Ireland’s Paddy O’Leary now lives in San Francisco, California and is a relatively new arrival to the trail and ultrarunning world. In his first interview with iRunFar, Paddy talks about his history in lacrosse and his transition to trail running, his previous successes at past The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships races, and how he sees the race playing out on TNF 50’s new course.
Paddy O’Leary Pre-2017 The North Face 50 Mile Championships Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Paddy O’Leary and Dylan Bowman before the 2017 TNF 50. How are you?
Paddy O’Leary: Good, good. We’ve got some fresh Irish weather outside, so I’m pretty pumped about that. It’s miserable.
iRunFar: It is quite miserable out there this morning.
Dylan Bowman: It wouldn’t be a proper TNF 50 week without at least one day of torrential downpour.
iRunFar: You haven’t heard of any massive landslides or tree falls like in some of the past years yet?
Bowman: Knock on wood. Paddy, welcome to your first iRunFar interview. This is great!
O’Leary: Cheers! I’m really excited to be sharing it with you both. The nerves are kicking in. I’ll just relax, and it will be alright.
iRunFar: That’s just the coffee.
O’Leary: That’s just the coffee. Actually, it’s only tea. We Irish only really drink tea.
Bowman: Obviously Bryon and I know you really well, but since this is your first interview, why don’t you give us a little bit of an introduction and where you’re from.
O’Leary: I’m Paddy O’Leary, and I’m an Irish fellow who moved here to San Francisco four years ago. I grew up on a dairy farm in the southeast of Ireland. I wasn’t much of a runner back in the day. My father, Pad, was kind of a pillar of the local running community. I was the youngest of five and did a bit of cross country as a kid but preferred the team sports. So, I did a lot of Gaelic games like hurling and football, and when I got to college I played lacrosse. [To Bowman] Yeah, lax bros! Bryon, did you play?
O’Leary: Then in university I played lacrosse. I moved over here for a work opportunity four years ago and found my way into this trail running community and started doing ultras two or three years ago and found myself here at this table now.
Bowman: Obviously you’re also part of the November Project and crew. Was that your introduction into trail running?
O’Leary: The few months before I moved over here back in 2013, I did a couple of 5k and 10k charity races back in Ireland. I had one work colleague who was into the mountain running, so I did one or two 5k and 10k mountain running races, and I loved it. I was running in road shoes and falling all over the place. It was great. That was kind of the first little spark. But then I moved over here and fell into this November Project work group, and we started doing a lot of the Endurance Challenge races here with TNF. But I was still convinced I was a lacrosse player at the time. I was training for the World Lacrosse Championships in Denver in 2014.
Bowman: You were coaching at that time, too, weren’t you?
O’Leary: I was coaching a bit. I didn’t want to lose my fast-twitch muscle fibers, so I refused to run beyond six miles. Then in 2015, we started doing more races with November Project and the SFRC running community, and I started to push myself to longer distances. I ran my first half marathon and first marathon and the likes. That was in early 2015, so it’s kind of been a manic progression in the midst of all that.
iRunFar: Yeah, you went on to run strongly at TNF 50 that year.
O’Leary: Yeah, my progression that year was I did my first 30k that year. I think over Christmas I decided, F***… Can I curse?
iRunFar: F*** yeah.
O’Leary: F*** it. I want to do my first marathon. So I went up and did a 30k in January and beat [Alex] Varner’s record on that first race. I got connected with Matt Laye who has been my coach the last two-and-a-half years, and he kind of started planning some longer races. I signed up for the Oakland Marathon, and I actually did pretty well at that. I did my first 50k at Tahoe Rim in July. I did the 50k National Championships in August here in Marin and then my first 50 miler that December. That went pretty well. I finished 13th that year. I’ve been progressing since then.
iRunFar: Yeah, you did progress. Last year you moved up to ninth?
O’Leary: Yeah, like a 20-minute increase. I had a bit of an implosion in the middle of it. I was hoping for a sub-6:30 and around fifth place. I wanted to be closer to the podium. And I had a bit of an implosion toward the Dipsea and Muir end, but I pulled it back in a bit later on. I fought back up to ninth which was good. If I keep that progression—13th, ninth—maybe I’ll get fifth this year and then first next year, I guess.
Bowman: Ambitious. Let’s talk a little bit about your season this year. You started with a solid run at Way Too Cool. Then you had a couple tough days at Transvulcania and Broken Arrow before another solid day at CCC. How do you feel about your season? How do you think it’s helped you build up to this race to finish it off?
