Saturday, February 1, 2020


Everyone knows this: conquering one's own mind is the underlying challenge of running and sports in general. A lot of people fixate on the immediate, day to day challenge of running: getting out the door in hot, cold, or wet conditions for a run, "putting in the miles", and getting through tough workouts.

The day-to-day was never hard for me. I had no simple advice for the questioner who asked "how do you get out the door when you just don't want to?" The motivation was intrinsic. It was implied that a single workout was packaged into a whole movement to get better. That desire easily overrode short term pain and discomfort. I've always enjoyed the process of training. Setting small, numerical goals on the fly brings great pleasure when they're achieved.

But motivation hasn't been flowing as seamlessly lately.

Finishing the Naples Half Marathon last month.
Not sure if it's a good thing, but I had the best pain face of the top 5 finishers...

When I started running professionally in 2014, I did not foresee my career continuing past age 30 and into the new decade. The fact that life as a full time athlete has survived this long is all at once a surprise, a life accomplishment of which I am proud, and occasionally a cause of anxiety (what have I missed out on during all those miles and years spent at the remote, North Carolina mountain outpost of ZAP?). The belief that my potential was not yet fully tapped at age 23 moved me to choose this path back then. The same conviction has tipped the scales in favor of staying in the game in the numerous times that doubts have crept in. 

For me, running's great challenge is not in everyday workout torture, race nerves, or injury woe, but the sheer long term compendium of failure, failure, success, and failure. Advancements are more few and far between. The scale of time spent on this project gets to me. An awful knowledge comes with expertise in one repetitive activity as the years pile up: it may be a very long period of working and waiting before you succeed again.

Every runner has a different story. I've enjoyed good luck in the form of great durability: a stress fracture in 2016 has been the only injury that's materially impacted my career. Instead of injury, the less obvious, wishy-washily "diagnosed" issues of mental and physical fatigue / burnout hunt me down me first. An injury is a malady with a usually obvious diagnosis and appropriate response; mild burnout, less so.

Throughout this fall and early winter, running felt disjointed. Recovery from the Berlin Marathon in late September was meant to flow smoothly into training for a handful of shorter Fall road and track races. I wanted to net some leg speed prior to the buildup for the Olympic Trials Marathon taking place in February. A mediocre 8k road race in Richmond and a very poor race at the Manchester Road Race on Thanksgiving prompted me to pull out of the third planned race, an indoor 5k in Boston. I was concerned about being mentally and physically fried, and took another ten days fully off from running in order to re-set. The entire fall season felt like a false start, with not much gained. I jogged back to the blocks, did a little nervous dance, and got set again.

Georgia Clay Roads north of Tallahassee

When you've been through many cycles of highs and lows, the task begins to feel Sisyphusean. Getting motivated to climb back towards a peak in your potential looks daunting ("here we go again"). But running is practically by definition a sport based around getting back in the saddle time and time again. The belief that a breakout could be just around the corner keeps us going. Though on some mornings before the run gets moving, that notion feels like gambler's fallacy. Too often lately, I look at the pile of experiential data behind me: what's worked and hasn't, and indulge in reasoning that tends toward the negative side. 

The thing is, running isn't really rational. There's art in it. Exploiting the weird gaps and being dumb helps you win.

I am aware of what it takes to be great at this sport. I believe I possess the physical tools required. What sucks about being human is that you can know what mental and emotional states will get you there, but sometimes find it difficult to access them. For me, simply having fun and being excited about what I'm doing are the most important basic ingredients in getting my body to translate training into performance. Though sometimes a combination of revisiting past failure and occasional depression keeps me from maintaining that positive state continuously. 

The greatest fear that comes with all this is that ambition will be stifled by my own weakness, rather than outside forces beyond my control. I could live with having failed because of, say, bad luck, the weather, or chance illness. But knowing that a negative mindset kept me from my goals would be a personal hell.

So I attempt to treat these thoughts not as some abstract, uncontrollable monster but as any old running injury. Something that you acknowledge is there, take steps to treat, and which eventually heals. I try to isolate negative thoughts from the rest of my mind and refuse to believe they've become the norm. This is simply the current challenge in a sport that doesn't let anyone sail smoothly forever. 

Strides on the track in Tallahassee with my fellow ZAPsters Matt, Andrew, and Tyler
Though I've fought a slight uphill battle with my mind, the more tangible conditions of the present are positive. I'm healthy and training on schedule for an Olympic Trials Marathon race that is now less than four weeks away. Behind me are over three consecutive years of uninterrupted training and the residual strength of three marathons (California International, Grandmas, and Berlin) run in the past 14 months. The ZAP team is deep into our annual winter training camp in Tallahassee. Everyone's goals are aligned and focused on the Trials, making training and life around our extended stay hotel in Tallahassee feel even more of a collective effort than usual.

