VANCOUVER — He has the present of presence, and a gift for being grounded.
Ask UBC’s Kieran Lumb about just such intangibles, and he’ll tell you they are the blessings which each day keep him planted firmly in the moment.
Without them, it’s hard to imagine the 22-year-old Vancouver native maintaining his current state of equilibrium over what has been a startling four-year rise from true neophyte status to a position within the ranks of Canada’s top up-and-coming middle-distance runners.
And in these times of global pandemic, with races shuttered across the continent and around the world, those blessings also help to explain just how Lumb has been able to greet each day with such inspiring positivity.
“We were talking as a family over dinner yesterday about how really difficult it is to imagine where anyone can be in one year’s time,” Lumb relayed last week, a sentiment which seems especially apropos these days.
“I’ve thought about how many times the next year turned out the way I expected it to, and it never has,” he continued. “Especially the last four years.”
Expected or not, breakthroughs have continued to abound, including his two most recent pre-pandemic successes: A 4:00.03 mile clocked Jan. 18 at the UW Indoor Preview, and the overall Canadian U-23 record he set in the 3,000m (7:45.50) on Feb. 15 at an indoor meet at Boston University.
Although he admits the challenge will be great, Lumb has next set the goal of chasing down the qualification standard in the 5,000m (13:13.50) to make the Canadian team and compete at the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. It’s the same goal he was set to chase this year before the virus’ spread pushed the event forward another year.
Yet if you interpret his ambition as a tad lofty this early in his career, it’s important to consider just how consistent his figurative strides forward have been since de-planking from his former career as a nationally-ranked cross-country skier late in his Grade 12 year (2015-16) at Vancouver’s Lord Byng Secondary, in favour of a full-time middle distance career on the trails and the track as a freshman at UBC (2016-17).
Lumb never ran for an organized track club at any stage of his grade school life, and he never won a medal at the B.C. senior high school track and field championships.
In fact before Primeau asked him to consider a running career in university, the pursuit has been his prime means of supplementing his off-season dry-land training in advance of the snow.
And to reference Lumb’s dinnertime discussion earlier this week, the first few years of his new career have shown, from the most positive slant, the potential folly of underestimating just how far one can come in the span of a year. And in Lumb’s case, we’re talking exactly one year.
On March 26, 2016, while still a high school senior at Lord Byng, he won a silver medal at the Canadian junior national cross-country skiing championships in Whitehorse.
“I knew going in that it was the last race of my (skiing) career so I guess I was able to end it on a high note,” he laughs.
Exactly one year later, on March 26 of 2017, Lumb crossed the finish line as the top Canadian at the IAAF World U-20 cross-country running championships in the African nation of Uganda.
Let that sink in for a moment.
It’s a double which represents a very rare pair of bookends, and while continued success in the form of national titles have since followed on both the tracks and trails, dabbing more than a little destiny on his career decision, it’s been Lumb’s passion for the daily grind which most accurately portrays his essence.
“I think he is probably every coach’s dream because he is in love with the process,” says Laurier Primeau, the head coach of UBC Track and field, who saw Lumb as an athlete brimming with potential. “The fact that he had never run in a formal program was very intriguing to us.”
Steve Prefontaine, the late, great U.S. middle distance star from the University of Oregon put it best when he said: “To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift.”
And that’s precisely what comes to mind first when watching the workaday world of Kieran Lumb.
FINDING A NEW POWER AWAY FROM THE POWDER
Running, as practised in its purest form, has always come natural to Kieran Lumb.
As a junior-aged athlete, he qualified for the provincial high school track championship meet on his athleticism alone, and as he progressed through senior high at Byng, he kept in shape for the cross-country ski season by winning the 2014 and 2015 Vancouver city cross-country running titles.
Yet it wasn’t until late November of 2015 that the high school senior was able to win the B.C. high school cross-country running title. It was the first real moment that a new future could be seriously pondered.
“It was not the normal path, but we have seen athletes from other endurance sports have success in cross-country,” said UBC coach Primeau. “We’ve seen cross-country skiers come down from the north or interior and maybe finish top-eight or top-five simply because they have such a great aerobic base. But to actually win it from that background, having never even been a member of a (running) club prior to that… and to do it by beating all of the (running) specialists?”
