Lessons of Success: Putz on 2023's Roadblocks and Victories

It started with a game of ghosts in the graveyard. Where speed initially escaped a young Manny Putz, endurance prevailed, and he tirelessly tagged each of his childhood game adversaries until - in the words of his friends - it kind of took the fun out of it. 

Where the fun was lost for his friends, it was just starting for the then-fifth grader. 

Optimistic about what the game had indicated for his running ability, Putz began running competitively in track and cross country. He found fast success competing in meets for his small private school. The limited competition brought out the real competition: the eighth graders - or in Putz's sixth-grade eyes - the elite athletes.

Putz's road to high school competition culminated with an AAU 1500 meter national title - a race that solidified his commitment to the sport.

"So that's kind of where it all started," Putz reflected. "Just a little game of ghost in the graveyard with my friends."

The step into high school competition was a big one. Where Putz had been dominating two-team races for his small private middle school, a jump into public high school meant diving into a much deeper pool of competition. 

It also meant a new team, workouts he'd never heard of before, and learning to work the natural talent that had found him his success up to that point.

"My coach told me I had a lot of good natural talent, and there's a lot I can do with that alone," Putz recalled. "But he said if we can work with that - train it really aggressively - then you can go above and beyond."

The learning curve did undoubtedly bend - and after a year of steady progression, Putz earned his first state title on the cross country course in 2022.

"I've learned there's so much more you can do when you take talent and hard work and combine the two. I still feel like there's a lot more hard work I can do." 

I. 2023: The Learning Block | II. 2024: Looking Ahead

I. 2023: The Learning Block

Last year at this time you had just come off of a state title and some pretty high finishes at national-level meets. If you're sitting here one year ago, in an ideal world, what did 2023 look like for you?

A year ago, I won state by .2 seconds, so I was definitely hoping to win state again, and I'm happy that I won it again. I wasn't aware of the injury that was going to happen, but it was really cool that I was able to win state again - that was definitely a goal - and then I definitely wanted to qualify for nationals again, and I got that accomplishment. And then making it to nationals and placing what I did - I definitely wouldn't have thought I would've placed that high. I don't think last year me would've thought I got fifth at nationals, so I definitely did more than I thought I would at NXN.

At what point did you realize the injury was going to be a pretty significant issue for you?

The injury was not fun at all. It was sophomore year and kind of around this time last year. I kind of knew it was going to be really bad when I was two weeks into the injury and it felt like it was getting worse. It just wasn't making much progress.  

Track season was starting and I was still injured. The only thing I was able to tell myself to feel better was that indoor meets aren't that important, outdoor is when I really need to be ready. I took it easy during indoor and just tried to feel better.

But then outdoor meets started, and we're close to halfway through outdoor and I'm still injured, so I was just like yeah there's no point. That's when I just took a month of no running and did everything I could to heal. I started wearing a leg boot when I sleep, did a lot of biking, and just typed anything into Google to see how I could make my Achilles heal faster. 

What kept you motivated during that comeback phase?

It's weird to say - being injured is not fun, but it really helped me to watch my teammates in their races. When I'm racing, I don't get to see a lot of my teammates in their races because I'm getting ready for my own, or my coach is telling me 'don't watch everyone's race, you need to keep your heart rate down, stay calm.' But I didn't race last year, so I was able to watch all my friends, all my distance runners, all my sprinters, and pole vaulters, and it was kind of really enjoyable because I was able to take videos for them and see how good they are in all their events - you know really see how good they are instead of just hearing about it.

So there are a lot of positive things that came out of that, which is weird to say. I really enjoyed it and I'm gonna miss it - but also not at the same time because I'm excited to actually run this year. But there are a lot of good things that came out of that, and that's what kept me going.

So when you came back for your cross country season, and you're coming off of this injury, did you alter your expectations at all or did you kind of keep those consistent?

I will be honest, I did kind of alter it a little bit. I mentally told myself, you know, it's okay if you don't run too well because you missed your whole sophomore year track season. I guess I shouldn't have told myself too much of that, but it kind of made sense to me because it felt like a good excuse. I don't think it affected things too much because I think I still ran pretty decently at the beginning of the season. My fastest race was pretty much the first race of the season until NXN. But I definitely did lighten my mood a little bit by saying, 'oh, it's okay if you don't run too fast because you were injured, not everyone was injured as long as you were that season.' But I definitely still tried really hard for every single race I was racing this season.

So you win that state title and you go on to have a pretty remarkable race at NXR, can you tell me about that race?

Well, I'll tell you one thing - it was way better than last year. I think last year it was like 30 degrees when I raced, and this year it was like 50 - so the weather was already 10 times better. I felt really good and I had a teammate running this time with me in that same race. It was nice to have my friend Blake running with me in that race just because I knew someone that was right next to me. 

The beginning of the race was really fast. People were running at like 100 meter pace already, but I tried my best to keep it cool. Aloysius took off in that race really fast, but I was able to stay with him and hold that pace for the whole race. He did fall back a bit, and I did my best to not do the same. The fact that I was able to hold a 4:30 in the first mile and then stay in the top at the end was very impressive for me and that kind of just shows that I think I can probably hold a faster pace more than I think I can. 

And you're coming off of the state meet where you're running with that same group of guys up in the front  - 

That was so cool - seeing three Wisconsin runners at the top of the pack, in the lead for the first mile. It was pretty cool to hear the announcer say, 'we have three Wisconsin runners' in the first mile of the race. I didn't realize that out there - Grady Lenn was right behind me as well. That was pretty cool to see out of Wisconsin runners there

During the state meet you were up with that group as well, how did the competition push you this year?

