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Chasing Glory: Runners are, and are not, Different

by Matt Taylor - chasingGLORY By now, the greatest American road race has been run — the men’s Olympic Marathon Trials. Many of you already know the results, some of you saw the race in person, and a very select few of you even participated. Unfortunately, the editors here at Peak Running Performance needed this story before the gun went off on November 3rd, sending the deepest American marathon field ever from Rockefeller Center into Central Park. But maybe that’s better; it frees this piece from hindsight that comes from knowing the results. You see, in the weeks leading up to the race I had the opportunity to observe many of the top athletes as they prepared — some in groups, some in isolation — for their chance to represent the U.S.A. in the 2008 Olympics. In the spring of 2007 I was asked by the New York Road Runners (the Marathon Trials host) to produce a project showcasing the top contenders — the athletes most likely to find themselves on the marathon start line in Beijing next year. Teamed with TV analyst Toni Reavis and tasked with creating a seven-week multimedia experience for the fans, we coordinated schedules with the athletes, charted our course, and decided on a name for our project — Chasing Glory. One week later, on a hot, sticky summer morning, we were in Rochester Hills, Michigan, home to the Hansons Distance Project and Brian Sell. In the ensuing weeks, as we traveled from Rochester Hills to Tucson to Boulder, it became clear that running performance is not black and white. There are many ways to reach peak fitness. The key is finding the variables that dovetail best with your current life situation.

Runners are different, as the Adidas ads used to say, but not as much as we like to think, at least not in terms of our desire to improve. Like an artist, a teacher, or a Fortune 500 vice president, runners imitate other, more accomplished runners. If Ryan Hall does 80-meter hill repeats, the thinking goes, then I should do 80-meter hill repeats. While such logic makes sense to many of us, it doesn’t guarantee improvement. Runners, as a group, are not different; but each individual runner is. Our shape, size, mental health, discipline, genes, physiology — no two of us are exactly the same. So why, in our quest for a new personal best, would we imitate another runner? This principle — that each runner is different — should dictate every aspect of your training regimen. There are general principles that provide the foundation for any training plan, but those principles are just that — a foundation. They provide the base on which you must build according to your physical, mental, social, and personal variables. What separates a starving artist from a well-fed one is not just technique — it’s creativity. What separates a good teacher from the one whose class every student wants to take is not just the lesson plan — it’s the presentation. What separates the career vice president from the next CEO is not just intellect — it’s vision. And what separates a stagnant runner from an ever-improving one is not just the long run — it’s a personalized training plan: a plan that takes into account every facet of the runner’s life, including his or her current work, home, physical, and mental states. As Toni and I traveled the country — a running fan’s dream vacation — it became very clear: even at the highest level of the sport, no two athletes train exactly the same.

The Hansons Distance Project and Brian Sell
Brian Sell is a self-proclaimed blue-collar runner. And with 150 miles on the road and 20 hours working at Home Depot most weeks, he earns the title. He grew up on a farm in rural

Pennsylvania and graduated with little fanfare from St. Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania. “He’s a country boy. He’s a hometown guy,” his wife Sarah tells us. So joining the Hansons Distance Project after a college running career that raised few eyebrows made sense to Brian. Even before he started in the Home Depot Olympic Development Program (which allows Olympic hopefuls to work 20 flexible hours, but be paid for 40), Brian worked in receiving at the Hansons Running Store. “Brian is a hands-on guy,” says Hansons co-founder Keith Hanson. “He likes to be doing physical labor.” That steady grind of physical labor — running and manual — has produced two 2:10 performances and one of the most consistent marathoners in America. The Hansons training philosophy is one of volume and consistency: run a lot of miles for many years and you will run a good marathon. The results have been impressive — the Hansons will have 13 men toe the starting line at the Olympic Marathon Trials, more than any other group in the country. But of those athletes only Brian is considered a contender to make the Olympic team. The others — guys like Mike Morgan and Kyle O’Brien — were decent college athletes, but raised few eyebrows at the NCAA level. Sound familiar? Brian Sell is the face of the Hansons Distance Project, and as such has helped recruit a certain type of athlete to Rochester Hills. But it doesn’t mean the other athletes do exactly as Brian does. Brian is the only athlete who works at Home Depot. Some work in the running stores. Clint Verran (5th in the 2004 Olympic Marathon Trials) has his own physical therapy practice. Brian is married and owns his home. Mike Morgan lives with other runners on the team in one of the three houses owned by Kevin and Keith Hanson. Marty Rosendahl rents his own apartment because “having Kevin and Keith as my coach, boss, and landlord confused things.” While all the athletes lay the same foundation — many miles over many years in a team environment — each one, often through trial and error,

