Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Interview with Nate Pennington

This week we’re privileged to have First Lieutenant Nate Pennington join us for an interview.  1LT Pennington was a member of the prestigious US Army World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) at Fort Carson, Colorado from 2007-2010 specializing in the Marathon. He earned a 2008 US Olympic Trials standard taking 4th overall and top American at the 2007 California International Marathon in 2.19.35. A 10-year active duty Medical Service Corps Officer, Nate brings his passion for coaching, fitness and personal development to his blog at Run Dream Achieve to assist military members and his civilian counterparts to achieve their personal fitness goals.



1) Thanks for the interview, Sir.  Can you please introduce yourself to the readers (how you started in running, career highlights, current occupation etc.).

Thanks for taking the time to consider me.  I started running in 1992 as high school freshman.  My brother talked me into coming out for the track team and pretty much fell in love with the sport of track and field and running from then on.  I ran the 1600m, 3200m and 800m and ran modest times of 4.24, 9.46 and 1.59 for the distances.

I was afforded a partial athletic scholarship to compete at Malone University under the tutelage of 2012 US Olympic Men's and Women's Distance Head coach for the London Olympic Games, Jack Hazen.  He taught me lessons that I didn't learn until years later and that is the importance of thinking long-term in regards to running and racing.  Runners put a great deal of undue pressure on themselves to perform and I lost some love for the gift I was given on account of that.  I thought too short term when I was in college and young runners (as well as more experienced athletes) have to keep that long-term approach and maintain balance with their training.  What do I want to accomplish next year?  2 years?  10 years down the road?

My career highlights thus far is breaking 2.20 for the marathon at the 07 California International Marathon and most recently running 2.26.42 at the 2011 Monumental Indianapolis Marathon last November to finish 5th and second American.  The time would have been faster but had to jump in a porta john at mile 18 while running with the leaders.  It was still a bittersweet day because I have struggled with the marathon distance for years and still feel I am just learning the correct way to attack it.

I am a US Army Medical Service Corps Officer stationed at Fort Campbell, KY with the 101st Airborne Division currently deployed in Afghanistan.

2)  Could you describe the Army’s WCAP program and what led you that direction (since it is not an obvious choice for budding professional runners)?

The Army's WCAP Program is an elite opportunity for US Soldiers who have displayed exceptional athletic ability to come to Fort Carson, Colorado to compete full-time, while maintaining their military proficiencies and represent our Army in National and International competitions.  I came in under 'conditional' status, back when I applied in late 2006, there was a conditional program where if you had shown potential to earn at least an Olympic Trials qualification in an Olympic event you could apply and if accepted, have a chance to train for a year in Colorado.  I was very fortunate in that all I really had was a 10-mile best of 51.53 that I had run at the 2004 Army Ten Miler, a 2.43.36 marathon best that I had run at the 2002 NYC Marathon as a part of an Armed Forces Marathon team that started in last place for a charity and a few low-key races in Europe.  I had qualified for an Armed Forces World Teams in 2006 (Tunis, Tunisia) and had that as well but overall, considering there were other far better qualified applicants, it was a blessing that I had even been given a chance.  I jumped at the opportunity and trained as hard as I possibly could during that 1-year period.  I arrived in Feb of 2007 and failed to break the then 2008 US Olympic Trials "B" standard time of 2.22.00 (5.25 pace).  The cut off for qualification was October of that year since the 2008 US Trials were actually held in November of 2007.  I tried at the 2007 Grandmas Marathon in June and ran a 2.40.02 (a small PR) after splitting 1.10 at the half-marathon point and still on 2.28 pace through 20 miles.  I took 3 days off and continued to build for the 07 Chicago Marathon as I was chasing the timeline and standard.

I ran a huge best for the half-marathon distance running a 1.07.06 at the Philadelphia Half-Marathon that was held that September so I knew I was capable of a 2.22 marathon time but the naysayers out there who belittle runners have to realize, unless you’re in their shoes and experience what it is to truly fail and keep going, you can't appreciate it fully when you read or hear about runners breaking huge time barriers.  This is so important to express to runners, regardless where you are in your training and racing pursuit, you have to have to believe 100% in what you’re doing, that what you’re doing matters and that you are capable of the time you’re seeking.  I failed again at Chicago. I am not a hot weather runner at all.  I commend the men and women out there who hold up in the heat.  I have always marveled the athletes in our sport who can perform well in hot and humid conditions, but I am not one of them and am humble enough to admit it.  I work best in 30-50 degree weather but the 07 Chicago Marathon heat was the worst in the races history.  I hit the half-way point at 1.11 and struggled even to get that split and had the Army not have paid my way I would have called it that day there but walked and jogged the last 14 miles and had to accept 2.51.51 as my finish time.

