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Flames Feature: The Josh McDougal Story
When Liberty University Head Track and Field/Cross Country Coach Brant Tolsma penned his book, "The Surrendered Christian Athlete," little did he know it would be sought after by a family of runners from upstate New York. Surely enough, Lisa McDougal mailed Tolsma her order form, scribbling a note about her distance-running sons in the margin.
The receipt of the note marked Tolsma's first exposure to the name of the eldest of Rob and Lisa McDougal's six children, Joshua, who was then a home-schooled high school sophomore. Less than a year later, Josh McDougal had taken an unofficial visit to the Liberty campus and soon afterward, had decided he wanted to run collegiately for the Flames. The rest, as they say, is history.
Tolsma, now in his 21st year at the Lynchburg, Va., university, stated, "I knew [Josh] was better than anybody we'd ever had before." However, it wasn't until the Liberty men's cross country team traveled to Lehigh for the Paul Short Invitational on Sept. 25, 2004 that Tolsma began to fully grasp McDougal's potential.
"I went in thinking he could finish in the top 10 and hoping maybe he could finish in the top five," recalled Tolsma. "Instead he went out and set a course record at a course which had been run for more than 20 years. That's the first time I realized, ‘Wow! This is going to be something special.'"
McDougal, now a junior, has indeed been something special during his two and a half years at Liberty, garnering seven All-America honors in cross country, indoor track and field and outdoor track and field, while breaking numerous records.
While some may have been surprised at McDougal's rapid ascension to the upper echelon of collegiate distance runners, the kinesiology major had been providing glimpses at his unique running ability long before Tolsma's book caught the McDougals' collective eyes.
Lisa McDougal was herself a collegiate athlete, running track and field and cross country at Plattsburgh State, a NCAA Division III school in upstate New York near the town of Peru, where the McDougal family now resides. Never the standout that her sons, Josh and Jordan, a redshirt sophomore at Liberty, later turned out to be, Lisa still possessed the capability to run a 3:10 marathon at age 41.
She and her husband, Rob, ran regularly for fitness as they raised their children. Before long, the couple's children decided to tag along on occasion, giving McDougal his first running experience. McDougal was successful from the beginning, routinely winning age group trophies at local fun runs.
His first foray into more serious competitive racing came at the age of 10, the fall after the McDougal family had moved to Peru, N.Y. At the advice of one of his new neighbors, McDougal entered a local Junior Olympic (J.O.) cross country meet, sponsored by U.S.A. Track and Field (USATF). He placed fourth in his age group, earning a trip to Providence, R.I., for the regional meet.
McDougal, who has fond memories of the race in Providence, explained, "At the regional meet, we had to run through the mud and snow and all I had was training shoes. However, I was able to finish 13th, earning a trip to nationals."
Well, McDougal had not quite earned a trip to the national cross country meet in the literal sense of the phrase. He had to find his own way to Baton Rouge, La., for the race. Considering this a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity for their precocious son, Rob and Lisa McDougal decided to pack up the family car for the long trip south, from the Empire State to the Pelican State.
Despite facing the inevitable travel fatigue, McDougal ended up placing 36th in the nation and fifth among the competitors from his region. "I kept doing better and better each race I ran," noted the junior.
The more running success McDougal achieved, the more he came to enjoy the sport. It would be a while until he turned his entire focus to running, though. McDougal also played baseball and soccer for many years, competing in the latter game through his freshman year of high school. In the end, however, running won out.
"There's nothing like the thrill of competing toe-to-toe with other people," McDougal exclaimed. "Running hurts so much, but at the same time, it feels so good. Baseball is very competitive, but is lacking the aspect of physical pain. Running mixes pain and pleasure."
McDougal's achievements during the remainder his high school career, after he turned his full athletic attention to running, have been well documented. In cross country, he placed fourth in the 2003 Foot Locker National High School Cross Country Championship, as a senior. He also broke a 22-year-old course record at Van Cortland Park in New York. McDougal represented the United States at the 2004 World Junior Cross Country Championships.
On the track, McDougal ran 2004's fastest indoor two-mile by a high schooler, 8:50.40. He went on to place second at the Adidas Outdoor Track and Field Championships before earning the right to don the United States singlet once again, at the Junior World Track and Field Championship in Grosseto, Italy. McDougal finished 12th in Italy, running the 10th-best 5,000-meter time in U.S. high school history, 14:07.55.
With such a resume to his credit, McDougal attracted considerable attention from college track and field and cross country coaches. However, he had long since made his college decision, one which would surprise the casual observer.
"I knew I was going to attend Liberty pretty early in my junior year of high school, before a lot of other schools contacted me," stated McDougal. "I wanted a Division I Christian school and wanted to compete for a program which would seek to glorify the Lord and not compete for solely selfish reasons."
McDougal was also seeking a university which had a physical education and exercise science curriculum. By the time he went through his checklist, only three schools—Liberty, Belmont and Samford—fit his requirements. It turns out that Belmont and Samford never got a fair chance to woo the high school phenom. "Liberty is the only place I visited, coming during my junior year," said McDougal. "I was completely satisfied."
Tolsma had recently coached current Liberty assistant track and field and cross country coach, Heather (Sagan) Zealand to a national championship in the mile at the 2002 NCAA Division I National Indoor Track and Field Championships. In McDougal, the veteran coach now had another distance runner with that kind of potential joining his roster.
