After a strong 2016, get to know Chris Mocko a bit better before the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile on Saturday. In the following interview, Chris talks about his extensive running history, his ignominious ultra debut, quitting his job, and his high risk, high reward plan for ultrarunning.
Chris Mocko Pre-2017 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Chris Mocko before the 2017 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. How are you, Chris?
Chris Mocko: I’m doing great, Bryon.
iRunFar: I don’t know where to start. This is our first interview together. You’ve been running for quite awhile. You raced competitively in high school and college. Walk us through some of your early running history.
Mocko: Okay, sure. I began running in high school—kind of the typical story. I played soccer. I played basketball. I went through this puberty thing and on the other side of it lost all my coordination, so I went from a one-season runner to a three-season runner. I was fortunate enough to be on a very, very good high school team. I had a teammate who ran 8:48, which at the time was very good. I ended up getting some offers to run in college. I turned those down to walk-on to the Stanford team. Then I kind of struggled for four or five years to kind of find my place on the team. I discovered that the steeplechase is where runners who aren’t good at flat go to excel. I spent my final year, made it onto the varsity seven, ran at NCAA’s where we finished third, and also qualified for NCAA’s in the steeplechase. I ended up starting in a pretty modest place on the team, but ended up in a place I was content with. I obviously wasn’t running 13:20, but I was pretty happy with it.
iRunFar: What did you get down to in 8k cross country?
Mocko: Probably right around five-minute pace. My 5k was 14:20s—respectable but definitely not elite.
iRunFar: No, but especially coming into ultrarunning later on, coming from that strength base of cross country and steeplechase is kind of more prototypical than maybe being the flat 10k guy.
Mocko: Absolutely. The funny thing, the sad thing, is that I absolutely hated tempo runs and never touched a 10k track race. I never thought I’d be a distance guy, but as soon as I graduated, the first thing I wanted to do was run a marathon. So I spent six years after college running halfs and fulls. I loved that. I got my PRs down to 1:06 and 2:22. Honestly, 2015 rolls around and I’m like, “A lot of my friends have switched over to trail running, and for most of them I have better PRs than them on the roads. Trails can’t be that difficult.” So I switched over and tried trails and spent the first six months of it eating a lot of humble pie realizing there was no direct translation from what you can do in roads to trails.
iRunFar: What were some of those early missteps?
Mocko: The first awful one that hopefully there’s no record of was a 24-hour race over on Crissy Field in San Francisco. I had paced a friend in a marathon trying to break four hours, and I was like, I think I can run this pace pretty much forever. I felt really good after running 35 miles in a day which I’d never done before. “I’m going to sign up for this race.” I spent two months geeking out on every single ultrarunning podcast. I hadn’t ever been part of that world at all. I ran this race completely unprepared.
iRunFar: When was this?
Mocko: December 31, 2013. I went into it and probably started running eight-minute pace for the first couple hours. I thought it was the easiest thing ever. I had friends that came and paced with me, and of course for them, it was terribly slow. They pushed me harder than I should have gone. By hour nine, I had fallen apart. I think I got through five marathons in 15 hours, and then the last marathon took another nine hours. It was a rough end to the evening. The worst part was that it set me back for probably the next year-and-a-half.
iRunFar: For all running?
Mocko: All running was over.
iRunFar: For ultrarunning, you don’t start showing up until 2015?
iRunFar: 2016, yeah. Black Canyon?
iRunFar: So you had this one attempt, and it did not go well. What made you want to try again?
Mocko: I don’t know what happened in the end of 2015, but I suddenly got this itch to do Western States. That was the only race I knew about, so I immediately looked into figuring out how I could qualify. I spent maybe two months training for it. My training looked like just going for very, very long runs. I went for 35- or 40-mile runs. Even those, I was avoiding hills. I ended one run on the top of Mt. Tam, and instead of staying on the trail, I was running on the roads all through Mill Valley. I didn’t understand what I was doing. I showed up at Black Canyon and just embarrassed myself, in my opinion. I went out very hard and didn’t know how to pace myself during it. Sage [Canaday] was in the race, and so I thought if I ran with him it was my best strategy for qualifying. I was very nervous about hitting the top-two to hit that Golden Ticket and did not run my own race at all. I suffered for it pretty terribly for the latter half and finished third, the worst place to be.
iRunFar: Eventually you found your way in?
