True grit

The stories of exceptional alumni are reminders of what we love about athletes and why we want them to succeed.

Photo: Brian Stethem

On July 29, 2006, Mark Covert, M.A. ’78, eclipsed what had been up to that time the nation’s longest running streak at 38 years and five days. And he didn’t stop there. He would keep the streak going another seven years until this past summer, covering in total some 150,000 miles over 16,437 days.

To put it in perspective, that distance is more than halfway to the moon or the equivalent of more than six laps around the earth at its equator.

To keep the running streak alive, Covert, 63, put in at least one mile per day despite a broken foot, arthroscopic knee surgery and kidney stones. He ran through everyday challenges and every milestone in life – his marriage and the birth of his four children, through job changes and holidays and family vacations.

“Just because it’s Christmas doesn’t mean you can’t put on your shoes and go for a run,” said Covert, a stellar collegiate cross-country competitor who started running in high school because he was too skinny to play football. “I was not the most talented guy and I knew that in order to be as good as the guys around me I was going to have to be tougher and train harder. The streak grew out of that.”

Hobbled by a structural collapse in his right foot that will require reconstructive surgery, Covert chose to end the streak on his own terms last July 23, exactly 45 years from the day it started.

Lindsey (Benson ’09) Valenzuela, a three-time All-American and captain of the Regals volleyball squad, wasn’t born yet when Covert was getting his master’s degree in education at CLU. She hit a different kind of sports milestone this year, on her road to becoming one of the most well-rounded athletes on the planet.

Fresh off of being crowned Southern California regional CrossFit champion, Valenzuela took the silver medal in the 2013 Reebok CrossFit World Games. She made a late push in the four-day, 12-event competition to climb onto the podium at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., the last week of July.

CrossFit has boomed in popularity since it emerged more than a decade ago, drawing competitors to its range of devilishly demanding events.

The silver-medal finish was a breakout performance for 5-foot-6, 154-pound Valenzuela, who started competing in CrossFit only four years ago and whose previous best World Games finish was ninth place.

“I wasn’t expecting second,” said Valenzuela, who lives in Moorpark with her husband, former Kingsmen football player Arsenio Valenzuela ’06. “But I knew I wanted to be somewhere on the podium, and I put in a lot of time, effort and hours in the gym to get there.”

Tales of grit and determination in sports are legion. If anything, our culture places too much emphasis on the mental qualities of athletes, and such stories wear thin amid revelations about performance-enhancing drugs and insider gambling, not to mention poor sportsmanship, in team and individual competition.

Given all that, this summer’s accomplishments by CLU alumni are reminders of what we love about athletes and why we want them to succeed. A running streak is as pure a victory of mind and body over everyday obstacles as you could wish for, as well as a fantastic metaphor for life.

Meanwhile, CrossFit is not only an extreme test of stamina, but as unpredictable as a rough week at the office: The athletes do not know exactly what events they will be asked to do until the competition starts.

In addition to swimming and rowing and good old-fashioned weightlifting, Valenzuela’s specialty, CrossFit offers events with names like The Cinco (a combination of deadlifts, weighted one-legged squats and an 80-foot handstand walk) and Naughty Nancy (a 600-meter run up and over a berm followed by 25 weighted overhead squats).

To win silver this summer, Valenzuela finished in the top 10 in six of the 12 events. A weightlifting specialist, she had her best performance in the Clean and Jerk, finishing second among the competition’s 48 female athletes. She totaled 821 points for the competition and earned more than $65,000 for the games.

When Covert began his streak with a 15-mile run through and around Griffith Park on July 23, 1968, the running craze of the 1970s had not yet swept the country, and he wasn’t thinking about being a trendsetter.

Freshly graduated from Burbank High School, he had simply set out to lay a foundation for his college running career. The plan worked to perfection. Logging more than 100 miles a week, he became cross-country champion at the community college level and then national champion in 1970 running for NCAA Division II Cal State Fullerton. The next year, he would help lead Fullerton to an NCAA title.

In 1972, Covert placed seventh in the U.S. Olympic marathon trials, and in that race became the first person to cross a finish line wearing a pair of Nike’s “waffle” racing shoes.

