Kevin Sullivan, 5th Place 2009 Western States 100, Interview
iRunFar was lucky enough to catch up with New Englander Kevin Sullivan following his fifth place finish at the 2009 Western States 100. For those of you who don’t know Kevin, iRunFar readers voted his second place at last year’s Vermont 100 as the best debut 100 miler of 2008. Already in 2009, Kevin has won the Rocky Raccoon 50 mile and Coyote Two Moon 100k and placed second at the Leona Divide 50 mile. Read on for a look into Kevin’s burgeoning ultrarunning career and his successful debut on the Western States Trail.
iRunFar.com (iRF): Today we’re speaking with Inov-8 runner Kevin Sullivan fresh off his fifth place finish at the Western States Endurance Run. Kevin, first we have to congratulate you on your outstanding performance at this year’s Western States 100. As you are relatively unknown and your top placing surprised many folks in the ultrarunning community, we’d like to hear some about your athletic background. It’s our understanding that you were a competitive triathlete before you got in to ultrarunning. What is your prior athletic history and how did you get into trail and ultra running?
Kevin Sullivan (KS): Bryon, first, thanks for the opportunity to speak to iRunFar. As you know, your website is a top notch source of information and analysis and you have an incredible following in the ultra community. It has been great resource for me as I am still new to the sport. Nice work.
As to my background. I’ll try to keep this short. I was a fat kid and smoker until 1996. In 1996, I started running to try to get ready for my career as a law firm lawyer. I ran my first marathon in 1998 (while still smoking – but I quit during my taper). I went on to run a bunch of marathons and road races etc. In 2000, I got into triathlon when I started cross training as a result of some running injuries. I did Ironman Wisconsin in 2002 and a couple other tris, but I wouldn’t call myself a competitive triathlete. In fact, although I liked the long stuff, conceptually, I am not a big fan of swimming or cycling. I love running and I loved long stuff, so that’s when I started thinking that maybe some day I’d do ultras. I first wanted to focus on my marathon PR, but soon after that I saw a posting for a night run organized by our local ultra club (the infamous G.A.C.) and figured I’d give it a try. It started at 10 p.m. on a torrential stormy spring night. I was totally unprepared and ran for 6 hours and fell about 25 times (I’m not kidding). I chatted with folks, some of whom were doing Western States (WS or WSER) that year, and just thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. That’s when I decided ultras were my thing and I started signing up for races.
iRF: How did you prepare for this year’s Western States? How was your season leading up to the race?
K.S.: WSER was my focus race for 2009, so my training was pretty WSER specific with focus on building base and speed early in the winter, then hills and strength in the spring. Unfortunately, I missed most of the downhill portion of my training due to an injury after Leona Divide. That’s what probably what led to my iliotibial band (IT band) issues at WS. My lead up to WS, though, was pretty good. I raced Rocky Raccoon 50M early in the season with an effortless 6:05 finish and then ran Coyote Two Moon 100k (C2M) to get in some early season hills. Leona Divide 50M was another key training race for me to get back onto the hills and some heat. I didn’t want to push too hard there, but I developed a bad case of anterior tibialis tendonitis which took me out of Miwok (probably not a bad thing given that weather there).
In the last 2 months, I really focused on strength, nutrition and heat. All of these paid off big on race day as I had no nutrition/stomach issues during the race and although it was damn hot, the heat never affected my racing. My nutrition plan was absolutely top notch and felt fully fueled the whole way. I’ve not only focused on race nutrition, but with the help of a nutritionist I’ve revamped my entire diet and it has had a significant impact on my overall training.
iRF: You’re a husband, a father, and a partner at a large law firm. How do reach a balance between your family, a demanding profession, and training?
K.S.: It’s not easy, but just like anyone else it is a matter of juggling priorities. Family and running are top priorities. Work pays the bills, so I can’t let that fall too far down either. The first sacrifice is sleep. Not ideal, but at least it doesn’t involve disappointing any people. The price is recovery, so I try to make that up elsewhere (hydration, nutrition, massage, yoga, ice baths etc.). I also have the most understanding wife and family. That helps. My wife Jeannie has helped juggle our schedules so that I still bear my fair share of the load, but the timing may be different. I try to incorporate the kids into some of my activities, i.e. cool down runs, stretching, weights (my son Jake usually works out with me), etc.
Given that I’m a partner at my law firm and almost all my clients know that running is a priority for me, I have some latitude/flexibility in my schedule. I wake up super early and have conference calls with some of my clients as early as 5:30 a.m. I get my runs done in the a.m. and get to the office a little later, after spending time with my kids. I have breakfast with them and bring my daughter to school. And, I take advantage of the days when I’m not busy to see the kids more or get in another workout if I am lucky. I have a great relationship with my kids and, believe it or not, see them more than many guys who work less than I do. The bottom line, though, is that I don’t have as much time as most other guys to train. There are lots of other training workouts I’d like to be doing, but I just don’t have that type of schedule/life. Maybe some day.
iRF: It appears that your wife is also a student of the sport… or at least she had the best picks for the men’s field in the iRunFar WS Prediction Contest. Where did she learn about all these runners? More importantly, can you forgive her for underestimating you? She picked you to finish 8th.
