Back in 2006, I started a Web site with this name: Roads, Mills, Laps. Now’s it’s simply called RML, because Roads, Mills, Laps is too tedious of a name.
It was first a blog about my struggles and babblings as a somewhat wannabe sub-elite runner and then, as my marathon times began to fade, it turned into a pseudo running journalism site where I interviewed runners and asked them whatever the fuck I wanted to ask them. I did the pseudo journalism thing, because I believed (and still believe) that the sport of distance running is not properly covered and that we can do better if we want to call ourselves journalists or even pseudo journalists.
Anyway, old skool RML got some traction. I had a lot of hits. I rode a fun wave for a while, but then it kind of died and I tried to jumpstart it a few times with no luck.
It’s back and I have tried a new approach to get a pulse on this thing. I’ve teamed up with artist Borbay with a new collaborative series of interviews with elite runners. He paints their portrait, and I ask them the questions.
You can even see how he painted Fam’s portrait here.
Our first interviewee is Anthony Famiglietti who really needs no introduction other than “Fam” is a two-time American Olympian in the steeple and has always been one to speak his mind.
Fam has recently started his own brand, Reckless Running. You should check it out.
I caught up with him on the phone on Halloween. The interview was in two parts: Part one was during the day and part two was later that same night. For part two, Fam was running and talking to me the whole time.
During the interview, Fam told me he spoke to NPR for 30 minutes once and they ended up using like 30 seconds of the talk, so I promised him I’d transcribe everything.
And so I hope you like all 8000 words of it. Enjoy.
Meet: Fam Part One
RML What have you been up to these days? It looks like you recently won a 5K in under 14 minutes.
Fam: Basically, after the 2012 Trials, which I didn’t run, I decided to just step back for a year and have fun. I wanted to have fun in an unusual way. I want to try and run fast where I wanted to run fast—not necessarily in a highly competitive way. People are always talking about bridging the gap between the elite athletes and the rest of the pack. It’s said, but no one ever does it. I’ve sort of immersed myself over a year communicating with people in a way that I wouldn’t be able to as an elite runner. I pick races that are family-oriented so that my wife can go, my baby can go, and my nephew can go. I spend time before the event and after the event. It’s a good way for Reckless Running to continue to connect with the community and with consumers across the U.S.
That’s what I did.
I chose races that I hadn’t done in the past. I just wanted to find fun things. A lot of them have cool prizes like free vacation packages. We just won a vacation package to Myrtle Beach last year. We had a blast. Hope to do that again. I’ll talk to athletes before the race at the starting line and tell them who I am and what I’ve done.
Afterwards, sometimes I’ll offer free coaching and guidance. Some people I meet for the first time. A lot of times I learn more than they do. It’s been super fun. Typically, I try to peak for the “Run for the Ta-Tas”, which is an awareness race in Wilmington [North Carolina]. It’s a super-fast course, but there are a lot of twists and turns. It’s kind of like a steeplechase in that they give about 500 women a two-and-a-half minute start. The first finisher wins $1000. It was just mayhem, running past baby joggers with 90-degree and 180-degree turns. It was crazy. I won it last year and almost won it this year, but lost by six seconds. There was a lot of traffic this year as far as the women runners. I went out like at 4:17 pace [per mile]. I got all jacked up and ran a little too hard. Because I had to run extra distance going around people and they changed the course this year, it was a little long and my GPS said I ran it in like 13:52, which would have been third or fourth at the U.S. Championships this year. I had to do it solo in those conditions.
I’m competitive at the U.S. level, but I’m doing it in a unique and odd sort of way. It was total mayhem. You get to the half mile and you run into all these women, the walkers. It’s crazy. It’s a fun and interesting race. For me, running these races that aren’t highly competitive, it’s hard to try and push myself. I do this at the local community runs.
There’s a group called the Davidson-Area Running Team. They are just local runners with a huge range of ability. Some people run 9 minutes a mile down to 5 or 6. I would say that anyone is welcome to come out and give them a huge head start for my mile repeats. If I don’t catch them, I’d give them a free DVD. It was a cool way for them to see how I train and take the veil of mystery away. Some people are like, “You come to this stop sign at this time of day and start your watch and go?”
There’s no magic. It’s just hard work.
Yep. No magic and lots of hard work for years.
Are you getting a lot more out of your running now that you are a man of the people? Are you seeing a different element of running?
