The Life and Incredibly Fast Times of Sage Canaday
April 29, 2013 by Robbie Lawless · 23 Comments
Sage Canaday has made the transition from running fast on roads to crushing it on the trails look like a cakewalk. To quote ‘Zoolander,’ he is so hot right now. His last two races, the Tarawera Ultra in New Zealand and Lake Sonoma 50, have been two very different performances: the hunted in New Zealand and the hunter in northern California. The results, however, were the same, big wins for the Boulder-based speed demon. Next up is Transvulcania and the mouthwatering possibility of a shootout between Sage, the ex-marathon man, and Kilian, the mountain man. I caught up with Sage to talk at length about the story so far.
iRunFar: Hi, Sage. You grew up in Oregon, in a pretty rural environment. What was your earliest memory as a kid?
Sage Canaday: One of my earliest memories as a kid was riding my bicycle up and down the gravel driveway at my parents’ house. I was three years old and my bike didn’t have any training wheels so I took some falls on the sharp rocks and busted my knees open a lot. When I had to learn how to balance on the bike, my older brother (or mom and dad) would help me start by pushing me along so I got up to speed. There was no pavement for miles around our house and we always had mountain bikes for the rough terrain.
iRF: So your parents are outdoor lovers? I mean, did they introduce you to the trails and woods when you were a youngster?
Canaday: Yes, my parents were a big influence. They actually first met while going to school in Boulder, Colorado (where I live now) before moving to Oregon. Growing up, they would always tell us kids to “go play outside.” They still stay very active (I kind of got them into running) and eat healthy, and have been vegetarians for over 35 years. We’d go on bike rides up our hill and on vacations we’d find hikes and appreciate nature wherever we went. It also helped that our television inside our home hardly worked and my original Nintendo gaming video game system quickly became outdated!
iRF: They got you into vegetarianism and you repaid the favour by getting them into running? Are they decent runners? Is it clear which side your running genes came from?
Canaday: Well, I haven’t pitted them in a race head-to-head yet, but I know my Dad did run track as a high-school student (although he focused more on the short sprints and long jump). However, as a child I remember watching my mom crank up some steep hills on her mountain bike. Recently, she has been running about one hour almost every day. When I watch videos of myself running I see characteristics from both my mom and dad in my running form. However, they don’t do enough speedwork to run fast in races and I don’t think my Mom has even done a single race yet, but I keep telling her that she would win her age group for sure!
iRF: I’ve heard you say that you sucked at soccer so you decided to ditch the ball and concentrate purely on running. Is this how it really developed?
Canaday: Pretty much. I had played soccer since I was five and I just thought it was a sport that I’d always compete in. I was on a traveling soccer team and my parents would drive me to games all around the state every weekend. It must have been exhausting for them!
Then in middle school, I had the chance to sign up for another sport and I remember thinking that track sounded like something all the cool kids did. Running around in circles seemed simple enough and I figured that I would be one of the fastest short-distance sprinters right away (which turned out not to be the case). So for that year I was doing both track and soccer at the same time, going from one practice to the next in the same afternoon/evening and spending a good two to four hours on my feet exercising after school!
That season was also the first time I didn’t score a goal in soccer as a midfielder so I decided that soccer wasn’t fun anymore. My soccer coach even said, “You’re better off without the ball…”
iRF: Apart from a natural talent, what did your young self find attractive about running that made you brave the Oregon winters to get the miles in?
Canaday: Well, when I got really serious with running I was about 13 years old and I had just read the training book Daniels Distance Running Formula by Jack Daniels. I loved the scientific approach to training and I loved the idea that smart, hard work in training and mental willpower during races could give you ‘the edge’ to win and improve. I think the biggest motivation was that I wanted to impress some girls!
iRF: …and did you succeed?
Canaday: First off, I will say that I am in a very happy relationship with a certain Sandi Nypaver, who also happens to be an amazing ultrarunner, a talented artist, and a very kind person. We met through running, and although we have that in common, I’d say that our personalities and shared interests outside of the sport also brought us together.
But there were definitely some earlier times in my life when I was that ‘skinny runner nerd’ who obsessed about running extra laps around the track. And in my earlier years in school that wasn’t the ‘cool’ thing to do at all! During those times I’m sure a lot of girls thought I was totally insane (which of course I still am).
As the years went on, I only dated runners that I met on the track and cross-country teams and I fully admitted to having ‘speed goggles.’ I think there is something to be said about high levels of aerobic fitness and the instinctual drive for survival that makes some members of the opposite sex so appealing when they are involved in an activity that you love and have a passion for as well!
