Carlson chases after goal of a professional running career

Andrew Carlson and Melissa Steele ran in the U.S. Track and Field Championships.

David McCoy

Former Minnesota track and field athletes Andrew Carlson and Melissa Steele competed in the USA Track & Field Championships in Carson, Calif., during the weekend, Carlson in the 5,000 meters and Steele in the 400 hurdles.

But while Steele is calling that race her last, Carlson said he is hoping it was the beginning of a professional career.

Carlson recently signed with the Big Sur Distance Project in Marina, Calif., to run professionally next year. He said his goal is to get good enough to be able to make a career out of racing in Europe.

“European track and field is like football here,” Carlson said. “It’s, like, the big thing. I wasn’t able to run well enough this year, but hopefully next year.”

In his first race as a professional, Carlson took 15th in the 5,000 in Marina with a time of 13:54.03.

He was an All-American for the Gophers and owns the school record in the 5,000. He said the atmosphere at the race was completely different from that of a college setting.

“It’s more cutthroat, more intense,” Carlson said. “They’re under a lot more pressure to run well because that’s their sole purpose, that’s their life.”

Carlson said he was disappointed in how he finished, as was Steele. She finished 16th with a time of 58.86 seconds. The next year of her life is going to be very different than Carlson’s.

“I still have a year of school left,” said Steele, who finished her eligibility last semester. “So I am going to come back and work with the team as a student coach.”

Carlson said he’s spending the summer traveling across the United States to run road races in places such as Iowa and Tennessee. He said he’s not getting paid to run yet, but race directors pay his traveling expenses to come and race.

It’s a way of making the event more attractive to the average runner, who pays an entry fee to compete.

“If they get an elite field, the idea is that more people will race,” Carlson said. “If a million people only come to watch, they don’t get anything for that.”

Carlson said he’s focusing all his energy on racing until 2008, with the possibility of a run at the Olympics in the back of his mind.

But before he gets ahead of himself thinking about Europe and the Olympics, Gophers men’s cross country coach Steve Plasencia said Carlson still needs to prove himself as one of the best in the United States.

“World-class is kind of a vague term, but I take it seriously,” Plasencia said. “The first thing is for him to become national-class and then he can go for world-class. But he’s got a great opportunity with the group out in California, and he’ll be able to focus on training more than when he was a student.”

Carlson starts training for Big Sur in August. While doing that, he will be living in Monterrey, Calif. All his equipment, travel and living expenses will be paid for by Big Sur and Reebok.

He will need to get a job, however, in order to eat.

“That’s basically everything in life for someone that’s 23,” Carlson said. “I’ll probably be one of those guys at the rec center picking up towels 15 hours a week just to put food on the table.”