As the trials race draws nearer, I'm finding it easier to run with inspiration and have fun at practice with the ZAP crew. The message I'm being sent is clear: I still relish the opportunity to compete. I'm putting no pressure on myself. Just running my own best race on February 29th in Atlanta will mean that I can negotiate a crappy mental patch and still go through preparation and execution like I always have. That in itself would be great experience for the next time running or life feel disjointed, but a goal still stands to be taken.

Thanks for reading. Here are some upcoming races and tentative races:

DateRace NameLocationVenue / Distance
February 29Olympic Marathon TrialsAtlanta, GAMarathon (NBC 12pm EST)
May 8Payton Jordan Invite ?Palo Alto, CATrack 10,000m ?
June 7Portland Track Festival ?Portland, ORTrack 10,ooom ?
June 19-28Olympic T&F Trials ?Eugene, ORTrack 5,000m / 10,000m ?

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Hauling, Storing, Burning

Our neighbor, John, seems to always be at work hauling, cutting, and storing firewood. John’s small cabin nestles into the hill just above ZAP’s large field. In the mornings the smoke from his wood stove rises straight up to the join the mountain fog that hangs in our valley before the sun crests the ridge. Hauling, storing, burning, hauling, storing, burning. John has a TV, the glow of which often illuminates my otherwise pitch-black walk home at night from the ZAP facility. But even with modern conveniences, I think John still likes to rely on his wood stove. The means to stay warm, to live, becomes much of life itself. Cutting and burning, going up in smoke, the next morning a new round of logs, always the same.

Likewise, across a little stream and down the hill from John, we of the ZAP Endurance running team sleep, eat, and run. Like worms that tunnel through the earth, our digestive systems sorting through food that in a moment will be called up for forward locomotion. Burned off and shat out, thousands of pounds of food a year thrown into hundreds of runs that end where they begin. Like John and his wood and his cabin.

I’m training for my second marathon. I had the fortune of a good first experience at the marathon in December at Cal International (CIM) (2:13:19, fourth at US Championships), something not everyone gets lucky enough to have.

On this second time around, the overarching theme has been to not to overdo it. Pete likes to cite the stat that almost half of elite American’s marathon personal best times happened in their debut - they never PR’d again. If we train like we did in the fall, with a few calculated changes here and there, we should be set up for a progression in performance. That’s the ideal scenario.

Training went so smoothly for CIM that it’s almost not fair that I have to replicate it now. It was a no injuries and great workouts almost across the board affair, with a nice tuneup race at the Pittsburgh 10 Mile in November. To find that smooth, easy rhythm again, things would have to go nearly perfectly.

Shared sacrifice on Railroad Grade Road, Todd, NC     6/4/2019

A month into specific training for Grandma’s marathon in Duluth, MN, things were not going perfectly. I had to admit defeat on a long run and couple of workouts, and ran poorly in our return to Pittsburgh for the half marathon last month (65:08). Fortunately I wasn’t dealing with an injury. But as my team mate Brandon points out, sometimes running badly with a healthy body can cause hand wringing: you don’t have a concrete reason like an injury to pin the shitiness on. The only marathon training I’ve known being great marathon training, it was tempting to be concerned.

I took a walk around the ZAP loop trail after getting back from Pittsburgh with Pete. He reflected, “for a somewhat intellectual runner, and someone who’s been in this sport for so long, I’m often surprised that you let tough races get to you so easily.” 

I appreciate Pete’s honesty. He’s right: I often dwell on isolated performances and training sessions when I should be looking at the big picture.

ZAP’s late founder Andy Palmer said “the Mind is the Athlete”. It’s written on our coffee mugs and T shirts. The phrase rings true, but the coveted instructions for how to actually go about obtaining a high performing mindset are left for the coffee mug beholder to figure out for themselves.

Hanging out in the chase pack during in the Pittsburgh Half Marathon     5/5/2019
After Pittsburgh I took a very easy week to refresh my body and mind. I tried to be honest with myself and think about what really makes a great athlete tick. I returned again and again to the idea of an intangible aspect of preparation and performance. Something beyond workout plans, weekly mileage, and all the numbers. 

You can call it mojo, or confidence, being in the groove, or painting happy trees. No one of those terms describe it wholly. The TED Talk popularized “flow state” concept comes close. The flow state is a happy medium between the challenge you’re working towards, and your skills and abilities. Too big of a challenge for your ability level, and you suffer anxiety. On the other hand, engaging in something without enough difficulty is boring. Your personal flow state runs somewhere in the middle.

As competitive runners, we’re constantly knocking up against the top side of the flow state channel, racing athletes that challenge us, that on paper are supposed to beat us. This is how we gradually improve. Some portion (hopefully less than half) of the time, we’re disappointed with the result. (We have to be, or running would be.. boring) If we put a lot of stock in a bad result, we run the risk of drifting up into Anxious Land, which isn’t helping us, or anybody, except our competition.

The training you do is the training you do. Your competition is your competition. All the fartleks and interval sessions and tempo runs and long runs are the tried and true tools we use to improve our fitness. Not much is changing there.  

