Running’s Renaissance Man: An Interview With Max King
[Editor’s Note: After a lengthy absence due to a severe hand injury that prevented him from typing, we welcome Robbie Lawless and the Run Tramp interview series back to iRunFar.]
The hardest thing about interviewing Max King is pinning him down long enough to ask some questions and get answers–the guy’s one busy dude. Mountains, track, trails, road ultramarathons, and obstacle courses: Max is truly running’s renaissance man.
iRunFar: Max, I’ve seen you in action. You always seem to have unlimited energy and are ready for the next run or training session. Have you always been this way? Were you an energetic kid and how did you expend all that energy as a young fellow?
Max King: You’d have to ask my mom but, yeah, I think I was. I played outside a lot, ran around in the woods for a couple years and played sports through middle school and high school.
iRunFar: Cool. So you’re an Oregon dweller now but you grew up in Sacramento, California, right? Was the outdoors a big thing in your family? Is that how you got introduced to the mountains?
King: I lived in Sacramento until I was about six. Then, when my parents divorced, I moved to Oregon with my mom and continued to spend summers in California. We were fairly outdoorsy, though. I’ve been camping since I was two or so. The first outing, however, resulted in a midnight repack of the car and a drive home because I wouldn’t stop screaming. After my mom moved to Oregon, we lived out in the boonies and I ran around the woods every day, playing army and building forts. Summers with my dad were spent working outdoors in manual labor, boating, waterskiing, and backpacking. I was outside a lot and loved the forest and mountains.
iRunFar: As far as running goes, what’s your earliest memory of actually ‘running,’ as opposed to sprinting around and playing. Did it become apparent early on that you were gifted?
King: Yeah, it was pretty early. I played baseball until seventh grade and I was terrible, although I did hit an in-the-park homer because I was fast enough to get around all the bases. I would do the physical-education mile and beat all the other kids so I was just waiting until seventh grade when track was offered for the first time. The rest is history.
iRunFar: Seventh grade, you started track. How did your running progress? Can you tell me about some of the standout memories from your early years?
King: I had some immediate success. I won our district meet my seventh-grade season. That was as far as we could go then; there was no ‘state’ meet. Only track was offered through middle school so I didn’t get to do cross country until ninth grade. When I got to high school, I was right in the mix with the varsity kids and by my sophomore year, I was the fastest on our team. I also made it to state that year and finished 31st. My junior and senior years were pretty similar. I was fifth/sixth at state in cross country and never did make it to state in track. My success in track came later after finding the steeplechase. Plus we had a pretty deep district that I competed in and I remember one of the ways that I got better in track and learned how to push myself was to get into a race with another local kid who would usually beat me and just sit on him until I couldn’t anymore. It toughened me up and usually got me a PR. You can really learn how to hurt by just using your mind to tell your legs to keep moving. Mental strength is powerful.
I would never say that I had much talent because of how hard I’ve always had to work to attain a goal, but I guess I had enough to keep me going in the sport. I never had so much that I didn’t have to work extremely hard to get where I am now.
iRunFar: It’s interesting about you saying that you’ve always worked super-hard to get results. As someone who trains a hell of a lot, what are your thoughts on the reported overtraining syndrome in ultrarunners that was highlighted recently with the Outside Magazine article?
King: After doing my first 100 miler, I would totally agree. It seems that it’s mostly related to those doing hundreds or absurd weekly mileage. Maybe there’s a threshold somewhere. Maybe there’s not. There are plenty of track 10k and 5k runners doing 100-plus miles per week and not getting burnt out and on the flip side there are 800-meter runners doing 40 miles a week and seeing the same overtraining syndrome that 100-mile runners are experiencing. I think a lot depends on the person and what that person can handle. However, different people can handle vastly different weekly mileage but it would seem that a 100 miler or several in a year are hard on any body. I just don’t think you can train your body up to that distance to be able to truly handle that amount of stress.
iRunFar: Interesting. So, after high school, you studied at Cornell University. Why Cornell?
King: Honestly, I got a brochure in the mail with the Cornell climbing wall on it and thought that seemed like a good place. I did take a recruiting visit and liked the campus and the coaches, though. Education was my primary focus and a school on the East Coast with both engineering and architecture were my requirements. It just fit the bill.
iRunFar: So, for a Californian kid, what was it like moving east?
King: Well, I love the forest. When I was in high school, my family took a trip back east to see the Northeast’s historical sights and I just loved the deciduous forest of the East Coast and that’s kind of what drove me to want to go to school back there. Turns out all that forest disappears during the winter and it’s very grey for six months. Wish I’d figured that out ahead of time.
iRunFar: And how did the running culture and your own approach to running differ at university level? Did you step it up there?
