Leo Manzano, 26, loves his job. And he’s getting much better at it. This year was a watershed year for Manzano, who specializes in the 1500 (and now the 800 as well) — especially on the European racing circuit, where he racked up one PR after another. His string of great races culminated in a 1:44.56 in Berlin followed by a 3:32.37 in Bruxelles less than a week later. That was the third fastest 1500 run by an American this year, behind Lopez Lomong and Andrew Wheating. I came away from this interview with a nickname for Manzano: Mr. Fun.
Can I monopolize your time for a few minutes?
Sure! Let’s do this!
Great! So, your closing speed this summer was really good, putting you right up front in a lot of the European races. Was that something you worked on specifically this year?
My closing speed has always been there. But there was a mental aspect of being able to run with a lot of the African runners. They’re just so tough and so good. I think sometimes as Americans we tend to put barriers on ourselves and we just can’t do it. But it was kind of a progression where I got thrown in with the guys and had to figure some things out about myself — and then mentally that really opened up a lot of doors and the barriers just kind of went away. It was like, “Man, I can run with these guys!” So I started finding myself up toward the front. But I think the speed has always been there.
Was that a realization you had over time or was it a “Eureka” moment?
I think I run really well when I take it back to the basics. That’s what running should be all about: having fun doing it. When you start thinking about times, and who’s going to race, and all this other information that’s really useless…I just want to take it back to the playground, “Let’s go touch the tree, or race to the fence.” Just take it back to those times and make it fun. And all of a sudden you’re not thinking about anything except the running.
Has running always been fun for you?
I’ve always loved it. I used to race with my grandfather back in Mexico. One thing I didn’t like, of course, is that he’d always beat me [laughs]. I’ve always been very competitive, always enjoyed running. This year I hit a little bump in the road, where I was thinking, “Is this really what I want to do? Is this what I like?” Because after awhile, you train so much — it’s all these hours — and am I seeing results? It becomes really tough to stay focused and enjoy it, because of the workload. But after awhile you realize, “I have one of the coolest jobs in the world.” I could be sitting in an office or working construction — doing something that I probably wouldn’t enjoy.
How do you deal with the inevitable plateaus in development and performance?
The lows in the sport help you appreciate the highs. Looking back on The Prefontaine Classic and Monaco — those were horrible races for me. But I felt like I turned it around and made it into a very positive season.
Do you go back and look at recordings of your races, either to analyze them or look for issues with your form, for example?
I definitely go back and look at them to see what was a strong point, or where I could have worked [harder]. But every race is its own race. Even if I were try to come back and have the same race, it’s kind of difficult. You aso have some races where you just don’t want to look at them. And others you think, “Oh, I can look at this race again, rerun it in my mind again.” I don’t tend to analyze a lot. When it comes to my form, I’ve done things with my coach where we’ve filmed and then seen what’s out of place, more for physiotherapy. For example, I sometimes have a nagging knee problem. So we’ll try to figure out what’s causing that – you’re running a certain way or your foot’s coming in a lot. So we’ll try to correct that, whether with exercise or therapy.
What do you have to do besides running? Things like weight work, drills, massage.
With sports massage, I do that and ART. I wouldn’t recommend it for everybody, but I try to get in to see somebody at least once a week, once every two weeks.
Is that to treat niggles that come up? Or is it purely preventive?
It can be a little bit of both. When you’re training at this intensity, at this level, it’s hard to stay there. You’re putting so much stress on your body that sometimes you need to get worked on. Something’s bound to happen.
Do you mind doing these interviews?
I love it. I work off people’s energy. So, I’m like, um…
Yeah. If I’m around people with really low energy, then I kind of get like that. If you’re a very excited person and there’s a lot of stuff going on, then I’m ready to go. I get very fired up about stuff.
You guys travel around a lot and train in different places: London and Mexico are two places I can think of where you’ve trained. Where’s your favorite place to train?
I don’t think I have a favorite place. But the fact that we move around to different places makes every experience fresh. Meaning when we’re in one place, it gets tedious. But once you move and you change locations, you’ve got a new place to run. You’re changing it up, which makes it that much more fun.
