Roots & Wings: An Interview With David Laney
David Laney hasn’t been running trail races very long at all. One could argue that the Chuckanut 50k last March was his first bona fide off-roader. He won and crushed the course record in the process. His first 100k race was only last fall. He won and crushed the course record there, too, that time at the Waldo 100k.
Now, with a ticket to the Western States 100 tucked into his new Nike Trail Team running shorts, Laney is definitely one to watch for 2014. I caught up with him at home in Oregon to talk about his lifetime love for running and how this year could, just maybe, be his best year yet.
iRunFar: So, 2014 has got off to a pretty good start for you. You came second at the Bandera 100k a couple of weeks back and also you’re a part of the Nike Trail Team. How has it felt?
David Laney: It’s been great. I came off a fall marathon in December so I was in decent shape coming into Bandera and then it’s been great with the Nike team. They’re really excited about being back in the game of trail. We’ve got a great team and a great couple of shoes. I think it’s going to be fun.
iRunFar: I guess it’s more evidence of the interest that trail and ultras have now, that the big guns are eager to get involved. How did the deal with Nike happen, David?
Laney: It was pretty fun actually. They (Nike) went up to Chuckanut two years ago and they saw that of the 400 or so that finished the race, four people were wearing Nike shoes. That was a little bit of a slap in the face. So they designed a shoe, worked on it. I happened to know somebody that worked up there and they heard that I was running Chuckanut so they said, ‘Why don’t we send him a pair of shoes, see how he likes them.’ So I won [Chuckanut 2013] in the shoe and they were super-stoked to have their shoe on the winner’s feet…
iRunFar: Was that one of the shoes that they’ve launched now, too?
Laney: Yeah, it was a prototype of the Terra Kiger. It was exciting and then we chatted since then and some things worked out.
iRunFar: Great. Going back to racing Bandera 100k, you seem to have made the transition into the longer distances—100k—real smoothly. Your two races, Waldo 100k and now Bandera 100k—a first and second place finish. How has it been?
Laney: I like the 100k distance quite a bit. You get to that point where it’s really bad and you have to suffer for a long time. It’s kinda’ fun. But, let’s see, I learned a lot from both of those races. I definitely made a lot of mistakes in both of them. It’s good to make mistakes, I guess, because when it really counts I can have it dialed in.
iRunFar: I guess you’re making mistakes but still doing well. That’s a good sign.
Laney: Yeah, it’s fun to have some success in only my first year doing this—it’s exciting.
iRunFar: You automatically received an entry for Western States from finishing in the top three at the Bandera 100k, too. That must be sweet?
Laney: I’m really excited about that. I’ve been wanting to do that race since I was about 10 years old, so it’s going to be fun.
iRunFar: Cool. You’ve known about Western States and it’s been a dream to run it for a real long time. How did you first become aware of the race, David?
Laney: My dad is a skier and we skied a lot when we were kids. I remember we were up at this cabin and there was a documentary on TV about Western States. I was probably 10 or 12 years old and I remember sitting on the couch with my family and I just knew. I didn’t tell anybody, but I knew I was going to run that race!
iRunFar: You are from a family of sports people then, David. It seems like you’ve been running or around the whole running scene since forever, is that right?
Laney: Yeah, pretty much. I’d say my first real race when I was about three and I actually forgot to put on shorts and I ran it in just a t-shirt. It was really long, like an XL. It was kind of embarrassing, but it worked out.
iRunFar: Did the passion for running come from your parents or your siblings or just a combination of having it around in your life so much?
Laney: Yeah, all my brothers and sisters ran cross country in high school. My dad did marathons. It was a little bit of everything. It’s always been around me.
iRunFar: You grew up in Portland, right? Was it a cool place growing up there?
Laney: Yeah, thinking back, there are other places I would like to grow up, maybe have more accessibility to mountains and lakes and stuff. Portland is close but to a kid it’s hard to get out there a little bit… like in Ashland you can bike to a lake or up the mountain. Portland’s nice too, though. Now, I’m based kinda’ half in Ashland and half in Portland.
iRunFar: Okay great. So that first race as a three year old, how did it go!?
Laney: It was a two-mile race. It was part of the Portland Marathon. My dad did the marathon; my brother and sisters did the five mile or 10 mile; I forget. I was little so I did the two mile. It was great.
iRunFar: And you didn’t get disqualified for having no shorts?
