Jason Lehmkuhle's web design career brought him to Sport Ngin, but his 'other' career almost landed him in Olympics
Sport Ngin interactive designer Jason Lehmkuhle was a 2008 U.S. Olympic team men's marathon alternate after taking fifth (2:12:54) in the U.S. Olympic trials in New York City.
It takes a special concoction of skill, drive and natural talent to turn a passion into a career. Jason Lehmkuhle doubled that recipe, added a few ingredients, and found himself leading not one but two successful careers at once.
For nearly a decade, the 37-year-old juggled his one-man web design business with a marathon running career that nearly took him to the 2008 Olympic Games. Now, a year after joining Sport Ngin, the fruit of his design talents rest before your eyes, in the creation and maintenance of the Minneapolis-based sports technology and media platform’s home page and Community site.
Interactive designer Jason Lehmkuhle redesigned Sport Ngin's homepage (above) in March and designed and built the Community site (below) last fall.
Jason Lehmkuhle was an All-American while competing at Drake University in Iowa.
Before joining Sport Ngin, Lehmkuhle moved to Minneapolis to join Team USA Minnesota – a training center for post-collegiate runners looking for a way to stay competitive. The Drake University All-American trained alongside his wife, Kristen, and other top runners under coach Dennis Barker and steadily improved as a marathoner.
“Coming out of college I wasn’t what most people would consider a top-tier, elite runner, but I trained my butt off, stuck it out longer than many would have and ended up having breakthroughs later on,” Lehmkuhle said. “Many of my best races happened after I turned 30.”
Under coach Barker, Lehmkuhle ran an average of 16 miles a day, in two sessions, every day. During his most intense training period he covered more than 160 miles in a week. And while results from his training weren’t instant, and rarely are in the marathoning world, they began to show in 2008 as Lehmkuhle hit his stride.
Some of Lehmkuhle's better races include a ninth-place finish in the 2010 Boston Marathon, a win at Japan’s Ohme 30K in 2011 (the first American male to do so in 28 years) and top-20 finishes in the 2004, 2008 and 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
“Distance running is very much an Olympic sport,” he said. “Many competitive runners – pro or not – think of life in four-year cycles. Even if you don’t have a chance of making it, you section your life by the next Trials race.”
Lehmkuhle said his most competitive marathon was the 2007 U.S. Olympic Trials in New York City when he placed fifth with a time of 2:12:54 – just 1 minute, 14 seconds behind the third and final Olympic qualifier. He also took ninth in the 2004 Olympic trials in Birmingham, Alabama, with a time of 2:16:27.
Many of my training partners had to put their other careers on hold. I was able to do design in a freelance capacity and pick my own hours for most of a decade."
Although he was running more than 110 miles per week, Lehmkuhle maintained a freelance design career creating ads and websites for small businesses. Many of his training partners put their other careers on hold, but Lehmkuhle juggled both, and often combined them by designing websites, promotional collateral and other assets for local running events.
Lehmkuhle said that the two careers rarely interfered with each other and actually helped him stay balanced.
“You can only really train so many hours in a day, and sitting around thinking about running with all of your remaining time isn't healthy, so it was good to have design as an outlet,” he said.
He also noticed that certain attributes and skills, like time management and setting goals at a micro level, helped him succeed in both.
“As a runner I had a list of training deliverables every week and every day. If I didn't follow through on them, I didn't race well. That translates to not only my job as a designer, but anybody’s job,” the St. Charles, Missouri, native said. “I’d say in a lot of ways (runners and designers) are a similar kind of nerdy. People that get into marathoning and that get into web design were likely very similar in high school – Type A, goal-driven, maybe a little pulled back.”
