“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.
“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.
“I honestly was hobbling in and with each mile that went by I’m like, ‘I’m still in the top-10. That’s Uta Pippig who’s cheering on the side of the road over there. I just passed a hobbled Abdi Abdirahman—he’s a 2:08 marathoner. And that guy up in front of me is Meb Keflezighi.’ I remember catching Meb with 800 meters to go and Meb went right back by me, and I had a moment of ‘Oh, the dream was too much.’ And then I said, ‘No, you’re gonna hobble back by him because this is the home stretch of the Olympic Trials and he’s the reigning Olympic silver medalist and that’s the sort of thing you pray for when you’re a kid—to go back and forth with the Olympic silver medalist in the home stretch of the Olympic Trials, what more could you want?’ So I think that was a big part of it, is just that perspective.”
This week’s episode is a special one for me. I sat down and had a fairly long conversation with my college rival, Nate Jenkins, one of the toughest competitors I’ve ever known and someone I raced against regularly in the early 2000s when I was at Stonehill College and he was running for UMass Lowell.
Nate was not a big star in college—he was never an All-American or anything like that—but after school he went on to do some pretty amazing things in the sport, like finishing an incredible 7th place at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in the fall of 2007, running a personal best of 2:14:56 in that race, and then representing the United States in the marathon at the World Championships in 2009.
I loved this conversation and I hope you will too. In it, Nate recounts a few epic stories, including the NCAA cross-country regional championship in 2003, where he beat me by two seconds in one of the most exciting races either of us has ever run. He told me how he knew he wanted competitive running to be a lifelong pursuit all the way back when he was in junior high school. Nate explained why he’s a tough athlete to coach and a tough human being to be around in general. He talked about self-experimenting with training after college, going from a pure Arthur Lydiard approach to a Renato Canova-style marathon program and what about that led to his big breakthroughs. We got into Nate’s personality a bit and how it changes when he steps to the starting line on race day. Nate also recounts his experience at the Olympic Trials back in the fall of 2007 where he finished 7th “limping as hard as I could” the last 4 miles. Along that line, Nate talks about runners dystonia, the injury that ended his professional career; we also got into what his relationship with running, training, and competition looks like right now; Nate even turned the tables on me and asked a couple questions he’s been holding onto for a while, and a lot more.
“Patience is such a tough thing to have in life, the world, in running, but it is such an important thing to have. I mean, it’s just that stacking on stacking on stacking of mileage and now in this venture, for me, it’s words. Not to say that I really love going back and looking at some of my early stories—and I think I did a good job at them—but now I’m excited about what’s coming next and some of the ways I’m going to tell these kinds of stories, even the ones I don’t know about yet.”
Liam Boylan-Pett is the founder of Lope Magazine, an online publication that releases one longform feature story each month from the track, road, or trail. Liam has a Masters degree in journalism from Georgetown and his work has appeared in Bleacher Report, SB Nation, NBCOlympics.com, Runner’s World, and other publications. Liam is also a hell of a runner: he ran collegiately at both Columbia and Georgetown, and then ran professionally for a few years, posting personal bests of 1:46.66 for 800m, 3:37.05 for 1500m, and 3:57.75 for the mile.
In this conversation, we talked about when the idea for Lope Magazine first sparked and what’s behind the unique name, the importance of patience in writing and running, his thoughts on the current state of the running media, what athletes can do to better tell their stories, reach more fans, and create interest in the sport, why his relationship with running now is healthier than it was when he was competing at a high level, and a lot more.
“Every time I line up I don’t get as anxious anymore, I don’t feel like I’m gonna barf. It’s just, ’See what you can do. You have two healthy legs. You get to do this.’ Like, the sky is the limit. And if you don’t reach what you think you might be able to do, that’s OK too. Because I’m having fun. I’m more in the moment now, not thinking about the end goal of ‘Oh, I might not do as well’ or ‘I might suck.’ That’s fine.”
Bria Wetsch finished 27th at the recent U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Atlanta, running 2:37:58, less than a minute off of her personal best. The 31-year-old lives and trains in Boulder, Colorado, where she also works as an accountant. Bria ran collegiately at the University of Oregon and prior to that, she was a national 2-mile champion, top-10 Footlocker finisher, and five-time state champion as a high schooler in her native Minnesota.
We covered A LOT in this conversation and I really appreciate how vulnerable and brave Bria was in sharing her story with me. She told me about getting her start in the sport at the age of 11, being hospitalized for an eating disorder not long after that, resulting injuries, and how she was able to get through that period in her life. We discussed experiencing success at a young age and how she struggled to separate her identity and self-worth from her running results. Bria recounts her experience recovering from double achilles surgery in 2017 and coming back to run a marathon PR 13 months later. She explained why she’s stuck with the sport despite various struggles over the past 20 years. Bria opened up about her fear of failure and battling perfectionism—but also how she learned to let go a few years ago and what that did for her relationship with running and competition, and a lot more.
“Both disciplines attract that type of person, who can chase down specific goals, who is competitive, not necessarily with other people, but with themselves. I think that’s a big thing you see in dance and it’s a big thing you see in running—yeah, you’re competing for the top spot, you’re competing for the spot in the company, you’re competing for the lead role on Broadway, if you’re in high school, you’re literally at dance competitions that you want to win. In running, yeah, if you’re at the front of the pack, it’s the same: you’re competing to break the tape. But I think inherently what I see a lot of in both is this idea of wanting to be your best self in your discipline, and seeing what that brings out in you as a person.”
Ali Feller is the host of the super popular Ali on The Run Show podcast, where every week she talks to inspiring people who lead interesting lives on the run and beyond. I’m a longtime listener of her show, she has a great range of guests from top pros to average age-groupers and all sorts of other folks who are doing unique things in and around running. Plus, Ali is an incredible interviewer who just really knows how to keep a conversation flowing.
But in this episode, she’s my guest and we hit on a lot of different topics, from dealing with imposter syndrome and learning how to push it to the side, to attending the Olympic Trials Marathon in Atlanta and what she took away from that experience, why she’s way more passionate about other people’s running than her own (and when that flipped for her), starting her podcast and how it’s evolved over the course of 200+ episodes, battling Crohn’s disease since the age of 7 and how that’s impacted her running and her life, the strategies she uses to manage stress and anxiety, and a lot more.
“For me, I actually like being in the corner with my back up against the wall because it forces me to figure a way out. And I’m not feeling that just yet, or at least to a degree where I feel like I’m in trouble, but if I do, I’m going to figure a way out out of it. I don’t know what that is right now but you get creative with it.”
We are back with the first Ask Mario Anything episode of 2020, featuring yours truly taking a wide range of reader and listener questions from John Summerford, producer of the morning shakeout podcast, who will tell you more about who he is, how we got connected, what he is working on, and how his relationship with running has evolved in the first part of the show. After that, I respond to a number of questions about how to adjust goals and training when your race gets cancelled or postponed, the Olympic Trials Marathon, my shoe rotation, coaching resources I recommend, how my wife and I met, and a lot more.
Thank you to everyone who submitted questions and apologies for all the ones I wasn’t able to answer in this episode. Got a question for the next Ask Mario Episode? Send it my way by dropping me a line on Twitter.