This is always fun because it’s my double secret life. I come to work as a scientist and hardly anybody knows that I was a championship athlete. I’m a several-time national champion and I raced on the world level. I hesitate to call myself world-class, but certainly, I was ranked in the top 20 in the world several times during my running career. That’s what distracted me from school.
In high school, my older brothers were runners and they’re successful. I’m a sports junkie, but not of the size to be able to play basketball or football or baseball, and truthfully not coordinated enough to do any of those as well. Running was a natural thing. When I started running, I found that I loved the journey as much as the results, so it was never hard to train daily like a runner has to do.
“It’s pretty intense. At least energy-wise, the beautiful part about running is you can only run so many hours a day, so you have a lot of other time to sit around and think about things, which is a nice marriage with science.”
You’re exhausted, which was good for me because it dampened the rest of my brain down and I could actually sit down and concentrate and things like that. As I became a good runner, my focus shifted toward running. I really wanted to understand not so much how good I was among everybody else, but rather my limits. That’s what I was really interested in, and that started to actually drive my science a little bit.
Like I mentioned before, when I hit upon the biochemistry course in university, I started to understand, “Okay. There are limits to performance somewhere in here, and if I can decode some of that, it would help me become somewhat of a better runner, or at least give me a small edge against my competition.” I ended up going to graduate school not so much because I wanted to go to graduate school, but because I really wanted to learn more about running and how to become a better performer. That’s why I went into exercise physiology.
Again, my original thought was, “I’ll get a master’s degree and I’ll start to understand that.” At that point, I had some dream of being a coach. When I started working under Bill Stanley, the encouragement was there to continue on and get this PhD, and I went away from exercise science at that point, even though my interest was really in human performance. But again, understanding that was not really going to pay the bills. I was still able to dabble in it and understand enough about metabolism and cardiac performance to really help my training to some degree.
I think the bottom line is that coaches know what to do, they just don’t know why because they’ve been doing this trial and error forever. As a scientist, I started to understand the whys, and eventually I coached myself. The science helped me tweak my own coaching and helped me understand what things were and where I could push and where I couldn’t. It definitely helped my performance. All throughout my graduate studies, I was running and competing, and it was a good mix.
“I think I drove some of my advisors nuts because I was gone all summer racing and then I had to come back in the fall ready to do some science again. … It worked really well for me to mix them both, and it was really fun.”
When science was going well, sometimes running wasn’t. When running was going well, sometimes science wasn’t. It kept me happy, kept me excited, kept me going. My whole family is runners. All my brothers are runners. Most of them ran for a division one school. Now, my kids are also runners. I have four kids, and all four of them have run at division one universities here. I have two at the university now.
One is a super senior. He was just fourth in the NCAA indoor track meet. He’s a mini-me basically, looks a lot like me, and he’s had really similar success. In fact, he’s beaten some of my records now. It’s unbelievable to watch. Again, to be an all-American here and fourth in the country for college kids is amazing. My daughter is a regular senior and she had a terrific year as well. She’s running quite terrifically too, so it’s fun to watch. Both are biology majors. Olin, who just was fourth at the NCAA meet, is actually in exercise physiology and is getting his master’s degree.
“Somehow [my kids] like me well enough that I still have some influence over them, and they keep doing those things that bring back really good memories for me, really strong memories.”
I know what they’re going for. It makes me feel a bit blessed because I realize how lucky I was in a lot of ways, how things come together in the right ways to propel you forward and make a career out of that. It truly is lucky. You’re in the right place at the right time and things happen.