As a professional runner, you are never satisfied. It’s all about performance and how fast you run. Even if you get a personal best, you feel like you should have run faster. If you are ever satisfied, you will never progress. Running races this way is the satisfaction. The time is an additional bonus in the end. It’s a totally different perspective on being competitive. I see some of these people elated to finish a race and they hit a PR that they didn’t consider they could do. It’s sort of like a refresher for your running. If you are ever agitated with the sport or grow bored with it, it’s a good way to get reinvigorated by running with some of these people.
Are you retired? How would you describe your dreams right now?
I wouldn’t say I’m retired, because the initial reason I took downtime was injury and illness, so it was at first me sorting through it. I never told this in an interview, but a lot of people never knew that I had [the] Epstein-Barr [virus] at the end of 2007. I was going to try and run sub-13:00 for 5K on U.S. soil. I was in phenomenal shape. Ran like a 7:40 3K earlier in the season. I was in New York City represented by adidas being watched by my grandparents who had never been to my race before. Right there in Icahn Stadium, and I did a photo shoot for Running Times a week or two before. We had filled the water pit at Icahn and shot photos of me. And I just got crazy sick afterwards. I’m not sure if it was the water that got up my nose or whatever. I thought it was just the flu. I tried to run that race at Icahn and ran like a 13:50-something 5K. I just felt horrible. I had never felt like that before. I tried to bluff it and run the U.S. Championships in steeple. I think I finished 5th behind Daniel Lincoln.
The next day, I tried to go out for a run and I couldn’t walk let alone jog. I knew something was wrong before the race. I think I said in a documentary that I did called Run Reckless that it was chronic fatigue. I couldn’t get out of bed for week. For two solid months I couldn’t do any physical activity—no running, no walking, no swimming.
I thought I was going to have to retire then. I had to start from scratch and came back to win the Olympic Trials steeplechase in the way that I did. For me the perspective to come through injury or illness happened by being patient.
Part Two: Later that night.
RML: What do you want to do, running-wise? Do you want to go to the Olympics again? Where are you focusing these days?
Fam: I don’t know. The last thing I was talking about was the injury and illness thing. I got sidetracked in 2010. I had an injury. I had to just stop training, reassess, and start with that, too.
And so, fortunately, when you run for your own brand, you can stop. You can take time away. You can take as much time as you want. Unless you are running for a sponsor, a week or a month away is a lot. You know?
And so for me, I got to sit back. I got to figure out what were my priorities. Heading into 2012, I qualified for the Olympic Trials Marathon. That was on the radar. But the injuries that I had were [he chuckles as he runs] hallux rigidus, which is arthritis in the great toe on my right foot, and that is the foot that I tend to push off with my dominant leg—especially in steeplechasing and stuff like that.
So, for a marathon, I got it from the shoes I was wearing. One of the biggest mistakes I made in my career was parting ways with adidas. Initially, I had done that to explore new territory in the marathon. I was at that time, predominately a steeplechaser
And I wanted to pursue new avenues and new distances. And so in 09, I started with the Gate River Run. I won that and I was heading in the right direction. The injury stuff started popping up. I was two steps forward and one step back. I tried to go sub-13 [minutes} for the 5K and make up for what I lost in 2008—those opportunities. It didn’t come. That was my goal: run as fast I possibly can and find out what my PRs are. I wanted to find out where the bottom of the well was. I think that is the goal for a lot of people. Where is that bottom of the well? For me, I’ve gone way further than I’ve ever thought. It’s a lot deeper than I thought it was. I think I’ve surprised a whole lot of people. Myself included. There’s an air of contentment when you do you things you don’t really expect. You have the drive to do them. You want to see how fast you can do them. The expectation is there. The marathon was one of those things that I wanted to step into. If I did it, I would have to be all in. Everything would have to be set up. All my ducks would have to be in a row to have a great debut. In order to be more than a back-of-the-pack person or an also-ran, a lot of things have to happen. Am I rambling?
Not at all. So, are you going to try for the marathon?
So here’s what happened, man. I’d like to say this is what my goal is and this is why, but I got sick. I had a foot injury. I tried to make up for lost time. I really tried to say that I’m still here. And I trained hard—harder than ever. I started working with a new advisor. And was doing workouts that were breaking all my cardinal rules of training as far as intensity and volume and especially as far as intensity and volume at altitude. But you’re training for ten years and you have results and then you ask: “Was I really working hard enough?”