Name: Jason Lehmkuhle
Resides in: Minneapolis
Family: Wife, Kristen
Job: Interactive Designer at Sport Ngin
Interests: Creating all things digital (for a living), running (recreationally) and golfing (poorly)
A native of St. Charles, Mo., Lehmkuhle made a name for himself in Des Moines, Iowa, where he attended Drake University. A member of the Bulldogs' cross country and track and field teams, Lehmkuhle earned All-American honors in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in graphic design, he spent a year working as a designer in Des Moines before starting his own company, Jason Lehmkuhle Design. A year later, he joined Team USA Minnesota, a distance running training center, and embarked on a successful professional marathoning career that resulted in qualifying for three U.S. Olympic Trials and nearly making the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. He joined Sport Ngin in 2014.
1999: Graduated from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where he earned All-American status in the indoor 5,000 and the outdoor 10,000 meters as a member of the Bulldogs' track and field team.
2000: Placed 25th the 10,000 meters (30:32.29) at the U.S. Olympic Team Track and Field trials in Sacramento, California.
2001: Moved to Minneapolis to join Team USA Minnesota, a distance training center for post-collegiate runners looking to continue competing.
2004: Finished ninth (2:16:27) in the marathon at Olympic trials in Birmingham, Ala. Also competed in the 10,000 meters at Olympic trials in Sacramento, but did not finish the race.
2005: Posted a season-best time of 2:22:46 and placed 40th in the marathon at the World Championships in Helsinki, Finland.
Placed 80th (39:14) as the U.S. team finished 13th in the Senior men's division at the International Association of Athletics Federations World Cross Country Championships in Saint-Galmeir, France.
2007: Was a 2008 U.S. Olympic team alternate after taking fifth (2:12:54) in the U.S. Olympic trials in New York City but did not participate in the 2008 Beijing games.
2010: Took ninth in the Boston Marathon with a time of 2:12:34.
2011: Became the first American male in 28 years to win Japan's Ohme 30K Road Race, crossing the finish line in 1:32:08.
Was the top American finisher in the Virgin London Marathon, placing 13th (2:13:40).
2012: Finished 18th (2:14:35) in Olympic trials in Houston, his final race as a professional runner.
Lehmkuhle’s marathon training diet reflected that of “Comic Book Guy” from The Simpsons. While training, he logged 16 miles per day and needed to consume 4,000 to 5,000 calories per day to fuel his lifestyle.
“It's basically impossible to make up (that) deficit with kale and almonds,” he said. “I ate some vegetables, but really I fueled myself with pizza, donuts and other calorie-dense stuff. Several nights a week I would wake up hungry in the middle of the night and eat Ben & Jerry's.”
Barker said it’s not uncommon for runners to turn to junk food to replace calories, but Lehmkuhle seemed to have a soft spot for sweets. The coach recalled seeing the runner’s car littered with food wrappers and soda cans after a road trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for altitude training.
. . . I fueled myself with pizza, donuts and other similarly calorie-dense stuff. Several nights a week I would wake up hungry in the middle of the night and eat Ben & Jerry's.”
“It was just a bunch of crap he found at gas stations on the way down,” Barker said with a chuckle. “He’d clean up his diet closer to race time, but he definitely liked his junk food.”
Even with a calorie-packed diet, marathoning is a grueling sport that doesn’t always go as planned. Runners train three or four months for a single race, but there are always variables – most commonly the course and weather – threatening to break them down.
The first time Lehmkuhle ran the Boston Marathon he was greeted by a nor’easter with winds gusting up to 40 miles per hour. At the 22-mile mark his quadriceps began to cramp, forcing him to stop at a medical station and wait for a shuttle.
“I thought I might actually freeze by the time (the shuttle) got there, so I walked – gingerly – the last couple of miles,” he said. “Just about every serious marathon runner has had a similar humbling experience.”
Barker said he remembers that race and a few others that didn’t go so well for Lehmkuhle.
“The thing with Jason is he always ran races on the edge,” the coach said. “He wasn’t just trying to finish, he was trying to squeeze as much out of himself as possible.”
Team USA Minnesota teammate Matt Gabrielson said Lehmkuhle was one of the toughest, most competitive runners on the track, but rarely showed it. The two first ran together at Drake in 1996. They looked up to American distance-running stars such as Pete Gilmore, Brian Sell and Dan Browne and were instant rivals with anyone from the nearby University of Northern Iowa – especially former Panthers star Ballazs Csillag – but never really competed with each other.
