Last week I did a Reddit AMA (ask me anything) with /r/advancedrunning. It had a good turn out and I received some great questions from the community. I wanted to post a few of the exchanges here and link to the full “interview” below.
Q: The fuck is up with Hoka One One? Are they fake or are they real?
A: The realest. I was skeptical before ever trying them on. I made the jokes everyone makes. And then I put them on…game changer. I haven’t had an unplanned day off from running since getting my first pair of Cliftons. (knock on wood) If you’ve followed my running career at all, then you’ll know how big of a deal that is for me. I overpronate on just one side and so I was always confused about what shoes to wear. I played with orthotics, and stability shoes but to no avail. Got in Hokas and the meta rocker technology is very real.
Q: What do you do in your time off from running?
A: I worked in a shoe store last year in NJ called the Sneaker Factory, but now I am a full-time runner. All that really means is that I am doing the same thing, but can dedicate a little bit more time to Netflix/recovery. I read a lot of books, which is probably my favorite thing to do over a cup of coffee. We hang out at our town’s coffee shop for hours a day with books, computers, each other. I also enjoy writing and photography, which I show off a bit in my blog.
Q: Can you describe your training and workouts leading up to the 3:35 1500 when you were in college? It seems like that race was a huge breakthrough for you. Could you sense a big pr coming on in the weeks leading up to it?
A: I had been up and down for a lot of that winter, but once spring came around I was just consistently running 65-70 miles a week. Honestly. there was nothing crazy leading up to that which would really indicate such a big personal best, except that I was feeling amazing for everything in practice. I walked away everyday with a lot left in the tank, and then I was sleeping 9-10 hours a night like clockwork. There was just a rhythm to training that spring.
When I was younger, I used to think I was the type that didn’t need to race a lot and just come out from a block and crush it. Eventually I realized I was the opposite, and at the end of that spring I had raced myself into fantastic shape and had found a lot of speed. A couple weeks before I did a 7 mile tempo in the morning and 6 x 200 in the afternoon. I went all out on the last one vs an 800 guy and went 22.9. Last summer I saw the same thing; the more racing the better.
edit: 4x2x400 w/1/3 min rest 64-62-60-58 w/ mark and Behnke.
This was the workout I did a few days beforehand. In my log I noted how easy this felt and talked with a big game of confidence.
Q: You’re hosting the Long Island mile with support from your sponsor later this year. Do you have any expectations in terms of time/performance? Or is it more of a get your feet wet with putting on a larger race?
A: The Hoka One One Long Island Mile will not be for me. I really just want to help put on a show for the fans in my own backyard. I will make sure that’s a fast race, no matter what place I come in. I know that I want to stay in T&F after my running career, but I am not sure yet what that means and in what capacity. I think this will give me some insight into the next step and if I’d enjoy being a meet director/agent. Even though I am just 24, I didn’t want to wait any longer to start giving back to the sport either. Really can’t express enough how important that meet is to me and I just want to create something special.
Q: Any words of wisdom for me to pass on to the guys that run for me?
A: I am a big believer in the mental component of the sport, and having to buy into every aspect of the process. From understanding the training and why we do it, to visualizing yourself being successful. It’s kind of like the day before a meet, I like spiking up and getting out on the track and just feeling the track and being light on my feet. I can imagine what it’ll be like the next day gliding around the final bend into the homestretch, and what I will feel like at that crucial point in the race. You need to extrapolate that mindset into your entire career. You may have run 4:03 in the mile, but are you thinking like a 3:59 guy yet? Because a 3:59 guy comes through 800 in 1:59 and says ‘perfect.’ Or are you going to come through in 1:59 and say, ‘too fast.’ First you need to think that you can do it, and then you can do it.
Additionally, in a different thread I was asked for a race report from this past weekend at the Hoka One One Middle Distance Classic. Here was my response:
I like getting out a bit slow in the 1500. I came through in 44 high and felt good, but started slowly working my way up as some guys let a gap open up between them and the rabbits. I followed Leo around, and it felt like I was flying that second lap. Turns out I went 56.4 from 200 to 600. Once bridged, I felt settled again and back in control, but when the rabbits stepped off the front hit the breaks and all those guys who didn’t drop a 56 to catch up made up the ground easily and swooped up from behind. (what a waste)
At 1200 I saw we were like 256 and I felt fantastic and thought if we moved immediately I could still get under the standard, but no one moved for a while and I was hugging the rail and trapped. The turns on the Oxy track are incredibly wide and long, and so being in lane 2 for a turn adds a lot of distance [smarty pants, Chris Derrick, has pointed out to me that this isn’t true], so I was sort of planning on riding the rail for the majority of the race anyways, but it ended up getting way too congested. I would have assumed beforehand that it was going to be a 335 race, and that there’d be room, but with 200 to go, we still weren’t moving that fast and I was getting swept by on the outside. Luckily with 75 to go I found a few holes and shot back and forth a few times and passed 6 or 7 guys for 3rd.
Walking away, I am happy because I felt fantastic and beat some really good guys. At the same time, I was just upset that the race didn’t accomplish the main goal of hitting the standard. Even more so, I felt like I never even gave myself a chance to try and win. However, stepping back I think it shows incredible growth for two reasons:
1) I am upset that I didn’t win, which is quite the mental jump for me. A year ago I would have certainly been pumped to finish 3rd in that field, but I seemed to have turned a corner recently.
2) In the past I have had a hard time piecing together multiple good races in a row. In the back of my head I was a bit concerned about racing a big one immediately after the World Relays. The few days after WR I slept terribly, and was just completely drained. We were originally going to race at the Oxy Invite 800, but Gags pulled it because I just wasn’t in the position to race yet. But I bounced back really well, so I am proud of myself for that.
Last year in Ireland I ran 3 x Mile races in a week. I pr’d by 2 seconds the first one, then another 2 the second one, and then ran a 4:06 in the third. I walked away from that thinking about the OT and how I will have to race 3 times back to back to back and be dealing with a lot more emotion and excitement.
Check out the WOW we did with Flotrack:
‘You are patriots! Trying to serve your country in a way that a lot of people won’t understand until they finally see the U-S-A on your chest! Then…they will get it.’
It was one of the first days of practice in October, and we were huddled inside the shed at Rutgers University during a downpour at the track trying to get warm before our workout. This was the type of day when we needed a speech—something to get us excited and serve as a reminder as to why we are doing this. Nohilly has been known to provide some timely bone-chilling words on occasion. His voice vibrates with sincerity, and the motivation is seeping into us. My goal is simple: represent this country whenever I can, as best as I can. And that is earned on practices like today.
Since the indoor season I have been healthy and clicking off the usual 3.5 workouts a week and following it up with consistently long long-runs. I opened up at the Larry Ellis Invitational at Princeton two weeks ago with a personal best 800 of 1:47.2 and Gags was fired up about it. For where I was at in training, this was an exciting sign for the future. And when Coach Lananna called up the next day and asked what I thought of running a 1200, I spoke confidently about my abilities. But I think Gags had already convinced him.
Before I knew it, there was a suitcase filled with USA gear in my living room and I was celebrating like Christmas morning in April. And just a few days later I was flying to the Bahamas for a chance to compete on the biggest stage of my career. At this point, it is no secret that I am a pretty big track fan. My eyes light up in awe when Sanya Richards-Ross walks into the room. I have flashbacks to my 13-year old self, freaking out in front of the TV as Jeremy Wariner sprints home to gold in Athens. Now we are wearing the same uniform, except they are the ones getting stopped in the hotel to take pictures with fans.
We arrive on Wednesday for the Sunday race. In my head, this meant I had two and a half days to sit on the beach, and get a nice TV tan. Instead, it was nothing but rain and clouds, so we were forced to play the waiting game from underneath the hotel’s bed sheets. Ben, my roommate and our 1600 leg more or less slept for 3 days straight. It was fascinating seeing another athlete’s routine and peeking into his mindset approaching the race. The days leading in, Ben just talked about how he hoped he would at least break 4. So I had to remind him that he had just run 3:35 for 1500m indoors, and how we’d probably need something closer to that if we were going to win. The day before on the track we did a 200 because Ben wanted to find the pace. When we crossed the line in 30.5 and he said, ‘Perfect!’ I started to get a bit nervous. What do you mean perfect? That’s 4:04 pace!
A lot of the athletes who weren’t competing until Sunday opted to stay back and have a quiet night at the hotel. But on Saturday night, I went over to cheer on the squad and to get acquainted with the stadium’s atmosphere. By watching the action live it gives me the opportunity to visualize myself on the track better, and to get comfortable. So when the doors open and we first run out on the track, the crowd’s deafening roars aren’t a shock to the system. I sat in the stands alone, watching quietly. But when the men’s 4 x 800 won in dominating fashion, my heart was jumping. If I needed any extra inspiration, those guys provided plenty of it!
By Sunday we had been there so long that the anticipation had reached all-time highs, and we were ready to race. We finally knew who our 400 would be and I was excited to have Brycen with us because he had just split 45.xx the night before. The 400 leg is easily the most underappreciated leg in the DMR. If run well, all the other 800 legs have to go out chasing. All it takes is an 800 runner going out 1 second too fast to blow up and change the dynamic of the race.
