May 6, 2014
Bulldog junior Charles Grethen is scheduled to race in the 800-meter run prelims at 6:30 p.m. during the SEC Outdoor Championships in Lexington, Ky., on Friday, May 16 (finals at 3:50 p.m., Sunday, May 18). Find out how Grethen ended up 4,000-plus miles from his hometown competing in Red & Black . . .
ATHENS, Ga. – Growing up in Tuntange, Luxembourg, Georgia junior Charles Grethen never gave much thought to the idea of running collegiately in the United States. Grethen had always been a part of youth track and field clubs, and even spent time competing in triathlons for several years, but it wasn’t until the 2010 World Junior Championships when Grethen fully turned his attention towards the possibility of running at the collegiate level.
“The World Juniors in 2010 is where I was first introduced to different U.S. coaches and was able to get a preview of how the whole collegiate system would work,” said Grethen. “I didn’t really know anything much about the U.S. collegiate system, and at that point, I was still just a junior in high school. The next year, I continued to talk to different coaches but I wasn’t really sure if I was going to make the move and come to the United States.”
After considering his options, his desire to improve as a runner, and the benefits of receiving a college degree, Grethen finally decided that running in the United States was the perfect option after high school. Once Grethen made the choice to run in the United States, the most important question suddenly became where to run? Grethen became increasingly familiar with the American collegiate system as a whole during his recruiting process and contact with various collegiate coaches, but he still didn’t know exactly which program would prove to be the best fit for him both academically and athletically.
The middle-distance star ultimately chose to run for Texas State, citing the warm weather as one of his top reasons for selecting the school.
“I just didn’t really know a lot about which school was right for me, but I knew that I wanted to go somewhere warm,” said Grethen. “I really had no idea what school to choose, so I was just looking for schools with good weather that were located in the south. I chose Texas State and really enjoyed my time in San Marcos, and it was awesome being only 30 minutes away from Austin. But after a year, I knew that I wanted to be in a top Division I program. Georgia was a perfect fit for me. It was in a great conference with a lot of competition, and I just really wanted to be a Bulldog, so I transferred to Georgia and have been loving it so far.”
The Bulldogs were more than happy to welcome Grethen to Athens, as he has done nothing but win and continue to improve since arriving on campus during the summer of 2012.
“Charles has always performed at a high level for us, and he continues to compete well in our biggest meets,” said Georgia distance coach Patrick Cunniff. “He works very hard and is consistently looking to push himself in training and in his races.”
Grethen has had no shortage of success since coming to the United States, breaking the Texas State school record in the 800 meters and capturing the 2012 Southland Conference Outdoor Championship title in the same event. In his first season at Georgia in 2013, the mid-distance specialist peaked just in time for the SEC Indoor Championships, earning runner-up honors in the 800 with a career-best time of 1:49.03.
Grethen’s times continued to drop during the 2013 outdoor season, as he clocked a then-career-best 1:47.56 at the Mt. SAC Relays in April before claiming a spot on the podium at the SEC Outdoor Championships with a third-place finish in 1:48.05. Grethen raced well into the postseason for the Bulldogs, advancing all the way to the NCAA Championships where he earned Honorable Mention All-America honors with a 19th-place finish in the prelims.
Any running aficionado knows that the 800 is arguably one of the toughest events in track and field, if not the very toughest, depending on who is asked. Running two laps is not necessarily long enough to be considered a full-fledge distance event, nor short enough to be considered an all-out sprint, yet the race can feel more challenging than a mile or a 5,000-meter race. There’s no time to rest, there’s really no time to catch one’s breath, and it’s almost certainly as much – if not more of – a challenge mentally for the runner than physically.
“The 800 is pretty brutal because it’s not really sprinting, but it’s also not endurance – it’s just something in between,” said Grethen. “I really like it, though, because there’s definitely some strategy in the race. I feel like I just have that instinct to know exactly what I need to do in what moment, and that’s what I really rely on in my races.”
To watch Grethen run his specialty event can be likened to watching a seasoned veteran moving with strength and fluidity, just waiting for the right time to strike. Often running from the back of the pack for much of the first 400 meters and letting his competition exert the early effort, Grethen always surges ahead on the second lap, finding another gear and another speed that much of his competition so often lacks.
Grethen never seems to tighten up, shorten his stride, or decrease his turnover ratio – feats that all too often befall 800-meter runners on the second, ever-challenging lap of the race. In fact, Grethen seems to do exactly the opposite over his final 400 meters, remaining relaxed, lengthening his stride, and increasing his turnover, most notably in the final 200 meters of the race.
“I just know when I need to sit back or when I need to kick, and that’s the key,” noted Grethen, when discussing his strategy for a successful 800. “I feel like in the 800, that’s when I can do that the best. In a sprint like a 200 or a 400, there’s certainly still some strategy – there’s strategy in every race. But, I feel like I can really apply it best in the 800 and it’s worked for me so far.”