Within those places, like in Mexico, do you always go to the same place in Mexico?
The good thing about that is that we have a variety of places [in that one area]. We try to not always go to the same place. Because after awhile, you’re getting up out bed and going to the same place. It doesn’t make for an adventure. You want to get out and see something new and go somewhere that you haven’t been before.
How do you minimize the stress of travel?
Well, we try to wear compression socks. Your legs get swollen – you get the cankles. The biggest part of keeping stress away is realizing that this is one of the coolest jobs ever. I think I would have a really rough time going back to a 9-5 job. One thing you’ve got to realize is that it’s fun. It’s fun to travel. It’s fun to see new places. And when it comes to the actual competition, in front of anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 people, you don’t need to stress because you’ve already done the work. You’ve already put in the hours and the time. The only thing you’ve got to worry about is just going out there to compete.
Have you thought about what you want to do after your competitive running career is over? Obviously not work in an office.
There’s a couple things that I’ve thought about. I’m not totally sure just yet. First things first is that I’ve got to focus on my next couple years. Really get down to the grind with that.
Meaning the World Championships and then the Olympics?
Yeah. And, really, I know that our lifespan for running is not that long. I may have six, maybe a maximum of ten, more years of competitive running. I know that I’ve got to take every opportunity that I can and really try to enjoy it to the fullest.
When you’ve got goals that are that far away, is it difficult to stay motivated?
It is a little bit difficult. But you always have something every year that you put in front of you. For example, this year was kind of an off year, so there wasn’t much going on in terms of a World Championship or an Olympics as the main events. But you start looking at different races in different countries, where you get to travel. On top of that, it is a job. But even though it’s a job, you’ve got to have fun with it.
And you’ve had a great year. You really seem to be hitting your stride at your chosen distance. Do you want to stay there for awhile or are you looking to move up to longer distances?
I don’t see myself moving up. If anything, this year I ran 800s more.
What was that like?
Man, it was amazing. That’s the first word that popped into my head: amazing. I loved it. It’s not like the 1500 where you’re more in a rhythm; you’re thinking a lot more about strategy, whatever that may be. The 800′s more about – you step onto the line, you run the first 200 meters, and then all of a sudden you just hold on for dear life. The next thing you know, it’s over. So in the blink of an eye, it’s done. You don’t really think about it. You just go.
How do you pace an 800?
With me, I don’t have the “get out” speed that a lot of the other guys have. A lot of the guys just take off from the gun and really get out. They probably go through in 23-24 seconds for the first 200 meters. I usually hang back a little bit and come through in 25-26. After that it’s kind of like a freight train. All of sudden, they’re getting weaker and I’m either staying the same or picking up. That’s where my bread and butter is – I’m suddenly at the front feeling very strong and starting to pass people. It’s just a good thing.
What else do you do for fun?
I love coffee, actually. One of the things I really like doing is hanging out with my friends in coffee shops and just doing what you and I are doing here. Just talking. I love talking.
I heard you mention a foundation that you’re starting up. What’s that about?
It’s hard to narrow it down because there are so many things I want to do and so many things I get excited about. Two things that come to mind: the first is health promotion, health education — aimed at youth. But not just for youth, everybody, really. I think that’d be a lot of fun. And then the other idea is to help people who can’t afford to get citizenship. I went through that process and became a citizen in 2004. I have a friend who helps people with the process. Sometimes it’s very difficult for people to apply for citizenship and to pay for it. There are single mothers out there who would have a hard time affording it — it’s something like $675 to apply.
I imagine a lot of them would need additional legal help as well.
So are you looking to raise money to connect people who want to become citizens with people who can help them do that?
I’m not really sure on the details just yet. But it would definitely be something along those lines. For people who can’t afford it, I’d like to help them out.
You should open an office in Arizona — and change those laws.
Yeah, I’m not going to comment on that [laughs]. It’s a very touchy subject, and probably something I don’t need to be getting into.
I understand. It’s a good idea. I wish you luck.