The fastest marathon runner in Champion Factory, Ryan Ellis, just competed in Chicago Marathon coming away with a PR time of 2:53. I, for one, wanted to see how he did this!
Congrats Ryan on your speedy race!
First off, thank you for the interview request, and I am honored to give you my thoughts. I am your average middle-aged guy that caught the endurance bug (possibly as a part of a mid-like crisis) almost 5 years ago at the age of 39 when I ran in the first race of my life. However, over the last few years I have learned a lot from experts like Pete as well as trial & error. Overall, I would like to think my insight below would provide some assistance to anyone who views endurance sports as a hobbyist.
Tell us a bit about the atmosphere at Chicago & how did it compare to other big marathons:
Overall Experience – Chicago is the best big city in the US in my opinion. People are friendly, pretty setting all with a big city feel. And, the marathon met my every expectation. I strongly, strongly recommend it for anyone who is thinking of running a marathon. Outside of the Boston marathon, I think it is the best. There are people lining about +90% of the route cheering you on. Water stations are abundant with 20 aid stations (however if you are a runner who depends on extensive fuel, I suggest you bring your own gel or two since nutrition was not disbursed too frequently). I have never seen hydration stations as well organized or staffed (including Ironmans). Remember to start signing-up around April timeframe. It is a lottery race with over 45k runners.
Course – The course is flat and fast and very spectator-friendly for family and kids. I only had to deal with some wind (which is expected) and mild heat. The course is historic as it takes you through all the notable parts of the city. If you have never seen Chicago, the marathon is a great way of viewing the city. If you are shooting for a PR, I recommend ensuring you get a time corral you are happy with. They do an excellent job of monitoring the corral assignments before the race. I had very little issues with running around slower crowds. The race is a loop and covers 29 neighborhoods throughout the downtown area. The race starts from Millennium Park in downtown (home of the Bean) near the Navy Pier, after a couple switch backs downtown including Miracle Mile you head to the northside of the city including Lincoln Park and Wrigleyville. You head back south at about mile 8 through downtown again before you hit various cultural centers like Pilsen, Chinatown, Greek town, Little Italy, and Bronzeville. You finish where you start at Millennium Park after heading up Michigan Avenue making logistics very easy. My wife (who does not like going to these events) was able to see me five different times in the space of 1 mile. You will not find too many marathons easier to navigate and spectate as a spectator.
After the race, I was eating my traditional post race burger at a bar with another finisher from Wisconsin. He indicated to have raced most every major marathon around the world (London, NY, Tokyo, Berlin, Boston, etc), and he believes Chicago is the best marathon of them all (outside of Boston which is only a notch ahead due to the history).
Lodging – I strongly recommend staying downtown near the park.
I know Pete was beaming on race weekend, but how stoked are you with your performance?
I was very excited about my performance. My primary goal as a working, family guy like everyone else is to have FUN. I have learned never to set a hard time to beat for a race as it only leads to disappointment. I knew Chicago was a fast course, and I felt that I could get close to my prior best time of 2:59. Pete & Katie have always put together a great plan that works for me both physically and mentally. I get bored doing one activity (hence triathlons) so I always favor a little bit of swimming, biking and running as a part of my regiment. In general, my weekly workout plan consisted of 2 run days (1 hour & 2 hours), a bike day (40-50 miles usually hills), 1 indoor bike session, and a couple of 50 minute swims sessions. Most people are surprised that I run marathons and never run more than 15-16 miles leading up to a marathon. Typically, my two run workouts each week consisted of one interval/speed workout (1 hour) and a couple long runs (up to 2 hours). While I have completed the well-known Hal Higdon plan, I find that it not only breaks down my body but is incredibly boring.
More specific to this race, I felt pretty good most of the race despite being short in the fuel department (forgetting my requisite 1 gel pack at the hotel). Since there are no downhills or particularly fast segments of the race, I kept my pace pretty stable the entire race. I went out slightly faster than normal, knowing that I would do a self-assessment at mile 18 and recalibrate from there. Mile 18 is where I complete a race assessment and depending on how I feel I either keep it stable, slow-down or step-up. Many people fear mile 22, I fear mile 18 based on my experiences. By the time a runner hits mile 22, it is too late to make any adjustments. And mile 22 becomes a problem because they did adjust earlier. Since the course was pretty flat, I kept the same intensity and pace after mile 18. My quads were the only thing aching which is expected due to the minimal # of long workouts I complete training for races.
What is your running/sporting history?
