A couple weeks ago, a lot of my friends in my Facebook Feed were popping up with comments and results from the Colorado Marathon up in Fort Collins. It reminded me that, hey, I ran that race once. And that, holy shit, it was 10 years ago! In retrospect, that 2004 marathon—my third, at that point—and that spring in general, was a harbinger in a lot of ways for where my running has taken me 10 years later. There were two main themes to my running that spring: 1) a shift to minimalism and barefooting in my footwear choices, 2) a frustration with track racing and speedwork and subsequent turn towards the longer distances.
One meets a lot of influential people in college, and for me, Kiran Moorty was one of those people. In early 2004 this talented freshman runner (I was a junior) started experimenting with wearing shoes that were light, flexible, and had little to no drop between the heel and forefoot. He even started running barefoot on a regular basis, and later that spring would do 400m repeats on the track in aqua socks. Kiran had a pretty deep interest in primitivism and indigenous cultures and one that he mentioned—the now-famous Tarahumaras of Mexico—tripped my memory of some 1970s running literature I’d read in high school about this tribe in Mexico that would spend days kicking a wooden ball. The article I had seen had focused more on the age-longevity that resulted from active, calorie-restricted lifestyles, but it had piqued my interest, nonetheless. How could anyone run along kicking a ball for multiple days, I wondered. Additionally, I’d sustained 12 stress fractures in the previous six years, and a lot of what Kiran (and our internet sources, mostly anecdotes from the Letsrun message board, as I recall) was saying about shoes, running mechanics, and injury prevention was making sense.
For Spring Break that year, Kiran and I went on a backpacking trip together along the Buffalo River in northern Arkansas (the better to spectate at the NCAA Indoor Track Champs that same week in Fayetteville—Alistair Cragg and Kim Smith dominated the distance events that weekend) and during this trip I started experimenting with “minimal” footwear myself. This meant first simply removing the stiff, fiberglass orthotics that I’d been wearing since I was a sophomore in high school. Over the next six weeks I got rid of the orthotics completely, started doing a little barefoot running on grass, and gradually started wearing road racing flats for my daily running instead of the motion control shoes I’d been in for the past six years. Kiran was even the instigator for my first foray into shoe modification: we would buy pairs of the New Balance RC240 racing flat from the Colorado Running Company for $40 and hack the heels off with bread knives to achieve the desired zero-drop effect.
Meanwhile, I was having an increasingly frustrating track season, trying to run fast for the 1500, 5000, and 10000. A typical week of training was in the 100-110mpw range, with a Monday long run (15-20mi) on trails, Tuesday and Thursday high-intensity interval sessions on the track, and Saturday races. Looking back, it’s pretty obvious why I was racing so poorly—going too hard in workouts trying to run with faster teammates, running too hard on the “easy” days in between workouts, all while running some pretty high mileage—but at the time I was unwilling to change anything, probably because I thought if I just tried hard enough, things would certainly improve.
At this point in my running life, I was at the peak of believing that running was very much a sport that would reward you proportional to what you gave it. If I ran more, and at a higher intensity, of course I would be compensated with improvement, PRs, the realization of my lofty goals. In the classroom, I was splitting my time between Physics and Philosophy. I quickly latched onto the Continental Existentialists’ dictum that life’s meaning was the individual’s responsibility. Meaning required self-creation; there was no place for chance, luck, or fate. I saw running as an apt avenue for practicing this belief (my thoughts on this have…evolved…over the last 10 years).
Of course, I was overtrained. The nadir of my disappointment came in late April at Grinnell College in Iowa, where I raced a desultory 36:55 10k in the humid morning, followed by a just as bad 17min 5k in the brilliantly warm, spring afternoon. My Dad had driven over from Nebraska to spectate, and I remember being baffled talking with him, trying to figure out how I was running so poorly. The Grinnell track meet held a sort of magical aura for us Colorado College athletes. It was oxygen-rich, low-altitude; the vibrant, lush spring-time green-ness of the Midwest was always an inspiring departure from the more arid environs of Colorado Springs; and the track had short straightaways and long, gentle curves, making for what felt like shorter, faster laps (of course, they were still 400m). Personally, in 2001, I had almost accepted my entry there instead of attending CC.
After that meet, I was fed up. On the interminable, through-the-night, 16hr bus ride back to the mountains, I resolved to quit caring about track and instead focus on running the Colorado Marathon in Ft. Collins in three weeks time. Despite having raced 15k on the track the day before, spending all night on the bus, and not getting back to my dorm until 5am Sunday morning, I slept only 3hr, got up, and went and logged a 20 miler through the Garden of the Gods and the COS foothills. I was happy with my decision; long runs just felt right.
The next day, I talked with my coach, who, much to his credit, agreed to let me substitute the team interval workouts with tempos and long runs but still run the last meets of the season with the team. The following weekend I made my first true foray into the “ultra” distances (I’d run the 25mi up and down Pikes Peak a couple of times, which was longer on my feet, but technically not further than a marathon) with a 30mi out-and-back training run on Colorado Springs’ central trail along Monument Creek. The challenge of the unknown distance inspired me, and, much to my surprise, I felt better and better as the run went on, averaging 6:40s the whole way and finishing up with an almost accidental sub-6min final mile. I ran the last 10km faster than the 10k I could muster on the track in Grinnell.
