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Blanchette: Andrew Kimpel’s story familiar to many a college runner

PULLMAN – They run the 10,000 meters on Mooberry Track now only when the conference meet comes to town, or about every decade. Or dozen years, now that it’s the Larry Scott-12.

With the runners as with spectators, half the trick is just paying attention through 25 laps.

“There’s a certain point in the race when someone’s going to jump,” said Andrew Kimpel “and you’ve got to be ready and not fall asleep when that happens.”

The Washington State senior didn’t nod off in Saturday’s Pac-12 Track and Field Championships, but he probably felt like he could. A bronchial condition flared up in the last couple days and when the second pack in the 10K made their final burst, he didn’t have one.

“Trying not to wallow in it,” Kimpel said. “There’s still the 5K tomorrow.”

His last lap, of a sort.

And as good a time as any for a checkup on the great divide between limitless possibilities and adjusted horizons – in this case, from the vantage point of the standout high school distance runner, of which Spokane has had many.

Kimpel was one, a State 4A 3,200-meter champion at North Central but even more notably the lead dog on NC’s 2008 team that won the Nike Cross Nationals, a happy segue to what seemed to be enticing prospects at Washington State.

Which turned out to be “maybe not the Cinderella story I was hoping for,” he admitted.

“There were a few highlights – and a lot of bumps in the road.”

That’s a given for the college athlete. But often it seems as if distance runners experience the most fitful transitions – beset by the pounding rigors of their training, the usual pulls of college life and, yes, the psychological battering of getting their doors blown off by Kenyans every now and then.

Take for example the rest of Kimpel’s top-10 class from the 2008 Nike meet. For every Reed Connor (three-time Big Ten champ at Wisconsin) or Joe Rosa (Stanford’s 10K winner Saturday), others topped out as pluggers in good programs who never climbed a conference podium.

And Kimpel’s old NC teammates?

Jeff Howard, who dazzled with a conference title indoors as a freshman at Boise State, will have one last college race in the NCAA preliminary round at 10,000 in two weeks. From a solid freshman year at BYU, Ben Johnston did a two-year mission, then redshirted this season while resuming his running.

But after a couple years in the program at Texas, Leon Dean shelved the sport to concentrate on his chemical engineering degree (“Brainiac,” said Kimpel) with grad school ahead. Alex Avila, who ran briefly at Eastern Washington, now works in the lumber industry in Lewis County, and Adam Reid with Wells Fargo in Spokane. And Casey Adams ran 10th in Friday’s Ivy League steeplechase.

“There’s been a little bit of everything for all of us,” Kimpel said. “I guess you’d expect that.”

For Kimpel, everything included a fourth-place finish at the USA Cross Country Championships and 54th at worlds as a freshman. Two years later, he was WSU’s No. 1 as the Cougs reached the NCAA nationals. But he also battled sinus infections for two years until surgery corrected a deviated septum, and then hamstring trouble that had him limping for a year. And he’s running for his third distance coach at WSU.

But really, the everything was discovery.

“The most unexpected thing for me was that everybody progresses differently,” he said. “People you’d never heard of will make a significant jump. Maybe they’ll get into a different level of training of what they’ve had and just go – and you’re already surrounded by people who were really good to begin with.”

There was something else, too.

“I eventually realized it’s kind of a business in college,” Kimpel said. “That’s what coaches do – it’s their job, looking for the best guys. So (scholarship) money gets pushed to the best, and sometimes the focus, too. And I understand it, but I think some coaching gets lost in terms of looking out for athletes at the personal level.”

Back in Spokane, NC coach Jon Knight – who ran at WSU nearly 30 years after similar trials to start his college career at Montana – grasps the message.

“Over the years, how do I put it, I think we create in Spokane a family for runners that I don’t know they always experience when they’ve gone off,” he said.

That’s been echoed by more than one running alum of the Greater Spokane League, where the sport often has been feted as much as football.

“I think what I try to do is get them to see themselves as lifelong athletes – it’s a journey you’re on,” Knight said. “It doesn’t end with high school and it doesn’t have to end with college. If you view it like that, any one setback’s not too big of a deal.”

Besides, Kimpel already feels as if he’s on the awards stand. Last Thanksgiving, he lined up a job with a tax software company to put his information systems degree to use and he’ll start in July. He may make one start first if he can make the cut for the NCAA prelims.

“But really, I’m ready for the next chapter,” he said.

And different horizons.

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