Since jumping into the ultra realm this year, two-time Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, Sage Canaday, has been making big waves. In his debut ultra at the Chuckanut 50K in March, he placed second overall (post-race interview). In June, Canaday, who used to run for the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, won the Mount Washington Road Race with the fastest time ever by an American (58:27). And just last month, the 26-year-old Canaday smashed Anton Krupicka’s course record at the White River 50-Mile by nearly 10 minutes when he ran 6:16:10.
iRunFar: Are you surprised at all by your success at the White River 50?
Sage Canaday: Yeah, I was really surprised, actually. It was a pleasant surprise for me, because I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen. I was kind of afraid that I might bonk and slow down a lot.
iRF: You ran almost 40 minutes faster than the second place finisher. Was it hard for you to run so fast for so long and not be challenged at all? Did you know where the second place runner was at all?
Canaday: Well, he was with me for the first 6 miles or so. We were talking and then on the first climb, he kind of fell back. So every time I got to an aid station after that, I’d kind of listen for the cheers. I couldn’t really hear anything behind me, so I figured I had a pretty big lead. In terms of motivation, I kind of like running by myself sometimes, because I can go by feel and kind of get in my own rhythm. I’ve had to push myself in workouts since I train alone now; so I’m kind of used to that. I was motivated by time. I kept looking at my watch throughout the race and was checking my splits at aid stations.
iRF: How did you feel at the end of the race?
Canaday: Pretty tired. One of my feet was bleeding pretty badly through my shoe. I was wearing shoes that were probably a half size too small. After I came down a downhill at about 35-40 miles, I could just feel my big toenail cracking. So my feet really hurt and my GPS watch was cutting into my arm – I had it on too tight – and my wrist was swelling up, so I was pretty spent at the end.
iRF: You have had a phenomenal series of races this year. You won the Mount Washington race and you won this race with a blowout nine-minute improvement on the course record. Did the Mount Washington win complement your win at the White River 50?
Canaday: I’d say they’re quite a bit different in terms of race distance, because at Mount Washington you’re only running for about an hour, and this race was over six hours long. I like to think that just running uphill and running on trails builds a lot of strength, which helps you for all distances and durations. So I’d say, I had to put in some long runs before White River, and that was the main difference in my training that allowed me to sustain an effort for that long.
iRF: You’re a 2:16 marathoner. How does that level of fitness translate into the ultrarunning realm? Do you think running so fast at the marathon level and even the paces you’ve run lower than the marathon, do you think that makes you a better ultramarathoner?
Canaday: I think it certainly helps to get in some workouts and paces figured out because before when I was training for the marathon on the road, we did a lot of faster workouts at 5:00 minutes per mile. So mechanically, running on the trails feels slower, but I’d say the main thing that helps the transition to ultrarunning is just doing marathon training. You’re building a lot of strength and you’re running high mileage consistently over years and years, which I think builds that strength. So that’s probably the biggest key to being able to race well in the longer distances is just to do progressively higher mileage and doing some long runs.
iRF: What made you decide to try ultras? You’re a young, successful marathoner. Why not go full tilt at the marathon for longer? Why go into ultras?
Canaday: I’ve always loved running on the trails. I grew up in the backwoods of Oregon, so I’ve always been running through the woods, running up and down hills. In college, I loved cross country a lot more than track. I found the track to be pretty boring. I wasn’t as fast if it was a flat uniform surface, so I was kind of drawn towards the trails. It feels more natural running. You’re just out there in the woods, in the mountains; the scenery is beautiful. You can just focus on your own effort rather than having to worry about running laps around the track. I also want to go back to the roads and try to improve my marathon time on the roads still. So I’d like to keep mixing it up and be able to do a wide variety of different races.
iRF: Do you think that your fitness, the levels that you’re reaching in the ultra, and where you’re taking your body, do you think that’s going to complement you when you want to go back towards running a much faster pace for relatively shorter distance?
Canaday: I hope so. I’d say I don’t really want to go any shorter than the marathon on the road again. I was never much of a track runner. I think the over-distance runs—like doing 30-mile long runs or 50-mile races—I think that builds a lot of strength that will help you in the marathon. I’ve had trouble bonking in the marathon and it’s not necessarily the speed that gets me in the marathon, it’s always been hitting the wall or not having enough endurance and strength. I think the ultramarathon training and the trail running, hopefully, will make me a stronger runner as I mature.
iRF: You trained on the Hanson’s team and you wrote a book about the Hanson’s. What are some take-aways from working out with that group and from Keith and Kevin [Hanson] that you’ve learned and that you apply now?
