Jeff Browning is looking for his fourth finish at the 2018 Western States 100. In this interview, part of the iRunFar Live at Western States show, Jeff talks about his early history with ultrarunning including running the 2002 Western States as his first 100 miler, what he’s learned in running 30-plus 100-mile races, and how his approach to training has evolved over the years.
Jeff Browning Pre-2018 Western States 100 Interview Transcript
iRunFar—Dylan Bowman: Mr. Jeff Browning, welcome back to Western States. This is your third year in a row?
Jeff Browning: Thanks. Yes.
iRunFar—Bowman: After a third- and fourth-place finish in 2016 and 2017, you are in a unique position in that you actually ran the race way back in the day in 2002—your first 100. Tell us about that experience. What’s the same, and what’s different?
Browning: There weren’t smart phones.
iRunFar—Meghan Hicks: We didn’t stream things on the internet live.
Browning: No, we didn’t. There weren’t pre-race interviews or anything like that. Not a lot has changed with the course that much—a few little sections—but it’s still hot. It alway seems to turn hot right through this weekend. I think Mother Nature is an ultra fan.
iRunFar—Bowman: Just in the nick of time. How have things changed with your career? That was your first 100. How did you end up there, and how have things gone in the 15 years since then?
Browning: When I first got into ultras, I came from a cycling and mountain-biking background. I was totally into climbing and mountain biking and hobby sports, like a weekend warrior. I trained a lot, four or five days per week on the bike and did some running with my dog and that kind of stuff, but I got into ultrarunning in 2001. The reason I got into ultrarunning was because I’d heard about Western States 100. I wanted to run Western States as that life bucket list. At the time, I’d seen a The North Face movie or documentary on Western States and, Wow, I kind of wanted to do that. I’d realized that you can’t just get int the race. You had to qualify. Back then it was a 50-mile qualifier. It was 2000 when I first learned about it. I just basically went, Oh, I can’t get in; I’ve got to get qualified. I haven’t even run a half marathon, so I’d better run a half marathon. So I ran a half marathon and a marathon in 2000. In 2001 I ran two 50ks and a 50 miler, qualified, and got in on the lottery. It was only a 50% chance of getting in back then. Flip of a coin—way back. It’s what, an 8% chance now?
iRunFar—Bowman: That was your first 100. How many have you done now to date?
Browning: Thirty… actually this will be my 32. I’ve had one DNF in 18 years with a rolled ankle at UTMB in 2015. I was on a roll—15 years with no DNFs. That was hard. I took a long time to drop out of that race. My rule was always, “life-threatening or an injury, that’s the only way you drop out of a 100.”
iRunFar—Hicks: So you’ve been at trail and ultrarunning for 17 years?
Browning: This is my 18th season.
iRunFar—Hicks: So UltraSignup betrays the fact that your first ultra was at age 29. When you started ultrarunning like you said, you had strong performances, but they weren’t at the front of the race as you are now. You’re having more most competitive days right now.
Browning: Yeah, I came to it from, “I just want to finish these things.” So the first couple years I was just learning and enjoying running in the mountains . Back then, it was such a cult small sport, there were eyes on the sport, and there wasn’t hardly any sponsorship. It was just kind of going to meet the tribe in some cool mountain town and run a supported adventure run. That’s how I approached it at first. Then I ran 23:38 at Western States in 2002. Once I went sub-24, I thought, Hmmm, I might be okay at these longer distances. I didn’t even train hard. I didn’t do any speedwork. I didn’t do any kind of quality. Maybe I can do more. I came from a high school track background and a lot other sports like football. Maybe I could train. So I started reading on training and endurance training—Arthur Lydiard stuff and [Timothy] Noakes.
iRunFar—Hicks: I was going to say, “Was it Lydiard stuff?”
Browning: I really started systematically training. I went back to strength training, too. I’d come from a strength-training background, so I went back and started working out at a gym with a strength trainer in 2004. I had some knee-tracking issues in 2004. I’d gotten fifth at Wasatch [Front 100 Mile] that year in my second 100 and ran sub-24. Then I really buckled down and won Bighorn in 2005. That’s when I kind of launched. That’s when I focused on this and was on the old Montrail-Patagonia team back in the day.
iRunFar—Bowman: Speaking of training, obviously everybody is on Strava now, and we can see what you do. I noticed that you do a lot of biking to a trailhead, do some runs, and then bike home. I know you’re a coach as well and you have a lot of people who you help out with their own training. What’s the strategy behind that and how do you think it helps you at this point in your career?
