Posted on

Spencer grad continues to run his own race in life

Spencer grad continues to run his own race in life Spencer grad continues to run his own race in life

Sports can often be a lonely, solitary pursuit. Any athlete looking to reach the top must devote hours of training for a moment that might only last seconds.

Athletes can seem a bit crazy when it comes to their single-minded devotion to their craft, but being an athlete also means trusting your instincts, listening to your gut, and ignoring the skeptics.

Aaron Pankratz has never had a problem blazing his own trail. Over the years, he’s made choices that have left some scratching their heads, but he’s always known that what’s crazy to others makes perfect sense to him.

Pankratz, a 2018 graduate from Spencer High, made a name for himself in track, a sport that caters to the individual, but he got his start in sports with baseball. He was blessed with elite speed, and by his sophomore year, his desire to test the limits of his body saw him trade in the baseball diamond for the oval.

“I had played baseball since second grade, but after doing that for so many years I began to feel like I didn’t fit in with that crowd anymore,” Pankratz said during a phone interview. “When I started track I wasn’t super serious about it. It was just something I wanted to try and see what happens.”

In the spring of 2016, Pankratz got his first taste of the sport and his times were good. He ran season bests of 57.66 in the 400-meter and 2:14 in the 800-meter dash.

The numbers were encouraging and Pankratz quickly fell in love with track, thrilling at the sensation of air whipping across his face as he sprinted past older, more experienced runners. Every race became an adrenaline rush, and Pankratz sensed that he was only scratching the surface of his talents.

“After that first year, my times kept dropping,” Pankratz said. “I started to realize I might have a future in this.”

Go your own way

Panrkatz missed the 2017 indoor season, and he continued to tinker with his events, searching for his niche. He ran relays, sprints, and continued to run the grueling 800-meter dash.

Pankratz registered a personal best of 2:05.98 in the 800 that spring. That time would have earned him a spot in the WIAA D-III state meet. That is, if he had chosen to run that race in the qualifying meet leading up to the state tournament.

“My coaches and I had known I could always be a pretty good 800 meter runner, but I thought I had more of a sprinting capability,” Pankratz said. “I decided to run the 100 and 200, and find that balance between the two. In the end, sprints was just a better fit for me.”

Even with his focus now on sprints, Pankratz still captured the 800-meter race at the Eastern Cloverbelt Conference Championships later that year. He made it a hat-trick when he won the 400-meter dash and the 4x400 relay.

That meet held even greater significance for Pankratz because once again he took a risk that paid off. Pankratz went for a more reckless approach than usual in the 400, eschewing his typical strategy of hanging in the front pack before making his move.

At the Cloverbelt Championships, Pankratz threw caution to the wind, and ran like the wind, running under 54 seconds for the first time. That all-out, give everything style soon became his trademark.

“That conference meet my junior year I had not broken 54 at all, and at that point I decided I was just going to go all out,” he said. “That was crazy to me, but that race started it right there, and was the race that showed me what I could do.”

Going for a higher gear

That blitzkrieg approach worked once more for Pankratz when he punched his ticket to the WIAA state meet in La Crosse. He ran the 400-meter dash, and placed 11th, a feat that would have delighted some, but disappointed Pankratz.

“Not making it to the finals, that really motivated me to be that top guy next year,” Pankratz vowed. “I was so sick of being counted out. I wanted to get my name out there and prove what I could do and what kind of runner I could be.”

Pankratz was grappling with injuries through his first two years, suffering from injured hamstrings his sophomore year, and a tear in his hip his junior year.

He knew if he wanted to reach his potential, he would need to not only train harder, but also smarter. And he knew he might have to give something up to achieve something more.

Difficult decisions Pankratz spent that summer getting his body into perfect shape, adopting a workload more aligned with a college athlete than a high school runner.

He joined the Spencer Rockets cross-country team to increase his stamina, and even with only one year under his belt, he finished All-Conference, placing 12th at the Cloverbelt Championships.

As the winter sports season approached, Pankratz faced another difficult decision -- should he go out for basketball? Or should he focus on his quest for a state title?

“I decided not to do basketball. I know I made people upset, but my goal was to get to state, and to stay injury free,” Pankratz said. “That was maybe the most motivated I’ve ever been in my life.”

The time away from the pounding and physical nature of basketball proved to be a wise choice. Pankratz was finally able to compete in the indoor season in 2018 and it didn’t take him long to show people he had made the right choice.


page 11 Poised for some noise

Pankratz’s indoor season was the prelude to a dominant senior year. Over the course of the 2018 indoor season Pankratz won titles ranging from the 200, 300, 400, 500, 600 and 800-meters.

“Once I put the times down in indoor I knew I could do some special things,” Pankratz said. “Suddenly it became my goal not just to get to state, but to win it.”

Pankratz tore through his competition that spring, winning the 200-meter dash at six separate events, as well as nine sprinting titles in the 400-meter dash.

By the time the post-season arrived, Pankratz was brimming with confidence. He won another trio of conference titles, defending his Eastern Cloverbelt crowns in the 400 and 4x400 meter relay while trading his 800-meter dash title for the 200-meters, setting a personal best with a time of 22.97 seconds.

