When beginning a blog post about any dream opportunity, it’s easy to fall back on the old adage that “dreams come true”. While cliches are, well, cliche, many times they garner this monicker because they are, in fact, fairly true.
It’s easy to state this at the beginning of my post, because in this case, my dream has come true – or at least part of it. My dream of climbing the winding and often grueling ladder of the running community has reached a checkpoint – a checkpoint that has landed me in Flagstaff, AZ: the mecca of United States distance running and athletes the world over. While here, I’ve been given the unique opportunity to intern with the HOKA ONE ONE Northern Arizona Elite distance team, coached and led by one of my multiple personal icons in the sport, Ben Rosario. While here, I have been given the unique opportunity to learn, aid, support, and write for the team – an opportunity that, as I stated earlier, is the culmination of multiple years as an obsessive student, participant, and, frankly, fanboy of the sport.
As anyone will tell you, first impressions are important. First impressions form the foundation of what’s to come; they establish the initial connections in any relationship, and in some cases, how successful or productive that relationship will be. I can say with confidence that I’m mature enough to know this, and because of this simple fact, I was absolutely terrified about this week.
As an avid follower of the sport for darn near a decade, I had followed many of these athletes (and the team) since their early and formative days in the sport. I have incredibly fond memories of frantically refreshing Twitter as Craig Lutz powered and gutted his way to third place in the NCAA 10k race; of Scott Fauble leading his Portland team to a third place team finish at the NCAA XC Championships; of Futsum Zienasellassie dominating the national high school scene before transitioning into an equally dominant NCAA power and gutting out multiple close finishes to the one-and-only King Cheserek; of Matt Llano developing from post-collegiate dreamer into 2:12 marathoner; the transition from RunFanShop.com into the nationally competitive and highly transparent HOKA NAZ-Elite. The list goes on.
I’ve now found myself face-to-face with the man in charge, the athletes in the stable, and the area that plays host to their year-round trial of miles. While my initial thoughts were a cocktail of mysticism, adrenaline, wonder, excitement, and sheer terror, I’ve now found myself able to calm down, relax, and chart the personal growth and learning that I’ve experienced alongside the athletes, as well as provide a unique glimpse into the experiences and education of a fanboy turned intern, icons turned comrades, and dreams made into reality.
My first practice with the team started as many first days do – with something simple and fundamental to the program and the athletes. On Sunday, July 2, Coach Ben Rosario picked me up from my townhome-turned-hostel to observe and facilitate a long run for several of the marathon men of the team. The goal was simple: ride along, get introduced to the location and the athletes, lay out the expectations of the position, and get caught up on the work completed and the work to come. Simple. Right?
If there were any nerves, I wasn’t encumbered by them near as much as I expected to be. My initial conversations with Ben and the athletes were marked by minimal stuttering, a multitude of questions, and a repressed grin that revealed my excitement to see three of America’s finest marathoners grind out 18-20 miles of “easy” running on the most picturesque out-and-back run I’ve ever seen.
No amount of YouTube videos of athlete workouts and training can prepare you for the shock of seeing just how smooth and effortless professional athletes look during their runs. Most of my initial comments to Ben and my fellow intern Veronica Rocco revolved around the ease at which these athletes were running and the low perceived effort they seemed to be exerting as they progressed on a run that featured minimal oxygen, rolling hills, and progressive pacing that resulted in a fairly quick finish of sub-6 minute miles for the last few miles of their run.
If there’s anything besides the ease of their effort that was revealed to me this day, it was the overt personality of each athlete. Despite relatively little exposure to them, their unique traits and qualities became immediately apparent to me as I observed their warm-up routines and preparation for the run. Matt’s methodical and intentional nature was seen in his careful and purposeful warm-up of active stretching and drills. Scott Smith’s relaxed-yet-confident old-school approach was seen in his banter between Ben and his teammates – his warmup was less intensive, but nonetheless tailored and specific to him. Aaron Braun’s maturity and poise was easily observable even from the uninitiated eye – his confidence as tangible as the others’.
Needless to say, it was eye opening. However, there was still much to be seen and observed from the team this week.
My ability to suppress my inner fanboy would be further tested the very next day, as I had the opportunity to meet the famed Craig Lutz (former teammate of Kyle Merber, among others) and witness his final workout of his track season and last tuneup before the Tracktown Summer Series NYC Road 5k – a final chance to test his fitness among competitors he had chased and been chased by all season. Needless to say, I was floored.
Upon my arrival to the famous and oft-Instagramed NAU outdoor track, my fanboy awe immediately returned. To the distance superfan, it is the Hayward Field of the Southwest. It seemed fitting that a team as successful and as purposeful as HOKA NAZ Elite should hold practice here – the facility holds an aura of distinction, as it is the home of the perpetually-on-the- podium Northern Arizona University Lumberjacks. In addition to this, it has hosted numerous Olympians, World Champions, and professionals, each one of them slowly chipping away at the bright blue surface in pursuit of the elusive fitness they seek within the seclusion among the mountains of Flagstaff.