But as Andy Palmer reminds us*, fitness is not the sole component of “How Good You Are At Running”. 

What if you could get back to the flow state without changing your fitness or the challenge you face?

If there ever was a secret to success and longevity in running, it is finding the method by which you, personally, bring yourself back into a flow state, even when in dire straits, and stay there. 


800m repeats in Boone, NC towards the end of our marathon buildup      5/31/2019

Realize that a high performing mindset can come to you on its own. There are only so many things you can control, and your mind is not always one of them. I used to think my head needed to be a certain climate in the days and hours before a race. If it wasn’t, I was screwed. I would repeatedly try to force my thoughts towards the focus I’d had during some great run of the past, holding it up as a golden example.

I was wasting energy, becoming anxious over my mindset. Getting back to the flow state was better achieved passively and instinctively, rather than actively.

I’ve learned in fits and starts that it really doesn’t matter what’s going through your head before competition. And that you shouldn’t try very hard to direct those thoughts towards a destination you think is helpful.

For me, being in the flow state means being less concerned with how I feel about how I feel, and trusting in my experience, training, and that magical adrenal lift that fills our sails on race day. When you’ve logged thousands of hours of mind-body running memory, your being wants to be in the flow state. It will make its way there if you allow it to.

That’s the nice thing about long term activities with cumulative properties like running.

(Or woodpile stocking. You were wondering when I’d bring our neighbor John back around, weren’t you.)

The day in, day out process gradually makes the activity a part of you. It becomes your natural state, and you perform better, and are happier, when you let instinct and experience do the thinking for you. 

Negative thoughts happen. (Your competition looks scary, your preparation hasn’t been great, “can I really run that pace for a whole marathon?”) Let them happen. Sit with them. Don’t use up energy trying to rid yourself of them. That’s my interpretation of our coffee mug inscription.

Andy Palmer (8) , founder of ZAP

Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, MN is next Saturday, and we’re beginning our taper this week. Yes, this blog is about thoughts about thoughts about thoughts (meta-metacognition), which probably makes me seem neurotic. But I’m using this time to let the pre race thoughts swirl where they may. The nice thing about the marathon is you don’t have to have razor sharp focus on the start line: it’s a long race and being loose and goofy in the first several miles can be a good thing.

Although we’re coming to Duluth with a clear time goal (2:11:30, the 2020 Olympic standard), I’ve always raced best when time is a nice bonus effect of well run race, rather than a driving force. This takes the pressure off the first part of the race. It’s a lot "easier" to pick up a little time lost after mile 20 than forcing yourself to run goal pace from the gun and use up your mental strength, only to fall short.

That's what I'm thinking coming into my second marathon experience. I hope that someone out there has actually bothered to scroll all the way to this point and feels they can relate, even if just a smidgeon.

Thanks for reading.

* Andy’s poltergeistic methods include resetting alarm clocks to the hour and minute of his death, the inexplicable serial disappearance of spoons from the ZAP dining room, and possibly inhabiting the soul of an energetic cardinal named Stanley [close rhyme with “Andy”], who, in the morning, flies from window to window attacking his reflection and making sure runners are up and about.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Do Something About It

[I wrote the first part of this blog in June and it’s been caramelizing on the back burner since:]

Once, when I was about twelve, my dad casually mentioned that he had finished sixth in the Milwaukee City Conference Swim meet in high school. For the hundred yard freestyle. I might have been riding shotgun in our rusted out ’92 Toyota pickup (the “Swamp Wagon”) at the time, getting picked up from my own recreation team swim practice. I’m not really sure. What I do remember is being plowed over by the fact that my dad had been, at one time, the sixth best swimmer in Milwaukee, that seemingly huge, sprawling metropolis that covered my entire world as a seventh grader. This is how I interpreted it: my father was better than everyone I saw around me at swimming.

Later, in high school, running came along and started zooming my view out. Way out. Within a couple years after falling in love with running at age fourteen I was trading my microscopic lens for a telescopic mirror, expanding the boundaries of what I knew and thought possible. Winning at the city conference level was sweet but quickly became not quite good enough. I finished runner up at the Wisconsin state level, was disappointed, and wanted more. On to college and then professional running.

"Professional" running.
You don’t stop until you get stopped. Your perspective keeps growing larger, newly spawned and swimming with the current into larger and larger creeks and streams and rivers and bays until, if you stay in what you’re doing long enough, you find the sea.

The sea is where it gets hard as shit to improve. At running and any pursuit in life. You’re not really sure if maybe you’re in the Gulf of Mexico or the Mediterranean or perhaps the South China Sea where there’s still another larger body of water to get to, another higher level of running. You kind of just have to keep training and racing and grinding and believing, knowing rationally that you simply may never get better again, that you’re already in the huge ocean, that you’ve reached your potential. 