Jason Lehmkuhle's creativity isn't limited to design - his dry sense of humor keeps the mood light with co-workers.
“Rarely do I remember any trash talk between us,” Gabrielson said. “We might have been competitive, but we kept it more internal. Deep inside we wanted each other to do well, but we also wanted to run fast for ourselves. Honestly, I don’t think you’ll find anyone to call Jason’s rival – he’s just not that type of guy.”
Gabrielson said while his friend’s competitive side is what made him so successful, it only comes out during poker games, baseball conversations and debates over the superiority of Missouri (Lehmkuhle's side) versus Iowa (Gabrielson's home state).
In 2012, Lehmkuhle made his final attempt at the Olympics, finishing 18th with a time of 2:14:35 and ending his competitive running career. While he still runs up to five times per week “just to get out of the house,” his Olympic dreams will most likely stay as such.
“He qualified for three Olympic Trials, which is a long stretch for a runner,” Barker said. “I think the time was right for him to go. It really takes a huge investment, mentally and physically, to train for the Olympics and it would have been a tall order for him to commit to four more years.”
Barker noticed the 11-year Team Minnesota USA member getting more involved in his design work near the end of his running career as Lehmkuhle began his transition from one field into the next. Again, Lehmkuhle’s ability to multitask and manage time paid off and he was able to find a full-time design career with relative ease.
For many, transitioning from a running career to a professional life is not easy. Lehmkuhle saw more than a few training partners and friends, including his wife, go back to school because their education was outdated by the time they began searching for post-running careers.
“For me, it was as simple as getting my resume together and starting to look for jobs,” he said.
In February 2012, he started as an Art Director for Marketing Edge Group in Minneapolis, then two years later landed the Interactive Designer position at Sport Ngin he holds today. Creative Director Chris McPhee said two things popped out on Lehmkuhle’s application: his background as a runner and his portfolio.
“He had good experience and his portfolio was solid,” McPhee said. “But his demeanor impressed me more than anything. He’s laid back and soft spoken, yet confident. He has the qualities of an athlete – determination, drive, stuff like that – and that really shows through in his work.”
His creativity really shows through in his sense of humor.”
- Chris McPhee, Sport Ngin creative director
Last month marked Lehmkuhle’s one-year anniversary with Sport Ngin. In that time, he redesigned the company’s home page, which re-launched in March, and worked on landing pages and microsites, including the Community page. With a goal of bringing new people into the Sport Ngin family, Lehmuhle and the design team act much like an in-house advertising agency. He spends his days building emails, maintaining the company's websites, designing promotional assets and, to the delight of his co-workers, wise-cracking with the staff.
“He’s definitely got a dry sense of humor and a really quick wit,” McPhee said. “We’re a small team and there tends to be a lot of back-and-forth, and he’ll be the first to crack a joke and get the room laughing. His creativity really shows through in his sense of humor.”
With his running shoes turned in for a swivel chair, Lehmkuhle faced a major lifestyle change. He runs less than 35 miles per week (down from his personal record of 160) and his diet needed more than just a tweak.
“I had to significantly change my diet after I stopped running,” said the still slim-and-trim Lehmkuhle. “If I had continued on that track, I’d probably be 300 pounds. When you stop working out your appetite naturally decreases, but I had some terrible habits that I had to actively change, and I’m not eating anything nearly like I used to.”
Aside from the diet and actual miles covered, Lehmkuhle still thinks and acts like a runner. He finds much of the same challenges from running crossed over into design, but luckily he’s spent most of his life planning for those challenges and learning how to face them.
“When you try to create a visual solution for something you might get stuck for hours or days at a time, and then it all comes at once,” he said. “It’s the equivalent of training for a long time without seeing much improvement in your racing, then all of a sudden it comes together and you see the results.”
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