Men’s Cross Country
Eric Lutz should have been running.
His training log called for another run in the afternoon, but training was going well, so the Calgary Dinos runner decided to skip his second run of the day to celebrate the holiday season.
“Just one more drift,” Lutz thought to himself while riding his father’s new all-terrain vehicle (ATV) last December.
One month earlier, Lutz had a breakthrough ninth-place finish at the U SPORTS Cross Country Championships for the Dinos. The result not only re-cemented himself as an elite university runner in Canada, but helped the Calgary earn their first-ever cross country national title.
His father told him to be careful, and despite significantly maturing since high school, Lutz wasn’t wearing his seatbelt as he drove through the snow and mush with his brother in his hometown of Red Deer, Alta.
Drifting around corners, Lutz’s confidence was rising. He was in the best shape of his life, and he finally rediscovered his love of running again—when he decided to do one more slide in the snow. Lutz didn’t see the ice when he decided to progressively increase his speed into the turn.
“The moment I turned the wheel I knew I was flipping it, and then we rolled it a couple of times, says Lutz, reflecting nine months after the accident. “And because I didn’t have my seatbelt on, I was thrown out through the side window, and the roll cage crushed me.”
Lutz fractured his C2, C3, C4, and C5 vertebrae in his spine, and shattered two transverse processes in his back—immobilizing him for 12 weeks.
It was the best thing that’s ever happened to him.
Lutz discovered his talents in running through his mother, who was a runner herself and competed in 10-km road races. Lutz also played soccer at the time, but always found himself in the top three in the cross country races his mother signed him up for, and eventually decided to focus primarily on running when he reached middle school.
As a middle schooler, Lutz trained with the high school runners around Red Deer – who were two to five years older at the time – and quickly found himself hooked on the sport at an early age.
But as he began to hone his talents and saw his results progress, Lutz started to feel “burned out” – a term used by sports medicine doctors that describes an athlete quitting a sport before they reach their full potential, due to mental and physical exhaustion – and quit track and running altogether following Grade 11.
Early sport specialization – a trend credited for a decrease in youth sport participation, and defined as nine or more months of training exclusively for one sport – is a leading factor why young athletes burn out before they even reach university.
A 2016 poll from the National Alliance for Youth Sports discovered that around 70 per cent of kids in the United States stop playing organized sports by the age of 13 because “it’s just not fun anymore.” In 2018, B.C. soccer saw its enrollment numbers dwindle seven per cent, and a 2017 study by the Aspen Institute recorded a 23.5 per cent drop in American soccer players aged 6-12 over a period of five years.
“I wasn’t enjoying it, I thought I was done with it, I wasn’t doing it for fun anymore,” says Lutz about running in high school. “I took two years off, didn’t do the best things, did a lot of partying, and did basically everything you shouldn’t be doing as a runner.”
Lutz admits he had potential in high school, and his goal was to run collegiately south of the border in the NCAA, but he felt trapped under the weight of expectations he placed on himself to live up to the hype from others.
“I let the pressure get to me, because I (started thinking) ‘What if I don’t make it to a NCAA school? What if I don’t do this?’...That was my goal, and I put all these expectations (on myself) and it beat me down,” says Lutz. “It wasn’t expectations I had for myself, it was almost like expectations I had to look good for other people.”
Following two years off running, Lutz enrolled at the University of Calgary, and slowly worked his way back into shape. He finished 27th in his first year at U SPORTS Cross Country Championships in 2017, and believes last year’s ninth-place finish was the moment he finally felt like he was “fully back” after taking time away from the sport.
Just one month later, however, after the best race of his university career, Lutz was crushed by the roll cage of his father’s ATV – setting him back for the second time in his young 21-year-old life. But Lutz says it paled in comparison to his first comeback to regain his fitness.
“Time flies so quickly, before you know it a month is over, and if you’re doing every little thing you need to do in that month – whether it be school work, or running-related things like stretching, rolling, or core – before you know it a month is gone,” he says. “If you check all those boxes every single day, you increase your fitness so much and it becomes second nature.”
Terry Crook, Lutz’s coach with the Dinos, has been one of the major influences in shifting his mindset from high school to university.
Crook first saw glimpses of Lutz’s potential watching him run in Red Deer, and developed a tight bond with him off the track. After Lutz quit running, and shifted towards a party-heavy lifestyle in high school, Crook invited Lutz to stay with him and his family so he could learn the important values in life.
“He had the self-confidence in running, but he didn’t have the self confidence in what’s really important in life I’d say,” says Crook. “I’ve got a standard I tell the kids all the time: It’s family, school, and running. I said (to him) you’ll be damned good at all of them if you don’t put anything in place of those three things.”
Seven months after breaking his back, Lutz was back on the track and set an 11-second personal best in the 1,500 meters.
“I think at the end of the day, my back break was one of the best things for me – for my running, and for my life.”
However, Lutz maintains that without stumbling again, and having to go through the rehab and pain to regain the fitness he lost, he wouldn’t have become the man he is today.
Before Lutz broke his back, he was still focused solely on running and placed school, his social life, and basically every other aspect of life on the backburner. He lacked balance, he says, and believes the crash helped solidify the valuable life skills Crook was trying to instill in him when he was younger.
“You can get caught up in the sport and the pressure of trying to do well that you forget the real reason you do it,” says Lutz. “I think at the end of the day, my back break was one of the best things for me – for my running, and for my life.”
Josh is a fourth-year writing student at the University of Victoria. He's a Senior Staff Writer at UVic’s campus newspaper, The Martlet, and he has written for The Globe and Mail and Tyee. Josh is also a varsity cross country and track runner for the Victoria Vikes.