Was it my work ethic or is it just something else? What does it take for me to be a world leader, because I’ve been knocking on that door for a while and I need to get into that territory soon before that door closes, and so I worked like crazy. I initially started with that half marathon in New York City. Before that I was working out a gym where the MMA fighters would train at. While I was there, I would be flipping truck tires and doing stuff with sledgehammers. This was 2010.
I was crazy fit.
I also adjusted my training where I started doing workout days the same day as my lifting days. My recovery days would be “full” recovery days. It was not a good idea. I do not recommend that, especially for a guy like me. Some of these guys at the gym were just so intense. I didn’t have a coach there to pull the reins back.
Sounds like this place was a CrossFit gym.
It wasn’t CrossFit. It was before CrossFit hit the mainstream like it is now. There was similar type of training there. I’m a guy who likes to understand how different types of people train. Cross-training isn’t something that I will cross off the list. And so I started lifting like this and getting stronger. I ran that half. Even when I got to the starting line I knew something was off.
At the same time, Flagstaff was snowed in and once it’s like that up there it sort of stays. People were telling me to not bother coming up, because I couldn’t train. That was my go-to for my longer-distance races—to go to altitude and get dialed in—especially at Flagstaff. I decided to order a[n altitude] tent for the first time—the only time. I was using a facemask on a bike in the morning to simulate 12,000 feet, because you sleep in a tent, you don’t run in it. It was a bad idea.
When you are guy like me, you are talking about avenues of training that you don’t explore, and no one has any advice to give me. They have maybe cyclists that come in there. I had to trail-blaze a little bit to figure out what works and what doesn’t work, because training at altitude is a hell of a lot different than training in a tent at night. When I got to the starting line of that race, I didn’t feel right. I was on 61-minute place at 15K and then I came crawling in. I ran like 1:03. It was like a death, death march. I didn’t take any water or any GUs in that race. It was a terrifying feeling. I never felt like that in a race. I was thinking, “If this feels this bad in a half marathon [He chuckles.], what is it going to do in a real marathon?” Right around that time, that event pushed me over the edge. I was getting sick training at altitude—really blown out. At the Gate River Run, it was excruciating from the start. I should have dropped out. Runners are thickheaded, you know?
I had this chronic fatigue where I couldn’t walk or jog. What is it this time? I thought my career was over. I had to figure it out at this point. I started listening to people who thought it was my thyroid. Once that popped up, I got advice from Doctor Jeffery Brown, a guy that all those guys use.
The go-to guy.
When someone tells you that you are ill and that you need to take medication to live let alone run without it, you’re terrified. How the hell am I going to run again? How would I ever run a marathon if I felt like this in a 15K? So I shut everything down and took four months off. So I was just dealing with injuries at the time. I couldn’t find shoes that work. My feet are so messed up now that I couldn’t wear any shoes on the market—anything. I did this interview for NPR and I talked to them for 30 minutes. They used a 30-second clip where I said, “Zappos probably hates me; I buy their shoes and return them.” They didn’t understand what I was trying to tell them and that’s that I can’t get sponsored by a company if I want do, because their shoes aren’t what I need. At the time, I was already with Reckless Running and I didn’t need it. I said, “Look, the system isn’t structured right. If you were a runner in my position, you couldn’t sign with a company. You couldn’t. Those are the rules. From the get-go, the doors were closed that way. Reckless Running gave me this freedom to explore any shoe I want. And ironically, I’m back in adidas. [He laughs.] It’s funny because, it took two years to figure out the shoe I could wear.
You’ve been talking for quite a bit and I have a ton of questions I have to ask you. But first, where are you running right now?
I’m on the Greenway Trail in Davidson, North Carolina.
I hear you running. I hear your feet hitting the ground. How are you talking to me right now?
I have my iPhone with the headphones in.
That’s pretty hardcore.
Hey, I could be pushing the baby jogger right now. [He laughs.]
Do you have a headlamp on?
Nah. This is my time of day to really run. I used to run in Central Park at 8 o’clock [p.m.] on. It’s just so crazy in the park with traffic—people doing tours and cars and cyclists, but once it hit dark, people just scattered. The park was just wide open. The park was my personal racetrack. It’s my time of day.
How do you see where you are going?
I’m just running in the dark, man.
You’re running in the dark on a trail in North Carolina?
Yeah, you can see the moonlight. I can see where I’m going.
Well, pay attention to where you are going. I don’t want you to fall.
How fast do you think you are going?
I guess under 7:00-minute pace. But when I’m talking, I get amped up. I’ve dropped it down to 6:30 and 6:20.
