By Mark Janzen
Transcona is a working class suburb of Winnipeg. It’s where Canadian hero Terry Fox lived until his family moved away when he was eight years old. It was first the Town of Transcona (1912) and then the City of Transcona (1961) before officially amalgamating with Winnipeg in 1972. The year before amalgamation, Transcona had a population of 22,490.
Transcona is also 10 kilometres east of downtown Winnipeg. For our purposes in this story, that’s relevant.
In the spring of his Grade 11 year, de Jong had a job with a construction company, cleaning up job sites. He had no aspirations within the construction world. The sole purpose of the position was to save money for his post-secondary education. So, on most days, he’d take the bus from his home in Transcona to the construction site in downtown Winnipeg. Eight hours later, after draining the distracting powers of his iPod, he’d return home…standing…on a crowded bus…that slowly crawled through Winnipeg’s gridlocked downtown traffic. That was most days.
This wasn’t most days.
On one particular day in April of 2013, de Jong decided to avoid the sights and smells of the cramped bus.
On this day, he decided to test a theory. “I’d be standing on the bus and I’d look out the window and sometimes I thought I could almost run raster,” de Jong recalls.
On this day, he did just that. He ran home.
He was relatively fit and he was indeed rather athletic. He already had earned a black belt in taekwondo, while also playing he played a variety of sports growing up. He was an occasional cyclist. His dad, Doug, had run in a few marathons, including the Boston Marathon, and his older brother, Calvary, had competed at the U SPORTS level in cross country and track and field with both the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Manitoba. But, Caleb himself wasn’t a runner. Or at least, he didn’t know it yet.
“I don’t know what gave me the idea,” says the now fourth-year de Jong. “It wasn’t really a conscious decision. I was just sick of taking the bus and not being able to even study or do homework.”
While jogging back to Transcona, a relative happened to spot de Jong. That prompted a call from said relative to Calvary wondering if the younger de Jong, by 10 years, had taken up running. He hadn’t. Yet.
Calvary inquired. Then, with his brother offering to act as his personal coach, Caleb figured he’d give it a try.
De Jong, 22, sits in an office recalling his journey to TWU.
He’s wearing a cardigan and a pair of dark-rimmed glasses. Of course he is. His next study session isn’t far away. However, neither is his next long run.
There’s a reason TWU’s endurance coach Mark Bomba calls him “The Professor.”
“Everything from how he conducts himself, how he talks, how he articulates and how he analyzes everything,” says Bomba, who admits his “look” was a heavy influencer in the nickname. “He breaks everything down and everything is very serious and analytical.”
It’s his professor-like nature that and his meticulous approach to running, school and life in general that has been the impetus for his methodical trajectory within Canadian track and field and the near-completion of his degree in four years as a student-athlete.
From Day 1, he’s wanted to know “why.”
“He asks questions that no one even knows are questions to ask,” says Spartan alum Blair Johnston, who was de Jong’s teammate with TWU for two years. “He’s not pretentious, but he’s very calculated. He wants to think everything out and he wants an answer to everything.”
It’s a key reason why he enters this weekend’s track and field championships as the Spartans top-ranked middle distance runner – he’s sixth in the 3000m – while also on the verge of finishing his Bachelor of Business Administration with a double-specialization in corporate financing and leadership and management. It’s why he’s already been admitted into TWU’s MBA program for the fall. It’s also why a fifth-place finish in the 3000m at the 2018 Canada West championships – one that saw him finish one place behind teammate Nick Colyn – came as both disappointing and motivating. He always wants to be better and has a healthy rivalry with the Spartans third-year rising star.
“I don’t like to lose to him and he doesn’t like to lose to me,” de Jong says about his training partner and closest competition this year. “It’s fun.”
At first look, de Jong’s appearance may not scream ultra-competitive, but beneath the cardigan is a student-athlete who has detailed his short and long-term goals with both minute detail and big picture thinking. He’s the guy with a running log that details every training session and dates back several years.