Laney: [laughs] No, but I think I would now if I did that.
iRunFar: How did your running progress through school, high school, and then onto university? Have you always done well or have there been times when you struggled a lot?
Laney: Yeah. In elementary school and middle school, I had real good coaches and I had a lot of success early on. Then, in high school, I had a lot of not-success. [laughs] I didn’t improve too much until my senior year. I still had great coaches and people that really influenced me a lot.
iRunFar: Why do you think your progress stalled? Was it just because of your growth curve, perhaps?
Laney: I think so. I’ve always trained pretty hard so I think when I had a growth spurt later on in high school, it think it kinda’ clicked. Things turned out good.
iRunFar: In that early part of your running career, was there any particular time that stands out as a real breakthrough for you? Where you stepped it up and thought, Wow, perhaps I’m good enough to make something out of this.
Laney: Yeah, I think my senior year in high school. I made the state meet at track. [laughs] I took the lead with 800 meters to go. I got fifth… but I made a show out of it! [laughs]
iRunFar: I read a really cool story by your dad about the day you ran a race together and he felt like he was holding you back. I think you were like 12 or something, and he told you to go ahead and mix it with the front of the pack. That must have been a pretty monumental moment for you, too. At that age, we usually think our parents are like superheros, so to realise that you’re better than them at something they introduced you to, must have been special?
Laney: Oh yeah, totally! It’s funny but Mom would always not want me to run the longer races. I think that race was like 15k, so it wasn’t that long. So she would always be telling my dad that I wasn’t allowed to do it and he would be like, ‘No, he can do it, he’s made up his mind.’ There was some inner-house conflict on that. [laughs] But I do remember that race—it was maybe a couple of miles in and I was like, ‘Let’s do this, let’s race!’ And he was like, ‘You’re better than me now; you have to go!’ I remember that been a pretty big deal.
iRunFar: He said that the best two things to give your kids are roots and wings. That’s really nice, I thought. It was obviously a big deal for him, too. Although maybe if you didn’t run with him those first two miles, you would have won the race… [laughs]
Laney: [laughs] Yeah, possibly!
iRunFar: Seriously, though, it seems like your parents have always given you amazing support, right throughout your running career. They must be delighted to see you signing with Nike and starting out in ultras, too?
Laney: Oh yeah, they’ve been amazing. Now, too, they’ve been great. My mom still is definitely worried about the 100-mile distance. [laughs] Other than that, they’ve been great.
iRunFar: How do you feel about running 100 miles, David? You only really ran your first 100k last autumn and now you’re already making the next big step up.
Laney: Yeah, [laughs] 38 miles is a long, long way [to tag onto the end of a 100k]. But I’m excited at the same time, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t, you know, pretty scared. [laughs] But that nervousness is what I thrive on.
iRunFar: Apart from your talent, another thing that you have in your favour is that you’re from Oregon and have a core group of runners there with real 100-mile pedigree, right? You’re working at Hal Koerner’s store and you also have the likes of Timothy Olson, who’s ruled the WS 100 roost for the last couple of years. Have you looked up to those guys?
Laney: Yeah, absolutely! Last night I had dinner with Hal and Tim and just having those guys around, I’ve nothing but respect for what they’ve done. It’s really fun to learn from them and see how hard they train. There are a lot of other guys, further back, too. I watched a documentary on Jim King, he won the Western States in 1983 and a couple of times in a row. Those guys in the sport are what made the sport happen. I love it. I don’t know whether there is advice given, really. I think there is a place for advice, but I think this is a sport where you’ve just got to learn it the hard way, on your own.
iRunFar: Cool, David. How did your own journey into trail and ultras start? You ran track and cross country throughout your school years. How has that progressed to where you are now… a few months from your first 100 miler?
Laney: Yeah, let’s see. I graduated college and had a year where I was trying to run primarily track races. It went okay; I had some success, but just wasn’t totally loving what I was doing. So I moved back to Ashland and started working for Hal at the running store, Rogue Valley Runners. Erik Skaggs was working there at the time and just from hanging out with these guys it was like a natural progression. I was thinking, I enjoy the mountains and the freedom you get on the trails is unparalleled. So I did Lithia Loop Marathon, which is kinda’ road and trail, and that was my first trail race. Then I signed up for Chuckanut; I didn’t know what I was getting myself into… and I loved it.
iRunFar: So Chuckanut, last year, was your big trail breakthrough?
