No Superman

Photo credit: Andrew Mayo
Photo credit: Andrew Mayo

WATERTOWN, Wis. – Most people saw Jeremy Fopma as a showstopping history-maker in 2020: he broke his own program record twice, ran blazing second-place finishes back-to-back in October, and finished in the top five in every race he ran during the regular season.

Then to crown it all, he made history last weekend by becoming the first recorded Division II runner in NCCAA history to be the overall winner at Nationals. The whole time, Jeremy made it look easy. His long, smooth strides to the finish and eye-catching times became the norm. People simply expected him to perform at an elite level, and Jeremy did not disappoint. He methodically went about his business and led the team race after race after race.

But behind all of his success and apparent ease is a story that few people know: Jeremy ran himself headlong into fatigue and a prolonged injury over the summer, and there were times even he wondered if he would ever make it through the season ahead. 

Jeremy’s grit, determination, and sickening work ethic - sterling character qualities that make him excel as a runner and as a person - were the very things that almost buried him.

It wasn’t just a rigorous training schedule that caused his injury. Jeremy’s entire routine from March until June was, to use the vernacular, “crazy.” He would wake up a 1:00 a.m. to do a five-hour paper route, then after a quick break and a breakfast, it was right into his landscaping job that he worked until 6:00 p.m. 

Then, only after his exhausting 14-hour workdays, Jeremy would run.

We’re not talking light jogs here. We’re talking upwards of 80 miles in just one week. Jeremy was piling on the volume and racking up the miles, which is fine - even recommended - if you have a normal schedule. But Jeremy’s schedule was anything but normal: all told, he was working 70 hours per week and working on a graduate class on top of all that running. The work and training schedules were pernicious enough, but the biggest blow of them all was his lack of sleep. You’ve probably done the rough math already, but here it is: after his 14-hour workdays, his run, a meal, and homework time, Jeremy would head to bed at 10 o’clock, leaving just three hours of sleep per night.

And he kept that up for three months straight.

A grueling 20-mile run on a sultry summer day finally broke him, marking 79 miles in one week with just three hours of sleep per night. Gradually but powerfully, Jeremy had run himself into the ground. This was anything but a minor injury - it went as deep as the fatigue itself. 

And so it was that from late June to early August - when he planned to do his most important workouts to prepare for the season - Jeremy was forced to rest and to limp through his work days. It was the worst fear for a runner like Jeremy: as the season approached quickly, his hard-earned fitness level evaporated. An athlete that survives on preparation and diligence was denied the chance to even prepare, and just when he needed it most, his fitness level was heading backwards towards the starting line.

In those months, all the effort - all those miles - seemed to be going to waste. Jeremy had no option but to rest until preseason began.

Jeremy knew the science and he knew the dangers of running that abusive schedule, but grinding and pushing are hallmarks of Jeremy’s psyche as a runner. Slowing down? That just wasn’t an option. Even under the overwhelming weekly schedule, Jeremy was flying - he was cruising to consecutive 5:20 miles in his workouts while keeping a relatively moderate heart rate. If he built on that, he was heading for big things by his own lofty standards. But then, the injury hit.

“I was pretty confident with those workouts and knew if I kept it up I would be in pretty good shape,” Fopma said. “During the summer my plans were high and I was planning on going really fast. But I guess I got a little bit stupid after that.

"When [the inury] happened, it took a while to really get readjusted. I couldn't really think about running at all because I [was] no where close to that. So it took a while to get refocused, and preseason was challenging because I hadn’t really run in, like, two months. So it was about waking my legs up and my biggest concern was just not getting hurt again. At the start of the season, I was nowhere close mentally or physically. I was in bad shape in all those areas."

As expected, Jeremy had to deal with minor injuries in the early parts of the season, and with a heavy class load on top of all the preseason training, the start of the season was a daily fight. But Jeremy slowly began to rekindle the motivation that had fueled those bygone 80-mile weeks, and he started to believe - cautiously at first - that his original goals of a 25:05 8K and winning Nationals might be within reach after all.

"[John] Warnke helped a lot with that because he had a plan for every day," Fopma said. "Some days I couldn't push much, but he had a plan. At the beginning of the season, we set goals, and mine was to go 25:05 [for an 8K]. During the season I thought, 'there's no way I'm even getting close to that this year - I'm just not there mentally, physically, emotionally, or anything.'"

