Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A30 Interview: Jerry Armstrong

We're continuing to gear up for the Slickrock 100 and this years Adventure 30. Jerry Armstrong is no secret to ultra-running. A well accomplished endurance athlete with a popular blog, Jerry is looking to lace it up in the 50 Mile Option of the Slickrock Races. He took some time to speak to us about this weekends race and the current ultra-culture in general, here he is.

Name: Jerry Armstrong
Age: 34
Hometown/Location: Born/Raised: San Diego, CA; Currently: Broomfield, CO
Years Running Ultras: 6 years
100 Mile Finishes: AC100, SD100, WS100, 24hrs Boulder
Ultra Achievements: 20 ultras, Solo 281mi run for diabetes, Solo Kida Relay (150mi bike/36mi run), Ironman x2,



Sherpa John (SJ): Jerry, thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your upcoming race at the Slickrock 50.
Jerry Armstrong (JA): Thanks Sherpa. I'll try my best to think of interesting things to say.

SJ: Before we get into talking about this weekends race, can you tell us a little bit about how you became an ultra-runner?
JA: Wow. Bluntly, I was trying to focus an addictive energy drive. I found myself developing an unhealthy interest in gambling. It was legal, but unhealthy none the less. My family has many addicts...drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, food. I'm wired just like these people in my family but I was self-aware enough to recognize my tendencies. My wife, Jen, also identified the problem right away. We talked to each other and she told me to make a change...so I started training for my first triathlon the next day. That was almost 10 years ago now.

I made a conscious decision to "become addicted" to endurance sports. First it was triathlon for a few years, then I found ultras, the heroin of endurance sports. Having said that, I believe that "addiction" and dependency on drugs is completely different than focusing that potential drive on something good, like endurance sports. You can't change who you are, but you can make decisions that allow you to succeed. That's how I became an ultrarunner.

SJ: Coming over from a Triathlon/Ironman background, how would you most say Ultra-Running is unlike those types of competitions?
JA: Triathlon was very much like ultras in the early 1980s. The beginning days of Ironman were low-budget endurance competitions where superstar endurance athletes wore funky clothes and fueled on stuff like raw figs. There were no high-cost entry fees and anyone could enter the competition, but very few did. The competitors were raw and underground, as far as notoriety. The ABC "Wide World of Sports" started televising Ironman and slowly, over about 15 years, the sport grew enough to yield money through advertising, high-end bikes and entry fees. The sport was "professionalized" and this has completely changed the integrity of what was once, one of the greatest endurance competitions.

In my opinion, ultramarathon still possesses much of the flavor unique to Ironman 30 years ago. Ultra is low-budget, raw, and underground. Despite the fact that ultra is growing, I don't think it will ever reach the level of Ironman. You just can't fake a 100 mile run! I have the greatest respect for every athlete that lines up at the start line of a 100 miler. They can be male, female, young, old, fat, or skinny...wearing a costume, pink dress, pajamas, or indian head dress. You NEVER KNOW who is going to finish. I have mad respect for ultrarunners...because they possess something special and intangible. It's the drive to seek challenge, despite the overwhelming possibility they will fail. Ultrarunners never say, "I can't." This is why I'm proud to call myself an ultrarunner.

SJ: Everyone wants to know, which is harder? An Ironman or a 100?
JA: An Ironman is a joke compared to a 100 mile run. Considering recovery time, calories burned, effort, etc... A full Ironman is about the same as an easy 50 mile trail race.

The difficulty of completing an Ironman is the various barriers to entry. Those being the expense (bike, bike equipment, pool fees, entry fee ($500-900), travel expenses, hotel expense for the week or more you'll be there...not to mention the same costs of endurance nutrition as in ultra. Then you have the added difficulty of managing three sports...like driving to a pool, changing, driving your bike everywhere, trying to figure out when and how far to run, etc.. Triathlon is just hard because it's a black hole of money and time. It's not "harder" physically...it's actually much easier.

SJ: So what does Ultra-running mean to your life now, or endurance in general? How does it help make you tick?
JA: It's all about balance Sherpa. I've made all the mistakes...too much mileage, intensity, races, salt, food, caffeine. I've pushed the limits on all that stuff over the years. I've learned to adapt by balancing the extreme physical training with lots of sleep and a plant-based diet. I also do Bikram Yoga once per week. The yoga and the vegan diet are crucial to my training regimen because they keep me free of overuse injury and/or illness. I recently started sharing my diet through a little blog called "Jerry's Kitchen."

Currently, my primary focus is on racing ultras at a higher level. I have never won an ultra, but I believe I will very soon. I've had many top 5 finishes..and a 2nd place in a 50mi. I know that "winning" is not the goal for many, but this is the carrot in front of me right now.

Generally speaking, ultra helps me stay focused on other things in my life too. My son, Jalen, is 5 years old. Every minute with him is truly special to me. I am relaxed and patient, in large part, because I run 15-20 hours a week. My wife understand this about me and lets me do my thing so I'm am happy and content when not training. In my "spare time" I do collision reconstruction for a large municipal police department. Ultrarunning helps me deal with the stress of my profession as well.

SJ: And having been in Ultra running a few years now, what changes have you noticed in the ultra-culture itself and what are your fears moving forward?
JA: Oh man. I know that you and I started running ultras about the same time. So, I feel you'll recognize some of what I'm saying. In the time I've been doing this sport, I've seen some significant changes. Some of these changes are good and some not so good... in my perspective.

On the good side of things, there has been incredible evolution of endurance nutrition products and equipment, tremendous growth in the number of races and types, and enhanced communication through the internet. The variety of shoes seems to have exploded...and the sheer number of people running ultras has grown.