However, as mentioned in my book, Running For The Hansons, I had a rather lonely existence as a running bachelor while I was in training out in Michigan (it was forbidden to date any of the women on the Hansons-Brooks Team) and my only long-term relationship was with ‘distance running’ herself. That was a one-way street! Overall though, I’d say that pursing one’s dreams and passions wholeheartedly (despite inherent risks of failure) is a quality that is very attractive in general.
iRF: Did you think as a kid, “I’d love to be a pro runner, win the Olympic Marathon.” Was there some daydreaming going on as the miles went by?
Canaday: When I was in high school around the age of 16, I do remember thinking that the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project was really neat and something that I’d like to be a part of one day if I ever could. I spent a lot of time online trying to find out how pros and Olympians trained so I did some research and daydreamed a bit. I think a lot of kids have Olympic dreams at some point, but at that time just getting to run in college was the main focus for me (and something I didn’t even seriously consider until my senior year). I definitely dreamed about trying to make the Olympic Trials Marathon though, that was always a goal in the back of my mind.
iRF: Tell us a bit about your first-ever race. How did it go and what overriding memories of it do you have now?
Canaday: My first race was a track 100m low-hurdle sprint. I was 12 years old and about 90 pounds and five feet tall. Since it was a very short race with jumping and coordination involved, I was absolutely horrible with my form (there is a videotape of the race that I still have and like to watch). But I think I had the most heart and determination compared to the other half-dozen competitors running against me on that day (as seen from the film by the look on my face)… I ended up coming from behind and winning in the final meters with a hard forward lean at the line where I almost topple over… it was a rush that I’ll never forget!
iRF: In high school you were running track and cross country, right? Were you a ‘star’ of the team, would you say, a confident runner?
Canaday: I had some great teammates (and a great coach in Bruce Sinkbeil… who was also my Calculus teacher) in high school. My first couple of years I was the number two or three runner on the team and we were one of the best teams in the state of Oregon that year for large-division schools. My older brother was also running as our fourth or fifth guy and we were all pretty close and competitive. My last couple years of high school I had the good fortune of being team captain and MVP as well as winning our district meet with a 15:17 for 5k. So yes, I was confident from that but then when we went to the state meet this kid named Galen Rupp (and about 10 other guys) absolutely destroyed me. Galen ended up running a sub 13:40 for 5k a little later that year… it was a humbling experience and I always felt like I was more of a ‘second tier’ runner.
iRF: So then, how did you feel seeing Galen take home the silver medal in the 10,000 meters in London last year? It must have been cool?
Canaday: It was awesome! I knew how hard Galen worked in high school and to see him right up there with the very best in the world was a testament to how very scientific training mixed with talent (and a lot of dedication) could really pay off in the long run. I used to talk to his coach Alberto Salazar when I was in high school because I wanted to know what kinds of speed workouts Galen was doing at the time… it made me change my training. So instead of doing five or six by 1000m I was doing eight to 10 by 1000m at 5k race pace. I got my weekly mileage up to 70 miles a week. Salazar told me that I had to be willing to “pay the price” and “hurt really bad” to improve as a runner… that got me fired up!
iRF: So you must have been studying a bit, too. You did alright exam-wise, didn’t you? What did you study at university afterwards?
Canaday: Oh yes! I was known more as a ‘nerd’ in high school than a crazy runner. I played saxophone in the band and spent countless hours after school studying and doing homework. I was that weird kid who went to the library during lunch hour to get an early start on my school work instead of eating or relaxing. I just assumed that to get into the best college I could (and with the most financial aid) I should put most of my effort into academics. Looking back on it now I think it definitely hurt my running at the time, because I was only sleeping about six hours a night during the week.
iRF: It sounds like you were a pretty driven kid, Sage. Do you think that quality serves you well now in races, too?
Canaday: For sure! It takes a lot of self-discipline and intrinsic motivation to reach a high level in any endeavour and distance running is something that resonated with my personality and that drive. I’ve always believed that if I worked harder than competitors that were more talented than I was, then at least I had a chance at beating them. I’ve always taken a scientific approach to training and methodically studied what I could do to keep improving myself as a runner. I read (and own) a lot of books on running!
iRF: Cornell University, am I right? I’m from Europe so you’ll have to excuse me but isn’t that super-posh? We are talking the fabled Ivy League here. Please explain, Sage.
