The Running Renaissance Man

At first brush, marathon running and fine art seem to have little in common. In fact, when Nick Stanko recognized his propensity for both in high school, there wasn’t a clear way to make his two passions jive.

“Sports have always been a part of my life, and so has art,” he says. “But in high school I kind of separated from art because I didn’t know what I could really do with it.”

So when Stanko entered the University of Michigan, he pursued the interest that made the most vocational sense to him—sports. It didn’t hurt that by that point he was already a standout distance runner and member of the UM cross country team.

“I started studying kinesiology,” says Stanko, “but within a semester I transferred over to art school. I took a ceramics class and just fell in love with the medium.”

Arts and Athletics

Today, Stanko teaches art at Haslett High School, coaches the school’s cross country team and runs and runs and runs.

And wins a lot of races.

For example, in 2009 Stanko was named Michigan Runner’sRunner of the Year” after taking first place in the Kensington Challenge 15K and promptly following up with a first place win and a time of 2:20:22 at the Detroit Free Press/Flagstar Marathon in October.

So where do art and running overlap? According to Stanko, it’s all in the approach.
“You can approach something in a scientific way, or you can approach it in an artistic way—in which you’re responding, changing a lot and working with what you’re faced with,” Stanko says.

“I tend to be structured and rigid sometimes, so having that art background allows me to work with the ever-changing environment of my training.”

However artistic or structured his methods may be, it’s working.

So far 2010 has been just as successful for Stanko as 2009. He’s already qualified for his second Olympic trial.

Life at Haslett High

You might think it would be a challenge to be the student of such a fierce competitor as Stanko, but he’s no ordinary athlete or teacher. Despite his achievements, it’s not all about winning for him.

“Winning a race is like the icing on a cake, but I like the process of preparing for a race more,” he continues. “I tell the kids, ‘No matter how good you are, your performance the day of a race is like a present. You never know what you’re going to get.’”

That lesson is just one that Stanko relishes the opportunity to pass on to high schoolers in Haslett. Regardless of all his success as a runner, this teacher doesn’t give his day job second billing.

“Some people think you have to be crazy to teach high school kids,” he says. “But I really enjoy them and I try to give them a lot of freedom to be creative. I’m more of a guide on the sidelines than their teacher.”

Sort of like a coach—which is where Stanko’s love of teaching and running truly collide.

This past fall, the Haslett boy’s cross country team won the Haslett Invitational for the first time in 39 years.

“It almost trumped anything else in my running career. It was really heartwarming.,” he says of the victory.  

“It helps put my running in perspective,” he says of coaching. “It’s more rewarding than anything else I do, to show them that running is just another fun thing to do. And that’s what it really is.”

Art + Running = Perspective

Art, Stanko agrees, is another mighty fun thing to do—especially in the Capital region.

Being able to teach art in such close proximity to Michigan State University and the Lansing arts community has been a major boon for him and his students.

“The art community here is really great,” he says. “There are a lot of local artists who are true professionals, and it’s good for the students to have that example. Seeing our art club be involved with the local artists is so great.”

It turns out that Stanko and his students benefit from both Lansing’s strong arts community and its vibrant running community.  

Playmakers is terrific for runners and for the student,” says Stanko of the Okemos store that was recently named the running specialty store of the year by a national publication.

“They do a lot of publicity for the high school running scene. The kids get so excited to see their names and times up on their website, and when they’re excited, they run faster.”

Stanko credits the publicity, races and running clubs sponsored by Playmakers as the catalyst for making Lansing such a great place to run, citing that Ionia and Mason are ranked first and second in the state in cross county.

“People are doing good thing here in the Lansing area,” he says. “It’s really good to be a part of that and help build that.”

Trails and Trials

Naturally, Stanko himself benefits from that local support as well, and the Capital region has proven itself to be a great place for the Wyandotte native to train. His favorite running spots are along the dirt roads of Bath and Laingsburg, though he’s been known to gravitate toward more well-lit areas for his early morning runs.

“I run a lot around Meridian Mall when it’s dark,” he laughs. “You do what you need to do.”

It’s difficult to say what else it is that Stanko “needs” to do in his running career.

Ahead of him is his second Olympic trial in Houston in January. Not only will he be facing more than 100 of the top racers in the nation—the top ten percent of whom are professional runners—but only the top three will go on to the Olympic games.

It’s a mighty intimidating feat, but Stanko seems to take it in stride.

“I don’t know, and I think that’s what is so exciting about it,” he says of his future. “You just keep on working hard, and running a lot and see where it takes you. I think I’ll know when this time of my life is over and move on to something else.”

Though moving on from racing doesn’t seem to be in Stanko’s future anytime soon, whenever that day comes, he’s glad to know that he’ll be able to move from enjoying the resources of the supportive community in the Lansing area, including its thriving arts community.

“I’m an educated observer at the moment,” he says, “but art has always a part of my life. When time allows, I definitely see myself doing more of it.

“Right now,” he adds—looking toward two marathons and an Olympic trial in the upcoming months—“running is my art.”

Natalie Burg is a contributor to Capital Gains and other regional publications. 

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Nick Stanko working out with the Haslett cross country team

Nick (lft) at the Detroit Free Press Marathon

Working with a student on a wire art project

Student work

Nick Stanko

Haslett High School art class

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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