Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Interview with Phil McCarthy

Phil McCarthy is one of the top time-based runners in the world today. A native Nebraskan now living in New York City, he has run almost 70 ultramarathons since 2002, winning a total of 17 races. In 2009 and again in 2011, Phil won the highly competitive 24-hour national championship, held in Cleveland, Ohio along the banks of Lake Erie. He was named to the US 24-hour team from 2007-2011 and has automatically qualified for the 2012 team. In 2007, Phil became the first American man to place in the top 10 at the 24-hour world championship race, finishing fourth. He has run over 150 miles in three different 24-hour races. In May of 2011, Phil broke the American record for 48 hours, held by John Geesler, logging 257.34 miles. He has also finished twice in the top 10 at the Badwater Ultramarathon, a grueling 135-mile race across Death Valley held in July. On the trail, Phil has buckled at the Western States and Vermont 100s. Beyond running, he has a strong passion for music and is a classically-trained pianist.

Phil in en route to his 48-hour record in May of 2011.
WH: Phil, thanks for agreeing to this interview. So far I've talked with mountain ultrarunning specialists Karl Meltzer, Nick Clark and Geoff Roes (note to reader: at the time of this interview, I hadn't yet interviewed Mike Morton). It's nice to shift gears and now focus on a guy who has dominated the 24- and 48-hour scene for a few years. On that note, a few weeks ago you ripped off 153.37 miles, winning your second 24-hour national championship in Cleveland at the very competitive North Coast race. What are your thoughts on the race and what does yet another national championship mean to you personally?

PM: Thank you, Wyatt! I love running the 24-hour national championship. I've run every one since 2006. It's always highly competitive, with the best runners around, and also a great chance to meet up with other 24-hour junkies. Dan Horvath (race director) does a really good job with North Coast. I love the course – 0.9 miles, flat with a couple of gentle hills, and Dan and his team take good care of the runners. I was feeling good going into it, and even though Serge Arbona and Mike Henze and Mark Godale of course have better PR's, I was feeling pretty confident that I had as good a chance to win as anyone. I actually started out shooting for 160 miles and was on pace for quite a while, before slowing down a little as night fell. I didn't reach that goal, and fell about a mile short of a PR, but I stayed in front from start to finish, holding off a strong challenge from Mark in the middle hours, and finished with a good total of 153 miles. 150 miles is a big mark, and I'm not sure, but I think I'm the first American to get 150 miles three different times. But winning the national championship is a huge thing for me—a way to put my name in the books, and not many people have won more than once. That said, big congratulations to Connie Gardner for winning her third! It also gets me on the team to run in the World Championships in Poland next year.

WH: I've found through personal experience that going 24 hours around a 1-mile hard-surface loop is a whole different animal than running 100 miles on a trail. You've done lots of different kinds of ultras, from the Western States 100 and Vermont 100 to many of the big 24-hour races. In your mind, what are the similarities and differences between the two types of events (trail 100s and 24s)?

PM: The similarities are just the basics of running: technique, body position, foot placement, stride, as well as hydration and nutrition, clothing, coping with weather, etc. For the differences, there are two different elements: trail vs. road and fixed-time vs. fixed-distance. I do prefer roads because I can get a smooth, efficient stride going without worrying about the surface. How your foot meets the ground is so important, and on a road you have much more control. The hard surface of pavement doesn't bother me at all – it's possible to develop a technique that minimizes the impact.

Fixed-time races also have a different set of challenges than fixed-distance races, especially point-to-point (Western States) or single loop (Vermont). Running a mile loop over and over can be very tough mentally, for sure, especially when there's no finish line and you're out there indefinitely, as far as distance. But the advantages are that you pass by the aid station and your own supplies every mile, and it eliminates distractions and it's easier to focus in on your own running and what you need to do to keep going. It's something that I've gotten good at, and I guess is well-suited to my personality and way of thinking. Besides that, a lot of the ultras in the New York area are fixed-time or otherwise short-loop repeat courses, which goes back to the beginnings of modern ultrarunning in the 50's and 60's, so I'm very proud to be carrying on that tradition.