Canaday: Ha ha, yes! Cornell University is in the Ivy League… so that means it’s an old school, too. The thing that really made me like Cornell was that it was a pretty rural campus out in the trees and waterfalls and hills of upstate New York. Of course, the academics were top notch as well and I was thoroughly miserable starting off as a mechanical/aerospace engineer because my marks slipped dramatically. I eventually decided I hated math and (after experimenting with studies in human development and nutrition) I focused my studies on ergonomic design. I also enjoyed taking some business classes on the side, working in the student gym for extra money, and filming sporting events along with being a student-athlete.
iRF: Your Olympic Marathon Trials exploits have been well documented – you are the youngest qualifier at 21 years old. You ran a 2.21:40(?) or thereabouts. How did it feel? It’s a massive goal to reach at such a young age. Did you feel pressure or did your youth mean you had nothing to lose? Can you talk us through what was going on in your head around that time?
Canaday: Basically, I had the goal of being the youngest qualifier at the Olympic Trials Marathon ever since I had run my first half marathon in high school (1:13) in 2003. I had done the math and already figured out that due to the year of my birthday, shooting for the 2008 Olympic Trials would be my best bet to accomplish that goal (of being the youngest for that year, not all-time). So when I was in college at Cornell, I convinced my coach (Robert Johnson, co-founder of LetsRun.com) to try to qualify for the Trials between cross-country season and indoor track. I needed to run under 2:22:00 and I had about five weeks to train right after cross country season ended in the fall. So I got my mileage up to 120 miles a week and did some really painful 22-mile long runs.
I went out to the Houston Marathon in January 2007 and decided that I was going to try to run under 2:20 during the race for my debut. It ended up that I ‘hit the wall’ fairly hard around mile 22 and I struggled to finish just off the pace in 2:22:21. It was a really bittersweet first marathon experience- but I was even more determined to try again (I only had about seven months before I ran out of time with the deadline).
So after the spring outdoor track season, where I ran a 30:40 10k personal best, I tried again at the Grandma’s Marathon in June 2007. I knew it was my last chance and there was a ton of pressure. It happened to be a really hot day and tough race but I was able to pull off a 2:21:43 and qualify with 17 seconds to spare. I puked on the finish line and was taken away to the medical tent in a wheelchair. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
iRF: So you go on to run with the Brooks-Hanson Team, doing really well on the roads. Then you had, as you described it yourself, tongue-in-cheek, a ‘quarter-life crisis’ and decided to abandon the tarmac for mountains and trails. I was hoping for a bar-stool epiphany story but the truth is a bit more planned… or is it?
Canaday: Yes, I did write a bit about that experience in my controversial, self-published book. I have to admit that I was not cut-out for writing and that many sections of the book are rather immature and very rough around the edges (especially with the choppy editing and blog-like format)… However, I felt compelled to document what it was like being an ‘insider’ on the team, dreaming of the Olympics, and living a lifestyle of running every day. I wanted to be honest about the experience and not gloss over facts like I think some magazine articles have done. It’s not always positive. The level of support there was great coming out of college, but after 2 1/2 years in Michigan, and running a sub-par race at the Olympic Trials Marathon in 2012 (2:18), I was ready for change.
I always felt that the longer the distance, the better I seemed to do so I wanted to try doing longer long runs first (at Hansons I was limited to 20 miles). Also, I saw you could win $10,000 for getting first at The North Face 50. When I ran my marathon PR of 2:16:52 I got $0! But really, I hated the track and the flat uniform surface of the road seemed to not suit my stride as much as natural surfaces (I was always more competitive at cross country compared to track). Mainly, I wanted the freedom to race more frequently and try a wider variety of events. I also wanted to experiment with altitude training.
iRF: Looking back now, do you think by writing the book you kind of knew that it would be the end of your time on the team? Almost like a cry for help in a way?
Canaday: You know, after you put it that way I would say it was kind of a cry for help. I wanted to leave after my first year in the program but I kept hanging on because my running eventually started improving. The book was kind of my way of finding justification as to why I wanted to become a pro runner and what I was doing with my life. When I look back on it now I realize the transition out of university can be a tough one! I was still finding my way after being a student-athlete for years and writing the book gave me purpose when I felt like I was ‘wasting my time’ and not making enough money running around in circles.
iRF: You then qualified for the World Mountain Running Championships in the Dolomites in Italy last year, where you finished 12th. Tell us a little about the trip and the experience. Had you travelled to the Alps before?
Canaday: It was a great opportunity and I felt very fortunate just to be there! It was my first time in Italy and it was an eye-opening experience with the different cultures, runners, and the landscape of the mountains. The actual race was kind of sub-par for me as it was a 12k distance and it ran more like cross country. I didn’t have very much speed under my legs as I was still kind of training for the Jungfrau Marathon (one week later), and the UROC 100k (3 weeks later) was in the back of my mind. My legs felt slow and stiff during the race and I got soundly beat by a dozen guys, but I loved the experience and would like to go back to run there again someday!
iRF: Coming from the road-racing scene, what was your initial view of the mountain and ultra running setup? What was the main differences for you… both good and bad aspects?
