Interview with Mike Morton, 2012 Badwater 135 Champion
iRunFar: At Badwater, you were on course-record pace and then I think you slowed at night, and then you kind of had a resurgence. Tell us how the race went down, blow by blow.
Mike Morton: Early we had a good tailwind and I was running with Zach Gingrich and kind of swapping places with him in the beginning. It felt like it was a very comfortable pace. It didn’t feel like we were pushing. There wasn’t an intentional plan to bank time; it was just comfortable. Eric Clifton was crewing me, and he’s a big numbers guy. So he was kind of tracking everything. From the beginning all the way to the start of Townes Pass, it was very relaxed with the tailwind and all we were doing to stay cool with the ice and the hat and all that stuff. It was very comfortable. I think where I faltered or kind of stumbled there was Townes Pass. I wasn’t very prepared for it. It was kind of an illusion. I felt, as I was looking up forward, “Man, I should be able to run this.” And I would try to run, and I just didn’t have anything. Then I’d turn around and I’d look back and there’s this huge drop off. We had turned into the wind and had a headwind, which was an annoyance, and I think it affected speed. It was frustrating, mentally. “Oh man, I should be able to run up this thing.” It took forever to power up that thing. I knew Oswaldo [Lopez] was getting close, because I started seeing his crew van.
iRF: Did that make you pick things up at all, or were you beyond that point in the race where you just put your head down and were going to finish?
Morton: I couldn’t run up that thing. I was trying. Every time I’d come to what I thought was a flat spot I would try to run. You know, when you can’t run, you can’t run at that time. He [Lopez] actually caught me and passed me at the very top. I asked Eric if he’d run with me for a little while because I hadn’t had a pacer yet. He jumped in and to my surprise, once I got to the top of that thing, I felt fine. I felt really fresh and reinvigorated. Eric kind of coached me through it, [saying], “Don’t lose your mental game here.” I think [Lopez] sensed that I was frustrated with that portion of the race and, for lack of a better word, [I was| kind of panicking over the fact that Oswaldo put 19 minutes on me in that one stretch. But once I started running, I caught Oswaldo and I was back to business as usual. Once the sun went down, I had that mental pick-up of the heat no longer being a factor. I liked the fact that it was low illumination that night. So when I got to the next big climb, it had less of a mental effect. I just focused on the headlamp. I think, replaying it with Eric after the fact, [that] I ran pretty much as we’d planned minus that Townes Pass thing. There were a few spots after daylight [on the second day] after the sun came up that I probably could have ran a little harder, but fatigue was starting to play a role there. Then everything went good up until Lone Pine and we got to that last hill. Eric actually said I ran more of that than he expected climbing up the Portal. All in all, I was pleased with everything except that Townes Pass climb.
iRF: Do you have plans to go back and try to break the course record?
Morton: That’s always a “nice to have” or icing on the cake. It’s not really a motivator for me. If I go back, it would be just to relive the experience.
iRF: You’re in the military and you’re in special operations, right? I also think that you were a former Navy diver, right?
Morton: Yeah, I did about 12 years in the Navy and then switched to the Army in 2001.
iRF: As a Navy diver, when you’re out there in possibly the hottest place in the world, did you ever think about the cool waters of the Pacific?
Morton: Oh yeah, man. You try to take refuge in those mental places and try to remove yourself from the spot you’re at and go somewhere better.
iRF: Did being a soldier and being in an elite unit, has the discipline you’ve learned from your military experience paid off in your running at all?
Morton: The discipline pays off in training and being honest with yourself. I think what really pays off is some of the experiences when things aren’t going as planned or the way you want and being able to not focus on the sum but on all the parts and kind of break everything down in simplest form. That’s one of the things I’ve noticed from racing in the ‘90s. I attribute it to maturity from some of the things I’ve experienced in the last 10 years. Back in the ‘90s, I didn’t have that maturity or the ability to focus on all the ingredients. I think certainly I have a mental advantage now from some of the experiences. And then the discipline in training—back in the ‘90s, if I didn’t feel like running, I didn’t go running. I relied on my youth. Now, I don’t have that anymore. I’ve got to force myself to get out there and train.
iRF: Timothy Olson just broke the Western States course record on the “regular course;” Geoff Roes had the record on a different course. What are your thoughts on Timothy Olson breaking the Western States record on the regular course?