Vin wanted to meet with me to talk strategy, and I could tell he was a bit nervous. Putting the DMR together required a few more coaching decisions than the 4 x 800. He told me to just keep it close. Run conservatively and just make sure I finished hard the last 50 so Brycen could get moving and do work. Nothing fancy, just stay patient and be there. I could do that.
They were moving us into the call room early, so we warmed up almost 90 minutes prior to the race. That’s a bit more than I was used to, but the one thing I have learned in racing internationally the last couple years is that you have to be willing to adjust your routine. The more open to change the better.
We came out of the tunnel shadowboxing, and I felt good. This was exciting. My head was right where I wanted it. I was wearing my country’s colors and I had confidence in my teammates to get the job done after I got it started. This was the fun part. We train to race.
The race went out, and I couldn’t get over how nice the track was. It just felt fast. Every step generated so much power, and I felt smooth. When I saw us come through 200 in 29, I was shocked. With Kenya in the race, I expected the normally tactical 1200 leg to be more of a time trial. When we came through 600 in 1:30 I was sitting just off the lead on the outside of lane one, and I thought: if we want the record, I’d have to go now. I was fully aware of how fast we needed to run to get the American and World Records. I told Ben the days before that if he sees it’s going to be close that he better dive across the line. And just as I was considering taking the lead, something I don’t ever do, I remembered Vin’s instructions, so I just waited. After 800 in 2:00 the pace dropped a little bit, but nothing drastic. It wasn’t until 200 to go that Gregson of Australia, made a huge move and shot out of a cannon and opened things up. I reacted a split second too late, and got caught in 3rd, but closed well the last 100 to give it just a few steps back for a 2:53 in 2nd.
Brycen took off, and did what he does best—sprint. And after a phenomenal hand off with Brandon we had the lead. Brandon is a former 400 hurdler, and he’s got some wheels. He went out hard, but after 100 meters, Rotich of Kenya absolutely blew by him at a suicidal pace. But Brandon kept his composure like a professional, and despite Rotich’s 47-second first 400, he hung in there and ran smart. He closed hard for a 1:44 split and Ben would get the lead even with Kenya.
In perhaps the most clever and race savvy move I have ever seen, he jumped into lane 2 and hand motioned for Cheruiyot to take the lead. At which point he exploded forward in what would be a 51-second lap. Ben stayed poised, and hung back. He’d have to do this the hard way. I took a quick glance at the clock, and even with the quick first lap, I deemed the record-chase over. But less than 2 minutes later, that all changed. Ben was closing the gap, and doing it quickly. With just over 200 meters to go, he made a strong bid to the lead. After the race we joked that everyone watching was thinking that same thing; he went too early. With 100 to go, Kenya was on his tail and coming back. But in heroic fashion, Ben put his head down and stormed forward and pulled away. He ran through as the fireworks launched at the finish and crossed the line in 9:15.50—The World Record!
I didn’t know what to do. I jumped. I yelled. I cried. I hugged. We did it. I have never had an influx of emotion in such a dramatic fashion. We huddled together. An unlikely team of four guys, strangers a week before, embraced and tried to make sense of what we had just accomplished. We were draped in flags and sent on a victory lap. If only the track had been a bit longer around so I could have held onto that feeling for another couple minutes.
We climbed onto the podium, and had gold medals placed around our necks as we turned to the right and watched our flag slowly rise as the National Anthem played in the background. I put my head back, with tear-filled eyes and a smile from cheek to cheek. The ups and downs. The workouts in the rain. The time in the weight room. Miles on empty trails. It was all worth it. And while up there, I paused for a moment to remind myself to never forget this feeling–This is why we do it.
(Photo 1&3-Getty Sport, Photo 2-Kirby Lee of Image of Sport via Letsrun)
Premier Track and Field is returning to Long Island! Thanks to the partnership of Sayville and Smithtown Running Company with HOKA ONE ONE, we are proud to announce the birth of a new event: the HOKA ONE ONE Long Island Mile.
On the evening of Wednesday, September 9th 2015, the world of professional running will head to St Anthony’s High School in Huntington, NY for an event that combines both the community and elite athlete’s love for running and racing.
The meet is the brainchild of Kyle Merber, the professional miler for HOKA ONE ONE and Long Island native, as well as Brendan Barrett, co-founder of the Sayville and Smithtown Running Company. The co-meet directors have big hopes for the event, which they hope will help connect the local high school runners with some of the top 4-lappers in the world.
“Long Island high schools are filled with top-talent, amazing coaches, and competitive meets week in and week out. There are great college teams here, and the island is home to well over a dozen major running clubs. And we want to continue to help build the sport here from a grassroots level in a way that would benefit everyone. There is unbelievable participation on the roads each weekend, and now we want to bring it to the track” said the enthusiastic Merber.
The last major mile race on Long Island was during the 1998 Goodwill Games at Mitchell Field in Uniondale, NY. That race saw Noureddine Morceli of Algeria clock a 3:53.39 for the full mile, and no race since has been run in under the magical 4-minute barrier.
Brendan Barrett is a native of Sayville, where he was a member of their state championship cross-country team in 2000 before heading on to run at Notre Dame collegiately. He hosts the “Sayville Summer Series,” which is now entering its 8th year that now sees over 4000 runners participate in the five races.
Brendan shared his vision, “This is an opportunity for the local die-hard track fans to not only watch a world-class field compete in their own backyard, but to race on the same track. It’s going to be a fun, festival-like atmosphere aimed to celebrate Long Island running, and the sport at large.”
The meet will only be 2-3 hours long, but with races for runners of all ages and abilities, from a Kids 400m run to a Masters Mile. Whether the goal is to break 10-minutes or 4, there will be heats to make it possible. The meet will then culminate with local-elites, and finally then men and women’s professional mile. Admission for spectators is only $5, and an early purchase comes with a $5 gift card to Sayville and Smithtown Running Company. The event will also be streamed live on RunnerSpace.com for free so fans from across the country can follow the action.
Merber has promised a full field of some of the country’s best runners, with the goal of chasing Morceli’s Long Island record. His personal best currently stands at 3:54.76, but he hopes there will be a string of guys fighting for it on the final homestretch with packed stands cheering.
“We have spent countless hours talking about what we can do to help the sport grow. And rather than just talking, we decided it was time to do something about it. Thanks to HOKA ONE ONE—It’s time to help!”
“HOKA ONE ONE is excited to support the Long Island Mile and Kyle Merber. We truly believe this offers additional opportunity to elite runners and for the community to come together to support the sport of running. We know Kyle will do a phenomenal job on this first-year event and hope it grows into a long-standing tradition,” said Jim Van Dine, President of HOKA ONE ONE.
For Registration/Sponsorship: Brendan@sayvillerunning.com
For Elite Athletes: Kyle.M.Merber@gmail.com
Sayville Running Company: 631-589-5700
Buy now and get a $5 Gift Card to Sayville Running Company
About the HOKA ONE ONE® brand
HOKA ONE ONE® is the fastest growing, premium running shoe brand in the world. Two life-long runners launched HOKA in 2009, after years spent handcrafting and shaping lightweight shoes with extra-thick midsoles. Initially embraced by ultrarunners because of their enhanced cushioning and inherent stability, HOKA now offers shoes for all types of athletes who enjoy the unique ride the shoes provide. For more information visit www.hokaoneone.com or follow @hokaoneone #hokaoneone.
About Deckers Brands
Deckers Brands is a global leader in designing, marketing and distributing innovative footwear, apparel and accessories developed for both everyday casual lifestyle use and high performance activities. The Company’s portfolio of brands includes UGG®, Teva®, Sanuk®, Ahnu®, and HOKA ONE ONE®. Deckers Brands products are sold in more than 50 countries and territories through select department and specialty stores, 138 Company-owned and operated retail stores, and select online stores, including Company-owned websites. Deckers Brands has a 40-year history of building niche footwear brands into lifestyle market leaders attracting millions of loyal consumers globally. For more information, please visit www.deckers.com.
I am on the plane, and the stewardess has to take a seat because the turbulence is getting rough. This is when I start thinking about death, and I know the majority of the people sitting beside me are as well. It’s a strange phenomenon. I have done the research on the safety features of commercial airlines—to ease my fears. But it doesn’t matter that I know that a flight has never gone down due to some bumps, I still think about how much it would suck to be the first. There is still so much left for me to do. I can’t die with this mile time. As we creep out of the bumps, I turn my music up, adjust myself in the seat and put on a tough face. I tell myself I wasn’t scared, but the wet spots under my arms tell a different story.
The flight is heading into Phoenix, direct from JFK. We were delayed two hours, and I had sent on constant updates to my ride. No one likes having to rely on someone else when it comes to travel, but that’s part of maintaining friendships. I’ll get them back. Waiting for me is Donn, Trevor and Tommy D.
