Vail chases the Olympic rings
The Centennial High graduate finished sixth in the 10K at last year's U.S. National meet
Ryan Vail wasn't on anyone's radar when he stepped to the starting line for the 2005 U.S. Junior Cross Country championships. He was coming off a redshirt season at Oklahoma State and his best sample of elite competition dated back to his time at Centennial High when he battled Galen Rupp throughout the prep seasons.
For this 19-and-under race, he was lined up with 58 of the best runners from around the country - the top six would earn a spot on Team USA.
'I talked up a good game, but in the back of my mind I knew it would be a long shot,' Oklahoma State track coach, and Vail's personal coach, Dave Smith said.
Vail quickly showed he was up for the challenge, spending most of the 8K race among the top 10 before moving up over the last mile when other runners began to lose their legs. Climbing a hill late in the race, Vail found himself in sixth place.
The red, white and blue jersey was in his grasp.
In the excitement, Smith shouted encouragement from the side of the trail.
'I'm cheering him all the way up the hill, telling him the whole time that he's almost there,' Smith said. 'He's going as hard as he can, but he gets to the top, and I had underestimated the finish by about 400 meters. There was still a ways to go, but that's where his toughness kicked in.'
Rather than a quick sprint through the line, Vail had to squeeze out every ounce of energy he had left to hold off Bradley Harkrader - a prep state record holder out of Colorado.
'He's got a guy chasing him with a better racing resume at that point in their careers, but Ryan just kept going and held him off,' Smith said.
Vail lunged through the finishing chute four seconds ahead to take the last spot on the national team.
'It felt awesome. It's the Olympic jersey,' Vail says. 'It's really the only piece of equipment I've coveted - you can't just go out to a store and buy one of those.'
The squad, that also included Portland's Rupp and Beaverton's Stuart Eagon, would finish seventh at the World Championships that year.
Vail went on to a stellar college career with the Cowboys, winning the Big-12 cross country crown and the 10-K track title during his senior season.
He also qualified for two more national teams, pushing the stars and stripes to a pair of top-10 finishes at the senior World Cross Country Championships in 2009 and 2010. He was the team's lead runner in the 2009 race.
That helped get his newly born professional running career off the ground. He signed with Brooks coming out of college and has remained with the shoe company, inking a new two-year contract at the start of this season.
It's not an athlete's deal that is going to land him a private jet or a house with a 10-car garage, but it does keep the bills paid on his St. John's apartment that he shares with his wife Eva Tomankova. Bonuses for top finishes at marquee events provide the cash for a nice vacation when the season is finished.
In addition, he gets $4,000 in training gear each year, and his size-9 foot allows him to test out new products that the shoe company puts out.
'They take really good care of us, and it's a real personal feeling,' Vail says. 'I know a lot of guys at my level, who aren't able to get what I have.'
PowerBar also has a sponsorship deal with Vail.
Vail and Tomankova both came to Stillwater in 2004, but it would be years before their paths crossed in any meaningful way.
'The men's and women's programs had different coaches and ended up doing their own thing a lot,' Vail says. 'Our last year, we started bumping into each other at a couple races. That got some conversations started, and that's about all it took.'
By the end of the school year, Vail still had a semester to go in Stillwater, while Tomankova was making plans to pursue a master's degree in the Czech Republic.
The couple spent the summer in Europe, trying to figure out their future together.
But Vail knew what he wanted all along.
'I spent six weeks carrying a ring around waiting for the perfect time, and finally it comes down to my last day over there and I'm crossing my fingers that I find a nice place - somewhere with a view of the city,' Vail says.
As it turned out, he found a small café near the Prague castle to pop the question.
'We were walking through old-time Prague, and I remember him being a little nervous,' Tomankova says. 'But he found the perfect moment. He's kind to everyone and just fun to be with - whenever I'm feeling low, he always knows how to pick me up.'
Although running has become a hobby for Tomankova, she will sometimes join Vail on training runs. But he puts in about 120 miles per week and most of his work is done alone. A solitary figure running across the St. John's Bridge to reach the endless trails in Forest Park, or on more intense days, driving to Fernhill Park to do some speed work on the track - just himself and his stopwatch.
'It can get lonely out there at times, but it's also a point of pride - something I draw from when I'm racing,' Vail says.
'His ability to train on his own is really rare for an athlete,' Smith said. 'But he's very intelligent and understands our system. He could probably write up a three-week training plan, and it would be almost identical to what I'd come up with. He could be a great coach himself.'
But first, the 26-year-old Vail would like to spend another 10 years chasing his own racing dreams.
Perhaps the biggest is at stake next week when he makes the drive to Eugene to take part in the 10K at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
'It's the most intense track meet I've been around,' Vail says. 'You end up with 15,000 people there to watch a 10K. No one goes home, and it's people who really understand track.'
In 2008, Vail qualified for the finals in the 5,000 and finished 12th. But that was four years ago. Since then he has he discovered the longer 10K race to be his ideal distance.
'His toughness separates him,' Smith said. 'He can run through a lot of discomfort and maintain his focus. His final laps may not look pretty, but he just hangs on, hangs on and hangs on.'
His times have dropped consistently each season, highlighted by last year's sixth-place finish at the U.S. Nationals where less than 10 seconds separated the lead group.
'He's gotten better every single year, and that just doesn't happen - his durability is phenomenal,' Smith says. 'He's one of the top six or seven guys in the country right now, so it's just a matter of getting down there on race day and seeing what happens.'
Don't expect Vail to be flying out of the gate. Instead, you'll have to search for him in the jumble of runners just behind the leaders while he patiently waits for his moment.
'You have to be ready for any kind of a race plan, but I know I'm not going to be the one out pushing the pace,' Vail says. 'I like to let the more experienced guys do the work. But you have to pay attention because every race has a point where the lead group separates, and you need to be a part of that.'
The men's 10K is scheduled as the first final of this year's Trials, going off at 6:45 p.m. on opening day - Friday, June 22, at Hayward Field.
Look for our "Where are They Now?" series in The Outlook each Friday during the summer.