The prospect of coaching McDougal excited Tolsma, due to both his natural ability and his personality. About the latter, the coach of 49 Big South Conference championship teams commented, "He wants to make an impact for good through his running. His goals and our goals line up."
Not only was Tolsma adding one standout athlete, but Jordan McDougal also decided to attend Liberty, along with his brother. The younger McDougal would redshirt his freshman season, however, as he had just turned 17 in June.
Meanwhile, it took little time for the elder McDougal to adjust to the collegiate level of competition. The aforementioned victory at the Paul Short Invitational was one of six-consecutive cross country wins to open his career as a Flame. He set course records in four of those races, including the 8K mark at Winthrop while winning his first Big South title. The Winthrop standard had previously been held by Alan Webb, a runner McDougal admired while in high school.
Webb became the first marquee name on the list of elite runners whose records have been shattered by McDougal during his two-and-a-half years at Liberty. The list has since grown to include names like Meb Keflezighi and Sydney Maree.
McDougal did not lose a college cross country race until the 2004 national meet, where he came in 13th, earning his first All-America honor. His cross country season was not yet finished, however, as he decided to compete at the U.S. Cross Country Championships in Feb. 2005.
His performance at the race turned out to be what he calls the greatest highlight of his running career to this point. McDougal finished only four seconds behind race champion, Tim Broe, in fourth place. He beat Webb by seven seconds in the 4K race, winning the right to represent his country at the World Cross Country Championships.
"My best race was when I qualified for the World Cross Country Championships on the senior team in the 4K as a freshman," McDougal recalled. "I was able to beat four or five Olympians. It was my most unexpected, shocking race. You always dream of where you want to be, but you rarely get there. Well, I got there that day and it was such a rush of adrenaline."
After such an exceptional beginning to his college career, McDougal next set his sights on a NCAA individual national championship. He came close several times during the remainder of his freshman year and his sophomore campaign. McDougal captured five more All-America medals and garnered a pair of fourth-place finishes. Those high points came at the 2005 NCAA Cross Country Championships and in the 5,000 meters at the 2006 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships.
Wisconsin's Chris Solinsky was the only returning runner among the three harriers who had beaten McDougal to the finish line at the 2005 national cross country meet, making the junior one of the preseason favorites to capture the 2006 crown. Also adding to the optimism was the hiring of Greg Jimmerson, a member of Stanford's national championship cross country team in 1996, as an assistant coach at Liberty. Said McDougal of the new hire, "He's been there and done that and has accomplished nearly everything you can as a runner. He brings a lot of experience."
McDougal's season started very well. He won his race at both the Roy Griak Invitational and the Pre-Nationals, holding off a deep, talented field in both contests. Even after a surprising runner-up finish to Eastern Kentucky's Jacob Korir at the NCAA Southeast Regional Championship, the junior seemed poised to break through with his initial national title at Terre Haute, Ind., the following week.
"I went into the [national] meet thinking it was my race to lose, and I did in a big way," McDougal lamented. He had fallen off the lead pack early in the race and ended up 27th. While he had earned another All-America distinction, McDougal was extremely disappointed with his finish and left the Hoosier State even more determined than ever to win a national title.
"I'd really like to win nationals in whatever race," McDougal stated. "I've been a top contender, but haven't won one yet. I'd actually like to win multiple national titles, but it all starts with one."
McDougal and Tolsma gave similar answers when asked which event McDougal has the best chance to win a national championship in. McDougal noted, "I'd like to run the 10K outdoors, because I think it plays well to my strengths."
Meanwhile, Tolsma responded, "His best shot to win a national championship will probably come in the 10,000 meters or in cross country. He's the kind of runner who wears people down, more so than one who sits and kicks. It's easier to wear someone down over a longer distance. Josh is still talented enough to succeed at shorter distances, however."
McDougal displayed some of said talent at a shorter distance, 3,000 meters, at the Jan. 27 On Track Open at the Tolsma Indoor Track Center, named for his head coach. Despite not competing formally for over two months, since the national cross country meet, he opened his current indoor track season with a sub-8:00 clocking.
McDougal's intense desire to win a national title provides one of his primary sources of motivation, but is hardly the lone factor which urges him along. "I'm inspired by the Lord Jesus Christ and I want to glorify him with my performance," said McDougal.
The junior also harbors lofty hopes and expectations for his teammates. "It is lonely sometimes [at the national meet], and I wish my teammates were there with me," he admitted. "Hopefully next year they will be."
No seniors graduated from the 2006 Liberty men's cross country team, which was regionally ranked for most of the fall and captured its second-straight Big South Championship. So, perhaps McDougal will get his wish and have some company on the starting line as he makes his final attempt at a college cross country national championship.
With his time at Liberty starting to wind down, McDougal has begun thinking about his post-graduation plans and objectives. Many of those ideas, not surprisingly, relate to running. "Hopefully, after I graduate, I'll be able to sign a contract and run professionally as long as the Lord would have me," McDougal explained. "I think the marathon will be my forte."
Upon the conclusion of his competitive running career, "I'd like to stay in the sport of running, coaching and staying involved," insisted McDougal. "The Lord has given me talent for a reason. I would like to use my sphere of influence and this platform beyond my competing days, mentoring tomorrow's young minds and the new talent out there."
Who knows? Perhaps the figurative book being written through McDougal's actions and achievements on the race course and off will one day impact a budding star as Tolsma's book affected the teenager from upstate New York. This much is for certain though. McDougal's pen is still full of ink.
By Paul Carmany
Assistant Athletic Media Relations Director