An Interview with CJ Albertson After His 10th Place at the 2021 Boston Marathon

On October 11, CJ Albertson claimed 10th place at the 2021 Boston Marathon, finishing in a time of 2:11:44 and narrowly missing his PR of 2:11:18. But that’s only the stats-on-paper part of Albertson’s Boston story.

The Fresno, California-based road runner is no stranger to the kind of running achievements that make people do a double-take. In 2019, Albertson set a world record time of 2:17:59 at the Indoor Marathon World Record Challenge — running on the 200-meter indoor track at the Armory in New York.

In 2020, he set an all-surface 50k world best of 2:42:30, which he also ran on a track, though outdoors this time, a time that averages out to 5:14-minutes-per-mile pace. Although his 50k world best has since been eclipsed by Ethiopia’s Ketema Negasa who ran a 2:42:07 in 2021, CJ Albertson keeps finding new ways to turn heads.

Like in the 125th running of the Boston Marathon when he blitzed off the starting line, gapped the men’s field by a margin of up to two minutes, and led the race for over 20 miles. We caught up with CJ to learn about his experience at Boston, learn why he doesn’t really consider himself an ultrarunner, and take a peek at what’s to come.

CJ Albertson - 2021 Boston Marathon

CJ Albertson with a substantial lead at the 2021 Boston Marathon. Photo: Brooks Running

iRunFar: Congratulations on your Boston finish! It’s been a few days since the race. Have you processed all the post-race emotions? What are you thinking looking back on the race?

CJ Albertson: I’m still kind of processing it. Obviously, it was a great day. I wanted to finish in the top 10, and I knew I could. But then, honestly, as the race played out it was different than how I imagined. I didn’t imagine leading for 21 miles. It’s weird because I was 10th, and I’m really happy with that, but also I did have a legitimate shot to win. It was within the realm of possibility because of how late the other guys left it. And then it’s like, “Will I ever get that chance again?” I seriously could have won the Boston Marathon. But overall, [I feel] excitement for my future in running. It makes me motivated for what’s to come.

iRunFar: It sounds like in those first few miles you might have gone out faster than you had planned, but you decided to just roll with it? Why?

Albertson: So the first few miles, I just wanted to go out at a decent effort. I don’t have a ton of speed. But I can run at a pretty high effort for pretty much the whole time, so I wanted to get out and put in a solid effort for the whole race. For the downhill miles, I knew those were going to be fast because I’m good at the downhill.

The first few miles were actually steeper downhill than I expected. I knew the net downhill of the first mile — I knew the number — but I didn’t really realize how much downhill that actually was. I felt like I couldn’t run any slower than I did on that mile. I was just letting my body go down the hill, it was so steep. Then I was just running, I had no real plan. My heart rate was in the 160s. I wasn’t running hard. My first four miles were a little bit quicker than I thought, but I anticipated being under 19 minutes, and I think I was 18:47. So for never running Boston, I think that was a pretty good prediction.

iRunFar: Any regrets about that strategy afterward?

Albertson: I don’t have any regrets. The only thing, I think around [mile] 14 they told me I had a two-minute lead. And with 14 miles in the race, you’re doing the math that — because of how the second half of Boston is — there can’t be many guys who can run under 2:10. The winner ran 2:09:51, so I was right in that prediction. So if I can maintain [a] five-minute pace, they can’t really catch me.

But you also have those doubts like, “I’m not supposed to win. I’m not supposed to be the guy who wins the Boston Marathon. I’m bib 29.” So I tried not to think about that. I think [that I] was almost running more with the expectation that, “No, I’m not supposed to win.” I think there was a point in the race where it almost was my race to win, and there was a moment of fear like, “I’m not supposed to win so they’ll catch me, and then I’ll battle,” which I did. So it wasn’t a regret, but just keeping a better mindset the whole race.

iRunFar: What was it like flying solo at Boston Marathon for 20 miles?

Albertson: I tried to really enjoy it and engage the crowd, and just have as much fun on the run as I possibly could — just really focus on myself and running. For the most part, I did that. But there were times I was like, “What is happening?” I knew my time, and I knew what I was running. I am very realistic with time and paces. I know marathon racing and times and splits. But I was still like, “What is going on? How am I still two minutes ahead, this doesn’t make any sense. Did they forget about me? What is happening? This is crazy.” I had brief moments of thoughts like that, but for the most part, I was trying to stay dialed in to running my race and really trying to interact with the crowd and use that adrenaline to keep me going.

iRunFar: Based on the splits you posted to Strava, it looks like you struggled a bit from miles 15 to 20 and then rallied again from mile 21 to the finish. Can you walk us through those miles, including when you were finally passed in mile 21?

