As part of the GORE-TEX® TransRockies Preview, Team EverymanTri caught up with Flagstaff’s own Mike Smith for an exclusive chat. Mike was the 2009 GORE-TEX® TransRockies Open Men’s Champion with partner Robert Krar, and he will be returning for the 2011 race with new partner, Jason Wolfe, who placed second in 2010.
Team EveryManTri: Why come back to the GORE-TEX® TransRockies Run event?
Mike: I’ve been running since middle school, and this has to be one of the best running experiences of my life. From top to bottom, just a lot of enjoyment. There are several elements of this race that are different from others – I’ve been to a lot of races in a lot of places – this is just a special event. I love the trails, the stage race format, the team aspect, the big representation from Flagstaff where I live, and then the gratification of winning. Yea, it’s just a hugely gratifying event.
Team EveryManTri: What is the hardest part of the race for you?
Mike: You go through periods of thinking you might not be able to do what you have to do, and you have to overcome a lot of mental doubt. For all of the analogies that running has for life, TransRockies sort of magnifies them all. Going hard when you think you just can’t go anymore, digging deep, putting forth the extra effort when you’re empty. Putting out maximum effort on day 4, and thinking ‘how am I going to get up tomorrow morning and do this again?’ But you do. Then you have day 5 behind you, and you think ‘there’s no way I can do this again tomorrow’. But somehow you do it. And so it helps you know that you can actually do what you think is impossible. The physical part is easier – I can put myself through more than a lot of people can. I can put myself into deep, dark places, and stay there. That doesn’t scare me nearly as much as the mind. The mind is where things are won or lost. For me the hardest part is just keeping my mind in the right place so that the body can do what it needs to do. We train high up in the mountains here. We put ourselves through really difficult things, so physically we should be fine for TransRockies. It just always comes down to the mind.
Team EveryManTri: Tell me how you and your 2011 partner (Jason Wolfe) came together.
Mike: Flagstaff is an amazing running community. People know each other. You find people you can run with and are into the same things you’re into. Jason has a reputation here for being a monster on the trails, in the mountains, and in the Grand Canyon, he is good on the steeps. There are lots of different types of runners here, but as far as TransRockies partners go, he’s one of the best. I ran with Rob Krar in 2009, but he got injured and hasn’t been able to train well for the last two years. He’s started back again, and is going to do the RUN3 event which is exciting. We were a great match. But when he couldn’t do the 2010 event, I started to think about whom I could potentially run with, and Jason just seemed like a great match. I basically look for three things in a partner: 1) Must be from Flagstaff, because I really want to represent this place I love so much. 2) Must be able to take a beating, to suffer really well. And he can suffer well. And lastly, it has to be someone you like to be around. Because when you add in the travel, you’re constantly with that person for like nine days. It has to be a real quality person, who knows when to be serious and when to let loose a bit.
Team EveryManTri: How would you summarize your training for TransRockies, and do you do any cross-training?
Mike: I don’t do any cross-training – my body holds up well and I don’t really get injured. I’m very fortunate that way. I can just train, train, train. Most people need to balance out the amount of running with some non-running activities, to give those running muscles a little bit of a break. I’m fortunate in that I am able to just put in really high mileage. I feel my best when I’m running high mileage, and by that I mean like 120 miles per week, which is my sweet spot, and that’s at 7,000 feet. That’s a lot of volume, but I’ve worked up to that amount. It’s not for everyone, but my body is accustomed to that amount of work. We train specifically for the event. So starting in the summer, we do hard efforts multiple days in a row, carrying over fatigue from one day into the next. We work on specific grades, so steep climbs up, and steep runs down. And, of course, time on feet. You’re out there for a long time, so you have to get your body used to that.
Team EveryManTri: Sounds like you’re ready to rock ‘n roll.
Mike: The team we’re facing this year, that won it last year, is tough. They are accomplished runners. Really good. We are not going into this thinking it’s going to be easy. It’s going to be a battle, no question about it. It’s an extremely competitive Open Men’s field. So we’re just going to have to be ready for battle. To beat us, you’re going to have to be prepared to go to war six days in a row.
Team EveryMan Tri: Do you have any training tips for people doing TransRockies for the first time?
Mike: Practice on the type of surface that you’re going to race on. If you live in a city and have to train on pavement, that’s fine, but make sure to get to a trail at least once or twice a week. A lot of the muscles that are required for TransRockies – these little, tiny stabilizers – they need to be strengthened. It’s different than the muscles required to go flat, and fast, and straight. Be prepared for a full-body running experience.
Team EveryManTri: The race-issued duffle bag has limited space in it. What gets priority – what can’t you live without?
