After graduating from the University of Florida with All-American honors following an outstanding collegiate career, Jeremy Criscione found himself asking the same question so many good distance runners have posed before.
Almost invariably, the answer is reaching the Olympic trials, either in a track event or the marathon. But the road to get there - without the support system of college - is almost always the issue for American runners.
Fortunately, occasional success at road races like the Publix Super Markets Gasparilla Distance Classic is just enough to reaffirm the talent of an athlete like Criscione and his belief that the Olympic trials aren't unrealistic.
Saturday, Criscione got a boost in confidence by winning Gasparilla's 15-kilometer race against some solid competition. No, the 23-year-old's winning time of 46 minutes, 22 seconds probably won't garner much attention around the country. You need to record a mark closer to the winner from two years ago - Olympic marathon runner Ryan Hall, who went 43:26 - to turn heads.
But for Criscione, a former state high school champion in both track and cross country when he competed for Interlachen High, it's another step forward. Now living in Bartow with his wife, Bessie, a high school teacher there, the $2,000 Criscione won here Saturday can help pay a few bills and, eventually, lead him to a point where he can achieve a qualifying mark to reach next year's U.S. Men's Olympic Marathon Trials.
"If you have no kind of backing or support, you can still do it, but it's a lot easier when you have some help," said Criscione, who works part-time as a substitute teacher, running camp counselor and timer for prep track and cross country meets. "Without my wife's help, I just don't think it would be something I could continue doing."
Saturday's runner-up, Andrew Letherby, competed internationally for Australia as a full-time professional at the world championships and Commonwealth Games. Now 37 and living in Clearwater, Letherby hung with Criscione and the sub-5 minute mile pace until just before the 10-kilometer mark before fading to second place in 47:05.
Third-place Austin Richmond (47:19), last year's winner, is another talented young American trying to hold on to the Olympic dream. And like so many others, his life marches forward. He's 25 now with a wife and young daughter to support.
Criscione and his wife haven't started a family yet. And fortunately for Criscione, he gets help with equipment, coaching, training and travel from the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, a program that helps post-collegiate runners pursue Olympic or elite goals. In Criscione's case, he's part of the newly formed Hansons-Brooks South Team, directed by former Webber College coach Rick Moody.
Criscione's goal is to make the Olympic marathon trials with a qualifying half marathon time of sub-1:05. Although sidetracked last fall by injuries, Criscione is planning to crack that barrier March 20 in New York. With a 10k personal best of 29:28, he's certainly got the speed to achieve his half-marathon goal. And if it doesn't come in New York, Criscione still has time to achieve it later.
But he knows that with college over, the clock continues to move forward, both on and off the race course.
"The post-collegiate stuff is still kind of new to me, and I just want to see how things go this year," said Criscione, who is a semester from earning a master's degree in construction management. "Unfortunately, I've had some injuries and I sometimes get bummed out about that. But for now, I'm going to keep trying to run and get better."