Another PR soon followed at the D-III sectional meet in Marathon when he won with a time of 50.31 in the 400. Pankratz returned to the state meet, this time qualifying in both the 200 and 400.

Pankratz finished 12th at state in the 200-meter dash, but seemed poised to take the 400-meter after taking second in the prelims. Unfortunately, he was fourth, less than a second behind the champion.

It was an excellent season, but Pankratz wanted more. He ran several regional and national competitions in the USATF, where he travelled to the campus of Iowa State University and outperformed several future NCAA D-I runners.

“Basically I was really disappointed after state my senior year, and I still wanted to run a little bit more,” he said. “I qualified for the regionals and it was a chance for me to do what I love.”

Colleges come calling

On the back of a strong junior campaign Pankratz was fielding offers to run at the next level. Most came from schools across the Midwest, but Pankratz was looking to branch out and see more of the world than Wisconsin.

Ever the trail-blazer, Pankratz walked away from those offers, choosing to do his own thing. In the fall of 2018, Pankratz found himself in Fort Dodge, Iowa, running for the Tritons and Iowa Central Community College.

“I wanted bigger. That’s why I went to my junior college,” Pankratz said. “I wanted to boost my profile a bit more, and see what could happen.”

This wasn’t just any JUCO he was attending. It was arguably the best track program in the entire NJCAA, a program that has won the men’s NJCAA D-I indoor championship nine out of the last ten years.

Pankratz knew none of this coming into Fort Dodge; he just knew Iowa Central was a great program that developed athletes into D-I runners.

“To be honest I had no idea it was that good,” Pankratz said sheepishly. “It was only later that I found out they were one of the top programs in JUCO as far as track goes.”

Pankratz threw himself into his training, bonding with his new teammates, who also shared his love of track.

“I’m used to being the only serious person about track and field where I came from, and then going to a place where 50 kids were all state champs, it really helped develop my competitive nature,” he said.

Unfortunately for Pankratz, while his personal experiences were great, his times were not. He discovered that the very training regimen that was meant to be making him faster was having the opposite effect on him. Worse, injuries began to rear their head again.

“Basically the whole season the group I was training with, and the workouts we were doing, I don’t think quite worked for me,” he said. “My first indoor meet I only ran a 52-second 400. I could not believe how slow I was.”

Pankratz believes the Tritons training and lifting regimen, which was far more rigorous than Spencer’s, was adding too much mass to his body, causing him to lose speed. A late growth spurt also complicated matters with growing bones and joints resulting in an Achilles tear. By April Pankratz made the hard decision to shut down his 2019 campaign..

Despite the complications during his stay at Iowa Central, Pankratz says he does not regret his choice to be a Triton.

“I met so many people from different walks of life,” he said. “I am able to call people a brother who never knew me before. I got to run and train with people from Jamaica and Africa and all over the world. They taught me about their places . . . and I taught them about Wisconsin. Overall, it was a real positive experience.”

The return home

Pankratz always wanted to run for an NCAA D-I program, but he has since matured on his views regarding college athletics. He’s come to realize that the division a runner competes in has very little to do with results.

“That’s the one thing I’ve learned, and people have told me,” Pankratz says. “At the end of the day there are amazing guys in D-III, and there’s a lot of awful teams in D-I. You should never judge a runner based on their division, but on their performances.”

Pankratz learned another valuable lesson in Iowa -sometimes where you need to be is the very place you left behind.

After his freshman season at Iowa Central, Pankratz returned to Wisconsin, transferring to UW-La Crosse. The Eagles are an NCAA D-III team, but are one of the most successful D-III track and field teams in the country, winning multiple national titles, and sending athletes to pro leagues and even the Olympics.

“I decided to go to La Crosse because they had a history of producing great runners,” he said. “They promised me they would train me right and I thought that it would be a good fit for me.”

Pankratz was eager to start the 2020 season, but last winter his foot began to ache. He took cortisone shots to help with the pain, but things only got worse. He discovered he had developed plantar fascitis due to training and was forced to pull the plug on the season before it ever truly began.

It was a disappointing result, but the silver lining is Pankratz still has three years of eligibility. He also has a greater understanding of his own body and what works best for it, scaling back his workload to save wear and tear on his body.

Now he waits and recovers and counts down the days when he can return to competition. He’s been tested and come out stronger on the other side and is eager to finally tap the promise that was first glimpsed in Spencer.

He might not have won a state title, but Pankratz has set his sights on becoming an All-American in the 400 and 4x400 relay - and perhaps much more.

Track is a solitary sport, and an athlete’s methods might seem mad, but Pankratz has made peace with his choices long ago. As on the oval, so too in life, Pankratz is running his own race. He aims to finish first every time.

“There are still people in Spencer that make comments about me quitting baseball or basketball. There were a lot of people who questioned me going to a JUCO,” Pankratz says. “You have to do what makes you happy. At the end of the day, every experience added to me, and made me the person I am today.”