Alex Nichols may very well quietly storm The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships men’s field. In this interview, Alex talks about the foot injury that made him drop from this event last year and his recovery, his first experience running and winning the Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile in September, what recovering from a 100 miler has felt like, and his short block of fast training in preparation for TNF 50.
By the way, Alex’s interview is part of a pre-race men’s interview show. Check it out!
[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]
Alex Nichols Pre-2016 The North Face EC 50 Mile Interview Transcript
iRunFar-Meghan Hicks: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar.
iRunFar-Dylan Bowman: Dylan Bowman of iRunFar.
iRF-Hicks: We’re here at the San Francisco Running Company. It’s a little less than 24 hours before the 2016 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships. We are with Alex Nichols. Good morning.
Alex Nichols: Good morning. Good to be here.
iRF-Hicks: How are you doing?
Nichols: Pretty good.
iRF-Bowman: Aside from the traffic jam?
Nichols: Yeah, travel was a little rough getting over here.
iRF-Bowman: Hopefully you won’t get stuck in a traffic jam on the trails tomorrow.
Nichols: Yeah, could be at least for the first 10 miles or so.
iRF-Bowman: You’ve obviously had a great season. I feel like you’re sort of one of the most quietly consistent people on the international circuit over the last several years. You had a fourth-place finish at Broken Arrow. You won the Pikes Peak Marathon for the second year in a row and were second at Speedgoat. You won Run Rabbit. How do you feel about your season? How do you think it helped set you up for TNF this weekend?
Nichols: I was pretty injured for the first part of the year. That’s why my first real race was Broken Arrow. I feel like that’s kind of a nice thing to push everything back since this race is so late. Yeah, I feel actually pretty good about that. It doesn’t feel like a long season the way it did last year or the year before. I feel pretty good.
iRF-Hicks: Let’s talk about your injury. You were here last year, and I interviewed you on the same day. You had some plantar fasciitis that you hoped would hold itself together during the race but it didn’t.
Nichols: Yeah, that had started… Les Templiers last year was when it started getting bad. Then I trained for this race, and it just got super terrible.
iRF-Hicks: Inflamed during the race.
Nichols: Yeah, I tried to take time off beforehand to taper and also just to hope it could hold together but no.
iRF-Hicks: PF is a common injury for runners, and it’s one that’s really difficult to heal from for many people. What was the process like for you?
Nichols: It was… as people know, it’s a matter of trying everything. Lots of time off…
iRF-Bowman: Sleeping in the boot?
Nichols: Yeah you try everything because there’s no specific thing that cures everybody. If there was, it wouldn’t be such a bad injury. I did all the standard things. I went to physical therapy all the time. But I didn’t run from December after the race… I probably didn’t run more than 50 miles for the next three months. Even that didn’t necessarily help that much. Eventually in May I started to have a good couple days here and there and it turned into more good days and it kind of went away. I have no idea how it went away.
iRF-Hicks: You just threw enough at it and took enough time off that eventually the inflammation went away?
Nichols: I guess. I don’t know. I don’t want to jinx myself.
iRF-Hicks: ”My feet feel good. My feet feel good.”
Nichols: Good for now.
iRF-Bowman: You’ve sort of been known for mostly Sky racing over the last few years, but this year you ran your first 100-mile race at Run Rabbit in Steamboat. You managed to win the race in a very impressive time. Talk about your experience stepping up in distance there. Do you think maybe you have strength in the longer-distance races? Did it give you more ambition to do races like that in the future?
Nichols: Yeah, it was obviously a huge difference running that race from… I’ve done the Limone Sky Race, and it’s a whole different world. I think, yeah, I think 100 miles… I was pretty nervous about it because I just had no idea what to expect, but come race day I kind of realized it is still just another ultra race. Even though it’s twice the distance of the 50, a lot of the same things happen. It’s just more spread out. I think my racing strategy of being a little more conservative is obviously helpful with the 100 miles. I think it could be a race that suits me pretty well in the future.
iRF-Bowman: Were you surprised and satisfied with the day?
Nichols: Yeah, it’s still just kind of a surreal experience. I felt really good for 80 miles, and then I felt kind of bad for 20. It was good.
iRF-Bowman: That’s about as much as you can ask for.
iRF-Hicks: I think many people would die for that kind of day. I’ve got to be honest, I was really surprised that you signed up for a 100 miles. You have said before that you prefer the shorter stuff and the quicker recovery. Was it the money that called your name, or what drew you there ultimately?
Nichols: I think it was going to Broken Arrow, having a bad day, kind of feeling like I was stuck in this marathon-to-50k-Sky race rut almost. Then the rest of my season was pretty much up in the air. I didn’t really have any solid plans, so it worked with my work schedule, and it worked nicely with Pikes Peak and the end of the summer. I was just like, Well, we’ll try something new.
iRF-Bowman: How did you change your training between the Sky races like you mentioned leading into the 100 miler, and how has it adjusted since then leading into TNF?