In hindsight it’s easy to see what his cross-country ski experience gave him, and these days, it seems hard to believe that no one other than Primeau was able to link Lumb’s telemark talents with his harrier’s heart.
And his skiing DNA is as legit as it comes because his dad, David Lumb, was a member of the Canadian junior national cross-country team, and even competed in the sport at the NCAA level on scholarship at the University of Utah.
Good genes to be sure, yet more than anything else Kieran Lumb says he appreciated the way his parents introduced the sport to both he and younger sister Katia.
“I would say there was never a focus from my parents to perform on the highest possible level, and I appreciate the fact that they valued being active and enjoying what you do,” said Lumb. “Their gentle encouragement and support has formed a large part of who I am as a person and an athlete.”
Still, the dots that led from skiing to running had to be connected.
“I wouldn’t be here if Laurier hadn’t said to me ‘Hey, you should be running,’” admits Lumb.
Looking back these days in the figurative rearview mirror at what what was the crossroads moment in his athletic career, it’s pretty safe to say his decision couldn’t have worked out any better.
AIN’T NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH
Before he had even officially set foot on the UBC campus as a budding electrical engineering major, the whimsical side of Kieran Lumb’s persona had quite magically revealed itself.
Midway through the summer of 2016, Lumb heard about a race called the Red Bull 400, a 400m run up the ski jump at Whistler Olympic Park.
Its daunting 37-degree climb distinguishes it as one of the most grueling foot races on the planet, and although he was just 17 at the time, Lumb not only decided to enter the race, he promptly won it, and did so in what race organizers deemed a world record time of 3:48.
“It is an incredibly painful event,” said Lumb, who also won the race again upon its return to Whistler in 2018. “I describe it to runners as being like the last 200m of an 800m race, but for four minutes.”
Coming after his ski career had ended, and before his running career at UBC was set to begin, the event not only introduced him as something of a teen wunderkind to the running community, but so symbolically bridged his transition between sports at a venue in which he had so often competed and trained at as part of his winter-sport past.
Lumb had committed to Primeau’s recruiting pitch a full half-year before the Red Bull win, yet upon hearing the news of his incoming freshman’s victory, the UBC coach again had his paradigm shifted.
“We just knew it must have meant that he not only had tremendous aerobic ability, but a tremendous tolerance for pain,” Primeau said. “It was a really neat story, but I still didn’t have a lot of context for what it meant to be good at running a steep quarter-mile and what translation that might have to more things like a 1,500m, a 5,000m or cross-country.”
It did, however, paint the portrait of a unique, outside-the-box, self-motivated student-athlete, who soon after joining his UBC teammates, would begin to show himself as a true Renaissance runner.
ADDING SCIENCE TO HIS FORMULA
As an electrical engineering major nearing the completion of his degree, Kieran Lumb has very naturally brought science in perfect stride with his running.
Last week while cleaning, he happened upon an old tote bag at his home, and upon examining the contents, came across an invention of his from late in his 2017 season.
In preparation for what he expected to be sizzling July temperatures at the Canadian Track and Field Championships in Ottawa, Lumb had put his ingenuity into play, designing an electrically-powered water-cooled vest that he hoped to don in warm-up sessions prior to competing in the heats and the finals of the Under-20 division’s 5,000-metre race.
“I wanted it to work in the same way that you have a radiator for an engine,” said Lumb. “I bought electric pumps and these motors, and then I built all of the electronics into an Altoids (breath-mint) tin and punched a slot for a switch.”
Tubing was connected to an old mesh ski vest, sheared of its sleeves, and when the switch was flicked, ice water from an attached pouch was filtered through the tubing.
Alas, the prototype never made the trip to Ottawa, where Lumb nonetheless took the bronze medal home after clocking a 15:03.98.
“It was cool from an engineering perspective but bulky and not very practical,” he chuckled.
Yet it’s been the only engineering failure over the early part of a running career in which Lumb has embraced innovation, in the process displaying a passion to get better that is at once as comical as it is maniacal.
Prior to leaving for the Ugandan capital of Kampala for the World Cross-Country championships in March of 2017, Lumb was connected enough through UBC to be able to train in the Vancouver lab of Lululemon, specifically in the ultra-modern heat chamber which the athletic apparel retailer uses to test its products.