I’ve watched Reckless Running. At the time, I think Coach Jack Daniels was watching you or helping you. What did he think about your tire flipping at the MMA gym? What did he think of your altitude tent and facemask-on-the-bike stuff?
The way it works is that Jack and I are friends. Initially, we had really different opinions on running. The first time I met him, I was in a running camp, in upstate New York when I was a junior in high school. I went up to Jack. I was a little skinny, 98-pound skater dude and I was like, “I like skateboarding. I don’t want to waste my time as a runner. Do you think I’d be any good?”
He said, “What are your PRs?” I told him, and he said, “I wouldn’t count on it.”
I said to myself that I would prove him wrong, but I’m glad he was honest. The fact that he was honest and laid out the idea that I would have to work, I thought was kind of cool. And if you look at my test scores, you wouldn’t say, “This guy is going to be good.” You would say that he is going to be all right. I don’t know how I pushed through, but I have these different philosophies about training and things and so when I see Jack, just because we differ on things doesn’t mean I didn’t see his brilliance.
Sometimes you need that point/counter-point. It sort of opens your eyes and makes you think about what you can do differently. There are a lot of things that Jack and I are totally in agreement on. When I was in Flagstaff, I used to go into his office and say, “Hey man, what do you think about this?”
Jack is an interesting, quirky guy. So are you. Did you form a bond with him?
Jack’s an amazing man. He’s got file cabinets on top of file cabinets. The thing is that elite athletes have this ego that they don’t want to be told. They know and don’t want to be told. But when I went to Jack’s office, I sort of listened. I was working my ass off running into the wind, and I’d tell him about my problems and he’d listen and go to his file cabinet and find a study from 1970 that talked about running into the wind. For me, Jack wasn’t writing workouts, he was more or less helping me restructure things—add more recovery, sometimes leave it as it is, sometimes seeing if I was capable of doing something.
And in terms of you being capable of doing something, he let you shoot one of his AK-47s, right?
[He laughs.] No, that was Tony Gallo, a guy that Jack was coaching. He was working with Tony for the marathon. Jack said he was a gun enthusiast and so I was like “What you got?” One day I met Tony and we just drove out to the desert—that how you do it in Arizona. I love it. Jack showed us how he shot a pistol in the Modern Pentathlon in the Olympics. It was just cool stuff that you wouldn’t do if you didn’t just say, “Let’s go.”
I want to take the conversation away from talking about you now and ask what you think about the state of American distance running presently.
A lot of these guys, we’ll call the older crowd, they are in their late 20s, early 30s. I know and have spent some time with them. I spent a month with Ryan [Hall] before Boston where he ran 2:04. I didn’t get to see a whole lot of his training. I just got to see how he thought and acted most of the day—his life process before something like that. I was with him, because I wanted to see if this marathon thing was something I can do and can I get my mind around it. He sort of knew how far I was going into the well and so we didn’t get together for a lot of workouts. As far as these other guys, I think the state of American distance running is better than it’s ever been.
Let me give you perspective of me in the steeplechase in 2012. I ran in a way where I tried to be as open as I can with my training. I had my DVDs and didn’t try to hide it. I didn’t necessarily advertise where I was going to race, because guys would try to race me for qualifiers in the steeple. It’s hard to drag a guy in a race and so guys would get pissed at me, because I wouldn’t advertise where I was going to steeple. As far as the Trials: It was exciting. The next thing you know, I tried to pull it together with a few months of training with a foot injury. The last thing you want to do is run a steeplechase with a foot injury, because you are pounding a specific joint up and down in running spikes with no padding. I missed the qualifying mark by .48 seconds to get into the Trials. My wife was pregnant and due around the date of the Trials. I wasn’t traveling to races. Either way, I missed making the mark. There was a whole bunch of guys in front of me who would have easily qualified for the Trials in 2008 that didn’t even make it, because the standards have been that good. I don’t know if it became more appealing or if there is just more depth. It’s like that in the 5K. It’s like that in the 10K.
There is more depth. In the past, any of these guys would deviate from their schedule and be guaranteed to win in a road race. Now, there is so much depth on the roads. Guys will specifically train for road races. You are going neck and neck with guys that you’ve never seen before.
American distance running is fine.
Talking about competing on the world stage, it’s different because of the system. The results are going to be different as far as the level of depth. You got a bunch of guys under 27 [minutes for the 10K] is different than a bunch of guys shooting for 27:30.