Nichols: It was pretty different. I pretty much just focused on volume. With Sky running, I do quite a bit of vert and workouts, uphill workouts. For Run Rabbit Run, pretty much my mantra was, “When in doubt, run more.” That was going through my head every day. Well, I can run tonight, might as well. I just ran more but not necessarily fast. I got a fair bit of vertical in, but Run Rabbit Run is not a super-steep race, so I didn’t focus on that as much. My workouts definitely suffered. I didn’t do as many of them, and when I did they were always slow because I was always tired. Then I had little rest period right before Pikes Peak. That kind of let me recover from all the training. Pikes Peak was the final long run and then recover from that and made it to the starting line.
iRF-Bowman: So, after Run Rabbit, what was the recovery like? How’s the training been since then?
Nichols: It was pretty rough. I definitely came down with some injuries during the last 20 miles that were rough. I had some tendonitis in my knees and something in my left foot. I didn’t do too much for the first four or five weeks just because I couldn’t. I was in a decent amount of pain trying to run, which was good. A lot of people talk about that 100-mile fatigue that they feel for a long time afterward. I think I kind of got to bypass that just because I wasn’t running enough to feel that.
iRF-Bowman: Yeah, that’s probably a blessing.
Nichols: Yeah, so then it was getting closer and closer to this race and I was like, Oh, I don’t know if I’ll really run. I kind of got to the point where all my injury stuff cleared up. That was still only the end of October though. Since then I’ve focused back more on speed and not quite the volume I was doing before Run Rabbit Run and a much shorter period. I’ve only had three good weeks of training.
iRF-Hicks: We really want to ask you about strategy. You have developed a name for yourself as the lurker or what I like to call it, ‘the lurker.’
Nichols: That sounds creepy.
iRF-Hicks: You are the guy people are afraid of seeing late in the race because you don’t go out necessarily aggressive. You hang back. Then you come blasting by people in the last third or quarter of races. It has been said more than one time in the last couple days that people are readily expecting you to employ this strategy. Are you?
Nichols: Yeah, I always try to run my race and try to run my best possible time. I coach cross country and track, and this is always what I tell them: The best finish in terms of position is always going to come from the best time. When you look at world records and best runs, people have run generally pretty even. It’s not that waiting back and trying to blast by people, it’s more like in those first 10 miles, I think, Whoo, 7:00 minute/miles? That’s pretty fast. I’m not going to be running 7:00 minute/miles at mile 47. So, yeah, I’m just trying to run consistent.
iRF-Bowman: It’s interesting because there’s the Zach Miller approach and then there’s the Alex Nichols approach. You guys both live in Colorado Springs.
iRF-Hicks: I think you run together sometimes, don’t you?
iRF-Bowman: I’m curious, do you ever feel tempted when you see somebody like Zach spring off the line? A race like this when there’s a lot on the line, do you ever feel like, Maybe this race I’ll try to be more aggressive?
Nichols: Yeah, it’s definitely tempting, but the few times I’ve tried it it hasn’t worked out very well for me. So I’m just going to run my own race especially tomorrow since I haven’t had the greatest training. I’ll be pretty far back I’m guessing at the beginning.
iRF-Bowman: At the beginning—that’s an important caveat. You just mentioned you coach at Colorado College. It seems like you all just had a successful end of the season. I’m curious to know a little more about that and the satisfaction you probably get from coaching.
Nichols: Yeah, our women’s team ended up 12th at Division III [NCAA] Cross-Country Nationals, which ties their best finish that the program has ever had. It’s really cool. The people we get in Division III, our number-two runner this year, she was a 19:45 high school 5k runner. In college, she really enjoys running, she works hard, and she got it down to 17:25.
iRF-Hicks: That’s awesome.
iRF-Bowman: Great coaching, I guess.
Nichols: It’s that, but it’s also just working with people that enjoy running. That’s a huge part of Division III, and to see it come to fruition like it did this year after four years in the making, it’s really fun to do.
iRF-Bowman: That’s your alma mater, too?
Nichols: Yes, there are a lot of stories like that that we have because a lot of people were undertrained in high school or they just didn’t take it seriously. Then all the sudden they get to Colorado College and we have trails and altitude definitely helps. People just get better.
iRF-Hicks: Awesome. As Dylan said, the trails are looking good out there in his homeland. The weather forecast is actually looking brilliant.
Nichols: Yeah, it’s like once every couple years.
iRF-Hicks: Things are lining up for a pretty fast race.
Nichols: Yes, definitely.
iRF-Bowman: Good luck. Hopefully we’ll see you sweep a lot of carnage in the second half of the race tomorrow.
Nichols: Thanks, that would be nice.
iRF-Bowman: Alright, buddy, thanks for coming in.
Nichols: Thanks a lot.
iRF-Hicks: Good luck, Alex.