A few minutes with Leo Manzano

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…

An extrovert.
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.
Yeah, exactly.

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.

A few minutes with Morgan Uceny

Morgan Uceny, 25, runs the 1500 and 800 and trains with Terrence Mahon’s group in Mammoth Lakes, CA. A former basketball player (she’s pretty tall, even sitting down), she went on to place fourth in the 1500 and sixth in the 800 at the the 2008 Olympic Trials. This year she won the USA Indoor Championships with a 4:19.46, among other distinctions. Her personal bests are 4:02.10 and 1:58.67. If 2008 was the breakout year for American women in the 1500, then 2010 has been the year for American women to make big gains in the 800. Uceny has been among those leading the charge.

What do you think of the Caster Semenya controversy?
It’s obviously a tough question. I don’t think there’s a right answer for that. It’s just a really tough situation. I think there’s some unfairness in the playing field. I haven’t ever seen anyone make the progression that she has. So it just seems like something else is going on that’s unfair for the rest of the playing field. No one knows what’s going on. There’s no information, so that just makes it more frustrating for the everybody involved.

How do you deal with the stress of traveling to all those races on the European circuit — things like logistics, jet lag, nutrition — how do you keep all that from impacting your performance?
Some people are terrible with traveling. I happen to be lucky. I don’t get jetlagged; I can adapt to the new timezone overnight. It doesn’t really stress me out. Now I’m usually traveling with my coach or also with my teammates. That really helps alleviate the stress, because I’m with a group — if you don’t really know where you’re going, someone else does. So it’s really not that bad anymore.

Do you get a chance to enjoy the places that your visiting, or are you just flying through them and running and that’s it?
Switzerland’s one of my favorite countries. But when we were in Zurich we were near the airport and didn’t really have a way to get into town. So I didn’t really get to see anything, which was frustrating. But in other places I’ve had a couple days where I could take a day trip. I was in Italy two years ago and went to Venice for the day. So, it’s better in some places than others. But I think you do need to make an effort to get out of the hotel and see what’s around you. That just makes you enjoy the experience that much more.

In the past few years it seems like the paces set for the the Grand Prix races have been set up to be very fast. Was that the case again this year?
Yes, it’s still the case. I had maybe one unpaced race at Gateshead, the 1500. And, honestly, it’s great to get out there and know that you’re going to have a fast pace. So it’s a good opportunity to run fast. But I think our sport is relying too much on pacers these days. I think we need to have more races without pacers. It’s more exciting when you just have a race. It’s not just people lined up, trying to run a certain time.

Is European racing as rough and tumble as they say it is?
Yes and no. If you look at the American runners, people are aggressive. But it is different in Europe. People will be, like, pushing your hip. Or there’s all this jockeying going on.

Sometimes it looks like the American runners are just trying to stay out of the way, whereas the European and African runners seem to be, as you say, almost trying to guide people. I imagine it’s kind of a shock the first time you experience it.
Right. When you get into those races you can kind of tell who’s in control. It’s kind of distracting, though, meaning it takes your mind off the pain. You’re watching your space and making sure someone’s not trying to cut you off. It’s kind of like a game when you’re out there.

Do you think that to race middle distances you have to have an exceptionally high pain threshold? It’s an unusual level of pain compared to something like the marathon.
But, see, with the marathon — that’s pain for a long time. The 1500 is even different from running the 800. It’s painful, but you’re running the first couple laps and thinking, “Oh, this is okay.” Then it starts slowly creeping in, the lactic acid. By the end, it’s really painful. It’s a little different for each event. But our workouts are usually harder, so you’re callousing yourself to those pain levels. It’s always painful, but at the end of the day it’s worth it when you have a good performance.

What do you do for fun?
Living in Mammoth Lakes, CA — it’s one of these beautiful outdoor towns. We’ll go on little hikes, or fishing or paddleboating. Or maybe we’ll just all sit around and play board games or card games. It’s sort of like we’re all living senior citizen lifestyles sometimes. “We’re gonna play Uno tonight? I’m so excited!” Alistair Cragg and I got a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle and we thought, “This is going to take us so long. It’ll be great to have something to distract us…” And it was done in four days.

What you do then is flip the puzzle over and do it upside down.
[Laughs and looks incredulous]

Have you ever tried snowshoe running?
I haven’t.

It’s really hard.
It’s like walking, right?

Yes. I respect snowshoe racers.
[Looks incredulous again] They race?

Yeah. It’s really big in New Hampshire.
I feel like your hip flexors would be so stressed. What distances to they do? All distances?

The national championships are usually 10K and 5K.
Have you done it?

I ran in snowshoes a couple of times and it wasn’t for me.
Just enough to earn their respect. Anyone who does that…

I already feel slow enough. I didn’t need that.

Houston Hopefuls go all Hollywood on us

Okay, not really. No battles for movie rights yet. But I will be appearing with some of these amazing runners on Wednesday, October 20th on The Runners Round Table podcast. The tentative list includes: Julie Wankowski, Tammy Lifka, Jaymee Marty, Jen Hitchings and Lori Kingsley. To listen in, register at TalkShoe.com ahead of time. The show number is: 34812

More info here: RRT 103: Houston Hopefuls

Congratulations, Jaymee.

For those who may have missed it, inaugural Houston Hopeful Jaymee Marty just qualified for the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials this morning in Chicago.

Many of us among her virtual fan base sat glued to our monitors this morning, frantically hitting “Refresh” every 19-20 minutes to get her 5K splits. She faked us out with some slight slowing in the last few miles. What a drama queen. Final time: 2:45:09.