Fair enough. I agree with you there. What I’m wondering is what do you think about the gap between the U.S. and East Africa in the marathon. It seems to be opening up and there doesn’t seem to be much after the Ryan Halls and the Meb Keflezighis who are aging. Do you feel that way? The progress they [East Africans] continue to make in the marathon seems to far exceed American runners.
They don’t have a collegiate system. First of all, from the get-go, when they wake up in the morning and go outside, their level of expectation and what they are comparing themselves to on a daily basis is completely different from me waking up in Davidson, North Carolina. With the exception of guys like Ryan Hall, the expectation is who is the best guy in the U.S. You just don’t even consider aiming for winning the New York City Marathon.
Most of the guys that they [East Africans] see are shooting for that kind of thing. Those are their national legends. Those are their sports icons. Expectation is the first thing. Why could a bunch of guys not run under 13:00 for the 5K before 2009 and then suddenly were able to? Expectations changed. They had to make sub-13 happen in order to keep existing in the sport the way they were.
You talk about expectations in the sport. We in the U.S. put our expectations on sports icons like football and basketball players, whereas Kenya puts its expectations on running. If the U.S. changed its expectations, could it produce guys like Wilson Kipsang?
I can only talk about personal experience. When I was in high school, I ran a 4:50 mile as a sophomore. I said, “Coach, the New York Marathon is coming up this year, what do they run for a mile for 26.2?” And he told me. I just thought that I would never, ever be one of those guys. I can’t run it for one mile, how can I ever consider anything close to that? It’s a whole another universe let alone planet. Then you fast-forward 12 years and it’s a reality that can happen. But that expectation wasn’t there for those 12 years. I got offered a scholarship to Appalachian State.
I ran to be conference champion at that level. Once I got to the level to be the best athlete on the team, I had the presence of mind to say, I need to bump it up. I moved to the SEC and it was a whole new level of expectation there. You are talking about racing Arkansas and big schools in that conference that were dominating at the time. I went from workouts at Appalachian State that I thought were the boss, but I’d see Todd Williams do a workout and it blew my mind. I had never seen a professional runner do a workout before. It blew my freaking mind. I realized there was a whole new level of pain and endurance in me that I hadn’t even come near. It’s because of my expectation of myself, and what I had built up for. It’s like that regionally all through the U.S.
You mentioned Todd Williams. That’s a runner who put everything on the line. Do you feel like those Todd Williams types are rare in this country, because we have a cushioned life and so much given to us in terms of food and transportation? In East Africa suffering is everywhere and running is all about putting up with suffering, and there aren’t many Williamses or Fams here. I mean you are out on Halloween night running. You aren’t seeing many people, are you?
No. It’s the argument that’s been there for a while. If you look at top runners like Todd or me, we come from a difficult background. It has a lot to do with it. Look at Frank Shorter’s story—one example of many. There is plenty of that going on in the U.S. just like anywhere else. If those kids are given the outlet—and I’ve always wanted to help troubled kids find running—they are going to be the toughest S.O.Bs out there. Their expectation of pain and suffering is different and running is an escape for them. Like it’s been an escape for me. I have always found running to be this fun, fulfilling thing. Look at the Italian immigrants being great boxers, like Rocky Marciano, and then there are the Irish, and Mexican Americans dominating MMA and boxing. They are in that zone of struggle; it’s fuel for athletics. There is plenty of that going on the U.S. It’s a matter of directing athletes to the right sport and having the right guidance for them. I think the new thing is to be a high school phenom, and get a big fat scholarship, and try to go pro like your freshman or sophomore year.
That’s the new thing. I mean even the Kenyans take time to develop, man. And the Kenyans who did it, they fell off the face of the earth when they were 23. If you are going to work with that sort of ethic, you need years and years of giant aerobic and strength base to develop in a way that’s going to be really effective.
If you look at myself with that marathon example in high school, I didn’t think of being able to run 4:50s repeatedly, but it became a reality because of all that work. Who is willing to wait a decade or two? That is the key right there: patience. That was the number-one rule that I broke. My number-one rule as far as training is patience.
We’ve been talking for a bit about the state of the sport. So what do you think about the state of doping in the sport? Do you think the science and methods used to catch the dopers has caught up with the science and methods used by the dopers themselves?
When I told people my situation with dealing with Doctor Brown, and I didn’t want to give anyone specific publicity and generate a bad avenue for other people to try to get information in ways that may not benefit them. Some people can argue that he’s a great physician and I know people that some will argue that he’s pure quackery, man. Pure. When you look at the evidence. But who’s offering the evidence? At the end of the day, you are just scratching the surface with what some people call doping or gray-area doping.