Albertson: Those were by far the hardest miles of the course — they’re the notorious miles in Boston, the Newton Hills. It was at a point where I had run pretty quick for the first half marathon. Technically it was a PR [for the half marathon], but I mean my PR is kinda’ skewed. Obviously, I can run a lot faster than 64 minutes for a half, I just haven’t done it in an actual race because I haven’t raced a half, basically since I started running marathons.

So I was out quicker than I’ve ever been in a half marathon. So you’re tired and by yourself and then it’s by far the hardest part of the course, so I was slowing down and didn’t necessarily feel great. I didn’t feel like I was bonking or hitting a wall, I was just slowing down and facing the difficult sections. I’m not a tremendous hill runner to begin with, so all those factors led to some slow miles, which was anticipated. I didn’t necessarily think I would crush that section but I also thought I would run a little bit faster.

I thought I’d slow down to an average 5:05 to 5:10 pace during that section, but I was a little bit slower than that. That was a little bit disappointing. When they passed me, we were pretty close to the top of [Newton’s] Heartbreak Hill, and I was able to accelerate and go with them a little bit. They still kinda’ dropped me, but I was able to keep them in sight.

Then on the downhill, I was close enough that I was like, “Okay I can catch them.” So I just ran as hard as I could just to get back up to the pack, and I got re-engaged. I got back into second, and then we hit more of a flat section and everyone dropped me again, but I was still close and around everybody. I was just basically racing from there and trying to beat as many people as possible. And at that point, it’s just all adrenaline and just fighting for every spot. It was definitely fun — the last five miles were really fun just battling with really fast guys.

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CJ Albertson at the 2021 Boston Marathon. Photo: Brooks Running

iRunFar: It looked like you really had to fight to stay in the top 10. What was the final mile like?

Albertson: At one point, I was in 16th. But I knew guys would come back in the last mile. In every race I’ve done, I’ve caught people in the last mile, so I was just like, “Okay, I can be top 10 if I can catch some people.” They really didn’t come back to me until the very end. I think I passed one on the turn on to Boylston [Street, the street on which the race finishes.] Then coming down the homestretch I caught three people. And I didn’t exactly know if I finished 11th or 10th. When I found out I was 10th, I was like, “Thank goodness.”

iRunFar: One of our readers who has followed your running career commented that you are “a mental monster.” How would you respond to that?

Albertson: I think people interpret that [in] different ways. I don’t think that I endure pain for a long time, because I don’t really think that’s possible. I think that I don’t feel it. I put myself in the position and the mind frame where it’s fun. So a lot of the training or the types of challenges that I do that people would be like, “Oh that takes a lot of mental strength.” In my mind and in the mindset that I am in, it’s just fun.

I enjoy doing it and it’s almost comfortable in a way. And in a marathon, you kind of have to be comfortable. If you’re in pain from mile one you’re having an awful race. So for the most part, I’m feeling good and comfortable. That’s why I was engaging with the crowd [at Boston]. I was running by myself and some people would say, “Oh that’s so hard to run by yourself for 21 miles,” but I do that every week. All my miles are solo because I train by myself so that’s nothing new to me. But also, leading the Boston Marathon, I was talking, waving, doing weird stuff with the crowd the whole race — that was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, that was so fun.

And then when guys passed me, I guess that could be mentally demoralizing, but the way I look at it is I only have five miles left and I’m running with 14 guys who have run between 2:04 and 2:08 so that’s pretty fricking awesome. Five miles to go, and I just get to bang it out with guys that, on paper, I shouldn’t even be near. And so why does it take mental strength to do something that’s so awesome? It’s just fun — you would want to do it. I’m not battling pain or tough situations, I’m just engulfed in fun and enjoyment and the challenges of whatever I’m doing.

iRunFar: Based on all the Boston coverage, it seems like your race really captivated people even though you weren’t able to hold on for the win. Why do you think that is?

Albertson: It is weird. Because I’m such a statistician and realistic person, it’s like, okay, I went out in 64:08 for a downhill half marathon, so basically I went 2:08:20 [marathon] pace with the first half being significantly downhill. And 20 of the other guys had faster PRs than that. So it’s not like I did anything that is crazy or different or weird or exceptional in any way. In other years, I could have gone out at that same pace and been 25th. So when I look at it from my perspective, it’s like I didn’t do anything that out of the ordinary. Everyone else just ran weird and super slow at the beginning for no reason, and I just ran normal, how I think you should run.

I always try to think what would I have thought if I were watching myself run. Honestly, I think I would have been excited to see an American leading and having that big of a lead. I understand the part about it being exciting, and I tried to make it exciting for the crowd, because the more excited they were, it was just going to help me more.