I think there's a lot of misunderstanding about 24-hour races or other fixed-time races. Runner's World wrote a very derogatory article a couple years ago, and a lot of people think we have a screw loose. Even other ultrarunners sometimes seem to see it as an eccentric fringe of the sport, but I think it's just that to a lot of people it just doesn't sound fun. But fun is subjective, and in the end, it's all just running.

But I loved running Western States, which was my first 100, back in 2005, and Vermont, and I'd love to run more of the big mountain trail 100-mile races, even though I wouldn't be as competitive in them. (But on the flip side, a lot of the best 100-mile runners have crashed in 24-hour races.) But the costs and logistics of traveling to them make it tough. And my priority has to be where my strength lies, especially for national championships, world championships, or other international races or record attempts.

2011 24-Hour National Championship in Cleveland, Ohio
WH: I remember that Runner’s World feature (read it here)—I agree that it was quite derogatory and I almost canceled my subscription. I do think 24-hour races are fun. There’s a whole mystique about them—the closed loop, the tent city, the little community that forms over the 24 hours.

PM: Absolutely. I was just so shocked to see something like that from a magazine that supposedly promotes the sport of running. I think a lot of people dismiss these kinds of events too quickly. They really are a lot of fun!

WH: Indeed. They are fun...but challenging to say the least. That said, it's hard to imagine running for 48 hours straight...much less at record pace. But that's just what you did earlier this year when you set a new 48-hour record with 257 miles, besting John Geesler's record of 248. How much harder was 48 hours than 24 hours, and did you ever take a rest?

PM: This race, Three Days at the Fair, in Sussex County, NJ, was my third 48-hour race, and I was shooting for the record – with John's encouragement – at each one, starting with Surgeres, 2008. I did well there with 235, didn't get the record, but I learned a lot. It was a lot like a 24, but it hurt a lot more afterward, and it was hard to get moving again after a 15 or 30 minute nap. On the upside, I could relax the pace and didn't have to push the speed. My second 48 was Across the Years this past December, and I pulled out halfway through with worries about my Achilles - but I learned from that, too.

So for Three Days at the Fair I was so determined to get the record, I simply put mind over matter and kept my focus on what I needed to do as far as pace, technique, nutrition, all the basics. It took a huge amount of mental energy to stay awake and alert the whole time. I took, I think, four rest breaks when I would lay on the ground (or once on a park bench) for 5-10 minutes with my feet slightly elevated and close my eyes. I didn't dare fall asleep because I didn't have anyone to wake me up, but I just needed to give my feet a rest and to shut my mind down for a little bit. But I came out of each of those rests feeling very refreshed. Other than that, and stopping to put on warmer clothes at night, I didn't stop at all. The best part was it didn't feel hard at all. I was able to even pick up the pace the last couple of hours, and I could've kept going and going! My feet hurt for a while, but joint pain went away quickly and I had almost no muscle soreness at all! I'm very proud of this race, not just because I got the record, but because everything came together, my plan was perfectly-executed, and I came through it not just in one piece but feeling good at the end.

WH: In my only 24-hour race to date (the 2009 North Coast 24, which you won), I saw lots of different strategies. I saw people deploy run/walk strategies. I saw others totally going on feel. A few just wanted to get to 100 miles and then whatever happened beyond that was gravy. When you're in a 24- or 48-hour race, do you have any particular strategies?
PM: I start with a goal mileage that is ambitious but reasonable, for example 160 miles at North Coast. I split that up into 12-hour splits, 85 and 75, then 6-hour and 3-hour splits, measured both in minutes per mile and minutes per lap, taking into account some slowing but trying to keep the middle 12 hours as consistent as possible. For me, the key is to settle into a pace and a routine that I can sustain for the bulk of the race. Of course, once I get off-track and my goal is out of reach, then I go more by feel! I haven't been as disciplined lately about walk breaks, but I think maybe I should get back to that. For the 48-hour, John's record was an even 400K, so I came up with a plan to reach each 50K by a certain time, and I even left an extra hour at the end for safety. That time, everything did work and I broke 400K with about an hour forty to go. Different things work for different people, nothing works all the time, and everyone has different goals, but this gives me a framework to start with at least. It also helps mentally to break it down into recognizable chunks, because if you've been running ten hours and all you can think of is that you have 14 hours to go, it's too overwhelming and you'll drive yourself crazy!