In my case, I wouldn’t know either way. My point was I made that reference as far as athlete health. I said, “Look, man, if I took medicine when I didn’t need it, I’d be messed up right now, and I got messed up for two months taking medication that I did not need.” Here I am running at 9 o’clock at night on Halloween feeling like a champ. Kicking ass on the road with half-ass training. I haven’t taken medication in years. So obviously, that was not something I needed. You are talking about something so small—as far as a non-banned substance that could be detrimental to your health. And that’s my main concern with any kind of doping: health issues more important ethical issues. I didn’t make those comments to point the finger. I made them, because I was concerned about the health of the people I was hoping to compete against in the marathon and other ionger-distance races and I see a lot of names of people who are supposedly on this stuff. I didn’t even need it. There are all kinds of heart palpitations and side effects that will kill you for certain, let alone EPO. People look at it like it’s a level playing field and no big deal, it’s not harmful and that’s complete B.S. There’s no way you can say who’s doping and who’s not doping. It’s all speculation until someone gets caught.
But back to my question, Fam. Do you think there are people that can figure a way to mask the drugs? Is that science more advanced than what’s being used to police them?
It’s not even masking, dude. From what I understand, you just stop taking it at the right time. If you have money, you can get away with anything. I’ve seen and heard things where it’s pretty clear that someone is cheating. It’s not place to say anything, because I don’t have direct evidence. It’s circumstantial from what I’ve seen.
So you are saying the system can still be tricked?
I can’t say it, because obviously I don’t do that garbage. I have no desire to whatsoever. That’s why I’m running local 5Ks for fun. I could be the hero again. It could be so easy now. I’m not on USADA’s [U.S. Anti-Doping Agency] list. I could take anything I want now and they would have no idea. I could have taken anything I wanted to leading up to the Olympic Trials and got off it two to three weeks before to get my qualifier. Run an American record and been the hero. Everyone would pat me on the back and say Fam’s the man. I have no desire to do that. I could easily go do that right now. Who is to stop me?
The only guys that they put on the out-of-competition tests are the top five in any event in the U.S. from what I understand, so everyone else is free to dope. A lot of guys complain about specific runners who are doping. I can name names, but I’m not here to call anyone out. You can look how they race. They drop out of particular races to not get a ranking and they will only run races that only have in-competition testing. There’s no out-of-competition testing. You could just take their names, go to the USADA Web site and see how many times they have been tested. If it’s been under 10 times, then they more than likely haven’t been on the out-of-competition testing list. It’s just in-competition that they’ve been tested.
As far as the top, top guys: You are talking about drugs that were popular in like 1991. You are naming drugs that we know about, because they have been around for decades since they have been discovered. They are doing things far beyond what we will even know. Not only that: they can use stuff that is legal now and they have been so educated on it that it’s better than the stuff that’s illegal. So let’s talk about your thyroid. If you even out your thyroid levels and those endocrine hormones that regulate fatigue from overtraining, you will never crash. You will always continue to train, and you are talking about just one drug. If there’s a cocktail of things that do that that are legal and in combination, that work perfect in harmony to make you recover like there is no tomorrow, then what does that make you? You aren’t taking anything that’s banned. How would you ever protect against anything like that? The only thing that would be able to create something like that is money. You’d have lots of time and lots of money to be able to come up with that.
Do the math on it.
I can’t say what anyone else is doing. I have no idea. All is I can say with experience, is why would this person put me on the medication that I didn’t need unless he wanted to kill me or there is some advantage to being on it? It’s either one or the other. There is no other answer for it. He was going to kill me, he was a complete quack, or he knows something that everyone else doesn’t to benefit.
Who are you talking about?
I’m talking about Doctor Brown.
Did Doctor Brown want to put you on something that worried you?
I was having heart palpitations, man. I thought I was going to die. I was experiencing extreme negative side effects. And then when I spoke openly about it to say that I feared for my health. I had complete courage to speak against a physician who said they were expert. I’m being honest with you, because I have nothing to hide. I’m willing to be honest…and so I went and got second opinions and people told me that I shouldn’t be on anything. It was a red flag. I spoke up and said, “red flag.” I’m concerned about the people that I race against. If someone is going to cheat, that is their problem. I can’t do a damn thing about it. I get serious about it all I want, but all I can control is me. People that are young who want to compete now should look at it that way. If you are starting out, you shouldn’t be told you have to be a certain type of athlete. If you are told that then you should move on and find other people to be around.
