“I did not enjoy the recognition. I would literally hide from newspaper reporters after races. But I was competitive and I wanted to win and I wanted to set course records and I always wanted to be the best at everything I did, so I think that was what really drove me was: I was the best, in our school, and then I wanted to be the best in the state, and then looked at being the best in the nation potentially. Even back then I loved the process, I always loved to run fast. I’ve never been someone who has been good at taking easy days and I can trace that all the way back to 7th grade—I just liked to go hard.”
Kate Landau is a 43-year-old mom and physician assistant who most recently finished 14th at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in 2:34:07. Last year, she ran a personal best of 2:31:56 to finish 13th at the Boston Marathon—and the morning we recorded this episode she ran a 2:34 marathon completely on her own.
A five-time All-American at Georgetown who competed in the 1996 Olympic Trials in the 10,000, Kate returned to running in 2013 after a long time away from the sport and found her racing legs again a few years later.
This woman is incredibly talented but Kate has an amazing story that extends far beyond her racing accomplishments. In this conversation, we talked about how she got her start in the sport, developing an eating disorder early in high school, something that she battled—along with injuries—well into her adult years. She told me about her desire to be the best and go hard at everything she did from the time she was a young girl. Kate opened up about when she finally allowed herself to feel self-worth outside of running, why she’s enjoying the sport now more than ever in her 40s, what she tells young girls who might be on a similar path to the one she took, as well as how she guides parents and coaches of kids who are struggling with disordered eating and aren’t sure where to turn. She also talks about balancing being a mom with a high-stress job and training at a high level, the importance of setting a good example for her daughter and why that’s a driving force in her life, what it means to know that sharing her story helps others deal with their own struggles, and a lot more.
In the spirit of Kevin Kelly’s “68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice” and this annually updated post from my friend Chris Corbin, for my 38th birthday I compiled a list of 38 lessons that I’ve been taught over the years or learned myself (oftentimes the hard way) that I wanted to share here with the hope that there’s a nugget or two that you can take away and apply to your own life.
Note: Some of these have to do with running, others not so much. They’re listed here in no particular order and I’ve included attribution/inspiration when I was able to remember the source.
1. Respect your elders. Learn from them. Not only are they older than you, they’re most assuredly wiser, too.
2. Communication is a two-way street but listening is the most important direction to be traveling in.
3. When running on the roads, always run facing traffic whenever possible unless navigating a blind turn or dangerous hill so you can see what’s coming at you and get out of the way if necessary. If you’re on a path that’s closed to cars, stay to one side and go with the flow of bike and/or foot traffic.
4. There are very few things in life that can’t wait until tomorrow. (My Dad)
5. Avoid the letsrun.com message boards at all costs. (n.b. The home page is a fine place to keep up with news and analysis on the sport.)
6. Once you get fancy, fancy gets broken. (Morgan Spurlock on The Tim Ferriss Show podcast)
7. Don’t try to be consistently great. Whatever the pursuit, you’ll get a lot further by getting great at being consistent.
8. Don’t spend more than you make and don’t buy more than you need. (Nana Fraioli)
9. Your output depends on your input. Garbage in=garbage out. If you want to produce high-quality output, you first need to focus on making sure you’re getting solid input. Want to be a better writer? You better be reading some good books. Want to become a faster runner? You need to put in more quality miles first. (Austin Kleon)
10. Control what you can control. To hell with the rest.
11. Wash your hands for crissakes. (Especially these days!)
12. If possible, try and have at least two different pairs of running shoes in your rotation at all times: one pair for most of your miles, another pair for races and/or faster workouts. Not only is it advisable to have different shoes for different types of runs/workouts, each pair will last a little longer on their own if they have a chance to rest between efforts.
13. Ask the question you want to ask. Don’t hesitate or beat around the bush. Be direct.
14. Run without a watch at least once a week—more often if you dare!
15. Everyone needs an editor, not just writers. Have someone in your life who will see through your bullshit, give you honest feedback, help you to view something through a different lens, and trim the fat where necessary.
16. Opportunities are never handed to you—you create them for yourself, whether you know it or not. (My Dad)
17. Try to learn at least one other language. It will improve your overall communication skills and help expand your worldview. (It can also help you impress a date.)
18. Adversity is just an opportunity to see how you’ll respond to what’s being thrown at you.
19. There’s never a good time to do most things in life. At some point you’re just going to have to jump and figure out how to build the parachute on the way down.
