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Interview with Paul Petersen

Paul Petersen of Smithfield, Utah is a two time Olympic Trials marathon qualifier with a PR of 2:17. You can follow Paul's training at http://paul.fastrunningblog.com/ and via his contributions to The Run Zone. Paul is also the owner of Marathon GIS, a company that maps race courses for endurance events. Check them out at http://www.marathongis.com/.

*Thanks for taking the time for this interview Paul. How did you get started in running?

I grew in up rural Indiana. In elementary school P.E. class we had a "4-minute run" once or twice a year, where we all ran as many laps around the gym as we could over that time. I would usually finish near the top of my class…which I certainly couldn’t do for sprinting or for other sports! I liked that I was good at something, and in 6th grade I started running on the track team ("track" in 6th grade consisted of running around a grass field and then having one "meet" at the end of the year). I ran the 800m, and thought it was the hardest thing ever…next to the mile, which I could not complete at the time. It’s funny to think back on. I kept running distance events in track in Jr High, and then on into high school, where I ran the 800m, 1600m, and 3200m. As a fall sport, I played tennis through 10th grade, but then quit tennis and tried cross country starting in 11th grade. My tennis coach told me that if I wouldn’t listen to him, then I should run cross country instead. I guess I took that to heart. Best decision I ever made. My best times in high school were solid, but nothing outstanding – 2:06, 4:41, 10:16, and 16:22 for 800m, 1600m, 3200m, and 5K XC, respectively. Indiana is a one-class system for track and XC, and I never qualified for a state meet in either sport with those times.

*Can you tell us about your college career?

I ran for Calvin College, a DIII school in Grand Rapids, MI, where I was coached by Brian Diemer and Al Hoekstra, two tremendous coaches in many ways. Diemer is a 3-time Olympian in the steeplechase, and won the bronze medal in 1984. Since the early ‘90s, Calvin had established a proud tradition in cross country, with many top 10 national finishes. During my time there (1997-2001), our teams finished 6th, 2nd, 4th, and 1st at XC Nationals. Taking home three trophies was really great, but the team itself meant the most to me, and I learned many great life lessons and established many great friendships during that time. Winning the team championship in 2000 (my senior year) was truly special, for all that went into it, including the efforts of alumni before me. Placing 22nd as an individual and receiving the honor of All American was icing on the cake. In track, I mostly ran the 5000m and 10000m. I qualified for national meets during my Junior and Senior years, but never finished higher than 10th as an individual at track nationals. My best collegiate times were 3:58, 8:34, 14:48, and 30:45, for 1500m, 3000m, 5000m, and 10000m, respectively.

*How has your training evolved since college? Can you describe your current training and how Tinman's philosophy has shaped your approach?

It’s changed quite a bit. Like many other runners, I had great coaches in college, but was a bit lost when I got out. I knew how to train for a 5K or 10K, and I had developed decent speed over the years, but had no idea how to train and develop the stamina for a marathon, which is the distance I got into soon after college. My "marathon training" looked a lot like 10K training, but with a 20-miler tacked on during the weekend. I did a lot of short intervals, and very few tempo runs! Now it’s the opposite. My interval work is never shorter than 1000m, and I do them much less frequently than I do tempo runs. Typical interval work is 10x1000m at CV pace (~3:05), or 6x1-mile at threshold pace (~5:05). My bread-and-butter tempo workouts are things like 8-10 miles at marathon pace, or a 4-3-2-1 ladder at marathon pace, or 2x5-mile tempo, or long progression runs. For me, it’s really all about long tempos, or tempo intervals, at marathon pace or a bit slower than marathon pace.

I will push the pace twice per week, and do "Big Workouts". Usually I will do a Big Workout on Tuesday, and then incorporate the second Big Workout into my Saturday long run. I used to do two Big Workouts during the week, plus a Saturday long run, but in the past year lumped the second workout with the long run, because I think it helps my recovery (I’m almost 32 years old, still young, but don’t recover as fast as I need 10 years ago). The other days are easy doubles (easy runs, twice per day). Sometimes I will double on workout days, to get some extra volume, but not often. I run a 6-day cycle, and tend to take complete rest or jog a few easy miles on Sunday. I need that day for mental refreshment more than anything, but it has worked well since I started doing it. My total volume for marathon training on the 6-day cycle is usually in the mid-90s to low-100s.

Tinman’s (Tom’s) training philosophy has been hugely influential on me. I started reading from Tom back on the old run-insight.com forum (that takes me back!), and then "followed" him to the current therunzone.com site. He has also helped me directly through email correspondence and through a couple short stints of formal coaching. The core concepts of Big Workouts (workouts lasting 90-120 minutes), "tinman tempos" (brisk paces slower than marathon pace), and CV intervals are all pushed hard by Tom, and I’ve incorporated them all during the years. He’s also reinforced fundamental concepts such as the importance of doubles, modulation of distances while doubling, taking the easy days easy, and importance of doing strides. He’s changed the whole way I think about marathon training.

