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Marathon Man: Former SVHS runner Nick Spector kicks it up a notch

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Unlike many high school students, Nicholas Spector had already embarked on this life path by the time he left Sonoma Valley High, in 2010. It was set in his sophomore year, when he took up running – first cross country, then track, under coach John Litzenberg.

By the time he graduated and headed for Soka University, a small liberal arts college in Orange County, it was too late to stop: running was in his blood. There he set eight school running records, competed in seven NAIA national championships and was named the college’s Athlete of the Year as a senior.

Now he’s decided to achieve a personal goal that seems simply out of touch for most of us: run a marathon fast enough to qualify for the Olympic trials.

Qualifying time is 2 hours and 19 minutes, far off Eliud Kipchoge’s record of 2:01:39 set at the Berlin Marathon in 2018, and Galen Rupp’s best American time of 2:06:7.

It’s also three minutes faster than Spector has yet to run the 26.2 mile distance – he reached 2:21:44 at the Sacramento Marathon a little over a month ago. But thinks it’s possible.

“At that race I took about seven minutes off,” said the 6-foot-1 27-year-old of the Sacramento time. “I think that was the first step to thinking about the Olympic trails.”

The trials, set for Atlanta in February, 2020, will only accept runners whose best time is 2:19 or faster. Spector believes he’ll make that mark at his next marathon, in Chicago in October. If that doesn’t work out, he’ll go for it in December 2019 in Sacramento.

Just getting there will be good enough for Spector. So far there are 140 men who have made the 2:19 mark, though only 39 have made the cut to “A” level qualifiers, under 2:15 – the top tier runners.

Spector has few illusions that he’ll actually make the Olympics – only the top three men and top three women are selected to go to Tokyo. The favorite at this point is Rupp. “I’m like a long-shot,” he admitted. “He’s at a whole ‘nother level.”

Spector is already making plans to shave those three minutes, perhaps more. How would he do it? “I think the easiest answer is a lot of running, to teach your body to become more efficient. It’s a combination of a lot of miles with faster intervals at that pace.” Spector runs between 100 and 150 miles a week, between his coaching job with an education nonprofit serving low-income families, Childs-Pace in Orange County.

He also recognizes that he’s “naturally competitive,” and says, “I do the best I can to race the people around me.”

His father, Mark Spector of Boyes Hot Springs, agrees. “He’s very committed to what he does – it’s all about commitment, right?”

The older Spector, a psych nurse currently working with former SDC residents, is understandably proud of his son, and not just for his track time. “He’s strategic and he’s patient. I think it’s a real quality that he can see long range, and not go for the quick gratification.”

Since he’s a local boy, Spector has been a familiar presence at the finish line in several high-profile Valley races. He’s won the Hit the Road Jack 10k race several times, and thinks his 33:19 time may still be the course record. He also won the Napa Half-Marathon in 2016, coming in first with a 1:14:42 time. He's also shared the winner's podium several times with Litzenberg when his former coach won in the over-40 category.

“He leads by example, running with us,” said Spector of Litzenberg. “That’s the big thing. He’s actually out there with you.” Spector was an assistant coach for Litzenberg for the SVHS cross-country team of 2016, when they won the SCL championship for the third straight year.

But one local victory has eluded him. “The Kenwood Footrace is probably the most popular run in Sonoma County, but I never won it.” It’s only a 10K – Spector’s best time in that distance is 31:22 which would win the race nearly every year but one, in 2013 when Michael Crouch set the course record at 30:51.

“That’s one thing that’s always haunted me.”

Note: An earlier version of this story misreported Spector's time in the Napa Half Marathon; that has been corrected here.