HOKA NAZ Elite is no different. Their conquest is all the same.
My observations about Matt the previous day were immediately confirmed as I meandered down to track level – he was the first one there, already performing his dynamic warm-ups with poise and purpose. His intentionality was palpable. I made brief conversation with him, intent on transitioning from foreigner to friend. After some brief banter, the rest of the team showed up, and I was introduced to athlete of the day.
“They’re all people too,” I mentally remind myself upon every initial interaction.
After a brief team warm-up, followed by plyos, drills, and strides, the stage is set, the athlete primed, the watches set, and the cameras ready. The workout is fairly simple; the paces are not. Ben explains to me that this particular workout is one that Craig normally responds to well, and was part of his successful performance at the Adrian Martinez Classic, where Craig set his season-best and current 3k PR of 7:48.
Today’s job was as follows: 3 sets of 400m, 300m, 200m; 200m jogging rest between. Craig is spiked up and appears poised, but relaxed. This seems to be a common trend among the athletes – an aura of professionalism and relaxation among even the more daunting paces and distances. He’s done this before, and he can do it again, this time hopefully a little quicker and smoother than the last. Marginal gains that hopefully lead to a monumental performance. As my college coach would say, “The hay is in the barn; the prom dress has been bought.”
I overhear a conversation with Craig and his fiancé Meg, in which he reassures her and himself of the paces for much of his workout.
“You can do anything for 200 meters.” A simple truth, I suppose – but a revealing display of confidence in himself and respect for the workout that Ben has prepared.
Craig is solo for this workout, but he doesn’t appear fazed. His prescribed paces are more mile-specific, but he shows very little fatigue in his sprints. As Ben notes several times throughout the workout, he is gliding; effortless as he displays the fitness and the speed that Ben claims with confidence. Upon the conclusion of the workout, I have no doubts. And neither does he. As we finish up practice, Ben points out another feature specific to Flagstaff: London Olympian and sub-13:15 man Diego Estrada is warming up on the track. The athletes may come and go, but one fact remains: Flagstaff is the home of the champions of today and the champions to be. His team is just one component to the culture.
After a single-day break from my “job” – I would hesitate to call it that – I returned to practice with the team at the famed Lake Mary Road, a wide highway road with rolling hills that has the potential to either sculpt the athlete into fitness, or whittle him/her away over the course of the workout. Being a long-time fan, I had seen this road many times on the Instagram pages of the athletes and the team – only this time, I was actually here.
This was yet another opportunity to meet a new athlete – this time, it was Scott Fauble. Much like the others, I went through my careful but controlled greeting and suppressed the urge to blurt out “yeah – I know who you are”.
As the athletes (Matt, Scott, Aaron, Fauble, and Rui) went through their individual drills before their jogging warm-up, Ben informed me of the workout, almost sensing my awe at the prescribed paces that was meant to be “intensive”, but not overly aggressive. After all, it’s still early in the year. “You’ll get to see a slew of 28 minute guys do their thing”, was essentially what he told me.
The workout was as follows: 3 mile tempo @ 4:50 pace per mile, followed by a brief jogging recovery before 4 x 60 second hill sprints up the previously measure hill. Vicious for me, and perhaps for them too – but doable, albeit it came with a bit of nerves.
As the athletes were warming up, Ben pointed out another truth to their training; something that demonstrated the focus and awareness that these guys possessed.
“Usually I can tell how hard a workout is by how quiet the guys are before the workout”, he muttered. He and I then scanned the collective to test his theory. Sure enough, each athlete was near silent – intent on his warm-up and mental preparation. It was hot, and the paces were too. But they showed no signs of succumbing to paces or pressure.
The workout progressed just as the previous had – despite some initial concerns from outside factors (this time being the heat), the men attacked the paces from the beginning. Their pacing was near perfect, the top men finishing in 14:34; 4:51 pace per mile. While the group had slightly fractured, their collective composure remained. Part one was finished, despite the struggles of a few. The hills were next.
The hills were a similar display of fitness, albeit from different sources. Ben informed me of where the 400m mark lay on the hill, and that Craig Lutz was the “record-holder” for most distance traveled on the 60 sec. hill sprints – almost a full 400m.
After the first rep, the men were almost there. Ben let out a grin of approval, informing me of the impressive feat. The rest were similar – the athletes achieved the goal of going farther than the previous rep. I noted to Ben how powerful they looked as they attacked each hill – the power they displayed was palpable.
Scott Smith was the one that I was immediately impressed by. I shared this observation with Ben afterwards, noting that Scott’s power on the hills wasn’t necessarily one of controlled effort – it was almost an angry charge; a defiant assault up the same hill that had berated him in the first half of the workout. Ben agreed.
“You think you’re tired but it’s not like you’re actually going to die,” he said.
