Aug. 26, 2011
By Daniel Roth
For many athletes there is no bigger thrill or source of pride than putting on their country's colors and representing their nation in competition. At a certain point in time, whether it is just before the race starts or some other symbolic moment, reality sinks in for some athletes and they comprehend and appreciate the significance of their accomplishment. That's exactly what happened when former Washington distance runner Mike Sayenko received his Team USA gear a month ago in preparation for the trip he and many of our country's top athletes will be taking to Daegu, South Korea for the 2011 IAAF World Track & Field Championships.
The Championships begin on August 27, with Sayenko running the marathon on the morning of September 4, the final day of competition.
For any athlete, the pride of representing your nation is special, but for Mike Sayenko, it holds an even deeper significance. Mike moved to America from Odessa, Ukraine when he was 8 years old, became a naturalized American citizen and now wants to give back to the country that has given him so much since his arrival.
"For me America is my country," said Sayenko. "Giving back to the country that has given me the opportunity means a lot. I never thought I'd have running take me this far, get a scholarship at a University, be able to run professionally and represent the US at the World Championships."
Sayenko has taken full advantage of the opportunities that being an elite runner in America has given him. After taking up and immediately excelling at running in high school, Mike received a scholarship to the University of Washington where he studied Fine Arts.
At UW, he improved every season, and competed at the NCAA Cross Country Championships three different years. As a senior in 2006, Sayenko placed 10th at the NCAA West Regional meet and then finished 65th in the huge NCAA field, helping UW to a 12th-place finish, still the team's top finish since 1993. He also owns the fifth-fastest 10,000-meter time in school history at 29:07.22.
He now puts this knowledge and training that he received at UW to use regularly in his own business, Sayenko Design, a design firm in Seattle. By operating his own business, Mike is able to balance being a professional athlete, which demands difficult and frequent training, with flexible work hours to pays the bills. A normal work day for Mike is exhausting for most just to think about.
"I usually go for a run, come back, eat lunch, do some work, and then do my second run. And sometimes work after my second run," Sayenko explained.
That doesn't seem so overwhelming until you realize the kind of training that an elite athlete does on a daily basis. Mike lists the Sammamish River Trail, Eastlake Sammamish Trail, and the waterfront of Sammamish Lake as some of his favorite places in the area to work out. (Note: all of these trails are at least 10 miles). And once in a while he'll take a full lap around the lake, a paltry 23.5 miles.
Mike's strong work ethic allows him to maintain this balance, but he recognizes that he definitely does not do it alone. It is a team effort and always has been for Mike Sayenko, who eagerly thanks many other people who have helped him along his journey to the World Championships. Sayenko attributes much of his success both at UW and since his graduation to the longtime Washington Track and Field and Cross Country coach Greg Metcalf. Sayenko is very grateful for Metcalf's guidance as well as the trust and belief in Mike's abilities that his former coach has displayed over the years.
"I remember running my first marathon (senior year)," Sayenko recalls. "He (Coach Metcalf) wasn't thrilled about the idea. In the back of his mind he knew I could do it, he just wanted me to focus on cross country. But he just had this belief in me. He helped me get to the race; he flew down and watched me run. That's where I first qualified for my first Olympic trials in that race. Ever since then he's really been encouraging. He's flown me out to a couple other races that weren't on the team schedule but because he had this belief in me that `Mike can do this, he can go and qualify, he can run this time, I'm going to take him anyway.'"
Other coaches and team members have also enabled Sayenko to reach his dreams of being a professional runner and representing his country. His current coach, Brad Hudson, has coached several Olympians and Mike attributes a lot of his growth and improvement as a runner over the last few years to his coach's wisdom and experience in the sport. Mike believes that working with Hudson has helped him not only train and use supplements more effectively, but also learn to listen to his body and how it responds and recovers more than he had in the past, which he thinks has given him an edge.
With the help of his coach, Mike now runs longer distances with shorter breaks than he ever has before and better understands how to get the most possible out of his body in training and competition. Sayenko also readily admits that without his physical therapist and chiropractor keeping him healthy, or his sponsors (Powerbar, Club Northwest, and Infinite Running) he wouldn't be in the position he is in today.
But perhaps the most important member of his team is his wife Hayley. The two met at a barbecue that Mike hosted a few years ago while he was still at UW. Mike and Hayley got married on June 11 of this year. Hayley, who is also a runner and competed for University of Kansas, has been a huge help for Mike in his training, especially on long runs. Sayenko says, "She'll bike along and give me fluids and gel packs." But making his long runs more manageable isn't the only area where Hayley has helped Mike in his preparation for the World Outdoor Championships.
Now that he is a married man, Mike can no longer just eat cheese quesadillas for dinner. As every athlete knows, although they are delicious and easy to make, cheese quesadillas provide only marginal nutritional value. Not to mention that a quesadilla for dinner doesn't exactly scream "marriage material". Additionally, Mike suffered through bouts of anemia during college and was not able to fully reach his potential in college due in part to the lack of oxygen his muscles would receive during competition. So revamping his diet has been doubly beneficial. Not only does he now eat like a respectable, mature adult but the addition of more fresh produce, a salad a day, various other dark leaf vegetables and steak which contain lots of iron into his diet have increased his athletic abilities as well.
Combine the improvement in his diet, increased and more intense training with an already impressive collegiate runner and it is easy to see how Sayenko has experienced success professionally in recent years and become one of America's top marathoners. The race that Mike is most proud of is the Chicago Marathon in 2010. For the first time, Mike was able to train fully for that race by training in altitudes, meeting with his coach In Eugene, Oregon and avoiding injuries. With his preparation complete for that race and the knowledge that Chicago's course is much flatter than most marathons, Mike was excited to "just go after it, and run as fast as possible".
On that day in 2010, massive crowds screamed his name even though few people knew him and the weather was hotter than expected, which took a toll on all of the competitors. Everything finally worked out how it was supposed to and amongst a loaded field that included the 2008 Olympic Marathon champion, Mike finished tenth and second amongst all Americans in a new personal-best time of two hours and fourteen minutes. That was two minutes faster than his previous best, another great showing at the 2009 New York Marathon where Sayenko placed 14th and eighth among Americans.
Over the last several years, Sayenko has used his natural talent as a runner and has truly taken full advantage of the chances to succeed available in America. Throughout his life, he has been given the opportunity to reach his dreams and naturally, he has run with it.