A few weeks into the 2020 campaign, Jeremy reviewed that goal of 25:05 the night before a race in Muskegon, Michigan with reluctance. At his pace, cutting a minute and 20 seconds off of your best time of the season is no small feat, and with just two races left in the regular season and his low time standing at 26:26, he had his doubts. But on a day where every single runner from Maranatha defied expectations, Jeremy led the way, beating his coveted 25:05 mark by just one second.

"That day, God just gave me a good race," Jeremy said. "I don't know-we were just flying for five miles. I can't really say that was all me. It was just crazy. And that really gave me confidence moving forward, which was really helpful."

Through it all, Jeremy had something go from his head to his heart - something very powerful. As much as he knew the concept, Jeremy needed an injury to experience it in a new way: he needs God and he needs help from people around him.

In his own words: he can’t be superman.

“[God] helps me in that he grows me in a lot of areas through running,” Jeremy said. “I’ve grown because He’s given me a platform to learn, to grow, to be hurt and experience a tough time. I’ve also been up high, like winning Nationals last year. You can have everything or nothing, and I’ve had both of those - a lot.

“Really, the thing it keeps coming back to is that the spiritual side of running is the only part that really matters - it’s about what we do with the gospel and the people that we meet and impact. When I’m up high in running and doing very well, it’s easy to forget that and think it’s all me. Then I get hurt and realize it isn’t about me - God is always in control and everything is a gift. Whatever happens, we just need to relax and trust that. I just need to give God my running and my training.

“When He has every area of my life, He teaches me to do good things even through things that are tough. Running, then, becomes an opportunity to invest in others instead of an opportunity for me to go out and get a medal and win a race. 

"In my mind, I like to be superman - to be in charge and be in control. I can’t be superman. It’s fine to admit that you're having a tough day, that you need help, especially as a captain," Jeremy said. "But you need to be vulnerable. That really was hard for me. But there's always people that want to help you and are able to help you. You've just got to accept the help. Jeremy Zobel was very helpful, Drew [Smith] was very helpful, Jonathan Gilliam was very helpful, and really, all of my teammates at different points and in different ways helped me out. A lot. Other people are where strength is."

For Jeremy, the success was great, sure. But how he got there was something that stuck with him. Through the process of vulnerability - of asking for help - Jeremy began to see running in a completely different way.

“Running is just an opportunity to serve,” Jeremy said. “And I need to remember to help the people around me.”

More work went into that time behind the scenes than the average person knows. Even Jeremy doubted it would ever happen. But it happened. And through the process, Jeremy’s outlook on running itself had changed just as much as his expectations throughout the season. 

So that's the back story to the front-page edition that everybody’s heard: Jeremy would indeed beat the goal time of 25:05 by one second, shattering his own PR in the process. He ultimately went to Nationals to defend his title, and he beat every runner there, doing what no other runner on record had ever done before in the history of the NCCAA.

That, after all, was the plan all along. 

Cross Country is a team sport, but in many ways, it's an individual one. Each runner has to put in the work and climb to new levels of development and performance, and Jeremy's was quite the climb. Along the way, what he learned about himself and his process was probably the opposite of what he thought going into the summer. And it sets him up to achieve his future goals as a runner and a person.

Even now he plans on taking just 10 days off before going back to the grind and the process of earning his goal time of a 24-minute 8K while going undefeated in 2021. Most would recommend taking more time off. After all, he could've run himself out of the 2020 season. But grinding and pushing are hallmarks of Jeremy's psyche as a runner. Slowing down? That just isn't an option.

Jeremy has the tools and a renewed confidence after making it through a year that had a lot stacked against him. He went into the arena against his body, mind, and will, and came away on the winning side. But that's just it - it's a "side". It implies that he isn’t alone.

Because in his own words, Jeremy can’t be superman. He now has what he didn't have at the start of the year - a renewed awareness that he needs community and that running is so much more than a chance to win a race. To reach his goals isn't going to be easy. In typical Fopma fashion he has set a high bar for himself.

He’s ready to put in the work, but at the same time, he knows that he needs help.

And now, he knows right where to find it.

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