That’s what any challenging pursuit comes down to when you’ve been doing it for a long time: facing the other way while you throw resources into a game that, on paper, is ultimately stacked against you. You’ve reaped the early, easy dividends and now every scrap of success comes with ever increasing difficulty. To me (and I’m sure others) the professional running circuit can seem a ruthless landscape over which your fitness is draped, bared to world class competition in nearly every race. You put your ego and, perhaps unhealthily, your perception of yourself on the line every time. There is no hiding. Everyone sees your result. If it sounds like gambling, it sort of is. 

In June walked away disgusted and distraught from the US 5,000m championship race with a fourteenth place finish. It had been yet another track season spent performing at more or less the same level as the last five years. I felt like I was caught in a real life cycle of Deja Vu, spinning my wheels and going nowhere towards the big goals I set out to achieve when I left college. Many people would have given it up long ago, and I don’t say that to sound tough or persistent. A lot of the time, continuing to run feels like insanity. Especially when there’s American society like a parrot on my shoulder, silently screaming at me to quit this very unusual pursuit and lead a normal life. Yet something keeps me in it.

I remember the awe I felt as a twelve year old at my dad being the sixth best high school swimmer our medium size city. Twelve year old Joe would have freaked out if he knew that sixteen years down the road he’d be fourteenth in the country at something. It’s tempting to let a disappointing race kill my enjoyment and love of running, especially when the disappointment now feels cyclical, happening again and again. But the memory with dad grounds me. I feel the bile of failure most when I compare myself to the best-ever version of me (the BEST races I've run, the PRs).

It feels a hell of a lot better to instead compare myself to an earlier time, when I only dreamt of where I am now.

It’s not against the rules to create your own personal definition of success. Crucially, one that rewards you even when other’s calculation of success doesn’t. Sticking your fingers in your ears and reflecting inwardly is more important today than perhaps ever. There’s a lot of noise in both the real world and realm of social media to filter through. (Some of the past  Olympians who come to speak at Zap running camps in the summer admit they might not have been able to maintain the iron will of their heyday in the current age. Too much awareness of everyone else’s training and mentality can be a negative distraction.)

My personal metric for success is simply this:

Success is accomplishing a thing you once, at any point in your life, thought was undoable or impossible.

Two benefits come from this. I can hang my hat (or running spikes) on the accomplishments that got me here. All of them. This forces me to not diminish the importance of an achievement just because I’ve made it much further since. Or to take for granted the situation I’m in. Making the varsity team in high school is just as good as qualifying for the state meet, is just as good as being an All American, is just as good as running professionally. At one point in time, all of them felt out of reach.

Secondly. If I have at one time beaten my own impossible, logically, why can’t I do it again? This is at the core of having hope as an athlete and person. It’s the mentality that you HAVE to have.

Success as doing and re-doing my personal impossible has been skimming under the surface of my running, supporting it, in all the space of my career since I ditched the skateboard for running shoes half a lifetime ago. It’s given me the shots of happiness and fulfillment when I needed them, and these in turn built bridges over the tough periods. It’s what’s keeping me in the game. This is nothing groundbreaking. In some form or another, repeatedly beating their impossible is the basic motivation of most people engaged in challenging and fulfilling activities. I’m just putting the idea into my own words.

So I have a name for the mystical force that keeps me in this business. Now, how to move forward?

When things start getting stale, you can only keep trying the same things for so long. Eventually you need to hold yourself responsible and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

Right now that something for me is the new, bright, and shiny thing called the marathon. It’s the cheat code I’ve saved for last.

That was my position at the poker table coming into this fall ahead of a lifetime first marathon. I hoped that the marathon would give me a chance to reignite my running career, to be excited about running, and to make my Olympic dream seem plausible again.

It has. Last Sunday I ran 2:13:20 at the California International Marathon (CIM) in Sacramento, finishing fourth in the US Championship, qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Trials, and most importantly, completely turning a flagging career in running around. I smile every time I think of the golden, rolling streets of outer Sacramento, our chase pack clipping along neatly through them, and mile after mile gradually coming to the realization I was about to do something like I haven’t done in over half a decade.

I have been so conditioned by failure that success still feels like luck. At CIM I could have easily been one of the guys who fell off the pace with just two miles too go, so close, and limped home to a disappointing day. As close as a mouthful of water short of hydrating enough. I would be in the same place as before. It’s a razor’s edge.

Through running I’ve been shown that one must go through long stretches of seeming failure and apparent nil output until suddenly the dam breaks and all is revealed in its glory. You trudge through year after year of planning and executing and doing and hoping and when you’re in it it seems like you’re going nowhere. Then it falls in your lap. And you’re like oh, duh, of course!

Finding success is as hard as and as simple as fumbling, blindly and insanely, towards some vision.  You probably won’t get to the vision, but you might arrive in a place just as good or better than the vision. You'll be just fine with it because you changed profoundly in the process.

It turned out I wasn’t yet in the ocean. I was in the sea, or maybe just a bay, and I believe with conviction there are still larger expanses of water to get to. Because I beat what I once thought wasn’t possible, just when I was starting to give up on it. 