My first several marathons, training "my own way" were all in the low 2:40s, to high 2:30s. Good times, but I was underperforming, consistently. After I read books by Daniels and by Pfitzenger, I got down to the 2:30s, and even cracked 2:30 once. But still underperforming. I started reading tinman in 2006/2007, and since then have run a quality string of marathons starting in May 2007: 2:26, 2:18, 2:22, 2:23, 2:19, 2:17, 2:19. I’m due for a bad race, but to be honest I haven’t ran a bad marathon since 2005. I’ve shaved almost 23 minutes off my marathon time with tinman-style training + consistency.

*Too many collegiate runners hang up the spikes after their last college race. What keeps the fire burning for you?

I took about a year off after college, started grad school, got married. I didn’t have much fire at that point either, and wasn’t sure what left there was to accomplish. There’s not much out there for a 14:50 5K runner. But I decided to "try" a marathon in 2002 (18 months after I graduated). In high school and college, I always "got better" as the distance increased, so I figured the marathon was a natural "next step". I debuted at the 2002 Top of Utah Marathon, our local race up here in Cache Valley. I ran the first half in 1:12:30, and the last 6 miles were a complete death march, but I still ended up with 2:40:19 and 4th place. More importantly, I was hooked, and continued running marathons.

Ultimately, I’m internally driven, and I enjoy getting PR’s, and also the process (training) in getting there. One good thing about underperforming in the marathon and half marathon for so many years, is that the PR’s keep coming pretty easily. In recent years, qualifying for the Olympic Trials has been my major incentive. Running the 2007 Trials in New York was an amazing experience that made the training worth it. When the USATF tightened the standards to 2:19 and eliminated downhill courses, that just created a bigger challenge that I wanted to overcome, and fueled the fire. I don’t think I would have run as fast as I have over the past couple years, if they had kept the standard at 2:22.

Now that I’ve hit this Trials goal again, I need to find a new goal. My last couple races, Boston especially, have fulfilled most of what I’ve been looking for in running, so I’ve got a bit of empty space in front of me after the Trials are over. But right now I’m content and just enjoying the journey.

*You've overcome significant health issues to run at a high level with Ankylosing Spondylitis. Can you tell us about the condition and some of the challenges you have overcome.

Ankylosing Spondylitis (A.S.) is a chronic, degenerate auto-immune disease that causes inflammation in the spine, neck, and hips, as well as other joints throughout the body. The cause is unknown, although there is certainly a large genetic component, combined with some sort of environmental trigger. It mostly commonly manifests in males in their 20s, although it occurs in adults of any age and both genders.

I fit that prototype, where A.S. first sprang up in me in early 2008, at age 28. I had recently ran the Olympic Marathon Trials, where I finished 52nd, and was eagerly looking forward to continuing to develop my running and take it to the next level. I was training for the USA Half Marathon Championships in Houston, when my body just started "falling apart". At first it was inflammation in my tendons near the hamstring, then my toes became inflamed, followed by my neck and my lower back. I thought it was "overuse injury" from running at first, but became baffled when new parts of my body started hurting even after I stopped running.

I saw a sports doctor who suggested that A.S. could be a distant possibility (I had never heard of it at the time). But then a podiatrist decided to run a battery of blood tests, and I tested positive on HLA-B27, which is associated with several diseases, including A.S. This blood test, combined with my case history and ongoing symptoms, allowed a rheumatologist to make a definitive diagnosis of "A.S."

Getting diagnosed with a chronic (lifelong) disease at age 28 rocked my world a bit, but the good that came out of it was that with a diagnosis, I could start receiving proper treatment. And one key to A.S. is catching it early, which is what we did.

My diagnosis was in June of 2008, and by this time I had not been running since January, so going on 6 months. I had pretty much given up the idea of running again, and just wanted the pain to go away and to live somewhat normally. It was hard to walk, sit, work, do day-to-day things, or even sleep. Running was far from my mind.

But I started treatment with NSAIDs in June, and started running again shortly thereafter, just a few miles at a time. I improve quite a bit on the anti-inflammatories, and was surprised how fast the running came back, but I did have a big lifetime base, and was coming off my best year ever, so that certainly helped.

I raced a few times during the second half of 2008, hitting 16:10 for 5K and about 1:12:30 for the half marathon. I still had pain and stiffness, but it was tolerable, and was happy to be able to run again at this level. But in March of 2009 I decided to take my doctor’s advice and change treatment to a drug called Enbrel, which essentially suppresses the arthritis by suppressing part of the immune system, in effect "turning off" the disease. I had hesitated at first to take this medication, due to some scary potential side effects, but after a lot of research and soul-searching, I decided that I was ready to accept the risk in order to find the benefit.

And it changed my life. 6 months after starting Enbrel, the A.S. was in remission. That same year, 2009, I ran PRs of 1:08:30, 1:08:12, and 1:06:45 in three successive half marathons. Almost on a whim, I decided to try a marathon, and ended up winning the race, with a time of 2:23:07 (on 60 mpw of training and no workouts). At that point, coming into 2010, I realized that the sub-2:19 Trials Qualifier was more than just a pipe dream, and got back into "tinman-style" training throughout 2010. I ran just one marathon in 2010, but came up just a little short, with 2:19:48 at the Indianapolis Monumental. Still, it was my first time under 2:20 on an unaided course, and a pretty big deal to me. And the Trials standard was definitely in reach.

