By Dave Krider
Dr. Kevin MacAward laid it on the line to injury-plagued Mike Fout, then a junior distance runner at LaPorte, Ind., High School. Fout had just spent the winter months rehabbing from a stress fracture in his right foot and was preparing for his first track meet of the spring.
"It's not looking good," he told Fout. "I know you're competitive..I'll allow you to run tonight - but you better run your heart out because it may be your last meet."
With his budding career hanging in the balance, the determined Slicer star won the 3200-meter run in a personal-best on a snowy, cold, windy April afternoon. "My foot was sore, but it wasn't excruciating," he happily reported. "I would have had to miss six weeks of running and would have basically been done for the season."
Fout already had missed competing in the state cross country meet the fall of his junior year due to "some really serious knee pain." His sophomore year also was pretty well wiped out by various injuries - until the end of track season when he placed seventh in the state 3200-meter run in a personal-best 9:21. However, a string of successes - including a national cross country championship - followed, more than making up for lost time and a ton of pain.
"Throughout the (junior track) season, it bothered me," he admitted, "but it was not overwhelming pain. It truly was a miracle. I prayed and thanked God for that. The doctor told me, `This just doesn't happen.' I ran all the meets, but didn't double or triple a lot."
The payoff came in June when he ran a personal-best to win the state championship in the 3200. "I don't know if anything can take the place of winning your first state championship," he said. "It was an awesome feeling. I had a lot to overcome - a lot of ups and downs. It really was a bumpy road. I know God is the one who got me there."
Soon afterwards he got his first taste of national competition, running a personal-best to place 11tth in the two-mile during the Nike Outdoor Nationals in Greensboro, N.C. That time would convert to for the 3200. Fout noted, "Once you've run a sub-nine-minute 3200, that's serious stuff. It was a whole new level for me."
He trained conservatively the summer before his senior year, running only about 45 miles per week. Experiencing no pain at all, he cracked the 15-minute barrier () in his first cross country meet. "It was a new level - elite status," he said proudly. He later ran a record to win the prestigious New Prairie Invitational. The record of had been set by Portage state champion Jason Casiano. Now the Slicer star could see his true potential.
The Culver Invitational proved to be a slight speed bump as he suffered his only loss to Chris Derrick, Illinois' No. 1 runner from Naperville Neuqua Valley. Derrick ran , while Fout ran . Both beat the meet record of . "He was too strong," Fout conceded. "I had beaten him the year before."
Fout had qualified for the Indiana state cross country finals the previous year, but elected not to run - even though he could have earned a medal - due to constant pain and the disappointment that his team did not qualify.
Discounting the "standing water and tons of mud" at the Indiana State University course, he was primed as a senior and ran away with the state title in 15:31, about 25 seconds ahead of the runner-up. His goal had been to break the course record of , but Mother Nature prevented that.
Next up was the Foot Locker Regional at Kenosha, Wis. (To qualify, a runner had to hit or lower during the season.) Fout calls it "one of my favorite courses. There are a lot of good trails, up and down hills, but certainly it was a challenge." He won in and avenged his loss to Derrick, who placed second.
Then the innuendos began. Some said Derrick didn't push himself and just wanted to qualify for the national meet. However, Fout was quick to point out, "I didn't push, either." Still, he was ranked no better than fifth when the oddsmakers got together to pick a national champion.
Two weeks later he arrived at San Diego - a city which rarely sees much precipitation - to face standing water and mud everywhere. "It seemed like rain clouds followed me," he quipped, "but I'd run in much worse." Bring on the mud and rain - not to mention the hills - Mike Fout was prepared for the Big One. After all, it was just another day at the office for someone who has run his entire life in the harsh Midwest.
"I didn't have a set plan," Fout confided. "I had only one thing on my mind - win the race. I strongly believe that running is 90 percent mental." His do-or-die determination stems from a prominent sign in his bedroom which demands, "Don't Settle For Second Best."
He ran the first mile in a career-best 4:28. "I was surprised," he admitted, "but I was so amped up. I was going to leave it all out there. Still, he "hung back in fifth or sixth place. It was a two-loop course. On the first I was patient. On the second loop, I moved into second place. At two and one-quarter miles (on a 3.1-mile course), I really made a strong move and opened things up. I took the lead and kept it the rest of the way."
Fout's winning time of was the ninth best in the 29-year history of the meet. Despite passing four runners down the stretch, Derrick, again, had to settle for runner-up honors in . "He ran very strong in that last mile," Derrick said admiringly. "His big asset is strength and determination. He's always a really gracious guy and I have a lot of respect for him."
As he crossed the finish line, the Hoosier star thought, "This is kind of surreal. I was absolutely thrilled. I was so excited. I was really living my dream."
Two adults who have helped mold Fout's career also were present in San Diego to bask in his great triumph.
Mike was adopted by his grandparents, Ben and Carol Fouts, who have raised him since he was six months old. His uncle, Jim Fout, who has a running background, has been an important mentor.
"I remember watching him run home one day and he looked so together," his uncle said. However, Mike was quite little as a youngster and complained to his uncle, "I'm always going to be short and small." (As a freshman he was a mere 5-2 and 95 pounds. Today he is 6-1 and 145 pounds.)
"It just seems so out of the realm of possibility," Jim Fout said as he looked back on his nephew's national championship. "It's amazing." After all, he had encouraged Mike to become a runner "because he was terrible at baseball." One year after Mike was cut from the sixth grade basketball team, his family moved to LaPorte and he literally was driven to take a crack at running.
Jim Fout recalled their first long run when his nephew had just finished sixth grade. "We ran six miles. I tried to make it look like I was cruising, but I was dying. We ran in the sixth mile! It was one of the defining moments. He's the one who keeps me in shape now," the 35-year-old medical consultant admits.
Tim Beres, who has coached Fout since his freshman year, was equally thrilled to watch his prot‚g‚ race to a national championship. "We never had discussions about anything but winning," the Slicer coach revealed. "It's hard to fathom how big this is, but it was a great ride to be on.
"He would have had more success earlier if he hadn't had injuries. They may have been a blessing in disguise, because it kept him under the radar. The grace he runs at is awesome. You get pretty spoiled. Of course, he is very humble and a great leader. I'll miss him more as a person."
Fout's next competition will be Jan. 28 when he again will tangle with Stanford recruit Chris Derrick in the high school invitational mile at the Boston Indoor Games. "I'm not going to back down to anything and keep living the dreams," he vowed. "I'd love to set the Indiana state record in the 3200 (It's currently ). I'd also like to win the two-mile at the Nike Outdoor Nationals."
The confident Fout draws some of this gritty attitude from his idol, the late Steve Prefontaine. "He ran with amazing passion and fire and would do anything to win," Fout said with admiration. He also follows current USA star Ryan Hall, whom he has met. He calls Hall "a really cool person."
Besides a tireless work ethic, Fout can trace his success to a carefully-planned diet. "I don't eat fast food, candy or pop - I have no cravings for those things anymore," he pointed out. "I love to load up on pasta, chicken and turkey."
Next fall the LaPorte star, who has a 3.84 GPA, will head for Florida State University - which he chose over Tennessee and Oklahoma State - on scholarship. He hopes to major in exercise science and may enter law school later.
Down the road, he can't be blamed for eyeing the Olympics and professional track. His confidence growing by leaps and bounds, Fout promises, "I am going to work to become a professional runner. I am going to work to wear red, white and blue for the United States. I don't see any reason why I can't be that person."