Can overexposure be far off?

March 23, 2007

Instead of writing a new blog entry this week, I spent a couple of days answering questions for an interview now posted to eliterunning.com. Thanks to Duncan Larkin for feeding my ego by deciding that I’m interview-worthy, and also for asking some interesting questions (a couple of which originated with Meghan Hicks).

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1. In your recent win at the Caumsett Park 50K, you had to run 11.8 laps. Many ultra road races have this criterium nature. Do you find these types of races to be more challenging mentally than, say a 50-mile trail race with limited, repeat scenery?

My mind handles the criterium-style road ultras pretty well. I like settling into a rhythm, getting feedback on my pace via frequent split times, and knowing exactly where I am relative to my opponents. At Caumsett Park, I was behind the eventual runner-up for a few of the laps, but I wasn’t stressed out about this because I knew how far ahead he was, how many miles we had left, and what pace I’d have to run to catch up. Basically, I take comfort in having these data for making decisions during the race. Trail races seem to require a run-by-feel mentality that I haven’t mastered, plus there’s always a risk of tripping and falling, which I worry about endlessly, since I’m sort of a klutz. At my first ultra ever, the 2004 Cle Elum Ridge 50K, people actually placed bets on how many falls I would take, and I was as surprised as anyone when I managed to stay upright for the entire race.

2. As a new father, how do you balance the demands of your training versus the demands of your family? Many athletes with challenging schedules get up very early and run then, but with a newborn, I suspect you can’t do that. So when do you get your workouts in?

First of all, I spend less time training than many of the people I compete against; I’m currently averaging about 75 or 80 miles per week, which is only about nine hours of running, and I don’t cross-train (aside from some bicycle commuting). Second, I log a lot of my miles running to and from work, which is about 6.5 miles away from home. On weekdays, I’ll sometimes stop by the track on the way to or from work and do my intervals then. Like most people, I save most of my really long runs for the weekends.

Obviously, even with these attempts at minimalism and efficiency, there’s still a certain time commitment that is required. I don’t feel too guilty about prioritizing this “me time,” since it helps keep me sane, and my wife understands this side of me because she’s a runner too. I just have to make sure that she gets some “me time” as well, whether for running or other purposes. I try to remember that running is basically a hobby, and the fact that I’m good at it doesn’t make it more important than her hobbies.

3. You have mentioned on your blog that you train with Scott Jurek and Uli Steidl. What have you been able to learn from them?

Well, I rarely run with other people, so I must have been name-dropping to some extent. But, to me, Uli is a reminder of how running a lot of miles can be beneficial if it’s done right. He’s able to log several high-mileage weeks in a row while doing some quality speedwork and races and without getting injured, which says to me that he’s not overdoing it. Uli’s also a good example of how raw footspeed can really come in handy, even in ultras.

Scott and I tend to gravitate toward different types of races — I can’t imagine doing Badwater or Hardrock, for example — but I think he has a great attitude toward training and racing that I try to emulate. He seems to really love the running that he does — maybe not every minute, but he’s not just joylessly pounding his body into submission, either. And I think you can run a lot harder and get better results if you’re really excited about what you’re doing — not just satisfied, but really excited. I used to try to be as logical as possible in figuring out which workouts and races to do, but, these days, I aim for emotional satisfaction as much as logical consistency — maybe even moreso.

4. You have a 2:22:32 marathon PR. In 2006, you ran a 2:23 in Vancouver and a 2:24 at Twin Cities. You have come very close to the Olympic Marathon “B” standard. Do you have any plans to try again for it or are you giving up on that goal. Does this standard intimidate you?

Last year’s two near-misses were pretty demoralizing. I will make another serious marathon attempt someday, but I don’t know when that will be. Right now I’m having more fun exploring my ultramarathoning potential. It’s like, I can work really hard to slice a minute off of my marathon PR and become the 90th-best marathoner in the country…. OR I can try to hack 20 or 30 minutes off of my 100K PR [currently 6:59:40], which I think is possible, and become one of the top 100K people in the world — out of the few runners who actually choose to race that distance, of course. I just think I have much more potential to improve in the longer races right now.