must fill it in with the physical, mental, social, and personal elements that suit his needs. Only then will the athlete see steady improvement over time. Even within this highly structured training environment, what works for Brian Sell doesn’t necessarily work for anyone else. But the common elements of the Hansons Distance Project are producing great results. What started with three runners is now one of the most respected marathon training groups in the country. But does that mean you should run 150 miles per week and take a job at the local hardware store? Maybe. Maybe not.

Abdi Abdirahman

The Tucson heat surrounded and penetrated every inch of our bodies. To say it was hot is an understatement. You couldn’t touch the steering wheel; we had to drive with a towel or ball cap — anything that had been in the shade — draped over it. It was miserable. “Hot enough for you guys?” Abdi asked with his infectious grin when we first met him at the University of Arizona track. He just stepped out of his black GMC Denali with black leather seats and a black dash. “Black on black,” Abdi mused, “That’s not something you see often here in Tucson. But I love it.” To say Abdi “fits” in Tucson is also a gross understatement. He is the selfproclaimed Mayor to Tucson, the Black Cactus. Like the saguaro cacti that dot the barren hillsides on the outskirts of Tucson, Abdi has adapted to, and thrived in, his surroundings. Originally from Somalia, Abdi escaped civil strife in that country as a child, finding refuge in Mombassa, Kenya — a hot, arid location that recently hosted the 2007 World Cross Country Championships. In his late childhood, he made his way to America and eventually to the University of Arizona. It was there that Abdi developed into a top distance runner. After graduating from the U of A, Abdi decided to stay in Tucson to continue working with his coach, Dave Murray. “I knew right away that this guy had potential,” Murray tells us. “You could just see it in his stride, he was going to

be a marathoner.” But it wasn’t easy convincing Abdi. “At first he said, ‘No. No way coach. [The marathon] is waaaay too far.’ But after that first one, he was hooked.” Today Abdi is a world-class marathoner with a sub-2:09 performance at the 2006 Chicago Marathon. But he hasn’t forgotten his first love. “I love [the track],” Abdi says with a smile, “to run around in circles with all those people watching…that’s great.” So it was no surprise when Abdi decided to run the 2007 Track & Field World Championships in Osaka, Japan, just two months prior to the Marathon Trials. While other athletes were at home logging 100+ miles per week on their own, Abdi was in Osaka competing against the best track athletes in the world (he finished 7th in the 10,000 m). “I can’t be dictatorial as a coach,” Murray told us of Abdi’s decision to compete in Osaka. “I would have rather had him up in Flagstaff preparing for the Trials, but when he told me, ‘Coach, I can do this,’ I had to support that decision.” Abdi loves to race. Keep him away from competition for too long and he grows restless, bored. Running 130 miles per week with a 6-month buildup before each marathon wouldn’t work for Abdi. You can’t run more than two, maybe three marathons each year, so for him, 80–90 miles per week with highintensity work on the track is the key. It’s what allows him to never be too far away from race-ready. Does than mean you should race as often as possible before your next marathon? Maybe. Maybe not.

Dathan Ritzenhein
It’s hard to feel out of place in Eugene, Oregon — Track Town, U.S.A. “In Boulder the people are very active, but with lots of outdoor activities, like biking, hiking, and rock climbing,” Kalin Ritzenhein tells on the back porch of her and Dathan’s new home. “Here, in Eugene, the people are also very active, but they’re all running.” Even ESPN has taken notice: during a recent Oregon football game, they mentioned the late Steve Prefontaine as a local legend and