King: The main difference was coaching. In high school, I loved my coach but he wasn’t the best when it came to knowing how to coach distance runners and I went out every day and just hammered until I slowed down. In college, I learned the value of easy rest days, hard workouts, hills, and all the associated stuff that a runner needs to know to get better. I didn’t have that in high school so I kind of plateaued. We also worked incredibly hard. My college coach, Jerry Smith, was a bit of a masochist. Our workouts broke just about everyone on the team except me. I just got better. I thrived under the relentless workload. We did one hour, 45-minute hill workouts leading up to the cross-country season and a 100 X 200-meter workout leading up to track. Eventually it was school and a lack of sleep that got me in the end, though.
iRunFar: After university you took a year off, right? I can’t imagine you sitting at home with your pipe and slippers. What were you up to during that time?
King: I would say I was getting my feet under me in a new place. I moved with my soon-to-be-wife back to Bend, Oregon. We spent two months in Tahoe, California just playing, hiking, and camping before settling down to jobs in Bend. Pretty quickly I got hooked up with a local adventure-racing group and I did some low-key adventure racing for about two years, just for fun. I did start to miss the competition, though.
iRunFar: And you guys are still there in Bend. You obviously liked the place?
King: Yeah, I love it because of the people and recreation opportunities here. After starting to run mountain races, I realize now it’s a bit flat in Bend but there are trails everywhere and there are parts of the state that I still haven’t gotten to explore. There’s so much here and not too many people.
iRunFar: Tell me about your comeback into competing again, after university. How did it go?
King: It was amazing. I started running again, getting my mileage back up, adding in some workouts. My first race back was the 2005 USATF Club Cross Country Championships in Portland, Oregon. I went out and raced how I normally would. I wound up 10th, beating guys who I couldn’t touch in college. Two months later, I raced the USATF Cross Country Championships and was 11th in the short-course 4k and 12th in the 12k. Again, beating guys that I couldn’t have even been in the same ballpark as a few years before and I was one spot away from qualifying for the world-championship team. That was pretty eye opening to me and astounding that I could improve so much over a few years of not competing. I still attribute it to four years of very hard work in college and then sleeping and eating better in the years after. I feel like my body finally absorbed all that training from college.
iRunFar: Sounds awesome! You worked as a chemical engineer after you finished studying, but packed it in to sell running shoes and run and train more. Was that a ‘eureka!’ moment where you threw your white coat at your boss one day or was it gradual withdrawal from that type of career?
King: I’d say it was a gradual withdrawal. I did enjoy my engineering job. It was interesting. It just took too much time away from running and it was gradually taking over my life. I spent 2007 and 2008 in Eugene training with the Oregon Track Club getting ready for the Olympic Trials and I didn’t do anything else. I really didn’t like that experience but at the same time I knew that I could work running into every aspect of my life. So that’s what I tried to do. I went back to engineering for another two years before pulling the plug. During that time I was at the point where I could make some prize money but not enough to keep my wife happy so I needed another piece of the puzzle. The footwear-buying job came about and that was what made it work.
iRunFar: With your footwear buying, you’ve obviously got a lot of experience there. You’ve also been giving tons of input into shoe development with Salomon since you joined them. How has that experience been and when will we see some Max-inspired designs?
King: It’s been great. I love working to improve shoe design. It’s the engineer in me. Salomon is all about taking their athletes’ advice and working with them to give them the best shoe, so all I can say is that it’s a revolutionary concept to me that I could request a custom shoe and then have it delivered to my door a few weeks later. That has been so cool. I don’t know when you’ll see some inspired designs. There may be possibly a few tweaks coming down the line that I would have suggested but we haven’t collaborated on a whole new shoe design just yet. Part of the reason I joined Salomon was because of how well they have been rocking the footwear development and how well it goes with my running ethos, so I can’t say I have all that much to change yet. I’ve got some ideas, though.
iRunFar: Your running tastes could maybe be best described as ‘eclectic.’ You like to mix it up. You recently tried your very first vertical-kilometer race in Chamonix, France. What did you think?
King: Oh, it hurt so very, very good. Man, it was 37 minutes of redlining fun. So difficult, but I love those all-out, pedal-to-the-metal efforts.
iRunFar: In contrast to that, one of your main focus races for this year was the Comrades Marathon in South Africa, one of the world’s largest and oldest ultras. How was that experience?
King: The experience was great, the race, not so much. The traditions, the culture around the race, and the prestige that doing well there offers are all things I like about it. I’d love to go back and give it another shot. I’m still torn between how much I’ll have to train for that to be good at it and how there is a definite pull toward the mountains for me. I want so bad to be good at both but being at the highest level at both disciplines is proving to be challenging. I feel pulled in two directions right now.
iRunFar: As someone who races in almost every form of running from track to cross country, trail, mountain, and obstacle-course races, how does the general vibe and ambiance differ in each?
King: What I love about it is that every discipline has its own eclectic people and type of person it draws but at the end of the day we’re all runners and, in general, people I love hanging around with. That said, the difference between the track at an elite level and the trail are pretty different. An elite track meet tends to separate the sport into the runners and the fans. In trail running, they’re one in the same because the people coming out to a trail race are racing and at the end of the day we all hang out together. You know, it’s different, but the same.