Editor's Note: After publication of this article, Jon Rankin withdrew from the race.
You might think that a 1500-meter runner who calls his blog “Chasing Jon Rankin” is referring to his rivals.
In reality, he’s referring to himself.
A 2005 graduate of UCLA, Rankin finished sixth at 1500 meters in the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, just three-quarters of a second from earning a spot on the Olympic team. He thought he might have reached the finish line of not just the race, but his career.
“It was tough not making the team,” said Rankin, now 30, who will perhaps be the most fitting competitor in the UAE Healthy Kidney 10K on Saturday. “But the thing that was harder about it was that I realized how much I had sacrificed to get to that point in my life: birthday parties, graduations, camping trips. I saw my family and friends there at the end of this chapter in my life and I felt like I hadn’t seen them in years. It made me kind of sad. I wondered if it was worth doing again.”
A few months later, Rankin was diagnosed with acute focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS), the same incurable kidney disease that struck NBA stars Alonzo Mourning and Sean Elliott during their careers and frequently results in kidney failure and the need for a transplant. Between coming to grips with his career doubts and the disease, Rankin competed only sporadically for the next few years, once coming within hours of sleeping in his car until a friend’s father offered a temporary place to stay. He moved frequently as he tried to find his new place in the world, working as a waiter in San Diego, a health-club desk clerk in San Francisco, and a pre-school teacher in Seattle.
“It was a crazy couple of years,” he said in a telephone interview last week.
As he struggled, Rankin didn’t have to look far to find a role model. In 2003, shortly after moving with his father from California to Florida, his mother, Penelope, was stricken with a mysterious virus so invasive that her organs began to shut down and doctors feared that she might not make it. When Rankin left that September to return to school in Los Angeles, he said, she told him she loved him and was proud of him and that he should go live a good life.
“She’s a fighter,” he said. “She could have given up. My inspiration is my mother’s example to fight. I think I have that in my blood.”
It was on the startling line of the Fifth Avenue Mile in September 2011, in which he finished sixth, that Rankin finally felt at peace. In his blog, he wrote about the race as a turning point, that his “unlikely journey to this point had convinced me that anything was possible. I had waited more than three years for this moment. … The race you could see I didn’t win. The race you couldn’t see, the race within the race, the race within myself, that race I did win.
“ … I had stopped living life when I began chasing the ‘Olympic Dream’ because somewhere along the way I lost sight of who I am. And it was only when I stopped chasing the dream that I could start to catch up on the rest of my life, a life I had put on hold since the age of 15. I … needed to experience life and chase myself before I could decide whether it was still right for me to chase the dreams I’ve had for more than half my life.”
On October 26, Rankin finished fourth in the Pan American Games. In November, he traveled to the California Stem Cell Treatment Center in Rancho Mirage, CA, to undergo an experimental procedure in which stem cells were deposited in his kidneys via the femoral artery in his leg. It was only when he felt so much better after the surgery, Rankin said, that he realized why his sleep had been so poor and his energy lacking. He said that follow-up tests have shown improved kidney function.
“I thought I was just being lazy,” she said. “Now I feel really, really good.”
The UAE Healthy Kidney 10K was inaugurated in 2005 to bring awareness to kidney disease and as a tribute to Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The former UAE president benefited from U.S. expertise, knowledge, and research when he received a kidney transplant in 2000. On Friday, the day before the race, Rankin will visit a dialysis unit on behalf of the National Kidney Foundation.
But first, Rankin is traveling to the Cayman Islands to run the 1500 meters in the inaugural Cayman Invitational track and field event on Wednesday, which will feature 100-meter world champions Yohan Blake of Jamaica and Carmelita Jeter of the United States. A dual citizen whose parents were both born in the Cayman Islands, Rankin—who is weighing, among other options, a post-racing career in international public service—now competes for the Cayman Islands and has been named to its Olympic team for 2012.
“I know now why I’m doing this, to honor my gift and live my life as well as I can,” he said. “It’s just running for the next four months. I want to really engage psychologically by cutting everything out. From this point forward I pretty much won’t be answering my phone until after the Olympic Games. I’m okay with that sacrifice now.”