The first time Dorian Ulrey ever ran, he was wearing jeans and skate shoes.
It was the sixth grade at Riverdale Middle School in Port Byron, Ill. He and his classmates were lined up on the starting line of the track getting ready for the presidential fitness test 1-mile run.
“I was in my jeans, a T-shirt that was probably three sizes too big for me and I was in my Airwalks, which were skating shoes,” says Dorian. Utility aside, a bit of pride and nostalgia hangs in his voice as he talks about those Airwalks. “I was not in my best running attire.
“No one had any idea what to do. They were like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna yell ‘Go!’ and you just run four laps if you can,’” he recalls. “I was like, “Cool, there aren’t many rules!’ And I didn’t like rules at the time.”
So he ran. Every one of his 50 classmates took off at the same time, surging ahead of him from a start line that he would one day become very, very familiar with. For the first half of the mile, Dorian ran in the middle of the pack, denim jeans, skate shoes and all, feeling less than great.
“I remember wondering, ‘How am I so bad at this?! Everyone else is so fast.’”
But then, something happened. Dorian, who is now a professional runner on the Brooks Beasts Track Club, started catching his classmates. One by one, he reeled them in, passing people who just moments before seemed well beyond reach. One by one, he moved to the front of the race. Step by step, he further cemented the path that would take him to becoming one of the fastest runners in the United States; a runner who still looks back on this one race with a bit of awe and wonder.
When Dorian finished the mile, well in front of everyone else, much to his surprise, the clock read 6-minutes, 14-seconds.
“They told me my time broke the school record, and I didn’t even know what that meant… because I was in the sixth grade. I just thought it was really cool.”
It wasn’t necessarily an accident that Dorian learned he was good at running– he would have had to run the fitness test no matter what as most public school students do at some point– but it was a happy surprise. And if learning he was fast is the first chapter of Dorian’s story, learning what running can mean to a person is the second.
Speed isn’t everything
Discovering his speed was a blessing for Dorian. It was a little bit of fate, he thinks. It opened doors for him and set him on the path he’s on today; it’s how he makes a living, it’s how he spends his time with friends and it’s how he met some of the most important people in his life today.
But being fast from an early age has left Dorian with something to prove, never more so than today as a professional athlete. It’s people like his parents, his girlfriend, the people he shares his accomplishments with who he feels like he needs to run for and prove something to. But he’s got a lot to prove to himself, too. Maybe some of that comes with having to raise the bar on his running since the sixth grade presidential fitness test. But some of it comes from the role running plays in his life everyday, not just in competition and training– after all, it’s who he is and not just what he does. And some of it comes from wanting to experience the weightlessness of running he feels when everything’s clicking for him, also like it did on the track at Riverdale Middle School, and how it made him feel.
“Dorian has a little chip on his shoulder,” says his coach, Brooks Beasts Head Coach Danny Mackey. “I don’t usually like it when an athlete is just trying to prove themselves, but for Dorian the ‘proving ground’ is to himself and the people close to him. It is a positive motivator for him because he simply wants to see how fast he can race.”
Another person who knows about Dorian’s running– and even that chip on his shoulder– is Nick Kupresin. Nick grew up with Dorian. They met in the third grade in elementary school and lived only a couple miles apart. He’s Dorian’s best friend, “He’s always been there through the national titles and Team USA’s and all the injuries.”
And indeed, Nick has seen a lot of ups and even a lot of downs for Dorian. Injuries and setbacks aside, his ups include a 3-minute, 35.23-second personal record (PR) in the 1,500-meter run, a 3,000-meter PR of 7:50, a 2009 U.S. bronze medal and appearance at the IAAF World Track and Field Championships in the 1,500-meter run and numerous All-American honors.
Many people might know these things, but beyond a small handful of other people in his life, it’s Nick who Dorian says knows him and his running and where he came from.
“It’s still crazy for me to think that he came from our small little town in Illinois,” says Nick. “I trained with him a few times and would go running with him on the back roads. He usually had to give a mile or two head start, and we would race to the high school to run bleachers. No matter how big of a head start I got or even cutting through the corn field, I could never beat him! He was like the Energizer Bunny and just kept going and going…I swear he never got tired.”
Now, a lot of sixth graders can be fast, but sticking with running and getting to the level that Dorian is at now is a different challenge. Getting there meant he had to find out what motivated him, what caused him to get out of bed and put his shoes on and start his watch. It took him a while to find that, he says. But looking back, he puts his finger on feeling “weightless” when he first started running. It was the feeling of accomplishment and a feeling of having found something that was his own and that he could be good at that Dorian credits with setting him on his path, not just the speed and the glory that came with it.
Running is for everyone
Today, Dorian’s personal best equates to a 3:53 mile. It’s been a long time since Dorian ran that 6:14 and he may be a long way from Port Byron, but Dorian appears at home these days. When he circles the track in Seattle during practice with his teammates, Dorian looks weightless, as if he’s been on his path for a long time, one that suits him well. It’s not everyone’s path, and what’s achievement for him isn’t achievement for everyone. But that’s the great thing about running.
“You need a pair of shoes and you can wear jeans and a T-shirt,” he says, only joking a little bit. “You don’t have to race. You just go out and do it and you can gain a sense of self satisfaction.”
He’s quick to say that what he’s found– his love of running– isn’t unique to him. His path and how he got there definitely is, but understanding and experiencing the run is for anyone. He says this with some conviction.
“If your goal is to make an Olympic team, that’s a big deal. But if you want to go run a 5K in under 25 minutes, no one can tell you that’s less important to you,” says Dorian. “If you want to go and lose five pounds while running, then that’s your Olympics. Everyone wants to be the best they can be, and with running, you can do that on any level.”
And that’s one of the things Dorian loves most about running, and believes others do, too. The feelings you get from it. Personal achievement is a big one for him. He’ll tell you that, as will the people who grew up with him and the people in his life today. The camaraderie, the fun, the travel… those are things he won’t deny, but what running makes him feel is unquestionably the most important thing.
It’s important to Dorian because it’s his. As much as achievement is different from runner to runner, the meaning running holds for each person is just as unique. It’s what makes it complicated and human, sacred, personal yet universally understood.
“I just remember that weightlessness, that first time I found my thing. It wasn’t someone else’s, it wasn’t something someone told me I’d be good at. I found it, it was my niche,” he says, looking back on his first time running. “As a kid in the sixth grade, you’ve been told what we do and this is why you do it. That was the first time I found something I did, I just understood it naturally.”
And the best part? Everyone can celebrate their own achievements and understand the truth and joy of running.