The 2010 US 24-hour team. Phil stands to the far right.
WH: This is great information that I’m sure will be helpful to our readers. When I did the North Coast 24 in 2009, I fell into the trap of drinking every time I went through the aid station, which later caused me to pee an annoyingly high number of times, slowing me down. Big mistake! Do you have a nutrition strategy in time-based races—as far as when, what and how much to eat and drink?
PM: I actually do drink something every lap, at North Coast and at other races with loops of similar length. I think it’s vital to staying hydrated, and I usually require a brief pit stop every three hours when things are running smoothly. But nutrition has been a weak point for me in some races in the past, mostly because I don’t have the appetite for food with enough calories or nutrients to keep me going, all I really want to do is drink. So lately I’m relying more on Hammer drink products and other drinks that give me more liquid nutrition, and that’s helped. I’m also taking a cue from Marshall Ulrich who said that in his cross-country run he didn’t drink any water, only drinks with calories, so I’m moving a little bit in that direction. Basically, nutrition is still something I’m working on and experimenting with.
WH: Does your passion as a musician ever find its way into your running, or are the two pursuits totally separate?
PM: I believe that every aspect of my life finds its way into my running somehow, but my musical training is an especially significant factor I think. I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano performance, so for years I was practicing four hours a day or more, and it required a lot of work that to some might be considered very tedious. But keeping in mind the big picture, what you hope to accomplish, helps give you the patience needed, and when you understand how the long hours of training contribute to your goal, the work is something you’re genuinely happy to do. And the long hours of practicing do require muscle strengthening and pushing beyond a state of muscle exhaustion, just with different muscles. So in many ways it’s a lot like ultrarunning. Besides that, I think the inner, soul-searching nature of creating music has been a big influence on the way I run – more of an inner, soul-searching manner, which could explain why I’m better at short loop or fixed-time races. Or maybe they just both stem from the same part of my personality.
WH: You are on the board of the American Ultrarunning Association. Looking at ultrarunning today and where the sport may be heading—as we see bigger and bigger prize purses, sketchy participation among elites in national championship trail races, the threat of performance-enhancing drugs and other looming factors—is there a role the AUA can play?
PM: Yeah, with prize money I think our top prizes have finally caught up to the sport of competitive eating! Seriously, you’ve brought up a number of important topics. The sport is growing I do think there is a role the AUA can play to help on a number of issues, and we are always evaluating that. I can’t give you any details at this time regarding what we might or might not do. The USATF also has a big role of course, by designating national championship races and selecting teams for world championship races, certifying records, among other things. But you have to remember that a lot of ultrarunners have a very independent spirit and don’t necessarily place a lot of importance on nationwide (or international) institutions. I think a lot of runners don’t even know there is a 100-mile national championship. We can try to do what we can for runners, but we don’t want to squash that spirit either. As the sport grows, I think it will be increasingly necessary to provide a sort of home for ultrarunners and race directors where they can get reliable information, perhaps some guidance, and give them a voice.

WH: As a former East Coaster who moved out West a few years ago, I’ve experienced two very different ultrarunning cultures. A sport that traces its roots to road races and time-based events now seems dominated by the big mountain ultra races. Is this something you’ve observed as well and, if so, what are your thoughts on the cultural/geographic divide in the sport?