Following college, Covert kept running and the streak kept growing. When it reached 10 years, he started to realize that it was a big deal, and when it reached 20 years he was regularly hearing from people around the country who drew inspiration from his dedication.

“A good number of people came to look on this as something very special, and at some point I began to realize this was going to be much bigger than I was,” Covert said. “I never thought about how long it would go. I knew it would end somewhere down the road, but I didn’t want it to end because I had gotten sick or hurt. I wanted it to end when I wanted it to end.”

On the last day of the streak, this July 23, Covert completed a single, slow mile outside the stadium at the community college in Lancaster where he coaches and teaches, surrounded by family, former teammates, friends and admirers.

In the end, his streak ranked as the world’s second longest, runner-up to the ongoing 48-year streak of Great Britain’s three-time Olympian Ron Hill. It drew praise from all corners of the globe and, days before it ended, special recognition on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Not only has he run through history, he has made it,” Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer read in a proclamation. “Nevertheless, Covert’s true impact has been on the many hundreds of students he’s coached over the years. He instilled in them not only the skills needed to be successful athletes, but perhaps more important, the skills needed to be successful in life, especially dedication and perseverance in the face of obstacles.”

Covert hopes that anyone who paid any attention to the streak learned something about commitment and the need to do your best at all times, whether it’s at play or at work.

“Our sport is all about training, about who puts in the work and who doesn’t,” said Covert, who woke up the day after ending the streak and went for a bike ride. It surprises no one that he is now putting in 100-plus mile weeks on the bike.

“For me nothing has changed,” he said. “And I’m still getting a few emails a week from people who have just learned that the streak is over. I’m shocked that so many people were touched or inspired by this. All I did was go for a run.”

For anyone who knew Valenzuela, then Lindsey Benson, at CLU, her continuing commitment to excellence comes as no surprise. She was a four-year varsity letter winner, three-time All-American, volleyball team MVP and CLU Female Athlete of the Year who was twice named to the First All-SCIAC Team and in her senior year earned a spot on the American Volleyball Coaches Association All-American Second Team. After she graduated with a degree in exercise science, she was named to the University’s Volleyball 2000-09 All-Decade Team.

During college, Valenzuela began performing Olympic weightlifting as part of her off-season training regimen, and that naturally lent itself to the strength aspect of CrossFit, a mix of high-intensity exercises that test everything from balance to speed. With college behind her, she came to enjoy the camaraderie and challenges of her new sport.

“She still has all that ferocity and relentlessness that she had as a player,” said CLU volleyball coach Kellee Roesel, who remains one of Valenzuela’s biggest supporters and who has watched with great interest as her CrossFit career has blossomed.

“She’s absolutely perfect for that type of competition,” Roesel added. “You have to be a total athlete. You’re trying to beat somebody else, but I think Lindsey’s biggest competitor is herself. That’s why she’s so good. She is never satisfied.”

Valenzuela said she owes much to her teachers and coaches at CLU. She works out and coaches at DogTown CrossFit in Culver City, where she puts into action the lessons she learned on the court and in the classroom about health and fitness.

She also has co-opted the one-word motto that came to define and drive the CLU volleyball squad – believe. In fact, the word appears on her shorts and other workout gear to remind her of what can be accomplished with focus and effort.

“I learned from my teammates, my teachers and my coaches that you have to believe in what you are doing in order to be successful,” Valenzuela said. “If you work hard, have determination and believe in what you are doing, whatever dream you have you can accomplish.”

In October, she headed to Berlin as a member of Team USA to take on Team World in the CrossFit Invitational.

When she dreams big, Valenzuela envisions a gold medal finish at next year’s World Games. And she dreams about the possibility of spreading the gospel of CrossFit by bringing it to university campuses such as CLU and serving as role model – much like Mark Covert did the early days of running – to bring new converts to the sport.

She has earned a master’s degree in coaching and administration from Concordia University and is deriving as much satisfaction from working with clients in the gym as she does pushing through her own workouts.

“All I’m doing is working out,” Valenzuela said. “But if I can help someone make themselves get up in the morning and want to make themselves better just by seeing me compete or seeing me do a workout as an example, that’s great. Knowing that I can help somebody else is going to help me get up in the morning.”

Fred Alvarez is a high school history and journalism teacher who lives in Ojai. For more than two decades, he was a staff writer for daily newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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