I flew back to Colorado Springs and was taken off athlete status having missed earning the Olympic Trials standard in time.  I missed the mark and felt awful that I was given such an enormous opportunity and didn't accomplish the goal in time.  I was allowed to stay on as a staff member and assist the program's supply sergeant, took a few days off and talked with my coach at the time (Lisa Larsen Rainsberger-1985 Boston Marathon Champion) of our plan of attack.  I chose to continue training while working full-time as a staff member and flew to Sacramento and all of the hard miles and workouts I had done came together.  I also think not having the pressure to perform other than for myself was a part of the reason I ran such a good time that particular day and 42 degrees at the start sure was nice.

The most important thing that I need to express to runners or non-athletes is simply to continue on in the face of adversity.  We all face it in life and how you handle the trials will determine your success in the future.  You have to keep fighting, regardless what others think or say.  How badly do you want what you’re seeking and if you want it badly enough I really don't think there are limitations.  There are boundaries and you have to work around or through them until you accomplish your goals in this sport and any other endeavor.  For me, it was breaking 2.22.00 and I didn't let up until I did and lastly, be humble when you’re defeated.  I was accepted back as a full time, qualified Army Soldier-athlete after completing my Medical Officer Basic Course at Fort Sam Houston, TX and returned to the WCAP in October of 2009. 

3)  You’ve run for some notable coaches over the years.  Please tell us what you gained from each of them to help your own running but also your coaching.

Jack Hazen was my first professional coach that I worked with. I'll never forget when he arrived to my high school (Wintersville High School) in Ohio.  My local newspaper reporter asked him, "based on what Nate has accomplished as a high school athlete what do you think of his future goals". His response was classic Jack Hazen 'I will place no limits on Nate because he places none on himself'.  His philosophy for athletics was instrumental in how I have tried to handle myself as an athlete and person.  He always stressed being a good person, be considerate of those who you work with and your teammates.  He stressed long-term progression and development and back then I didn't truly get it.  I thought I had all the answers but Coach Hazen possessed the knowledge and the experience that I certainly did not have and he let me make the mistakes in races and training.  I was extremely pleased to learn he was selected to be our nation’s head distance running coach for our men’s and women's' team headed to the London Olympics later this month.  He is a dedicated man who loves what he does, his athletes and God.  The running community loves and respects him because they know he is diligent and has genuine care for those he coaches and our sport.

I was assigned Lisa Rainsberger as my coach when I arrived to the Army WCAP team.  I didn't know what to think as I had never been coached by a female before.  My relationship with Lisa was much like it was with Jack.  I say that because they both had philosophies that I was unsure of and it took time for their methods to sink in. Lisa was the first coach who taught me the importance of quality over quantity in marathon training.  I had respected the two variables for years but focused too heavily on volume rather than letting go of quantity and focusing on where it truly counts, quality.  If a runner is aiming for a 8 minute mile pace for a marathon running big training weeks alone will not prepare that athlete to meet their mark.  You have to stress the systems of the body and saying you ran 130 miles last week means nothing if you haven't done the speed and anaerobic work necessary to hold that pace for 26.2 miles.  There are fundamentals you must adhere to and if you don't heed their attention you will learn the hard way.

Lisa taught me the importance of hunger.  She is the last American female to have won the Boston Marathon so when I had days I was fighting to finish mile repeat workouts she prescribed at 4.45 per rep at 6400ft there was really no room for whining or crying it hurt. She lived and experienced what I was dealing with.  I learned from her that to train for a marathon, to hit that pace your aiming for, you must train for it in the long runs.  There is a place and time for relaxed runs but the long run was our bread and butter workout.  It was all business. 2.22.00 was a very big jump to make when I first arrived in colorado and she made sure I knew that to earn that time I was going to have to put in some serious work. If you’re not willing to do the work, don't waste my time, that was the Rainsberger philosophy and that is how I coach my athletes.  You have to first believe that whatever goal you have set for yourself is possible and not fret if you don't meet that goal in a year’s time.  Are you willing to keep putting forth the same effort, day in and day out, for years until you get it?  Do you have the patience?  I learned that from Jack Hazen and Lisa Larsen Rainsberger.