20. Want to perform better and recover faster? Going to bed earlier and drinking more water throughout the day are two of the simplest and most cost-effective changes anyone can make.
21. Mood follows action—not the other way around. If you want to change your mental state, change your physical state first. (Rich Roll)
22. Enough is enough. We’re wired to want more and/or better: more miles, another personal best, more friends, a bigger bank account, more stuff, better recognition, a bigger house, another pint of ice cream, one more glass of wine, and the list goes on. Learn to be content with what you have and appreciate when your cup is full.
23. Be wary of anyone who is overly enthusiastic and/or seemingly happy all the time. Something isn’t right there.
24. Please and thank you will get you a long way in life. They’re the two simplest gestures of respect and gratitude that you can show another person. (My Mom)
25. Stop “shoulding” on yourself, e.g. “I should be further ahead than I am now, I should be fitter, I should be married, etc.” Where you should be is exactly where you are. Accept that and work with it. (Brad Stulberg)
26. Love and companionship are the most important things in life. Let the people who mean the world to you know it and spend as much time with them as possible. (Nana Fraioli)
27. Don’t be afraid to work hard, but know when to take a rest. Otherwise you won’t last very long. (Nana Fraioli)
28. Never bet against Meb Keflezighi.
29. Most of the pressure we feel is self-induced. The possibilities become endless when you realize that you have more control over the release valve than you think.
30. You get what you pay for: There’s usually a reason quality comes with a cost.
31. Banking time in a marathon—any race, really—is almost always a terrible idea. Be patient and methodical in your execution. Great racers, regardless of the speed they’re running, are the ones who slow down the least.
32. Try living somewhere else for a little while just to see what it’s like, what you can learn, and who you can meet. If it’s not for you, you can always move back home.
33. Running clockwise around the track is for warmups, cooldowns, and strides only.
34. If your running shorts come with a built-in liner, there is no need to wear anything else under them.
35. Beware of letting things go “just this once.” It almost always ends up being more than just this once. Stand your ground.
36. Death is life’s most uncomfortable truth. Spend some time each week thinking about the people you’ve lost in your life and the fact that you’re going to die someday too. This exercise invites reflection, brings clarity, helps you identify who and what’s important, and forces you to think about how you’re spending your time.
37. Unless you’re an actor or an actress, avoid drama at all costs.
38. Be kind. A simple act of kindness can make someone else’s day and it will help you feel better while you’re at it. Everybody wins when you’re kind.
“It’s harder to stay as focused and motivated when I haven’t been running up to the standards that I’ve always set so high for myself. I haven’t necessarily been running as fast as I was hoping or winning as many races, so it’s been harder to be there 100% focused all of the time. You find yourself drifting and you’ve got to recalibrate all of the time. If anything, this situation has sort of given me a whole new vigor and excitement. It’s been the jolt of energy that’s needed and especially with the news just coming out it’s almost added accountability to prove that this system can work fine. So yeah, I think actually it’s only going to help because it’s given me that much-needed change of scenery to mix things up and not just be the same cycle I’ve been on the last 15 years.”
Nick Willis won a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Games and was later upgraded to silver after Rashid Ramzi tested positive for using performance-enhancing drugs. He also took bronze in Rio in 2016, charging down the home straight to put himself on the podium in the final meters. In addition to his two Olympic medals, the 37-year-old New Zealander has five 5th Avenue Mile titles to his name and personal bests of 3:49.83 for the mile and 3:29.66 at 1500 meters. He’s also run a sub-4 minute mile 18 years in a row, tying him with countryman John Walker for the longest streak in history—one he hopes to break in 2021.
We covered a lot in this conversation, from Nick’s new job as Athlete Experience Manager at Tracksmith to how he’s thinking about the next few years from both a professional and a competitive standpoint. We talked sponsorship at the highest level of the sport and what he thinks can be down differently. Nick told me about learning not to get caught up in comparing himself to what other athletes are doing, how his training has evolved as he’s gotten older, and what his dual-coaching arrangement looks like with his college coach Ron Warhurst and his wife Sierra. We also got into his thoughts on doping, he gave me a blow-by-blow description of the 2016 Olympic final, and we even talked a little basketball to open this one up.