Turns out they had to go back to the airport anyways. Donn had lost a bag two days prior when he flew in. This was not a case of the airline-misplacing luggage. Donn brought all his necessities on board with him, and put that carry on down while grabbing his other suitcase from the carousel. So now he has to go retrieve it, and I guess I do as well.
As soon as I get off the plane, my stomach is rumbling. I suppose a cup of coffee and a small bag of salted peanuts wasn’t enough to hold me off on the flight. I am much too frugal to overpay for a crappy sandwich on the flight, but I justify it out of principle. Even though the guys have been waiting for 15 minutes beyond what they were hoping, I still stop to grab a snack. The half-sandwich and soup combo is a staple of my diet, and today is no different. I didn’t ask for the extra cookie, it was part of my New Year’s resolution to eat healthy, but the cute cashier accidentally gave me one. I will choose to take it as a sign that I need this cookie.
My phone rings and I see that it is Trevor, and he is looking for me. I haven’t seen him since before Christmas, and I am excited to be back with my teammates. He and Donn were two of my biggest college rivals while they were at Princeton, but we have since become friends and training partners. Trevor and I lived together two years ago while both at Texas for graduate school. Now he only lives 30 minutes away, a bit across the border into Pennsylvania.
As I pile into the car I am excited to see the smiling Tommy D sitting at the helm. Since graduating from Princeton he has moved to Phoenix, and in addition to working for the Suns, has continued to run. Tommy was a good runner in college, posting a best of 29:41 for 10k, but has since really thrived since graduating. Since then he has crushed 100+ mile weeks, won the Denver Marathon and qualified for the Olympic Trials with a 64-minute half. We spent time together in Japan a year ago for the Ekiden Relays, and that’s when I got to know him beyond being just another Princeton jersey.
I am clueless of the plan. I left my trust for the entire trip’s itinerary in Donn’s hopefully capable hands. So I ask for a debriefing. We are heading back to Tommy’s apartment for the night, and we’ll make the trip to Flagstaff tomorrow after our long run. Donn unfortunately wasn’t able to locate his bag at the airport, and will have to wait another couple days to get it back. Despite this hiccup, morale remains high.
Tommy’s phone buzzes and he checks a text, and regretfully announces that he has some bad news for Donn. Turns out that the dog tore up one of his running shoes back at the apartment. I look as his face drops. It’s not his day.
The apartment is in Old Scottsdale, a fancy suburb of Phoenix, and the complex fits well into that description. The two-bedroom apartment is beautifully furnished, and an ideal bachelor pad. I throw my bags down, fish out some shoes and shorts [for Donn as well], and prepare to head out for a shakeout run. Donn already ran once this morning, but my flight left too early to get it in before leaving.
We take off out of the apartment, cross two streets and hit a dream-like canal path that runs straight into the mountains. It’s 50 degrees out; we are both in just shorts and a T-shirt. My legs still have some shit in them from the flight, but this is the best way to flush it all out. Being in the air for 5 hours does weird things to your body. I twisted my ankle a few weeks ago, and it hasn’t been an issue, but since landing it has inflated all over again.
Donn and I live together now in New Jersey, along with five more. But we are two of the higher mileage guys on the team, and so it feels like we are always running together. Our strides have a way of falling into rhythm with each other now. After a thousand miles in sync, it’s natural. The sun has set behind the mountains, but the sky is still illuminated pink in the horizon. It’s just enough light that we don’t have to worry about footing.
Both of us have just returned from vacations in the Caribbean with our respective families. It’s relieving to hear that my struggles of training while there were not exclusive to me. Donn was also terrified of the strays, and perhaps worse, the guard dogs. The heat and humidity was unbearable, and the roads would hardly be considered runnable between the traffic, hills and potholes. But perhaps worst of all is the temptation of the beach vacation lifestyle. It’d have been much easier to sleep in and head down to the beach for breakfast and a pina colada.
We are constantly reading each other’s online running logs whether together or away. Partially to check in on how the other person is doing out of interest or to hear about a workout from someone else’s perspective. But my log has become a sort of diary to me since I first started it in high school. Now it’s a ritual. It accounts not just for the runs, but the emotions of the journey.
Donn brings up a specific entry of mine from a few days prior, my final log from vacation. He struggles to piece together his thoughts on my own reflections, but I can take away his main point; he likes them. I had written about how difficult it was to make the sacrifices of training while in paradise, but how I had willfully held myself responsible for the work. In the end I was proud of myself, and so was Donn.
‘I just always had this idea in my head that if someone wants to accomplish something great, that they need to go above and beyond to get there. Like they have to put forth a superhuman effort, or do something special that makes them earn it before they actually go out and earn it in a race. And I know you work hard, and I see how good you are. But something about seeing you grind out last week makes me root for you so much harder, because you deserve the success of making an Olympic team.’
Donn often communicates his ideas rather bluntly, but I am used to it by now. I don’t take what he says to mean that I did not previously deserve it, but that I have proven [to Donn] that I definitely do. Coming from an Olympian, this is a high compliment.
Luckily we finish up the 50-minute run just before the pace starts getting too fast to be considered a shakeout run. Talking about goals is the quickest was to inject a surge of pace into an easy day. Trevor is already in the weight room back at the apartment and we stop by the room to grab Tommy D and let him know we are back.
Since we have a long run tomorrow, I am not going to do a big lift, but want to just get a little something in while we have access to such a nice facility. I get just enough blood pumping that I feel like I accomplished something. My attention span is also low, since Tommy and Trevor have moved their way into the basketball court, and look like they’re having more fun than us. I make a compromise with myself; 5 minutes of core, and then I can shoot some hoops.
I’m terrible. I want to see how many free throws I can make in ten. The first one barley makes it to the front of the rim, but I chalk it up to the fact that I had just been in the gym. Eight shots later, and I still haven’t hit a single one. So I quit.
Before heading up to the room, Trevor and I jump into the pool to fully marvel at Tommy’s living situation. I think about what my life would be like if I lived here with a buddy of my own, and worked a traditional 9 to 5. At first, it’d probably be pretty great. I’d come home from work and do exactly what we did this evening: run, lift, play basketball, and swim. But then I feel like I’d need a goal to chase; just something to make each day a little bit more exciting. And that’s probably why Tommy is running another marathon in a couple weeks.
While waiting for Trevor to finish his shower, I jump into the locker room’s sauna. The steam is too dense to see my hand in front of my face. As I take a seat to enjoy the heat, my mind flashes back to the run and Donn’s words. I made a few sacrifices in the Caribbean, but one week of running while on vacation isn’t exactly superhuman, or some grandiose effort. But maybe it’s just the mindset. And I guess that’s why we are headed to Flagstaff for the month—to try and deserve it.
Every 24 year old is in a perpetual state of considering getting a dog. Regardless of his chewing up Donn’s shoe, I had fallen in love with the pup the previous night. But at 7am I am awoken by a thunderous stampede of a dog running through the apartment. Before I can put up my defenses, my face is being licked and I experience a peek into potential future mornings–ones with responsibility. There will be no dogs for me anytime soon.
Trevor is fast asleep on the couch beside me. Somehow he has managed to ignore the commotion. My nose is still stuffed up, and there is a pile of ripped tissues hiding beneath my pillow. I try to sniffle and blow the gook out without waking the whole apartment. Today’s long run should be fun.
Before putting my contacts in, I’m wandering with limited visibility. I stumble on an espresso machine that appears nice enough to merit it’s own coffee shop. Maybe I should get a real job so I could afford something similar. There’s a fruit bowl over pouring with bananas. Who would possibly notice one missing? I take a seat at the counter and crack open my book, ‘The Idiot’ and wait.
After an hour of reading and two Americanos later, Donn and Tommy D are awake and starting their own morning routine. Everyone has his or her own habits before the day’s effort. I am only going 16 or so today rather than my normal 18. Every third or fourth week, I take a down week to recover, and with two flights and a lot of excitement, this was an appropriate time. But Tommy is tuning up for his race, and was planning on 10 easy, followed by another 10-12 miles at 540 pace. Donn is going to join him for the whole thing, and Trevor and I have been coerced to link up for our portion.
We head out the door and Tommy is carrying a string bag that he’s going to drop out on the course. It has water, gels, and a pair of racing flats. Trevor is renown for his ability to roll out of bed and run an honest pace. It’s impressive, but could be annoying. It used to be a lot worse, though after countless snide comments through the years, he has dialed it back and it’s no longer a major issue. But he still takes to the front and we are tucked in behind. It’s kind of nice to have a built in rabbit to the group.
The path is a bit monotonous, besides a golf course that we cut through a few miles out on the trail. A few older gentlemen wish us a good morning, and jokingly encourage us to join them for their round. They’re laughing because one of them suggests that we picked the wrong sport. At this point in the run, I chuckle at the joke. However, in 8 more miles I may be more willing to agree with their point.
The discussion turns to Ken Cormier, the 2004 Footlocker National Champion who is originally from Arizona. A couple weeks ago a popular running news site wrote a ‘Where is he now?’ type article, about the guy who once dominated prep cross-country. After running for a couple years at the University of Arkansas, Ken had decided to retire and join the Marines as a sniper, eventually being deployed to Afghanistan. He was known for running an unreal amount of mileage for a high school kid, upwards of 120 miles per week, but had decided to move on to the next stage of life.