K.S.: Jeannie is my Johan Bruyneel. She is extremely supportive of my running and has crewed at the 2008 Vermont 100 (VT 100) and WSER. She is super organized and knows how to prepare for the races. And, as you know she
is a regular reader of iRF. I’m sure she learned most of what she knows about who’s who from your blog. Honestly, she knew more about the other guys than me. I really don’t talk much about running around her – just updates on my training, racing – enough so she knows where I am when, etc.
As for her pick for me, all I can say is that she’s always underestimating what I can do – from the day I popped the question. I like to keep her on her toes. Besides, she was probably the only one who picked me to place in the top 8 anyway . . . .
iRF: Ok, onto this year’s Western States! You gradually moved from 17th at mile 10 to 5th at mile 55 and then powered into 2nd by mile 90 before holding onto 5th. Was your race plan to go out conservatively and move up? Did you stick to your race plan?
This is the $64 million question, no? Yes, my plan was to be conservative. My primary goal – beyond getting to Auburn in one piece and hopefully earning a buckle – was to get into the top 10 just so I could come back in 2010 with some experience under my belt (and its buckle). I still saw that as an aggressive goal. After all, this was my first WSER and only my second 100 miler. In my mind I was thinking 10th would be a huge win. As you and I discussed before the race, I read Craig Thornley’s blog and was focused on what it would take to grab that 10th spot. I didn’t think 18:30 would do it, but who really knew.
In the end, I ran my own race. I’ll admit that I run (and train) by heart rate, as I think it is the best way to avoid overdoing it early and paying the price later. I stuck to HR early on and think it worked quite well. I ran within myself the whole way and just moved up spots without any effort. By the time I got to the River (mile 78) I was shocked to be in 5th. My run down to the River was slow. After the River, my pacer forced me to push harder to move up – but really w/o much effort. We ran the flats hard, but it wasn’t difficult. I have good leg speed from my marathon days so pushing 7’s late in a race feels comfortable. Tsuyoshi, Jasper and Jez all obviously ran strong, as well. Eventually, though, my IT band did me in. It had started to give out back on the descent into Deadwood Canyon when I was running with Eric Grossman and just got worse all day, until I was limping out of Foresthill (mile 62) and barely made it out of Brown’s Bar (mile 90) at all.
All in all, while I’m no WSER expert, I believe the course definitely has a strategy of its own and it requires a lot of prep and experience to run it well. I feel much better prepared for next year already. As for this year, given my goals and race plan, and relative inexperience, 5th place was a huge victory and I am thrilled.
iRF: What were your biggest issues during the race? What were your most difficult stretches?
K.S.: I had one major issue at WSER – my IT band. That was enough. It started to flare up on the descent into Deadwood Canyon. I have had nagging IT band issues since finishing VT100 last year. It comes and goes and is not surprisingly aggravated by downhill running (it flared up at C2M as well). I’ve worked to strengthen the muscles in the hip etc. to help, but this year missed my downhill running training due to other injuries. In any event, I adapted by running after Deadwood to try to compensate. I also start popping Tylenol Rapid Release and ibuprofen. All of that helped manage the pain, but my running was not normal. As you know when I saw you at Michigan Bluff, it was a physical and mental nag, but I wasn’t ready to concede.
That said, by Foresthill I was having a ton of trouble actually running out of aid stations. The IT band would lock when I stopped and that was the case from Foresthill to the finish – and worse with each stop. All of my downhill running from there in was granny-like. It made the run to the River a lot slower than planned. The worst stretch was going down the descent after Brown’s Bar – my IT band was totally locked and I had to walk the whole thing. If you’ve read Jasper’s RR, you know he saw me walking that descent and it energized him. My bad. The downhill stretch into No Hands was also a disaster because I just could not run it – too much pain – and it allowed Tsuyoshi and Jasper, and then later Jez, all to catch me. I had put in a lot of effort to create a gap and gave it back solely because of the IT band (that’s not to say those guys weren’t running well, because they were). With a better IT band, I could run hard at that point and feel confident I would have held all of them off – but that’s not the way the story was going to be written that day.
iRF: Which parts of the race did you enjoy the most? What will stand out most about your participation in this year’s Western States Endurance Run?
K.S.: I enjoyed the whole race, from beginning to end. The experience was amazing. I loved the start. The energy and excitement at the start was truly inspiring. Indescribable, as you know, and the only way to understand it is to be there. The finish was great too, for obvious reasons – just getting done. And to find that many people (still not a lot) at the finish of an ultra is pretty special. Other highlights include Devil’s Thumb (yes, I love that climb), Foresthill and the River crossing (so damn refreshing). The run through the neighborhoods after Robie is nice – just quiet and you know you are there. I liked it. My aid station transitions are quick (maybe a holdover from the tri days), and maybe too quick, so I never really had time to see much or fall in love with the energy at any one of them. I will say that the folks at Miller’s Defeat were awesome though.
iRF: What shoes, gear, and nutrition products did you rely on during the race?