“I’m in a position where I cannot be afraid. What I do for a living, my life, my career, I have to get out there and be among the people. And if I’m not comfortable doing that, I can’t expect my runners to be comfortable doing that. But I think it’s going to be a job that every single one of us needs to take on head first and we have to figure out ‘Does this race saying they’re going to have gloves, hand sanitizer, masks, temperature gauges, all these things, does that make me feel safe?’ And if not, anyone who is listening, you have got to speak up and tell us what is going to make you feel safe. Because as a person who is in charge of branding at the New York City Marathon finish line, it’s a really special thing. It is the world’s largest marathon, it’s 51,000 people, and it is a sight. It is a feeling, I get goosebumps talking about. And if that has to go away because we’re afraid of people, that’s going to be a sad day. You know, it just is.”
Michelle La Sala is the founder and president of Blistering Pace Race Management, where she puts on races in and around the Bay Area and also serves in various capacities at bigger races around the country. A 15-year running industry veteran, she’s worked for the LA Marathon, New York Road Runners, and Sacramento Running Association, where she was the race director for the California International Marathon in 2013 and 2014. Michelle has been running since the third grade, she competed collegiately at the University of Portland, and has completed 32 marathons with a 2:59 personal best.
We covered a lot of ground in this conversation, from how Michelle got her start in the sport, dealing with disordered eating and injuries as a collegiate athlete, and what sparked her competitive resurgence after college. She told me how Bart Yasso and a bizarre chance led to her getting a job at the LA Marathon, kicking off her career in the running industry. We talked about putting on events, why she does it, and the worst day she’s ever had as a race director. And lastly, we discussed her experience putting on a large event the first weekend of March earlier this year just as COVID-19 concerns were starting to escalate, what things look like for her right now with no races and an uncertain future ahead of us, her thoughts on how events might look different moving forward, and what she wants to tell runners who have had their races cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic.
“Just having a group of people who accepted me unconditionally, who I knew had also been through hard times, who would be there for me, getting connected through a community group every week and making church a priority and just having these things outside of running just were so, so, so vital in giving me an identity and giving me a community and helping me feel like I was part of something bigger than myself. So yeah, it definitely definitely played a huge role in helping me feel less alone—through injury and then through other hard things.”
Erin Finn is the real deal: She was a 10x All-American at the University of Michigan and a 4x runner-up at the NCAA Championships. She holds four school records for the Wolverines and has personal bests of 15:23 for 5000m and 31:51 for 10,000m. But those numbers don’t even begin to tell her story.
Now in her mid-20s, Erin is a first-year medical student at the University of Michigan. She’s still running, putting in 80 miles a week around her studies and other commitments, and she has her eye on moving up to the marathon in the next couple years.
We recently had a great conversation talking about her relationship to the sport and how it’s evolved since she first got started as a young kid. Erin told me why she’s inspired by people who go about running differently—and along those lines, why she chose med school over pursuing a professional running career. We talked about her tendency toward perfectionism and how it can be both a blessing and a curse, getting caught in a cycle of overtraining and under-eating toward the end of her collegiate career and how she pulled herself out of it, where her competitive streak comes from and why she actively has to try and suppress it, the importance of family, faith, and community in her life, and a lot more.
“When I look at an athlete, the way I see an athlete, how they see themselves, how they feel about themselves, where they are in their lives, that’s going to show up on the track way more than the training, right? The training is only going to be in line with the athlete when those other places are in check. You can maybe fake it and get by for a little while but ultimately those things are going to reveal themselves more than the workouts, and the mile(age), whatever, any of that stuff. So, how people are feeling is, to me, the first part that you have to tackle as an athlete, then you can nerd out on workouts. But to get that order wrong, I think, you’re going to be dumbfounded at the lack of results.”
Mike Smith is the director of cross-country and track and field at Northern Arizona University, where his men’s cross team country team won three-straight national titles from 2016 through 2018, and last fall, they finished runner-up to BYU; his women’s squad qualified for nationals last fall for the first time since 2008, finishing 14th. Prior to his time at NAU, Mike coached at Georgetown, and in his coaching career he’s guided numerous athletes to all-conference honors, All-American awards, and national titles. He also coaches a handful of pros and still leads the Team Run Flagstaff group workouts on Tuesday nights in town.
I’ve been following Mike’s career since the mid-1990s when we were both running as high schoolers in small-town Central Massachusetts. This is a conversation about the path Mike’s followed to get where he is today, and who and what have influenced him along the way. It’s also a conversation about his approach to coaching, running, competition, and life that I personally took a lot away from and I know you will too.