CUSTER— For years Joe Rush ran and excelled for the Custer Wildcats and few in the media or running community realized he was an enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Tribe. Maybe it was because he ran for Custer, a school familiar to all in Lakota country, but seldom having any Indian athletes itself.
Certainly it wasn’t Rush’s appearance. He looks like an enrolled tribal member, but because his mother Marsha Redday moved back to South Dakota by way of Tennessee, Rush didn’t achieve any success through the usual aboriginal channels.As a junior, Rush finished third at the state Class A cross country championship, as a senior he finished fifth, always he was near the front, winning more often than losing, and was the 2107 Region 6 champion, defeating his good friend, Ty Trainor of Rapid City’s St. Thomas More, for the title. But Trainor came back and beat Rush at state, finishing just ahead, just as he did last year, finishing one spot ahead. It is not his success or his failures that makes Rush so intriguing and likeable you don’t even want to continue calling him Rush, and so he will be Joe until the end of this article.
Joe is the kind of kid most of us would pick for our son, because it is what he did after he placed fifth at the state cross country championships that makes him a champion. Any runner that showed any sort of distress was Joe’s concern. Somehow, ignoring his own pain and loss, dismissing it as “I have a higher pain tolerance,” Joe helped runner after runner to their feet. He came close to helping every runner to his feet.
“My family, we’re caretakers in a way,” Joe said. “We like to help people. The thing is, I kinda know what they’re going through. Personally, after races, no one really helped me, but I felt I should help people up, even if they don’t know they need it. I’m trying to leave a good impact on other people.”
Geoff Preston of the Rapid City Journal prompted this article. He was the first to ask, “Is Joe Rush Native?” There were hundreds of runners at that meet, thousands of spectators, but Joe made enough of the impact he was looking for, the media was curious to know more about him, despite the fact he had finished fifth.
Unlike a lot of gifted Indian runners, Joe is not swift footed. His friend Ty Trainor has more speed, but Joe has plenty of endurance. Other great distance runners in South Dakota, Billy Mills, Jeff Turning Heart, were known for their kick, for their foot speed to the finish line. While he may not have that kick, Joe is constantly analyzing every aspect of his race, every aspect of his physiology, to perfect any possible advantage. He attributes much of his success to “a lot of miles and a lot of repeats.”
He explains the VO2 max, “mathematically speaking how many millimeters of oxygen you use per kilogram of your body weight. A lot of the Olympians are very high, up there in the .80’s. I’m about .74 millimeters per kilogram.”
There are many ways to increase your VO2 max, and one way Joe does that is repeats. A select shorter distance, say 1000 meters, is repeated at high speed, with maybe a two-minute rest in between.
Although cross country is over, Joe will stay training intensively for two reasons. First he is preparing for the Nike Meet, on February 3, the US Cross Country Championships, in Tallahassee, Florida. His route to Tallahassee could be funded by Wings of America. This organization has a mission objective of selecting an All- Indian junior team to compete as a team at the nationals, a competition they have won 20 times.
Joe says he will probably have to run in the 15:40’s to make the team, and his best time thus far was a 15:59 he ran back on September 1. If he does make the team, Wings of America will cover all his expenses.
The other reason Joe keeps training is for the track season in the spring. He competes from 800 to 3200 and one would seriously have to like his chances were there a competition at 5000 or 10,000 meters. So, between then and now, Joe will work on his speed over an unchanging track with optimum grip for his cleats, as opposed to the variety of dips and rises on a cross country course.
Beyond running, Joe maintains a 3.8 GPA, and he plans on majoring in physics after high school. He has two sisters, Raven, 21, and Laurel, 10.
“They were all June babies,” his mother Marcia said. Even Laurel, who was born prematurely in May. “It was a shocker having a baby at forty.”
Joe is quick to add, “You don’t look your age, though.” That is the nice thing to say, and Joe has no problem remembering to always be nice. Part of the reason his mother does not look her age is because she helps Joe train, riding her bike behind him, while he legs out the long miles in the woods near Custer.
Since running has become his life, Joe said, “I cannot have a job in season. I worked as a lifeguard this summer. Schooling is what comes first.”
Joe’s biggest fear is he will stay where he is and become nothing special in life. Everything he does is to prepare himself as best he can as a 17-year-old boy to become like his hero, Neil De- Grasse Tyson, and become an astrophysicist: “I know it will be a different job. It’s practically like school for the rest of your life. I love math and science both, it also helps out humanity.”
Joe said he loves school, too, but he added that before he started running he was just a good student, but it was because of running he became exceptional. The ting he never does is walk around acting exceptional: “I am friends with pretty much every person in my school. I will never be rude to anyone. I don’t want people to see me and have bad thoughts about me. I try to help out anyone I can.”
Were he being graded on that behavior, Joe would certainly reach 4.0. Because he is so young, perhaps he does not realize how unusual such a perspective is in any person, let alone a teenager, or how men struggle their whole lives to become ikce wicasa, the common man, the humble, compassionate, generous, ideal man. Maybe Joe should have been a hurdler instead of a distance runner, because he has cleared that hurdle already, and by a Lakota country mile.
(James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He can be reached at skindiesel@ msn.com)