I start to share with the guys that Ken had been my camp counselor for a couple years when I was younger. A lot of our runs had been with just the two of us, and as a young dreamer, he was a wealth of motivation. When you’re first starting out, anything is possible. Any given season could be the breakout, and if you work hard enough, your body can learn to do things you’d never expect. Hearing his story imprinted me with that belief. I still believe it to be [mostly] true.
We stroll through 10 miles in about 68 minutes, not too fast, but honest enough. We stop so that Tommy can change out his shoes for a lighter pair, and for a quick bathroom break. Donn and I both take a single knee to the ground for a stealthy piss. After a sip of water, we set back on the path and roll into a swift pace.
The first 3 miles are a hair above 540 pace, and minus a heavy dose of mucus, I feel fine. But as soon as we turn, a gust of wind hits us in the face, and I realize that we had been running with the breeze. No wonder it was so easy. Trevor and I share the lead, and keep it honest, allowing Tommy and Donn to sit in our draft since they’re running significantly more. I keep checking my watch, counting down the seconds until we are finished. I am not struggling, but I have felt better and am straddling the line of the comfort zone.
We finish up just below the 540 threshold we had aimed for, and Trevor and I jog it in for 17 on the day. My right upper thigh is torn up and raw. I have been chaffing the last week, but I don’t realize how bad it is until we are about finished. There’s only a little blood.
Trevor and I quickly shower, get changed into street clothes and chug some liquids. We grab a couple energy bars as we head out the door, and plan to meet the guys at the finish for a little encouragement and camaraderie. Just as we are walking up, we see them finish and throw some high-fives their way. They’re fired up. The final tally was 22 miles, with the last 12 at 530 pace. The closing mile was 508. Tommy had clearly been downplaying his fitness all of yesterday.
Since arriving, Tommy has been raving about his favorite lunch spot. We get our bags together so we can get the rental car and head up to the mountains after eating. As soon as we sit down I get a text from my girlfriend, Patricia, who is back east. For Christmas I had given her a voucher for a flight to come visit me in Flagstaff. Partially because I selfishly don’t want to go a full month without seeing her, but even more so, I want her to see the Grand Canyon.
It’s not going to work though. She can’t get off work, and I understand, but I am disappointed and try to convince her otherwise. It’s a no go. And I think she can sense I am upset. So we start planning a different trip for us to take after the indoor season. I realize I have been zoned out this entire meal, and apologize to the guys. They hadn’t noticed.
We wish Tommy goodbye, and thank him for the hospitality. We get the car after long arguments with the attendant and many meticulous readings of all contracts. Donn’s mother is a lawyer, and it’s obvious right now. He opts out of the insurance, and solidifies himself as the only driver of this car. Coming from a family of insurance salesmen, I disagree with the move. It’s getting late, and we will only see the final flashes of sunset before the mountains block us out.
The majority of radio stations won’t transmit, and there’s a peaceful comfort in the silence. We’ve left the chaos of the northeast for this reason. Donn finds a classical station that is humming Vivaldi. I wonder what he’d think of today’s Lady Gaga. Just noise, or could he see the appeal? Jumping three hundred years in the progression of music might be confusing.
I have been to Flagstaff once before on a road trip with a few friends. Following the end to a terrible season, I needed time to think. So we got in the car and drove the whole country. We had stopped in town for brunch.
As we pull into the driveway and there’s an anxious energy to run inside and see where we’ll be living. The door is pushed open and we are screaming with excitement. There is running from room to room, turning all the lights on and yelling about the size of the showerheads. It’s just a normal house. But it’s our house. We open the back shades and there’s a high school track in our yard. It’s like Donn planned this.
There are three queen mattresses, one bedroom with a set of bunk beds, and a second living area in the basement with a futon. Donn rightfully gets his first choice and takes a room to himself in the basement. The bathroom across the hall has a locker room style shower, and enough space to sit and stretch when he’ll be too exhausted to stand post-run. Trevor and I take one for the team, and I get the bottom. The guys getting in tomorrow hopefully appreciate this gesture.
Our stomachs are once again growling. This happens after long runs. We set off to meet up with Alejandro, who is now in grad school at NAU. He’s a former teammate of Donn and Trevor from Princeton. I used to hate all these guys because they wore a different uniform. Now they’re friends. We are headed to a Mexican place that’s been on TV a few times. That endorsement is plenty.
I first really met Alejandro at a race in Mexico in 2012. I was representing the US at 1500, and he was running the 10k for Mexico. The stadium was just minutes from where he grow up. As we flip through the menu asking questions about what each dish is, he answers us like a tour guide. He uses his hands a lot when he talks, and his eye contact is thorough. It’s refreshingly polite. Spanish is his first language, and his accent is seeping through. He’s fun to listen to.
Almost immediately Alejandro let’s us know that he has some news; he’s leaving school. He’s burnt out on it. My mind flashes to this morning’s conversation of Ken Cormier. He’s been away from home for seven years, and the classes are leaving him a bit empty and wanting a break.
‘I am a perfectionist. I don’t like to do something unless I am fully in it, and school isn’t motivating me right now. I worked so hard for years, and I need a break. I thought I could go right into it, but I need to relax. I need me time. I am going to give myself six months.’
This is a sobering conversation to have. We had actually already known this. Tommy had informed us earlier, but we didn’t let Alejandro know we were expecting the news. We ask him a few questions, and provide some supportive comments. He doesn’t seem stressed about it though. The weight has been lifted because the decision has been made. He can breathe now.
Alejandro moves on and starts telling us everything we need to know about Flagstaff. He hasn’t been here long, but it’s still longer than us. The list goes on, but the truth is, we’ll probably be relatively boring the next month. We came for the trails.
I ordered the waitress’ favorite plate. Always trust the expert. It is overflowing with food, and just hot enough to break a light sweat. With each bite I apologize with moderate embarrassment to Alejandro for my lack of spice tolerance. It’s humiliating to be patting my forehead with a napkin.
On the ride home, Trevor and Donn are talking about his decision to leave school. They remain sympathetic and reassuring even after we have said goodbye. He hasn’t told his friends, coaches, roommates or anyone else in Flagstaff yet. But at least it’s been decided.
Last night did not go well. I have never slept in a bottom bunk before, but I felt like I was in a pod on a spaceship. The low ceiling made everything claustrophobic. The house sits just above 6900 ft. and the altitude makes sleeping problematic while first acclimating. Bladders become overactive, breathing is more difficult, throats get dry and all dreams are unsettlingly lucid. By morning, I had been in three different beds trying to get comfortable, and had only a few hours asleep.
Trevor is just walking into the house as I roll out of bed at 8am. He has a few bags of groceries in hand. I put on some oversized wool socks I got for Christmas, and grab my book before sitting on the couch. This is how I know I have grown up. Socks, sweaters, books, a French press and a nice blanket now constitute a great holiday gift-haul.
His night apparently went the same way as mine. There is no sign of Donn. Last night he had been complaining about his throat and he sounded nervous about getting sick. He threw out the crazy idea of possibly taking the day off. The Donn I know doesn’t take days off, so I can only imagine how much his throat must be bothering him.
I can hear the skillet getting going in the kitchen, and the smell is overwhelming. Trevor is frying up some eggs, and graciously offers me some. Memories of our time in Austin came back to me. He’s a great person to live with for reasons like this. We take a seat at the counter and enjoy a small breakfast. Rather than a cup of coffee, I opt to drink some Emergen-C and take my iron pills. We are here specifically to boost our red blood cells. And the caffeine would block the iron absorption, but unfortunately I am still tired.
Donn finally stumbles into the kitchen a bit before 10. His first question, when are we running? I guess he’s not taking the day off. The weather forecast is pulled up on a phone, but proper dress is still ambiguous. Opening the door and stepping outside paints a better picture. Shocking. The trend in Flagstaff is frigid mornings, and warm afternoons; even in the winter.
I am chatting with a buddy of mine back home, Matt. He used to live and train in Flagstaff, but now manages the running store I used to work at in New Jersey. We came here blind. It snowed a few days ago, so he is giving us advice about the local trails and what’d be clear. On his suggestion, Old Walnut Canyon Road is the decision.
It’s about a 10-minute drive from the house. We are just outside town, but it feels like the wilderness here. The road is packed down dirt so hard that it feels like it has been poorly paved. My body is begging for something other than iced over roads. The cadence starts out conservative. This is our first of many runs at altitude, and the general vibe is to take it easy. The elevation in itself will be the workout.
Donn wants to go 7. Trevor and I want to go 10. We are trotting along and the excitement is building–For this run. For this month. For this season. We made the right call coming here. It’s immediately obvious. There are mountain ranges behind us, and the road is endless. The terrain is soothingly undulating, and the weather is ideal. We are all overdressed; the snow on the ground fooled us.
