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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Once a hot-shot distance runner, Justin Janke’s career was derailed by injury. He’s back to finish on his terms.

By John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

Justin Janke knows he can’t turn back the calendar or undo his medical reality.

Maybe, though, he can outrun both.

Just what that would look like, he’s not sure. In fact, he’s not sure he hasn’t already done it.

That notion occurred to him on a bright Saturday afternoon earlier this spring, sitting just inches from the track at Whitworth University – fresh from a race that was nowhere close to ideal yet seemed to disappoint him not at all.

“Some days are better than others,” Janke said. “I’m just happy to be out here.”

It has been eight years since Justin Janke was the latest sky’s-the-limit sensation of Spokane running and heading off to Washington State to buff his resume. He’d won the “triple crown” of high school distance races for North Central – the state cross country championship in the fall, the 1,600 and 3,200 meters on the track in the spring – and only four other Spokane high school runners had covered four laps in a better time.

And this past February in Seattle – clad in a throwback racing tank from his high schools days bearing the legend “N. Spokane” and tucked in a pack among collegians from Stanford and Utah State and Gonzaga – he finally ran faster.

The time, 4 minutes, 4.97 seconds, did not necessarily stand out as heat after heat of the men’s mile unfolded at Washington’s Dempsey Indoor track. But to Janke, it might as well have been a world record and not just a personal one.

“I ran into a long-time friend of mine after that 4:04,” Janke said, “and he said, ‘I didn’t know you had that in you.’ And honestly, I didn’t know either. But here I am.”

Back on the track.

If you’re not on some shoe company’s dime or elite enough to win purses or command expenses as a professional, post-collegiate track can be a dubious proposition, somewhere between hobby and hubris. It would seem especially untenable for anyone who’d been out of the game, for all purposes, for the better part of four years.

But at age 25, Janke isn’t indulging a grand delusion.

“The thought is, simply, let’s give this running thing one more go,” he said. “Because I felt I was robbed.”

Janke was entering his final spring of outdoor track at WSU in 2020 when the pandemic sent everyone to the sidelines. That put time back on his eligibility clock, but a year later another bandit popped out of the shadows: Haglund’s deformity, a bone growth where the heel and Achilles tendon attach. It was Janke’s first significant injury and grew into a bigger problem.

“It was misdiagnosed for a year,” he said. “I spent a year, on and off, trying to rest it and come back, and I finally got a second opinion in Spokane at Northwest Orthopedics and was told I needed surgery. And at that point I was like, ‘You need to be done.’ Which was incredibly hard.”

Because of the finality of it all, naturally. But also because he’d “never hit that place in college you’re always looking to get to,” he said.

He’d been to NCAA nationals with the Cougs in cross country and scored in conference meets indoors and out for WSU coach Wayne Phipps. But his 1,500-meter best of 3:45.96 still dated to high school, and his fastest mile indoors – 4:05.99 – came as a sophomore.

“College is hard,” he said. “I love how Jon Knight, my old high school coach, used to put it: There should be races for people with ‘easier’ college degrees and other races for those in things like engineering. As a freshman, I was taking four labs during track and going to bed at 2 a.m. – but I still made conference. Near the end, I thought I was getting the hang of it.”

Justin Janke (750), running for Washington State, leads teammates Matthew Watkins (755), Amir Ado (754) and Zach Stallings (758) during the 2019 WSU Open.  (WSU Athletics)
Justin Janke (750), running for Washington State, leads teammates Matthew Watkins (755), Amir Ado (754) and Zach Stallings (758) during the 2019 WSU Open. (WSU Athletics)

So he finished a degree in fashion and apparel design, and embarked on a masters – tunneling into a 100-page thesis on material science and 3D-printed footwear. He walked for the advanced degree last spring, but when the career opportunity most grads envision never presented itself, he took a part-time gig at Fleet Feet in Spokane.

And the racing itch returned.

He started running with friends, including another Coug, Andrew Kimpel, who had returned to coach at NC. He dabbled in some cross country races and envisioned a return to the track. Then he ran into Gonzaga coach Pat Tyson who did his pied piper thing and invited Janke to train with the Zags – and being on a team again, even if his teammates are five to seven years younger – has been an elixir. From a 4:14 mile at the start of the indoor season at the Podium in early December, Janke made steady gains until the breakthrough in Seattle.

“The only real bummer about that race,” he said, “was seeing Wayne Phipps there and knowing that, man, in a different universe had everything gone right, I could have given him more than what I did. I know he’s happy for me and rooting for me, and he’s a wonderful man. But at the same time, I felt terrible because this is what could have been.”

But what can it be, exactly?

Janke can’t really say. While healthy enough to crank out a 4:04 mile, he still has to manage pain from the Haglund’s – and, indeed, recently had to put his training, if not his aspirations, on hold (“a test,” he said, “not the ending”). Those aspirations were not rigidly defined anyway, even in a sport that cleaves to a clock and a finish line. There is also the matter of putting those degrees to use and shout-outs to prospective employers continue.

“At the beginning of this, no goal was far-fetched,” he said. “I would like to break 4 in the mile and I’m close to running something really fast. I know I’ll have to do real life stuff eventually, but I have a chance now to do this and I’m going to take it – because I can’t go back.

“But if I couldn’t walk tomorrow, I’d still be happy with what I did.”