I preface this by saying, once again, that this is just my opinion...but I think that the growth has brought some negative things too. The sheer number of runners has thrown a cloud of anonymity to large races. Before, you could go to a race and know most of the other athletes...it was a family atmosphere. There are still pockets of this found in various parts of the country. In San Diego, where I started running ultras, it still has a family feel in that most everyone knows everyone else or, at least, has seen the face before.

This is the complete opposite of what I saw at Leadville 100 this year...I was providing crew support at the race and couldn't help but feel like I was in a foreign country. It was obvious to me that hundreds of the runners and support crews had never been at an ultra before. But, then again, that may just be Leadville...a race that, at last check, didn't require any previous ultra experience to register. (Didn't they have like 50% dnf?) Anyway... I felt uncomfortable in an environment where I should, otherwise, not.

And, of course, the book "Born to Run" brought a host of people into ultra who were not only lacking the physical preparation, they were running in bare feet and/or vibrams rubber shoes. I truly want everyone to succeed...but there is so much that goes into running ultras successfully, and very little of it has to do with the shoe. Over the years, I've moved into a lighter and more flexible shoe almost every year. I agree with the barefooters, that the foot needs to move and get strong...but I totally disagree that running barefoot on concrete is the best method of getting there.

SJ: What do you feel are the solutions to these issues?
JA: Well, I don't have a solution for the growth of the sport. I accept that it is changing and I will grow and refuse to be frustrated by it. I work hard at displaying the type of demeanor that made ultra so welcoming to me. I believe this helps maintain the purity of the sport and the friendly atmosphere we wish for. I wave at other athletes on the trail, despite their frowns. I share my advice with other athletes and coach athletes all over the country in both triathlon and ultrarunning. I don't charge money because it has always been intrinsically rewarding to just help others succeed.

As for the "professionalization" of this sport...I don't think it will happen. Trail running requires so little....you know, a pair of shoes, a bottle, a hat. It's not like triathlon. The big companies will never jump on board with ultrarunning like other sports...and, in my opinion, screw it up.

And as for barefoot or vibrams 5 fingers...they'll run their course and be gone. I've noticed the vibram 5 fingers are getting more and more structural already. As long as we have a drive to be faster runners, products will be developed that promise to improve performance if you buy them. Becoming efficient and strong in ultra is not something you can purchase. It comes from inside...and it's the self-discipline to train your body consistently over many years.

SJ: Ok now lets talk about Slickrock, this won't be your first 50 so I'll start by asking what you are most looking forward to with this race?
JA: Well, I'm excited about this race just like I'm excited about every race! I've never run in Moab, although I did camp there overnight once. The photos show a very unique course and running experience.

I also like running races that have not established their reputation. This is the first year for the Slickrock races, so I like the idea of being their at it's infancy. If it's good now, it will be great in later years.
SJ: Will you be bringing a crew with you? Do you have any time goals?
JA: I was originally registered for the 100 and I had one friend doing crew support. Last week, I changed to the 50 mile race. In doing so, I allowed for more time to spend with my wife and son in Moab. They were looking at this trip as a family vacation...and didn't realize I was running all weekend. So, now I'm running the 50 and will be done in the early afternoon.

I definitely don't have 'time goals' because I've never run the course. I base my effort off of heart rate information, so I'll be watching my HR monitor and adjusting my pace so I get the most out of my body that day without blowing up.

SJ: Do you have any concerns as you head into the race, whether it be personal or course related?
JA: As always, I have to fight off my personal tendency to run too fast in the early part of the race. Using the HR monitor helps, but I have to trust the information and use it properly. This year, I've learned a great deal regarding heart rate training zone, lactate production, etc.. With each race I've run this year, I've significantly improved my ability to utilize the information coming from my garmin to maximize overall performance.

I've been told the course will be "like a road run." I also recognize that the desert environment will have that 'fine' sand to deal with. So, I'll likely pack some extra socks in my drop bags and one extra pair of shoes. I just want to run the best race I can and get the most out of my body on that day.

SJ: What is going to be your general game plan for this race to ensure you meet your goals?
JA: A "good race" in my opinion is not always based on competitive placing. In this event, I will be strictly running within my heart rate effort, that allows me to run 50 miles or more. So, in this event, my game plan is to run by the guidance of my heart rate monitor, stay hydrated, and make aid station stops less than 20 seconds. Much of the adventure takes place inside the head...so I'll just be sitting there in the board room hashing out decisions with the power players...Mr. Glycogen, Mr. Dehydration, Dr. Metabolism, and Ms. Pace. (Ms. Pace is smokin hot, by the way.)

SJ: What was it that made you decide to run this race?
JA: I received a pamphlet advertisement for the Slickrock 100 in my goodie bag at another race earlier this year. At first glance, I liked the cheap black and white advertisement...I could tell right away it was a small time operation developed by ultrarunners.
SJ: What are you most looking forward to about this weekends event?
JA: I just love packing up the car and heading out to the race. The fun starts right away. I look forward to lacing up on Saturday morning and milling about with everyone. When I was new to ultra, I would be nervous...now I'm entertained by nervousness of others. It's just a great time from start to finish...even when everything goes wrong.
SJ: One last question Jerry, when you hear the words "Human Potential," What does that mean to you?
JA: People are capable of so much more...and a vast majority of people are satisfied with living the status quo. Human potential is the greatest waste. And this is what makes endurance athletes so special...they live each day to develop into a new level, a new and better self. I make this my goal every day...and I strive to be amongst people who do the same.

SJ: Jerry, thanks again for taking the time to talk to us as you make your final preparations for this weekends event. We wish you the very best of luck, enjoy the journey and we'll see you out there.
JA: Thanks Sherpa. See ya on the trail.