This is what professional runners do. They have training camps at altitude, and we are all feeling a bit more professional about our approach this year. In addition to our own club, there are Oregon Track Club runners, guys from Warhurst’s crew, and other scattered elites here for the month. And of course there are the residents from Team Run Flagstaff, Northern Arizona Elite, and beyond. Now we are apart of it. Stepping on the line this year, we will have had the same opportunities.
Before we realize, we are over 30 minutes in. Donn missed his turn around–probably on purpose. Every step is another step exploring. Trevor makes the decision and we flip. We’ll add on a mile after we drop him off.
Trevor had a tough last year. He had moved home, started coaching basketball at his old HS, and was much happier than I had ever seen him while we are at Texas. Normally happiness corresponds with fast times. But things never clicked, and it was like he was behind from day one on runs and workouts. So he called his season early after some bad races, and gave himself a huge build up to prepare for 2015. A lot of people give themselves one year after college and kind of see how things are going before determining if it’s worth continuing. And that’s why Trevor’s mindset is admirable. That was never his idea. He is in this for the long haul. One rough season wasn’t enough to deter him. And he was disappointed, but he wasn’t dissuaded. Instead he upped his mileage, changed his lifting program, bought an altitude tent, and committed to even more sleep and recovery. He did exactly what every coach would have wanted him to do. Which is the opposite of what would have been easier.
Trevor is fit. He starts off the conversation claiming that he is in the best shape of his life. I don’t disagree, but this is a common thing for people to say that always kind of irks me. The only time that you should really be saying ‘I’m in the best shape of my life’ is right after you set a personal best. We have races to prove fitness. There is a difference between being strong from running a lot of mileage, and being ready to pop a swift 1500. But he does have a point, because he is by far the strongest he’s ever been.
Now he begins to go off about how he is lacking pop. That was my point! He says he is lacking speed, and his plan to get some back is to do a better job stretching and recovering, and hoping that it brings some life back into his legs for the fast days. I contend this. If you want pop, you need to back off mileage. You can’t have pop while running all-time mileage highs, but once you back off, the spring will return. He laughs at this idea, and shoots it down instantly. There is no way he’s backing off mileage, so he has to find another way. Perhaps some plyos, or a shake up to his lifting routine. Again, I argue. If you want pop, you need to spend less time on your feet–you can’t have both. Donn is shaking his head as we ramble on this tangent for the tenth minute. He doesn’t have an opinion, aside from wanting to change the subject.
A couple miles out we turn the corner and see three runners coming our way. It’s obvious they’re good. All of their form is smooth, and they’re in half-tights. Two giveaways. We pass by and exchange pleasantries. It’s some of the Oregon Track Club guys, Ciaran, Ben, and Tom.
We get back to the cars and Donn is done, and Trevor and I set off for one more mile. We only have to go a few minutes out, virtually nothing and it feels like we are stealing mileage. After finishing up, we do some dynamic stretches and drills. These are the little things that we promised ourselves we’d do. Just as we are setting off to go, the OTC guys come back over the hill. We shake hands, say hey, and get talking about Flagstaff. They have some more experience here than us.
The longer you’ve been in the sport, the more you see the same faces. Ciaran and I spent some time together in Ireland this past summer, his home. He just got back from a weekend at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and I ask him how it was. Tom and Ben start laughing, and I realize that it looks like I just took a friendly jab at him since his team, Florida State, lost. This I forgot. Ben is from Minnesota, and Tom is from the UK. Each individual accent is exaggerated by the next. We get a recommendation of where to go for brunch, and part ways.
We meet Alejandro at Macy’s, which looks familiar. This is the one spot in Flagstaff I recognize. It’s a trendy vegetarian café, with a modern woods-vibe. Once the coffee has cooled to be drinkable, I chug it all. He fills us in on the conversation with his coach and says he feels good about it. It was handled professionally, and honestly. He has nothing but positive things to say about his experience running for Northern Arizona. It just wasn’t the right time in his life to be there.
As Donn is pulling the car out, a white truck comes up from behind and starts aggressively honking at us. He panics a bit, as the lack of insurance is a constant stressor to his mind. But a friendly wave out the window shows a familiar face. Will and Aisha are pulling up from behind to take our spot. I hop out of the car to say hello. Will is a bit of a nomad. His coach, Ron, is based in Michigan, but he is always jumping around. Aisha, his girlfriend, lives in Eugene and runs for OTC, so he is understandably there often. He spent a week with us in New Jersey during September before the 5th Avenue Mile.
Will gives us a big welcoming embrace. He’s a major advocate for this place. His hair is being worn long, and in a ponytail. His signature beard is full. At some point in the year, it will most likely become a mustache. I invite them over for dinner tonight, and throw out in an invitation to run sometime later in the week. They’re just getting settled into their house that they’ll call home for the next month and a half.
We hop back into the car, but see two more familiar faces walk past the car as we do. It’s Maverick and Hassan. Maverick looked at our group this past fall, and almost joined, but instead went to Michigan to be coached by Ron. There are no hard feelings for not coming. Everyone is always looking for the perfect situation. Each of the country’s groups has their strengths and weaknesses, and they line up differently depending on the person. Hassan is in the OTC crew, and he’s difficult to see from the low car. He’s 6’2 but as lanky as they come. Perhaps that’s why he ran so fast last year.
Getting into town and seeing so many people is no real shock. Everyone is here. And even if you don’t personally know everyone, you at least know of them. You know how fast they ran last year, where they live, what college they attended, and who they’re dating. There is amity in it. Each of us has dedicated our lives to the same pursuit. How fast can I get? And that creates solidarity. Though at the same time, we are all in each other’s way. We wish everyone the best, but only as far as not interfering in our own hunt of the dream. Only one runner can win a race. And every four years, only three runners can make an Olympic team [per event]. We aspire to see a friend succeed, but only if their best is a bit worse than our own.
Back at the house, we stretch for a matter of minutes before we each collapse on the couches. The poor night of sleep and altitude has begun to catch up on us. The rest of the guys are coming in from New Jersey later this evening. The peace and quiet will be short-lived.
When we wake up a couple hours later, we almost immediately start tying our shoes for the second run. Donn is coming along–so much for being sick. It’s dark now with a purple sky fading in the distance. The trail by our house is still under a coating of ice. The run is only a half hour, and the pace is dawdling. As it frequently happens, the conversation turns to training. More time is spent talking about what we are doing, than actually doing it.
Alejandro is back at our house, and we walk into peppers on the stove, and tomatoes being diced. He promised us a home cooked meal of enchiladas. I suppose we should help. The next hour is filled with chopping, guacamole, horchata, music, Spanish, and stories of home. We are being treated to authenticity, and our third night of Mexican. As the final preparations are being made, I get a video call from Patricia back home. She gets a full tour of the house, and a recount of the day as I am getting yelled at because dinner is starting.
The food is delicious. I am still sweating as we fall into a food-coma in front of the 50-inch television that hasn’t been turned on yet. This is satisfaction.
When Ford finally arrives, he arrives. The door slams open and he is yelling about Mt Humphreys, which is high enough to cast a shadow over our house. He loves the outdoors and hiking, but New Jersey isn’t exactly a hot bed for it. Jack follows in with a wallow. I could spot Jack from a mile away by his walk. He’s beaming. Last spring, when he ran for Furman Elite, he had spent a month here in Flagstaff and fell in love with the place. Travis is bawling in laughter. Ford can have that effect on people.
They are each giddy checking it out, just as we were yesterday. They pick rooms, compliment and thank Donn for the legwork. It felt like we were just getting settled into a routine before they arrived. It only took 24 hours to get established. It was peaceful, and our dynamic was set. But now there are six of us, and training camp starts.
I slept a little bit better last night. Things will improve as the days pass. Still in bed, I check my phone and go over an email I had received yesterday from Coach Gagliano, or Gags, as he is more commonly referred to. He sent us the workout we would have been doing today, if we in New Jersey: 10 x 1k w/ 2 minutes rest. The times that accompany the workout are for sea level. With the thinner air at altitude, breathing is harder, and times need to be slowed down to exert the same effort.
Even though Gags is a hall of fame coach, having guided countless Olympians and sub-4 milers, he has rarely had athletes train at altitude. He may be 77 years old, but he is open to experimenting with the new stimulus. He trusts us to make adjustments to the pace. Trevor, Donn and I will drive down to Sedona, at 4500 ft. to do the session. It’s still altitude, but it makes the workload more doable.
The morning starts with a drive to see Doctor Chapman. He is the Associate Director of Sports Science and Medicine for USA Track and Field. Having just gotten to altitude he is going to draw some blood and perform a carbon monoxide rebreathing test to measure our hemoglobin mass. I am not really sure what this means, but we’ll do it again before heading back to sea level. Essentially, this will tell us how well our bodies respond to altitude. Some people get a huge boost from being here, whereas others do not. It’s a bell curve. For no reason whatsoever, I feel good about my chances of seeing huge benefits. It would be sort of bittersweet. There’d be this new element of training that I have never tapped into. But then I would probably start sleeping in an altitude tent, have to make more trips to the mountains each year.
