When Ryan Fowkes opted to run track and cross country at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., he didn’t know of the rigors he, the country and the world, for that matter, were going to have to go through in the months following. But the 2019 East Hampton High School graduate seems to be adjusting just fine.
Fowkes helped lead the Colonial men’s team to a fifth place finish at the Atlantic 10 Championships this past Friday at Pole Green Park in Mechanicsville, Virginia. The sophomore finished the 8K race in a personal best 24:56, placing him 15th overall, the top spot for the Colonials.
The fifth place finish was the second best ever at the conference championships for GW, since placing third in 2017. It marked the first time in program history that both the men and women placed in the top five of their respective conference championships — the Colonial women took third in their meet — and the four All-Conference performers, which included Fowkes, is also a top mark for the program.
GW head coach Terry Weir lauded his runners for last week’s performance. To say it’s been a trying year would be putting it mildly, he said. To start with, the team, along with everyone else in the world, had to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, which led to all students at GW learning remotely from home and the fall athletic season being pushed from the fall to late winter. Many student-athletes were finally allowed back on campus on New Years Day, then, just days later, the city was rocked with the attack on the Capitol building on January 6.
When the season finally began, running conditions outside in the winter in the district — which included a lot of freezing rain — were a little harsh, both Weir and Fowkes noted, but it all worked out in the end.
“It was a challenge, to say the least, to be able to pull off a season, which I was really happy about,” Weir said. “Not a lot of schools were able to do it. Most of us weren’t even on campus, or in D.C., for that matter, for the fall. These guys all just got back in here January and had to go through all of the protocols, and then everything that went on with the election didn’t help a whole lot. But we were able to squeeze in our first race the first week of February, and it’s really been a whirlwind for our guys. We have a young team of mostly freshmen and sophomores, but knew we had a pretty good group of young men.”
With classes being remote in the fall, Fowkes, along with six of his teammates, rented out a house in Colorado Springs for altitude training, which is when a runner specifically runs at high altitude, typically 8,000 feet or so above sea level. With less oxygen in the air at those altitudes, workouts become more difficult, but it trains the body to adapt, and in turn, at least in theory, makes running at sea level easier.
Weir credited the altitude training as part of the reason for the team’s success this season. Fowkes said that scientifically the effects from running in Colorado wore off by the time the season actually started, but it was the bonding experience that was everlasting.
“It’s no secret a lot of the best runners go to altitude to train, so me and six other teammates got a place in Colorado Springs for a month and it was a good running experience,” he explained. “Two of the guys who came with us were freshmen, so while they didn’t get their ‘freshman experience’ at school, they were able to get something back out in Colorado. And there is a big jump from high school to college, but I think you learn pretty quickly. I had good guidance last year, so I was able to help [the freshman] out this year.”
Fowkes considers himself more of a track runner, particularly for the 1,500-meter race, but every runner at GW also runs cross country in the fall. After a somewhat trying freshman cross country season, which Weir said is common for most freshmen, Fowkes really hit his stride this season on the trails.
“When we recruited Ryan as a middle distance guy, we recruited him thinking he could be a great miler — and he is going to be a great miler — but to be a great miler you have to run good cross country, and that takes time,” he said. “All freshmen, no matter what, have a tough time with it.”
Although Fowkes ran his indoor track freshman season, his spring track season never happened due to the pandemic. He’s looking forward to what will be his first spring season in a couple of weeks.
“When COVID hit, he didn’t really get to see the jump he was going to get from running cross country,” Weir said of Fowkes. “That was tough for him, but he was leading much of the 8K race against some real competition, against some of the top milers in our conference, along with some steeplechasers, so that tells me his strength is definitely there. He just needs that opportunity to compete and learn how to race.”