After earning a spot on the podium once again at the SEC Indoor Championships earlier this season with a third-place finish, Grethen is ready for more than just a podium spot this outdoor season – he wants the top spot. Grethen knows the SEC 800 meter competition is always strong, particularly with runners from Florida and Mississippi State, but his mental toughness and his closing speed give him the confidence that he needs heading into the SEC Outdoor Championships on May 15-18 in Lexington, Kentucky.
“Charles certainly gained a lot of confidence from last season, but instead of getting complacent, he came back hungrier and looking to be great,” added Cunniff. “I think he has really set himself up for a strong postseason this year.”
Grethen ran a career-best time of 1:47.22 at the Florida Relays last month, and he knows that it will most likely take a sub-1:47 mark to claim the SEC title – a feat that Grethen knows is well within reach.
“I’m ready to go sub-1:47, and I know that I have it in me,” he said. “I just need to get it down on that day. I know there’s so much competition at SECs and also at the national level, so I know I’m going to be able to break 1:47 soon. As much as I want to do that, though, the next couple of races at SECs and NCAAs are also just about beating people and making it through the prelim rounds and on to the finals.”
“He has a great natural sense of pace and effort,” noted Cunniff. “He manages his energy and movement through the field incredibly well, and in the 800 that is so key. You’ll look like you are flying in the 800 if you can just maintain and not tighten up, and Charles is good at that…It will be fun to see what he can do (in the postseason).”
Grethen speaks about running under 1:47 exactly the way he races – with such ease and confidence – that it seems nearly impossible for Grethen not to break the 1:47 mark this season. His easy-going, always-relaxed nature off the track visibly carries directly over to his races on the track, and he knows that the next month holds an abundance of opportunity for new personal records to be reached and new milestones to be accomplished.
“I’ve made the podium every single time at SECs so far,” said Grethen. “This time around, I’m hoping to finally get the win. I know I can do it again this year. Once you make it through to the final of a race, it’s just about racing and being in a good position for your team, too.”
Grethen credits his rigorous training sessions to helping him achieve such success in his two seasons at Georgia, although he also notes the importance of being able to take a step back from training, if needed, and listen to his body.
“Coach Cunniff and I always talk to see how I’m feeling on any given day. If something is bothering me, we might take it just a little bit easy that day so that I don’t put myself in any bad situations,” commented Grethen. “I actually run once a week on an anti-gravity treadmill that we have in the training room. Even though I’m not injured, I just do it for prevention purposes.”
“Of course, you can’t ease up all the time,” he added. “At some point, you have to train fast to be able to race fast, and you have to take a risk just to be competing out there.”
Since the 800 meters falls somewhere between an endurance race and a sprint, Grethen’s training regimen also mirrors one of both an endurance runner and a sprinter. Over the summer, Grethen spends more time logging higher mileage and completing distance runs, but now during the heart of the season with postseason fate on the line, the quality of his workouts far outweighs the quantity.
“I normally workout pretty hard twice a week,” notes Grethen. “We’ll also lift weights twice per week, but we still combine sprints or shorter distance runs to get the legs rolling a bit. It’s a lot of different stuff, and it’s not solely speed workouts or solely endurance workouts. We mix it up, but right now the emphasis is definitely more on speed work than in the fall.”
“Charles is just a true, true 800-meter guy,” said Cunniff. “I joke with him that he’s not the fastest guy at 400 meters, and I always tell him that his 1500 is so weak compared to his 800 – but he just runs great in the 800. He’s super smooth, very strong and totally confident.”
As hard as Grethen trains for nearly 10 months of the year, he makes sure to take time off for his body to rest and recover during the offseason months. Of course, he’s never truly inactive or sedentary, but rather he spends his time participating in activities other than running, allowing for his legs to recuperate and receive a much-needed rest period.
“During the summer, I don’t take too much time off or totally just do nothing, but I do take a lot of time off from running,” said Grethen. “I just need to do something different at that point. I’ll do biking or just whatever – just anything to change it up a bit.”
As much as Grethen enjoys those summer months where he can swim or bike and not hit the track twice a week for intense speed workouts, his mind is far from vacation right now. Grethen’s focus is solely on the postseason for Georgia, as he strives to accomplish his goal at the SEC Championships before returning to the University of Oregon’s historic Hayward Field in Eugene, the site of this year’s NCAA Championships.
“It’s just an awesome feeling racing out there,” said Grethen, when describing the atmosphere at Hayward Field. “The stadium is so packed, and it’s just unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The fans are so crazy about track, and the stands are filled to max capacity with thousands of people. That’s just something you don’t get to see every day for track.”
Grethen will surely be seeing several days’ worth of packed stands over the next few weeks, between his time at the SEC and NCAA Championships. He just hopes one of his views comes from the top spot of the podium.