If I’ve done it once more, I can do it yet again.

Thanks for reading. Here are some upcoming 2019 races:
DateRace NameLocationVenue / Distance
February 8BU Valentine InviteBoston, MAIndoor track 5,000m
March 7Road to GoldAtlanta, GARoad 8.2 mile
March 29Stanford InvitePalo Alto, CATrack 10,000m
May 5US Half Marathon ChampsPittsburgh, PAHalf Marathon
June 22Grandma's MarathonDuluth, MNMarathon
October 22Valencia Half MarathonValencia, SpainHalf Marathon

Friday, January 19, 2018

Heusden to Houston

A few years back, I mentioned to a college team mate that I was running a 5k in Heusden. It was July at the time. “Houston? Hopefully it won’t be too hot there.” Oh no, sorry, I said. Not Houston, Heusden - a little suburban town in Belgium. Heusden is to Brussels as New Jersey is to New York City. The nicer parts of Jersey, that is. And most Belgians don’t really commute. They ride bikes and walk places.

The summer European racing experience has been much doted upon in the blogs and Instagrams of many an American distance runner, myself included. Memories of riding a fart tube across the pond and trickling down through Ireland and over to Belgium from track race to track race each summer will always hold a beloved place in my heart.

Exploring the walls of Luxembourg, scarfing down the homey hospitality of Irish meet committees, climbing on castles, rolling ankles on cobblestones - this is what it’s meant to be a runner on the European ‘B’ track circuit. So far, my years as a professional runner have culminated in the annual July trip to Europe.

Heusden. The KBC Nacht Athletics Meeting held there every July is a must do if you’re a member of the extremely specific blood type American-middle-distance-runner-looking-to-make-it. It’s the meet a lot of people run fast at, but no one back home has really ever heard of. 

2013. It was my first year running Heusden (The statute of limitations is up on this war story). On a warm Belgian evening, the pacer for the ‘B’ heat of the 5,000m dropped out 3,000 meters into the race, leaving our nationally diverse pack of straining runners to propel each other to time standard glory on our lonesome own. Planters of carnations flicked by our feet on the infield. Avicii or something similar played from the press box. A kid dropped his waffle in the grass.

Last year's 5,000m in Heusden. Photo Fabienne Nicolas

As usually happens in these races, the pace slacked with about three laps to go. I decided to be a brash 23 year old (what’s my age again?), put myself on the sacrificial goat side of things, and push the pace at the front of the race. It works, sometimes. Other times it doesn’t.

My goal of 13:30 was in reach on the backstretch of the final lap. “All” I had to do was run a 45 second last 300 meters.

But I ran a 49, and a 13:34, and rode the late bus home to Leuven, the best little medieval, circular town in Europe, pleased with my effort but disappointed with the result.

The Heusden after party in Leuven is also famous amongst those of the aforementioned athlete-traveler persuasion. Stella Artois world HQ is in Leuven, and the beer is cheaper by the glass than water at restaurants in the square at the center of town. The Heusden 5k was to be my final race of the season. We drank a lot of Stella, danced our faces off, and didn’t go home until the sky woke up.

But also not before Aric Van Halen mentioned he was running a 3,000m over in Kortrijk later that day, Sunday, an hour’s train ride away, and would I run it too? On a whim, the last thing I did before collapsing drunkenly on my mattress in our small apartment was enter myself in the Kortrijk meet online.

I woke up feeling surprisingly good. Chugged some water, went for a walk, and ate a Doner Kebab. It was well past noon. Maybe I would go run this 3k in Kortrijk for the hell of it. You don’t think at a deep level when you have a hangover. In this case, that turned out to be the ticket.

…To a win and 3k personal best of 7:49 for 3,000m in Kortrijk. I don’t remember feeling any pain. The good ones sometimes go that way. Your body sends less stress signals. My brain was fuzzy from a long night out. It said shut up! to the any high rpm thoughts trying to escape my prefrontal cortex. 

I spent a few more years chasing times and a breakthrough across the country and world.

Zap Fitness training run in beloved Todd, NC.

2018. I’m 28, and on Sunday morning, I really did run in Houston - the one in big Texas. Not a 5k, but a half marathon. That’s right, I’m allowed to plant a 13.1 sticker on my bike. Yeah, I run. (It actually technically wasn’t my debut. My brother, David beat me up in a half in Milwaukee in what seems like an earlier life.)

When we planned for it back in September, the Houston half marathon represented a literal and figurative change of pace for my running career.  My body had to get used to running 100+ mile weeks again. I dubbed November “niggle November” for the roughly seven moderate injuries that paraded through my muscles and joints that month with the increased workload. Above all, I looked forward to trying something other than than chasing increasingly elderly personal bests on the track.

And then, around the time the new year hit, just two weeks before Houston, I entered a mental rough patch.

