I’m going to spend a bit of time on this one (I’ll hurry up later, honest) because the way I got into distance events has defined my approach to running, and maybe to life itself. And that approach is simply to go with the flow. If I had to sum it up in two words it would be ‘Tag Along’. The seeds were set in 2004, and I blame my running partner Sorita Averill Fitzgerald for that. She suggested that I join her for the first Phoenix Rock & Roll marathon in January 2004. I tagged along. That was also the same fateful event that launched the tutu onto the marathon scene, but that’s a whole other story. Anyway, with Phoenix done in January, I headed for the George Washington Birthday marathon in neighboring Maryland on a brisk February morning. One of the advantages of living in Eastern Pennsylvania is that we are tripping over smaller events that are good value, have excellent volunteer support, and race directors that include runner niceties such as race-day pickup. I won’t bore you with the following ten months, but they got done.
Then how did you make the jump from marathons to ultras?
A marathon a month, and it got me thinking that I should try a longer run sometime. That came in the following March. The HAT 50k. A classic local event. But to be honest, I took so long over it that it should really count as my first hike. So let’s fast forward to July 2005. Another running buddy, Carole Rosen, told me that she had signed up for the marathon in Wakefield Massachusetts, and would I be interested in joining her - and then I could continue running for the remainder of the night/day in the concurrent 24-hour Around the Lake event. I tagged along. I had no idea what I was doing. It was a three mile paved course around a lake (go figure) and I remember a large pharmacy clock that greeted me on every loop. I would say ‘Hi’ to it, politely, and I knew that we would end our punctuated conversation when its smaller hand had gone round a couple of times. Yes, I was that naïve. I simply jog/walked until the time was up. It never occurred to me to stop for a bit (was that allowed?) and so I covered 110 miles. To this day, 24 hour events are still my preference. There is no failure, no DNF. You can play around with them without worry. And in any case, isn’t it cool to see how far you can go in 24 hours? Currently I’m at 138 miles, but my running friends, like Traci Falbo, are way ahead of that, so I just need to work harder!
Looking through your Ultrasignup results, I'm not sure I can count them all. How many marathon and ultras have you ran?
Since ticking off the 50 states of my new homeland, I’ve gotten used to counting any run of 26.2 or more as a ‘marathon’. So that would be 271. But yes, there are a few long runs in there. 58 are 100 miles or more.
That's a load of races! I have also heard that you have never DNF'd. This is remarkable! What do attribute that to?
I have to be cautious in answering this one. First, I have to give a big shout out to my God, who has been overwhelmingly generous in giving me the ability to get to the finish. And then I thank my parents who must have passed on some decent genetics. None of this is my doing. I don’t train any differently from other folks. I don’t cross-train, work on my core, or do lunges. I am not a Yoga expert, a Pilates guru or an elegant Pole dancer. I just go out and run with by buddies. Yes, back to that ‘tag along’ theme.
Well you must be doing something right. What mental tactics do you use to get through the tough part of races?
I am not mentally strong. I’m not even mildly driven. But I have a few techniques that help me through the journey. One is to simply thank the ground that I am running on. It supports me at every step, and it greets me unconditionally. Another is to remind myself to ‘let it go’. That applies to the pain, the boredom, the fatigue, even to the success. And I try and remember to thank my God. It would be stupid not to.
Mental strategy aside, nutrition problems contribute to a pretty high number of DNF's so you must have this dialed in as well. What does your diet and race diet look like?
I’d like to give your readers a whiz-bang formula for dietary success. But I give very little thought to nutrition. When I get to an aid station I try and zone out from the helpful recommendations of the volunteers and let my mind go blank. My hand will dive for whatever I need. It might be M&Ms, it might be a salted potato. But whatever I grab is what I need in that moment.
I understand you rarely have anyone crew you at races (other than when required). Your Facebook profile indicates you have 786 friends, but none of them will crew for you?