I got the Trials Qualifier on my second attempt, at Boston in 2011. With the combination of a great training buildup, great temperatures, and the strong tailwind, it was a perfect storm to run fast, and I was able to put together a great race due to all those factors. But Boston and Indianapolis were that much sweet due to knowing what I overcame. With A.S. there are no guarantees, and 2 years from now, I may be flared up and no longer able to run. I could experience fusion in my neck and spine. So I have to savor the present, and be thankful for the days that I can run.

*With a 2:17 at Boston and a 2:19 at Indianapolis, you have certainly performed well far from home. Can you provide any thoughts on learning to travel well?

Definitely get out to the destination a day early. It’s good to have a full day to recover from the flight, hydrate, look over the course, etc. My Saturday travel day to Boston was pretty horrendous actually, and I ended up being stuck at the airport for over an hour, and then came to find out that the hotel had given my room away. (I eventually got a room). It was stressful, and I was exhausted, hungry, and dehydrated. But then I had all Sunday to take it easy and get ready for the race, both mentally and physically. There will always be bumps in the road, it’s never perfect, so you just have to roll with it sometimes, and not let it get to you. I’m pretty laid back when it comes to race, and don’t get edgy or nervous, so that helps. It’s best not to over-think things.

*How do you deal with the challenges of training at a high level in the Utah winters?

Here in northern Utah, we get a lot of snow, and it's not uncommon to get temperatures below zero...for the high. On top of that, air quality is often poor due to temperature inversions that trap the cold air along the valley floor. I bought a treadmill this past fall, which helps on the really cold or snowy days. Also, I have a pair of metal "grips" that I can strap on to my shoes for added traction. My training has also greatly improved with proper clothing. For a long time, I resisted buying all the trendy runner apparatus, but some of it really helps, especially an UnderArmour (or similar) top, high-quality tights, and high-quality gloves. It makes a world of difference, I’ve found, to sink some money into your winter clothing.

But the reality is, even with good gear, even with a treadmill, it’s darn hard to get quality in during the winter, or even quantity. For me, I try to work on my general base, and not worry too much about intervals or tempo runs. If you get a nice day, then go for it, but mostly it’s just about being consistent, staying healthy, and logging miles, so that went spring rolls around, you are in good enough shape to take advantage of it! My marathon-specific training buildup to Boston this year was quite short, about 8 weeks, but I was launching off of a great base, and a great previous year.

*What are your plans as you build toward the 2011 Olympic Trials?

After Boston, I took it easy a bit, eliminated doubles, lowered mileage to the mid-60s, and didn’t think about running much. That’s good for me, mentally as much as physically. I ran the Utah Valley Marathon about a week ago, kind of for fun, and also to make a few bucks. It’s nice to race without the pressure of hitting the Trials standard, that’s for sure.

As I get into the summer, I plan to raise my mileage to the low-80s, bring back doubles, and focus the workouts toward the half marathon distance. (I feel that throwing in variation to training is beneficial…to not just train for the marathon all the time). I’ll run a couple local halfs in July and in August, and then will run the Top of Utah Marathon in September, in hopes of winning. There is usually a good field there, with several Kenyans, so it is always a good race. I usually do not run this many marathons in a year, but again, with the pressure off, I’m just enjoying myself out there.

In October, I’ll rebuild a base, with no racing, and then focus all of November and December for training specifically for the Trials. So excluding the taper in January, it will be about a 10-week build. I plan to get to 100 miles/week on a 6-day cycle, or perhaps slightly more. The training won’t be anything new, just a matter of executing the Big Workouts, staying healthy, and continuing to build off my last several years of work. Although I have no specific goals for the Trials, I do want to make it a PR attempt, so to get in shape enough to where I can go through the half comfortably in 1:08 and then see what happens from there. Hopefully it will be another magical race, where things come together and I can exceed my expectations.

*Please tell us about your business (sounds interesting from what I know about it!)

My business is called "Marathon GIS, Inc." I do contracting and consulting in the field of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and work out of my home as a one-man shop. I started Marathon GIS in 2005 just as a hobby, and began by making maps and elevation profiles of race courses and of trails for the use of myself and my friends. I had noticed that most race websites at the time had grossly inadequate maps, and I thought, "I can do better, I should make money for this". And thus, a small business was born. As far as I know, I am still the only cartographer who specializes in race course mapping. I started very small, just sponsoring a couple local races, and then adding a few paying clients. Over the 6 years, my clientele has steadily grown, and I now make maps for marathons, half marathons, multi-sport, and overnight relays all over the United States. My large client is Ragnar Relay, and I have been producing all of their maps since 2006. This past winter, I started doing contracting for environmental-related mapping, which rounded out my workload and allowed me to quit my day-job, and work full-time with Marathon GIS.

*Thanks for a great discussion Paul!  Best of luck going forward.

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