Mike: I’m a super-low-maintenance person. I don’t need much. But for me, I need music and headphones. That’s the way I can be around a lot of people and still have some privacy. I use it to go to sleep at night – at TransRockies the tents are in close proximity, but rest is really important. So I need to be able to close my eyes in the daytime, and take a little nap, and also be able to sleep well at night. I put on low-key music and relax and go to sleep. Every night in 2009 I fell asleep with my earphones in. Other than that I need my Blackberry, because I feel like I’m running for Flagstaff, and I need a way to send updates to people at home. So I guess for me it’s all about technology.
Team EveryManTri: Is there anyone you’re looking forward to visiting with at the campfire?
Mike: I’m pretty focused when I’m there. Even though there is a big social component to the race, I remind myself that first thing’s first, I’m there to race.
Team EveryManTri: As an endurance athlete, when things really start to hurt, where does your head go? How do you mentally push past pain?
Mike: I break down the amount of work into really small chunks. I pick a place to get to that isn’t so far away, and think about getting just to there. People who study pain will tell you there is a lot of psychology there, that it’s a mental exercise. So if you can master the mind, then the body will follow. You have to have the ability to keep your mind calm when your body is under stress. Everyone has a different way to do it. I think that people spend so little time in discomfort these days that when we actually experience it, we panic. You have to expect a certain level of discomfort in this race and say to yourself ‘when it comes, it comes, and I’m ready for it’.
Team EveryManTri: How would your friends describe you?
Mike: Dang. Well, I talk fierce like this, but I really do like to let loose, have a little fun. I’m serious when I race, but the rest of the time I’m a goofball. The class clown. My friends would say I’m a cheeseball. If you walked into my room, I would be playing bad 80’s music and watching stupid movies. I may seem like I’m all business but I promise, inside I’m probably singing Billy Idol’s White Wedding.
Team EveryManTri: Who inspires you in running and in life?
Mike: I’ve had some amazing coaches in my life. My high school coach, Brian Wallace, and my college coach, Pat Henner, I feel like hit the jackpot with them. I landed in the hands of some really wise males who inspired me personally, professionally, athletically, all kinds of ways. I arrived to them at exactly the right time. For example the guy who was my high school coach, wouldn’t have been a good match for me in college, and my college coach wouldn’t have been good for me when I was sixteen. It was just perfect. Young men need strong male role models, and I got lucky. I think it’s why I’m still running today. They instilled in me the discipline and the right way to do it, and made it an important part of my life.
Team EveryManTri: What did you study in school?
Mike: At Georgetown, my undergraduate degree was in English. And I got my Master’s at American in Elementary Education. I taught 5th grade in D.C. for a couple years before getting back into my running. Teaching 5th grade in D.C. is WAY harder than TransRockies. [laughs] Even 120 miles of training a week feels like vacation compared to that. I like to read, I like to learn, I just like school.
Team EveryManTri: I read about how you moved to Flagstaff to train for the Olympic Marathon Trials, but they didn’t go the way you had hoped. And you switched to trail racing after that. Do you think you would have ever found trail racing if you had been successful at the Trials?
Mike: It’s funny, I get that question a lot. And I like to explain this to people. In Flagstaff, we just call it running. It’s not trail running, or road running, it’s all just running. If you live in a place like this, surrounded by the mountains and trails, you’re not going to run on the dang sidewalk. So when people talk about my ‘switch’ from road runner to trail runner, I tell them “I was already a trail runner!” Before I had ever done a trail race, I had over 200 days of trail running under my belt, just getting ready for road marathons. It’s just running – the surface doesn’t matter. Each of the running disciplines - trail, mountain, road, track - can learn from the others.
Team EveryManTri: With a teaching background, I guess it’s no surprise that you are now coaching.
Mike: Yea. I work for The Run S.M.A.R.T. Project, which is an online coaching company. We help people from all around the country with individualized training plans. That’s a lot of fun. I’ve been doing that since 2008. I also coach Team Run Flagstaff, which is a community running club with people of all levels and abilities. It’s really gotten bigger since I moved to Flagstaff. We started in 2007. It’s my favorite hour of the whole week.
In March 2011, Mike finished second in his first ultramarathon at Chuckanut 50k, beating Andy Martin’s course record. He followed that with a win and course record in Prescott at the Whiskey Row Marathon. In November 2009, just shortly after his win at TransRockies, Mike took first at the high-altitude Soulstice Mountain Trail Run, and then won the Windstopper Trailrun Worldmasters in Dortmund, Germany. Mike qualified for the Olympic Marathon Trials in 2008.