“Run Hard. Run Fast. Run Fearless.” What Carolynne Gilbert told her son before each of his races is inscribed on Colby’s right shoulder. Those words pushed the Huskies’ redshirting freshman to become the U.S. junior champion in the 5,000-meter run this month and into this week’s World Junior Championships. They are also part of his remarkable journey to UW.
By Gregg Bell
UW Athletics Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – Colby Gilbert is running for a world title with more than a chip on his shoulder.
High up on his back, he has his indelible inspiration. His memory. His mother.
“Run hard. Run fast. Run fearless.”
That’s what Carolynne Gilbert always said to her older son before he raced. And that’s what Colby Gilbert has tattooed on the back of his right shoulder blade. Those words will be pushing the new Husky around Hayward Track in Eugene, Ore., Friday night at the IAAF world junior track and field championships.
Colby, the recently minted U.S. junior champion in the 5,000 meters, got the tattoo for his mom in February. He said the inking was “coincidentally one year to the day she died,” at the far-too-young age of 41. That was after her eight-year fight with breast cancer ended with metastasis into her lungs and brain.
“Not planned, but that’s how it ended up,” he says of the timing of getting the tattoo. “Pretty cool.”
So, yes, he’s going to run hard. He’s going to run fast; if it’s anything like three weeks ago in the U.S. junior meet on the same Oregon track, he’ll be pushing to the point his legs will cease working.
And, oh yes, he knows fearless. He’s seen it first-hand, over all those years Mom stared down cancer.
“It was tough, yeah,” he said, his head of bushy red hair held high. “I mean, I was in fifth grade when this started happening. So it was basically just a part of our life.”
I was talking to the Huskies’ redshirting freshman before he left to compete in this week’s World Juniors. They are being held in the United States for the first time, running Tuesday through this weekend in Eugene. Gilbert deserves that fortunate twist. Instead of being in some far-flung locale across the globe, as they usually are, these World Juniors being in Oregon will allow his family and friends from his hometown of Vancouver, Wash., to make the two-hour drive there this week.
Gilbert and freshman distance runner Amy-Eloise Neale in the steeplechase are the two Huskies in the world junior (age 19-and-under) finals. Veteran Huskies coach Greg Metcalf says this is the first time UW has had two current track-and-field teammates competing at the same World Juniors.
(Universal Sports and USATF.tv is providing coverage of the meet. Gilbert’s event is a straight world final, no heats, at 8:45 Friday night. UW’s Neale runs the steeplechase Thursday at 10:05 a.m., with heat winners advancing to that event’s finals on Saturday at 4:55 p.m.)
I’m guessing none of the record-setting 1,540 participants in these world junior championships have taken the path Gilbert has to reach the highest level in his sport as a teenager.
From when he was in fifth grade in Vancouver, Wash., until his senior year at Skyview High School when he was at his mother’s side at the time of her death on Feb. 7, 2013, Gilbert saw his mother trapped by her insidious disease. A former distance runner at the University of Portland, Carolynne Gilbert was 33 when she was diagnosed with cancer and began her long fight.
“Even though she was sick all the time, she always wanted to make life for me and my brother as normal as possible,” Colby says now. “Especially looking back now, realizing how hard it must have been to do even the basic things around the house that she did for us, it’s pretty amazing.
“It’s just amazing to think about her commitment,” he said, his voice catching. “To me. To the family. All of it.”
His father is also a former University of Portland runner whom Metcalf has known for years. Christopher Gilbert met his future wife about 20 years ago while they were competing for North Idaho Junior College. Now – after his work moved Colby and his brother from Washington to Santa Rosa, Calif., to Minnesota (where Colby began running cross country in seventh grade) and back to the Northwest -- he is a policy analyst for the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland.
Dad has bought 24 tickets at $15 each to create his son’s personal cheering section at the World Juniors this week. It will include Colby’s 15-year-old brother Chanse, many members of his father’s family, Colby’s mom’s parents plus his mother’s best friend, Penny Staples. She lives across the street from the Gilberts’ home in Vancouver.
“Yeah, just about everyone in my family and beyond will be there,” Colby said, smiling above his red beard.
I get the feeling his mom will be there watching, too.
“His mother died about a week after his visit to the University of Washington,” Metcalf said. “The story of how the relationship lives on between him and his mother is fantastic. It’s something that gives him purpose. It shapes how he runs. It’s a big part of who he is as a person.”
TO KENYA, WITH LOVE
How Gilbert became the U.S. junior champion in the 5,000 meters July 5 is also fantastic. And it also relates to Mom.
While she was sick yet still constantly exhorting him to “run hard, run fast, run fearless,” they hatched a goal: for him to become the best teenage 5,000-meter runner in the country.
“It’s been in my head for so long,” Gilbert said.