Having followed Jaymee’s blog for a couple of years, and been the beneficiary of more than one helpful and encouraging comment and email, I am over the moon today with her accomplishment. I hope she savored the moment at the finish line, as this was an achievement both hard won and well deserved.

Joe has posted the anxiety-ridden blow by blow from the Facebook peanut gallery who were tracking Jaymee’s splits.

New Houston Hopeful Interview: Julie Wankowski

“Don’t sweat the small stuff; focus on your goals; take it day by day; and never doubt that you can do it.”

If these aren’t words fit to live by, then I give up.

Houston Hopefuls > Julie Wankowski

New Houston Hopeful interview: Tamara Karrh

Tamara embodies a kind of runner that I was just talking about yesterday with Coach Sandra: she is a runner who has moved her status from recreational to elite without losing her love of running in the process. Once you step up training and start having to work it around other life commitments — of which Tamara has many, including four young kids — it’s easy to start to experience training as a grind, a burden. As Tamara says, “A lot of it is just the love of it. I love the training…it’s something that I thoroughly enjoy and look forward to each and every day.”

I should note that Tamara is no longer technically a “hopeful”: she qualified for the Trials with a 2:40:22 last fall. This weekend she’s going for the A standard, a 2:39:00 or better.

For the full interview: Houston Hopefuls > Tamara Karrh

Lots of good stuff

So things are a little nuts.

I just started a sizeable corporate writing job, although I capped it at 20 hours a week. It runs through New Year’s Eve. Whee! If I gave you the description of the project, you’d probably wonder why I haven’t shot myself in the face by now. But in fact, it’s just the sort of project that appeals to me. I will be making real improvements to a big mess and the work taps into some of my obsessive-compulsive content strategist skills. I’m even getting to do a little on-the-fly usability work.

I’m putting the finishing touches on my second article for Running Times, the subject of which is “what do race participants want from their race directors?” Sound familiar? Yes, there was a reason behind that survey. To round things out I did some great interviews with directors of races both large and small, along with runner Kim Duclos, of Emerald Nuts Midnight Run gatecrashing fame. Unfortunately, because of tight space considerations, I could only use about 1% of their material. But maybe I’ll use it for something else eventually. That article comes out in December (Jan/Feb issue).

In the meantime, my first paid byline, a portrait of masters Marathon Trials qualifier Tamara Karrh, appears in the November issue, which should be hitting newstands and doorsteps in about two weeks. There is a companion profile for Karrh on Houston Hopefuls. That’s scheduled to autopublish tomorrow (I think — I put it on autopilot for a reason). Now I’m just trying to find the hours to transcribe and publish the latest excellent interview with Chicagoan Julie Wankowski. I may find those hours over the weekend as I…

…jet off to Arizona for a family get together from Saturday through Monday. I’ll have much time in airports and on airplanes. I am also hoping to do some work on the Fifth Avenue Mile elite interviews I did last week. They will take the same structure as my previous “A few minutes with…” pieces. Those seemed to work well and my questions are not tied to the event the runners were here for, so I can take weeks to publish them (much as I hate to). I’ll take this opportunity to say this again: professional runners are delightful people, by and large. They seem to like their jobs and most of them are, I suspect, brighter than the average person. When I find myself sitting there talking to one of them, I still feel like I need to pinch myself.

As far as what you have to look forward to, I had great chats with Shannon Rowbury (who won the women’s race), Leo Manzano, Molly Huddle, Alan Webb and Morgan Uceny. I’ll get those posted eventually. My one mistake with this race was not taking NYRR up on an invitation to sit on the “press truck.” This is a flatbed truck that drives along at the front of the race, outfitted with bleachers, from which gawking members of the press sit rearward, enjoying a panoramic view of the race as it unfolds. Well, that looked like a total gas, if incredibly dangerous. Yeah — like I said: total gas! My hope is that next year I can run in the race myself, go shower at someone’s apartment nearby, then come back and jump on the crazy truck for the elite races.

And there’s more. I’ll be at the finish line (and perhaps also along the course) of the NYC Marathon on November 7th, serving as aide de camp to photographer Stacey Cramp, who’s shooting the event for Running Times. I get a groovy press pass, a nice Asics jacket and entre to a big party on the Friday that kicks off race weekend.

And there may be still more. Later in November, Coach Sandra, who has several parallel careers, is agenting 10 elites from all over the place (people I’ve mostly heard of and, in the case of Adriana Pirtea, met) to a 10K race in her country of origin, the Dominican Republic. I may be able to get comped on travel costs in exchange for doing a writeup. That’s a big “we’ll see” at the moment, but it should be a lot of fun if it happens.

All these developments are almost enough to make me forget that these days I am a runner in theory only. But not quite. It’s been seven weeks since I’ve gone running. Since my insurance sucks, meaning my stratospheric deductibles require that I  pay out of pocket for things like MRIs and bone scans, I am going on the assumption that a stress fracture is what ails me and will take another 4-5 weeks off (or, rather, spend another month doing insane cross-training only and not running at all). Then I’ll try a run. It will have been three months by then. If I’m still in pain, I’ll bite the bullet and shell out the thousands required to look inside myself.

This was a long-winded way of saying that things might quiet down on this blog. But only because my offline life has gotten considerably more noisy.

Except for the running injury, everything else that’s happened is exactly the sort of thing I wanted to happen when I jumped ship from my corporate gig over the summer. Let’s hear it for leaps of faith.