5. What do you think about during your long runs? How do you overcome the boredom factor during these?

Well, I do have the advantage of being easily amused. This was apparent even in college, when I specialized in running the 10K on the track. What I think about the most, though, are my split times. If I just ran the first 24.45 miles in 2:34:50, for example, I can spend a couple minutes figuring out what pace per mile that is. It’s a complex enough problem to keep my mind engaged for a while, but simple enough that I can actually do it even when I’m tired. Another thing I occasionally do is work on song lyrics. Perhaps I’ve written a particular line and need to come up with a second line that rhymes with the first one; if I fiddle with that second line over the course of four or five miles, I can usually get it into pretty good shape. As you noted earlier, I’ve been pretty busy since my son was born, so large chunks of the songs I gave my wife for her birthday [in October] and for Christmas were written while on the run. Kind of like Dean Karnazes dictating his next book into a hand-held recorder while running, I suppose.

6. In your blog you jokingly mentioned that world domination was your running goal for 2007. You’ve got one big victory in the bag this year. Are you still aiming for the Mad City 100K in two weeks? What are your goals there?

Yes, I’m going to Mad City. I just found out that Suzy Favor Hamilton is going to be the official starter, so I can’t back out now. Assuming that the weather is OK, I’d like to run under 6:45, which should be enough to win. Patrick Russell is probably in shape to run that kind of time as well, but he says that he’s going to go out conservatively and just shoot for a sub-7:00 to avoid a disaster like the one he had at last year’s World Cup 100K. Scott Jurek, Chad Ricklefs, and Phil Kochik are also capable of breaking 7 hours, but I don’t expect them to be under 6:50. Howard Nippert would be tough to beat if he were racing, but I think he plans to sit this one out.

7. What do you do for recovery runs after your long, ultra-pace workouts or races?

It takes me about a week to recover from a long race-pace run. For the first three days or so, I run five to seven miles at an easy pace, like 7:15 to 7:30 per mile. Then maybe I’ll throw a few 60-second surges into the middle of my next run, or do some other quasi-speed training, or do two six-mile runs instead of one. My post-race schedule is similar but spread out over two weeks rather than one. It’s basically a really lame version of my peak training schedule: a little bit of speed, a little bit of distance, but not a lot of anything. My one benchmark workout for the recovery phase is two 1600-meter repeats on the track, with a 400-meter jog in between. I figure that if I can run two intervals at a pace I could normally sustain for three of them — 4:52 or so, in my case — my recovery must be coming along fairly well.

8. Some people lament the lack of funding (sponsorship, race prizes, etc) opportunities in ultrarunning. Some people believe that the ultrarunning community needs better competition. Some people disagree with both of these ideas and wish the community to stay how it is. In your mind, what does the ultrarunning and ultraracing community need, or not need?

I personally would welcome more prize money, competition, and media exposure. I don’t know much about marketing, but in terms of garnering attention and sponsorship, ultras have at least a couple of things going for them. One is all the great visuals — the scenes of people charging up mountains, through canyons, across the desert and so forth. Another factor, which I think has yet to be exploited, is the fact that ultramarathoning is one of the few sports in which masters athletes can compete straight up against the young whippersnappers. To cite my favorite example, Vladimir Kotov was 46 years old when he won the 2004 Comrades Marathon, arguably the most prestigious ultra in the world. Wily old veterans like Kotov taking on people half their age — now that’s great theater!

One current problem that I hope the community will address is the fact that many desirable races now fill up very quickly, making it difficult to get into those races unless you know what your life and training will be like several months ahead of time. I hope we can come up with some creative solutions that will allow more people to participate. One example that comes to mind is the McKenzie River 50K in Oregon, which this year will consist of the usual race on a Saturday and then a special elite race over the same course the next day, thus accommodating more total runners while still looking out for the elite folks. Could this sort of approach work elsewhere? I don’t know, but it’s worth considering.