PM: I haven’t spent a whole lot of time out west, but I agree that there seem to be two different cultures, or traditions. If there are more people running the mountain trail races, that’s not a bad thing at all, it’s just the way things developed. But it depends on what you mean by “dominated.” What would be bad is if road running or fixed-time races were neglected or overlooked, especially since that is how our sport began. (That’s why I do get a little defensive about things like the Runner’s World article.) As it is, track ultras, which were once one of the foundations of ultrarunning, are now very rare. I think all ultrarunners, especially serious ultrarunners, should know the history of the sport, they should know about people like Ted Corbitt, and races like London to Brighton, the 50-mile national championships on Staten Island, and check out the Ultrarunning Hall of Fame on the AUA web site. I also think everyone should at least try out a type of race outside of their comfort zone (if you can call any ultra a “comfort zone”). I think they would be better-rounded runners for it, and it could benefit the sport by helping to bridge the cultural/geographic divide. That’s why I’m especially impressed by those runners who have really excelled on both trails and roads, people like Michael Wardian and Scott Jurek, Connie Gardner, Jamie Donaldson and Annette Bednosky, among others.

Generally, regarding the east/west road/trail issue, I’ve recently read blogs and forums where people think there should be two versions of UltraRunning Magazine, two Ultrarunners of the Year, etc. But I disagree. We need more unity - it can only benefit us all. For one thing, the trail/road or east/west distinctions are not always so clear. And let’s not forget about the Midwest, the South, Texas, etc. For another thing, most runners, and every single ultrarunner that I know personally, runs both road and trail races, even if they favor one over the other. But it’s a big continent, it’s not easy for a lot of people to travel across the country, the landscape is different in different areas of the country, and there are cultural and societal differences beyond our sport, so there will be differences. The differences can enrich us, as long as there’s mutual respect.
WH: Earlier you mentioned the 2012 24-hour world championship in Poland. Recently Mike Morton ran 163.9 miles at the Hinson Lake 24-Hour Ultra Classic and, in an interview I did with him, he seemed to express some interest in being on the US men’s team (if asked and if his schedule allows). You’ll obviously be on the team and I’ve heard Scott Jurek (American record holder for 24 hours) will be, too. That looks like a pretty formidable unit to me. Do you have any ideas who the US will be sending to Poland for the worlds?

PM: Those who have automatically qualified are Connie Gardner and Deb Horn for the women, and Serge Arbona (based on last year’s national championship), myself and Jonathan Savage for the men. The rest of the spots will be filled based on performances from March 2011 to June 2012, so Mike will certainly earn an invitation, but Scott will have to run another race to qualify since his record-setting run was too long ago. Sabrina Moran had an amazing race in Philadelphia this summer, and she’s definitely a young runner to watch. Harvey Lewis and Lisa Bliss had great races at North Coast that might earn them invitations. There are still more races to be run, so we’ll see how it all sorts out. The cancellation of the 2011 world championship was a real travesty and a lot of runners and teams might have missed a golden opportunity. Still, it does look like we’ll have great men’s and women’s teams next year, so I have high hopes.

WH: You’re the American 48-hour record holder. Are you going to gun for the American 24-hour record (currently 165.7 miles)?

PM: Believe it or not, I’ve been gunning for it since 2007! Back then it was “only” 162 and change (Mark Godale’s record), and now Scott put it a little farther out of reach, so I don’t know. I do still think I’ve got a 160 in me, so we’ll try for that. But I seem to do better the longer the distance, so I’ve been giving some thought to the 6-day. That’s another animal altogether, but the Sri Chinmoy race is right in my backyard, so I suppose I’ll have to try that sooner or later.

WH: Phil, thanks again for talking with me!

PM: Thank you, Wyatt!

1 comment:

  1. 166 is miles in a day is a long time to average 8:40s (if going for the record).

    Good interview Wyatt. 100 boggles my mind still. 150 ... sheesh. 48 hours? Crikey.