Mike Morton won and set the Western States 100 course record back in 1997. He’s not been back since. However, he’s racing this year and has a legitimate shot at the win. In the following interview, Mike talks about how he got back into running after a long hiatus, how the sport has changed during that time, what it means for his race on Saturday, and how a piece of shrapnel gave him an injury scare this spring.
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Mike Morton Pre-2013 Western States 100 Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Mike Morton before the Western States 100. How are you doing, Mike?
Mike Morton: Good. Good. Thanks for having me.
iRF: My pleasure. You are sort of a newcomer, but you’ve run this race twice before. You won in 1997 and set the course record, right? You have not been to Western States since then, correct?
Morton: Yes. I have not. I kind of stepped away from running and, after about a decade, I kind of got drawn back. I was living in North Carolina at the time. A job requirement kind of confined me to that area. I had to be within an hour of work all the time. When I started really training again, I wanted to pick a goal race. The only thing that really fit the bill was the Hinton Lake 24-Hour Run. My initial focus was on the 24-hour thing just to apply myself and train. I did the 24-hour run in 2010 and saw some potential there for the American record. So I focused on that and again was still confined to North Carolina in that little area, so my attention went to that 24-hour thing. Then once I set the American record in Poland, I kind of expanded my horizons a little bit. We moved to Florida and I had a little more time to train and a little more flexibility. The opportunity came up to run Western States. I knew I was challenged in Florida with the terrain so I came up with a plan to come to California a total of four times so far. I did my fundamental training and come out here and do my terrain training, so we’ll see what happens.
iRF: How much time have you spent out here in California?
Morton: I made four trips total. I would do a four-day weekend one weekend, take the next off, come out for four days. I went to Temecula twice and ran with Eric Clifton. Then I went to Visalia and came and did the training here.
iRF: So you’ve been all up and down in the Sierra, not just on the course but in the mountain clime.
Morton: A little bit of everywhere.
iRF: You live in Florida, flat Florida.
Morton: There isn’t a hill around.
iRF: You’ve been training for the 24-hour thing for a couple of years, but 15 years ago, you were a trail runner.
Morton: Right, when I was in my twenties, it took a great effort mentally and purity-wise to do the GNC 50 when the national championships were on a five-mile loop. I just didn’t have the mental capacity to run loops. I’d already experienced Western States and to me, that was the attraction—a point-to-point or a trail race. It was ironic that I found myself running one-mile loops for 24 hours on a paved course.
iRF: In day-to-day training, there are a lot of iRunFar readers that are stuck in cities and flat areas. I’m sure you love this stuff (pointing to the mountains).
Morton: Oh yeah.
iRF: What motivates you to get out there and train when you’re a true trail runner?
Morton: Part of it is the daily routine that all runners have. Even people who live in this environment when they go to a city still do their daily run. So it’s kind of like you train where you’re at. That’s what it is. To me, I find other pleasures in it running through certain areas in Florida. I have my staple runs that fill the need and desire to run. I’m content with it.
iRF: Do you get on some trails around there?
Morton: We have kind of a horse preserve area. When I say they’re trails, I mean they ride horses three abreast. It’s relative.
iRF: A wide dirt road. One advantage you do have coming from Florida is the heat. It’s going to be a burner on Saturday.
Morton: I don’t know what kind of advantage I actually do have because I’ve been here since June 14. I’ve been cold every day. We were staying at Michigan Bluff, the three of us (my family and myself) and at night we’re freezing. Even though it’s 57 to 60 degrees, we’re like, “Oh my gosh, we need to start the fire!” So we’ll see. The heat affects everyone to some degree. It’s more how you manage those effects and how you try to mitigate them. Heat is going to be a factor for everyone. You’ve just got to stay ahead of the game and watch the dash for the warning lights.
iRF: One interesting thing, probably back when you were racing Western States in the 1990’s, you knew the competitors. You were probably racing them at other events.
Morton: Even the term “competitor” back then was kind of a stretch. Coming from the East Coast, going up against Tim Twietmeyer and Scott St. John, the old school heavy hitters here, it was very cordial, still. I think back then it was less about or less focused on what they were going to do. You stayed in your circle and ran your race and what determined who was going to win was the individual’s day. I think now the field is so big and so competitive that you need to pay attention to what other people are doing because you could literally lose the race by throttling back at one spot and giving someone five or 10 minutes that you’ll never have an opportunity to capture back.
iRF: You have to race alert and sharp as opposed to back in the day.
Morton: Yes, I think back in the day you could get away with running your race and have someone tell you, “Hey, you’ve got 20 minutes up on so-and-so.” Now if you’re going to apply a strategy as you go through the day, you’ve got to be more aware of what’s going on.
iRF: I know you’ll be watching how things will develop on race day, but is there anyone in particular you’ve got your sights on?
Morton: Oh, there are so many guys, you’d worry yourself to death if you focused on it. The physical capability that is here is amazing. There are your best endurance athletes in the world.
iRF: It’s a big change from 15 years ago–a lot more depth and a lot more competition on the run.
Morton: Absolutely. Yep.
iRF: What other changes have you seen in the sport in the last 15 years? Does anything stand out?
Morton: The sheer number—back in the ‘90s, you didn’t have to pick races a year out or plan way, way out. You had the flexibility to sign up for a race two weeks before—so the volume of runners. I think the demographics have shifted a little bit. Back in the ‘90s the 29-and-under group was a huge minority. Now going to Javelina and seeing how many younger people are doing ultras is amazing. Trail running, I think when people hear the word “ultrarunning,” people automatically think of trail running. Most people want to trail run. I think it’s grown because of that—being outdoors and being fit. We all know there are benefits to that.
iRF: Finding places like this with interesting people is a good deal. Best of luck! Thanks for returning to the sport. It’s great to see you back after all these years.
Morton: Thank you. Thanks for having me and have a good run on Saturday.
iRF: Bonus question: You had a very unusual false injury positive this spring. You had a “stress fracture.” What really was the stress fracture? They were positive of what it was.
Morton: When I got the x-ray read, there was pretty significant swelling. They said there was definitively a fracture, so don’t run or cycle. So for about 48 hours I was in deep depression thinking it was going to be months of healing. Ultimately, we did an MRI just to be 100% sure. It was a tiny, tiny piece of metal that skewed the x-ray. They said, “You don’t have a stress fracture, you have a torn tendon.” There was a little piece of shrapnel in there. The treatment for those two things are totally different. I could do certain things and let the tendon heal. Recovery went well. I gave it some time off before I returned, but once I started training again within four weeks I was confident the tendon was good to go.
iRF: Any idea where you got the shrapnel?
Morton: Overseas in Iraq.
iRF: Hopefully you’re good to go for the race.
Morton: Good to go.