Overall, I would say I was an average athlete growing up. I played basketball and baseball in high school but was marginal at best. The only asset I have noticed over time is my ability to run extended periods of time without tiring. Outside of occasional basketball pick-up games, I pretty much did nothing athletically from high school until I turned 39 years old. I was 39 years old when I ran my first race ever (Irvine half marathon which no longer exists) in April 2011. The tipping point came in late 2010 when some friends from work ran a race with rock bands (Rock n Roll half marathon in LA) and had a blast. At that moment, I said if they can do this running then I could too. I was familiar with running as my dad had been running since the late 1950’s at a time when shoe companies were not even making “running” shoes and people would pull up next to him in their cars and ask if he needed any assistance.
Since my first race in 2011, I have run a couple races a year mixing in both marathons and triathlons. My first triathlon was the Marine Corp sprint triathlon at the Pendleton Intruders base in August 2011 a few months after my first running race. While growing up near the ocean, waves were not new to me, but boy was that an eye opening experience completing the swim in 5-6 foot swells. I soon began to realize my strength was in longer distance races (and running in particular). So I subsequently entered in the Long Beach Marathon in fall of 2011 and my first 70.3 was in Oceanside in March 2012 (5:40 + my only flat tire ever which I did not know how to fix but there was a mechanic who came to the rescue). I was hooked at this point and began warming up to the Ironman idea. After some convincing the wife and kids, I completed IM Coeur d’ Alene in 2013 (beautiful race and setting for those who have not done it). I completed it 12:43 after a very unimpressive bike ride which included 5 piss breaks on the bike alone. I learned later that people actually pee in their race kit (however I will never be fast enough to warrant such a practice). My goal was pure fun for the race. Other races completed since include St. George Marathon (very fast and downhill – great Boston qualifier), IM Arizona, IM 70.3 Texas, Dallas Marathon, Boston Marathon and a few shorter others.
You have a family and full-time job, what does your week look like:
Like most, my wife and I work full time. I work at Wells Fargo in Commercial Banking and she works at Ernst Young in tax advisory. With 2 young boys, time is at a premium. Someone told me early on and have never forgotten…. If you want to be a successful triathlete (especially the longer distances) you can really only manage 2 legs of a 3 legged stool (work, family and training). I do my best with a half a leg of each. My wife has mostly given up on the idea that the next race will be my last race. So I try to make it as painless as possible on the family. My workouts have to be done at times when kids are in bed which means most of my workouts are at night from 8:30-10pm. Weekend workouts are early mornings with a rule to try to be home by 10am. Most every week (race or not) I work out 5-6 days a week with Friday the rest / family day. On average my workouts are 45-60 minutes during the week and 3-4 hours (total) on the weekend.
Pre-race meal and race fueling & nutrition strategy:
The race fuel and nutrition strategy below only applies to marathons and half iron distance events. Discussions related to Ironman distance nutrition will be left for another time as it is much more involved and I am far from an expert.
Hydration – My race nutrition has evolved from only drinking water in my first races to a variety of things now. Nutrition / fueling are like shoes, everyone is different and everyone has to decide what works best for them. As far as hydration, experience is the best determinant of how much hydration I need. Since I don’t sweat too much and I hate carrying stuff, I generally train carrying minimal hydration during workouts (Pete may kill me for saying this). But I will plan workouts around an occasional drinking fountain if I know it’s going to be hot. I believe it helps get my body accustomed to working off minimal inputs (I have read articles about this approach). All this changes if the conditions are hot outside, but I live in Southern California with mild weather. My ultimate determinant on hydration needs are gauged by my urine. Yes as caveman and rudimentary as that sounds. Not to get too clinical, I look at my urine color during (if I need to pit stop) and after long work-outs to determine whether I properly hydrated. Bright yellow is bad. I don’t think I need to get any more graphic and scientific than that.
As far as hydration products, I am a huge believer in Skratch. Their products are natural and not too sweet. I always take Skratch Hyper Hydration mix the night before a race and another the morning of the race. I will consume Skratch’s Matcha Green Tea & Lemons (with the natural caffeine) the morning of the race and during triathlon races on the bike. During running races, I have learned to adapt to drink whatever the race provides as I hate carrying stuff. The strategy to race hydration and fuel consumption is I only consume small sips on a frequent basis (almost every aid station). I rarely drink the whole cup but I will always dump what is left on my head for cooling. I would say during a marathon race I drink 2 cups of water for every 1 cup of hydration drink (i.e. Gatorade). For me, small sips helps me avoid cramps or that liquid sloshing feeling in my stomach. Lastly, I learned from Pete that you can never take enough salt tabs so I do consume salt tabs before and during the races. And if you run out, just pick some up off the ground. You will be amazed on how many people drop salt tabs.
