The Jock of Ages

Several trees line the entrance to Anteater Stadium. Hidden away from the view of spectators, tucked into a corner lies a tree that provides more shade than the rest of the plush shrubbery that encompasses UC Irvine’s track and field team’s home stadium.

For four years, UCI’s senior sprinter Charles Jock has had a symbiotic relationship with his tree. As a freshman and a sophomore, he explains, he would throw up after every hard workout on its roots.

“That’s my tree,” Jock said. “I nurtured that tree. I threw up on that tree so often. See how green it is? That’s from me.”

In his first two years at UCI, Jock would routinely crawl under his tree’s shade after a workout, throw up and lay down for a half hour.

“Those were the rough days. Yeah, I don’t throw up too much anymore though,” he said.

As Jock raised the tree up with nutrients, he flourished just as much. Between his sophomore and junior seasons, Jock cut down an entire second from his 800-meter time. At the 2011 USA Championships, Jock ran his personal record (PR), 1:44.67, shaving 0.98 seconds off of his PR in a year.

He’s now just over one-tenth of a second away from doing what no college athlete has ever accomplished — setting the all-time 800-meter collegiate record. As for the world record: he still has to find a way to make 3.66 seconds disappear.

What sets him apart? Diet? Exercise? Is it the way he’s wired? In terms of his eating habits, Jock is no superstar.

“As he’s seen himself progress, he’s gotten hungrier and hungrier,” Jock’s speed coach Jeff Perkins said.

But Perkins isn’t impressed by Jock’s hunger when it comes to the fridge.

“Charles has a nice philosophy on junk food and the soul. [He thinks] the more junk you eat, the better you are mentally and the faster you run,” Perkins said, laughing. “I’ve always tried to educate him on things that I think are important for him to be taking in terms of food and nutrition.”

“My diet definitely isn’t the greatest in the world,” Jock admitted. “I have this theory of eating unhealthy, called Eating Whatever Makes You Happy.”

“You eat fast food for a long time and eventually you’re going to hit rock bottom, and then the only way you can go is up, so your body is going to utilize all the fast food, grease and oil to start making vitamins out of it and then you’ll be fine and you can thrive off of it.”

His teammates hit the track every day, committing hours upon hours of training to their craft; so does Jock.

As Jock arrives for a midweek workout, one of his fellow sprinters is charging up the steps at Anteater Stadium with a sweat stain stretching from his shoulder blades to lower back. He’s been doing the same exercise for 45 minutes.

Hurdler Jacob Yowell has been practicing for over an hour when Jock arrives after his internship. At one point, Yowell’s leg clipped a hurdle and sent him tumbling, nearly smacking his forehead on the next hurdle as he broke the fall with his wrist. Teammates and coaches turned their heads like Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” to make sure one of their assets was still in one piece — he was.

Jock and five other teammates begin a warm-up jog after seeing Yowell dust himself off.

Weighing 168 pounds, Jock is 6-feet-4-inches tall, and has just 3 percent body fat. His veins penetrate his calves, which are darker than a 3:00 a.m. skyline. Those same calves provide his drive. They shoot out of his running shoes and keep his stride elongated and quick.

As much as one would want to refer to Jock’s physique and ability as God-given, it’s just not that simple. When on a warm-up jog with teammates, he’s one of the guys, a well-spoken student-athlete who can make any of the young ladies on the women’s team laugh. However, when the gunshot explosion queues the start to each of his races, he’s in another league.

Jock is to UCI track and field as Bryce Harper was to high school baseball, what the 1972 Miami Dolphins were to the NFL, or what a spelling contest is to George W. Bush  — unfair.

Jock arrived at UCI as a recruit with potential and he’ll leave Irvine in June with not just a degree, but the knowledge that he’s the best sprinter the school has ever seen.

“It’s my mentality [that sets me apart],” Jock said. “I approach every race like I can win it. I’m going to get out front and make them chase me. If anyone’s going to beat me, I’m going to put them through the most pain they’ve ever felt.”

In the 800-meter race, there are two types of runners: those who jump out to a big lead and those who stick with the pack, and make a break at the end of the race. Jock is the former.

At the 2011 NCAA Championships, he was the odds-on-favorite to win the 800. Jock had a commanding lead, but as he approached the finish line, a roar came over the crowd. University of Virginia’s Robby Andrews made a break from the pack. With five meters to go, Jock saw Andrews approaching and didn’t have enough time to react. Andrews out-leaned Jock at the finish for the title.

“It’s hard being the person everyone’s chasing,” Jock admitted. “It’s often just me, the track, and the clock.”

“It sucks doing all that work and not getting the prize. It has helped me eliminate complacency. This year, I don’t want it to be close. I don’t want to give anyone a show. I just want to win.”

It’s still a touchy subject for Jock. When he’s not focused on “Call of Duty” missions, Jock spends his free time watching YouTube videos on his iPad. He studies his competition, past world record races, and his opponents’ times and tendencies.

The sprinter doesn’t just have an 800-meter NCAA Championship in his sights. With the 2012 Summer Olympics approaching, Jock is expected to compete for spots in the 400-meter, 800-meter, and 4×400 meter relay events. If he qualifies for the relay team, Jock believes he’ll bring gold back from London to the states.

Since 1972, no American has won gold in the 800 at the Olympics. Just three Americans have medaled since Dave Wottle’s feat at the Munich games. Jock knows that he has to keep fighting through the pain in order to stand on an Olympic podium.

“[Running at this speed] is kind of like running with a monkey on your back,” he said, “A really heavy monkey; and then hitting a wall — a solid wall. And then going swimming with a monkey on your back, and then trying to get out of quicksand, and then running in a tornado.

“You can’t move your arms, you can’t move your legs, can’t lift your legs. It burns; it feels like someone detached your thighs and threw them in fire. It’s the worst pain ever.”

Jock stepped to the line at practice on April 17 as Coach Vince O’Boyle shouted from the opposite end of the track, “You don’t have to go crazy, just warming up!”

Jock is O’Boyle’s chance at the school’s first Division I track and field national championship since Steve Scott won the 1500-meter in 1978. No stranger to Scott, Jock broke the three-time Olympian and American mile record-holder’s 32-year 800-meter school record holder’s mark in 2010.

Shirtless, wearing nothing but tight running shorts, a silver chain, diamond earrings and Carolina blue running shoes, Jock and junior Cam Mitchell take off on their final 800-meter practice of the day.

“Five, four, three, two, one! Get out of there!” O’Boyle shouts.

Around the first turn, there’s already a car length between Jock and Mitchell. Sweat glistens off his perfect frame like baby oil as he hits a straightaway.

“Perfect!” O’Boyle shouts, as he and Perkins look on.

The silver chain slides around his neck as Jock’s arms continue to pump. A gift from his mother, Jock has worn the lucky necklace for years. It once snapped and he found a way to wear it despite an imperfect linkage for six months before having the necklace fixed at a mall in Korea while competing in the 2011 World Championships. Jock was befuddled by the store owner, who spoke Spanish, rather than Korean. He put his elementary Spanish to use and had the chain fixed for free. It continues to slide between his collarbones as he grunts with 10 meters to go.

“Don’t ease up!” O’Boyle reiterates as Jock approaches the finish line in pain.

He crosses, and then waits as a grimacing Mitchell catches up. They walk their pain off together, shoeless, without the aid of the tree.

“Why the hell am I running track?” Jock often asks himself.

“After recovering, you get up and do your second rep and you’re like, why am I running track, for real? But after you roll around on the ground for a little bit and recover, you feel satisfied. It’s that post-workout satisfaction, that’s good, that’s what keeps us going.”