Max King is one of the most versatile runners in the world. Just this year, he’s run in the US Olympic Trials marathon (PRing in 2:14), run a US Olympic Trails B standard in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, and won a couple trail ultramarathons. Find out whether he’s enjoying ultras, how he balances training for the different disciplines, how trail running helps his road and track running, what he thinks about the upcoming Zegama Marathon after his shortcomings at Sierre Zinal last year, and how he manages to support himself among other topics.
Max King Pre-2012 Zegama Marathon Interview Transcript
iRunFar: I’m here with runner, Max King, on La Palma before we head over to the Spanish mainland for the Zegama Marathon. We talked about 1.5 years ago as you had just joined the Montrail team. Was that 1.5 years ago?
Max King: Yeah, I think it was about 1.5 years ago.
iRF: So I interviewed you then over the phone about you sort of concentrating on the ultra side of things going forward; but you’ve really kept quite a mix. Over the last couple of months you’ve run the Olympic Trials Marathon and ran a PR in 2:14, and just last weekend you ran a B-qualifier for Olympic Trials in the steeplechase so there’s a chance you’ll be running in the Olympic Trials in a couple of months. You’ve run some ultras; you’ve run some shorter trail races. You really are a runner.
King: By “concentrating on some ultras” I really meant that I was going to run some. That was my idea.
iRF: How are you enjoying running some ultramarathons?
King: It’s good. It’s a different ball game and yeah, I had the idea of actually concentrating a little more on them. But it turns out that I’m just better at shorter distances. I had a hard time transferring over to an ultra and I still have a hard time with anything 40-50 miles right now. I’m working on it, but I feel more comfortable with the 50k distance now and I feel I can run those and finish strong. The 50-mile distance, I’m still not quite there yet. Obviously, I haven’t run one in quite awhile, since the American River 50. I’ve done two 40 milers this year and feel more comfortable there but toward the end, again, I’m getting to where I don’t know if it’s so much as bonking or just fatiguing phenomenally and just blowing up or what, but I don’t feel comfortable at that 50-mile distance. People have told me, “You’re never going to feel comfortable at the 100-mile distance,” and that may be true, but I feel like I can get there with the 50-mile distance and really feel like I’m having a good race.
iRF: How does your personal focus go? Are you jumping into ultras while really trying to stay sharp on the steeplechase side of things or the marathon side of things?
King: No, not really. The steeplechase, actually, I only did 2 workouts over hurdles in the last month and those were the first two hurdle workouts in the past 4 years; so I wouldn’t say I’ve actually been doing any work for that at all. But what helps in that is all the training I’m doing for ultras: the mountain running and the hills and stuff. They’re just making me a much stronger runner over all the distances and so that’s been a really big key in keeping up on my speed and stuff is just doing the hills. I’m just much stronger.
iRF: So do you think that would translate well for any runner? That running some trails and some mountain running would aid in their marathons and in their shorter running?
King: Absolutely I do. Because what I did instead of actually focusing on ultras the past couple of years , I focused more on mountain running as kind of a segue to running those ultras and really focused on running hills and stuff like that. I was not necessarily putting in those hours I need to for ultras but doing more of the hills. That has really impacted all my distances. It’s made me a stronger marathon runner; it’s made me faster in the shorter distances as well. I definitely see a huge impact from just running more hills, and not just more hill workouts and intervals, but just running hills easily.
iRF: Just your training days.
King: Just my training days, just running up and down hills. With the ultras, I haven’t put in the time I need to, but that’s coming, that will be the next step.
iRF: Your time on the trails, I neglected to mention that last fall you won the World Mountain Running Championships. [King: Right.] So do you have favorite? In the next 6 months if you could pick one race…
King: No, you know, I don’t. I just love running. That’s the point of it. I love doing all these different events. That’s what’s really fun for me. Obviously, I love competing and that’s part of it. I love seeing how I still stack up in the steeplechase. That’s why I lined up and did it 2 weeks ago. I’m getting stronger and I’m getting faster at the marathon and faster at the 10-mile distance. I had a PR in a 10-mile race in October last year by 45 seconds over a time when I would actually be concentrating on that. So I’m definitely getting faster and I’m getting stronger from doing all this type of training so why not? I’ll just try a steeplechase.
iRF: How far off your steeplechase PR were you?
King: 10 seconds. But where I’d usually open for the beginning of the season I was 10 seconds faster than that. Is that steeplechase PR within range? I kind of feel like it is. That’s why I did that. I don’t really have a favorite. I love it all. I love doing all these different events and competing against all these different people. I think part of the appeal is that I get to compete and see how I stack up in all of these different running events because after all, like what Dakota said, “It’s just running.” It’s all just running.
iRF: So do you think you’ll go for another World Cross Country team?
King: Yeah, absolutely. Cross country is probably… if I had a favorite, cross country is probably that event. It’s probably my favorite event. The way that cross country has gone, it’s more of a track race now. What I wish is that we had that 7-13 mile actually cross country race, like, a cross country race. What we run now is not “cross country.” It’s on a grass track. So it’s disappointing for me to see cross country go in that direction. I know I’d be a stronger runner in an event that was actually cross country.
iRF: Something like World Mountain Running or like the IAU when they have their trail running championships.
