Saturday, March 23, 2013

Getting to Know the TARC - Josh "Sir Speedy Katzman"

Back when I first started running ultra marathons, I raced against this fellow at the Fells. He was fleet of foot and promptly smoked me by almost two hours. I didn't know the guy, but I wanted too! Turns out he's not just a guy at the front of the pack, he's a top notch friend and real ambassador to this sport. The following is an interview I conducted with Josh "Sir Speedy" Katzman via email. 

Running the Western States 100 in 2012

Describe the path that led you into ultra marathon running?

How long do you have?  I hated running until the end of college, where I played 4-years of tennis on a nationally ranked team.  Running was always a punishment, or a way to stay in shape in the off season (this said, I grew up in the woods of Vermont, so our idea of fun was literally running through the woods, building forts, or discovering new places, or playing sports all day long in our neighbor’s apple orchard, so I was usually pretty active, and played tennis from the time I was about 5).  Then, the summer between junior and senior year, Liz (then my girlfriend, now my wife) and I got an apartment and summer office jobs in DC.  For the first time in my life I did zero physical activity for 5 or 6 weeks.  By that 5th or 6th week I got horrible migraine headaches every day.  Knowing I had to start getting back into shape for the upcoming tennis season, I went for a very short run around our block (just up Wisconsin Ave from Georgetown).  Honestly, it was exactly what I imagine crack or heroine is like - almost instantly I felt fresh blood pumping through my aching head.  Tension in my shoulders and neck released.  It was euphoric.  I decided that day that I would run after college to stay healthy (still had one year of hating running).  When we graduated, we moved to Arlington, VA and our apartment complex had a small workout facility.  Everyday after work, I went down and ran 1 - 2 miles.  I did this for the year we lived there, and a couple of times ran 4 or 5 miles.  I have no idea what sort of pace I ran.  I only ran outside once (my biggest regret now, knowing how great the running scene is down there) and got a migraine because it was hot and I was sucking car exhaust the whole time.  We moved back up to New England to be closer to family after September 11 (we lived about ½ mile from the Pentagon), and stayed with Liz’s mom and step-dad for a week when we looked for a place to live.  They live a couple blocks from Mile 20 on the Marathon route, and I saw the mile markers when I would go out for runs.  That was really motivating and I probably got a couple 6 mile runs in that week (big for me).  We moved to Arlington a couple of days later, right off the Minuteman Bike Path.  Again, there are mile markers, and that was very motivating for me to see if I could go just a little further.  I had been running for a little over a year and my longest run had probably been about 8 miles.  Then I got to about 12.  I stayed right around there, building the daily average to about 3 - 4 miles, until one Saturday (Liz was away visiting her father in Florida), I came home from work (after-school program) with a migraine.  I tried to sleep it off, but woke up feeling pretty bad still.  I decided to go for a run, so I headed down to the Minuteman Path.  It was a beautiful spring day, and I ran down to Arlington High School and then took the path a bit beyond the end to Bedford High.  I had no calories or water.  I had never run that far.  When I got home, I was so thirsty I could smell water in people’s houses.  At that point I could have said “Never again,” but I actually loved that feeling of having worked so hard.  Again, it was a bit euphoric.  I kept running a bit longer then, and met a good friend, David Rye, who was the first person I had ever known to have done an ultra.  He convinced me to “run” a Pemi Loop one August, so I guess that was my first ultra.  He also convinced me to sign up for Stone Cat that year (2007), my first official utlra, where I DNF’d (it’s funny, because just 6 years ago, I signed up about 10 days before the race, no problem!  It sold out in about 10 hours last year!).  So I guess it just started as a way to stay in shape post-college and kind of grew into something I really enjoy.

What does your average week look like running wise? Miles per day? And do you follow some type of training plan?

For the last three years or so my average week has looked a lot like this:
1) Run to school/run home Monday - Friday (it used to be 10 miles (but I would hop on the Redline for about 4 miles) and is now at least 7.5 miles each way)
2) Run long Saturday or Sunday (25 - 35 miles typically, sometimes up to 50+)
3) Run a bit on Sunday (10 - 15 miles)

So I basically get at least 15 miles per day during the week (split into two runs), and a long run on the weekend.  I have never followed a training plan, and just run at a comfortable pace (that is changing this week, as I decided to work with Ian Torrence and Emily Harrison at McMillan Coaching, at least through the VT 100 - I feel like I can get a lot more out of my training if I found some sort of structure (not having a running background, I have no idea what I’m doing in terms of trying to maximize performance.  The real goal is to enjoy running my whole life, but, at least this year, it would be nice to perform well at some races!).  I also just dusted off the heart rate monitor that came with my GPS.  I’ve never run a race shorter than 50K, so I have zero sense of what a “5K,” “10K,” “Half Marathon Pace,” or anything like that is.  I’ve liked using the heart rate monitor the last couple of weeks though, because it let’s me know how hard I’m working and I’ve actually been able to feel better by doing more easy runs.

You've had some mild success in this sport (kidding, you kick major arse!!). Did you always think you would or did it just end up that way.