rightly defined Eugene as a hotbed for distance running and track & field. But until recently it was Boulder, not Eugene, which attracted many of America’s (and the world’s) top distance runners. So it was a surprise to most when Dathan Ritzenhein packed up his belongings and moved from Boulder to Eugene. It wasn’t just the move — a definite blow to Boulderites — that surprised people; it was the timing. The U.S. Track & Field Championships were to take place in June, the World Track & Field Championships in August, and the Olympic Marathon Trials in November. Oh, and they were expecting their first child in September. “I look at it like a professional baseball or basketball player would,” Ritzenhein explains. “They get traded in the middle of the season and have to relocate to another city. It’s no different for us.” But he concedes, “To leave Boulder wasn’t easy, especially with Kalin expecting our first baby, but we tried to make it as stress-free of a move as possible.” “We aren’t turning our backs on Boulder,” Ritzenhien’s coach, Brad Hudson explained. “We made this decision because we thought it was best for Dathan’s career.” Since enrolling at the University of Colorado in Boulder after a stellar high school career, Ritzenhein has shown flashes of brilliance interspersed with multiple injuries. “After each injury I would make the changes that I thought were necessary to prevent it from happening again,” he explains. “After the last injury, we finally said, ‘OK, that’s it. We need to go to sea level.’ And here we are.” Ritzenhein has trained at sea level before, with great success. “Now we’re based at sea level and we’ll go to altitude at certain times of the year,” Hudson says. “Before we were based at altitude and would use what money we had to go to camps at sea level.”

It’s a move that Ritzenhein and Hudson expect will pay big dividends over the coming years. Ritzenhein is a notorious trainer, hammering workouts that make even other elite athletes cringe. “Dathan has the capacity to push himself to his physiological limits.” Hudson says with pride. “It’s a gift.” But it’s also a curse. Prior to the 2006 NYC Marathon, Hudson believed that Ritzenhein could contend for the win. Instead, he faded from the leaders at mile 20, finishing 11th in 2:14:01. Respectable, but below expectations. Always tinkering with his plan, Hudson changed course. “The marathon-specific period before New York was too long. Because Dathan can train so hard, he gets fit very quickly. Leading into the Trials we’ll do a shorter marathon-specific phase.” With a new plan, a new training environment, and a new baby (Addison), Dathan Ritzenhein is back on course. High expectations have followed him from Rockford, Michigan to Boulder, Colorado, and now to Eugene, Oregon — Track Town, U.S.A. Time will tell if this latest move helps Ritzenhein live up to them. Does that mean you should disrupt your life, pack up your belongings, and move to a more suitable training environment? Maybe. Maybe not.

Mammoth Lakes
The latest city to throw its name into the ring of running meccas is Mammoth Lakes, California. And why not? It’s home to two Olympic medalists — Deena Kastor (bronze, Athens) and Meb Keflezighi (silver, Athens) — and current American Record Holder at the Half Marathon, Ryan Hall (59:43, Houston). Located at 7,000 feet with easy access to trails 1,000–2,000 feet higher, Mammoth is the new altitude hotspot. But wait, didn’t Dathan Ritzenhein just move from altitude in Boulder to sea level in Eugene? “Mammoth is a great place to train,” Ryan Hall’s coach, Terrence Mahon tells us in the parking lot of the local coffee shop. “Yea, but it must be tough to get anywhere,” I counter. The closest airport is Reno, a

winding 3-hour drive. “Exactly. That’s what I like about it. When you’re here, there’s only one thing to focus on — training.” As Toni and I followed Ryan, Deena, and some other Mammoth athletes through Inyo National Forest, the sheer beauty of our surroundings gave us pause. So did the hills. “If you can’t get fit here,” Toni remarked as we were spit out by the forest into an open, insanely surreal landscape, “you can’t get fit anywhere.” In many ways, Mammoth Lakes is a runner’s paradise. But it’s not just the scenic trails that draw great athletes. Instead, what’s attracting the next crop of American distance stars — like Kate O’Neill and Kassi Andersen — is the young tradition digging its roots in this resort town. “To train here with these athletes — I mean Deena Kastor! She’s my idol. It’s just such a great opportunity,” Andersen tells us on the way to Lake Mary, a beautiful lake around which a rolling paved road runs, perfect for tempo training. “But at the same time, we’re not here to just copy what the others are doing. Coach works with us on an individual basis to make sure we’re getting everything we need.” After the run at Inyo National Forest with Olympic medalist Kastor and American Record Holder Hall standing by, Coach Mahon spent 15 minutes working with Andersen on her drills. Later, in the weight room, he helped Kate O’Neill refine the motion of a particular exercise. This is not a training group that revolves around one or two star athletes; this is a group committed to developing each athlete to his or her full potential. Watching Ryan Hall click off intervals at marathon-race effort in his preparation for the Olympic Trials, it’s easy to see the allure of Mammoth Lakes. Does this mean you should move to a secluded mountain town and train in relative isolation with a small group of athletes? Maybe. Maybe not.

