Jeff Browning took third at the 2015 Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji via a patient race early and a surge late. In this interview, Jeff talks about how he managed to run his own race despite what the field around him was doing, what he did in the first half of the race to make sure he could run hard in the second, and his thoughts on the course and its conditions.
Be sure to read our results article for the full race story.
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Jeff Browning Post-2015 Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and I’m here at the finish line of the 2015 Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji. I’m with men’s third-place finisher, Jeff Browning. Dude, that was awesome.
Jeff Browning: Hi. I know. I had a good day. I’m stoked.
iRunFar: You had some great closes in 100-mile races in the past. How does this one compare? From the outside watching you, it looked incomparable. Nobody was running like you at the end.
Browning: I was really patient. I knew this course was really tough. The last three climbs were really tough. I knew the middle section was slightly uphill and runnable, so I wanted to save my legs for that section. I went easy in the Tenshi Mountains in the first third or first half. It was really muddy. The conditions were really bad this year with the typhoon giving us really bad rain and weather for 18 hours before the race. I just bided my time. I knew the tendency for the UTMB and UTMF guys to go out really hard at the beginning. I didn’t get caught up in that. A couple of times I almost did in some of the chase groups. As they took off on a road section, I just kind of thought it was a little too fast. I wanted to save it for the second half. I knew that if I ran 30 seconds per mile faster then, then I wouldn’t have that, and I’d lose it in a couple minutes per mile in the second half. I just saved it. My plan was to pick it up around 100k a little on and off, and then with 50k to go, all out.
iRunFar: When we saw you early on around 11k and 30k, you were outside the top 10 both times, somewhere around 15th place. Some of the guys you were among kind of had those deer-in-the-headlights look like, Ahhh, I’d like to be further up than I am, but you looked pretty chill.
Browning: I don’t even ask where I am in the first half. I don’t even want to know. I didn’t care. I knew after the Tenshis it would start to sort out. I know the tendency for everyone especially younger guys to go too hard too early. You can’t do that in a 100 miler.
iRunFar: This is a good lesson for everybody, not just elites, because almost everybody has to work to resist the urge to go too fast in a 100, to let people go and to run within yourself and make decisions for yourself. How literally do you let people go—people you know you should be in front of eventually?
Browning: At some point, I was running with a group of three other guys, Gary Robbins was in there, that was in the section they changed before the Tenshi where it was very technical but it was very, very runnable and kind of rolling. Those guys kind of took off. I was just like, It’s only 20 miles in. You’re going way too fast this early.
iRunFar: This isn’t just a 100 miler, it was already 103 or 104 or whatever.
Browning: It’s a long race, and the technical sections are really technical. The mountains here are really steep and really rocky. It’s a mix between that really hard, fast road running and really technical trail. I think… this is my 22nd 100 and I just don’t worry about it. I’m getting old. I’m just patient and let everybody go and trust that I’m pacing myself well.
iRunFar: Wisdom comes with age?
Browning: Totally. Hopefully. Not always but hopefully.
iRunFar: Talk a little about the conditions. It ended up being a couple inches of new rain that was in the ground and on the ground I guess by the time you got out there. People were reporting lots of nastiness. What did you find?
Browning: The worst section was the Tenshi section. That section between aid took me four hours and five minutes. You couldn’t go down… Yeah, I ran out of water. I carried 75 ounces of water for that section and I ran out for an hour. I know that’s where a lot of people dropped. A lot of runners dropped after that section. They were just worked. I think that’s where Gary took a nap because he was worked, too, by jetlag. I think that section probably was the worst because that west side… the east side of Mount Fuji has gritty, almost like Pacific Northwest style, or at least Bend, Oregon, style lava rock. It’s really gritty. Even when it’s wet, it drains pretty well. You have pretty good traction as long as you have pretty good trail shoes on. The Tenshis were kind of like clay. The downhills were like grease. You’d step and you’d just go “Whoooooo.” I woke up this morning and my left shoulder was really sore, and I realized it was from grabbing trees as you went by to slow yourself down. There’s a lot of that. I put on gloves for that section even though it was warm. Even the rain, because that typhoon came out of the south so the weather was warm, even the rain was warm. It was warm all night. I was in short sleeves most of the night. I wore gloves for downhill sections because of grabbing things and you needed something on.
iRunFar: Around 110k mark, you’re a bit higher up on the mountain. You’re alternating between miles and miles of roads and black cinder rocks.
Browning: The really loose stuff? It was like trying to run on a beach. It was like power-suck. That section and then where’s-the-aid-station-after-the-Tenshi-Mountains were the two sections where I was like, “Arrrrghghgh.” It’s hard when you can’t even run. It’s a grade like this where you should be able to run it, but it’s such loose junk, you’d sink this deep in that rocky stuff. It was tough.
iRunFar: I want to ask about the different styles to the course. There are loads and loads of road running here–pavement running–and then loads and loads of technical stuff. Sometimes that transition can be challenging like the challenge of running flat to going straight uphill or a steep downhill to then being able to turn things over on the roads again. How did you physically and mentally manage those transitions?