Ha!  Any of the success I have had, I can assure you, has not been expected (although it feels good to do well!).  Just to assure you I’m not full ot it: I DNFd at my first race ever (Stone Cat 2007) and then, I think in 2009, when I decided to race again, I took the early start at the Fells 40 miler because I was worried about it taking me too long.  I was (truly) shocked to win that one.  I couldn’t even lift my legs after that!  

So the truth is, I never expected to be near the top of any race.  I still find it a little amusing sometimes when I find myself there.  Usually I am just out there racing myself, running to see how far I can go (like those early long runs I had).  The one exception to that was Western States last year.  I raced that one for all the wrong reasons - to try to be top 10, to get interviewed by Bryon Powell, to revel in the glory given by others.  It was less about the journey and experience and more about the achievement.  Not surprisingly, I feel like that was, personally, my poorest race ever.  A lot of folks who run with me have heard me echo some version of this line since last June (sorry, especially to Sam Jurek!), but Western was a very transformative experience for me and my running (and, probably other parts of my life as well).  It’s always good to get a good serving of humble pie though!

Josh and his two ultra runners in-the-making at the finish line of the Stone Cat 50 2012

Your a father of two, husband, Teacher, RD and ultra runner. How do you find time to balance everything out.

I wish I could say I have it all balanced/figured out, but that is far from the truth.  Unfortunately, there are too many times when I become too obsessed with running.  When I’m not running, I’m thinking about running, or when I am going to fit my long run in on the weekends (run commuting is great for that, because I have to get home!), or the next “big” adventure or race.  That’s part of the reason I thought about getting a coach - take some pressure off of me to figure out how many miles to get in. But we try to go swimming as a family 3 or 4 times a week and we sit down for dinner together every night.  Making sure my wife (who does not run) gets some time for herself is also important, and something that (again, unfortunately), I can lose sight of too often, especially when I am gearing up for a race and feel compelled to get some really long training runs in (or am actually racing).  In that sense running is a very selfish habit I have.  I am aware of that though, so am always trying to be better about it.  

When it does work well though are the times when I give up some of my comforts, especially sleeping late.  One of my proudest memories is my first 30 mile training run.  I left the house incredibly early and got home before our older son, Cooper (who was about one at the time), woke up.  If you’ve ever had a one year old, you know they do not sleep late!  So it is a lot of early mornings (or late-nights).  I always try to be home at least one weekend morning to make pancakes or waffles (during the week, even if I didn’t run, I would have to leave home before anyone else in the house wakes up to get to school on time).  

As for RDing - it is a lot of time, but I’ve got a great partner in “Diesel-san” Bob Crowley, and the TARC community has grown so much that we get a lot of support from a long list of incredible people.  If he and I didn’t work together on the TARC series though, there is no way I could do it.  We help each other out tremendously, so it doesn’t even feel like work.  It is so different than my job teaching high school in Boston Public that it is often a very welcome change of pace.  And while it is hard on race day to not be running with everyone, I may even be coming to like organizing these things more than running them (maybe).  TARC is such a great group of people that it is seriously a ton of fun to be so involved.

What sports did you play in high school/college? Were you always a runner? Do any of the sports you participated in help you with ultra running.

Was I always a runner!  No way -  hated it!  

As for sports in high school/college, I played soccer, hockey, and tennis in high school (I also acted in the school plays and musicals!).  In college I played tennis for Kenyon College, and I think we cracked the top-20 nationally a couple of times while I was there (definitely the top-25).  I had delusions of being a pro-tennis player growing up (and up through about freshman year of college), so sports were always a very important part of my life (my hockey coach wanted me to play college hockey, but tennis was my passion at the time).  

I don’t think any of these sports helped directly with my running.  But I think they did help prepare me for some of the mental challenges - our home rink for hockey was a semi-open rink (until high school), and we used to have practice when it was about -20.  It was tough to move, especially skating around.  It was so cold!  I also remember tennis tournaments when I was younger (12 or 13), when I would play two, 3+ hour matches in row, with about 45 minutes in between.  Or the summertime tournaments when you would be out on a court for 7 hours a day, playing your heart out, with the temperature probably over 100 degrees on court.  I also would just go clear brush in our woods all day, not because I was told to, but because I liked to.  So, I suppose that seed for long-lasting physical effort was planted early on.

What are some of your running goals? Short term? Long term?

My first goal is to enjoy running.  Again, harping back to Western last year, training/running felt like a job - I had to do.  It wasn’t fun.  I grew up near the Ben & Jerry’s factory and really like one of the bumper stickers they make: “If it’s not fun, why do it?”  That is not an excuse to do easy things in my book, but to make sure that what you do is fun and enjoyable.  If I can do that, I know I can run my whole life (part of that is making sure I listen to my body and avoid injury).

Short term, I have some competitive goals, primarily around the VT 100.  I would also like to complete a Hut Traverse (had to stop last year at Galehead), run a solid Pemi-loop (I’ve done it twice, both in fairly miserable weather), run some new mountain trails, and maybe return to Wapack and see if I can take a good chunk of time off my result from last year.  I’ve also got the TARC 100 that I’m organizing, so I want to make sure that is a total top-notch event.

