NATCHITOCHES — Mitchell Landry entered the Northwestern State track and field office with the intent of ending his distance running career the second week of the fall semester.
The academic senior battled severe pain in his left foot for nearly three years, requiring surgery the summer of his sophomore to remove a cyst. The cyst wrapped around nerve endings between the third and fourth toe (beside his pinky toe).
The Haughton native missed his entire junior season after surgery, and following a grueling summer of training to prepare for this season, Landry reached a breaking point.
“My foot continued to bother me,” said Landry, whose training intensified with ‘hell week,’ which welcomed runners back for the first week of school. “We ran on a gravel road in our first practice, and my foot would tingle at first like it was asleep then go completely numb.
“The part that bothered me is the recovery — it’s like needles sticking in my foot. I was so tired of going through it. It was enough to make you quit.”
But NSU cross country coach Nathanial McReynolds knew Landry wasn’t a quitter. McReynolds, who endured multiple injuries throughout his NSU distance career, had a plan.
“He walked into the office and said … he didn’t love running anymore,” McReynolds recalls. “He said he’s having problems with his foot, and he feels like he’s a hindrance to the team.
“I knew what he was going through — the emotion and the physical abuse you put on yourself. But there are other ways we can train. I asked him, ‘If there was a way you could get back into shape without hurting your foot, would you do it?’ He said yes.”
McReynolds implemented a biking regimen for Landry instead of running-based training.
After nearly two months of biking designed to rebuild Landry’s stamina without taxing his foot by running, Landry will compete in the Southland Conference Championships Friday in Huntsville, Texas.
The pair bikes four times a week, traveling anywhere between 25-40 miles along La. Hwy. 478 through a rural slice of Louisiana south of Natchitoches. The most common route is 31 miles, which takes about two hours to complete.
Landry still runs twice a week for speed-training purposes, but he said the lighter running load has allowed his foot condition to improve.
“I’ve liked riding the bike,” said Landry, who added he’s crashed only once after his bike wheel dipped into a large crack along Hwy. 1. “At the time, I was for anything that would help relieve a little bit of the pain. It’s taken a lot of the strain off my foot.
“Running doesn’t bother me as bad now. I finished a 3-mile time trial this past week, and it’s bothered me a little, but it’s manageable.”
Landry is borrowing a road bike for his training, which has been an adjustment to operate.
Biking isn’t an exact substitute for running. McReynolds said three miles of biking is roughly equivalent to one mile of running, but running is a full-body endeavor.
“Biking is like a trick in our back pocket,” said McReynolds, who added that it’s a rare form of cross country training and wouldn’t replace running. “It’s a little extreme, and it’s typically not done.
“Biking and running are using two totally different systems and muscles. Biking is similar enough so you can get the cardiovascular benefits, but eventually, Mitchell will have to transition into running again to succeed in (the indoor and outdoor track season).”
Landry witnessed first hand the shortcomings of biking when he finished 35th of 39 runners in a 4-mile race at the Sam Houston State SLC Preview Meet on Sept. 12.
“My legs are strong because of biking, but my lungs is where it’s lacking,” Landry said. “Everyone else on the team has tired legs, but it’s been my lungs that’s struggled to keep up with the high oxygen rate.
“When you’re running, your heart, your lungs and the rest of your body is involved. Biking is mostly just legs.”
The 5-mile cross country championships are meant to a springboard into the outdoor track season this spring. Considering Landry could barely walk on the ruptured cyst prior to the surgery, he’s happy to be able to compete.
Landry, who would still have a year of athletic eligibility after graduating in industrial engineering technologies this spring, is planning on this season being his last hurrah.
He aspires to work for Kansas City Southern Railway Company, which would require him to be on his feet. It’s nothing new for Landry — who balances 17 academic hours, a six-day-a-week training regimen and several bartending shifts.
“When I decided to continue running, I told my coaches that I just want to have a decent senior year,” said Landry, who’s in a group project constructing a guitar from scratch as part of his class work. “Even if it’s not spectacular, I want it to be better than the past years have been.
“Since I’ve gotten hurt, most of my races haven’t been good at all, at least not to my expectations. Any college athlete, especially in Division I, is going to tax their body in any sport.
Even though I’ve had some unfortunate things happen, it makes you wonder what this is preparing you for later in life. It means a lot to me that I’m just sticking with it.”
Landry almost didn’t have a collegiate career at all.
As a junior at Haughton High School, Landry suffered through bouts of staph infection – eight times in three months.
Landry decided to not run as a senior – until several runners called him a “quitter” toward the end of cross country season.
“I went to (Haughton coach Kerry Gray) and said, ‘Look, I want to shut some people up,” said Landry, who started running under Gray at Haughton Middle School after Gray saw him run a mile in P.E. class. “I did 60-mile weeks for seven weeks in preparation for the outdoor season.
“I had my eyes on the Mobile Challenge of Champions.”
The regional event in Mobile, Alabama, drew elite runners from across the South, and Landry aimed to make a statement.
“In the fifth lap, I took off and started leaving the pack,” Landry said, grinning. “They closed on me in the last 200 meters, but I held on to win.
“That was the biggest meet of my entire career. It kind of hurt me because at the state meet that season, everybody targeted me and paced off me. (Catholic High’s Cole Stafford) broke the state record with a 4:13 mile. People say that it must have sucked, but it’s not disappointing to me because I’d come back from not wanting to do anything.”
Landry is far from a favorite at Friday’s conference championships, especially with a foot that can go numb during a race – altering his running form.
The pacer, a runner who likes to grab an early lead, aims to be competitive en route to challenging for outdoor championships this spring.
But McReynolds says he’s enjoying watching a competitor continue to do what he loves.
“If you don’t understand Haughton boys after two hours of riding, then you don’t know anything,” McReynolds joked. “To be brutally honest, I don’t think he wanted to quit when he came in our offices that day.
“The reason why he came in here and didn’t feel comfortable running anymore is because he didn’t feel like he could live up to the standard of the team – which is false. He is the heart and soul of this team. His success will depend on his willingness to put himself in a position to hurt, but Mitchell Landry doesn’t quit.”
Note: Feature photo by Gary Hardamon/NSU Photographic Services
— Matt Vines, Northwestern State Sports Information