I’ve been running professionally for nearly five years now, and it’s been exhilarating, heartbreaking, fun, boring, enlightening, maddening, and the best thing I could imagine myself doing. When you start out after college, you have a gas tank full of excitement and expectation for the future. It gets you through the hard days and bad performances, helping you come back hungry. But it leaks and gets used up. It becomes exponentially harder to improve, so you sift through a long string of new mindsets, subtly different training methods, and meditation rituals.

You look around and realize that most of your colleagues, the runners your age, who you raced when you were kids, have hung up the spikes, have “real jobs”, are married and having kids of their own. American society does a double take when you say you run for a living. And the the longer you do it, the stranger it is. All runners are weirdos, and we thrive on it. But sometimes it’s hard to keep weird. (Maybe I need to visit a former home - Austin, TX).

Agony and ecstasy. Photo Jason Honeycutt

Coming into Houston, running didn’t exactly feel new and shiny anymore. Maybe I was afraid I’d bomb the race. It would mean failing to grab ahold of the life preserver that the half marathon was trying to throw me from the horizon-bound sail boat of my running career.

Feeding my dark mood was a the fact that my big toes and feet had been suddenly and randomly losing control and going floppy at faster paces, especially after longer periods of running. So like, exactly what the half marathon entails. Those symptoms point to a funky sciatic nerve. There was no pain, but my foot plant was being affected, causing my calves to tighten up. And a small mechanical problem could add up over 13.1 miles.

I’ve looked back to that summer 2013 weekend in Heusden and Kortrijk, Belgium for inspiration and example many times. Not for the wild night, but for the place my mind was in when I started the 3,000 on the second day. My brain was animal, then. It didn’t care. It was blind to outside factors.

I had to get my sh*t together for this race in Houston. I had trained too hard to let myself get distracted by the future, or where else and what else I could be doing.

It started getting easier when we left our hotel in Tallahassee for travel to Houston on Thursday. Easier with the familiarity of airports and flights, by now strong associations with race weekends, sizing up competitors in hotel lobbies, feeling the tractor beam of excitement and nervousness beginning to suck us all towards the adrenaline moment of the starting gun on Sunday morning.

When I began feeling these things, I knew I was safe, safe in running. My instincts would handle everything. I was trained.

On Saturday, the day before the race, some of the elite runners in the race spoke in front of a large group of Houston kids who’d run a 5k that morning. One of their questions was typical of these kinds of sessions, and went something like

“what do you guys think about, like in your heads, when you run? How do you keep from wanting to stop?”

Wanting to stop is at the core of running. You heard it from a twelve year old.

When the mic came my way, I had time, and space, and temporality in my head, themes in these less than happy several weeks. I evoked the teachings of Master Yoda in my best impression:

“All his life has he looked away... to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was... what he was doing.”

I told them: be in the mile you’re in, in the footstep you’re in, not thinking about how far there is to go. Back in the hotel room I re-watched the scene with Luke Skywalker and Yoda on Degobah in The Empire Strikes Back. Chills. I hopped up and did another round of neural flossing for my sciatic nerve.

The half and full marathons start at the same time in Houston. 7:00am. They share the same route for about seven miles before the half course turns off and heads back downtown to the finish. One mile into the race, I found myself running in the full marathon lead pack. Their pacer was assigned to hit halfway in 1:03:00, perfect for me. But by mile three it was clear the marathoners were rolling just a tad slower than I wanted. I peeked around the side of their lead truck. Up the road, Matt and the half marathon chase pack were a block of vacant pavement away.

Decision time. Pass the truck, dive into the vacumn, and hope for help from a fellow white-bibbed half marathoner? Or stay put and wait?

I went around the truck. Moments later, a small but powerful figure materialized on my shoulder in the form of Luis Orta, Venezuela’s star runner. Luis and I ran the entire remainder of the race together, bouncing moments of fatigue and spurts of energy off each other as we tackled Houston block by block.  My foot strike got numb and floppy at a few points, but by relaxing and not dwelling on it I kept it in the background. We never did gain ground on Matt’s group, but with each other’s presence we could exist in what would have been no man’s land. The sun rose, all golden light and signpost shadows, during mile four.

Luis Orta and I kicking to the finish in Houston. Photo Michael Scott

Luis and I battled all the way to the line, catching some good scalps in the final 200 meters. He just out-leaned me to break the Venezuelan half marathon record.

In the end, Houston and a debut at the half marathon distance gave me what I needed. I ran 63:35, a good time, not a breakout performance, but enough to be proud of. Sitting here five days later I’m still feeling the delicious soreness in my quads and hamstrings left by Houston’s pavement. It feels good to have a new personal best. Damn good, actually. Even if it’s a first go. I like that the distance feels so different than the stinging pain of a track 5,000m - like a novella that does some unfolding before you’re through with it. 

Writing this in Tallahassee during a little down week in training, I think I have my spark back. I’m looking forward to another debut. Somehow, I’ve made it all this way never having run a 10,000m on the track. 25 laps fits snugly between the new experience of 13.1 miles on the road and the quick pace of the 5,000m, a world I’m quite well versed in.