Sitting in the waiting room, we all have books out. I’m proud of Ford, who three months ago scoffed at me for reading all the time. He accidentally stumbled on Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ one day at a coffee shop, and he’s currently hooked on Steinbeck. I am reading ‘Norwegian Wood’ by Murakami, and completely enthralled. Every few pages I utter, ‘This is so good!’ No one seems to care.
We get called in to get our weights measured. This, like everything, is a competition to see who will [relatively] be the lightest. Donn loses. He steps on the scale and is 159, about 9 lbs. over his race weight. Instantly, the teasing starts. After a few jokes, it is pointed out that he was wearing a sweatshirt, jeans, and full-tights. His bag still has not come, so the tights are his replacement underwear.
When my turn comes, I sit in the chair and get the rundown of the procedure. Take blood. Hyperventilate. Breathe out. Put the big scary mask on. Breath normal. Breathe out. Take blood. I am a guinea pig. When it comes time to take the big scary mask off, a puddle of drool falls onto my shirt. We’ll get our preliminary results later in the day, but they’re useless without our final tally as well.
After the testing, we are chatting with the doctor and asking as many questions as possible about how we should adapt our workout. He suggests that we hold off until our fifth day here to do a real session. Instead, some easy 200s tomorrow to acquaint the body would be better. Like that, the day is changed and there is no drive to Sedona.
Jack is eager to head out to his favorite spot for a run. Turns out, it’s Old Walnut Canyon Road. The same place as yesterday. It was a good course, and minus a one-mile patch half way through, it was devoid of heavy snow coverage. We acquiesce to his begging. Jack is new to the club, and even though he’s the only one with ‘rookie’ status he is a few years older than the rest of us. His consistency as a top American miler the last six years adds to our veneration.
Once again, the pace starts off easy. The air has us timid. When we hit the snow patch, the group splits up into two: The brave and the cautious. I am always careful on uneven footing, up-hills and downhills. On the other side of the tundra, Ford, Travis and I are jogging. This is probably going to be a common group for the month, as the three of us tend to always be restrained on easy days. When groups break into two, the conversation splits as well. The front group will talk about how the back group is too slow. The back group will talk about how the front group is too fast. All parties believe they have discovered the secret to training. I’ll flip-flop depending on the day. It just so happens that I am always right.
When my crew turns around early, I am heading out alone another 15 minutes. There are 12 easy miles on my schedule. A few minutes later I catch up to the front group, and they’re turning around, except Trevor. He is squatting on the side of the road with his pants at his ankles. There’s an offer to join me [post-squat], but I let him know I just want to take it solo the rest of the way to make sure I am going easy. This exchange is in the midst of his rest stop, and done so casually. We are different—being runners. There is a comfort in our bodies that is not always found in the rest of the world. And that comfort extends to teammates. Short-shorts, showers, bathroom stops, chaffing, shaved legs, and hours of empty trails filled with lewd discussion. Sometimes I forget my non-runner friends don’t share that security.
Just over the crest of the hill, I hit a new portion of the road I didn’t make it to yesterday. The trees open up, and the sky is clear. There is no snow here. The mountains are visible in the near distance. If I were to run long enough, I think I would hit them. My mind hears only the next footstep, and the next, and the next.
When I get back to the car, the guys are waiting for me and have been for a while. I don’t feel guilty. This is why we are here, and there is nothing else for us to do today. Ford is decked out in his new Hoka gear, and needs me to take a couple pictures of him for the upcoming announcement of his signing.
When we were in Eugene this summer, a man called Peanut reached out to us both. We were in town for a major US 1500 race that was taking place amidst the World Junior Championships. He wanted to tell us about Hoka’s interest in signing us as sponsored athletes. The day before the race we met him with Eric, our assistant coach at the time. Peanut told us all about the company, and what they can do for us and why they are changing the game. Ford and I were both restraining, not wanting to say too much too soon. But we were both ecstatic. Someone was offering us an opportunity to run professionally. To get paid to run.
The day after the race I met with Peanut again, and this time he brought Jen. It had gone well, only losing in a lean by a tenth of a second. From one coffee shop, I walked to the next and shook hands with Ray, who just then became my agent. A week later it was done.
My first year out of college, I was heavily supported by the New Jersey*New York Track Club on the generosity of Gags. Free rent, a small stipend, and the majority of my travel. I worked 25 hours a week at a running specialty store to round out the rest. I had reached out to a bunch of shoe companies after graduation, but I was never turned down–just ignored.
Ford got even less than me from the club, and was working as a lifeguard and bar-back in Atlantic City, sometimes working overnight shifts. He’d have to miss practice, which was 90 minutes away from his home, because he was too exhausted by the work that was making it possible for him to continue running. He was a competitive in college, but was far from being notable on the national stage having never made it to the NCAA Championships. He did run 4-flat in the mile, and would come to do that many times again. This past year he closed out the Penn Relays with a hard last lap, and leaned at the line only to look up at the board and see 4:00.00 next to his name. Eventually, Ford did get under the mark with a 3:57 to win a race in North Carolina, with a crowd of onlookers tunneling the final homestretch in lane 3. He broke the curse.
We are polar opposites runners. This whole year was aimed towards reintroducing myself on the track. The comeback. The chip on my shoulder had grown immensely. Since before high school, my goal was to become a professional runner. Ford’s first thought of being a professional runner was at brunch that morning in Eugene with Peanut. I am the nerdy runner, perusing the Internet, reading books, and attending camps. When I step on the line there are no surprises about who is next to me. The stats have been studied and their whole careers have been followed. Ford begins a race with ignorance. Maybe the guy next to him looks vaguely familiar, but he can’t match up the name to the face. It’s simple for him; run faster than everyone else.
Fast-forward until today, and Ford is about to announce. I had signed and announced for myself about 6 months ago, and ran the last set of races in my outdoor season in the Hoka uniform. We took two very different paths to arrive at the same place, and now we trade off reps in the workouts, but in the same shoes.
You would think you’d get to a certain level and the bitch work stops. And then you see the 8th place finisher at the last Olympics shoveling the snow off the track so he can get his workout in. That’s a reminder; the work never stops. A world record holder has to stretch after each run. He then gets in the gym, and lifts the weights. It’s repetitive. But the little things add up, and if you stop counting, you have to start over.
Today, the little things mean shoveling the track for a half hour before we can workout. 16 x 200 w/ 1 min rest. We are out at Coconino HS, and even though it’s 11 am, it looks like school has let out. There are kids everywhere as we run through campus on our warm up. We climb a hill for almost a mile, and end up at Buffalo Park. As soon as we get in and see the trail, it’s time to turn around. What a tease. We plan to drive up to the lot and do our cool down here.
There is a gym class running around the track when we return. This could get ugly. The coach sees us and looks intrigued, so we approach to introduce ourselves. They’ll be off in a matter of minutes, and in the mean time, he is picking our brain about who we are and what we are doing in Flagstaff.
Donn takes the first rep out in 34. That was our soft guide for today. Keep it there or a bit faster. We jog back to the start cutting across the turf field. Only lane 7 is cleared for 200m of running. Trevor leads the next one out and it’s a 33. So far so good. The jog back feels shorter. A series of 32s are run once the rhythm is found. After 10 reps of silence, Donn says, ‘I bet we’d be more conversational at sea level.’ He’s right.
When we finish up, I hunch over on the bleachers. My head is light, and I need water. This was the wakeup call I needed. Altitude is real, and things will be hard this next month. That’s why we are here. But it will be easier on January 31 when I am back in New York for the distance medley relay. The world record should go down. It will just depend on whether or not we cross first. Last year in Boston, my teammate Mike wind milled down the final straightaway and came up just short at the line. We were under the previous 4×800 record, but they got there first. This year, the stick will be in my hands.
He was distraught. You could see the pain in Mike’s eyes, with his hands on his head wondering what he could have done differently. Maybe kicking earlier, pushing the pace, or taking the outside lane. There will always be those questions for second place. The answer isn’t always clear. Sometimes it’s hidden in the race itself, and other times it is in the months before, during a single track session. Each day you try to make sure that it won’t be the one with the answer.
We all ran the race, but it’s possible to hide out there on a relay. Not for the anchor. We jogged over to him and embraced him after he finished. It was ok. There was no blame on him; that’s part of being on a team. He kept apologizing though it couldn’t have been further from his fault. When we saw Gags, he sat us down. He could hardly get a word out. His eyes were filled with pride. You don’t always need to cross the line first to win a race.
‘Today–I am so freaking proud of you boys. I have been doing this for 55 years, and seeing you guys not only fight for each other–But when you saw Mike struggling after—You ran to him. That’s a team. This is why we do it, for each other. And today, you reminded me why I do this.’
We drive up the mountain to cool down and Donn is already talking about how excited he is to get his underwear back. The airport shipped him his bag, and Travis had called to let him know that it finally came. The other guys only had an easy run today. They’re not racing indoors so there is no urgency. Travis had some knee problems in September and October, so his fitness is just coming around. Jack had a stress reaction in his foot that forced him to cross-train for a few weeks. And Ford had strained his calf at the end of August, and was only able to do easy runs up until November. Injuries are part of the sport. Or better yet, avoiding them.