I love to see my friends on the long trail. But I don’t want them crewing for me! I enjoy the mindless motion of me and a few buddies on the road, looking forward to the welcoming cheers of volunteers at the next aid station. The only race where I do want my crew (and I really mean NEED my crew) is at Badwater. One of the true joys of this Death Valley crossing is that it’s a team sport. I’m just one sixth of a team. I’m going nowhere without the other five members.
This year I met you at Leadville where you were in the middle of your 3rd Grand Slam. Congrats on finishing once again! But you do the Slam a little different by adding the Badwater 135 right in the middle. What lead you to this Super Slam?
That’s an easy one. If you get into Western States, then you have to sign up for the Slam. You never know if you’ll get another chance. And if Chris Kostman extends you the privilege of being a part of the Badwater family, then you don’t say no to that either.
We all hope you keep getting those entry slots! But there is a rumor you don't really like running, hills, or trails. Now I'm no Grand Slam expert, but there is a fair amount of all those things included within those events. So I'm confused, what is going on inside your head?
The rumor is true; I don’t like hills or trails. I’ve even been heard to say that I don’t like running. That’s also true. But I love the running community. And the only way I know how to hang out with runners is to be a runner. That’s what got me started in the first place - tagging along with runners. But now there’s an additional component. Running defines me. One day it won’t, but for now I have those 786 Facebook Friends because I share their highs and lows, their elation and pain, because I’m also a runner. And the longer and tougher the journey, the greater sense I have of being a part of their world.
I'd say most runners are part of your world. You currently live in PA, but I detect a slightly different accent in your voice. Where did you grow up and when did you make the move to the US?
I was born and raised in Nottingham England before moving to London. Then my English accent took a beating as I attempted to speak Dutch for the ten years that I lived in Holland. But after realizing that I was missing the punch line of most of the jokes told around me, I wanted to move to a nation that spoke my old language (sort of) and that’s when I came to the US. That was fifteen years ago, the longest time I’ve been in one country since my childhood. And it’s these pesky runners that keep me wanting to stay here.
I think that was a good move! You are 58 years young and still crushing it. What does a typical running week look like for you?
I’m not a natural athlete, so the only way I know how to be a runner is by keeping up the volume. I have morning running friends, lunch-time running friends and sometimes folks to share an evening run with. I nibble away at the miles. 5 here, 5 there, with a longish run on Saturday, but seldom more than a dozen miles at a time. I save the long runs for when someone is waiting at the finish line to put a shiny trinket around my neck. But then you also have to bear in mind that I’ll race 25 to 30 events of a marathon or more per year. Overall, I’m happy if I can maintain around 70 miles a week for a year’s total in excess of 3,500. I suck as a runner on anything less.
You have accomplished so many goals that many ultra runners have. What is your next goal?
If I could finagle a way to get into Western States each year, then I’d have a blast doing that Slam over and over until I drop. I’ve talked about the fellowship of running, but there’s an extra layer thrown on top when you share 400 miles with fellow athletes. I’m not much of the bonding type, but even I get emotional at the finish line of Wasatch. And then I’m hoping that Chris will still want me back in Badwater. I’ve never raced those 135 miles well, so Mr. Kostman and his selection committee have been overly gracious in letting me come out and play these past five years. It’s billed as the toughest foot race on earth, and I sure make it look like it is. And then I have two other goals, and maybe they will never happen, but I’m going to put them out there anyway: One: I’d love to break a three-hour marathon. There’s no excuse. Ed Whitlock did it at age 70. And two: I need to up the ante on my endurance. I’ve shared runs with Connie Gardner and Traci Falbo, and those girls just aren’t going to have anything to do with me unless I get my 24 hour game back. And I DO like running with girls. Don’t let the tutu fool you!
Thank you so much for your time. We will save you a spot in the Destin Beach Ultra Runs 24hr race in Feb so you can run with those amazing ladies!