I don’t think I raced gutsy at all. I just raced very sensibly. It’s gutsy to go out in 62 or 61 [minutes for the first half marathon]. I didn’t really go out that hard, even that first mile. It’s just funny because it shows the perception that we always compare things to what the group is doing. But if you just look at me individually, I just ran what I think is a more sensible and a smarter race. If I just go heads up with a bunch of 59- to 61-minute half marathoners, how am I going to beat them in the last five miles? How am I going to beat all those guys if we’re just jogging and it turns into a half marathon race? That’s dumb — that’s not smart racing.

But it was for sure exciting because it was unique. And I don’t know if it will ever happen again that someone — or at least someone that unexpected — will have that big of a lead in Boston that late in the race, so I understand why it was exciting. It’s just that my individual performance wasn’t unordinary if it wasn’t for the other people racing unordinary.

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CJ Albertson at the 2021 Boston Marathon. Photo: Brooks Running

iRunFar: Let’s talk a little bit about training. What was your Boston build-up like? How do you find it similar (or not) to training for something like your 50k world best run?

Albertson: So training for Boston was a fairly short build-up. I had 10 to 11 weeks of a solid build-up for it, and I was in decent shape before I started. I didn’t have a ton of miles — I’ve run more miles in the past, but I was right around 100 [miles per week] but my workout days were longer and I had more volume in my quality sessions. My long runs weren’t quite as long — in the past, I’ve done 27- to 31-mile runs, this time I didn’t do that, I would stick to my hard long runs being 22 to 24 miles, so a little bit shorter long runs but more volume in the high-quality sessions.

Comparing it to the 50k, I didn’t really train specifically for the 50k, I was just kind of trying to get some good long runs in. The 50k record seemed pretty within reach to get without doing anything extraordinary so there wasn’t a lot of specificity to the training, I was just running. For Boston, I knew I had to be tough, I knew my legs had to be tough and handle a lot of downhill so I did a lot more hilly work in my long runs and really pushed the downhill miles of my long runs. I tried to do some intervals that included some ups and downs and some sprinting downhill and some lifting and eccentric exercises to toughen up my legs. I did a lot more specific work for Boston for the course. The 50k was just on a track, so you’ve got super foam shoes and a nice track surface so your legs aren’t getting beat up.

iRunFar: Earlier this year, you ran 40-plus miles rim-to-rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon — did that give you the trail or ultra itch at all?

Albertson: [Laughs] Nope, quite the opposite. I was really bad at it, and it was really discouraging. I’ve mostly run in Fresno, and basically always ran on sidewalk or road and dirt sometimes. Dirt is fine, but the rocks? I like to open up and fly on the downhills, but when it’s super curvy and there’s big old rocks everywhere, I couldn’t run down the mountain. And I fell a couple times. The whole time I felt like I was running so slow. I just felt uncomfortable running the whole time.

And obviously, it was hard because it was long, and I wasn’t really in great shape when I did it. Maybe if I was in better shape, it would have gone better, but I was also just not technically very good at it. I just like to run and run hard, and I don’t like navigating stuff. The Grand Canyon was awesome, and I get the bug of just being out on a mountain. The idea of ultra-type races on roads is much more appealing to me.

iRunFar: What’s next for you on your race schedule?

Albertson: I’m not exactly sure. I may run CIM [the California International Marathon], but we’re also having a child so I don’t know how my body is going to react or how my energy levels are going to look. But moving on to 2022, I feel like there are a lot of options. Potentially going back to Boston, and then in the summer, I’ve been kind of interested in the Gold Coast Marathon which is typically in June or July so that could be a fun summer marathon. Then there’s also Comrades Marathon which is typically in June but is going to be in August. But then Lake Sonoma 100k is in June. The 100k distance really excites me because someone is going to break the 100k world record again pretty soon. Obviously, Jim [Walmsley] was right there, and it just seems like I could do it.

I do think it’s funny that people call me an ultrarunner. I’m not really an ultrarunner. I’ve never done an ultra — I did one 50k that I just made up. I called some people and said, “Hey can you time me on the track?” But that’s not really an ultra. I guess people consider 50k an ultra. But I would say if it’s a 50k there’s gotta’ be an elevation limit, like at least some climbing and some technicality to be considered an ultra. A road 50k or a track 50k is basically a marathon.

iRunFar: Would you consider yourself an ultrarunner after a 100k?

Albertson:  Yeah…. Well, if I ran good. If I was just a finisher, probably not. But if I set the record or competed well, then I guess I’d say… well, I guess I would say, I’m a runner, a long-distance runner, because I’ll still be a marathoner for the foreseeable future. At least until 2028. I’ll be 34 at the 2028 Summer Olympics, and I still feel like I have a lot in the marathon and that’s what I will continue racing competitively in marathons. Ultras, I’ll just see.