Canaday: To be inspired and motivated by other runners. When I was on the team, there were so many phenomenal runners. A lot of them are really dedicated, hardworking runners that just have a passion for the sport. I had the fortune of being on the team with Brian Sell, who ran the Olympic Marathon in 2008 in Beijing, and then also more recently, Desiree Davila, who’s running in London in this Olympics. Just seeing the level that they train at and compete at is really inspiring. Being able to run on a team with so many accomplished runners really pushes you out the door every day and motivates you to want to get faster. That was probably the best part of being on the team. So the book I wrote, Running For The Hansons, I try to kind of capture the essence of running and being on an Olympic Development Team and training in Michigan in such a historic training group.
iRF: Hanson’s are big on, for their marathoners, they’re big on the marathon simulation run where it’s 26.2km at pace of a simulated course. Do you ever do anything like that for the ultras at all? Did you take any of that with you for ultra training?
Canaday: No, not really. The main thing I changed after I left Hanson’s was I extended my long run. That was one of the things I kind of wanted to experiment with. With the Hanson’s I was always limited to doing a 20-mile long run. I always felt like I wanted to run farther. Now, I do 30-mile long runs, and I felt a lot stronger doing that.
iRF: You talked about Olympians Brian Sell and Desiree Davila. What do you think about getting ultras into the Olympics? I mean, they have synchronized swimming—why not ultras?
Canaday: I think that would be great. That would be awesome. It would be a dream come true, actually. They used to have cross country—cross country running—but I’m not sure if it was a 10K or 12K. Back in the early 1900s you had the guys from Finland running cross country. So cross country used to be an Olympic sport; I’d like to see that. I’d like to see a longer race, longer than the marathon, like 100K or 50 miles on the trails. I think would be a great sport. Just watching it, especially if it was through a scenic venue in the mountains, it would be relatively spectator friendly. So yeah, that would be phenomenal.
iRF: I want to go back to the whole thing about you going from shorter distance events to the ultras and, now, you’re going to go back. You have yourself and you have Max King, elites that have competed for the U.S. going into the ultra realm. Do you think that more people are going to follow in your footsteps?
Canaday: I hope so. I think a lot of it has to do with how much prize money you could earn and things like sponsorship opportunities for doing things like the ultra races. I think the sport is growing rapidly, so you’ll see more of those 2:20 marathoners or even faster come over. Right now, it’s hard to say because I’m still looking for footwear sponsorships, actually. I have a couple sponsors: Smith Optics for my eyewear and Drymax socks. In terms of sponsorships, as there are more opportunities, that will bring more runners who are faster on the road marathon. They’ll start trying out the ultras on the trail.
iRF: What are your goals other than you talked about going back to the road and improving your marathon, but do you have any other thoughts about going into 100-milers? 24-hour races? Even longer? Or are you going to stay at lower distances for now?
Canaday: You know, the Western States 100 does sound like a race I want to do some day. I’m probably not ready for it yet. I want to get some more 50Ks, 50-milers, and 100Ks under my belt first before I jump up into the longer ultra distances. But it’s definitely really tempting right now. I think I still have a lot to learn in terms of trail racing and just getting some more of the 50-milers and 50Ks under my belt, because there’s definitely a big learning curve there.
iRF: That’s all the questions I had for you, Sage. I really appreciate you taking the time to answer them.
Canaday: No problem. I love doing these interviews and I love the site. iRunFar.com is a great site and I go there all the time. It’s a great resource to have, and I like what you guys are going.
iRF: Great. You’ve done incredible things so early in your ultra career, so I wish you the best of luck.
Canaday: Oh, I also want to add that I have a YouTube channel called VO2Max Productions. If people ever want to check out some of my training videos or race recaps, it’s all right there on my YouTube channel. I have a lot of fun doing the creative video work.
iRF: Cool. Again, thanks a lot for your time and good luck going forward.
Canaday: Thank you very much, Duncan. It was nice talking to you.