The New Boulder

So where does all of this leave Boulder, the one-time undisputed mecca of distance running? “We went through a period where everyone was training on their own,” long-time Boulderite Pete Julian explains as we drive alongside a group of 15 athletes doing their long run. “People were getting a little cagey, like there were these big secrets to keep from one another. We finally said, ‘enough is enough.’ It was time to get everyone back together.” He can’t control his smile. “We’re back.” A few miles later, as former World Record Holder Steve Jones hands out water bottles to Julian, Alan Culpepper, and a cast of other runners, a small pack of Kenyans whip around the corner. They and many other international athletes would argue that Boulder never left. Since the 1970s it has attracted world-class runners not only from the U.S., but also from Romania, Kenya, Britain, Japan, and New Zealand. “It feels like the 1970s all over again,” James Carney explains after a hard 30minute run up Lefthand Canyon with Eduardo Torres. “Boulder has definitely contributed to my success because there’s so much positive energy here.” “For many years I did this on my own,” Culpepper tells us from his home in Lafayette, Colorado, a few miles outside Boulder. “But I got to a point where I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t get out of the car when the wind was blowing 40 miles per hour. Not on my own.” Culpepper continues to explain the new elite training group he, Julian, and Steve Jones have formed — Tempo Sports. It’s a way for athletes like Alan to surround themselves with the resources they need to carry on. Another athlete taking advantage of Boulder’s available resources is Fasil Bizuneh. With the goal of finishing on the podium at the Olympic Trials, Fasil moved to an apartment complex on the outskirts of Boulder to live with the Kenyans of KIMbia Athletics (for more on training with the Kenyans see Peak Running Performance July/Aug ’07 16.4, and Nov/Dec ’06 15.6). There he has some of the best marathoners in the world as training partners and massage

and physical therapists on staff. “It’s a great situation for me,” Fasil explains. “I want to make the Olympic team and I felt coming to Boulder gave me the best opportunity to do so.” Similar to the Hansons, athletes like Bizuneh and Culpepper and Carney have come to Boulder to be a part of a group. But unlike the Hansons, they don’t work second jobs. Instead, they’re taking the single-minded approach to development. Does that mean you should quit your job and move to a shack in the foothills of Boulder? Maybe. Maybe not.

Running is anchored in a set of physiological principles that can’t be ignored; athletes must develop the right combination of aerobic and anaerobic capacity for their specific event. Finding the right mix has always been the Holy Grail. But even athletes at the highest level of the sport, with access to the best coaches, the best technology, the most suitable training environments, and the most current information, differ from one another in their approach. Some athletes, like Ryan Hall, Deena Kastor, and Alan Culpepper, train at altitude. Dathan Ritzenhein and Brian Sell feel that they can achieve more at sea level. Abdi Abdirahman likes the smoldering sun of Tucson. Abdi runs less mileage but with higher intensity, while the Hansons grind out the miles. Abdi races more, the Hansons less. Ryan was doing 10-mile tempo runs at 5-minute pace in high school; Dathan was tearing up the track. Abdi didn’t start running until he went to college. Alan Culpepper won five Texas state titles in cross country and track. So how can you determine what’s best? The short answer is: you can’t. Instead of trying to mimic more accomplished runners, maximize the resources in your given environment. Lay the foundation as the elite athletes do, but then build your own structure on top of it. Runners need to strive to achieve the same types of physiological breakthroughs, but they need to achieve it through their own means, on their own terms. Remember

the basic principles of training, but don’t be afraid to be different.