Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Interview with Tim Long, a.k.a. Footfeathers

He's known as "Footfeathers." Tim Long has been involved with endurance sports for 24 years, beginning with competitive road cycling.

Photo: Tim Stahler

Tim began running in 2002 and entered his first ultra in 2007 (Rattlesnake 50K in West Virginia). Since then, he's never looked back. Over the last three years, he’s racked up over 40 ultra races around the country, including several mountainous 100 milers. In 2011 alone, he finished five 100-mile races, including some of the toughest of them all: San Diego, Hardrock, Grand Mesa (which he won), Leadville and Bear. This year, Tim's off to very strong start, winning five races as he prepares for a demanding 2012, including a return to Hardrock and a possible unsupported attempt at the fastest known time on the Tahoe Rim Trail. In just four days, he's toeing the line at the San Diego 100.

Tim's passion for event management and running has driven his involvement as both participant and race director in trail, ultra, and mountain running for the last 10 years. Tim's interest in the sport runs so deep that he has often been teased for being an “encyclopedia of ultrarunning.” His greatest influences in the sport are Karl Meltzer and Dave Mackey.

Tim, 44, was born in Michigan and worked for Buick Motor Company after college--a job that left him feeling empty inside. He eventually stumbled upon the works of Dr. Wayne Dyer, whose books he read during his lunch hour. Dr. Dyer inspired Tim to focus on a passion. That passion would ultimately become endurance sports.

Today, Tim lives in San Francisco, where he and Tim Stahler run Inside Trail, a race management company. He formerally lived in Boulder, Colorado. He's sponsored by La Sportiva, Rudy Project, Hydrapak and Udo's Oil. You can learn more about Tim over at www.footfeathers.com and www.insidetrail.com, but before you click on those links, sit back and enjoy our little conversation.

WH: Tim, thanks for agreeing to this interview. You had a heck of 2011, completing five races of 100 miles, including San Diego, Grand Mesa (which you won), Leadville, Bear, and--the toughest of them all-- Hardrock. Oh, and you also found time for a few quality 50-milers and 50Ks, placing well in all of them. This year you're off to a great start, with five wins under your belt. With a decent amount of racing already in your legs this year, how are you feeling with so many 100s coming up?
TL:  Thanks for thinking of me to do this interview. I'm honored. Last year was more about putting myself through the ringer with a stacked three month period of five 100 milers. I had only run one 100 (Bear) in September of 2010, so it was time to push it to the next level.  2011 was a mixed year with a couple of sharp performances and a lot of slogging through races without much quality. I was pretty dull by the end of the year.

Photo: Brazen Racing Photographer

I made a commitment to myself last fall to improve my climbing ability, so I've focused on it and long, fast tempos, which has paid off. I also realized this year that I can push myself harder than I believed possible in the past. This is a breakout year for me (finally). Granted, I'm aware that the wins I've had aren't very competitive races but I'm pleased with my times and the efforts at both Way Too Cool 50k where I was fairly sick all week and Miwok 100k where I ran dead even splits the entire 64 miles. So much of the sport of ultrarunning is mental and the challenge to learn and control your fears and strengths is one of the aspects I love about it.

With all the trail half marathons I've run this year (six), it seems like I've raced a lot but in terms of shear milage, it's only been around 270 miles of racing spread out over 11 races so far.  I'm almost peaking right now and feel set up well for the rest of the year.

WH: Before we go any further...what’s behind your nickname (Footfeathers)?

Footfeathers. A guy I used to race against in trail duathlons (run-mountain bike-run) would kick my butt in the MTB portions and I'd beat him in the runs. After one race he mentioned something like I looked like I was floating over the trail (must have seen me falling) and that it was like I had wings or feathers on my feet. He said a few names and Footfeathers was the one that stuck.

WH: What's your big goal--or goals--this year?

TL:  Well, without going into specifics, San Diego 100 this week is a big race for me.  I ran it poorly last year and feel I have a good shot at improving on that performance.  Hardrock is in my heart and mind constantly.  I owe that event a great race and plan to do everything I can to deliver whatever I can for it.  She tested me to the core last year and I passed, barely.  After that, I'm messing around with the idea of running the Tahoe Rim Trail (165 miles) unsupported FKT in August and some other 100s and shorter distance events.  I'm very focused on Hardrock.

WH: How were you able to stay fresh through all those 100s last year? It's not like you just went out there and stayed ahead of the cutoffs, or did “easy” courses. No, you raced some of the toughest 100s on the planet. What I'm most thinking about was that 44-hour Hardrock--a difficult race for you, as you wrote in your blog--but you were able to follow up it with a win at Grand Mesa two weeks later and then a very strong 20:59 at Leadville.

