Zeke Tiernan: On His Own Schedule
If there’s anything that Zeke Tiernan does when it comes to his running, it’s his own thing. The guy runs on his own schedule, by his rules, and according to self-standards.
Case in Point #1: Trail running trends, Zeke’s not into them. On arm sleeves, he deadpans, “I don’t really understand how they’re different from pulling your sleeves up. Most guys wear sleeveless shirts and push their arm sleeves down when they get hot. I just wear sleeved shirts and push ‘em up.” And he’s proud of his Brooks Cascadias, which he almost exclusively wears. At the Leadville 100 last year (Zeke’s race report), he received backlash for racing in them from another fast guy. “That same person had trouble with their feet later on in the race and I beat them. They work for me. What do I care what another person thinks?”
And Zeke unabashedly sports long shorts. His rant in response to my ribbing about them: “I don’t like short shorts. There’s no story to it. Wait, there is a story to it. I don’t like the way I look in them. Maybe it’s me trying to be a little bit cool, you know, having hipper-length pants? I just like them better. The main thing is that my shorts need the right pockets. The shorts I’ve been wearing for the last couple years – these Nike trail shorts – are the seven-to-nine-inch inseam ones with great pockets. Maybe it’s also a little rebellion against the track world. Now I’m a trail runner. You don’t need a split short to run 10 minute miles.”
Case in Point #2: Zeke was the sixth man at the 2012 Western States 100. He ran a wicked 15:57:59 to earn that revered spot. But his journey from the start to the finish had anything but an even keel. Let’s just say that Zeke went out hard. At the Duncan Canyon Aid Station, mile 23.8, Zeke was two minutes ahead of eventual winner and new-course-record-setter Timothy Olson and a full four minutes up on eventual second place Ryan Sandes. Then he hit a low patch and was forced to check his pace. Just a couple miles later, at mile 29.7′s Robinson Flat Aid Station, Zeke ran through nine minutes back from the lead. And another five miles after that he’d lapsed to 19 minutes behind the leaders. Oof.
But Zeke’s Western States outing didn’t spiral into deep space like that 11-mile stretch might suggest was happening. He gave himself a system re-set and ran strong from after mile 40, and even stronger after mile 80. In fact, he ran last year’s second-fastest split from the river crossing at mile 78 to the finish, only bested by Timothy. Talk about a closer!
Case in Point #3: At the 2012 Leadville 100, Zeke finished second and solidified the fact that he must keep some sort of jet-fuel-filled tank for the last parts of 100-mile races. For the race’s final 13.5 miles, he ran the second-fastest split. Ever. In the history of the race. The only person who’s run this section of the course faster was Matt Carpenter when he nailed the race’s course-record time in 2005. In case you’re not yet impressed with Zeke’s ability to run like hell at the end of a race, he ran this section a mere six seconds slower that Matt (while wearing his beloved Cascadias).
Case in Point #4: After all this, what amounts to a wildly successful racing season, Zeke decided not to race in 2013. Yep, as swiftly as he broke into the upper echelon of North American ultramarathon racing, he retracted himself from it.
As Zeke and I talk, on a winter evening and with the help of Internet video chat, I learn that Zeke’s circle of influence might not extend too far beyond his running, however. The background din of Zeke’s home is filled with little-girl shrieks, enough of them that Zeke and I bust out laughing a bunch of times and he eventually retreats to the quiet of his man cave, aka the heated garage. The 37-year-old Aspen, Colorado middle-school history teacher is married to wife, Molly, and the pair have a two-year-old daughter, Jude. Zeke says that, as we talk, Jude has a friend over and the two are playing in the bath together. Ah, the joyful chaos of life with a toddler.
Zeke’s history with running is long, deep, and, at times, stuttered. He was a standout high-school runner at Aspen High School – he’s lived his whole life in the Aspen area save for college and a bit of life after college in Boulder. In cross country, he won the A-3A Boys Individual State Cross Country Championship in 1992 and a trio of third places the three years prior. In high school track, he earned a state title in the two-mile in 1992, two second places in the two-mile, as well as another second place in the mile. Zeke next transitioned to life as a University of Colorado at Boulder Buffaloes runner who earned All-American status in cross country in 1996 and for the 10,000 meters in track in 1998. If you love running books, you’ve probably read Chris Lear’s Running with the Buffaloes which chronicled the 1998 cross-country season at CU. Zeke makes some cameos in the book.
About high school and college running, Zeke remembers the camaraderie most, “In high school, we were a tiny, tight team. And I became very close with my teammates in college. We suffered through workouts together, sometimes joking about how it was similar to guys in the service, how they bond through difficulty. Sunday morning, we’d get up and run 20 miles at 6:15 minute-mile pace, usually after a Saturday race. No matter what we’d be out hammering. I remember we ran 2:02 for 20 miles at 8,000 feet altitude once for an average Sunday. Being with these other guys, being part of a team, doing hard things together, that was really motivating.”