Winning is fun. Being healthy and happy and PR’ing is fun. Especially when these things come easy, like in Kortrijk. When I drank a bunch of beer and shouldn't have run well, but did. The memory of that race is a curse, too, for how little I had to struggle for success. A simultaneously good and bad example from the past, for the future.

They're amazing, the intangibles in running. In any endeavor, for that matter. Wanting to stop, and then not having stopped - that's how you win.

It’s nice when life goes your way. But no one gets these things all the time.

If you did, you’d know nothing about yourself.

Here are some things I'm looking forward to:
DateRace NameLocationVenue / Distance
March 30Raleigh RelaysRaleigh, NCTrack 1500
April 14B.A.A. 5kBoston, MARoad 5k
May 3Payton Jordan InvitePalo Alto, CATrack 10,000m
June 21 - 24USATF Outdoor ChampionshipsDes Moines, IAWho knows?
July 4Peachtree ChallengeAtlanta, GARoad 10k

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Moving On Up

A few hours after the Ed Murphey Mile in Memphis, Tennessee I shifted balance on the wall I was perched on outside a bar filled to capacity. My track season had just ended. As I craned my neck to see inside through big glass windows, huge versions of Floyd Mayweather and Connor McGregor danced, projected onto the bar wall during round eight of their much anticipated fight. Out there in the Memphis night there was barely room to get an unobstructed view of a TV inside.

Earlier in the evening, eight of us took up our own stage on a high school track on the outskirts of Memphis.  Standing on the makeshift mile start line, thousands of fans clamored at our periphery in the outside lanes and the infield. We felt something like Mayweather and McGregor must have felt in the ring. All athletes do. Knowing that was pain was about to come. Feeling the proximity of human bodies, leaning in, anticipation palpable in eyes.

Just eight men and seven women comprised the mile/1500m fields in Memphis, including pacers. Crowded, physical races are part of running, but this very small field was refreshing after a spring and summer of jockeying for position in US, Irish, and Belgian track races. Minutes before our race, the women put on a great 1500 meter show, and the crowd was still buzzing. The entire track was lined with people. 

Their roar abruptly crescendoed at the start as if torn from the starter's gun, its wave rippling around the oval, preceding and following us as we covered four laps for the mile. I never remember much detail from a race, but I do recall hearing "USA! USA! USA!" on each run of the backstretch. The pace was good and fast early as we passed 800m in one minute and fifty six seconds. 

Pacer Jesse Garn (a great guy) takes us through three laps in the inaugural Ed Murphey Mile in Memphis, TN.

You never truly settle in a mile. It's too short a race, and even the smallest gap to the guy or girl ahead can lose you the race. You enter into a state of strained relaxation at the intersection of conscious thought and subconscious action. The world collapses down into a few blurry objects seen through a pinhole, the wind in your ears, and the notion of how much you have left in your legs versus how far it is to the finish.

With six hundred meters to go I was in second place behind Craig Engels, one of those young guns right out of college. He had just cut his magic mullet off a few weeks earlier, so I thought maybe my old man strength could prevail over him. We were cutting the fastest pace I'd personally been on for a mile or 1500 in the past several seasons, so the letters P and R started floating around in my head on the second bend of the third lap.

But seconds later, coming around into the bell lap, Craig, in the lead, slowed down considerably. It was then that I made the mistake of not maintaining our roll and going around him. Instead, Eric Avila shot out of third past us into the lead. By then there were 400 meters left, I was in third place, and the kick was on.

It is here that we come to the point of, or at least part of the thrust behind, this blog you are reading.

Sticking to a strategy that isn't paying off, but still has a chance to, can be scary. In most endeavors, (except for like, trying to hit a piñata blindfolded)  you'll never find success unless you pursue a given strategy for a long, long, (long) time, wringing it of its potential. We have a word for that: committing. Running is one of those endeavors (you should still commit to the piñata because there's candy in it.)

After finding success in them, I've been committed to running shorter distance races (1500m, mile, 5,000m) since college, and I've been consistent. But pretty much just that: consistent. Running up to and just barely kissing personal bests each year, racking up many 5k performances in the thirteen-thirties and miles with one or two seconds of four minutes. Good performances, but not ones in line with my desire to continue improving.

So imagine my mingled dismay and disbelief when, after that last lap in Memphis, after cushioning ourselves by a full four seconds below four minute mile and P.R. pace through halfway, and seeing the door open to the lead heading into the bell, I finished fourth and the clock read 4:00.3 next to my name in the end. We’d slowed down too much on the third lap and it cost us. Btw, I had ran 4:00.7 three weeks earlier in Raleigh. I told you I was consistent.

