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May 10, 2019

Kyle Medina Knows About Falling And Getting Back Up

Photos by Ben Weingart. Follow him on Instagram for more behind the scenes shots from Tinman Elite’s first year as a team. Stay tuned for a future episode of the CITIUS MAG Podcast with Ben. Coming soon. 

Kyle Medina woke up on his couch and was not sure how he got there.  As far as he knew he was just skateboarding with some buddies.  He sized up a five-foot staircase and gave it a go.

To hear his friends tell it, Medina cracked his skull on the sidewalk. Hard.  The staircase was about six feet tall with five feet of stairs and Medina’s head was about eleven feet up when he fell.  Then, black. A normal high schooler would have stayed down, maybe woken up in the back of a friend’s car on the way to get their head stapled up. But not Medina. He popped straight back up and started running home.

“I don’t remember it at all,” Medina thinks back. “But we were like 15 miles from my apartment.”

A long run can fizzle as it goes; about an hour in things from the beginning of the run start to get foggy. This was different. Medina blacked out for 15 miles.

“That’s when I realized I should probably dial [skateboarding] back a little bit,” he says.

In his second year of high school at the time, Medina was just starting to feel some stability in his life. He never stayed put in the same place until he got to high school. With his biological father out of the picture and his mom always on the road for work, the Medina’s moved a lot. The family lived out of a van or a trailer before they eventually settled into an apartment in Ventura, California.  

You don’t have to look far to confirm Medina’s semi-nomadic roots.

In fact, a peek at Tinman Elite’s profiles page ––or his birth certificate –– will tell you that his middle name is “Clutch.”

Did he hit a big shot at the end of a pick-up game? Or a long putt to save par with some friends? Maybe he had a rec league Brandi Chastain moment?  

Medina provides a much shorter and more fitting explanation.  “My mom was a truck driver.”

Gradually, with stability (and a soon-to-start-fraying relationship with skateboarding), Medina began to find himself in running. In a school gym class, he ran a 5:09 mile.

“I was in a baggy shirt and some jeans, then walked off to throw a football around,” he says.

As any responsible gym teacher should, Medina’s promptly pulled him aside to suggest he go out for the track team.  Initially apathetic to the idea, he slowly started to warm to running:

“It was great interpersonally, which was good,” Medina says.” I needed to make some more friends.”

Medina skewed toward shorter distances, with PRs of 1:53 for 800 and 4:17 for the mile. Growing into his boots athletically, academics stunted Medina’s college choices.

“I had like a 2.9 when I graduated and Chico was the only school that accepted me,” Medina says. “On my visit, I pulled Gary Towne aside and told him ‘I need to go here’ and that was it.”

By his own-account Medina didn’t have a lot of the opportunities that kids around him had growing up, but that didn’t stop Chico State from embracing him. Something about the place drew Medina in. Whether it was their storied tradition of cross country, Towne’s even-keeled nature or just a chance to keep moving forward, he was hooked immediately.

Under Towne, Medina flourished. He finished his college career with three second-place efforts at Division II NCAA’s on the track, and a handful of other all-American efforts.  Even with this success, Medina was just starting to become himself in the sport.

“I used to jump the hurdles at practice to try to get Gary to let me steeple,” he says.

Understandably, Towne was hesitant. The steeplechase requires a level of prep and risk that was a lot to put on his rising star. Towne’s reservations did not dissuade Medina; he was intoxicated by the idea of pushing his boundaries. It’s not like he remembered his last big fall.

Medina’s persistence and the specter of Division II superstar David Ribich slowly wore on Towne, and he relented. The two agreed that the focus in Medina’s final collegiate track season would be to win the Division II steeplechase.  There is a tenth of a second on the NCAA results sheet that will tell you that the decision didn’t pan out, but looking at the totality of Medina’s season it’s hard to absorb as a total failure. In fact, a month prior to the NCAA Championships, Medina ran an 8:44 steeple at the Stanford Invitational. At the time 8:44 was a seven-second personal best for Medina and only four seconds outside of the auto-qualifier for the 2018 USATF Nationals in Des Moines, which set him on track to sneak into USA’s and finish his college career on a high note.

His season still alive, Medina entered the Portland Track Festival 5,000 meters as a tune-up to Des Moines. The trip to Portland doubled as a chance for Medina to consider post-collegiate plans. “I had no ambitions other than professional running.  My plan was to take my 4-runner to Mammoth and live out of the car while I trained up there.” Suffice it to say Medina was staring into the abyss that eventually swallows every athlete, trying to lengthen his runway in any way possible.

Without any teammates on the trip, Medina did what any sensible runner would do: he reached out to locals for a meal, and a cool down.  “We followed each other on Strava,” Medina says about Jeff Theis and Nick Roche, Portland and Gonzaga grads respectively, who he connected with at the meet.

Medina’s 5k (14:04) was solid, nothing to write home about. The real fruits of the meet came when he had a chance to talk to Theis and Roche at length.  “I cooled down with Jeff, and the three of us had a meal together to talk shop.” At that point Medina’s were half-baked, but his message was clear: “I need a team.”  