The rest of the day is low key. Everyone has claimed a chair or couch spot in the living room, and the fire is never not going. This is going to be our routine. Outside of this room, most days will involve a trip into town to visit one of the many coffee shops. The same thing happens daily in New Jersey. The baristas know our names, and our orders. The goal is to get to that intimate level here before we leave. There is monotony in training. We don’t leave to go get coffee, as much as needing a reason to leave the house and put pants on.
This could be boring if it wasn’t for being surrounded by the right people. That’s the allure of having a group. The time spent waiting for the next run is filled with laughter and conversation. The same inside jokes are passed around and quickly get old, but the laughs are the same.
Donn is asking Jack about his time in Flagstaff last spring when he was with his group from South Carolina. The big question being, ‘What’s different?’ Travis is noticeably listening in. There is a curiosity in wondering how things are done elsewhere, and what’s the coach and crew like. The thing we are all eager to hear is that we do it better. But Jack won’t say that or anything bad about his last couple years. It’s just different.
‘They were a lot more routine. Practice was at the same time everyday, and coach was always there. Which has it perks because it holds you responsible. But sometimes I like being able to do my own thing here. I only see Gags a couple times of a week, and he trusts that I will get the work done in between. But I needed a change. Being surrounded by a bunch of new young guys is refreshing. I need that perspective.’
Jack takes an extra breath and looks off for just a moment’s delay. He just stumbled onto everything that he’s never vocalized before. It’s not about growing older, but losing the idea that anything is possible. That’s my biggest fear. In my head, I could still even win the Olympics one day. There are enough days left in my career. I don’t want that dream to disappear.
Trevor, Donn and I split off from the rest of the group again this morning to meet up with some of the local athletes, and other visitors. 8am at Biff’s Bagels is a longstanding tradition in Flagstaff known simply as, the ‘Bagel Run.’ We show up and don’t see anyone. I joke that this was a prank on the new guys from out of town. Donn refers to the old’ 9th green at 9 trick from ‘Happy Gilmore.’ We hear someone call out our names. Looks like we are in the right place, just on the wrong side of the building.
As the minutes pass, more runners show up. Not just neighborhood hobby joggers, but guys who can roll. The normal path is still covered in snow, so we have to head a couple miles down on the sidewalk to a dirt road that has been plowed. I immediately get in stride with Forrest, who I last saw when I woke up in his hotel room following the Club XC party. The race had been 30 minutes from our house, so although we didn’t race, we went to hang out afterwards. That night is still worth being recapped and laughed about.
It’s good to see him running and healthy. Forrest has had some ups and downs in his career, but is back in full force claiming his recent workouts were some of his best ever. He is beaming and it’s hard not to be happy for him. We’ve all been in that same position before.
We turn right onto the dirt road, and the sun is piercing through the trees and reflecting off the snow. It’s the type of morning where sunglasses would make sense. I’ve got to pee. This happens a lot. But in a group of 20, holding it in is easier than speaking up.
The pace is honest once we warm up. The mornings are cold here. At the start, you’d want an extra jacket, some thick gloves, and a heavy hat. But by the end, you’d probably be OK in a T-shirt. So I end up dressing somewhere in between. The hills are tough and half the crew takes the strategy of hammering a bit to get it finished, and the back half takes it easy to save energy.
Maverick is near the back and we take turns sniffling our noses. He is obviously fighting a cold himself, which makes it feel like an extra couple thousand feet higher. He’s moved back to Michigan since graduating from Wisconsin and he sounds excited to be home. There is a comfort in being where you know. Maverick is in Ann Arbor, which is a bit over an hour away from where he grew up.
Everything he says about the situation is positive. Though he quips that he was almost swayed to our group by the women alone. I take this as a compliment. I like our girls. He was the reason that Jack looked at our group in the first place. They were teammates at Wisconsin, and like most of the track community, he had assumed we lived in the middle of Manhattan. Maverick let him know otherwise, and now Jack is one of us.
There are a couple jokes about doing this run strictly for the bagels. My mind flashes back to HS when I would do my Sunday long runs with my friend Brendan, and each time we would go to the IHOP by the finish. We’d count down each mile along the way, ‘3 miles until pancakes…2 miles until pancakes…’
We swing by the start just over an hour after we began, and half the crew finishes up. Oh, that would be nice. Instead I add on with Matt, who lives and trains here full time. Since graduating, he has proven himself as a name to watch on the road circuit, having already posted a 61-minute half. He’s racing again this coming weekend in Houston. He has a smooth, lanky stride and I have never seen him without shades on. I don’t think we have ever actually met prior, but instead we’ve hovered on that gray line of still knowing each other thanks to the Internet and social media.
A year ago, Matt publicly came out as a gay professional athlete in what I consider to be an inspiring announcement. Although we had never met, I had passed on an e-mail in support and just thanking him. Throughout my high school, college and now professional experience, there have been teammates of mine whose struggle I have witnessed. Knowing their pain and confusion in the process of finding themselves, Matt’s declaration hit close to home.
‘If I make it easier for even one person to accept who they are, be comfortable in their own skin, and find their voice, then I’m satisfied.’
Matt is a reminder that behind each performance is a person with a story. And the chance to meet a new athlete and exchange those stories is a special part of the sport that extends beyond the track.
As we finish the add on I expect to see the drop-off crew hanging in the bagel shop enjoying breakfast. Surprisingly, it is empty. Everyone had hopped in their car or headed to Macy’s across the street for coffee. But I am a typical New York bagel snob. Predictably, a few pretentious bagel comments had slipped through the cracks to Will while on the run, and now I had to test them out for myself. I ordered a lightly toasted sesame seed bagel with lox cream cheese. That’s a standard order for me, and I want to remain consistent for my judgment to be fair. It passed.
College in New York meant my diet was not always the best. I had probably ten bagels a week, slices of pizza whenever the tiniest bit hungry, and a dirty water dog or Halal food was standard for a night out. When I moved down to Austin, that all changed. On my first day of classes I stopped in at Einstein Bagels and asked for an egg bagel. The cashier looked at me blank. I repeated my order, and she confirmed that I wanted one egg on a plain bagel. That’s when I knew I wasn’t in New York anymore. We cooked for ourselves rather than going to the dining hall, and a six-pack began to sprout.
Living with Ford now, Travis and I call our diet accidental veganism. Ford became a vegan in college after learning his cholesterol and blood pressure were out of control. He set a few huge personal bests and has been going strong since. We cook meals together so often that we will find ourselves falling asleep most nights realizing that we never ate an animal product. But then the hunger comes. And when it comes, it comes in full force.
After a short afternoon nap, I find myself stumbling into the living room delirious. Travis is half passed out on the couch. As I mumble about my hunger, he nods affirming. We need meat. Next to our house is a local fast food-like burger place. Since arriving in Flagstaff, we haven’t indulged at all. You can’t go from a holiday vacation meal plan straight into perfection. We call to Trevor in the other room, and his body was saying the same thing. So we listen. A double cheeseburger, fries and milkshake later and we feel terrible. But we are happy.
Don’t worry about today.
Waking up for a long run is what I’d imagine the morning of a job interview feels like. You maintain a nervous anticipation. It’s exciting, but you’re left thinking of ways you can screw it up. The biggest worry is always stomach issues. Eat one wrong thing, and it could be cramps for a couple hours or an impromptu bathroom stop. Most runners will look to each other about 15-minutes for a pee break, but there’s a hesitance to be the first one to broach the subject. It’s customary, and generally appreciated. If one has to do something more than take a piss, the group will wait and often donate their insurance toilet paper as well.
An hour into the run though, bets are off. Depending on how good of friends or teammates you have, they’ll wait for a quick pee. But in a large crew, it might be expected that you’ll have to play catch up. The nightmare is pulling off the pack to squat out of courtesy, and then having an hour of solo running because you get caught in a stream of never ending wipes.
We met up at Ben and Stephanie’s house, which rests in the heart of a brand new development and less than a mile from Woody Mountain Road. It’s just another endless dirt road with many offshoot options. If you are a professional runner living in Flagstaff, this isn’t a bad location to be at. Maverick is staying there with them for his stint, lucky guy. We meet up with Nick and Will for a 2 hour jaunt of exploring. It has been a couple days since it has snowed, but at 7000 feet, it can be a task for it all to melt. Especially with the road sitting on one side of the mountain with lots of tree coverage, we will probably have to deal with some ice.
As we get going, everyone is a bit tentative to take the pacing duty first. I know I am scared shitless of running this long, no matter how many times I have done it. So I am praying that we go as slow as possible. Secondly, I don’t want to be the punk-kid the whole crew is quietly cursing.
Running with new people is always exciting for me. It’s a good way to mix things up and spark fresh conversations rather than the same old thing with the regular crew. Sometimes things can get stale when you do every run with the same people who double as your roommates. But I look to make sure that my team is content with the new company and scenery. Ford is still new this, but he’s friendly enough to talk to anyone.