After Gilbert graduated from Skyview High in the early summer of 2013, he took a few days to unwind with his local buddies. Then his father – ever the track man – handed Colby a plane ticket to Kenya. That’s one ticket, for a solo flight to the African nation known for producing the best distance runners in the world. Gilbert’s dad sent his teenager to Lornah Kiplagat’s High Altitude Training Centre in Iten, Kenya. Iten’s dirt running trails are at an elevation of 2,400 meters, or 7,784 feet.
Gilbert is the first Husky in Metcalf’s 12 years leading UW track who has gone to the famous Kenyan running camp. Gilbert was told he stayed in the same dorm room at Iten as Mo Farah of Great Britain, the 5000-meter world champion who won two gold medals at the 2012 London Olympics.
“Though they might tell everybody that,” Metcalf joked Tuesday over his cell phone from a late lunch at Eugene’s iconic Track Town Pizza.
“It was just phenomenal for a high-school kid to experience that. It changed him as a distance runner, for sure. He got a picture of what it takes and what it means to be one of the best distance runners in the world. He got up, went on really long training runs. Then he’d eat pretty simply, have another workout in the afternoon, go to bed early and wake up and do it all again. He did that for more than four weeks.
“For any high-school kid who just finished graduating, that’s not normal activity,” Metcalf deadpanned.
But as you might have gathered, Gilbert is not the normal teenager.
Upon returning to Washington from Kenya, he arrived a few weeks later on the UW campus last fall -- and went directly to Metcalf’s office.
“From his very first day of school last year he said, ‘Coach, I want to run in the World Junior championships,’” Metcalf said. “We planned his entire first year here around that. We planned to redshirt him with this goal in mind.”
He redshirted the cross-country season last fall into the early winter. Metcalf was still deciding whether to redshirt Gilbert for the spring track season, too, when Gilbert made the decision for the Huskies. He broke his collarbone the day after Christmas crashing on a patch of ice while snowboarding at Mount Hood Meadows east of Portland.
He had to wait for his bones to rejoin but was only off from running for 17 days, just a tad longer than a normal break from training for a distance runner. The impact of running when he resumed didn’t pain him as he thought it might.
“Collarbone is a very lucky bone to break for a distance runner, actually,” he said.
But Metcalf noticed that the injury and the subsequent time off made Gilbert’s running form wonky. So the coach decided to let Gilbert take his time in regaining his training feel by redshirting him for this spring’s track season, as well.
While most freshmen – especially one that just spent a month training with some of the best in the world in his sport at an elite international camp – would chafe at having to sit out any competitions, Gilbert embraced the redshirt.
“I was still racing (in training for these U.S. junior championships), so I was competing anyway,” Gilbert said. “I knew I was training for something else. And knowing I have four years to compete (for UW) starting next season is nice.”
The day after the Fourth of July at Hayward Field in Eugene at the U.S. junior championships, Gilbert was in a strong field of rivals he knew well. As the 5,000 meter final unfolded, he noticed a slow pace at the front. He had the fastest 1,500-meter time in the field, so he knew he had a speed advantage early. He stayed out front. With one lap, 400 meters, to go, Gilbert made his final move – “probably a little bit too early,” he said.
He ran that last lap in a blazing 55 seconds. It was faster than he’d ever run 400 meters to end any race, even the mile that is 7½ laps shorter.
“The last 40 meters I was scared I was going to fall over. I was reaching that point that they call temporary neurological failure. I was at my anaerobic limit,” he said. “My legs just started feeling like they weren’t under me. It literally felt like I was falling.
“My legs sort of stopped working.”
They worked well enough to win the U.S. junior championship by a half-second – and to fulfill mom’s demand.
Run hard. Run fast. Run fearless.
NO MEAT. NO DAIRY. NO PROBLEM.
Another thing Gilbert does in his mother’s legacy: He eats vegan. Every two hours leading up to his race he eats -- rice and beans and steel-cut oats are his staples -- then has nothing within three hours of it.
His mother went the no-meat, no-diary route after she got sick. Colby was the only one in his family to join her, two years ago.
“It did a lot for her, with how much treatment she was going through and the stress of her situation. I think she really appreciated it,” he said. “It was good time. We’d be in there cooking food and stuff. It was awesome.”
Oh, there’s one more fact about Gilbert that makes him far from the ordinary college freshman: He was born with two fingers on his left hand. His friends have started a #feartheclaw Twitter campaign for it.
“I make adjustments in the weight room, with barbells and things. But there are always ways around that,” he said, shrugging. “I usually forget I am missing three fingers.”
No wonder. With as fast and as long as Gilbert’s legs and feet are running while as one of the fastest, fittest teenagers in the world, who needs fingers?
Besides, he still has more than enough to show he’s No. 1. And in more than just distance running.
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
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