What is your race/training nutrition like?

I am a fairly healthy eater in general.  I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, and really try to avoid processed foods as much as possible.  This past summer I read The Thrive Diet by Brendan Brazier, and it had a really positive influence on my thinking about food.  I’m not vegan (or even vegetarian), like the author, but it made me realize just how important food is to making our bodies feel energized and healthy.  I’ve recently been experimenting with getting more fat from coconut oil and avocados, and (Liz doesn’t know this) am vaguely thinking about not eating wheat for a bit (I’ve been doing that for two days, I think there might be something to it . . .).  I have recently started making my own almond (and other nut/seed) butter and energy bars (got those from Thrive.  The best one so far is the mango-quinoa-coconut energy bar.  It is really good and easy to make).  

For racing and long training runs, I have started making my own “energy balls.” These have a great mix of fat (coconut/coconut oil) and carbs (dates) and a bunch of other things, especially ginger and fennel seed (I’ve had issues with my stomach in longer races before).  I find these things go down really easily (they almost melt in my mouth, and don’t make me as thirsty as gels do) and I can eat up to 4 or 5 an hour.  My general plan now is to use these exclusively for 50 milers or below, along with the grape GU Roctane Brew.  I want to try to avoid caffeine until the very end of 100 milers now (maybe miles 75 and beyond), as I never have caffeine outside of races and I definitely have taken too much in races before.  Race day nutrition is something I am still working on, but I think my new homemade stuff (partnered with GU gels after 50 miles and Roctane drink throughout) is a very positive step to figuring it out.

Jack Bailey, myself and Josh Katzman coming into Camp 10 Bear (mile 70) during the Vermont 100 2012
Ultra running has created our friendship. We've run together a few times and spent a weekend down in Geogia together (I think we actually slept together briefly). I feel like ultra runners have a tighter bond than other athletes in competition. Do you feel the same? And if so, please elaborate.

Yes, we did get to snuggle for a bit.  Although, when the freakin’ race starts at 3:00 AM, not sure how soundly we were able to sleep!  I’ve also had a chance to snuggle with some other good friends leading up/after races.  

I couldn’t agree with you more though about the special bond that exists between ultra runners.  I’ve never been a very social person, but, through TARC, I have made more good friends than I probably have ever had.  I think it is something about the shared experience and challenge.  I felt that at the awards ceremony of Western States - all these people who had just done something truly epic, sharing the collective energy that comes with that, no matter if they had run it under 15 hours or almost 30.  Maybe this bond exists because we are all going through a very personal journey, but in a very communal way, if that makes sense.  I know that there is certainly camaraderie in other sports, but I think it may go a bit deeper with ultrarunning.  At least that has been my experience (after all, just look at the Winter Solstice Fat Ass we did in December - we had something like 8 guys who showed up, prepared to run 50+ miles through the woods on the longest night of the year!).

Specs: height/weight/running shoes and size

6’4” and around 167 lbs.  

Shoes?  No brainer anymore: inov-8 Trailroc 245s (size 13).  Pair those with some Injinji socks, and I can run in any condition and not have any foot issues (I’ve been doing this for about 6 months and my toenails almost look normal!).  

Favorite run/race all time and why?

The only race I’ve ever done that wasn’t an ultra: 4th of July fun run in Richmond, VT.  I ran it with my then 4 year-old son (all of his cousins were doing it).  It was 1 mile from the elementary/middle school to the park in town (right next to my sister’s house).  Cooper almost stopped halfway, but, with no prodding from me (I swear), he didn’t stop running.  I held his hand the whole time, and he finished just totally ecstatic.  That will be one of those memories I remember when I am old and demented I hope.  

Rocky Raccoon in 2012 was also incredible.  I made a bunch of great friends that trip, and I remember coming into the start/finish at mile 80 (heading out for the last lap), and telling these folks (who, without knowing me, had agreed to crew for me all day and pace me the last two loops), “I can’t believe this, we’re actually going to finish this!” That moment in particular stands out because I was just happy running.  I wasn’t concerned about my place/time.  I just knew I was going to finish a 100 mile race.  If I could bottle up the feeling/emotion/energy of those few moments, that is exactly what I want all of my running (heck, all of my life!) to feel like.  It was pretty fantastic.

"10 in 60" (10 questions in 60 seconds. One or two word answers will suffice or the first thing that comes to mind)

1. Favorite ultra food? Homemade energy balls and GU
2. Hand held or pack? Handheld (but pack for longer “adventure” runs)
3. Music or no music? Music can really help.
4. Favorite blog or ultra site? (seriously)/the philosophical stuff from AJW’s Taproom (
5. Best pre race meal? Something pretty light (and usually nothing morning of)
6. Post race meal? ANYTHING, especially ice cream with the family
7. Beer me. Yeah or nay?  Nay (since September 11 - a bit of a long story)
8. Running injury? Avoid!
9. Western states? D’OH!
10. Walking in ultras? I try not to.  Sometimes you have to.

1 comment:

  1. haha this was great Justin...thanks you for taking the time to share sir speedy's views hopefully something will stick in the heads of us slow pokes lol..loved reading about your snuggle time together : )