Travis mentioned yesterday that he has met so many more people since joining the team, and especially since moving into our house in New Jersey. And with so many races being in the northeast, it feels like someone is always crashing on our couch. There are two-degrees of separation at most in this sport. Everyone has a former teammate, rival, or coach in common. And if you follow the sport, then you’re naturally familiar. This leads to the semi-awkward conversation of introducing yourself out of common courtesy and social expectations. It’d be easier if we were honest, ‘I know who you are [since I have a computer].’
Gags is the biggest connector through the generations. He has coached more sub-4 milers than anyone else in the history of the sport. It seems like every race I go to I meet a new former-athlete that will refer to me as ‘One of Gags’ boys’ which is an incredibly endearing description. Most athletes are proud to be associated with their coach. Inherently, there is a high-level of necessary respect in place, so much so, that one is willing to put the fate of his or her career into the hands of another individual. That takes trust.
It is easy to have blind faith in the greater plan of a man who has been there so many times before. The names and accomplishments of former runners under Gags’ tutelage would be enough to constitute confidence. There is rarely a moment of doubt or questioning. Not only because of those who came before us, but because the design of the program is logically sound. Through years of trial and error and many guinea pigs before us, he has figured it out [as best as possible] what works and what doesn’t.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t open to change. And perhaps his greatest strength is his willingness to adapt. If I present an idea about what I think I need, he is open to trying it. But in the rare instance that such a notion does not fit within his own, then he explains why. Gags is far from a scientist–he’s a former football player. He doesn’t discuss the biological and chemical reactions to various training stimuli as some others may. Those are words just words that overcomplicates the process. You work hard, and you recover. ‘You put strength and speed in a bowl and you get a champion!’ It’s less about what you are doing and more about how you are doing it. And when we show up to practice, we are motivated and taught to believe that we can do things that we never thought possible.
We are rolling along on the dirt road and the pace is decreasing without much notice as our bodies begin to warm. The pack crosses a gate and to a road that has only been sparsely plowed. It’s an envelope of ice. The braver souls have no issue manipulating the terrain, but I am a coward when it comes to this stuff. Ford is dropping back as well and doing everything he can to stay on his feet. The road is showing no signs of improvement, so after just a few minutes of perseverance, even the most stubborn relent to turning around.
We slide back down the icy road, and find a different path that is significantly more runnable. Thank god. It would wear me down mentally long before my body broke if I had to worry about balancing the whole time. On the less precarious surface, I feel my legs pickup underneath me, and I push to the front. The back group has turned for their shorter run, and the pack has now shrunk significantly. For years in college, I was always part of the first turn around. I take a special pride in now being a member of the long crew. The novelty has yet to wear off.
I am with Donn, Will, Nick, Trevor and Maverick is tailing. As it happens, Will is cracking jokes and telling stories. It is always great to run with guys who can keep a conversation. Everything just goes by faster. Some people may prefer peace and quiet to focus on breathing and to get lost in their own minds—not me. It’s refreshing, and it’s like hitting play on a podcast. Time floats by, and when you check your watch on the occasional glance, it is like stepping into the future. Where’d those 15 minutes go?
Nick is talking about the meet he has hosted in Michigan the past couple years. It was a grass roots race, with just a couple events, and thousands in the stands at a local high school track. Fortunately, I got the opportunity to run it this past year, and ended up 3rd for a 355. Nick won his own race, which is not unexpected and definitely makes for a storybook-like finish. He did put in the most work to make it happen, so it’s deserved. I was a late entry to the field, and Nick did me a bit of a favor to let me in.
Having seen that, I was motivated to replicate it in my own hometown. Keep it simple, and do it in the backyard of a strong running community. The day after the race this past summer, I started picking Nick’s brain on our run about how to pull it off. That conversation continues today. And just as we are ending, he says he’ll try and come to my race to pay back the favor. The dialogue moves elsewhere, but I take a moment to retrace what he just said in my head. Please tell me I heard that right.
Trevor pulls off to use the bathroom. At this point in the run, he’s on his own. We have just a couple miles left, and we aren’t obligated to stop and wait. With that said, I am holding something in myself, and it’s tempting to pull off with him. But I am confident in my colon. Hopefully this hubris will not be the downfall of my run. We enter a neighborhood with a hilly mile long loop. Once this is finished, we’ll be home free. I check out Donn, and he looks so comfortable. I hate Donn. Will is citing tired legs after a tough workout yesterday. That makes me feel better; I am not alone.
This whole run may have been a bit reckless on my part. I was planning to take it easy my first week at altitude to allow my body some time to adjust. All the advice I had heard was never to dig your body into a hole here because it’s a harder to dig yourself out. But I think I feel good. Or at least as good as you’d expect someone to feel at 7000 feet for 2-hours at 6:30 pace.
The house is in sight, and we are closing rapidly. I take a look at the company. There’s Donn, a US Olympian who finished 8th in London for the steeplechase. Will is a 3:51 miler and multiple times National Champion. And Nick has an Olympic silver medal. Then it’s me–the kid trying to make it. I am looking around at these guys for 2-hours trying to take in everything. I listen to the details and take notes. How’d they do it? Because I want to do it too.
And that’s why I am here in Flagstaff. There is something to being here. Maybe it’s the altitude; maybe it’s the company. I haven’t been here a week yet, so I don’t know. But coming here for the month was a leap, and a statement to myself. I am ready to start trying to make it happen, rather than checking my watch to see when it will come.
We finish the run and we are standing outside Ben and Stephanie’s house doing drills, and some light stretching. Nick approaches me for a high-five and thanks me for a good run.
‘I am impressed man. For a guy like you, with your speed, to come out here and run 2-hours it shows you’re seriously fit. I think you’re setting yourself up for a good season.’
In the final line of Dumas’ ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ as Edmund Dantes sails off into the distance, it is concluded: ‘All human wisdom is contained in these words, “Wait and Hope.”’
It seems like good advice, but I don’t have enough time.
When I was in high school, I knew that I wanted to be a distance runner from the first practice [and well before]. However, I was not entering into a powerhouse cross-country program. Instead, my school was continually putting out some great 4×4’s. Therefore, I was left to discover many things about the sport on my own volition; most specifically, training.
So I turned to the Internet for the majority of my research, and I would spend hours on Dyestat and Letsrun, and I would supplement by reading every book I could find. And finally, I would bother the better runners in my area by instant messaging and asking every question I could think of.
I attribute the shaping of my own training philosophy to the accumulation of hearing about other’s. And for that reason, I try to share what I am doing whenever asked. A little insight into my training could hopefully provide others with some ideas for their own. Similar to seeing others race fast, seeing what others are capable of doing in practice opens up the eyes to what is possible.
After almost an entire year healthy, I have put together a solid block of training, specifically this fall and winter. Our workout schedule [generally] looks like this:
Wednesday-AM Tempo; PM Hills/Speed
I try to run about 80-90 miles a week, and have been working my way to running 2-hours on Saturday [Church of the Saturday Long Run?]. The classic Gags saying in regards to training, is ‘You put speed and strength in a bowl, and you get a champion.’ This is a little bit of a different approach than I did in HS and college. Rather than a strict periodization, we are constantly touching on everything. We hit some workouts harder than others depending on the time of year, but we never stray too far from any particular stimulus.
There are an infinite number of ways to train an athlete. The biggest thing is perhaps his or her belief in the system. I trust Gags, and everyday I buy into it more and more. He has made me realize that speed is necessary. While you can only turn strength into speed, and not vice versa, in order to make the US Olympic team at 1500m, you have to be prepared to close in 51-52 seconds [three races in a row]. That requires some turnover.
Below is a sneak peek into some of my best workouts from this build up. Things are going well right now, and I had a smooth transition back into training after a down week following the end of indoor. Now that the weather is picking up, the mileage is climbing and the workload is increasing. March and April’s runs will determine May and June’s races. Enjoy!
(Photo by Zach Hetrick)
11/19/14: AM-6 mile tempo on Columbia Trail in 29:33 [502—459—458—455—453—444]
12/5/14: 12 x 400 @ 62 w/ 3 min honest jog rest + 3 x 200 @ 29 w/ 2 mins
12/8/14: 12 x 1000 w/ 2 min honest jog rest @ 255 on the cinders
12/20/14: 2-hours @ 6:05 [felt great, a bit faster than normal]
1/2/15: 600+400+300+300 w/8/6/4 rest @ [121.8—54.4—40.4—40.6]
1/16/15: 2 x 800 + 4 x 400 w/ 6/8/3 rest @ [158.7—155.8—59.7—58.3—57.3—54.9] in Sedona, AZ
2/5/15: 4 x 600 w/ 5 min rest + 2 x 300 w/ 4 min rest @ [126.2—127.9—127.2—124.7—40.1—39.4]
2/22/15: 6 x 400 w/ 5 min rest [56.1—55.9—55.1—54.1—53.5—52.2]
3/16/15: 8 x 1000 w/ 2 min jog rest + 4 x200 @ [252—252—250—251–250—247—248—244] [27—27—27—26]
If you’re into reading about training, check out my NJ*NY teammate’s blog, Mike Rutt, at http://mikeruttrunning.blogspot.com/ as well as my former teammate’s, Joe Stilin, at http://thinkfastwaitrun.blogspot.com/