I also worked around and was mentored by Dr. Joe Vigil.  He was a close friend with Coach Hazen and if you have ever been around Vigil he has an aura about him that is hard to explain.  He lives a spartan lifestyle and he is a lifelong learner. Coach Vigil taught me, based on my interaction with him and the mentorship he gave the Malone team and I, was you have to have an unstoppable belief in yourself, this sport and those you interact with.  There is wanting something and doing the things necessary to achieve it and I learned quickly the difference when I listened to him.  Bragging about how many miles you ran last week means nothing if you aren't doing everything else in your 24 hour day to bring forth the results you’re looking for.  Are you uplifting others?  Are you humble enough to accept defeat when beaten?  What have you learned from misjudgments in pace in races and workouts?  Coach Vigil, Rainsberger and Hazen all instilled something in me that has never left since, to never give in.

4)  As a self-described late bloomer, what inspired you to keep going as other more accomplished scholastic runners gave up the sport?

I simply loved what I was doing.  I also loved interacting and learning from other runners and people who were doing things in sports, in business, in life that were hard to achieve.  I found something I enjoyed doing but I also found that I was attracted to the mental and physical struggles that came along with fighting to hit a specific pace or finishing a distance at a goal time.  I studied my weaknesses and tried to correct them in my racing.  I heard about the Kenyans long before I started running in 1992 but it wasn't just them.  It was adventure seekers, entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Donald Trump, and overcomers that also motivated me as an athlete when I was a kid to the present day.

I have an enormous respect and admiration for runners who are not deemed 'good enough', those that are considered too slow to get an interview or magazine article written about them.  Everyone has a story to tell.  People don't care if you can run a fast marathon time.  Can you help them do the same?  If anything I simply hope that runners who may read this interview can see that big jumps can be made and whether you are at 4 hours for the marathon distance or 28 minutes for 5K, considerable improvements can be made.  It is not an impossibility.  Find mentors, coaches, people that truly give a damn about your goal and stick with those individuals.  They will be there for you through thick and thin and won't give up on you when you miss the mark.  

5)  Many people know you for that amazing jump from a 2:40 marathon to 2:19.  What do you believe were the keys to making that jump?  What can others learn from that improvement?

People have to subconsciously re-program their thoughts from thinking something is impossible and making it reality by the way they think and train.  I think the reason I dropped the time was a number of things. I had an opportunity to have all the stress of working in a full-time military unit taken off of me for a time, had guidance from a highly successful coach and business woman in Lisa Rainsberger and I believed in myself.  I didn't let up when I failed miserably at the 07 Grandmas Marathon and Chicago Marathons.  The marathon is not a 5K race.  It is 26.2 miles and it doesn't matter if you were at 2.15 pace at mile 20, what was your finish time? A great runner of the past was quoted as saying, "Anyone can run 20 miles, it is the last 6 that count".  I had to fail over and over before I got it right and broke 2.20.  Failure should never be something we need to run from.  It should never be accepted but valued more.

What I hope that effort does for those who read this is simply to show it is possible.  Are you a 4 hour marathon and see qualifying for the 3.10 Boston qualifying time as impossible?  Start seeing it as something you can do and not a task that is out of your reach.  You have to think of it this way.  What are runners doing differently in training that you may not be working on?  Adjust your training and mindset. I ran many more slow times from 2009-2010 and nearly let those failures get the best of me.  The best time I put up in 2009 was 'only' a 2.36 (after a 1.08 opening half) and didn't run my second fastest time, 2.26 until late last year.

You can't rush training and continue preparing without breaks.  16 weeks is about the limit for training for the marathon distance.  I trained nearly non-stop for 3 years straight and paid a heavy price, poor races and placed too much emphasis on measuring up to other people's expectations.  I spent from 2009 to December 2011 fighting for the new USA Track and Field Olympic Trials "A" standard time of 2.19.00 and upon my return back to the Army WCAP as a fully qualified Soldier-athlete having run 2.19.35 I thought 35 seconds was going to be easier to drop then it actually was.  I am still training to better the time but that is the beauty in effort.  I was ecstatic when I broke 2.20 after all the disappointments and look forward to that feeling again in 2013.  Focus on your goals and be happy with your accomplishment, never lose the love of the sport on account of trying to please someone else.  Do your best, for you.

6)  What are the challenges in maintaining your fitness as a professional runner while simultaneously fulfilling your military duties as an Army officer?