Canaday: I’ve mainly just viewed the good aspects… I like how there seems to be more beer drinking and more eating! I like that it is a close-knit community with fellow runners that seem to share a lot of the same viewpoints on not only in running, but in life in general. I didn’t realize there was a big difference between ‘mountain running’ and ‘trail running’ in terms of there being events like vertical kilometers and road ultras and track 100-milers and things like that.
Moving up in distance and enduring the pain of near-bonking for hours on end has been humbling. Learning to not fall and get more stitches as well as figuring out how to not get lost during races have been challenging things I never would’ve expected in making the transition. I’ve also learned that the 100-mile distance seems to be the ultimate challenge for some ultrarunners and it is that distance that seems to earn the most respect.
iRF: Cool. You have said before that a 100-miler is probably still a 18 months to two years away, is that still the case? When it is time, which 100’s take your fancy?
Canaday: First off I will say that 100 miles sounds like a totally different beast to me and I want to learn to slowly respect the distance. At this point running 100k is grueling enough as it is and I can’t fathom having to race for 12 or 15 or even 30 hours at a time! That being said I also know 100 miles is a benchmark distance and there are some iconic races of that length that I’d like to do someday.
First though, I want to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Trials Marathon (probably aim to do that in 2014 when the window is open) and train for a 2:15 or better in the marathon. I don’t think that speed training would be compatible with 100-mile race training because they are such different events. So maybe in 2014, but later in the year after my road marathon.
iRF: You said you were living a pretty spartan life when you first moved to Boulder, before the SCOTT sponsorship. Is it the way you like to keep things?
Canaday: What do they say, “simplicity is freedom?” I like the idea of being able to move around and go on trips and explore new areas on a whim… but I also have a lot of material things that I know I still need to get rid of. I like having a comfortable space to call ‘home.’ For my first couple months in Boulder I slept on a cot… after my back started hurting I finally splurged and bought a mattress. I also like to take hot showers and have Internet access fairly often (I don’t have a smartphone, though).
Running is a lifestyle for me and I feel really fortunate to be in a position that I can barely pull it off financially… it hasn’t always been this way and it won’t always be this way. Right now I am just enjoying the moment, enjoying my health, and hoping that I can keep doing what I love for as long as possible (at least to some degree). Saving for retirement has been put on the backburner for now and I’m a little worried about that!
iRF: Ha ha, so tell us a little of your SCOTT deal, Sage. You are a sponsored athlete and also an employee, is that right? Can you explain? Will you have an impact on product design, too? You run in the T2 Kinabalu’s now, how does that compare to shoes you wore before the sponsorship? What other products would you like to see coming from SCOTT?
Canaday: I’ve been very fortunate with the SCOTT sponsorship. One of my main concerns with doing this ‘running as a lifestyle’ thing was the fact that my legs could give out any day (and I will get old and slow soon enough!!). So I’ve always wanted to make a little extra income on the side and build my resume with actual work experience in the footwear industry. Thanks to Scott McCoubrey I was given the opportunity to do a little side marketing and technical-representation work for SCOTT. I like the idea of representing a brand not only with my legs but also with my mind… working for SCOTT and running for SCOTT helps with that whole concept, helps me make ends meet, and gives me industry experience for a possible future career. It just makes sense to be fully invested in a brand, truly believe in their productions, and have a passion for directly helping improve your sponsor’s bottom line.
I also have other sponsors that help support me and my running dreams: Flora Health/Udo’s Oil, Drymax Socks, Ultimate Direction, Strava, and Smith Optics.
iRF: Okay, that’s enough love for your sponsors. Just kidding! But let’s move on, Sage. You have a passion for marketing, too. You have your company, V02max, the YouTube channel. Do you ever feel like some people have a negative reaction to you creating a brand for yourself and self promotion. A sense that it’s not ‘rootsy’ enough?
Canaday: As I mentioned earlier, I did take a couple business classes at Cornell and they immediately made me wish I majored in business! I really like working with creative media like video and I’ll admit I’m totally addicted to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (don’t have Instagram yet because I don’t have a smartphone). My YouTube channel, Vo2max Productions, is something I’m really passionate about and it’s become a way for me to share my training with a rather large, international audience.