Mocko: Fortunately I showed up at Way Too Cool the next month and had another very tough, tough race. Black Canyon did not have much climbing, so I was grateful that I didn’t have to deal with a lot of hills. I didn’t spend anytime doing hill work for the next month and stuck to my road-racing training program. When I showed up to Way Too Cool, I got to the first climb and had to walk it. It was a half mile, and I had to walk. I was so embarrassed. I don’t know, I think I ended up finishing eighth.
iRunFar: I think that’s right.
Mocko: It was muddy, and I was wearing flat Hokas that were road-racing shoes and slipping all over the place. The saving grace of that race was I met David Roche at the end of it who said, “Hey, you should run with me. I can coach you.” After a month of running with him, I qualified at Gorge Waterfalls, and the rest is history.
iRunFar: Yeah, you ended up finishing seventh at Western States which is a respectable first go at 100 miles on the trails.
Mocko: Yeah, I did not know what to expect going into it. Top 10 was obviously a goal. It was way harder than I could have possibly imagined. I had two 100ks under my belt, so I knew what a dark patch felt like, but the number of dark patches and the severity of them at Western States I could not have predicted.
iRunFar: Then you went to The Rut in September.
Mocko: Yes, I wish that didn’t exist on my resume.
iRunFar: It does, in triplicate, in fact.
Mocko: Western States happened. I then had a trip to London. I went to the Olympic Trials and watched some friends race. I took a lot of time off—mental break. The month of August, I really got back into it. At the end of August I was like, “I’m ready to go. I’m fit, and I’m going to have a really good performance.” I had heard of the Skyrunning stuff and figured I’d give it a go. I did not tell my coach until the week before. He was like, “I don’t think this is a good idea. You haven’t trained for this.” I quoted him from before, “If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right.” “I think this will be fun!”
iRunFar: How much fun was it?
Mocko: I had a very good time, but I learned that this does not translate well to Skyrunning, and there are some other key elements to it that I probably should have prepared for—altitude acclimation, going up very steep hills. I actually signed up for the vertical kilometer thinking, That’s not going to be that bad. That’s 1,000 feet in three miles. Then I did the whole kilometer… Oh, a kilometer is actually 1,000 meters… yeah, okay, that’s a little bit worse.
iRunFar: That engineering background came in handy.
Mocko: Yeah, not a good weekend. I had a very interesting time on all the uphills there. It was crazy how little of it was actually runnable where you’re going max pace because it’s just this really tough uphill climbing.
iRunFar: Fast forward to March of this year. You raced three times and you ran a race yesterday as well. How are you feeling after a 30k, a 50k, and two 50 milers? You’ve been training really intensely as well volume-wise, pace-wise.
Mocko: Pretty good. Yeah, the big news was, I mentioned earlier, at the middle of February I quit my job which has given me a lot more time to train. I kind of went from 100 miles per week and maybe 5,000 feet of climbing to 130 miles per week and 10,000 to 15,000 feet of climbing. I’m getting a lot of comments and concerns from friends and family, “You’re doing too much! This is crazy!” I don’t think they realize that I have all day to do this. I’m waking up, taking my time easing into the day, doing a long warm up. I spend about two hours a day with Norma, the Normatech recovery boots. I have a ton of time there. There are naps during the day. There’s a lot more time to do things right. I also know I’m in this high-risk/high-reward situation where if I’m going to spend six months to do this full time, I’m not going for the longevity plan. I’m doing it to see how good I can get in that time. Yes, there’s a decent chance I’m going to get injured or burned out, but there’s also a probability that I’m going to feel good and have some good performances. So far, it’s…
iRunFar: It is a high-volume and high-stress situation, but it’s not that incredibly much higher than you’ve done for a very long time.
Mocko: Yes, exactly. It’s also trail miles, so it’s a little bit slower. Downs and ups are obviously a little bit harder on the knees, but it’s not a crazy leap for me to do this.
iRunFar: You’re here in Mill Valley. Are you training with a substantial number of very solid runners here?
Mocko: No, I feel like they have something against me. We have not done a lot of runs together. I think they’ve tried, but 8 a.m. SFRC [San Francisco Running Company] runs on the weekend is a little too early for me. I really should have the motivation to get out and get it over with in the morning, but we haven’t had a really easy time lining up runs so far. I did try one or two of the Tam Tuesday runs, but again, those are 6 a.m. and since Daylight Savings, it’s been a little too dark to get out for those. I need to do a better job of doing that.
iRunFar: What was the thing behind quitting your job? You worked at Square as a pretty solid position. What happened?