Do you feel like the system is inherently corrupt? Is it shady? It sounds like there’s a group of people who are getting away with things.
If it was corrupt and shady, then no one would do it. Nobody would want to be a part of it. You’re looking at it from that pigeonhole perspective that I was for a long time. You’re racing against guys; you have expectations with your training and everything comes down to .48 seconds—Olympic Trials. You could get mad at people in front of me and say they were cheating. There were athletes who lost out to Regina Jacobs as far as making the Olympic team. And they can never have that Olympic moment back. They can get mad about it. It is what it is and there is corruption. But to know that those people missed out were 100%. And even though they lost out to Regina, they were better athletes for having run down someone who had to cheat to out run them. They ran to a higher level of fitness. I look at it that way. And if you look at it that way, you won’t get angry.
You just sort of say that they are going to take the money and the accolades. I could easy look like Mr. Comeback—someone who put my head down and trained really hard and really cheat. But you are talking about two different reasons to run: You run for money and ego or you are running for the self-satisfaction that comes with pursuing your real potential as a human being. Corruption or not, I’m running, baby. [He laughs.] I’m running. I don’t care what they do. All I can do is be the example. Here’s what it boils down to: No one is ever willing to say what needs saying, because you have to have this sponsor and if you potentially shut that door by being vocal, you will lose opportunities as USATF. You’ll lose opportunities with sponsors. You will make it more difficult for yourself. I’m saying things right now people can’t say, because I am sponsoring myself. We run a company called Reckless Running that affords me total freedom to race where I want to race and be the example that I want to be. I want to say that you can start your own company and be the runner you want to be and run with ethics in a righteous way. I don’t have to race at USATF meets anymore or any of their races. I’m completely relying on myself.
Does all this make you feel empowered to say what you want to say?
You’ve always seemed to be a rebel. You were a skateboarder. You are an artist. You had a Mohawk. You are you.
But I also attend weekly sermons at a Presbyterian church here—a very conservative church. Yes. I’m not one guy, though. People may think I’m a certain way. They just don’t know. The pastor of my church and I spend a lot of time together. I’ve been going to church for years. I don’t have to be as vocal about it. The bottom line is that even with this freedom, even when I did speak out on my personal blog to my fans to say this is where I was. This is why you didn’t hear from me and this is where I’m heading. I got 10,000 hits in a day on that blog and thousands of negative responses. But there are lots of positive responses. Because you get the instantaneous response now with the Internet and there’s a lot of negativity with these race sites and stuff. People are just so afraid to be honest. People reference Prefontaine all the time as the hero of this sport, but they don’t really want to put themselves out there, because you’re going to get criticized. I’m just being me. I’m not anything special.
The whole point of my career is that I’m this broken-down wimpy-like kid from Long Island who everyone said I didn’t have the ability—wouldn’t give me a scholarship; wouldn’t give me much as a pro. They say my VO2 max is nothing and turned their back. They didn’t open doors. I was able to change their opinion. I got some help. The people who did invest in me, I was so loyal to. I performed so, because I had this drive. That is anybody’s story.
Any one runner can do that. Everyone I talk to I tell them they have the potential to be an Olympian. They look at you cross-eyed. If you had told me that in the 1980s and 1990s, I’d have told you you were totally insane. That’s the whole point. Anyone can get there. I’m being honest about it. I’m not trying to say, “Don’t try to be me; I’m a baller.” That’s the new message out there “I’m the guy. I’m the man. I have all the money. I got the best contract. I run for the best brand. I have the best times.” No, man. I like the other people running well, too. We bust our ass here at Reckless Running. We make stuff in our garage—my wife and me. We do it right. It’s a sustainable brand. We keep it in the United States. A lot of the stuff we give for free. Our brand ambassadors are people that you would never call elite. They have something about them that’s unique. I care a lot about running and what other people do.
People ask me all the time if my son [15-month old Fam Rex] will be a runner. I think about what you said earlier. I think about the corruption thing and is this sport going to turn into cycling where everyone knows that these guys are cheating and they have that expectation when they start. He’s not going to do it. I’ll have him run, but he’s not going to compete against any of these guys. We will do solo time trials for the rest of his life and just see if he can beat his dad.