The main content of my videos include documenting some of my runs, giving product reviews, and posting informative training videos (that can hopefully help others with their training). I’ll totally admit to what many would call ‘shameless self-promotion’ on the web and I will not hesitate to blatantly plug a sponsor or product. I’m always looking for new opportunities (right now I’m working on a beer company sponsorship) and it’s actually something I invest a lot of time and energy into. There have definitely been some negative reactions and negative comments posted about me online. I can totally understand that such self-promotion and aggressive use of social media can rub people the wrong way. One can easily come off as being very self-absorbed, entitled, and arrogant.
However, when I was first trying to get sponsorship I had a really hard time. I didn’t have a marketing machine (or big name shoe company) to help promote my running performances or spread the word about any potential I may have in the sport (I didn’t have any sponsors at all until this past fall actually). I figured that if I got more followers on Twitter, created a blog, and sought more of a following on YouTube that it would help with my ‘social media marketing value.’ But it didn’t seem to work! Even after running fairly well in several ultra races I had many companies that either ignored me or didn’t respond to my sponsorship proposals. If they did respond I was offered the bare bones. It was pretty frustrating, but it all worked out for the best as I really appreciate my sponsors now.
As with lots of things in business sometimes it’s more about who you know and not about how fast you run or how many Facebook ‘friends’ you have. I also know a lot of people in the sport don’t like the idea of this influx of ‘commercialism’ in what may have used to be a more simple and pure sport. I totally understand if a majority of runners are upset in the case of a race-entry fee increasing to offset the cost of a prize money purse for the ‘elites.’ But it’s how I make a living now and I depend on that prize money… I’ve had to work really hard for it and I’ve made some sacrifices to get to this level.
Running has basically been my life for the last 12 years… she has consumed my soul and I’ve fully dedicated myself to her. I don’t ski, I don’t golf… I don’t watch TV or play video games. Running is my thing… it’s what makes me tick. The sport has fused itself with my identity and lifestyle. With the support of the running community, my family, my girlfriend, and my sponsors, running has provided me with a way to make a living doing something I love.
iRF: How do you see it panning out, Sage. What do you envision happening?
Canaday: I’m hoping that I can always find a little time to run while working more and more in the footwear industry. I don’t want to take anything for granted and I know right now I’m in a unique position where I can use my body to make money doing what I love. But eventually I’ll lose a lot of my speed and my knees will fail. Hopefully I can engage my mind more and stay involved with the sport on the business/marketing side of things. All the people I’ve met in the running community have helped me find meaning in what many would call a selfish endeavour. I really value the quality of these relationships with other fellow runners and how we can relate to running ridiculously long distances. One long-term goal of mine is to try to be like those 60, 70, and 80 year old runners that still go out and train and run races. They are really inspiring!
iRF: Speaking of which… How do you see your own company and identity in say five years from now?
Canaday: My company Vo2max Productions is becoming more fused with my identity as a runner. I want to utilize it more and more as a creative platform to share my passion and experiences in the sport with the rest of the world. My goal with the informative training videos is to hopefully help other fellow runners get more satisfaction out of the sport and their own running. It is my small way of trying to give something back to the running community that has supported me so much and allowed me to reach this level.
I’ve got a lot of crazy ideas in my head like writing another book on the transition from road running to ultra trail racing. And I’m creating a film/documentary of my travels and training from around the world this year.I want this film project to cover the international racing scene I get experience this year, how my training has progressed chronologically, and how the dynamic of the sport may change due to commercialization, sponsorship, prize money, and shorter-distance runners moving up into ultras. I’ve already got some great interviews with Bryon Powell, Anna Frost, and Cam Clayton as well as race footage in New Zealand and my training in the mountains of Colorado. Not sure if my film will ever make it off YouTube but I figure any project where I can be creative, share my passion for running, make a little extra money, gain marketing experience, and help others would be very satisfying.
iRF: You seem to have a lot of races planned for this year as well as a good deal of travel, how are you feeling about that decision now?
Canaday: I feel totally overwhelmed. Honestly I’ve got too much on my plate right now so something has to give. I think in the interest of trying to stay healthy and not over-train or over-race, I’m going to have to pull at least a couple of those races from my tentative schedule. I was a little too ambitious and too eager to race this year (after coming from Hansons-Brooks where I was very limited in running no more than two marathons a year) when I listed all those events. For sure, I’ll plan on doing Transvulcania, Cayuga Trails 50, and UROC at the very least.
I’ve been running long enough to know that an injury or illness can strike at anytime and totally put a halt to my racing and ability to run. I also know for sure that 100k is the longest I want to race this year. Running and training for 100 miles is a totally different beast and I feel like there is so much to learn from ultra-mountain-trail races in the 20k to 100k range since I’m so new to the sport.