Browning: After rolling my ankle at UTMB and rehabbing the ankle, I did in a two-week window before this race and before I started to taper, I did four speedwork sessions so that way I would be comfortable at a little faster pace. I didn’t want to hammer at any point on the road, I just wanted to run quickly.
iRunFar: Run efficiently.
Browning: Yes, efficient, and the one thing I think that’s hard when you do a lot of hard mountain races and not a lot of speedwork because you’re concentrating on hills so much, you forget when you’re running on the road that you need to pick up your heels instead of shuffling. So I think speedwork helps remind your body to pick up your heels and the rest will take care of itself.
iRunFar: Like the smoothest gait. At 110k you were 71 minutes back from Arnaud Lejeune and 84 minutes back from the lead. At the finish line you were a little over five minutes back from Arnaud.
Browning: Yeah, I heard he was walking the last couple k’s.
iRunFar: Were you aware he walked the entire last bit?
Browning: I didn’t know I was that close. After I got into third, once I caught Sondre [Amdahl], I wanted to make sure he didn’t follow me. I caught him on a hill, and I ran the hill, around the corner, and kept hammering and looking back making sure he wasn’t following me. He looked like his legs were pretty hammered, so I figured he wouldn’t. Then when I got to the last aid station, I was like, Hmmm, I wonder how far second? I asked and they were like, “He left here 27 minutes ago.” It’s 7.2 miles or something to the finish and one big climb. There’s no way I’m going to catch him. I wish I would have known.
iRunFar: At that point were you thinking about Sondre behind you and trying to keep anybody behind you away?
Browning: Yeah, I was just trying to keep him not catching me.
iRunFar: I keep watching to see if Mount Fuji pops out.
Browning: Yeah, Fuji is back there.
iRunFar: There’s Mount Fuji. FYI.
Browning: In the gray. We haven’t seen it the entire time.
iRunFar: Is there a mountain here?
Browning: They say there is.
iRunFar: Last aid station, 10k to go, you’re told that you’re 23 or 27 minutes back from second. You’re thinking that’s just too far off.
Browning: Well, 7.2 miles, you just say, Okay, he’s got second locked up or locked down… unless he was walking.
Browning: Could I have found another five or six minutes? I don’t know. That’s why I waited for the last 50k because when you push hard at the end of a race like that, 50k is a long way to go hard. I was definitely feeling it the last three or four miles, like, I don’t know if I can keep pushing it.
iRunFar: The last question I want to ask you is, pushing the way you did yesterday at the end of a 100 miler, many people are usually under the duress of fatigued legs, muscles that just won’t work right anymore, their stomachs aren’t processing anymore, or some other physical malady. How did you, as you’re pushing, and you’re passing these guys, and you’re moving up in the field, how did you keep focused on nutrition and the various things you need to do to take care of yourself mechanically?
Browning: Nutrition-wise, I do the same exact thing I do every time. I don’t eat aid-station food except maybe orange wedges here and there. I make my own food. I have my own solids in my pocket. I carry a little bit more weight because of that, but then I do my own gel mixes. It’s a combination of maltodextrin and gu.
iRunFar: You just found that it works with you.
Browning: Yeah, that works for me. It’s kind of fine-tuned over 22 100’s. I do the same exact thing on an hourly regimen the whole race. I don’t steer off that course at all. My stomach stays totally straight. My energy level stays pretty consistent. Every once in awhile I need to take an extra gel or an extra salt if I’m a little crampy, but I just kind of stick to that regimen and it works for me. Leg-wise, I kind of feel like if you’re fit and have a lot of experience—I think a lot of 100 milers help—knowing you can push to a certain window and be okay. I’ve experimented, and I’ve blown up a few times. I kind of know what my body can do. I kind of trusted that. The other thing is the last 50k is just mental. At that point, you’re tired and you don’t want to push. Anytime I’d want to go, meh, I’d go, “Execute.” That was my mantra the last 50k. I waited until 50k to go though. Then it was mentally on.
iRunFar: Execute you did. I told a couple people yesterday, yours was the most pleasurable race to watch in terms of that execution because it was just, you had your eye on the prize from start to finish.
Browning: Thank you. Yeah, I am very happy especially after rolling my ankle and being disappointed at UTMB. To come here and get on the podium, I’m pretty stoked on that.
iRunFar: The last thing to cap off your experience would be if the mountain pops out sometime today?
Browning: Yeah, just one time before I head back to Yokohama.
iRunFar: Just once. Congratulations to you on your third-place finish.
Browning: Thanks, Meghan.