It is hard for sure.  My responsibilities are to keep those assigned to me safe, there is a lot that goes into being an Officer.  I was an enlisted man for 6 years so have a greater sense in what our enlisted men and women endure having lived their experiences in my first few years in the service.  I was doing 18 mile runs at 2am in the morning in the middle of week long field training exercises preparing for last year’s Monumental Indianapolis and California International Marathon's.  I had no business trying to prepare for such a high level marathon time like 2.19.00, but I didn't want to live with regret later in life that I didn't give it an honest attempt.

What is most ironic is I ran 2.26 at Indy and 2.32 four weeks later at the 2011 C.I.M. Marathon while working full time in one of the most high tempoed military units in our Army.  Faster times, minus my 2.19, than I ever ran while training full-time with all the opportunities I had at the Army WCAP.  I had done a solo 20-mile long run in 1.50.02 6 weeks prior to running 2.26 and knew 2.19.00 was well in reach. My only mistake is not having picked a marathon 2-3 weeks after that run and instead spanning out another 3 weeks of training. Indianapolis was my best chance and did the best I could in that race.  I walked away with a 2.26 while putting in 100 mile weeks in the 101st Airborne Division.  I can accept that.  I flew to Sacramento 4 weeks later and gave it one last shot and wound up with a 2.32.24 at the 2011 California International Marathon.  I had to try.  I can live with my efforts and I stress others not to live with regret.  Give it everything you have, regardless what your circumstances are.

Bruce Lee said it best, "Do not fear failure, not failure, but low aim is the crime."  I had a time to meet to qualify for the 2012 Trials and a small window to earn it and missed.  I didn't let up and that is what I stress for others.  Don't let up.  Learn from the failures and remember the world's greatest successes were built from failures.

7)  Do you have any personal goals for the 2016 Olympic cycle?   Where can we expect to see you racing?

I have the 2013 London Marathon in mind but just want to get this deployment over with so I can begin that pursuit.  I am running 6-10 miles a day over here and that is quite a task where we are located.  I have always had as my long term goal to earn the IAAF Olympic "A" standard time of 2.15.00 but realize this is an enormous jump that will take great commitment.  I turn 36 in August so am still young.  I don't see age as the roadblock it is seen in our society.  The masters marathon record is 2.08 run by a 41 year old man.  Men and women across the globe are running world class times in their late 30s early 40's.  Rick Ross, author of Running Ultra, is another great example of the testament of how important belief and desire come to play even later in age.

I always considered my freedom as a blessing even before I joined the service but when you are in a war zone races, accomplishments and telling others about something you did really isn't as much a concern.  Safety and thinking about all the luxuries you take for granted at home do come to mind.  I will certainly train hard when I return.  I still am fired up about the sport.  I want to help others in their pursuits with my website and by example.  Words alone mean nothing without some action and have to keep striving to live life in that fashion.  I want to help other runners and even non-athletes reach their personal and athletic goals.  We all need motivation and someone there to hold us accountable.

8)  In your observation, is there anything in particular that separates the sub-2:20 marathon guys/sub-2:46 marathon girls from those just outside the Olympic Trials standards?

I really don't think there is an enormous difference. Honestly, this is a hard question to answer because runners just below these time standards are working just as hard. It could possibly be a slight difference in who wants to endure longer. Marathon success, unlike, 1500m to shorter distances, is never guaranteed. Sometimes you can do everything correctly and still miss the mark.

Men and women who have not met the above mentioned times and are 5-15 minutes away (or 45 minutes to an hour) have to accept that it may happen 6 months down the road or they may earn the time 4-6 years down the road. How long are you willing to endure? I ran 2.43.36 at the 2002 New York City Marathon starting in last place for a charity. I would not break 2.20.00 until 5 years later. 5 very long years with a lot of trial and error along the way, many failures. When I hear about a 3.30 marathoner. I see a 2.30 marathoner, a 1.40 half-marathoner…a 1.05 athlete. It isn't short term but a long term outlook and runners have to implement this mindset to get lasting success in this sport because it is hard, long, and sometimes awfully boring work that you have to find a way to enjoy.

I have studied the martial arts since I was in high school and have always had an enormous admiration for Steven Seagal. People know him as the movie star and the guy that is really good at Akido. Few know the process it took for him to obtain that level of skill. There is a great documentary on youtube about him that I encourage your readers to check out.(about an hour and 45 minutes long)  We look at the event (a sub 2.20 male and sub 2.46 female time) and marvel over it (and even faster times) but sometimes forget the process these athletes had to endure to earn those standards. He has a quote somewhere within the video where he says, 'show me what you got, when you have nothing left.'

