For Brad Wheeler, success is measured in miles — long, lonely miles in the dog days of summer and frigid, windy days of winter. Those miles — 70 to 75 miles per week, week after week for more than a decade — have given the IUPUI junior a shot at two goals: to earn a college degree in business and to help take the Jaguars' cross country program "to another level."
And he's doing it while indulging his passion.
"I started running in the sixth grade to stay in shape for basketball, which was my main sport at the time," says the 21-year-old business major. That didn't last long; his talent saw to that.
"By the time I was in eighth grade, I started running well and winning races," says Wheeler. He "was lucky" in his early years, joining a Franklin High School team that eventually won an IHSAA state championship.
Through the years, something about those miles clicked for Wheeler: he fell in love with the sport.
"As I got older, it became a passion for me," says the junior. "I began to ask myself ‘what am I going to do today to get better, to go up another level, and then another level after that.'"
Wheeler knew the "level after that" would be college, and thanks to a friendship between his high school coach Doug Drenth and Jaguars coach Scott Williams, the answer was obvious: IUPUI, with its budding NCAA Division I athletics program and its world-class IU Kelley School of Business.
"I liked Coach Williams, and I liked that the core of the team was guys from central Indiana," says Wheeler, who would like to coach or work in athletic administration. "And I really, really like being in Indy — it's a great place to go to school and spend free time, too." Although he knew a lot about the campus before arriving, some things have still surprised him.
"I don't think I realized that there were as many internship possibilities all around Indianapolis as there are, and not just in the business school," he says. "Students at IUPUI have so many opportunities to make contacts in their fields. It's one of the biggest advantages of coming here."
Williams was ecstatic over Wheeler's choice.
"I wanted Brad because he's the kind of kid you build programs on," says Williams. "He's invested in what he's doing. He's been running for 11 years now, and he completely understands the sport and his abilities. Other kids on the team feed off that."
That "investment" includes Wheeler's personal style: a devotion to plans. Business plans or race plans, Wheeler loves the planning process. "I think a lot about preparation for running and races every day, even in the off-season," Wheeler admits with a grin. He is big on race strategy, knows his abilities, and likes to get a feel for each course the Jags run. Knowing his strengths and weaknesses helps formulate the strategies he loves.
"The worst part of my style is the finish — I don't have the greatest leg speed, so I'm not going to run many people down at the end of a race. I really have to grind to hold people off.
"I think the best thing I have going is my strength and endurance," he adds. "And I think I'm mentally strong. A lot of guys put in a lot of miles to get ready for a season, but the difference in the end is mental — who can think their way through a race."
Williams agrees that Wheeler's biggest edge comes from within.
"Brad is always prepared, mentally and physically," says Williams. "He goes into a race with about three game plans, then choosing the one that fits what's happening on the course. He's also very good at managing his races and his pace."
"During a race, I'm pretty much inside my head, in a zone," Wheeler laughs. "I'm not thinking of much of anything for those 25 minutes or so, except the runners around me, what's up ahead on the course — anything about the race."
That strategy got a stern test at the 2006 Mid-Continent Conference championships in Kansas City. He was running neckand- neck with two runners from Southern Utah (the eventual team champion) when he fell about three-fourths of the way through the race. Undeterred, Wheeler picked himself up, took off and managed to grab a sixth-place individual finish, good enough for his third consecutive first-team All-Conference honor.
"I really think I would have finished at least fourth, and maybe second or third," says Wheeler with a shake of his head. Third would have been nice; it would have matched his freshman-year finish, when he helped IUPUI to a second-place team finish, best in school history.
Typically, Wheeler is already planning his senior season the only way he knows how: off-season preparation. Even after the fall college season ended at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional in November, his schedule didn't drop off much — one day off, maybe two.
"If I don't run, I get this guilty feeling," he says with a smile. Williams considers Wheeler a key to the present — and future — of the Jaguars' cross country team.
"Everyone in our program looks up to Brad, because of his dedication and his determination," says the coach. "Every recruit we've landed the last couple of years knows who he is; they relate to his success, because they know what he's achieved through sheer hard work! They think ‘if he can do it, so can I.'"