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Longevity and durability vs. natural ability

How many current competitive trail/ultra runners were successful prep athletes?

I ask this question because I know that many of the top ultra runners in the country and world never qualified for the state track meet in high school.  Although they are known by the trail community as roadies, neither Max King nor Sage Canaday would have considered themselves speedsters in high school.  Granted, they both hail from Oregon - land of Steve Prefontaine, Nike, historic Hayward Field, and Track Town USA - but what does it say about a sport when two of its best were never considered elite at the high school level? 

Are ultras simply where guys who can’t hack it on the track put out to pasture?  Whether this is true or not, does the fact that the sport is open to all diminish it in any way? Is it not something to celebrate that at least two stars (and I’m well aware of many more) who were not instant successes as youngsters are so passionate about the sport that they can make a living doing what they love and inspiring others to take up the lifestyle?   
For the record, at least two of these guys (Max King and Ryan Bak)
can hold their own on just about any surface.
Flagline 50K, Bend, OR, 2011 USATF 50K Trail Championships.
Photo by Riley Smith.
Sage recalls a pivotal moment in his life that helped solidify his commitment: “My coach at Cornell, Robert "Rojo" Johnson of, always told us ‘Running is a lifestyle’ so I wrote that on a Brooks poster I got at Pre-Nats several years ago and have had it on a wall in my room ever since so I see it every day.”

Running is not merely a pastime for accomplished adolescents, but rather a lifestyle that can span a life time.  It is not exclusive to those with great genetics, talent, or early success.  Young or old, running represents an invitation with a challenge.  Those willing to accept the challenge are invited to regularly test themselves against themselves, the elements, the course, the clock, and others.

In addition to being an Oregonian, like Max and Sage, and many more like them, I never qualified for the state track meet in high school where the top two from every conference earned the sacred privilege of running on the hallowed track of Hayward Field.  I only qualified for the state cross country meet once, and that was only because the standards were a bit easier: the top seven from every conference and top two teams qualified to compete.  In my one state appearance, I placed 26th in a star-studded field of Foot Locker finalists, future all-Americans, and Olympians.  Some may have seen that as a decent bookend to a four year extracurricular activity, but since that time I have placed higher at much larger races with national and international fields, including national and world championships.

Naturally, I wasn’t highly recruited out of high school to run at any big schools, but I still had a desire to run so I walked on to a junior college team.  Over the next two years, I had to fight tooth and nail just to make the traveling squad, but I had the opportunity to run at the NJCAA national championships two years in a row.  I finished my eligibility at a small DII school, but even when I finished there I felt there was a little more in the basement.  I was not ready to move on, to let go, to put a close to this chapter of my life.  In fact, I felt like it was just beginning.  I felt like there was something more - something untapped -some strength that I still needed to develop before I could say that I had maximized whatever little talent I may have.
Senior season as a Seasider.  Photo by Scott Lowe.
I have chosen this sport, this lifestyle, and this outlet because I believe in the life lessons and principles it teaches through natural consequences.  I believe in the law of the harvest – in running, as in life, you reap what you sow.  I also believe in doing hard things.  As John F. Kennedy once said about space exploration,We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win” (Rice Stadium, 1962). Similarly, I choose to run because I believe in testing oneself and that in so doing a better self will emerge. 

I made the transition from road racing to trail running not because it is easy, but because it is hard.  In college, my physiology and kinesiology professor, Jokke Kokkonen, used me as his lab rat to represent the anomalies that exist in human physiology.  Each time he tested me, my VO₂ Max came back higher than anyone he had ever before tested but ironically, despite my body’s freakish capacity to intake and distribute oxygen I had/have a below average lactate threshold which essentially cancels out any benefit I should gain from my body’s anomalous aerobic abilities.  This means that I can cruise below my lactate threshold rather efficiently, but as soon as I cross the red line I enter asthmatic wheezing mode.  Anyone who has passed me going up a hill knows what I mean.  If I hammer hills, surges, and starts, it can set me back so far that it is hard to ever recover from them in a race. 

So what can I do about it?  Well, I can use a heart rate monitor and try to train in different heart rate zones to strengthen my weaknesses.  But in addition to that, I can regularly test myself.  For example, I can enter racesthat present great obstacles to my natural abilities and current training environment – with steep inclines, slick, uneven footing, and undulating terrain.  I can also train specifically for these races by more regularly running on uneven, hilly surfaces that intentionally keep me out of my comfort zone.  I can do plyometric work to train my size 14 feet to bounce back and not catch so easily on roots and rocks.  I can do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard and as I do these things I will not only become a stronger trail runner, but possibly a better overall runner with greater injury resistance, stamina, and versatility.  While I may not be as competitive as I’d like in some highly technical, uber competitive races I can still use these races as trial runs to dial in on my nutrition, training, and pace as I prepare for late Spring and Summer races.

This long-term perspective helps me both as an athlete and as a coach.  While some of the teams and individuals I’ve had the privilege of working with have experienced relative success (including team and individual state titles), I try to help them view running as a lifelong lifestyle.  Rather than putting all the emphasis on short term achievements, or making them feel that if they don’t make it to state or win every race that they had better find another pastime, I can show through my own example that running is not a fair-weather friend and really is no respecter of persons.  Running is a microcosm of reality and can teach us more about ourselves and about life than almost any other activity.  My goal for myself and my athletes is that we find lifelong fulfillment in and through the lifestyle of running.  Rather than medals, buckles, trophies, titles, and other tangible things, I hope to judge my own success and that of my athletes by our endurance – our ability to overcome injury, let-down, distractions, and other life challenges through the constancy of our engrained runner’s mentality and durability.  

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