The question I have for runners seeking to earn those times you see other athletes putting up is how much are you willing to endure when you have nothing left, when no one cares or knows you’re out on the roads, that you had to pick yourself off the ground because you failed by 30 minutes on a time you are capable of or when naysayers make fun of you or judge you or think your making excuses for why you ran slower than what was expected. How long are you willing to endure. If you can endure you can accomplish anything and I mean that.

Think of how many people had to have laughed at the Wright Brothers for trying to create a machine that flew or Roger Bannister for thinking he could break a so-called 'impossible' time of 4.00 for the mile? It takes just one person, one belief and an unstoppable ocean current is created by that one action taken. You want those times above, it is up to you to earn them.

9)  You’re also a coach and have recently launched your site at Run Dream Achieve.  Could you tell us about your coaching philosophy?

My philosophy stems from a combination of coach such as Lydirard, Hazen, Rainsberger, Cerutty, Vigil as well as martial artists like Bruce Lee and Steven Seagal. My philosophy stems from not only the running coaches I have worked with but also martial artists world renowned businessmen and women like Rockefeller, Ford, Hill, Mother Theresa, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Lisa Rainsberger, my wife and leaders from the past and present like Christ, Patton, Napoleon, Petreaus to name a few. These individuals have an incredible sense of knowing the importance of mindset, leadership and balance in working toward leading people to do something they simply didn't think was possible. Their example has had an incredible impact on my coaching philosophy.

Finding an inhibiting pattern in someone’s training or thinking and adjusting it so it coincides with their preparation. I firmly believe in race pace training. You cannot properly prepare for a marathon or a 5K by not practicing the goal pace you want to hit if you are jogging every day. You have to stress the system of the body and equally stress recovery so that the athlete will supercompensate for the work done. You want to run 5.45 pace for 26.2 miles. Ok, have you practiced that same pace and held it for 13? What can you do to extend the distance? How many miles a week are you training well below that pace? Hard days should be just that, very hard and on the opposite side of the spectrum easy days should be equally easy. The benefits of a workouts don't come from the workout itself but from the rest. If you know the length of your route on an easy day, throw off the watch and run as you feel, don't get caught up in paces on recovery days.

It is a science and is more than just putting one foot in front of the other and if treated as such athletes are going to make huge gains. Sebastian Coe was quoted once as saying, "I have always believed that long slow distance produces long slow runners". There is partial truth in that. If a runner wants to hit 7.00 pace for a 10K, have they trained at or below that pace adequately and for enough time in order to produce the time in a race. The trick to training for races, regardless of distance, is training the body to clear lactic acid faster than it is building up within the body. The great runners from Kenya train at such high intensities that they, like other equally good American and European runners, that they have low concentrations of lactic acid in their muscles while at race pace. How does that happen? It doesn't happen by running easy miles ALL the time. My philosophy is one of volume but an even higher focus on quality effort with equal focus on recovery, that will prepare my athletes to obtain their pace and race goals.

Some of the world's best runners jog at a snail’s pace on recovery days. If they can, we have to stress this on our recovery days. There is a place for extremely hard running but it is worthless if you haven't disciplined yourself enough to take your easy days just as seriously. If you want to run for running sake and for fitness then get out there, be consistent and do your best. It isn't just about running fast, but learning to be consistent to accomplish your own fitness goals.

10)  Any other projects we can expect in the future?

I have a lot of ideas for rundreamachieve. I want to get more people involved with the site and help other runners who are struggling or need answers. We all know the leaders in the running community but there are many things I don't see being focused on like telling other runners' stories that deserve being told. We give praise and worship to those winning hundreds of thousands of dollars at the top but what about the masses who have their own stories to tell? I don't want people to view me as a know-it -all because I don't have all the answers. I failed and succeeded with the best of them. How have I helped them? What have I done to teach them? Have I answered a need or failed? Those are a few things I have to think about with the site.  I have been working extensively with my program and design team for the past 3+ months on the new rundreamachieve.com which should be up and running in the next month. I also want to get more involved with video and creating products that are going to get runners excited. If I can make an impact in someone's life, whether running or personal then I'll feel I am making a difference. A 2.19 marathon time doesn't help anyone. How can I get them to do the same or better? I am working to make rundreamachieve.com a haven where individuals, whether they are an athlete or not, will enjoy coming to and can learn from. Personal development is something I have always put an enormous focus on. I learned that years ago from Jack Hazen and want others to know they are cared for and have potential as I have been taught. How much do you got…when you have nothing left….?

11)  Thanks for the interview and your service to the nation!  

My pleasure.


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