Patrick Liederbach: The free-spirited runner

On a sunny day in downtown Detroit, a tall young man stands atop the abandoned, 18-story Michigan Train Depot. The wind, though barely registering on the ground, blows hard and fast on the roof, tousling his long blond hair.His friends, partaking in his forbidden tour of the once-famous train station, watch as he casually drives golf balls off the hulking, 230-foot-high structure. He is in his element, and they recognize it.

Meet Patrick Liederbach: Urban explorer, nature lover and one of the greatest runners in UDM history.

Liederbach could have chosen a big-name school like the University of Michigan, but decided to embrace the underdog role and challenge himself at UDM.

At Detroit, he has set numerous race records, been named to the all-Horizon League team in each of his first three years and also won the team MVP each time. But those kinds of accomplishments, while impressive to many, don't phase Liederbach. To him, they are just numbers on paper.

He is motivated by something different.

He doesn't want an ordinary life.

The thought of going through school, piling up debt and working a mindless job to pay off that debt scared him so much that he almost didn't come to UDM on a cross-country scholarship in 2007.

"For a while, I wanted to drop out of school and become a farmer, which was silly because I didn't know anything about farming," he said. "I still don't, really. I wanted it just because you could rely on yourself and it was the farthest thing from sitting in an office cubicle. The thought of that makes me sick."

Liederbach dislikes anything indoors. He loves being in nature, and that's a product of his upbringing.

Raised in northern Michigan – in Petoskey, a small, intimate city of about 6,000 people – Liederbach was born into a family that doesn't do things typically. His mother, Kathy, didn't even drive to the hospital when Patrick was born. It was right down the street, so she walked there, delivered her baby and walked home.

Because his mother was a teacher and his father, Fred, an accountant who made his own hours, their family often travelled during the summer.

Liederbach remembers piling into the family minivan to take trips throughout the U.S. He has visited all but four states, and plans to see the rest soon.

When he did stay home, he was rarely in the house.

His summer days were – and still are – spent jumping off the breakwall into the harbor of Grand Traverse Bay and biking along the many trails near his home. His parents, in fact, met on a cross-country bike tour.

Liederbach also likes music, and plays a variety of instruments, including Native American wood flutes, guitar and saxophone. He is currently teaching himself harmonica.

It doesn't take much to make him happy.

"I was trying to think earlier this year about my favorite things in the world, and I think at the top of the list would be good views," he said. "They cleanse your soul, and you can just be at peace."

His appearance – dominated by an untamed, red beard and wild curly hair – have drawn comparisons to Jesus, Nickelback lead singer Chad Kroeger and Woody, the gnome mascot for Vernors ginger ale. It is a look that suggests Liederbach would be well suited for lumberjacking in the northern woods of his hometown.

The second oldest of five children, Liederbach knew from an early age that he wanted something different. And after spending a childhood in close-knit Petoskey, he knew it wasn't to be found there.

"I got tired of seeing the same people every day," he said.

That's what led him to visit and choose Detroit Mercy, a school rooted in a major city. There was more to see and do here, he said, which kept things from becoming too ordinary.

He still quenches his thirst for the outdoors by exploring the city's abandoned buildings – the train depot being just one example. Seeing nature retake what originally belonged to it appeals to him.

Aside from a few minor run-ins with police, he enjoys his new form of exploration.

In the three years since he arrived, Liederbach has excelled at his sport (and earned a 3.37 GPA as an education major).

According to his coaches and teammates, he is about as extraordinary as he can be. "He's one of the best Titans of all time," said cross country head coach Guy Murray. "He's a hard worker and a great leader, but his unique talent is that he runs at his best when he needs to the most."

His teammate Ryan Ayala agrees. "He has God-given talent," he said. "Whenever he's with the team his competitive juices just start to flow."

It would be easy to assume Liederbach chose running because of its individualistic nature. But that's not the case.

"I chose running because of the team camaraderie," he said. "As much as it's an individual sport, it's also a team sport. As much as I like the idea of providing for yourself, I understand you have to rely on other people. We're not in this world alone."

He also decided to run because of his older sister, Mary Beth.

After high school, Mary Beth earned a full ride to the University of Pittsburgh and graduated with a degree in engineering. But she is not headed for a normal, nine-to-five job. She recently entered a convent, and will become a nun.

Ayala described Liederbach as his best friend. The two have gone on camping trips, and have explored nature in and out of Detroit. When they are outdoors, Ayala said he sees a different side to Liederbach.

"He's completely uninhibited," he said. "It's so awesome. He helped me realize nature is something I love, too."

Building friendships through running began when Liederbach was introduced to the sport in middle school. He enjoyed it because he got to hang out with his team after races, go on scavenger hunts and play games like capture the flag.

Such personal bonds, Liederbach said, make his time at UDM worthwhile. He could care less about the records he breaks or the awards he earns.

"It still is kind of surreal, because I didn't come here expecting to do that," he said of his running accomplishments. "It's an honor. But in the huge picture, athletics doesn't really matter. The vast majority of people in this world aren't going to be affected by that in any way. They're going to be affected more by me as a person and how I treat them.