Monday, July 14, 2008

VT100 Interview: Paul Kearney

Paul Kearney is a young ultra-runner from Vermont taking on the Vermont 100 this weekend as his first 100 Mile Run. I had the opportunity to talk to him about his running past, present and future and here it is:

Name: Paul Kearney
Age: 27
Residence: Burlington, VT
Birthplace: Hanover, NH
Occupation: Attorney
Years Running: About 15 years, since 7th grade cross-country, with periods of more or less intensity as I was lost in the grip of other sports- rowing, climbing, paddling, etc.
Running and Other Accomplishments/Hobbies: About a dozen marathons and the same number of ultras. Other hobbies- lately, hiking, riding and tinkering with my motorcycle.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us Paul about yourself and the upcoming Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run

SJ: Tell us a little bit about how you became an ultra-runner.
PK: I had trained pretty hard for the Vermont City Marathon in 2006 while living in Ithaca, NY. We had a pretty mild winter that year so I was out on the track doing mile repeats all winter and I was feeling really fit, really hideously strong. I saw a sign for a local trail race, the Finger Lakes 50s, and figured I could cruise through the 50k and would still do really well based on the times I saw on the website from previous years. Boy, was that naive. I was excited to jump into the longer distance, which I don't think I had ever really considered before, but of course, I pulled the classic rookie move of going out way too fast, not eating enough, and crashing hard near the end. The scene was great, though. They have a fantastic party after with a great chicken BBQ. Everyone was so social, friendly, and they all seemed to know each other. This must really be a special race, I thought, a special crowd. Turns out, those very same people, that very same crowd, shows up at just about every race within 1000 miles. That circle of friends, the extended family of ultrarunners, is the primary difference between ultras and road races in my mind, even more so than the contrast between road and trails. We are a family and after a year or so in the sport, you know these people like surrogate parents and siblings.

SJ: What was your progression through the different race distances, did you run a marathon before an ultra?
PK: Yes, I had run two marathons before my first 50k. I went to high school in the Boston area and was totally immersed in the magic surrounding the Boston Marathon. I wanted to be a marathoner and was still training hard as a marathoner when I got into trail races. After the first one, I just kept looking for longer and harder races. I keep putting off training for that 2:40 attempt to run the next trail race. I ran the Finger Lakes 50s 50k a second time, then ran the Jay Challenge 50k++ up in northern Vermont, my first 50-miler at the Vermont 50 last year, then followed it with another 50-miler at Stonecat and then David Horton's 100k++ at Hellgate in December. More 50ks were thrown in there, and even training runs of 30-40 miles. By the time I had run Jay, I had just seen you run Vermont last year and had decided I wanted to run a 100, so I set off on this crusade of 40-50-60 mile races with an eye for preparing myself for anything I might see on the course at the Vermont 100 this year.

SJ: What is your marathon PR and when was it?
PK: 3:02, that Vermont City Marathon before my first Finger Lakes, in 2006. I was pretty convinced I could have run 2:55, but it was a scorcher of a day, as you surely remember, and although I held on enough to go to Boston, sub-3 slipped away at the end. Given the conditions, I wasn't dissapointed at all, though. I just kept pushing through the pain at the end, telling myself over and over like a mantra, "Hold on, keep going, you're going to Boston. Cold beer ahead. Hold on, keep going, you're going to Boston..."

SJ: How has the sport of ultra-running treated you to this point?
PK: It has enriched my life beyond description. I've travelled around the country, met the most wonderful, giving, caring and generous people.

SJ: How long do you see yourself participating in ultra-running?
PK: I hope to do it forever. I will probably race a lot less in the future, though. I'm starting a new job in the fall as a lawyer at a big firm, which will mean a lot more hours, so that's a lot of energy I will be directing elsewhere. I hope to keep racing my favorite races, say 5 a year, but I will definitely be stepping back from my race every three weeks pace I hit now and then.

SJ: Do you have a favorite race to this point?
PK: They're all so different that it's a tough call, but I think the Vermont 100 is going to be special. There was a magic feel to the air in some of those evening aid stations and the sense of shared struggle and camaraderie at a 100 I expect to be out of this world. I loved the unapologetic brutality of the Pittsfield Peaks race, and the Jay Challenge, though. It's great to go to a race where the course designed really tried to challenge you, to make something where more than just the distance makes it difficult, even to the point of trying to break you down mentally. Hellgate didn't have to try to be hard. The terrain took care of that. But when a race gets just a bit contrived and stupid, it really tests your mental strength. None of those hills you cretins threw in at the end of Pittsfield were especially nasty- but it was infuriating to be handed them at that stage in the game. Well done. :O)

SJ: What is the toughest Ultra you've completed?
PK: Well, there are tough races, and there are races at which you have a very tough day. Hellgate was both for me. I wasn't taking in enough calories and I was continually bonking on a very hard, mountainous course. I have never wanted to quit so bad, and I have never been a quitter at anything. I've never dropped out of a race, but at mile 60 I was completely willing to get in the car and drive away, despite having driven 800 miles to get there. That was a tough day. Jill gave me a push in the right direction, though, so despite empty tanks and explosive poo-tastrophies, I crammed down some food and hammered it home, pulling myself out of DFL on the last climb, passing about six folks, and finishing strong. Only a sense of fury at the idea of running so far and not getting a finisher's shirt kept me going. I was awash in frustration and anger at the course, and it served its purpose beautifully. Your mind is so far gone at these races that intangible reasons for running are worthless. You don't want to just be a finisher or to have challenged yourself. These things carry no sway on the mind that has been suffering for ten hours and is telling you to quit and go home. You need something literally tangible to focus on. That's the magic of the buckle. You can get yourself to do anything for an actual prize, especially one you can wear with pride for the rest of your life, rather than one you hang on the pile on the doorknob.