“Actually dying on Lake Mary is a black swan scenario,” Fauble chimes in. “Just because no one has ever seen a black swan doesn’t mean they don’t exist…maybe no one has ever died on a Lake Mary workout but it doesn’t mean it’s not possible.”
Everyone nods in agreement. I’ll take their word for it. Another brick in the foundation laid.
Thursday would provide me another opportunity to further immerse myself into the running culture of Flagstaff – the weekly Thursday morning bagel run outside of Biff’s Bagels. Unbeknownst to me, this weekly ritual is a staple of local runners, college students, and professionals alike, and provides everyone with the unique opportunity to run side-by-side with not only the local favorites, but also nationally and globally competitive professionals. Sometimes (even in my case) you don’t realize who’s standing right in front of you when you attend these runs.
While making some small talk with Ben and a few of the NAZ Elite athletes, I was asked by man all clad in HOKA ONE-ONE gear if I was knew HOKA-sponsored athlete. Given that I was wearing nearly all of my NAZ Elite gear, this confusion was justified and understandable. After laughing and dispelling this rumor, I introduced myself to the man. He told me his name was David.
Instantly, I realized who I was speaking with: world-class miler and 2016 Olympian for Peru, David Torrence. Sometimes the elites in Flagstaff can slip under the radar, even for the most seasoned of distance running fans.
Saturday was important for two reasons: one, it marked one full week of residency in Flagstaff; two, it provided a chance to witness a staple workout of the marathon buildup for the NAZ-Elite crew.
At 7:30am, Ben returned to Lake Mary Road to watch and facilitate a 12-mile steady state run for Soh Rui Yong, a non-NAZ athlete he is guiding as he gets ready for the Southeast Asian Games Marathon this summer. Rui is a favorite among the athletes and much of the Flagstaff running community, as he brings an open and friendly attitude to each and every practice he attends, and can joke it out with even the funniest members of the team. Not only that, he’s bonafide – he was the 2016 Southeast Asian Marathon Champion, and is on a quest to rewrite the record books of Singapore, a nation fairly new to the international running scene. His goal this year is to defend his title and become a two-time SEA Games Champion before setting his sights on a slew of other records and personal bests.
After picking up some morning coffee (courtesy of the Coach), Ben explains to me the purpose behind these steady states: they are meant to expose the athlete to goal marathon pace in a controlled environment. This rigidity requires the athlete to be content with running a pace that isn’t overly difficult for them, something fairly foreign to many.
Ben tells me, “the goal is to not be that tired after this workout. We want to get used to our marathon pace. If we go much faster, we lose the goal of the workout. We’re working the wrong system then.”
Ben believes that this is a workout that is missing from many distance programs, whether in college or beyond. He explains that much of the marathon is about consistency and being as efficient as possible at a certain rhythm. These workouts are designed to simulate that.
On paper, Rui’s task is simple. As I would later find out, sometimes restricting yourself to marathon pace is easier said than done.
The first miles of his steady state provided me with the rare opportunity to almost see Ben frustrated (not to say that I was disappointed not to). Rui set a hot pace from the beginning, making me worry that the goal of this workout would be lost to poor pacing and lead to a potentially awkward car ride back to the parking lot. However, this, much like every other thing I experience here, provided me with an opportunity to learn how a coach would deal with this situation.
“5:40 might have been a better pace to set for him. But you can’t get it exactly right every time. If this continues to go well, we can run 5:40 when he does his next steady state in a couple of weeks,” Ben explains. His ability to reflect on the workout before, during, and after is something that I’ve come to admire and desire to implement in my own future coaching. His feedback regarding workout pacing is stern, yet not overbearing. It is coaching – not criticizing.
After eight more miles hovering fairly close to marathon effort, Rui’s workout is complete. After some immediate reflection and guidance from Ben after he has finished, the consensus view of athlete and coach is that the workout was a success, despite a quicker pace than initially subscribed. What saved Rui was his composure throughout this workout – Ben expressed content in how smooth Rui looked the entire workout, even if it was fast. Careful consideration would be placed on deciding the paces for the next iteration of this workout, in which Rui would be more fit, more focused, and more prepared to actualize his goals in the marathon.
Saturday’s workout was not only the conclusion of another week of training for NAZ Elite, but the conclusion of my first week in Flagstaff. Thankfully, as I’ve discussed with many others here for the summer, time moves slower out here; every day feels twice as long as I’m used to, giving me plenty of opportunities to reflect on the journey thus far and the journey ahead with the team. Needless to say, this often leads to an insurmountable feeling of gratitude for where I’m at and what I’m doing, as well as forces me to self-assess my own contributions to the team.
As it stands, my role on the team has been primarily observation of the coaching and the athletes. Next week, my goal is to further insert myself into the coaching of the group, becoming more vocal toward the athletes and their support staff in an effort to learn by doing, rather than simply observing.
That, and trying to coerce the Scott’s into blogging more for the team. That much cynical wit and humor should not go to waste.
Until next time,
“Intern” Ian Frazier