On Dec. 13, Justin Liedke toed the line at the 2008 USA Track and Field National Junior Olympic Cross Country Championship Meet. Justin lined-up against a field of over 200 "Bantam" age-group (10-years-old-and-under) national qualifiers at Pole Green Park in Mechanicsville, Virginia. When the gun fired, Justin shot off the line. His race plan was simple: get out fast and lead from start to finish.
Justin is the 10-year-old son of Nebraska Air National Guard Senior Master Sergeant Laura Liedke and her husband Gregg. SMSgt Liedke is the Airfield Manager for the 170th Operational Support Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base. Gregg is retired after a 30-year career with the Air Force Weather Agency.
Justin competes for the Cornhusker Flyers Track Club. The Flyers are based in Omaha and their mission is to promote the sports of Track & Field and Cross Country throughout Nebraska. Eight Flyers have won Junior Olympic Cross Country National Championships in the club's 32-year history. Justin was racing to become the ninth.
Justin, you see, is no ordinary competitor. He is one of the most-talented youth distance runners in Nebraska history. He is the Nebraska State Cross Country Champion for 2007 and 2008. He holds the Nebraska State Record for the Bantam Boys 1,500-meter "Metric Mile" run with a time of 4:51.92. He is a multiple-time All-American who placed third in last year's National Junior Olympic Cross Country Championship Meet as a nine-year-old in the 10-and-under race. This past summer, Justin finished second in the 1,500 meter run at the National Junior Olympic Track & Field Championship Meet. In other words, he entered this year's National Meet as a favorite.
Flyers Coach John Wissler said, "We knew Justin was better at longer distances than his main competitors. But, if it came down to a speed race in the last 100 meters, he might be in trouble. So, he needed to set a fast pace and build a big enough lead that the other runners wouldn't have the kind of speed necessary to catch him."
Justin did just that. "I had a good start. At 800 meters I felt good so I took the lead," he said. "I jogged the course with (teammate) Nick Falcon the night before and he made some jokes that helped relax me."
Justin stretched his lead to 30 meters with 1,000 meters to go. "I knew I had to run a hard 1,000 to the finish. When I got to the last turn with 300 meters to go, I didn't hear any breathing behind me so I just ran as hard as I could to the line."
He finished the 3,000-meter course in first-place in a time of 10:39, a full 26 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher. His average pace was 5:43 per mile over the 1.86-mile course. That converts to an 8:34 mile-and-a-half time.
"What was really cool," Justin said afterward, "was when I crossed the finish line and entered the chute, someone handed me a little white card. It said, "This is the shell that started the race you won." I turned the card over and there was the shell casing from the Starter's pistol."
Justin won his National Championship. In fact, his margin of victory was the largest of the 10 different age-group races at the National Championship Meet. For that reason, he was named the USA Track & Field Athlete of the week for the week of Dec. 15. Justin joins other USA Track & Field Athletes of the Week for 2008 including Beijing Olympic Gold Medalists Bryan Clay, Stephanie Brown Trafton and Sanya Richards, as well as Hall-of-Fame marathoner Join Benoit Samuelson. "I'm humbled by the whole experience," Justin remarked. "To be named with the world's best is an honor."
Members of Team Offutt offered congratulations to Justin, obviously, for putting in the hard work required to earn such honors. Also, to Flyers Coach John Wissler who is heading into his 33rd year coaching the Cornhusker Flyers. Finally, congratulations were offered to Sergeant Liedke and her husband Gregg for pointing Justin in the right direction and turning him loose.
What is next for Justin?
"Next year, I move to a new age division and there will be a whole new set of challenges."
Justin said, "I'm lucky to have Coach Wissler as a coach, without the training workouts I wouldn't be in this position. This has been a five year process for me and it started with Coach Craig Christians Head Track and Cross Country coach at Bellevue West. When I run in local races, Coach Christians always offers a joke and some words of encouragement. What I learned from these two coaches is that I need to run from within myself. The only thing I have control over is how I run.
"I'd like to thank Nick Falcon my teammate, we jogged the course the night before and made some jokes and that helped me relax.
"Big thanks to the 55th and the Field House staff at Offutt for supporting me.
"When I'm so close to a national meet and the weather forces me indoors, not missing a workout is important. I have to respect my competition; they're great runners so you have to be ready for them. Finally, I'd like to thank the other Nebraska athletes and Mark Hopson for supporting my running. I have a great support system around me; so in the end it's a victory we all share."
Justin's main competition was from the kid who got second as he had beaten Justin in the 1500 at JO nats. We knew that Justin should be better at the longer distance (3000) but that if it came down to a speed race in the last 100 or so we could be in trouble so Justin had to go out and set the pace.