9. According to your blog, one of your training focuses and reasons for success has been doing long (ultra-long) runs at (ultra) race pace. This is similar to marathon pace training runs in marathon training. However, it is also divergent with the traditional training style of ultrarunners, who often do long runs with the time-on-feet rather than pace mindset, so as to reduce recovery time from long training runs. Your training style has got to have a huge impact on your body. How do you cope with that physical trauma and that mental challenge?

Yes, those race-pace runs are great for trashing the body! Because of that, I only do one every two to three weeks, and I try to give myself plenty of time to recover from each one, as I described earlier. This is a situation where I avoid obsessing over weekly mileage. If I finish off a 90-mile week with a hard 35-miler, the next week may be 70 miles or less, and that’s totally fine if that’s what allows me to recover.

My approach may not be right for everyone, but it’s what I need to do to feel mentally and physically prepared for my races. Among other advantages, it helps me determine whether my goal paces are reasonable. My original goal for Mad City was to average 6:25 per mile, but then I found that running 40 miles at that pace nearly killed me, so now I’m going to shoot for a 6:30 average instead.

10. You’ve been performing phenomenally on road ultras and other ultras with relatively flat terrain. The other side of ultra-ing is the mountain ultras where elevation and single-track terrain presents a whole new set of challenges. How do you think you’d perform at an equivalent distance mountain ultra? Do you have any plans to try those kinds of races?

I ran a couple of mountain ultras back in 2004 and 2005, with OK but not great results. My main problem is that, as I said before, I’m clumsy. I have to slow down to avoid tripping on rocks and roots, especially on downhills, and people like Brian Morrison and William Emerson can zoom right by me.

I have this theory, though, that my clumsiness will be less of a liability during the REALLY long trail races, where the slow paces mean that obstacles are easier to avoid. I hope to test this theory at Western States in June, assuming that I qualify by finishing in the top three at the Miwok 100K in May, which is also quite mountainous.


  1. I think a certain someone has set the bar pretty high for "overexposure". Getting a little attention for well-earned success never hurt anyone. Good luck the last couple of weeks. The weather here is beautiful now, but it looks like its going to change. Oh well.

  2. Congratulations!

  3. Just don't go getting all famous-haughty on the rest of us regular folk, 'kay? :)Nice interview, I think you deserve it!

  4. Duncan's first class. Going to defend tomorrow at Mercer Island?

  5. Greg,first congratulations on your Sunmart win. Next, I had planned to be at the Caumsett Park 50k. I thought Ray K would be running it. Work – coaching clinic – kept me in NYC. Of course if I had know that you'd be there I'd have changed my plans. But, Ray K didn't show and I didn't change my plans, so I missed you performance and win there too. I raced many years ago against Byron Lane (4th I believe) and many other friends ran, but coaching kept me in the Big Apple. What's next?

  6. Great interview – I'm amazed at how humble and matter of fact you always are! Hope the training is going well!

  7. Greg,I decided to track you down (and boy was it easy!) after reading the latest Williams Alumni Review and finding out that Hodge Markgraf passed away in January. You should post the Hodge quote board again in his memory.Anyway, I thought this would be a good excuse to get back in touch. After deciding to "take a masters and run" from the PhD program I was in, I worked at a pharma company for a couple years, then went to law school, and I'm now practicing law in New Mexico. Weird, huh. Anyway, how are things at U-Dub?

  8. Oops, my bad. I didn't realize you had memorialized him back in January. (We don't get the news as fast here in NM.) Anyway, thanks for keeping his memory alive. Hodge was a member of a dying breed of scientists. No offense to current academics like yourself, of course.

  9. I enjoyed reading the interview. Congrats on a U.S. Championship! It is exciting to me to see the successes you are achieving.

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