TL:  I wouldn't say I was able to stay fresh. I felt very dull and, ironically, out of shape by the time Bear 100 rolled around in September. Hardrock was far and away the most difficult thing I've ever done, physically, in my life so far. I had a bit of a coughing fit when I semi-choked on something I was eating while descending into Telluride at mile 72. I was “only” about 24 hours into the race, so still on pace for a decent 33-34 hour finish. After that, I started having trouble breathing. I think my throat swelled a bit from the choking and that, compounded with a little high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), made it very difficult to breathe. I was literally suffocating and couldn't go more than ten steps at a time before I'd start to black out from lack of oxygen. The last 28 miles took me (and my amazing pacer, Jon Teisher) nearly 20 hours to finish. I'm not sure why I kept going. I tend to go into races knowing I'll finish; you need that attitude to get into 100s. At Hardrock you have to purchase your finisher buckle separately (it's not part of the registration fee). I haven't told anyone other than my pacer but I bought the buckle BEFORE the race. The thought of seeing that buckle after not finishing was crushing. There were two distinct times when I was certain (and almost hoping) I would die. I was mentally shaken for weeks after that experience.  That race put many things into perspective for me. (Note to reader: click here for a post Tim wrote on his Hardrock follow-up thoughts).

The funny thing is that since I went so slowly at Hardrock, it didn't take much out of my body and I rebounded quickly for a couple of stronger 100s at Grand Mesa and Leadville after that.  I've always been able to recover quickly from races, for which I'm thankful because I love to race.

WH: Unless I’m mistaken, Karl Meltzer, the King of Hardrock and Wasatch Speedgoat, was your coach last year. What did Karl bring to the table as you prepared for and executed what was, without question, a very impressive year?

TL: Though Karl isn't my official coach, I consider him my mentor. I admire him tremendously and have learned a great deal from him, both through his instruction and my observation. He doesn't necessarily teach me how to train but how to race 100s. I guess you could say he “soft coaches” me when I need it.
WH: You said you are “very focused on Hardrock”? Are you going to do anything differently for this year’s race, or just “go with it”?

TL:  Yeah, you could say that.  I didn't get into the race until about 36 hours before the start last year, so I wasn't certain I was even running it until just before the start.  I didn't do any training specific to prepare for it.  This year is much different.  I've been focused on Hardrock and training with it in mind.  It will be different this year.

I tend to appear to take things regarding racing (and life in general) lightly sometimes but there's always a purpose to every day.

WH: You mentioned going for the fastest known time on the Tahoe Rim Trail. What’s the record and what kind of strategy will you use for supporting yourself if you do, indeed, go for it?

TL:  The current record is 63:54.  With it being unsupported, I have to carry everything I'll need right from the start and obtain water from natural sources along the way.  I'll be asking several questions from guys with experience.  I'm good on little sleep and can hold a decent pace for long periods.  I think sub 56 hours is a reasonable goal.

WH: Let’s talk about Inside Trail. You co-founded Inside Trail as a kind of ultrarunning news website but now it’s so much more. You and Tim (Stahler) put on a fair number of IT races in California (hope to make it to one in 2013), have a racing team and even sell branded gear. Kind of like Bryon over at irunfar.com, it seems like you’ve gone head-first into trying to make a living in this sport, which is ballsy and inspiring to say the least. How are things at Inside Trail going and what does IT’s future look like?

Photo: Brazen Racing Photographer

TL:  Yeah, Matt Copeland and I started Inside Trail last year providing new commentary on the sport of trail and ultrarunning.  We felt that there were many angles not being covered and were both interested in exploring them.  Matt is an exceptional writer and has tremendous insight.  He's still by far my favorite person to dissect the racing scene with and we talk often.  We peeled away from that venture to take care of our own personal life responsibilities and Inside Trail and its readers suffered (I did too!). 

Then, in November of 2011 I was hired to direct the races for PCTR.  That didn't really take off in a positive direction at all, so Tim Stahler and I formed Inside Trail Racing.  We are putting on approximately 24 events this year.  The events vary in distances and location but most offer four distances from 10k, Half Marathon, 30k, 50k to 50 miles.  Check out our full calendar at http://www.insidetrail.com/. We've put on nine events so far since January and things are progressing well. We've established some solid partnerships with major companies and individuals, including La Sportiva (best shoes on the planet) and Julie Fingar, who organizes and directs several races, like Way Too Cool, American River, and others. We custom design every course to showcase the beautiful trails along the California coast and inland.

WH: Tell me about your training. How many miles a week do you run? Or do you focus mostly on time on your feet? How about quality—I know you race a lot, but do you also do tempo runs, intervals, etc.? Also, I once read on your blog that you do a lot of hiking to prepare for 100s. Seeing you at Leadville last year, it was obvious you’re a very strong hiker, which will obviously come in handy at Hardrock. How much of your training is spent hiking?

