Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Interview with Jay Aldous, World Record Holder

Jay Aldous is a 51-year-old ultrarunning phenom. Anyone who follows the sport closely will undoubtedly recall his scorching 13:52 100-mile split at the 2011 Desert Solstice 24-hour race, setting a new world record for the 50 to 54 age group. Ultrarunning magazine voters recognized Jay's incredible Desert Solstice performance as the 2011 Age Group Performance of the Year.

Jay has been around ultrarunning for quite some time. He finished the 1980 Western States 100 (at the age of 18) and 1983 Wasatch 100, but then he disappeared from the sport for some 25 years, turning his attention to family, career opportunities and a record-breaking cycling journey around the world. Since his 2008 return to ultrarunning, Jay has been on a rampage with several top-five finishes at high-profile events like the Leadville 100, Javelina Jundred and Burning River 100 and wins at the Devil's Backbone 50-mile, Salt Lakes 100-mile and Pony Express 100-mile, to name a few. In a few weeks, he'll line up at the North Coast 24-Hour in Cleveland to gun for a 100-mile time under 13:30.

Here, Jay shares some of his training strategies, an interesting story about his 1983 Wasatch 100 finish, his thoughts on how ultrarunning has changed over the years, and much more.

Jay's interests beyond running include skiing, snowboarding, cycling and traveling. He lives in Salt Lake City and is chief strategist at Social Capital Partnerships, a fundraising consulting firm based in Chicago. He's previously held senior marketing and communications positions at UNICEF, The Brighton Group and Children's Miracle Network (which I find personally interesting since we're in a similar line of work).

So sit back and enjoy what you're about to read, because these are the words of an ultrarunning master.

Silver City 50K - Photo by Michael Lebowitz
WH: Jay, thank you for coming on the Running Man blog for this interview. I have to say: When people talk about the best ultrarunners out there, names like Koerner, Jornet, Morton, Meltzer and Olson come up. But when I look at your age, 51, and some of the results you’re logging, like that age group record-breaking 13:52 100-mile split at the Desert Solstice 24-hour run last year, I think one could make an argument that you’re up there with the most elite. And I also want to mention you ran a 16:16 at last year’s Burning River 100. As a former Clevelander and Burning River finisher, I know that course and the conditions well, and that’s a hell of a time. And as a Leadville finisher, I'm in awe of what you've done on that course. Congratulations on your amazing success.

Now, let’s get down to it. You’ve been running ultras for a while—and I also read somewhere that you’re a pretty strong cyclist. I checked your results and it looks like you finished Western States in 1980. I also found a 1983 Wasatch finish, but then it looks like you didn't race again until 2008, and since then you've been on quite a rampage. What happened in those 25 years?

JA: I was never really a runner so it’s not like I had an earlier running life. I ran Western Sates on a bit of whim when I was 18. I remember reading this article in Outside magazine about this 100 mile race where if you finished in under 24-hours you got a silver belt buckle. For some reason that captured my attention and I wanted to see if I could do it. Once I got my belt buckle I was done with ultra races until several years later when a friend asked if I would run the Wasatch 100 with him. I thought, “Why not? This might be fun!” This was back in the day when there was no lottery so we registered a few weeks before the race. Neither of us had trained much and the course took quite a toll on me. In fact, I was a wreck when I finished. It took me 32 hours (this was so far back in the day that 32:09 was good enough for 9th place). At the end of the race I took off my shoes and burned them, telling the race director, John Grobin, “I will never hurt like this again and I will never run another ultra.” For 25 years I honored that promise. John claims he has a picture of me burning my shoes somewhere in the Wasatch 100 archives. I need to have him dig that out so I can prove to people that I used to have hair.

WH: Wow, that’s a great story! To finish Western States, let alone any 100-miler, when you’re 18 years-old and not exactly mature is pretty amazing. What did you do in those 25 years you didn’t run an ultra? I heard you’re quite the cyclist and once had the record for cycling around the world. Did you spend those years in the saddle?

JA: In 1984, Matt DeWaal and I bicycled around the world in 106 days (14,290 miles) to set a new world record. That record stood for 14 years I believe. Neither of us were particularly talented cyclists, we just had underdeveloped 20 year-old male brains that allowed us to think we were living the dream sitting on a bike saddle every day, sun up till sun down for three months. In 1989, Matt and I created the “Bicycle Express” where we bicycled the 1,938-mile Pony Express trail from Sacramento, CA to St. Joseph, MO in 10 days – matching the ten-day guaranteed delivery time of the original Pony Express. After that I pretty much concentrated on life – family, career, paying the mortgage…

Salt Flats 100 - Photo by Greg Norrander
WH: It seems endurance is just part of who you are. Did you run (or cycle) competitively as a kid?

JA: No. But, not too many kids could keep up with me on my Schwinn Lemon Peeler.

WH: Given your experience at Western States and Wasatch in the early years of ultrarunning, do you think the sport has changed over the decades? If so, in what ways?

JA: So much has changed. There were no trail shoes back then. We ran in road trainers. There were no hydration packs. We carried Nalgene bottles in fanny packs. Some of the elite runners were using a new product called a bota-belt that was essentially a sausage shaped bladder that went around your waist. We carried flashlights in our hands. There were no energy drinks. My drink of preference was defizzed Coke with ground-up aspirin in it. And, we would eat anything that sounded good. I remember having someone bring me a Big Mac with fries at the Brighton aid station during the Wasatch 100 because I thought it would fuel me through the night (perhaps that’s why it took me 32+ hours and I felt like sh*t at the end).