Having grown up with Colorado’s Elk Mountains at his literal doorstep, Zeke sometimes pined for trails. “It wasn’t cool amongst my peers to be a trail runner. Guys on my team, like Adam Goucher and Alan Culpepper, they resented a little when our coach, Mark Wetmore, made us run Flagstaff Mountain. They wanted to run fast on smooth surfaces. I definitely enjoyed running track and cross country, but I always wanted to come back to trail running. Eventually I made it back…”
Zeke’s use of the word ‘eventually’ in reference to trail running is precise. What happened after college for Zeke was first a focus on other aspects of life, “I stayed in Boulder and became a school teacher. I also became a high-school running coach. I lived vicariously through my runners. I trained with them, but not for any purpose of my own. I never raced.”
“But then I lost sight of things…” he says, drifting off. Toward the end of Zeke’s time in Boulder, every kind of running disappeared from his life. “I lost sight of a lot of things that were important to me. I was making poor choices in my personal life that weren’t conducive to running, being a good person, or being healthy…” Again Zeke trails off and I can see his furrowed brow, even through the strange medium that is Internet video chatting.
“Let’s call this a dark time. The bottom line is, things got real bad and I got medical help. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and got the medicine and skills I needed to treat it. This enabled me to start making healthier choices with where I would invest my time and energy.”
As things started looking good again with Zeke’s mental health, his physical fitness had lapsed. “Big time,” he says. He was back in Aspen and starting to slowly run again. “People don’t really believe me when I tell them this, but I was so unfit that I couldn’t run around the golf course without stopping. For me, that’s pretty unfit.” On one of those early runs, Zeke made a big, bold commitment to himself: he was going to run the Leadville 100. As a Colorado resident, he’d heard of this race and thought it was possibly the hardest goal he could set.
That was in 2006, and between that decision and the Leadville 100 starting line was a couple years of trail running in the mountains, one 50k, and a few 50-mile races. Then Zeke ran the 2008 Leadville 100, his first 100-mile race, and placed third. Zeke Tiernan was back. “I’m a goal-oriented person. In high school, I wanted to be state champion. I was state champion. In college, I wanted to be All-American. I was All-American. And, I wanted to run a 100-mile race. So I did.”
If Zeke’s return to running sounds easy, I’m pretty certain he’d argue otherwise. “I was training hard, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I fumbled around. I read Dean Karnazes‘ book. I read on the Internet. I also followed my instinct, teaching myself to drink water on long runs, things like that.” He recounts one act of fumbling, “I was running the Red Hot 55k in Moab one year, and I went out hard with the leaders, Kyle Skaggs and Anton Krupicka. I didn’t have the fitness to do that, but I did have the ego. I had to slow way down. I finished but so slowly. It hurt. I learned.”
Zeke worries about that ego. He says that an unchecked ego is probably his worst enemy, in running as well as the rest of life. “I’d love to sit here and tell you that I use running as this peaceful, meditative practice. I’ve tried to do that, and sometimes that happens. But a lot of the time, unfortunately, when I go out and run in the woods alone, I’m obsessing. I admit, I’m an obsessive person.” The words coming out of Zeke’s mouth are a harsh self-assessment, but he speaks with ease. Clearly, he’s had a lot of time and miles to come to peace with his nature.
“I obsess about winning a race. If I’m going to run the Western States 100, I picture all of these guys that I am going to race. I think to myself that I’m training harder than them, or that I should eat better, or if I run a little faster here… And then I think about running the Leadville 100, who I’m going to beat or who beat me, or the 14.5 minutes that Thomas Lorblanchet got me by last year. Why couldn’t I have run 14.5 minutes faster? I can start fixating. I have to be careful.”
And this is why, along with the desire to spend more time with his family, Zeke will take 2013 off from racing. About his declaration of racing independence, which he made in a November 2012 blog post, he says, “I wanted to take running back to where it only feels fun, where I don’t have to put pressure on myself to train every day, where I don’t have to obsess about my next race.”
On the February evening that we chat, Zeke’s had three or so months to simmer on his plan of a no-racing 2013. In my head, I imagine he’s got his feet up every weekend, eating bonbons, and laughing at all the suckers out on long, winter runs because they’ve signed up for early-season races. My image is entirely incorrect, as he’s running regularly. “I’m cheating,” is his first admittance when I ask him about how his running is going. While he’s still not signing up for any races, he has committed to a couple solid adventure runs. “These runs are big enough, high enough, and long enough that I need to have some sort of fitness for them. So that’s my goal now, to stay fit enough for those.” He continues, “Also, Molly’s training for a road marathon, the LA Marathon, and I’m her coach. I go out with her on some of her long runs.”