“They have a chamber with a treadmill where you can adjust the altitude, heat and humidity,” remembers Lumb, who put himself through a pair of 90-minute workouts per week for six weeks.
“Being trapped in a room all alone at 33 degrees just staring at a blank wall for an hour-and-a-half… it makes you mentally strong,” said Lumb, who as the top Canadian finisher, was 55th overall on race day.
In the months leading up to representing Canada in the 5,000m at the Pan American U20 Championships in Trujillo, Peru in July of 2017, Lumb borrowed a high-altitude tent from a friend to simulate oxygen levels at between 8,000-to-10,000 feet.
“You really need to spend 10-to-12 hours in that hypoxic state,” he explains of getting the benefit of an increased red blood cell count which makes running easier at sea level.
Lumb placed it over his bed and slept under it for many days but said he “absolutely hated it. I tried it for a month but it was too much. Getting quality sleep is much more important.”
And then in May of 2019, Lumb re-visited the idea of his prior cooling vest, this time going old school by dispensing with the electronics, and simply designing one in which a vest was velcro-lined with mini freezable, flexible water-filled tetra-packs.
Lumb donned the vest to perfect effect during UBC’s historic trip to the NAIA national track and field championships.
He not only won the 5,000m final, but was part of an historic day in which both the men’s and women’s teams were crowned as national champions.
THE MAGIC OF STAYING IN THE MOMENT
Maybe the most natural thing Kieran Lumb ever did was to decide to become a fulltime runner.
Hindsight’s clarity makes it a no-brainer, yet the speed with which he made his mark is astounding when you consider that as an 18-year-old, just months into his cross-country running season at UBC, Lumb managed to grab the final position on the Canadian team headed to both the NACAC (North America, Central America, Caribbean) and IAAF World Under-20 cross-country championships by finishing seventh at the national meet in late November of 2016.
It was the race that opened his door to the international running world.
“I knew that if I had a perfect day, that I would have an outside shot at making that team, but when I crossed the finish line I thought I had missed it by one spot,” he remembers of the event, held in Kington, Ont. “About a half-hour later I found out I made it. That race was maybe the biggest turning point in my career.”
To illustrate the kind of path he was on, Lumb may have made the Canadian team by the skin of his teeth that day, but four months later he won the NACAC race in Boca Raton, despite being led astray near the finish line by a confused course marshal, and as mentioned, was later the top-finishing Canadian at the Worlds.
In 2017, he won the Canadian national Under-20 title, and in 2019, he won the U Sport national cross-country title for UBC, and he set his current PB in the 5,000m (13:40.51) at the Mt. SAC Relays in California.
And through it all, he has never lost his appreciation for the process.
In fact during UBC’s early spring training sessions in Arizona this year, Lumb had the chance to meet with a pair of UBC Olympians in 5,000m man Luc Bruchet (Surrey-Elgin Park) and javelin’s Liz Gleadle (Vancouver-Kitsilano).
“It was great to be able to chat with Luc, and Liz was able to spend some time helping me with some mental performance stuff,” the appreciative Lumb said. “Now, I try to pass things along when I can to younger athletes.”
The fall semester of engineering courses is packed for Lumb, but he has scheduled it that way in hopes of dedicating himself to his sport this spring in the pre-Olympic run-up to Tokyo.
It’s a part of the process he welcomes, while remaining grateful that he found a running program which, four years ago, so perfectly suited the introduction he needed in a sport he was just beginning to understand.
“I am very proud of what I have accomplished these last four years… what Laurier and (UBC cross-country coach) Brant (Stachel) have created for me,” he says. “I think if I had gone to a (U.S.) school, I maybe would still be running, but I wouldn’t have gotten the gentle introduction that my first coach CJ (UBC’s Chris Johnson) created for me.”
Kieran Lumb swears he has never looked more than six months into the future, yet in the life of a competitive athlete, goals are hugely important.
He does not deny this for a second.
Yet it’s his present of presence, his gift for being grounded that, in a mind-body way, allows him to find such joy at every step of his journey.
“I think that can be the difference between the very good and the very best,” Primeau says when asked to describe Lumb’s most enduring quality. “It’s his idea of almost preferring the process over the outcome.”
It’s the kind of mindset that welcomes, over the next year and beyond, such glorious possibilities.
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