I ran the entire race in a single pair of Inov-8 Roclite 305‘s and a pair of Drymax Hot Weather Socks – both are sponsors. Both companies make a phenomenal range of products that are truly suited to what we did and I am fortunate to have their support – before, during and after the race. As you know, I also wore the Rudy Project Noyz sunglasses with ImpaxtC Photochromic clear lenses. They are outstanding sunglasses and ideal for the alternating sunny/shaded conditions at WSER. The Noyz are extremely light and durable and I’ve worn that at a number of races.
As for my nutrition, that’s confidential, but the one thing I’ll say is that it is essentially all liquids. It was perfect for the race conditions this year and I was well fueled, without issues, all day. I supplement with Clif Shot Bloks – great product – and a few other random things.
iRF: Is there anything that you’d change about your preparation for or racing during this year’s race?
K.S.: Honestly, not much. My downfall was lack of strength on downhill training, but that was really because of the time off in April. I just n
eed to stay healthy to get all my training in. To that end, I need to focus a little more on pacing my training so that I do not get injured, I suppose. Also, I did not dial in to my non-race nutrition until the last 6 weeks (when I lost 5 lbs). With my new diet in place, I think I will have a lot better recovery and results from training. And, no, I’m not going vegan – I love ice cream and burgers (ok, and fries too) way too much!
iRF: Do you think your and Leigh Schmitt’s performances establish that East Coast racers can run Western States well? Did you two work together at all during the race?
K.S.: I think both Leigh and I had good days at WSER, but neither of us had the day we should have/could have. Maybe that can be said for a lot of folks. (Keep in mind that Leigh did no West Coast training for the race and still managed the terrain well – that’s impressive.) We started together, but Leigh went out hard and I did not see him again until the climb to Green Gate.
As for the East Coasters running West Coast races (not just WSER), I just don’t see why it’s even a debate. First, given how small the ultra community is, I just view it as one community – this isn’t the Civil War era (and what about the folks in the middle of the country??). That said, I think West Coasters have a significant advantage with year round training weather, more races, bigger ultra community, etc., but it’s not like there are different running genetics on the coasts. If our performances at WSER help people recognize that there are talented folks running ultras on the East Coast, that’s great, but Leigh and I are not the only ones. Guys like Mark Lundblad, Sean Andrish, Todd Walker, Mike Wardian, Eric Grossman, Glen Redpath and many others, including old coots like Joe Kulak and Mike Morton, can run and have run some pretty incredible races. On the women’s side, Anne Lundblad and Aliza Lapierre (although a little less well known) have legs too.
The issue, I guess, is that unless we race on the West Coast we just don’t get recognized. Personally, I’d like to see a better mix of East and West Coasters at races on both coasts. It is a bit of a bummer to run an East Coast race and run well, only to then realize no one cares and it might not even get covered in UltraRunning Magazine. In the end, though, my running is for me. I will say, though, that running WSER does require some pretty specific focus – it’s not that East Coasters don’t have the ability, but we don’t have the same resources – i.e., long hills, money to travel, heat to train in, etc. It would be interesting to see West Coasters try to run some of our winter races – hopefully, Montrail is willing to incorporate something into the Cup series. It is rare to see anyone from the West Coast run any of the Vermont races.
iRF: Leigh’s been pretty unbeatable in East Coast 50s for quite some time. You’ve now been the top Easterner at Vermont last year and the top Easterner as States this year. That’s all the more impressive when you consider that these were your first two 100 milers. Do you think you’re on the verge of establishing yourself as the top East Coast 100 mile runner?
K.S.: The simple answer is no. I’m still a newbie in this sport and although I have had a decent amount of success I have yet to really execute anything well – in my mind. Leigh has been doing this a long time and has established himself as a dominant force on the East Coast (c’mon, he holds the VT100 course in 14:53 – that’s fast) and extremely competitive nationally. Yes, I think I have the ability to be competitive across both coasts and maybe some day I’ll establish myself as one of the top runners, but right now I’m a rookie fumbling through with some lucky successes. My 50 mile times are not reflective of what I can really do, as I’ve never been prepared or raced well. I’m looking forward to chasing Leigh in a few of those hopefully later this year and in the years to come. We talk a bit and he’s a great competitor, but also a super nice guy. But in my mind, guys like Leigh and Mark Lundblad, among others, have established themselves as dominant forces and set the bar pretty darn high for guys like me.
iRF: Is there anything else that we forgot to ask that you’d like to share?
K.S.: I would just like to extend a big thank you to all the folks who have helped me this year. There are a ton of folks in the ultra community I’ve met over the course of this year who have become friends and have had suggestions, advice or just generally been supportive at races – including guys I run against at the front. As you know, the ultra community is special in many ways including the way we interact with each other – with a lot of mutual respect. From the slowest person to the front runners, ultrarunners share a common bond that really brings us together. In any event, my family, crew, advisors and extended friends in the ultrarunning community have really helped me figure the training/racing thing out so far so I owe them a big thanks.
iRF: Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and experience with iRunFar’s readers! Best of luck in WSER 2010!