Browning: Well, I have a garage full of bikes, so my wife doesn’t like them to gather dust or else she starts pressuring me to sell them. So I have a motivator there. I love cycling. I’m always quick to go to that if I have a little niggle. One of my rules of coaching is the two-day rule: if you have a little niggle, do something that doesn’t aggravate it—I find the bike is good for that—so if you have a sore knee or extra sore quads, get on the bike for a day or two and then do a tester and see if it’s feeling better. Nip it in the bud before it becomes an issue.
iRunFar—Bowman: Were you dealing with injuries or is that a strategy?
Browning: No, I was after the post-UTMB-Bear [100 Mile]-double last season. I didn’t take care of some quad stuff. We moved to Utah. I didn’t get bodywork like I normally would and take care of some of the quad issues I was having. Then when I came back to training I was having some knee-tracking issues and some patellar tendinitis. So I was on the bike several times. I took a trip to Moab and did just biking in Moab. I kind of fell in love with the bike again. I hadn’t been using it too much the past two seasons, so this season I was like, I’m going to do it. I was also coaching an athlete who was supposed to do Leadman. So I’ve been doing bike workouts, like riding bike workouts, which has been really fun for me coming from a cycling background. So I just started using it. I’ve used that bike thing for a long time, just bike packing. I’ve done some bike pack trips. I have a bike pack set up on a 29’er, so I just ride up into the national forest to a wilderness area where you can’t take a bike, stash the bike and lock it to a tree in the brush, go for a long run and then bike home. Human-powered.
iRunFar—Hicks: Western States present day—your last couple appearances here have been a podium finish and a fourth-place finish in 16:30 and 17:30 approximately in totally different weather conditions. Those are pretty good performances, but you must be hungry for something else here? What is that? Is it to run your own race better or achieve a faster time or be higher on the podium…?
Browning: Obviously it would be to go sub-16 on this course.
iRunFar—Hicks: That seems to be something a lot of men want.
Browning: Yeah, I’d love to go sub-16. Pie in the sky, I’d love to get Mike Morton’s Master’s record—15:45:25.
iRunFar—Hicks: He’s coming for you, Mike.
Browning: Mike nailed it in 2013. I have his splits. I’ve poured over his splits. He ran really well from Michigan Bluff in—he was flying. He’s a different kind of runner. I’m a mountain runner, and he has leg speed. When it got runnable, he really excelled.
iRunFar—Bowman: Yeah, he came past me on Cal Street pretty quickly.
Browning: He was flying. Some of his splits are pretty impressive.
iRunFar—Bowman: It was actually a pretty hot year that year, too.
Browning: But he’s also from Florida. The humidity is nothing to him.
iRunFar—Bowman: In thinking about this year’s race, you seem to approach the race in all your 100 milers the same way in that you’re well back early and you slowly move through the field late in the race. Do you envision doing that, or will you be looking at splits?
Browning: I’m always looking at splits. If anyone has noticed, I always have a little cheatsheet—the Hardrock John Dewalt wrist band with splits in it.
iRunFar—Bowman: Like Tony Romo with his…?
Browning: Yeah, I do have a cheatsheet. I always have splits on me, so I’m looking at splits the whole time, but I’m always running this race against the course. I’m not running against the field. You’ve got to run your own race in a 100. You’ve got to run to your strengths. If you get caught up in running someone else’s race, you’re probably going to run to your weaknesses.
iRunFar—Hicks: Can I ask you about that? There seems to be some people who perform better when they wait to put the pressure on later in the race. There are people who can hold slightly faster paces at 80 miles or 90 miles in, and there are some guys and women who can’t. Do you have any feeling on why you can?
iRunFar—Bowman: Is it a mental thing? Do you gain momentum by passing people?
Browning: That helps. It doesn’t hurt.
iRunFar—Hicks: Do you not feel pain?
Browning: I like to feel pain. I’m reading this book, Endure. right now about the mind-body link and the psychology of positive speak and those kinds of things. It’s funny. It resonates with me after 18 years of ultrarunning. I use a lot of the stuff that they talk about in that book. I think it’s important. You have to visualize, use positive mental speak, you have to slay mental dragons. Those negative thoughts are always going to come up especially in the second half of the race. “You can hike this. You can take a walk break.” You’ve got to recognize it and shove it down. I think I’ve had a lot of practice—30 100s—to practice mental game. For me, at some point, you can only train so much and the rest is mental. You have to bring your mental game. It’s huge in this race.
iRunFar—Bowman: Thanks for joining us this week. As the king of 100s it’s only right that you kick things off the coverage. Good luck this weekend. Maybe a round of applause…