Amid the pandemic, EMU student-athlete has hit his stride

Isaac Alderfer competes in indoor track pre-pandemic. (Photo by Scott Eyre courtesy of Isaac Alderfer)

By Jessica Kronzer, contributor

Isaac Alderfer, an EMU junior, pulled down his mask, then went to work running the mile at the Roanoke Invitation on Jan. 30. He won the race, finishing four seconds ahead of the next runner, but he also smashed the Old Dominion Athletic Conference’s record in the mile with his time of 4:11.91. He beat the conference’s previous record from 2017 by roughly three seconds.

Alderfer wasn’t aware of the previous mile record because he didn’t think he was within range of beating it. And he didn’t find out until hours after the race when someone tipped Alderfer off to EMU’s tweet sharing his achievement.

“So that was a pretty special moment to be able to win that race and run such a good time for myself,” he said.

As a middle-distance runner, Alderfer runs races like the 800m and the mile and sometimes stretches to longer 3K and 5K races.

In addition to setting the mile record, the Old Dominion Athletic Conference has named Alderfer as an Indoor Track Athlete of the Week four times since January. He also set EMU’s record for an indoor 800m by running the race in 1:54.97.

The national meet for indoor track was cancelled because of the pandemic. But Alderfer finished his season as the 2nd ranked runner in the mile in Division III nationally.  

Isaac Alderfer, right, trains for middle-distance races by running 40-45 miles each week. (Photo by Shane Gray, courtesy of Isaac Alderfer)

From soccer to track

Alderfer’s track career began with early morning runs while a student at J. Frank Hillyard Middle School in Broadway. The middle schooler and his dad would wake up at 5:45 a.m. to run before classes. His original motivation was to lose some weight and to stay in shape for soccer.

“Something about having that rhythm be a part of my day has always been pretty enticing,” Alderfer said. “Now it’s just kind of morphed into this part of my identity.”

Eventually, these runs tapped into his “self-competitive urge,” and he ended up finding it “somewhat enjoyable.” 

Slowly, he gravitated away from soccer and ran track and cross-country in high school. He enjoyed how the running seemed like an individual event but is very much a team sport and includes a supportive community.

Every week, Alderfer runs about 40 to 45 miles. He spends two days a week on the track doing a repetition-based workout. On the other days of training, he goes for a long-distance run between 7 and 11 miles.

Among the first recruits

In 2018, Bob Hepler was working as the head coach at the University of Texas at Tyler when he accepted a job at EMU and began recruiting runners for his track and field team. Alderfer was one of the first athletes he recruited to EMU athletics, which made it even more special to watch Alderfer break the conference’s mile record.

“Every time he races, you have certain expectations. You try not to be overly optimistic,” Hepler said. “So far this year, he’s just crushing even my wildest expectations. And that race was one of them.”

Alderfer was selected as one of EMU’s Yoder’s scholars in 2018. According to EMU, the scholarship had 52 applicants, who averaged an SAT score of 1332, an ACT score of 31 and a high school GPA of 4.06. The Yoder Scholarship covers full tuition and admits students into EMU’s Honors Program.

Hepler said what impresses him most about Alderfer is his discipline — and that extends beyond the track to his education. Alderfer is an environmental science major. 

“He has a heavy academic load that he’s very committed to,” Hepler said. “All that dedication is definitely paying off in the classroom and now in track as well.”

In the fall, the track team practiced but had no competitions because of COVID-19. Despite the cancelled competitions, with time trials and inner squad meets, Hepler said 20 of the 22 distance runners set personal records, often in more than one event.

Hepler also has adjusted his coaching style because of the pandemic . Rather than practice at 6 a.m. six days a week, Hepler instituted three mandatory team practices a week. The other three days a week, athletes practice on their own or in groups, and still have the option to meet with Hepler at 6:20 a.m. on the track to train with their coach. He partially attributes the team’s success to their chance to get more sleep and to schedule workouts around their classwork.

“I’ve really appreciated EMU’s approach to athletics,” Alderfer said. “Both in their willingness and flexibility to be working with athletes in a pretty complicated time when you know when there’s other things to be thinking about besides athletics, but yet they’re putting energy and time and effort into making that happen for a lot of people.”

Alderfer also hasn’t had it easy. In the fall of 2019, Alderfer injured his leg, preventing him from training for cross country meets. His doctor allowed him to race on Saturdays, but he had to train the rest of the week by swimming and biking because he was not permitted to practice running. 

Still, Hepler said Alderfer was a top runner on the team. Even while overcoming barriers like a leg injury and COVID-19 affecting his training, Hepler said Alderfer has excelled.

Looking ahead, not behind him

Now, Alderfer is looking ahead to outdoor track. He hopes to compete at nationals from May 27-29. 

And while Alderfer said he was surprised and grateful for setting the conference indoor mile record, he said he expects someone will break it one day.

“It’s just fun to kind of be a part of that system of like intergenerational competition,” Alderfer said. “You get to … directly compare performances throughout time, because in general conditions don’t change a whole lot, and the race distances mostly stay the same.”

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