Molly’s a counselor at the public middle school in Aspen, and the pair met when Zeke was substitute teaching at her school. “We went on a trip down the Colorado River with a bunch of kids in her school’s outdoor-education program. We flirted like teenagers; I splashed her with water. Real mature, right?” But the pair didn’t take their relationship out of the friend zone until a couple years later with a real date. “We connected immediately because we’d spent that week together. Every time I’d see her it was like putting on my favorite shirt. It feels good wearing it. I’d be around her and it would feel that way, like we hadn’t missed a beat, like it felt so good. We fell in love quickly.”
And marriage and Jude came in short order after that. At a few months over two years of age, Jude knows she’s living in a runners’ household, “I feel like her first real sentence was, ‘Watch out, Daddy, runner coming.’ We were at so many races last summer just as she was learning about language. You know, people jingle cowbells at ultras, and she learned about them. One day we’re walking down the bike path at home and a woman walks by wearing a bell that must have sounded to Jude like a cowbell. She said, ‘Watch out, Daddy, runner coming.’ She heard this bell and thought it was a race. We tell her when Mommy and Daddy go out for runs. We took her in the jogger when she was little. We practice race starts, ‘Ready, set, go!’ Definitely she understands running.”
Zeke is absolutely in love with his job as a middle-school teacher. You can hear deep affection – and lots of goofiness – when he speaks about it. “I’m like a 13-year-old kid stuck in a 37-year-old’s body. This is probably why I teach middle school.” He quips scenes from his classroom:
“I teach history for middle school-ers at a private school in Aspen. This is my eighth year at the school, and I love it. I love history, but I love the kids more. I have each kid for three years straight. I enjoy building relationships with them. They seem to like that, too.”
“I have a ‘Save Ferris’ t-shirt that one of my students gave me because I quote the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in class all the time. I wore it on our school’s backcountry hut trip this winter. The kids love it, and they laugh when I say, ‘Bueller? Bueller?’” (As a side note, this is the same t-shirt Zeke wore at the award ceremony for the 2012 Western States 100. Again, fashion, he’s into it.)
“I’m kind of a jokester in class. If you ask my students what I’m best known for, I guarantee that 85% would say, ‘telling bad jokes.’ Kids always call me Mr. T. ‘Mr. T! Mr. T!’ So I said one day, ‘I don’t want to be Mr. T anymore. I want to be Mr. Coffee.’ Five minutes later they laugh. I try to keep my jokes funny, but some are duds. They keep the mood light, and they are how I connect with the kids. It’s a way to get the kids hooked in class. They’re like, ‘Oh, okay, this guy’s having fun. I can have fun in school, too.’”
For all that Zeke loves his family, his job, and his central Colorado life, he also loves running. Even though running might have come and gone a couple times in Zeke’s life, and even though he’s placed the racing part of his running life on hold, the sport is clearly central to his past, present, and future. “If there’s any story to tell here,” Zeke begins, emphasizing the word ‘here’ by waving his hands around himself, “it’s that running had the power to raise me up from that deep, dark place of despair – where I was in Boulder. Finishing the Leadville 100 for the first time in 2008 was so neat. That I could get there from where I was. Running was one of my tools for recovery.”
When Zeke blogged about taking 2013 off from racing, he wrote, “With this in mind, I made the decision to bring my running back to its roots. In 2013 I will not: run any races, wear a watch, keep any kind of running log, or plan any workouts. However, I will: jump lots of sage brush, splash in many a stream, glissade as much as possible, and only run when I feel like it. I want to run for running’s sake. I have paid lip service to this idea for years, but when I am truly honest, I run for the competition as much as anything else. I want to be the little kid on the trails, not the serious athlete. Running has the potential to make me a better person, not through winning the Leadville 100, like my ego craves, but through rediscovering running. I want to run because I can. I want to run because it feels good. Running feeds my soul and makes me feel free. Most of all running puts my mind in a beautiful space. I am going to run because it brings me joy!”
We’ll still see Zeke around the races this year, as he has plans to crew and pace good friends at some of the top 100-milers around the country. Expect also to find Zeke around the mountains of his home and on a couple, special adventure runs. Maybe, too, you’ll see Zeke cheering for Jude in her first race or running around the roads of Colorado with Molly. And, I suspect that we’ll see him pin on bib numbers again in the not-too-distant 2014 future. But, until he decides the time is right, expect to see Zeke finding joy in the simple act of motion in the mountains.