Laney: Yeah, it was. Chuckanut was really fun. It’s an awesome race and I had a great time up there. It was pretty exciting.
iRunFar: What’s your plan for this year then, David? I guess Western States is your focus race for 2014, but what other races are you planning on running before it and, maybe, afterwards?
Laney: I’ll be doing Chuckanut again this year and I’d like to run something in May so I’ve been talking to the people in Skyrunning about trying to get into Transvulcania. I’m not sure that’s going to happen or not, but I’d like to do that. Then Western States, then after that I’ll have a couple of weeks easy. Hopefully work at Steen’s Mountain Running Camp again and then I’ll do the US Skyrunning races. It’s looking awesome.
iRunFar: Has Tim been talking up Transvulcania after his experience there last year?
Laney: Yeah, he ran there last year and said that it’s a race you gotta’ d0, ‘At some point you gotta’ do it. He said it was a huge experience and so I thought I’d do it as soon as I could! If it works out and I can get in, I will probably go over there this year to do it.
iRunFar: You’ve said on your blog that your technical downhill running needs to be improved. I guess running those Skyrunning races will help with that. It’s looking like a big year for Skyrunning in the States with the national series kicking off. Do you like what you see?
Laney: It’s awesome. I think bringing something like that to the U.S. is going to be a big deal. It’s totally different… like mixing mountaineering with running. That’ll be exciting and I think it’ll bring people who wouldn’t normally run the races into the sport.
iRunFar: Going back to Nike, I think a lot of people are interested in their plans. How does the deal work, David, are you a full-time athlete with the team?
Laney: Basically there are seven guys on the team so far and it’s pretty much bonus-based, at least for me. You get paid if you race well. There is also some travel and medical expenses, too. I’m happy with it.
iRunFar: They’re serious about it, about expanding into trail and ultra?
Laney: Oh yeah, they’re excited. We had a team summit last week where we sat down with designers and told them what they needed to change and where we got to know each other and went on some runs. It’s pretty fun to see the excitement, everybody is pretty giddy! [laughs]
iRunFar: It’ll be exciting to see what comes of it. You’ve been running pretty much all your life, David. Has there been a time when you fell out of love for running?
Laney: Oh yeah. I mean it’s not always the easiest. You have bad days and bad months. I’ve had a lot of injuries, more in high school. But I’ve always really loved it—I love running, I love the freedom. I love to suffer, [laughs] so I love running.
iRunFar: Talking of suffering, how have you felt you’ve had to change mentally from running track, cross country, and shorter races to racing 50k, 100k, and ultimately 100 miles?
Laney: At some level it’s similar because it’s all racing, but at the same time it’s totally different. Before Bandera I did some light stretching and then laced up my shoes… then I took like three strides and I was like, ‘I’m running eight-minute pace, I don’t need to do this, I don’t even need to warm up!’ Sometimes I have to calm myself down. I get pretty fired up!
iRunFar: You’re only 25 now, David, and you’ve only started running trails races a year ago, but you’re running your first 100 miler this summer. What’s the rush?!
Laney: I’m not good at waiting. [laughs] If I want to do something, I just go and do it!
iRunFar: I guess you’ve been waiting since you saw that documentary when you were 10 or whatever it was, anyway?
Laney: Yeah exactly, true!
iRunFar: Apart from Western States, what other 100 milers have you got your eye on?
Laney: Hmmm, I’d like to run a fast 100 miler. I’m not sure where that would be. But Western States is the big one… me and my roommate have a bet and whoever beats the other in the race has to name their child after the other person. [laughs] And, also, whoever has a child first has to run Badwater… so there’s a lot riding on it.
iRunFar: Wow, there certainly is a lot riding on it. Do have a plan or your eye on Tim’s record?It’s pretty solid, don’t you think?
Laney: The way he’s run there, especially this year in the heat, that’s an impressive time at Western. The hills are definitely his strength; I think on a flat course somebody might be faster, but at Western I think that time will stick around for a long time. I don’t know what I’ll do, making a pre-race plan never works out, so I’ll just go with the flow!