TL:  Lots to answer in that question! My training is very organic. I've found that strict plans don't work well for me and, like in a race, I tend to take advantage when I feel good and back off a little when I don't feel up to hard training. A typical week is roughly 60-70 miles. All but maybe one or two runs per week are quite hilly and I focus one day on a hill or stair workout. I focus another day on a long tempo, which can be anywhere from 8-22 miles. The rest of the runs are merely maintenance runs of 60-70 minutes in the low 7 min/mile pace effort. I use a lot of races for training. Many people feel racing too much is not good for reaching your goals at key events. I feel the opposite. Practice racing and you get better at it. Through doing it so much, I rarely even get the least bit nervous for races anymore, which allows me to focus on the race more.

Hiking fast is important. I regularly can either keep up or pass people who choose to run steep climbs and I'll just be walking. I work on the technique a lot. I practice shifting between running and walking. The goal is simply to find the highest even effort I can maintain while climbing without going anaerobic. Over the course of a 5 minute climb I may shift between running and fast walking 20 times. It just depends on the hill.

WH: Where does nutrition fit into your training and racing?

TL:  I have some diet staples but I also allow myself to enjoy whatever I feel like eating. I have no problem eating a bacon cheese burger and onion rings if my training justifies it. It's not that often. A couple things that I eat EVERY day are my breakfast of salmon, cottage cheese, avocado, and two tablespoons of Udo's Oil mixed together, and I eat a lot of Clif bars, mostly the protein ones. The rest of the meals are things like big salads, chicken breast, veggies, and beer.

WH: OK, I can't resist asking this. Do you have a favorite beer?

TL: Lagunitas IPA, Dale's Pale Ale and Coors Lite (yikes).

WH: Yeah, I recently discovered Dale's and it's great! OK, back to running stuff. In your view, what is the #1 mistake most ultrarunners make in their training and racing?

TL:  Mental weaknesses. A lot of my coaching revolves around the mental aspect of racing and running long. I see people with pre-conceived notions of their current abilities, weaknesses, strengths, goals and a lot of the time these notions don't match reality. This goes both ways. Some people want to achieve too much too soon. They read about people sprinting up Mt. Fuji or knocking out 14 hour 100 milers and think they're ready to take on a 100 miles after only running one 50k just under the cutoff. Other people don't recognize their own strengths and hold themselves back either in the events they choose to run or in races themselves. It kills me to have one of my athletes finish a race and tell me they felt great at the finish and feel fine the next day, especially when they missed their goal(s) in that race. It tells me they held back too much. I'm big on even effort and not going out too fast but you need to have the mental toughness to push your effort to the tipping point and hold it there. 

Other, more pragmatic mistakes I see are fueling and the hydration/electrolyte balance, people not recognizing problems early enough in races, e.g. hot spots leading to blisters, cramping, stomach upset, chafing, and dehydration. By the time they try to address the issue, it's either too late or will take 3x longer to fix now that they waited.

WH: I recently saw that you’re opening up some additional slots for your coaching service. If folks are interested in your coaching, how can they contact you?

TL:  Yep, I've been coaching people since 2003. I never really promoted it but I've had a steady stream of athletes for nine years and recently decided to devote much more time to it, so I opened up twelve slots for new athletes and have filled six of them over the last 24 hours. I've worked with high school cross country runners and veteran ultrarunners, all abilities. I make people not only physically prepared to run and race well but build the mental capacity to work with the physical. It's been a successful program that I customize for each individual athlete and it morphs over time as the athlete improves. I can be contacted at tim at footfeathers dot com or just friend me on Facebook and reach me there.

WH: Tim, thanks so much for your time. Like a lot of ultrarunners out there, I really admire how you live this great sport, both in your running and in your work at Inside Trail. Is there anything you’d like to add for our readers, such as a friendly insult lobbed at BrownieJ?

TL:  Thanks much, Wyatt. I love the sport and the people I've met through it, like you. The only insulting I'll do to Brownie is at Hardrock next month (if he happens to beat me, you have to promise to go back and edit this comment after the race!). Thanks again.

Note to read: Tim finished 3rd overall with a 19:01 at the San Diego 100. Go to www.footfeathers.com for his race report.

Click here to read more interviews with interesting ultrarunners like Karl Meltzer, Geoff Roes, Mike Morton, Phil McCarthy and Nick Clark.


  1. When I win that bet you better not try to buy me a coors light!

  2. Thanks for this great interview! I really enjoyed it!

  3. Don't worry Brownie, I wouldn't want to damage your delicate taste buds or soil your affinity for pbr. gaak!

  4. I am bringing the Lagunitas.

  5. Cool interview Wyatt. Thanks. Tim's a great coach and mentor, but Coors Light? Maybe I'll root for Brownie to see the outcome; but like GZ I'll bring my own beer.

    Kudos for bringing out some insights even those of us who hang/run with Footfeathers might not have known. Keep going...