Fuel – For running races, I like to keep my fuel consumption relatively light (carrying 1 emergency gel pack). I generally gauge my fuel consumption for a race based on time duration of the event. For purposes of running races (or events less than 4 hrs duration), I really don’t need to rely on much calorie consumption during the event. However, during the race, I will take periodic shots of whatever the event provides to give me immediate energy (shot of gel, orange slice, pretzel or coke or whatever my stomach easily digests).
Everyday Diet – I don’t cook at all, and I am not one of those kale and pomegranate snobs. Eating is a passionate hobby to me. I like all foods from the greasiest hole in the walls to quinoa. I am not that into endurance sports where I would ever eliminate greasy food. From my 20’s to late 30’s, I lived on fast food. In n Out, Jack in the Box, Taco Bell, you name it. Since I started endurance sports 5 years ago, I have made some changes in my diet. I have cut-back on fried foods, minimal cheese, burgers, and chips/salsa. In its place, I have supplemented my diet with fish (sushi), brown rice, avocado, berries and salads. I eat meat of some sort every meal except breakfast. Everything in moderation is my rule. Since I hate to cook, I literally eat out for 90% of my meals. I eat Chipotle 3 times a week (chicken, sofritas, brown rice and avocado, that’s it), sushi / poke 3 times a week, and smattering of everything else the rest of the week.
My secret weapon is homemade granola cereal which is a family recipe which includes quick oats, turnado sugar, raw sun flower seeds, coconut, chia seeds, cacao, almonds, wheat germ, shredded wheat, dry milk, raisins/cranberries. I eat this daily with berries & milk.
Running Tips & Shoes
I have learned that opinions are like a#$%^, everyone has one. But I love to share my experiences for those who ask. One question that people frequently ask me relates to running and improving times or reducing injury. Having back surgery and continual IT band issues, I have made minor changes to my running style to alleviate injuries. In general, a person’s running mechanics are innate and material changes to mechanics are not plausible. However, one thing I changed to reduce injury is decreasing my stride length which drastically reduces impact on my legs and back. Unless you are a Kenyan, most inexperienced runner’s strides are way too long which forces heel striking which is horrible on your legs / feet. Each foot should be touching the ground 85-90 times a minute. Shorter more rapid strides are much easier on the body and forces you to run more upright on your midfoot. I learned this after reading several articles in running magazines and watching youtube videos of Craig Alexander run. Crowie is model I use to duplicate my running style. I try to keep my arms swing at 90 degrees and upper body a few degrees forward but mostly vertical.
I am not a fan of the minimalist shoes like Newton. Triathletes have a herd mentality and most of the people I see wearing those shoes are heal strikers which just kills me to watch. I run in traditional running shoes (generally trainers even for races) with as much cushion as possible. I prefer to have at least a 10-12mm heel to toe drop which is characteristic of a traditional running shoe like an Asics Nimbus. I generally train in the Asics Nimbus and run in lighter trainer shoes (Asics Excel 33.3 or Adidas Ultra Boost) for races. I have never worn race flats and never will. I will never forfeit cushion for a few ounces.
As I type this, I’m also remembering being at your Ironman last November in Arizona – which is your preference?
It’s a tough call. I love the challenge of Ironman events but also like the marathons because they come easier to me. So I try to mix in a couple marathons and half IM’s a year with a full IM every 18 months. I am a really slow cyclist and I keep thinking that one of these days I will all of sudden get fast in a race. I do really like the process of Ironman training, the gear, gadgets, the long distance, and participant comradery. I am starting to realize that my bike shortfall is too large to overcome in order to ever qualify for Kona. So my only goal for future Ironman races is to have fun and ignore time. I was happy to break the 12 hour mark in AZ and that is good enough for me (for now anyway).
Anything else to share…
I am very grateful for Pete, Katie May and the entire CFC team. Pete is the second coach I have used. I started with CFC in June 2014 to prepare for IMAZ. Pete’s humor and enthusiasm made the training process fun even during those long training months leading up to races. What I really appreciate about Pete is his understanding and ability to create a plan around my life style. I basically have 8-10 hours max to train. He understands that and creates a realistic plan with appropriate expectations. Pete is a coach not a program writer. I have worked with coaches which are program writers and are never available to speak to or cheer you on. Pete is always accessible via phone, text, email even when I am not training with him. One thing I will never forget, is his support during IMAZ when he actually rode alongside me for portions of the run to provide encouragement which was invaluable for me. I continue to use CFC even for marathon training. My marathon times have improved from 3:08 to 2:53 since using Pete over the past 18 months. At my age and physical limitations, I could not be happier with the level of output.
· Oceanside 70.3 – April
· Boston Marathon – April
· A 70.3 or IM Possibly Vineman – summer
· Berlin Marathon – September