SJ: So tell us a little about your Vermont 100 Run... when and why did you decide to take on the 100 Mile Distance and in Vermont?
PK: When I crewed for you last year, Sherpa, it just blew me away. Driving home after the two-day epic of crewing and pacing, I was overwhelmed by all that I had seen. The emotional journey through all that pain and those excruciating moments of particular difficulty, to come through it all with this feeling of triumph and accomplishment at the end- it was just too good not to want a bite of it myself!

SJ: So as one of my pacers in the 2007 VT100 and the 2008 Massanutten, what thoughts come to your mind about the experience you took away from those times?
PK: I think that a familiarity with some of the aid stations, the topography, and the feel of the race at Vermont will be valuable. Seeing how tough those last few miles are at both races will be a good reminder to conserve energy early on. Also, seeing the destruction sleep-deprivation can cause was a very, very valuable lesson. I learned that your body doesn't need sleep nearly so much as your mind needs it. Allowing your mind to sleep for 20 minutes can make you a new person. That was the biggest lesson at MMT.

SJ: Supposing you are nervous.. what are you nervous about the most?
PK: There is certainly an aspect of the unknown to this race. Hellgate was so utterly different than a 50-miler, and the distance was part of it. I tend to be pretty low-maintenance during most races, not needing new shoes or clothing. Rarely do I have major problems with my food or gear. But with the 100-mile distance, who knows? I am going to try to take care of myself especially well physically, and pay very close attention to my emotions to keep a handle on my mental condition, too. I've run a lot of trail miles, but I can't really say I know what it's going to be like out there after 80 miles, after 90. That's a bit intimidating, but I'll always remember that first 50k, and realizing that the mental leap from "I don't think I could ever do that" to "I bet I can do that- I'm gonna try" is so much more difficult than the actual race itself. Once you get there, you just keep shoving food in your face and moving forward on your feet. That part is easy. It's signing up and toeing the line that can be impossible for some people.

SJ: What previous running experiences will you take with you through to the finish line?
PK: When I set out to train for this race, everyone said, "There's no book, there's no plan, you just have to figure it out." I have run every race I could get myself to just to absorb the skills I needed for this race. Every race has taught lessons on pace, fuel, water, salt, mental strength. I have learned that my legs will keep going as long as I am willing to make them go and I give them energy to burn. It has been a tremendous journey, and I am looking forward to this supreme test.

SJ: Buckle or Plaque?
PK: I'd look pretty silly trying to hold my pants up with a plaque, now wouldn't I? I have no interest in a plaque.

SJ: Do you have a time goal or ANY goals for that matter?
PK: Well, friends with tremendous confidence in my abilities have told me I have the potential to go under 20 hours. That would be pretty neat to do some day, to break a barrier like that and put up a performance that I could marvel at for the rest of my life. But I don't think that's what this day will be about. I'm not really looking to push my performance limits in this first experience at the distance. Going under 24 is a definite goal- that is what I'm doing here. But I've seen that you can be pretty relaxed and still get there. Having a solid, consistent day, with no major disasters is much more important to me than a killer time.

SJ: Who is your pacer and who is your crew?
PK: My girlfriend Jill and my buddy Bret will be crewing, with off-and-on help from my dad and other family members. Bret is pacing from mile 70, but the last 12 miles belong to Jill. She has wanted to run the end with me since the beginning, and there's no one I'd rather have there.

SJ: What is your overall race strategy?
PK: Start slow and ease off from there. :O) Seriously, I am approaching this just exactly like any other race. I'm going to go at a moderate pace, walk the hills, and eat everything I can get my hands on. I hope that I come through the 50 in about 11 hours, but it will probably be more like 9 hours, despite my desire to go slow, if your race last year is any indication. I'd rather run an even pace than slow to a crawl at the end, but I don't know how realistic that is- it's too easy to run too fast at the beginning, and the race is too long not to slow down a lot at the end. I guess just keeping it reasonable on both ends is all you can ask for.

SJ: What are you excited about the most?
PK: My freakin' buckle. It's sitting in a box somewhere right now, wrapped in gauze, waiting for me. I just have to go get it.

SJ: Will you be camping or staying in a local hotel or Inn?
PK: Camping the night before and after. It's a great field and who wants to drive anywhere after the race?

SJ: Any other 100 Milers that interest you?
PK: All of them. But one at a time and in slow succession. Massanutten was a quality, quality course and a great experience to behold. And that damn gorgeous buckle... That might be next year's race. :O)

We wish you the very best of luck in your endeavor Paul and we can't wait to share a Long Trail Ale with you at the finish line.
Good Luck!