MALIBU, Calif. (EYT/D9) — Last fall, Nathaniel Lerch knew something was not quite right.
(Photo courtesy of Pepperdine Athletics)
His right shin ached, but it wasn’t the normal kind of pain. It was more intense than mere shin splints.
The Clarion Area High School graduate and sophomore on the cross country and track and field teams at Pepperdine University decided to dive deeper into the problem.
What was found surprised even him.
He had a stress fracture in his shin bone.
And doctors weren’t sure why.
“I think it was from wear and tear, but it might have been something internally,” Lerch said. “My levels were all off. They also thought it was from some kind of immune problem. We did all sorts of tests. We never got to the bottom of it.”
It was a scary time for Lerch, a distance runner who was accustomed to the usual soreness, but nothing like this.
The experience has changed the way Lerch, now a junior with the Waves, has approached running.
He’s now on a regimen of prevention and strength training to, as he said, “counterbalance the pain in my shins.”
It took months for him to recover.
“I wasn’t sure if it would affect other parts of my body,” Lerch said. “But, thankfully, I don’t think it has. I think once I got through this big injury, I just have to stay on top of what I eat, all the supplements and everything and make sure I put everything good in my body. And get enough sleep, of course.”
That’s not always easy with the time crunch Lerch is under, attending classes and participating in two sports at a Division I school.
Lerch, though, has learned how to strike the right balance.
He’s routinely named to West Coast Conference academic teams. He also earned Pepperdine Scholar-Athlete honors in each of his two years at the university.
Lerch’s greatest honor, though, came this summer when he was named one of the team captains for both the cross country and track and field teams.
Lerch is no stranger to honors or leadership. He earned a lot of both at Clarion.
He was on the Keystone Shortway Athletic Conference cross country title as a senior and helped the Bobcats to a second place finish in the District 9 championship meet. He qualified for the PIAA Cross Country Championships four time and was a three-time KSAC MVP.
On the track, he was the KSAC MVP as a junior.
Lerch was also salutatorian of his graduating class and student council president.
At Pepperdine, he quickly knocked a minute off his 5K time during the track and field season as a freshman.
Then the shin problems began as a sophomore.
Now, Lerch said, he is very close to 100%.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “I had a little minor injury a week or so ago, but I’m good to go now. Honestly I’m just really excited to see what I can do. I’ve worked really hard this summer. I put in a lot of mileage and I’ve been on top of everything. I just want to see how fast I can get and stay with our top guys on the team.”
Lerch’s love of running began at a young age and was surely influenced by his mother, Tammy, who was a cross country and track and field standout at Anderson University in South Carolina during her collegiate days.
She still goes on training runs with Lerch.
“She continues to push me to run and to just do the very best I can,” Lerch said. “My mom and dad (Matt) will come on runs with me or bike next to me. It’s been very helpful, especially on those hot summer days to have someone along next to me.
“It’s a good feeling,” he added. “It’s nice to spend a few hours with mom every day.”
Lerch is studying biology. He hopes to become a veterinarian.
Lerch took the unusual path of going across the country to college. Few venture so far from home to go to school.
“The biggest draw was that it was a relatively small school,” Lerch said. “I had like 45 people graduate with me (at Clarion), but here we have about 900 in my class at Pepperdine. It’s a small enough campus that you can still get to know a lot of people and get to know the professors. I’m a biology major, so it’s important to have a good relationship with them so you can get involved with research and just make sure you can stay up to speed on topics and everything we’re learning.”
Sun, sand, the ocean — the location certainly didn’t hurt, either.
When Lerch first saw pictures of Malibu, he was hooked.
“The first time I heard about it, my dad showed me a picture of the cross country team at the beach in their full roster photo with the ocean in the background,” Lerch said. “I was like, ‘I kinda want to do that.’
“We’re close enough to (Los Angeles) that we can go see concerts or whatever, but we also have a nice, quiet place in Malibu,” Lerch added. “The running trails here are phenomenal. They’re beautiful. We’re very lucky to run here. I think that was kind of the dream.”
Lerch’s dream now is to stay healthy and really see what he can accomplish at Pepperdine.
“I’ve cranked out some pretty good 5Ks, but I want to see what I can do in the 3,000-meter, which is an event that’s not usually found at most of these meets, but sometimes they have it and I always want to give it a try. It’s little less than two miles, but it’s long distance with a little bit of speed. I want to see how I can do with that.”
Lerch has also worked on the mental side of running.
He leaned on that toughness during his recovery from the stress fracture and the uncertainty of its cause.
“Honestly, the most challenging thing has been not giving up because it’s so easy to and to get inside your head sometimes,” Lerch said. “You really have to keep your chin up and just kind of realize that you trained for this, this is why you are here and it’s not something that you can give up on so easily. I think the biggest thing is the mental battle, but I think I’m winning that.”