O’Leary: Last year I was doing a lot of local U.S. races and had good success with a couple of top-five and top-tens. This year I wanted to set my pedestal a bit higher and aim for the international races to compete against the best of the best. Way Too Cool, I had a good performance. I’ve also done the Boston Marathon the last two years. I ran 2:30 at Boston three or four weeks out from Transvulcania. I thought it would be a good tempo run for that as well. Then traditionally my race approach has been to be more conservative early on and then chase the race and catch up throughout the race. I much prefer chasing than being chased. At Transvulcania, I went for it early. I wanted to be in the top seven or eight by the time we got to El Pilar and then into the second climb, running with Jason Schlarb, but I had probably my first real, true, proper bonk. My legs could not go. I just couldn’t tackle that second 5,000-foot climb. I dropped back to 25th relatively quick. Then I got my act together and was able to descend pretty well to the end. I think it was just lack of suitable training for that. I think I got down to Cone Peak, which is a 5,000-foot peak we have down in Big Sur, once for a training run. I think I needed more of those sustained climbs which we find it difficult to get here in the Bay. Also, we haven’t really gotten the chance to get to the Sierra Nevada to get those big sustained climbs like at Mammoth and because of the amount of snow we’ve had this year. I think I wasn’t ideally trained going into that. Broken Arrow I went into just because I loved that race. It was definitely more of a training run. I did the VK on Friday and then the Broken Arrow 52k on Saturday. I did not grow up with snow. The course was 50% snow. I thoroughly enjoy the alpinist-getting-with-the-poles and hiking up KT22, but on the flats and the descents I was completely lost. It was definitely straight into the baptism of fire there. It was an interesting experience.
Bowman: So then CCC, and how have you…?
O’Leary: I think I was racing too much early in the year, so I eased off over the next two months going into CCC. I was really well prepared into that. I went back to my more patient approach with my first 40k more reserved. I was back in 30th, so I think I might have left it a little too late. I fought up to 14th by the end, but I think I could have done another 10 miles of that race. Then it was a quick turnaround for TNF. I took two or three solid weeks off. I haven’t done crazy long-distance training for this, but I’ve been trying to work on speed and tempo climbs—climbs up Mount Tam-and a lot of cross country this year. It’s been nice trying to turn the feet over like that. This is all still quite new to me in terms of how fast I can run.
iRunFar: So you are a local and of all the folks we’re speaking to, you can probably give the best perspective on the course changes this year.
O’Leary: I’m really excited for the last addition—the last three miles of road and trail into the city. It’s pretty amazing. We have this unique opportunity that we have this huge amazing trail system right next to one of the most famous cities in the world, San Francisco. Getting to run across the bridge I think is pretty spectacular for the 90% of the people doing this race who are not from San Francisco. We have one extra climb at the start when we start out of Sausalito which will add 500 or 1,000 feet to the race. People were suggesting it might be a slower race because of that than last year, but I think we will be able to turn over those last five or six miles from Marincello pretty well.
iRunFar: You think that’s going to be possible with… I don’t know what the current situation is… they talked about… blocking off the bike path or…?
O’Leary: It’s going to be interesting crossing that mile-and-a-half or two-mile tourist-land sidewalk.
iRunFar: Do you think there’s going to be an advantage if there’s a close race—last year there was Zach [Miller] and Hayden [Hawks] just going pretty close at the end—to being that second runner? Kind of like snowshoeing with tracks?
O’Leary: Yeah, kind of cycling style. It’s going to be difficult for everyone involved in that because there are going to be a lot of people that time of day. If this weather holds it will actually be quite nice for the race.
iRunFar: 60 degrees and sunny is not ideal for that?
O’Leary: It’s not ideal for that. The tourists and the selfie sticks will be out in force. I’m pretty confident they’re going to have a lot of volunteers out on the bridge making people aware of the race. That’s going to be a fast finish because in that last mile, we hit some trail and some stairs onto three-quarters of a mile of flat, fast fire road kind of like hard-packed sand into the finish line. It’s one straight line as well. It’s going to be mentally really challenging as well for the guys racing against each other for who goes first and who’s chasing.
iRunFar: Sounds like an awesome classic cross-country finish.
O’Leary: Yeah, exactly.
Bowman: Speaking of cross country, I’ve been telling everybody who will listen to me about your performances there.
iRunFar: I’m one of those people.
Bowman: We have a very competitive Bay Area cross-country scene, and Paddy O’Leary has been destroying it this season. You’ve been mixing it up with guys who are as fast or faster than most of the guys you’ll be racing against this weekend. You also mentioned you like to employ a conservative approach. In cross country you don’t. You just go for it right from the start. Are you tempted at all to try to hang on or hang closer to the Hayden and Zach train based on the fact you’ve been running so well recently?
O’Leary: I think having all of that… I don’t think so. I think because I have that turnover I’m standing a very good opportunity of coming into that the last 10 to 15 miles of the race. If I have the legs and that turnover, I hope I can put on a pretty fast time from Marincello onward to the finish. I’ll want to be in that position where I’m chasing people down and capitalizing on the carnage that is inevitably going to be ahead. I am tempted, by all means, but I think from my Transvulcania experience, I think I’m learning a lot about my body because I’m quite new to this sport. I think at the moment, the more conservative approach is the stronger approach for me.
iRunFar: We look forward to seeing that out there this weekend, Paddy. Thank you so much.
O’Leary: Cheers. Thank you.
Bowman: Good luck, buddy.