Roche, an Adidas employee, told Medina that he’d give Sam Parsons, a member of the upstart Tinman Elite running group, his name and number to try to connect the two at USA’s.  It wasn’t much, but Medina left Portland with direction. If he could leverage new connections, he might have a group.

kyle medina us outdoor track and field championships

Tinman Elite is a relatively new club, founded by Adidas athlete, Drew Hunter.  The club operates from Boulder, Colorado and is lead by Tom Schwartz, arguably the hottest coach in the country.  In its less than two years of existence, Tinman has produced three individual national champions across three countries, won the team title at USA Club Cross Country Nationals, and sent Reed Fischer to a 62:06 as the top American in the Houston Half.  They’ve dominated the running social-media sphere in a way only eclipsed by Alexi Pappas by flooding Instagram with a mix of Rockies-backed long run videos, and self-referential. They regularly sell out of Tinman-branded merch.  And, lastly, they make proclamations like “We like to think of [Drew Hunter] as a young LeBron James.”  Despite Hunter’s clearly broken handle and the obviousness that Allyson Felix is track’s LBJ, there is something to the comparison.  

At 18, Hunter decided to bypass college athletics and sign a professional contract – not dissimilar to Lebron.  After a couple of years, Hunter, like LeBron, made a change. He embraced Tom Schwartz; his own Erik Spoelstra (Schwartz = Spo is probably the more accurate comparison) and formed Tinman Elite. LeBron labeled his four-year stint in Miami as a pseudo-college experience: an opportunity to choose his own coach, play with friends, and grow into a fully formed player. It is not a stretch to compare Tinman to a well-oiled college team. In fact, on their website, they reject the notion that they are a group or a track club and prefer to be called a team.  Joking or not, inaccurate or not, a comparison of Hunter to James connects insofar as the two have both succeeded in replicating a college environment. That culture of care and comradery, innate to a college cross country team, is the bedrock of Tinman’s mission (explicit or not) and aligned exactly with Medina’s vision of the future.

Weeks after his Portland 5K, Medina toed the line in Des Moines for the U.S. Outdoor Championships steeplechase prelim. No doubt riddled with adrenaline, Medina fell on the first barrier. Medina did what he’s been doing for years and popped right back up and continued running. Clawing his way back into the group, he ran a 10 second PR of 8:34 and just missed qualifying for the final by less than a second. As bittersweet as his race was, Medina’s business at the meet was far from finished. He promptly set out to connect with Sam Parsons and find a team.

When the two met, Parsons had a short message for Medina: “I saw your race.  That was it. That was fucking Tinman.”

A full load of congratulations on a PR, training small talk, and conversation about plans later, Medina was hooked.  “He told me that if I could get out to Boulder I had a team there waiting for me.” Given his back-up plan of living out of his van and an entire childhood spent on the road, getting to Boulder wasn’t going to be an issue.  

Medina was fast on the turn around from California to Colorado.  Tinman’s runners live together in Boulder and so housing was straight forward. He was able to find a job with a local company quickly enough.  

“They pay the rent and give long lunches,” Medina says, describing a fledgling pro’s dream job.

kyle medina long run tinman elite

The adjustment wasn’t difficult for Medina. Making the transition easier was a number of new runners joining the team this year –– one of them Jeff Theis.  

“A lot of the guys work day jobs, so we’re out the door really early most days,” Medina says. “Tom gives us total control on when we do things, he just sends the workouts.”

A sense of self-direction permeates what Tinman is doing; a grass-rooted nature to the team that makes them appealing.  This start-up mentality is obvious in their marketing approach, but maybe more important in the nuts and bolts of their program.

There is a reverence for heavyweight coaches in distance running.  There are single-namers, “Jerry,” “Alberto,” “Gags.” There are staples of the college universe: Mark Wetmore, Mick Byrne, Andy Powell, Chris Miltenberg (coach, if you’re reading this, text me).

There are transcendent figures that have shaped modern running: Jack Daniels, Bill Bowerman, John McDonnell.

Notably, Tom Schwartz isn’t in any of those groups.

Schwartz’s rise mirrors Tinman Elite’s.  You don’t have to go far to read about his programs, nor dig deep into the record books to find his finest athletes. His imprint on the running world is being pressed in real time, with a team of young, social media savvy athletes projecting his every coaching decision into the runnerverse.  Not everyone can run at Nike HQ every day or know that their coach is the most successful in NCAA history, but any young athlete can find and incorporate Schwartz’s principles into their training. For the time being, Tinman’s leader is an everyman. Schwartz’s relative anonymity makes their self-directedness seems replicable, even if it’s not.

With his new teammates flourishing around him (see above), Medina was raring to start his indoor season when he fell for the third time.

“We were out on a run and I slipped on some ice,” he says. “As soon as I hit the ground I heard a pop.”

After some discussion, his teammate turned around to find some help or their car, whichever came first.  When a park ranger rolled up on Medina, he told her that his arm was broken, to which she also left to find help.

“It was 90 minutes before she came back. It hurt so bad that I eventually just laid down.”  

A broken arm, a dislocated elbow, and four weeks in a splint later, Medina had this to say: “There is probably some damage down there, but I don’t know for sure.”

Despite his insistence on downplaying the fall, Medina’s broken arm left a void where his indoor season should have been. If you listen closely you can hear an echo in that emptiness. It sounds like a kid’s head smacking the sidewalk, or Gary Towne muttering under his breath about his star-making the switch to the steeple.  Maybe it’s the proud clapping of a son whose mom just finished her college degree and is done driving trucks? Maybe it’s someone yelling, championing a new movement?

Then it clicks. It seems so obvious: It was footsteps – running, to be specific. It was the sound of Kyle Medina, up from another fall, on his feet where he belongs.

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