It was super nice because I'm not really that good with pacing and holding a good pace. So it was super nice to have Aloysius and Grady Lenn take charge of that pace for me and I kind of used it as practice to work on holding a pace better throughout the whole race. I usually just run really fast in the first mile and then slow down the second mile. They really helped me just hold on to it, because when they're right next to you, you can't slow down. So it was really nice having them to keep me up there and hold a strong pace throughout the whole race. 

At what point in that race did you kind of know you were going to pull ahead and win the title?

It was definitely after the two mile. I noticed I was feeling really good - like really, really good. I don't know if you've ever done this before, but you can kind of sense the person next to you is getting tired. I had that feeling during the race and I knew Grady Lenn was going to fall off, just because I felt like he was in an area he had never been before, in that really fast pack and that really fast lead. He started slowly falling off and I knew it was just me and Aloysius for the rest of the race. 

Then I could tell that Aloysius was pushing a little harder than normal, just basing off of his form and his rhythm, and then once we got up that last hill at state - that's when I was pretty confident that I was going to win that race, because I have a really strong kick and I was still feeling strong at the end of that race. 

You mentioned you've been working on pacing - have you made any improvements? What's the biggest thing you can do to help?

The biggest thing is to really push on that two mile. My coach has always said, the first mile will take care of itself. You know, because everyone feels good on the first mile. That second mile, though, is a spot where it takes a lot of mental strength to keep going. Because now you're in the middle of the 5k race and it's a little challenging to stay focused, and so it's knowing to push it in the two mile. That last mile, I mean you're close to the end of the race, so that will always be motivation to go faster. So, it's really that two mile that we need to focus on as cross country runners and I've really been focusing on pushing in that time range. It has also lessened my kick at the end, but that's a good thing because I'm exerting my energy throughout the whole race instead of just kicking in the last 100 meters because it looks cool. I think I've been doing really well and pushing that two mile more. 

Looking back on all of that, if you had to pick a favorite moment of 2023, what would that be?

Even though I got second at NXR, that was honestly one of my best races, not only because I ran a PR there, but it just felt awesome having that many lead changes. First, it was Aloysius, then it was Sam Scott, then it was Robert, then it was Sam and Juan Gonzales - it was just so many different people. So it was just very intense. The people watching had an awesome time, people were cheering us on at all times, and it was just an awesome environment. And obviously, the fireworks and the cannon that shot off at the start of the race  - NXR is just always a fun race, so I'm really looking forward to it again next year.

II. 2024: Looking Ahead

On the national level, what's the next thing you want to accomplish?

I want to try running a lot more meets - so if we're talking about NXR next year, I definitely want to make it to NXN again and try to get first. It's going to be my last year and I have nothing to lose, so I have to give it everything I have. And Foot Locker - try to get first there as well. I'll probably do indoor Nike meets and also outdoor Nike meets. Hopefully, I can do outdoor Nike with the Onalaska team - we think we have a pretty good relay team that could make it.

We haven't seen you on the track a lot yet - what do you think your main area of focus will be?

I think it's pretty clear that the longer, the better I do, so the two mile will definitely be my type of race. And then the mile is just a fun race, so I'll be doing that a lot too. To work on my speed, I know my coach is going to put me in an 800 - and I'll be ready for that because I think 800s are pretty fun too. It's not really long distance but it's also not short, so it's kind of that perfect distance range - and it's kind of fun knowing you're only running two laps.

If you had to set a resolution for yourself either as a runner or personally, what would that be?

I've always had this goal from the beginning of high school to never get spiked - so far I'm good on that. And then I want to win one national meet. I don't care whether it's in track or cross country, I just want to win a national meet of some sort - that would be an awesome one to get for me.

That would be a big one for me - and obviously just to make a lot more friends.

If you could look back on 2023 and describe it in one word, what would that be?

Definitely a learning block for me. I've learned so much, I've experienced so much, I got knocked down a lot in the beginning of the year, but you know, just fighting back and hitting the goals I wanted from even before the injury. It was definitely a learning block for me, both personally and as a runner - and just being a good person - so that was the word that describes 2023 for me. Just a really big learning block.

Now that I'm getting to be an older class in high school, I've kind of learned how to be a better person, just because of how those younger kids come in. When I was a freshman, I was super scared coming into high school. Going from private to public was scary enough, and then being a freshman on a team of all seniors - it was scary, but those seniors were the nicest people to me and they became my best friends.

So now being a junior and pretty much almost a senior, I've learned to be really nice to everyone no matter how young they are. I'm so welcoming to freshman kids, sophomores, and still trying to learn more about the people in my grade. So I think I've definitely learned how to be nicer and just friendly to everyone that joins the team so that they can have that same awesome experience that I did when I was a freshman coming into high school. 

Do you think you've been able to transition into that leadership role well and balance it with your personal goals?

Yeah for sure, and it's kind of crazy for me because I honestly still feel like a freshman myself. To think that now I'm going to be a leader - my coach has already been talking to me about that, he said that when you're one of the faster runners on the team people will look up to you. I have to be a little more responsible, even though I still have that kid humor in me. 

It's definitely matured me a little more, but I can also still be me and still have fun, but still teach some freshmen some cool things. I get questions about what to do for training - freshmen kids still ask me that sometimes - and I honestly say, you know it's different for everyone and I'm still learning myself, but here's what I've learned throughout the years of high school.

Any final words?

It's definitely been a rollercoaster, but I've had a lot of highs. I'm really happy that even with that injury I was able to have an amazing year, amazing time goals that I reached, and was still able to reach those high standards that I did not think I was going to be able to get this season. I went to Oregon - that was the best time of my year probably - and I've made so many more friends and I've learned a lot of things. 2023 was amazing.