It is one of the most basic, get-to-know-you questions that can be asked of an elite middle-distance runner.
How, before all of this became second nature, did you decide to get into running?
Izaic Yorks has answered this, many times, with the same story. It’s an important one, and it helps explain so much about the Lakes High School graduate and University of Washington track superstar.
During the 2008 Olympics, Yorks sat with his younger sister, Brittany, and watched the distance races on television. Due to health complications she has experienced since birth, Brittany, age 20, uses a wheelchair and often has trouble converting her thoughts into full sentences (but those who know her well, Yorks said, tend to understand what she’s thinking).
So it caught Yorks’ attention when, on that summer day in 2008, Brittany watched the runners on the television and said, to Yorks’ recollection: “I’d love to be able to run like that.”
That stuck with him.
“It changed the way that I saw running,” Yorks said. “It wasn’t just some mundane thing that everybody has a gift for. It’s actually a really special thing. Not everybody has that. So that kind of changed my whole outlook on it.
“I think of it like we’re running together.”
His ultimate goal is to qualify for the Olympics and take Brittany with him. But there are more immediate matters at hand this week in Eugene, Oregon, where Yorks, a senior, will attempt to cap one of the finest middle-distance careers in UW history with a victory in the 1,500 meters at the NCAA outdoor championships. He’s scheduled to run Wednesday in the semifinals, with the finals scheduled for Friday.
His résumé already impresses: This is the third consecutive season Yorks has advanced to the final site of the NCAAs. He finished 13th last year, two seconds behind the winner. He has won two consecutive Pac-12 championships in the 1,500. He ran the fastest 1,500 time in the NCAA this season at 3:37.74, which is also a UW record.
In February, he ran the fastest indoor 1,600 time by an American collegian ever, with a mark of 3:53.89 in the MPSF Championships at Dempsey Indoor — and then opted not to run the mile at the NCAA indoor championships, instead choosing to participate in the distance medley relay (DMR) with his teammates, a selfless choice that wound up the subject of a story on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” In January, Yorks ran the indoor 800 at 1:47.89, another UW record. As a senior at Lakes, he ran the mile outdoors in 4:04.00, the top time in the nation that year.
“Of all the athletes I’ve had the pleasure of coaching here,” UW coach Greg Metcalf said, “he has the greatest range of any athlete we’ve ever had.”
Yorks’ career is a study in determination and improvement. His coach at Lakes, Joe Clark, whom Yorks describes as one of the most important mentors in his life, did not immediately forecast him as an elite runner — Clark recalls that Yorks needed 20 minutes to finish his first cross country race, and “20 minutes is not great.”
But with Brittany’s wishes in mind, Yorks worked and worked and worked. He arrived at school early enough to run before classes started, then he’d run again in the afternoon. Clark worked with him on his form. Once, Clark recalls, the dean of students gave Yorks a stern lecture when he found him running drills on the football field during lunch.
“The thing that really stood out was he came across as pretty serious,” Clark said. “He took his training really seriously and always was trying to get better.”
Gradually, he did. Yorks qualified for the state track finals as a sophomore but finished last in the 1,600 and 3,200. The next year, he finished fifth in each race. As a senior, he won state titles in the 1,600 and 800, and at districts he ran the fastest high-school mile time in the nation.
By then, Yorks had established himself as a worthy college prospect, though not many schools showed serious interest prior to his stellar senior year. He committed that fall to the University of Portland.
It wasn’t a good fit. Yorks struggled with the workouts, which were geared more toward 5,000- or 10,000-meter runners than for the middle distances. (Portland is also renowned for its cross country program.) He didn’t know how to best communicate his frustrations to his coach. He became anemic. He became depressed. He didn’t know if he wanted to run anymore.
“I was completely alone in Portland,” Yorks said. “I didn’t really have friends. I couldn’t get close with my family or anyone. … I just really felt alone. I felt isolated. People aren’t meant to feel alone and be isolated.”
Portland granted his request to be released from his scholarship, and Yorks contacted Metcalf about transferring to UW. Metcalf, who said he wishes UW had pursued Yorks more fervently out of high school, was happy to have him.
“I thought Izaic was a talented kid, tough kid, competitor, all the things you look for in an athlete,” Metcalf said. “I think now actually having him on our team, those things are true times 10.”
Yorks said one of the reasons he was so upset in Portland was because he allowed his successes and failures as a runner to define his identity as a person. He says that’s not the case anymore.
“I’ve had a complete 180 where I’m totally confident in who I am outside of running,” Yorks said, “and I could go the rest of this year and have complete failure, but it’s not a reflection on who I am.”
He has plenty else going on. Yorks married his girlfriend, Courtney, last summer. The two have a deer head Chihuahua named Marty (“I call her my rat sometimes,” Yorks jokes). He plays the bassoon and is learning the piano. He is interested in herbalism, blogs occasionally and would some day like to write a book.
Oh, and in July, Yorks will compete at the 2016 Olympic trials in Eugene. He’s not necessarily expected to qualify for this year’s games, though Metcalf has seen too much of Yorks to bet against him. He admires his versatility — for example, Yorks typically prefers to run from the front, and he won this year’s conference championship in the 1,500 by leading every step. Last year, he came from behind for a narrow, dramatic victory.
“I think Izaic, in the wonderful world of post-collegiate track and field representing the U.S, he’s a scary dude,” Metcalf said, “because he’s just fearless, and fearlessness is a tremendous quality to have in championship racing, because he’s not afraid to go press the issue.
“I wouldn’t want to be in the finals standing next to that young man right now. He’s confident, he’s fast, and he’s tough as nails.”
And he’s running for more than just himself.
“I want to see how far I can get in this,” Yorks said, “and I would love nothing more than to take my sister to whatever massive experience that is.”