I was quite taken aback. In contrast to trying to run fast on a track, this felt so right, so effortless, really. Natural, empowering, restorative and strengthening rather than the seeming stress and destruction—both mental and physical—that resulted from interval workouts. I’d been running for nine years and never had an aspect of it come so easily to me. I had, obviously, always worked very hard—and loved putting in all that work—but I had never really felt any sort of tangible, quantitative, performance pay-off for it. Suddenly, it seemed obvious to me that I needed to forget about 5k’s and 10k’s and focus on long stuff, the fun stuff, marathons and farther. I was even more excited to head to Ft. Collins in two weeks time and race a marathon.
Before that, though, I had one more track meet left in the season, in Albuquerque, NM on May 1. With my coach, I decided to race the 1500m and 800m, instead of the usual 5k. And with a marathon only a week later, I was no longer emotionally attached to my results on the track; I remember I doubled the day before the meet and even ran an early morning 5mi shake-out before the afternoon races. Again, much to my surprise, two weeks after substituting long runs for speedwork, I PRed in both the 1500 and 800. My times were flagrantly mediocre–4:25 and 2:11–but, hey, they were the fastest I’d ever gone (and remain my PRs to this day), and that’s always fun. Five days later, on May 6th, the 50th anniversary of Roger Bannisters first sub-4min mile, I set a PR in the mile of 4:42 (at 6000′ in COS) in a celebratory time-trial with some of my teammates.
Another three days later, I PR’ed in the marathon, running a 2:47:18 for 3rd place in Ft. Collins. The night before, Kiran had driven up to FoCo with me and we bivied in sleeping bags on the infield of CSU’s track before the early wake-up for me to catch the shuttle bus to the start in the Poudre River Canyon (we were sure to scope out a spot free from sprinkler-water). I’d been running nine years, I was 20 years old, and finally it felt like I was taking my running in the right direction. I didn’t win—I mean, I was nearly a minute per mile off the pace!—but I felt good about what I was doing. Running fast for that long was exhilarating and new and best of all, satisfying. Not to mention, I’d PR’ed across the entire spectrum of race distances since cutting out formal speedwork.
Obviously, college is all about trying new things, finding out what is important to you, developing a personal set of values, discovering your passions and talents, but it is still striking to me just how enduring the constellation of revelations and new experiences I was having in the spring of 2004 have been 10 years onwards. Sure, things have evolved for me in those 10 years, and it would take me another full two years after my race at the Colorado Marathon before I got around to racing my first ultra, but there’s no denying it’s role in nudging me towards the things I do today. Maybe I’ll have to go back and race it again next year.
EDITORS NOTE: ANTON SWORE OFF INTERVALS – WHAT ABOUT YOU?? WE LIKE YOUR COMMENTS.
Great story! Good instructional and emotional content both.
Maybe we should have a party every April to celebrate your quitting-intervals day.
Of course, I’ve re-lapsed a couple of times in the last 10 years. In the month leading up to the American River 50 in 2008 I put in three different interval sessions: 5xmile; 3mi-2mi-1mi (a Kyle Skaggs inspiration via Uli Steidl); and a 3mi uphill tempo followed by 3x1mi flat (Of course, I do uphill tempos all the time…several times a week, really, when I’m training hard). That ended up in a win and fast time.
And then, in the month leading up to running Rocky Raccoon in 2011, I did a similar set of three different workouts all on the track: 4xmile, 4mi-1mi; 3x2mi. That resulted in a 30min+ defeat (Ian Sharman ran his scintillating 12:44 that day) and an 18 month shin injury.
Intervals aren’t evil. Some of my favorite memories from college XC are still the 24x400m workouts we would do on grass in late October, cooling down in the dark. My last season I was even doing those barefoot.
Really, really enjoyed reading that!!! Ur articles about running are by far the most fun to read.
Really nice. Enjoyed your story!
ahaha…and heres me at 30 thinking of doing speed work for the first time!
– I like your road better though 😉 🙂
Clarity and poignancy as always. I have always enjoyed your writings and this just confirms why. Really, thanks for this. (and don’t give up on those Continental Existentialists just yet…:-) )
Great read thanks Anton. You’re a real inspiration for me. I was a state cross country runner in school and just found my passion for running again about a year and a half ago when I started trail running and videos featuring you. You and Sage inspire me to keep pushing through and enjoy my running and help me with my battle against my severe exercise induced asthma. Earlier this year I got rhabdomyolisis due to it and a combination of other things so its been good to read and learn alot of different approaches during my downtime. Thank you again from Australia.
This sounds very much like the stories told in Joe Henderson’s much maligned book Long Slow Distance. There is a place in the running world for this type of simplified training. Running comfortably hard for comfortably long distances can produce some impressive results. Thanks Anton.
Wow…riveting story…and one in which I can relate. I have 2 marathons coming up shortly and my first 50k in October. This week, I’ve done 16mi of speedwork…but tomorrow, I’ll be going out on a 16-miler. And for me as well, the “long run” just “feels better”. But “many voices” out there preach speed work for improvement, etc. I think I just need to start listening to me (first). GREAT STORY, ANTON – THANK YOU FOR IT!
I used to think that intervals were the purest way to run. A kind of zen exercise by its repetitions and lack of instantaneus goal. But your story may change my mind about that. Thank you from France, Anton.
Anton, I’m curious, do you still write your running journal with a pen or do you just use a computer now?