“He’s extremely motivated to hit certain markers and improve,” Johnston says. “He’s extremely persistent. You know he’s going to get quicker every year. He knows what he has to do and he’s accepted what he has to do and he just goes out and does it. He’s in his own head and he’s on his own trajectory.”
So, when he posted a personal record 8:14.74 in the 3000m earlier this year at the University of Washington Open, his reaction was basically: “I knew that was in me.”
It was a result of the miles upon miles he’s run since that first trip from Winnipeg to Transcona.
De Jong, as it turns out, was a natural.
A month and a half after first training with Calvary, de Jong went to Manitoba’s high school championships and finished second in the 3000m and fourth in the 1500m.
“In six weeks he was running what I thought would have taken him a year,” Calvary says.
That summer, he represented Team Manitoba at the Legion Canadian Youth Championships in Langley, B.C. and finished fifth in the 2000m steeplechase.
“(Calvary) was a student of running,” de Jong says. “He could condense what he learned and…was able to pass that along to me. That was a huge advantage for me compared to other high school kids.”
At the Legion meet, his performance piqued the interest of TWU’s track and field team. That fall, de Jong committed to becoming a Spartan.
When de Jong toes the line for the 3000m Friday, which will mark his first individual foray at the U SPORTS level, he’ll do so with plenty on his mind. He always does.
He will have a plan and he’ll do his best to stick to it. He will be thinking about a medal, while also envisioning the very first step he’ll take after the gun.
“I’m kind of a big picture person but at the same time I’m detailed oriented,” de Jong says. “Running is the perfect mixture of those two.”
On Friday, his brain will be as hard as ever, as he’ll look to navigate from his sixth-place ranking into a podium finish.
“Part of me is telling myself to stay calm and stay relaxed. You want to run fast, but not hard. You don’t want to be straining your muscles and forcing it. Keep calm. How’s my form. How’s my breathing. How’s my technique. This step should come before this step. There’s a half-a-metre gap there. On second last lap, usually this happens. On the last lap, usually that happens.”
There you have a token visit inside the headspace of de Jong – a mind that is every bit as scrupulous on the track as he is in the classroom and beyond.
While at times, he’ll flip through a text book and think: “What’s this particular number on a page? That’s not right. It should be this.” At other times, he’s thinking much larger – already considering how his business degree will congruently blend with his faith. While he’s long considered following Calvary into ministry – the older de Jong is currently working with a campus ministry program alongside students at the University of Saskatchewan – but, as one would expect, Caleb has thought through the practicalities and benefits of his degree as a tool within the Church.
“That ministry church piece has always been important to me, but a business background allows you to come to a church and offer a practical skill set that is necessary for a church,” he says. “If you come at it in an indirect way, you can offer a church those skills.”
As both Bomba and Johnston have attested, he sees life through a more inquisitive and analytical lens than most.
“That’s just how my brain is wired. And running provides a way to process things.”
While he’s become a veteran with the Spartans – four years competing at the university level will do that – in reality, his career as a runner is still young. He’s not even a five-year-old within the sport.
Yet, his up swinging trend has him, and many other around him, believing an ever-brightening future awaits.
In 2015, de Jong earned a spot on Team Canada for the Pan American Junior Championships in Edmonton, where he finished fourth overall in the 3000m steeplechase with a then-personal best time of 9:17.35.
Two years later, he shaved off nearly 12 seconds from his steeplechase time, when he crossed the finish line in 9:05.89 to finish ninth overall at the 2017 Canadian Championships. A month later, he put together a fifth-place finish in the steeplechase at the Canada Games.
Despite the gains, his hunger remains.
He dreams big. He thinks about representing Canada. He thinks about the Olympics.
As such, he’ll take on this weekend’s 3000m race in two minds. In one compartment, it’s a chance to take a big step at the national level and further ink his name into the U SPORTS story.
At the same time, in a very different, yet very closely connected, compartment, it’s just another race in his journey.