Mocko: There’s a couple things going on. One, I thought I had some potential to do something great in this sport, and I was really struggling getting out to trails. In order to run on the trails out here I was waking up at 5 a.m., driving a half hour over the bridge, getting in a run, driving home, trying to get to work by 9 a.m., spending the day at work… that was tough. Every single morning it was, I could wake up at 5 a.m. or I could sleep until 7 a.m. and just run in the city. Usually that won, but I knew I was not going to get better at trail running because I wasn’t running on trails. Even running on these now, I realize they’re so nicely groomed that it’s not even the same as running on something like the [Western] States course which has a little bit more technical and a lot of rocky, singletrack sections. I wasn’t going to get the time on the trails if I didn’t move here. Part of me was like, Oh, if I move here, then I’m going to have a long commute into the city. It’s going to take forever. That literally was a big concern for me. Oh, well, the other option is to just quit my job. That was a factor for sure. The other thing was I just wasn’t as happy anymore going into work. I was just drained every single day that I left the office. A thousand people have said this before, and I’ve never listened or believed that it was true, but “Follow your passions,” and you’ll figure out the money and all that other stuff later. Hopefully that figures out. I think I’ve pocketed $400 so far from running—not quite enough to pay the rent and my very small bills that I have right now.
iRunFar: Probably a pretty hefty food budget at this point.
Mocko: I do a weekly Costco trip, and I try to keep it under $50.
iRunFar: Try not to go on Sundays.
Mocko: It’s a little crazy on Sundays. I can afford to go during the weekdays because I have that time. It ended up being—not super happy with the job. I’d been there five years, so I needed some change. A lot of folks at this time take a sabbatical and travel the world. That’s just not super appealing to me, but I do like running a lot, so I figured, Why not do this? Actually, I’m getting to travel to some pretty cool places.
iRunFar: You were just in Moab a couple weeks ago.
Mocko: Moab, Auburn, California, is a pretty cool spot. I’m going to France later this year, so there are going to be some interesting opportunities to do that. I was sick and tired of making excuses. That guy gets to do this full time. I’m never going to be as good as him. I finally want to give it a shot.
iRunFar: You’ve got Lake Sonoma this weekend. You just raced four races in just over a month. You’ve got a full calendar after this with UROC, Canyon 100k, Western States. How much focus is going into this weekend?
Mocko: Way Too Cool was the first race of the year for me, and it definitely was an important one, but I didn’t have a lot of training going into that. I was a week out of my job, and I hadn’t done much trail running. I knew that was a big race; I wanted to be ready for that. That was my first taper for the year. Lake Sonoma is very important. Of all the races I’ve done in the last month, none of them have been really well tapered. I definitely ran conservatively and stepped off the gas when things looked like they were going pretty well. Lake Sonoma I’m expecting to hurt a lot. I’m very excited that it’s such a deep field. I’m actually surprised. I don’t think a lot of the folks up front are trying to get Golden Tickets. Maybe it’s a secret move by them.
iRunFar: No, I guess I haven’t chatted with them recently but I haven’t heard any indication of that.
Mocko: It’s exciting that there’s just going to be this awesome field. It amazes me that these races are extremely well run. I got an email that they were going to put me up in housing which I’ve never gotten before. Wow, this is so cool! I’ve made it! I’ve made it!
iRunFar: Big time!
Mocko: Yeah, I’m very excited to run this race. It just has amazing history and very fast times. I think at one point during my 35k race this past weekend I was running at the six-hour pace for the 50 miler. This is pretty brisk. Seven-minute pace with 10,000 feet of climbing is probably a pretty fast pace.
iRunFar: I don’t know if this goes all the way back to the beginning of Lake Sonoma, but at least in the recent past five to seven years, every year the winning time has been faster than the previous year. I don’t know if it will happen this year, but I guess you’ll give it a go?
Mocko: I have to try. This Jim Walmsley character took the one and only course record I had at Gorge Waterfalls, so worst case I’m just going to hammer one hill in the middle of the race and get one CR so he gets an alert. Jim, I’m coming for you. That course record is going to be a little out of reach. It seems a little aggressive.
iRunFar: No matter what it is, good luck out there, Chris. Have fun.
Mocko: Thank you so much. Thank you.