WH: Let’s talk about your training. I’m 39 now and it’s fair to say I’m beginning to feel the years. I’m finding that I need to do better with recovery, especially between hard workouts, and I need to be more strategic and focused with my training. With incredible results like that 18:42 at the Leadville 100 this year, you must be putting in some serious volume. At 51 years-old, what’s your training strategy like and how do you stay healthy and dialed in?

JA: I’m not a high-mileage runner. Anything more than 60 miles a week and I start to feel all sorts of shakes and rattles, plus I just feel tired when my mileage gets too high. The last two months I’ve been experimenting with only running every other day – with a focus on purposeful, high-quality runs on my running days. I think I may be on to something in that several nagging injuries I’ve had for some time are finally healing, I have more energy, and I think I may be getting faster. My fall races will answer the question of whether this strategy is working.

Desert Solstice - Photo by Aravaipa Running
WH: What do you mean by “purposeful” and “high-quality”? And are cross-training and weights in the mix on your off days?

JA: I select runs based on what I think needs improvement for my next race. Right now I’m training for the North Coast 24-Hour run so I am focused on flat runs on pavement running at a 7:42 pace – no faster, no slower. I want to show up at that race capable of only running one speed. In advance of Leadville I focused on improving my descending skills (I’m not a very fast downhill runner). I try to work on core strength on my non-running days. Weights are in the mix as well as my favorite core workout – cutting, splitting and stacking wood.

WH: That’s impressive! North Coast is a great race that is well-run. I was fortunate to run in the 2009 race (we lived in Cleveland at the time). It sounds like you have a very sound strategy. I just hope you have good weather—tough to predict what things will be like on the lake that time of year. What’s your goal for North Coast?

JA: I’m excited to see what a 24-hour road race is like. It will be my first time. I’m just going to run 100 miles as I’m not sure I’ve got the stuff to run for 24 hours. My goal is sub 13:30.

WH: That's fast, for sure. On the topic of 24-hour racing, what did you think of Mike Morton’s recent 172.45-mile performance at the World Championship in Poland?

JA: Mind blowing. Can’t even begin to comprehend running that far and that fast….

WH: Circling back to your training…what I’m hearing from you is you do a lot of race-specific training, versus just going out and grinding out the miles. When you’re not training for 24-hour races, are tempos and intervals ever a part of the mix? And how far do you run on long days?

JA:. I try to do at least one interval workout on the track each week. And, I try and run at race pace or faster for my other runs. My long runs are seldom run more than 25 miles.

WH: Let’s get back to what you said about maxing out at 60 miles a week. I know you live in the Salt Lake City area, where you have access to some awesome mountain trails. Are these 60 “mountain” miles, or do you mix it up between road and trail?

JA: It’s a mix. I’m lucky in that I’m just minutes from the track AND the mountains and can mix it up depending on my race plans and mood. On average, I’d say 75 percent of my running is in the mountains.

WH: I can’t help but ask this since you live in Salt Lake City. Last week Karl Meltzer busted out a huge performance at the Run Rabbit Run 100—a performance many probably didn’t see coming given Karl's age and the fact that there were some young superstars in the field gunning for that $10,000 winner's purse. Were you surprised by what Karl did?

JA: I wasn’t surprised. I knew he was healthy, hungry and motivated. Plus, the course suited him well. He was overdue for a stellar performance. It’s great to see his mojo back!

WH: I agree 100 percent about Karl. He's not only a mountain goat, but he's also pretty fast and he has mojo like no one else. What’s the secret to guys like you and Karl performing at a high level despite the years? Is it recovery, nutrition, specific training strategies, something else?

JA: Karl is a talented runner, a real strategist when he races, and knows how to be patient. While age may be taking some of his natural speed away, I suspect he'll improve in the other two areas as he ages.

WH: Before we wrap up, I have to ask you a question I ask of everyone I interview: What’s the #1 mistake ultrarunners make in their training?

JA: In my opinion, too many miles. Somehow we ultrarunners got sold the idea that the more miles the better.

Pocatello 50 - Photo by Marge Yee
WH: Last question: What’s on tap for 2013?

JA: I’d like to run Western and Wasatch, Lottery Gods permitting. If somehow I got into Western, I’d want to do the Grand Slam. Knowing that the odds are against me, I’m prepared to be content on a diet of smaller regional races that I can get into.

WH: Well, here's to the Lottery Gods! Jay, thank you for your time. You’ve had incredible success in this sport and I think our readers will really appreciate your insights. Good luck at North Coast and I hope you have a huge 2013!


  1. Great interview!

    I've had the pleasure of running a few races with Jay and not only is he an amazing runner, but also one of the nicest guys you could know.

    At the Zion 100 this year he was so fast that the aid stations weren't even set up when he arrived!

  2. The GS seems to be shaping up to be quite the competition in 13.

    Good work here Wyatt.

  3. I am running my most miles ever in my life this year...and its still averaging under 40 miles per week so far this year. :) So I don't care if his advice on mileage is right or not, I like it. :)

    On a side note, if he comes through 100 miles in 13:25-13:30, he'll be behind Mike Morton's 24 hour pace. CRAZY.

  4. Great interview Wyatt. And very timely for me as I make plans on training and staying healthy in 2013!