Morton: I think it’s phenomenal. It’s an awesome performance. It shows what can be done. I remember Eric telling me, I think it was a different course even back then. I’m not familiar with the courses out there now. But I remember Eric saying he was surprised no one was running sub-15’s [hours] back in the ‘90s when we were focusing on it and talking about it. Eric said if somebody went there and had good weather and a good day, they could go sub-15. No doubt a lot of hard work went into the preparation for that, man, regardless of the weather. On that course, no weather is still a challenge. He had a heck of a run.
iRF: You’ve been running a lot. You’ve gone under 14 hours for 100 miles three times in the last six months, which is incredible. What’s driving that? What are your goals in the long term? I know you’ve been on a comeback trail since 2010. Where do you want to go with your running?
Morton: What drew me back is I was coming to the end of a phase in my life at work, shelf-life wise, where I knew I would be moving onto a more staff-type job or a job where I’d have the opportunity to put emphasis on time at home and family. I kind of recognized that coming up and started training. For some reason, I don’t know, I can’t put my finger on anything specific, but the 24-hour thing appealed to me when I started looking at ultrarunning again. Again, I don’t know why. So that’s what I started focusing on. When I did my first 24-hour run, I was shocked at my 100-mile split. I think it was a 13:12. I was thinking, “Wow, that’s a personal best for me.” I’d never run a fast 100. Back in the ‘90s I was doing the trail runs and 14:08 was my Vermont time. I remember that being a day where I really put out. I think that focusing on the 100s has been a by-product of the 24-hour thing, which is still my ultimate goal. I think it’s going to culminate in September with the Worlds stuff. But the 100-mile splits are what both my first two 24-hour runs at Hinson Lakes—that’s kind of what drove me to start signing up for some 100s. I think that’s also going to help with my confidence. In 2010 when I did the first one, I hadn’t seriously raced in years. Then in 2011, I’d just gotten back from Afghanistan and hadn’t done any races in a year and still was able to crank out 163 miles. Now that I have those three 100s confirming that I can consistently run those kinds of times in 100 miles and now Badwater, I think my confidence is as high as it’s been in years going into this next 24 hour run.
iRF: Do you think you can break the American record?
Morton: I don’t like to speculate, but I think I have the capability to do it. Again, course records and records are kind of icing on the cake to me. I don’t shoot for them. I think there are several Americans who on good weather and a good day, the sky is the limit. I think we can get in the 170s.
iRF: What are some of your secrets, if you can share any, to your endurance? What keeps you going when you’re not feeling good?
Morton: I think the thing that has paid the biggest dividends for me is having the core of my training in two-a-day runs—running at lunch and then running again in the evening. I think that really teaches the body efficiency in fueling the fire—feeding itself. I think one metric that really supports the two-a-days is the recovery. Even after those 100s and after Badwater, I was able to jog the next day. Eric and I went for a 10-mile jog on some trail. I didn’t have any injury. I was certainly sore and mechanics weren’t 100%, but other than some swelling, the body was already on its path to recovery. So to me, it’s important to get two-a-days in there to teach the body, especially if they’re only 4-6 hours apart, I think it helps.
iRF: How many hours are you doing for your twice-daily runs?
Morton: Ideally, what works good for me is a 12-mile run at lunch and then 13-15 miles at night. If I do one at lunch, I’ve got to be at work anyway. It doesn’t impede on family time. Going for a 1.5-1.75 hour run in the evening, it’s selfish, but it’s not devastating to the family. It’s not dedicating a weekend to go do a 60-70 mile run.