(I'm not asking for your phalanges to ply the world's smallest fiddle for me here. Everyone's running career is a big series of experiments, and results are results, especially when they're less than "stellar". [Let me also say that disappointment very quickly gave way to joy at being part of such a great event in Memphis. The top three got under four, so it was a historic race. Having barely finished, I turned around and jogged down the line of spectators for a round of high fives.  My legs experienced a second round of numbing lactic buildup even at ten minute pace {how the hell do people do victory laps or post-race dances <Ezekiel Kemboi> looking so good?!}, but my spirit was quickly repaired. That's the beauty of events that get the fans close, physically, to the athletes. Like Memphis, Sir Walter Miler in Raleigh, the Long Island Mile, and others have been popping up. Like boxing. {In fact I started writing so much on the topic of making running more popular through format and presentation that I had to fork it over to a  separate, forthcoming blog. Stay tuned.}])

Getting fans close to athletes is the future of this sport. Sir Walter Miler in Raleigh, NC.

Memphis ended as somewhat of a paraphrase of my entire season: healthy, running pretty fast, but performing time and time again on the same plane. Our strength coach at Texas once told us that the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That’s not really what it says in the dictionary, but I’ve been feeling a bit insane in that sense lately. 

So it’s finally time to try a new strategy. I’m selling my car and moving to Saskatchewan!

Just kidding. I’m not going anywhere. Luckily running offers more than one surface to gallop upon, and plenty of distances to gallop over.  It's time for me to move up in distance. 

No, not to the marathon. Yet. I’m not ready to relinquish all my fast twitch muscle fibers. Just half of them. I’ll be running the Houston Half Marathon in January. Race weekend in Houston will likely have a healing and inspiring effect on the city after Hurricane Harvey, and I’m excited to run and be part of the race. The remainder of 2018 will include more racing on the roads than on the track, although I’ll run a track 10,000m or two in the spring, and will probably hate myself afterwards.

Training will change, too. I’ve never trained like a true miler, but in parallel with the shorter distances I’ve targeted in the past few years, things like volume (mileage over time) and intensity of workouts have always been closer to a shorter, faster, trackier motif while at Princeton, Texas, and Zap Fitness. That’s going to change.

Basically my running pedigree boils down to a battle between my mom and dad’s sides of the family. Dad, with his shorter, stockier stature lends speed and power (and my big butt) to the equation. But then mom comes in and lets me run really far, with her thin, tall dad and willowy ancestors. I’ve been giving them both a chance up until now by focusing on the classic speed/distance combo that is the 5,000m event.  So sorry, dad. Time to give mom and the longer, strength oriented side some more love with things like triple digit mile weeks, longer threshold workouts and tempo runs, and farther long runs.

Squad. Andrew, Aaron, Brandon, and I line up for the Morton Games 5,000m in Dublin this summer.

Absolutely the most important thing for a runner (or anyone, with any passion) is to be excited about running and to keep having fun doing it. When you’ve reached a stale point or a bit of a plateau/mesa type thing, it’s time to make a change. Running in a few new events and getting a novel race calendar is exciting. Even more so is the renewed prospect of finding my true strength and reigniting my belief that I can make a world championship or olympic team. With new goals and a plan to reach them, it feels as if I’ve retired from one job and taken up a new one, where the water cooler is twice as far away, I work late on weekends, and have a brand new stapler.

I took a two week active break after the Memphis Ed Murphey Mile, and am now in the second week of building up mileage. My first race back actually makes this whole blog look like a lie, since it’s a 5k - the USATF Championship / Dash to the Finish Line race in New York City. Last time I ran that race, in 2013, I first met and shared a hotel room with the late runner David Torrence, who tragically died last month at way too young an age. It being one of my first races on the pro circuit, DT made an impression on me. He was eager to hand down seasoned wisdom on training and traveling and racing to a young pro just getting started (though he kept the room way too cold). I was always very impressed with his racing savvy and ability to run everything from the 800m to the 5,000m and beyond at a super high level, and his ability to pump up crowds and make people love him. He will be missed.

After New York it’s a few more road races in November and the Club Cross Country Championships in December. The fall/winter cycle builds to the Houston half marathon in January, after which we’ll start looking at that 25 lap track race and road races around the country.

For those of you who’ve somehow managed to read all the way to here, I reward you with an update on the Zap Fitness vegetable garden. This year has seen by far our most abundant harvest. The tomatoes did decently, though many get caterpillarized if you don’t pick them soon enough. Our real windfall was in jalapeños. They are the spiciest, tastiest ‘peños I’ve ever indulged in. Going in and coming out. And we have more basil than we know what to do with. Make a lot of pesto I guess.

That's it for now. Thanks for reading.

Upcoming race schedule:
DateRace NameLocationVenue / Distance
November 4US 5k Road Champs/Abbott Dash to the FinishNew York, NYRoad 5k
November 11VCU Health 8kRichmond, VARoad 8K
November 23Manchester Road RaceManchester, CTRoad 4.748 miles
December 9Club Cross Country ChampionshipsLexington, KYCross country 10k
January 14Aramco Houston Half MarathonHouston, TXHalf Marathon