There are things that I say that help things move forward and progress and break the chains—the cycle of what’s been—and people ask me how I will solve these things in running. You got to have people that are living the way things have to change. It’s really hard to be an inspiration from rock bottom. It’s hard to build a brand from the ground up instead of just doping and throwing your brand in front of everyone’s face.
Doing things the right way is very challenging. It’s hard for me to accept any interviews, because it’s hard for me to understand what their specific agenda is.
You haven’t answered my question yet about your plans. Where are you in four years? Where are you in two years with the Olympic cycle? Are you going to focus on the steeple or the marathon?
It’s kind of like being asked before you race, “What do you think you’re going to run?” I’m not psychic. Even if I told you, then suddenly, I have to either run that fast or it’s a failure. So a guy like me, I just want to run fast and let things develop organically. I don’t want to put an agenda in front of myself. I have specific goals. My goals are I’d love to make another Olympic team. I really wanted to do it in the steeplechase one more time, but it really wasn’t meant to be. Things went down so negatively with that Trials situation, I just didn’t want to be part of it anymore—not that I didn’t want to be a part of racing or competing. People don’t know that I didn’t try to insert myself into that race, the steeplechase [2012 Olympic Trials].
When I found out that there were going to be guys in the race from my region, which [Zap Fitness coach] Pete Rea had a guy in front of me that was going to get bumped and not make the heats. I petitioned for them to add people to the heats. I was the returning champion. I said that these guys would have made it in the past with the times that they were running. There’s no reason you can’t have one or two extra guys in the steeplechase when you are running three heats. It makes no sense at all to bump them out. Pete found out about it and he was thankful. When he heard they [USATF] wouldn’t do it, he specifically told me to appeal. I really didn’t want to. Then Weldon Johnson called me, saying I should appeal. When he made the announcement, the people, the fans who supported me wanted me to appeal. I did the appeal. I had no idea that the appeal process was so corrupt and that there was so much corruption going on there as far as those people making those decisions.
You can’t speak out against the machine without the machine fighting back against you. Why would I want to be a part of that? The way it’s structured, it’s hard for me to invest four more years.
You mentioned the machine. In one of your videos you have Rage Against the Machine playing. Do you feel like there’s this big track machine and you’re against it?
There’s no rage, man. I’m just a guy who will speak out.
But was there a rage? You had this intense music playing.
I didn’t produce that video.
So there’s no rage.
There’s no rage. I read the Bible. What you are talking about is intensity. You’re talking about working out and doing what we runners do. That’s self-abusive. You are putting your body through incredibly difficult forces and elements that are not necessarily healthy. The element is not anger; it’s intensity. You’re just comparing to the rhetoric that’s out there for that sort of thing. I like what Bruce Lee said, which is, “You don’t punch out of anger; you punch with anger, fear, or love.” If you stick with anger, you get your tail kicked.
You’ve been alluding to going to church and reading the Bible. Are you Christian? In Run Reckless, I thought you appeared to be a Buddhist.
Yeah, I’ve been going to church for a while now. I’ve been going to church every Sunday for a long time. I even spoke at my church after the Trials. I just don’t publicize it. I studied Buddhism in depth. I read the Bible every day. It’s just about living a compassionate life. I’m not here to say there’s a way to lead your life. I’m here to say to live with the tools that you are given: legs, a set of lungs, a body that works in a physical way and so my job is to find information and ideas that help me contribute to people’s lives. That’s a difficult thing when the world is very materialistic. The reward from running is very intangible. You find ways to emphasize that. I can’t just come to you and give you my running philosophy and have not done my homework.
As someone who’s read up on Christianity and Buddhism, do you find a common bond between the two religions in terms of embracing suffering?
There are so many intricacies. Buddhism is a philosophy; it’s not really a religion. There are people that argue it the other way, but if you read Buddhist literature, people will say it’s a way of life and not a religion. You’re talking about ideas of living and basically it comes down to altruism. In a day and age where it’s all about self-inflation—Facebook and imagery of one’s self. I was reading a passage in the Bible. I believe it was in John where Jesus was washing his disciples’ feet. You are talking about the Son of God washing the feet of filthy men. It’s about serving other people. As a runner, how am I serving you? By running fast and putting money in my bank account? I want you to worship me? Instead, I’m looking at it differently. I’m breaking it down and building it from the ground up—as a businessperson, as an entrepreneur, as an athlete, as a father, as a husband. I’m just a runner. I’m very privileged to do this—to have made a living doing this. How can I take my experiences and affect people? I think you get such a quality of life by simply putting one leg in front of the other.