."
After coming off cross country and heading into track, Dimambro felt he was the fittest he'd ever been, logging 80 to 90 miles a week over the winter break. His NCAA Regional mark of 31:00.7 in the 10K was a major breakthrough, in which he placed first on the team and 30th overall amongst some of the country's top runners.
Unfortunately, Dimambro's final season of track got off to a painful start.
After participating in a preseason track workout, he felt some pain in his foot that would eventually sideline him for three months - the entire duration of the indoor track season.
"I remember being really frustrated because I thought this was going to be the start of another big breakthrough after the success I had at regionals," said Dimambro.
He resumed running this March and was able to get in two solid weeks of workouts soon after. He then approached Coach Drenth about racing at the Spartan Invitational. After going back and forth, a decision was made for Dimambro to rabbit the 1500 meters.
"It sounded like a great idea," Dimambro said. "It was a nice transition with no real pressure and it was good to get a little bit of a hard effort in without running a full race. It was a bit of a weird feeling - not actually racing the last Spartan Invite - because I had ran there every year. But it definitely felt nice to put on the uniform and run around the track one last time in front of everybody and have my family there."
Grasping that role was a part of a maturity process as much as it was hardening himself in workouts and gaining experience via racing in order to improve as a whole. It also brought forth a new way of thinking. The realization that, for Dimambro, running has become something he does, yet not his sole existence.
"All throughout my senior year of high school and the beginning of my freshman year here (at Michigan State), if running wasn't going well then my life wasn't going well," he said.
"I've learned through success and failure that if you get hung up on how well running is going, it will make the rest of your life more difficult," he continued. "In turn, running then becomes more difficult. Now, I can look towards other things in life and realize that I'm very blessed and very happy and living the life I want to live."
In addition to his durability and accountability, Dimambro is able to cite his support as a major reason he has been able to compete and survive the past several years of intense training and balancing a full academic schedule. He also made himself open to reflection, an important process in understanding how to move forward.
"I've had lot of support and I've had people help bring me up and remind me that this is something that I'm good at and it's something I love to do," he said. "I know that I'm very passionate about running from a competitive and philosophical stand point. In order to make it, it takes a combination of training seriously then stepping out of your shoes for a minute and thinking about all the great experiences you've had because of it."
"A great example of this was us doing a long run at Arizona State after a meet. We are running and watching the sun rise and the landscape starts to become red earth," Dimambro continued. "Some of the things you get to see on runs - it's something I'm not going to be able to let go of. Being able to feel invincible for an hour or two hours straight and talk the whole time with a close teammate, it's those small things that are going to help you get through any frustrations you have and let you know that this is a great and amazing thing."
He also cites Coach Drenth as an individual that has been greatly influential, one that has urged Dimambro to approach life in the same fluid way that can be found in his running form.
"He wants you to live at the same level of completeness and seriousness in practice as you do in the realms of your life," Dimambro said of Drenth. "He always wants you committed to doing your best and giving yourself the best chance to succeed. It took me awhile to realize that what you do at practice isn't half the equation of the end result."
Dimambro continued, "You have to try to be successful in all the other realms of life. There is not an on and off switch, you have to be living the life that you need to live in order to be more successful in whatever you do."
"Through observing him through these years, he's a talented man who's very successful but he puts in the work that's necessary to make that talent show."
Outside of the sport, Dimambro is Kinesiology major with a Psychological Aspects of Sport focus. He has an internship to complete, as well one additional summer class before he graduates. His dream job would be to coach at the collegiate level, but beyond that, he wants to still be involved with running.
"I would love write about the sport and be involved with the meets. I feel like giving back to the sport because it's given me so much."