Gabe Ocasio had no choice but to leave Indiana State University when a simple address change left his entire collegiate career hanging in the balance.

The runner who helped Columbus North to two state cross-country team championships was in his third year competing for the Sycamores when his mother moved to Tennessee, turning Ocasio into an out-of-state student and canceling his 21st Century Scholars scholarship. He moved back to Columbus for a semester and continued training before enrolling at IUPUI.

One semester later, Ocasio took another break from college and began training with his old high school teammate Kyle Burton. Burton was running for Eastern Kentucky at the time, and Ocasio traveled there to train after his attempt to walk on with the Jaguars did not go as planned.

“(Training with Burton) was a really key experience for me because he kind of put things in perspective,” Ocasio said. “He was going through some troubles too, running at his university … When I was not training at school I was actually in the best shape of my life (to that point).”

Ocasio never let being away from college sideline his passion for running. He continued to surround himself with fellow runners like Burton and others to keep himself in top shape.

Ocasio knew his training would carry over at some point, so he just stuck with it. It carried right over to Marian University, where he is currently running while majoring in health and physical education with a sports psychology minor.

Former Lawrence Central coach Mike Holman is now heading Marian’s cross-country and track program, and Ocasio recognized his name from competing against the Bears back in his high school days. He contacted Holman via email, asking if there was any room left on the Knights roster. Not only did Holman grant Ocasio a spot on the team, but some scholarship money, as well.

Ocasio found himself racing on familiar territory at Indiana University in his first cross-country meet at Marian in the fall. Although he was in pretty good shape coming into the race, he learned quickly that working his way back into competition was going to take a little time.

“It was really weird because I raced at IU in high school on that course, and I did well,” Ocasio said. “I didn’t do so hot this go around, but it’s been an adjustment finally getting back into it. It’s been about a year now. I’m finally learning how to race at the collegiate level just like I did in high school.”

Ocasio is now competing at the highest level, being a member of Marian’s distance medley relay team that finished in 10 minutes, 11.07 seconds at the NAIA Indoor Track & Field Nationals. The relay’s sixth-place finish earned Ocasio and his three relay partners All-American honors, something the 24-year-old has been dreaming about since he first picked up the sport as an eighth-grader.

“It feels great,” Ocasio said. “We did that as a (relay) team, and that’s awesome. Now, I want an individual All-American just to kind of symbolize the journey I’ve been on from being on top to being the very bottom and now starting to rise up a little bit. And hopefully, I can continue the success being on and off the track.”

Ocasio has run every event between the 4×400-meter relay up to the 5K races, but his favorite event is the 3,000-meter steeplechase. It is the ultimate distance race because it combines athleticism with distancing running, he said.

The steeplechase is a race that involves jumping over hurdles and a water pit each lap for 7 1/2 laps. Ocasio’s goal before finishing his last year of track eligibility this season is to win the national championship as a team while winning the individual championship in the steeple chase.

Ocasio has one more cross-country season remaining, but will be far from hanging up his running shoes once he is done with college. His lifetime goal is to break the Appalachian Trail record of running nearly 2,200 miles in 45 days, 22 hours, 38 minutes set by Karl Meltzer on Sept. 18. Ocasio will have to change his entire training routine in order to prepare himself for the Appalachian Trail.

Ocasio is currently running about 70 miles a week, which will double once he begins training for the Appalachian Trail. He currently is participating in workouts that involve running 400s, 800s and kilometers, but when training for the Appalachian Trail, the main focus is running a high volume of miles and keeping his feet moving. One of his main focuses will be trying to find ways to supplement food and water into his body while running the trail.

He will have between five to seven years of training before he is even ready to take on the trail. Right now, Ocasio is just happy to have the support system at Marian that he felt he was lacking at Indiana State to help him get to where he is now in his training and in life.

“My coaches, my teammates and the students here have been a huge factor to why I’ve been able to come back so strong,” he said. “Through the transition they’ve accepted me for who I am as a person, and it’s made it a lot easier for me to go out there and run every day.”

Heart of a Runner

Name: Gabriel Ocasio

High School: Columbus North

College: Marian

Year: Senior

Sports: Cross-country, track

Favorite race: 3,000-meter steeplechase

Honors: 2017 indoor track All-American in distance medley relay

Career goals: Win NAIA national championship as a team and individual in the steeplechase; set the the Appalachian Trail record

Author photo
Frank Bonner is a sports writer for The Republic. He can be reached at fbonner@therepublic.com or 812-379-5632.