King: Yeah, exactly, something like that that’s a short distance race that’s actually got some technical terrain to it, some difficulty to it. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have the parameters set by World Mountain Running to it, but you have fields, maybe you throw in a steeple like a fence, hay bales, something like that: pure UK/English cross country the way they used to do it. That’s what I really would like to see.
iRF: Do you think that’s a function of needing to have the top names of track runners to cross over and do it because they are much more well known and more sponsorship money behind them?
King: Yeah, you know, that’s the theory that they started to make it a little easier so no one would get hurt. A lot of the Americans don’t do cross country, but you’ll see all the Africans do cross country as a pre-season to track and field. So I don’t know if it’s so much that as… I don’t know what it is really that forced that to become such a tame sport.
iRF: You’ve run competitive track for years, you’ve done the road racing, you’ve been in the World Cross Country Championships multiple times. What can pure trail running and mountain running and ultra running take from those more “mature” running disciplines? What can cross over as a sport, not as individual runners?
King: I don’t know. Each one does it a little bit differently. Right now they’re under different banners as far as IAAF, trail running, and ultra running go, but I do feel they have similar governing bodies as far as structure and rules and stuff like that. Each one’s completely separate. So I don’t know if there’s really anything they should be taking… I don’t know… I’m kind of blanking on whether or not ultra running could take anything from track and cross country side of things. Obviously, publicity and coverage of certain events is always a great thing but that comes from popularity, I think, and not so much a governance side of things. Definitely covering ultra races, you yourself have started doing that more and other media outlets have. So we’re starting to see more coverage of those ultra races like play-by-play and stuff, but those are things we don’t see in cross country races. It’s the same thing we’ve seen in the last couple of World Cross Country Championships. People have started to get out their phones, media outlets like yourself, Runnerspace, Flotrack, they get out their phone and start tweeting away who’s in the race. Coverage-wise, it’s basically the same as cross country and trail running and ultra running. It’s no different because they’re not televised sports.
iRF: One change that’s happened in the last couple of years in trail and ultra running is, I know you consider yourself more of a broad runner, but you’re sponsored by Montrail and Mountain Hardwear and some other sponsors. Do you hold down another job or do these sponsors allow you to concentrate fully on your running?
King: No, I do hold down another job but I was able to retire from chemical engineering last year. I do have a part-time job as a shoe buyer at Footzone in Bend, OR, so it takes little pieces of a couple of different things to piece all that together and make it work. A sponsorship by one company isn’t quite going to do it in trail running right now. But that’s one thing that has changed recently is we’re starting to see people able to quit their jobs and use the sponsorship as the majority of their income for their salary basically and that’s been pretty huge. I think we’ve seen the level of competition in the last 4-5 years really come up and that’s what that’s from. A lot of that relates to having more media coverage, bigger races, more popularity in the masses, and stuff like that.
iRF: Do you think that comes from 5 years ago a runner basically threw on a singlet and that was how they represented a team. You do a lot more and so do a lot of other top athletes do a lot more in working with your sponsors. What is your role and interaction with Montrail and Mountain Hardwear?
King: Well, it’s the same as any other athlete that you have. It’s blogging, social media, making sure we’re getting the word out about what we’re doing, but it’s also product testing with them to make things better. You’ve got more of a base of trail runners now that are looking for a product to work. So we’re working with manufacturers to get a product that’s actually a quality product that is working for them so you give them feedback and everything. Also just marketing-wise, there’s more of a broad base so they’re looking at the top athletes of the sport now. It’s just like anything else, and it’s weird for me to say it, but you have fans who are looking at you and what you do, seeing what you wear, seeing how you train, what kind of nutrition you have, and all of that stuff. Because there’s such a broad base now you get more eyes on what you’re actually doing, and that’s helped those sponsorship dollars go up because we’re more valuable as an athlete now than we were 5 years ago when the sport wasn’t that big and nobody was really looking at the athletes.
iRF: Maybe a month later you’d see on the cover of Ultrarunning Magazine your photo if you had a good race.
King: Exactly. But that didn’t do as much for the companies because there weren’t as many eyes looking at those. So it’s a little bit different now.
iRF: So there will be a lot of eyes looking at you this weekend. There’s a ridiculously good field gathering for the Zegama Marathon in Basque Country. What are your thoughts about that race? You’re going as one of the favorites for sure.
King: I guess. Am I? Am I considered one? I don’t know. [iRF: Yes.] It’s hard because last year I did my first Skyrace in Sierre-Zinal and I got crushed. It was like, I absolutely, I had a bad race, but I got crushed. So I’m a little nervous going into this one. I’m putting a little more focus onto this one than I did last year to make sure hopefully I’ll have a good race and not really screw that up again. I have a better idea of what I’m getting into now than I did last year and who’s racing this year. It is really unfortunate because I was looking forward to racing Marco De Gasperi and he’s pulled out. But Kilian Jornet’s still in the race and all the Americans that are here are still in the race, which, most of them are ultrarunners, but shoot, man, it’s an ultra course as it’s going to take us 4 hours to do a marathon. So it definitely plays to their strengths more than mine. So I’m looking at them and there’s got to be some European runners that I don’t even know about.
iRF: Well, best of luck this weekend and enjoy the running!
King: Alright, thanks!